Fossil Excavations make me happy!

Recently I spent two weeks in Iceland thanks to a remarkable discovery by my friend Jakob.  He found a whale fossil last summer on a cliff in Tjörnes, Iceland. I joined him and three other paleontologists in removing his finding from the cliff.

Trip Highlights

Rappelling: Since the fossil was on a cliff, we had to rappel down to it to work on removing rock etc.  Scary and fabulous! I quickly learned that I prefer static rope – the dynamic rope stretches and makes you feel like you may fall off the cliff.

Field Paleontologist Training: I was fortunate enough to learn how to excavate a fossil from four experienced paleontologists that have been all around the world finding and removing fossils. Thanks guys!

Camping: We camped the entire time we were in Husavik.  Even though it rained almost every night, my new orange tent kept me dry and happy!  The experience was quite nostalgic – each time a rain drop hit my tent the sound reminded me of my childhood vacations.  Every year, starting at 4 months old, I slept in a tent for a week with my family.

Whale Watching: We saw a blue whale, the largest animal ever known to  exist on earth.  Then we saw a fin whale, the second largest animal on earth.  The whales were so close to the boat, we could hear them breathe.  It was magnificent!

Puffins:  We visited a puffin colony where we watched Atlantic Puffins fly and land awkwardly. They remind me of flying penguins; and if I had the time, I could probably sit and watch them all day.

Sugar Calcite: During my down time, Jakob taught me how to prospect for fossils.  We found mollusks filled with crystals  – so freaking cool (more info to come)!

Midnight Rainbow: Wow!


Day 1

A delayed, but successful flight to Iceland from JFK.

Day 2

We (Adam, Rachel and myself) landed in Reykjavik where Jakob and Daniel met us at the airport with our field truck. We then took a trip to downtown Reykjavik’s farmer’s market and roamed around the lovely capital.  While some of our team members bought Icelandic sweaters, I found a ridiculously tasty molten chocolate cake at a bakery!!  Next we drove to Jakob’s cousin’s house to see birds and Icelandic ponies. We then stopped by the Iceland Institute of Natural History to pick up our digging equipment – pickaxes, buckets, plaster, shovels, etc. We then drove to Jakob’s summer house in Borganes in the rain and the driver’s side wiper broke. The house is super cute and since summers in Iceland are always light, we had plenty of daylight time to walk around. We even picked rhubarb which we made into rhubarb jam to accompany our morning skyr (Icelandic yogurt)…awesome!!

Day 3

We repacked all of our gear into a small trailer that we pulled behind the truck. We took off for Husavik stopping midway at Hvitserkur for lunch and viewing Harbor seals. We also stopped for periodic bird viewing and made it to camp about 9 PM. We set up our tents (I love my new orange tent!!!) and slept.

Day 4

It was a chilly morning so I put on as many clothes as possible.  Our first trip to the fossil site in the rain revealed that the winter jacket (protective coating) that Adam had applied months before was completely missing. The taxing winter weather must have caused the jacket to fall down the cliff. We did find a few scraps of paper towels (used in creating the jacket) at the bottom of the hill as well as several chunks of bone below the fossil. The whale fossil suffered a little damage, but the main part of the exposed bone looked about the same.

We drove above the fossil and attached the rope to the hitch chain point via carabineer (using a double figure-8 knot and a second double figure-8 knot of course). Adam rappelled down the cliff to add a new protective covering onto the fossil using Vinac™.

Wow…rain, rain, rain!

I am not sure if I have ever been so uncomfortable. It was pouring rain – sadly I did not have rain pants, my boots were not water proof and it seems that my jacket was not either.  My mittens were so wet I could wring them out, and my pants actually looked like I jumped into the water.  The wind blew – I was FREEZING!!!!

Then we went to the Husavik public pool (conveniently across the street from the campground) – where I may have had the best shower of my life – unthawing was fabulous.

Day 5

We (Lovisa from the Iceland Institute of Natural History, Jakob, Daniel, Adam, Rachel, me) went to the site. I wrapped plastic bags around my socks before I put them in the boots to avoid any additional wetness. I tried to film, but the rain and thick fog made it very challenging. Some of the bones were still loose Adam added more Vinac™ to the surface of the fossil. Daniel and Adam then covered the exposed bone with paper towels and fiberglass bandages to stabilize the bones while we worked around them. Unfortunately, the bandages did not stick to the wet rocks very well.

