Best fossil hunting in Nova Scotia at Blue Beach

Best fossil hunting in Nova Scotia 2022

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Imagine a place where you are able to pick up any old rock from the beach and be pretty sure it contains fossils as old as 350 million years, a time even before dinosaurs walked the Earth.

There is such a place in Nova Scotia.

The coastal cliffs along the Bay of Fundy are constantly assailed and eroded by extreme ocean tides and storms and reveal new fossils every day, making the surrounding cliffs and beaches the best places to go fossil hunting in Nova Scotia.

Just last year, a biology instructor giving a tour to her students at Blue Beach in the Annapolis Valley stumbled over a fossilized ~350 million-year-old tetrapod skull — a rare fossil from the period when life first began to move permanently from the sea to land.

These fossils are especially significant because they help paleontologists answer a question that has perplexed them for years — a 20-million-year gap in the fossil record (called “Romer’s Gap”) had prevented them from finding fossil evidence that creatures moved from water to land during this period. It’s thanks to the discoveries from fossil hunting in Nova Scotia that these Blue Beach tetrapod fossils put that question largely to rest — we can now show that creatures did indeed begin the transition from water to land about 350 million years ago. 

Blue Beach is one of only two sites in the entire world where such fossils have been found. The other is in Scotland — curiously enough along the River Tweed, a waterway that was curated by my uncle for many years in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. The Scottish fossils, however, are roughly five million years younger than those found in Nova Scotia.

Director Chris Mansky of the Blue Beach Fossil Museum and research project, said it comes down to the high tides in the Bay of Fundy, which erode the cliffs along the shoreline to reveal the natural history.  But when fossils are found, it’s important to act quickly because although the tides reveal these significant fossils, they can just as quickly wash them away forever.

What are fossils?

If you were to go fossil hunting in Nova Scotia, what would you be actually looking at when you found your first fossil? Surprisingly, when you look at a fossil you’re actually seeing a rock replica of the original organism, not the organism itself.  

After an animal dies, the soft parts of its body decompose leaving behind the hard parts such as skeletons, teeth, or shells. Sometimes these are buried by small particles of rock called sediment and, as more layers pile up around the skeleton, the sediment begins to compact and turn to rock.  

The bones are slowly dissolved by water seeping through the rock. Minerals in the water replace the bone leaving a rock replica of the original bone called a fossil.

Soft-bodied organisms, such as worms, are rarely fossilized but paths they leave in the sediment can leave fossilized tracks. We found a few of these during our beach tour.

What fossil hunting in Nova Scotia can tell us

Fossilized footprints of an unknown species of Tetrapod found on Blue Beach, (Pseudo Bradypus sp.) (Photo: Jackie Weatherly-Cadzow)

Sometimes fossils can tell scientists how the Earth has changed. 

For example, fossils of an ancient marine animal called ammonites have been found in the Himalayas, the highest mountain range in the world. This tells scientists that millions of years ago the rocks that became the Himalayas were at the bottom of an ocean. 

Similarly, fossils of an ancient giant shark (megalodon) have been found in the landlocked U.S. state of Utah. This tells scientists that millions of years ago, the middle of North America was probably entirely underwater.

In 2015 at Blue Beach, a new species of ancient creature was discovered and named after Chris (Avonichthys Manskyi). That fossil showed that perhaps these types of animals did not all die out in the Devonian extinction as was previously thought.

This and other such discoveries at Blue Beach are the backbone of the research project underpinning the Blue Beach Fossil Museum and many scholarly papers have been written as a result. Chris said: “Blue Beach is actually rewriting our understanding of how we went from the age of fish to the age of life on land.”

Click this map to get to the full-size Google map of the area.

Our day-trip to the Blue Beach Fossil Museum

We embarked on a day-trip with some friends to Blue Beach late in the 2022 summer to go fossil hunting in Nova Scotia. The museum offered several tours to choose from:

  • a one-hour Blue Beach fossil tour which, in our case, was shepherded by Chris himself.
  • a two-hour Lighthouse Cove Tour that covers about five kms of large tetrapod trackway in the bedrock and several fossilized forests,
  • a one-hour Low-Tide Tour that lets you see even more of the fossil record when the tide is all the way out —  some low-tide fossils even let you view the fin-prints of the giant fish! 

We were a bit pressed for time and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure my legs were up for a two-hour hike so we called to book the the one-hour Blue Beach fossil tour for us and our friends Vivian and Phillip.

At this late summer date, it was a perfect way to spend an afternoon together doing something unique and fun before they went back to Ontario for the winter. I later found out that Vivian’s first career ambition had been a paleontologist/biologist — so fossil hunting in Nova Scotia was right up her alley, and we couldn’t have picked better if we’d tried!

Blue Beach is on the Avon River, which feeds into the Minas Basin on the Bay of Fundy. You’ll find the beach and the museum between Avonport and Lockhartville, on the well-graded gravel Blue Beach road.

It’s hard to miss the huge Blue Beach museum sign posted on the side of an overhead railway bridge next to the small parking lot. (Photo: Jackie Weatherly-Cadzow)

A short walk took us to the small barn-type museum and we passed by several tables covered with fossils that we could pick up and examine. Inside the museum there are fossils, big and small, everywhere and elaborate displays of many relics about the fossil hunting history of the area.

The museum is actually part of a major research project that has been going on at this site for 19 years, run by Chris and his wife, Sonja Wood, and financed mostly by visitor donations. It’s a well-known project in the scientific world — paleontologists from around the world visit the site each year to do their own research.

