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Joggins Fossil Cliffs opens up for guided tours this season

The UNESCO World Heritage Site in western Nova Scotia offers visitors lots to learn and fossil hunters plenty to find
Joggins Cliffs Beach lower res
Joggins Fossil Cliffs

If you have been looking to travel back about 300 million years or so, there is an opportunity waiting for you in western Cumberland County.

With the province recently initiating Phase 2 of its reopening plan, Joggins Fossil Cliffs has reopened its museum and begun to resume guided tours of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that has been home to fossils as ancient as 325 million years.

Preserved in the unique sloped cliffs at Joggins, Coal Age trees and the footprints of reptiles and creatures that inhabited the landscape are frozen in time through snapshots of their existence revealed by the dramatic tides of the Bay of Fundy.

“The most common fossils that people will find — this includes experts as well as amateur explorers — is plant life,” explains Jordan LeBlanc, the director of operations at Joggins Fossil Institute.  He adds that is because many of the trees growing millions of years prior have turned into coal.

“Sometimes their bark would turn into coal, or carbonize, before the rest of the plant. So you might look at a rock and it might look like snakeskin but it’s covered in black material — that’s coal material,” says LeBlanc. “It’s actually a tree trunk that had a diamond-shaped pattern in it and that’s what you’re seeing.”

LeBlanc suggests would-be fossil hunters learn to look for patterns on rockfaces to distinct fossils from other markings but essentially, any coal discovered at Joggins can be considered a fossil.

“You are looking at plant life that turned into coal,” says LeBlanc. “So therefore it’s a fossil — it’s evidence that prehistoric life was here.”

Bone or bone fragments of animals and creatures may be rare at Joggins but footprints of those creatures have been uncovered. Every year, LeBlanc says footprints of small lizards or salamanders are discovered.

Just last year, a Halifax woman stumbled upon a remarkable 310 million-year-old set of fossils of a prehistoric amphibian and remnants of a large millipede-type creature called an arthropleura on a single chunk of rock.

“(She) was just a person out for a walk on the beach who wanted to get out and she found it,” explains LeBlanc, who adds removing fossils from the area is prohibited. “It’s now currently getting boxed up to be sent out for research. She knew it was something, I’ll give her that but it turned out to be some really cool footprints.”

Joggins Cliffs isn’t just for geological-minded adventurers however. In addition to prehistoric fossils, history buffs can get a slice of the area’s historical context during tours as well — including possible evidence of an old wharf.

“You can see the remnants of an old harbour we used to have in Joggins where they were sending coal down to Boston and over to England,” says LeBlanc, noting that the world’s highest tides can reveal many discoveries every day. “You can see remnants of the last Ice Age in Joggins and that’s a great example too.”

Guided tours provide access to the beach, cliffs, interpretive gallery, café and gift shop while knowledgeable staff provide valuable insight and advice for fossil hunters.  Currently, Joggins is offering popular 30-minute tours and hopes to extend that offer to 90-minute tours beginning in July.

“I say that my 90 minute is exactly the same as my half hour only I talk slower,” laughs LeBlanc.  “The shorter tour is a ton of information packed into a short amount of time for a great introduction whereas the 90 minute tour lets you go at a much better pace.”

For more information on Joggins Fossil Cliffs, visit its website.

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