Happily Jakob and I purchased amazing orange rain outfits!!  The Icelandic clothing brand 66°NORTH is one of Iceland’s oldest manufacturing companies (Established in 1926). Its specialized clothing is created for the toughest conditions on land and sea – what better to protect us from the rain and wind than their ridiculously bright fisherman rain suit!!

Suited up and back at the site, we tied three lines to the back of the truck to use  to rappel down.  There was so much fog that it was pretty much impossible to film or take any photographs as the rain kept getting on the lens. Daniel, Rachel, and Adam easily removed the overburden since the weathered rocks gave way without effort.  However, as they got further in, the rocks were very hard and they started to use the pry bar and pickaxe. It soon started raining more and more so we quit for the day at 8 PM.

A maximum of three people could be working on the fossil simultaneously and often only two were. When I could not film or help out, I, in my new orange suit, prospected for fossils under the coaching of Jakob. The Tjörnes Cliffs have layers of shells – while Jakob was looking for more bones, I was content looking for shells filled with crystals (Sugar Calcite).  They are beautifully formed crystals in closed mollusk shells. In order to find these treasures, I had to climb up a cliff – which in my world was quite steep – made of rock that easily crumbles.  Wow, it really was a lot of work climbing, and I now have a full understanding why practicing at the rock gym is so important! Eventually I got to the layer I wanted by continually making my own step holds that would eventually give way.  Once I found a kick ass crystal filled shell that is  few million years old – it came a bit addictive.

Day 6

It rained all night which led us to a late start for the day. The loose rock was cleared quickly and the team continued to work on the surrounding rock. Unfortunately, a rock fell against the protective jacket and it was knocked off the fossil. The fiberglass bandages that were used did not stick well. A new jacket was applied and then it became crazy cold while we waited for it to set.

I learned how to rappel down to the fossil.  First I filmed and took photos from the rope that was off to the right and then I joined  Daniel and Adam with the fossil.  I learned how to hammer, and it was officially my first day excavating a fossil!!  It was hard work, but amazing – no need for a gym when you spend the day doing hard labor! The rain started again, and it was quite cold so we called it a day by 7 PM. After dinner, we could FINALLY see the sky so around 11 PM (I love that midnight sun) we walked to the bay and enjoyed the town free of rain!

Day 7

Starting soon after 9AM… finally a beautiful day!!!!!!!!…….we continued the removal of the overburden, but unfortunately another falling rock knocked the protective jacket of the fossil again. Due to the intense rain, we applied a plaster jacket using hot water which helped the bandages set.

A visit from some local cows made me smile.  They were so curious and surrounded our truck and equipment and happily stuck their noses in our bags. It may seem like a boring day, but it was sunny and this was the first day I was not completely drenched!  We could actually see the landscape – stunning!

Day 8

I woke up at 4 AM with frost on my tent!! At the site by 8 AM for another clear day. Rachel, Jakob, and Adam rappelled down and used awls and hammers to chip away the rock around the fossil. Rachel found more fossil going into the hill. We returned to Husavik at 2 PM to watch Daniel give two presentations at the Whale Museum to a Marine Mammal (University of Iceland) class of international students.

Daniel and I then joined some members of the class on a whale watching tour. We saw a Blue Whale and a Fin Whale!

Day 9

At the site by 8 AM for a day of super nice weather. Daniel and Adam started in the quarry while I rappelled down the third rope down and took photos and filmed. I then joined them in the quarry to work around the fossil. I found a rock that looked like it had bone in it (based on my limited and recently acquired training) and asked Adam. He said “no”, and told me to throw it down the hill, so I did. Feeling a bit hesitant I continued removing rock and then looked at Adam and said “Are you sure this is not bone?” Oops.  Bone.  We climbed down the hill and eventually we found the missing piece that I threw.  My first fossil find!! 🙂

After lunch, Rachel and Jakob were in the quarry with Adam. They finished the trench around the back without finding bone and started working on going down deeper. We broke for dinner at 5 PM, but returned and worked on the trench from 8 PM until midnight.  As we were leaving, it started to rain and the sky presented us with a full rainbow – a midnight rainbow – hells ya!

