Sea Monsters of the North: Day 10-Welcoming Tourists to the Site

NG Emerging Explorer Jørn Hurum is currently on Spitsbergen Island in the Arctic Circle excavating the remains of ancient marine reptiles worthy of the most fantastic Norse legends. Follow the expedition here on Explorers Journal through updates from him and his team, and catch up on his previous expedition for more.


By Erik Tunstad

You need patience in this line of work. Not even today did we get the answer to whether or not Britney the plesiosaur fossil has a head. It would be a first – as mentioned a couple of times in earlier posts. Hope is still hanging by a thread. We are probably just a few centimeters away from the answer. That we didn’t get it yesterday is not due to laziness.

There was no inspiration to get out before what normal people would call lunch time. On the other hand, we did end the previous day a bit later than normal people.  And it also had been the hardest day with the rain and so on. Today however, the Wimann Mountain showed its most beautiful side, and we welcomed another group of tourists who had come to see the dig.

Today, the Wimann Mountain showed its most beautiful side. Photo by Erik Tunstad.


Popular science tourism is a relatively new trend. As people have more energy when their holiday starts, in combination with more money, many want to do more than just sun bathe. To experience a real excavation is one alternative.

Groups from Spitsbergen Travel arrive almost every day, with two to twelve curious and interested tourists. They have to be, to climb more than 400 vertical meters up an icy mountainside, just to stand there and look down in a muddy hole. A hole with visible bones, granted, but it’s still not exactly like hitting a bar on Mallorca.

Jørn welcomes tourists outside the camp, with an introductory lecture about the project and what we have found so far before they start the climb up the mountainside. Photo by Erik Tunstad.

Jørn welcomes them outside the camp, with an introductory lecture about the project and what we have found so far before they start the climb up the mountain side, where the tourists can watch the mud people digging, up to their knees in dirty water.

Other places around the world, the tourists pay to be part of the excavation, Pat tells us. They can spend up to a week in the field, which means a good contribution to the field kitty. The same principle is valid here on Svalbard, says Jørn – but the fossils are too fragile to be handled by tourists.

Jørn’s alternative financing has throughout the years led to more than a bit of criticism from some colleagues. Serious research should be financed by the government, it is said. But when the government isn’t paying, what are you supposed to do?

Spitsbergen Travel is one of the companies supporting Jørn’s project financially. They fly the team up and down to Svalbard, pay for hotel and rental cars in Longyearbyen, and transport by boat to and from the camp site. It all adds up to about 150 000 kroner.

Without them, no marine reptiles. It is as simple as that. And what does Spitsbergen Travel get out of this? Well, they sell tourist trips out here.

We had two groups of tourists today. One was from Spitsbergen Travel, the other was from Studietur Nord – a group of politicians. To tell the truth, the whole project started with an enthusiastic visit from Norwegian Minister of Education Øystein Djupedal, but since then it has been quiet from that part. Today’s delegation unfortunately can’t brag of pushing the boundries of our knowledge – at least not those concerning ancient life.

But at least they made the trip. Even if they didn’t have time to walk all the way up to see Britney, where we spent the day protecting the marine reptile’s so far 36 neck cervical vertebrae. (If we are lucky, she won’t have more than 40 of them – so we’re right at the finishing line!)

Some of Britney's neck vertebrae after being exposed. If we're lucky there won't be more than four more before we hit the skull. Photo by Erik Tunstad.


The excitement to finish the excavation is so high that people are hesitant to retire at night. We had to make Aubrey leave the crater at about one a.m. last night.

We had to make Aubrey leave the crater at about one a.m. last night (yes, night, this is the land of the midnight sun!). Photo by Erik Tunstad.


Now it’s dinner time. And the answer of whether the plesiosaur’s skull has survived will be ours tomorrow.



Read More From the Expedition

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 1

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 2

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 3

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 4

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 5

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 6–Mountain vs. Chainsaw

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 7

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 8

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 9

All Posts From Jørn Hurum



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Jørn Harald Hurum was born in Drammen, a city on southeastern Norway. Since childhood he has collected fossils and minerals in the Oslo region. Since 2000 he has been employed at the Natural History Museum of the University of Oslo where he works as an associate professor in vertebrate paleontology. At the University he teaches paleontology and evolutionary biology and supervises masters and Ph.D. students. One recent outreach effort brought him on stage before a general audience interested in his Arctic island project excavating fossils of ancient sea monsters. “There was a four-year-old in the front row and he couldn’t stop asking questions, really good questions” Hurum remembers. “This little boy was so excited to know there was somebody else who understood the things he was wondering about. He made my whole day! As a child, I felt very alone with my interest in fossils. Finally at age 13, I discovered there was a museum in Norway that actually employed people to study paleontology. I started corresponding with those scientists and it was such a relief, such an inspiration. I hope I can give some of that spirit back to the next generation.” Learn More About Jørn and His Work