Sea Rex Pliosaur of Kimmeridge

The story behind the discovery of the Sea Rex Pliosaur at Kimmeridge, currently on display at The Etches Museum

Local community digs deep in race against time fo save incredible Pliosaur fossil

by Nick Meacham, Etches Outreach Manager

Steve Etches with the Pliosaur Fossil
Dr Steve Etches

From plumber to fossil expert!

Often referred to as the modern-day Mary Anning and equally as inspiring, Dr. Steve Etches MBE came from a non-academic background, entirely self-taught, and something that started as a simple hobby quickly became his life’s work. Steve, who is a plumber by trade, became a world-renowned expert in the field. In fact there is no one better when looking at the Kimmeridgian age a 5-million-year slice of time between 157 and 152 million years ago that is part of the upper Jurassic era. Over 40 years ago, when Steve started out as a fossil collector, he was told that the Kimmeridgian period would not yield any significant specimens, for various reasons it was overlooked. Steve largely ignored this and set out to prove the doubters wrong, which he did!

Steve always wanted to share his fossil collection and knowledge with others, which initially started in his converted garage in the village of Kimmeridge. As the collection grew to include more significant finds, many of which were new to science, it could no longer be ignored. After lots of hard work and fundraising by a group of dedicated people, Steve handed over his Collection to the nation and the museum was built, opening its doors in 2016. Since then, the fossils, together with the amazing “Jurassic Aquarium”, have told the stories from deep time that have fascinated visitors of all ages. Around this time Steve would receive an MBE for services to Palaeontology, and a degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa, from the University of Southampton. 

A race against time

Now that the location was known, a plan was needed for extracting the skull. Steve understands and knows the terrain within a 5-mile radius of the museum like the back of his hand, so he knew what was needed in order to undertake this massive excavation. Steve is often 20 steps ahead of everyone when it comes to projects of this kind, and this was no different. While in the planning process for the excavation, a conversation with a close friend and fellow fossil hunter Chris Moore led to Chris suggesting that he contact his old friend, none other than Sir David Attenborough, who Chris had previously worked with on the BBC documentary ‘Attenborough and the Sea Dragon’. The team at the museum met with the BBC to discuss the project and from there a working partnership was formed. Steve assembled his team very quickly after that, including the rope access experts that would enable Steve and the other excavators to safely access the skull, halfway up the 25m high cliff.

The excavation truly was a race against time; meticulously planned and executed over a three-week period against the backdrop of an incredible hot and dry summer in Dorset. The team that was put together were made up of local people, many from the village of Kimmeridge, including the incredible dairy farmer, Rob Vearncombe. Rob almost stole the show with his engineering feats when the documentary was first aired; plaudits of Rob’s work coming from several national newspapers. Many don’t know that Rob has been an integral part of the museum before there was even a museum. From the very early planning days, Rob supported Steve and his vision for the museum we have today. Rob is also the current chairman of the board of trustees here at the museum and his pragmatism and knowledge have truly benefitted the Collection over the years.

The excavation included rope access experts to enable Steve and other excavators to safely access the Sea Rex

David Attenborough and the BBC Documentary

Sea Rex discovered in Kimmeridge at The Etches Museum in Dorset with David Attenborough and Steve Etches
Photo: BBC STUDIOS - David Attenborough examines the Sea Rex during the BBC documentary

t would be very difficult to put into words all of the ingenuity and effort put in by the local community and how unbelievably challenging and intense the 18-month project was. I would encourage everyone to watch the incredible documentary ‘Attenborough and the Giant Sea Monster’. It is still available on BBC iPlayer and, interestingly, the story was one of the BBC’s most popular news stories of 2023.

A recent quote from Steve gives you an idea of how important this find is to science “In 50 years’ time, people will still be looking at this and getting new information from it. I think this is going to unlock a lot of secrets about how this creature lived, hunted, and died. The academic world is really going to love this.” – Steve Etches

The Etches' Record Breaking Pliosaur!

In April the Guinness World Records confirmed that the Sea Rex at Kimmeridge was the ‘most complete’ of its type on the planet!

Where to see the Sea Rex!

Exterior of the Etches Musuem of Marine Fossils Kimmeridge Jurassic Coast Purbeck
You can see the Sea Rex at the Etches Collection, Kimmeridge, Purbeck

Fossil enthusiasts and visitors in general will be glad to hear that the Pliosaur skull is now on permanent display at The Etches Collection, while the rest of the monster lies buried in the cliff…

The Etches Collection – Museum of Jurassic Marine Life is open 7 days a week from 10am to 5pm. (Except Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day). More details on the Etches Collection website. 

Appeal to help excavate the rest of the Sea Rex

The Etches Collection is crowdfunding in a new race against time to recover the rest of the Pliosaur that remains embedded in the cliff face.

“The excavation of the remaining Pliosaur body is a race against time and nature, so this is a priority for me, especially since we could lose important pieces of the specimen due to rapid cliff erosion. Any help that people can provide towards this unique fundraising opportunity, where you will play an incredible part in making palaeontological history, would be truly grateful.” – Dr Steve Etches, MBE

You can donate on their Just Giving Page. 

This article was first published in Love It Local magazine March 2024. You can read the magazine online on the Love It Local website. 

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