Day 10

At the site by 8 AM.  We rotated 2 people in the quarry due to space limitations. Adam worked on removing the isolated bone to the right side of the main block while others finished trenching. The team discovered four more occurrences of bone! Adam removed the small jacket and rappelled down with it. We finished trenching and applied layers of burlap and plaster before quitting for the night at 2:30 AM.  We covered the jacket with space blanket  in hopes of assisting the plaster in drying.

Sadly, the small flip camera that National Geographic gave us to film stopped working.  The rain and silly conditions certainly contributed to its demise. Luckily, Jakob’s Nikon SLR had video capabilities!

Day 11

We had a long day at the site from 11 AM until 4 AM. The team added another layer of burlap and plaster and discussed how to get the jacketed fossil down the cliff.  They decided to attach a harness to it, rig up the lines, and flip it off the hillside.

First they undercut the jacket on both sides in order to securely tie webbing through the harness and under the jacket. The harness was then attached to the static rope with a double pulley. Jakob (attached to a large rock  that Daniel was sitting on) took the other end of the rope and belayed the fossil down the hill. We had an audience, about 10 people from the marine mammal class started walking toward us just at the moment we were trying to safely get the large bulky rock down the cliff. Adam used the pry bar to push the fossil off the platform and it dropped about 2m.  We lowered it the rest of the way down – success!!

9 PM and time for a congratulatory dinner.

Back at the site, we cleaned up and trimmed back the jacket (to lighten the weight for shipping). Since the jacket was not secure, we used toilet paper (apparently a must have in a paleontologist’s kit) to protect the bone and rock from moving.  We then added a double layer of plaster bandages.

Day 12

Took a morning trip to the store to buy re-bar to reinforce the bottom of the jacket. The hardware store gave it to us for free :).  We returned to the site and used re-bar and plaster for reinforcement. While the plaster dried, we went back to the campsite and packed up our wet tents. Our last trip to the site and we loaded the fossil in!

1:30PM – Now it is time for some site-seeing!!

  • Puffins: First we did the best thing ever…we jumped a fence that said do not enter (very un-Amanda), but the people from the Nature Center told us to go there and see the Puffins…they were amazing….basically they look like cute flying penguins.  Loved it!
  • Waterfalls: Dettifoss and Selfoss – outstanding! We even saw rock formations that reminded me of Giant’s Causeway!
  • Mudpots: Next we stopped at Hverarönd, geothermal spring and mudpots…boiling mud…it was very cool, but smelled terrible.
  • Mývatn: We traveled around Mývatn to look for ducks.
  • Blue Pool: Geothermal plant waste water!!!
  • Pizza: Yum!
  • Another Waterfall: Goðafoss
  • Nonstop: Jakob and Adam switched drivers so we could continue through the night.
  • Borganes: We arrived at the summer house about 6:30 AM and began unpacking and repacking.

Day 13

After an all-nighter of tourism and a morning of packing, we drove to the airport and dropped off Jakob and Daniel.  Adam, Rachel and I then traveled to the Iceland Institute of Natural History to leave the fossil with Lovisa to later be shipped to the US. We added another layer of plaster bandages to the top of the jacket once it was inside the museum. This was my first fossil plastering experience so it was fun for me!! We then drove to Jakob’s cousin’s house and dropped off the trailer. Then back to Reykjavik where we  checked into the hostel for the night. We enjoyed the rest of the day walking around Reykjavik.

Day 14

A 5:30 AM alarm was less than exciting. We drove to the bus station to meet Jakob’s uncle and give him the truck we had borrowed for the trip. The 6:30 AM bus took us to the airport and we flew home.

Set 1 of Photos

Set 2 of Photos

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5 thoughts on “Fossil Excavations make me happy!

  1. Pingback: Blue Whales make me happy! « Happy Orange World

  2. Pingback: Puffins make me happy! « Happy Orange World

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  4. Pingback: To Climb or not to Climb… | Happy Orange World

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