Our tour started in the museum and Chris enthusiastically explained some basic knowledge about fossils: how they occur and how to interpret the fossils in the rock: black shiny bits are bones, footprints can be clean and distinct if they are close to the strata layer on which the animal walked, or indistinct if it was in the deeper layers under the feet of the animal.

Next, we traveled along a short footpath through the wooded forest and down to the beach, which was strewn with flat rocks and bounded by the water on one side and cliffs with visible layers of strata on the other side.

Although Blue Beach is reputed to be a common place for beach combers, there were few people on the beach, is was peaceful and quiet and this gave us undisturbed time with Chris to explore and listen to his counsel. The views across the Avon River and out into the Minas Basin were extraordinary and breathtaking.

It’s astounding that there are so many fossilized rocks underfoot and that any rock you pick up likely has a fossil. Blue Beach is quite literally littered with flat bits of shale many of which have some type of fossil visible on the rock.

Chris walked us up and down the beach, picking up rocks and showing us the fossils in each with an explanation of what we were looking at and why it might be significant. We got to the point where we could recognize fossils in our own rocks, show them to Chris, get an immediate explanation of what we were looking at. Our friend Phillip, himself a PhD, was immensely impressed with the detailed knowledge that Chris shared.

At one point I found a flat stone that looked like it had mildly distinct foot prints on it. A quick check with Chris confirmed that, indeed, that’s what they were! Trying to imagine the 350-million-year-or-so time span between the time this little creature walked on this beach and me walking on it today just boggled my mind!

Chris also showed us that as different rock strata emerged from the beach floor, we were actually moving back in time as we walked along the beach and the fossils we found at each stop along the way could be a story in a timeline of the lives of ancient creatures.

By the end of our intensive hour-long tour, Jackie had tuned out our excited fossil jabber and was simply enjoying the beach ambiance – quiet, peaceful, relaxing, and vistas that were soothing both to the eye and to the soul — kind of forest bathing, except on the beach!

Tips for a fun Blue Beach fossil hunting tour:

  • Book your tour ahead (contact info on the Blue Beach Museum’s website or call 902-790-9541) Tours are available from March through until November.
  • Bring good walking shoes.
  • Bring water or your choice non-alcoholic beverage to stay hydrated on warm beach days.
  • Depending on the weather, have some clothing layers (on-shore winds can be crisp!).
  • There’s no debit card service on site, so bring cash or use e-transfer for your ticket payment.
    • we had to use the e-transfer service on our way home because the cellphone signal was too weak at the museum to complete the transaction there.

Stay safe and legal while hunting for fossils in Nova Scotia:

  • Fossil hunting in Nova Scotia is a regulated in an effort to protect valuable historical artifacts. The Nova Scotia legislature’s Special Places Protection Act says “No person shall carry out explorations or make excavations on any land in the Province, including land covered with water, for the purpose of seeking heritage objects, without a heritage research permit.” The Blue Beach Fossil Museum team doesn’t encourage people to remove any fossils from Blue Beach.
  • The Blue Beach folks also take your safety seriously:
    • Watch out for falling rocks / debris and stay far enough away to avoid falling debris (stay back one foot for every foot of cliff height).
    • Blue Beach prohibits climbing or chipping away at the cliffs — all fossils are easily found on the shoreline.

Future plans for a new museum home for Blue Beach fossils

So many finds of significant fossils have been made at Blue Beach that the current small museum is bursting at the seams. More than 2200 footprint-bearing slabs, 7000 fossilized bone specimens, and hundreds of plant and invertebrate remains are currently in storage.

Chris and Sonja’s goal is to build a ‘new’ super museum in order to protect, promote, and present these geological treasures for the benefit of all. They’ve established a charitable organization called the Blue Beach Fossil Museum Society (BBFMS) to spearhead that effort. They are seeking major donors, but you can also contribute directly at their website if you’re interested.

“The Blue Beach deposit is incredibly rich and well-preserved,” says Chris. “There is no fossil collection like it anywhere else in the world. Every year, new fossils are coming, and we can count on making rare finds in the future.”

Fossil hunters in Nova Scotia have access to some of the best fossils in the world and much of the latest fossil knowledge through expert guides such as Chris.

Other locations for fossil hunting in Nova Scotia

In addition to Blue Beach, there are a few other good spots for fossil hunting in Nova Scotia:

Joggins Fossil Cliffs where 15km (9mi) of shoreline cliffs contain plant and animal fossils covering the past 300 million years.

The Fundy Geological Museum in Parrsboro, where you can learn about the geology, fossils, minerals, and the oldest dinosaur skeletons in Canada. They also offer guided beach walks and have an exhibit gallery that explains the area’s landscapes during the Triassic and Jurassic periods.

The Fossils On Horseback Overnight Getaway: Stay overnight in a cottage at the Sunshine Inn, and enjoy a gourmet breakfast before riding to an active fossil dig on horseback, which also passes scenic Bay of Fundy cliffs. The fossil dig is in partnership with the Fundy Geological Museum.

Fossil hunting in Nova Scotia is some of the best in the world

So why would you come here to see fossils? Well, it can get pretty fascinating when you start fossil hunting in Nova Scotia:

  • Fossils are older and more revealing than most others in the world.
  • Nova Scotia’s fossils document a key moment in the history of life on this planet.
  • Nova Scotia’s tides and climate find new fossils for us every day.
  • The province’s best fossil sites are accessible and available to the general public.
  • Knowledgeable experts are there to help us understand and appreciate what we see.

Fossil hunting in Nova Scotia is unlike any other place in the world. Visit Blue Beach or one of the other sites and be prepared to be fascinated.

Thanks for joining us on this new adventure! Got a question or a comment? Go to the comments page where you can find our email address and drop us a line.

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