The Fossils of Fortune

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Feb 03, 2016 2:53 PM

Escaping the incoming giant wave, I rush to avoid the woolly mammoth emerging from a crevice, narrowly slip below the sabre-toothed tiger encroaching on a ledge above me, and wander heedless of the consequences past the deadly cold eyes and vicious talons of a Velociraptor-class dinosaur lurking in the shrubs nearby. Then I spot it, what I had heard about and come here to see. Stone with the texture, tone and timeless tenacity of elephant skin that is hundreds of millions of years old. 

No, I am not drunk, dreaming or delirious. Nor am I in a bizarre version of any of the Jurassic Park movies. It is a warm Sunday afternoon in August 2015, and I am actually in the beautiful fishing village of Fortune on the Burin Peninsula, which has emerged as one of Newfoundland and Labrador’s hotbeds for fossil research and discovery with the revitalization of the Fortune Head Geology Centre and Ecological Reserve.

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The centre is divided into areas that interpret various geological ages.

Thanks to a generous corporate donation from Hibernia Management and Development Company there is now something for everyone at the centre. The life-size replicas of extinct animals (including the lovable “Walter” the Woolly Mammoth) are favourites with younger visitors and are meant to illustrate the type of life that existed along various points of the planet’s timeline and enhance a very impressive collection of rare fossils from all over the world. There is also a hands-on interactive display to explain weather patterns, changes in the shape of the landscape, real-time generation of topographic contour lines and much more in the intriguing and addictive “Augmented Reality Sandbox.” 

So how cool is the Augmented Reality Sandbox? Well, it uses a combination of real sand that you can plunge your hands into to form mountains, valleys, lakes and other features on the landscape. If you hover your hand above a section of sand you make it virtually rain and see the effects moments later. Likewise you pretend your fingers are volcanoes that suddenly flatten a mountain, and you get to see the contours of imaginary landscapes come to life with interactive 3D projection technology. In these special sandboxes the power to shape the earth is in your hands.

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Tour guide Sheena Butler points out some of the centre's attractions.

In a nod to local history, a diorama details the tsunami created by the November 18, 1929, magnitude 7.2 earthquake far out in the Atlantic Ocean on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. In all, 28 lives were lost due to the tidal wave, making it, according to, “Canada’s largest documented loss of life directly related to an earthquake.”

Of course, it all goes to reinforce the main reason Fortune was ratified in 1992 at a meeting in Kyoto, Japan, by the International Geological Congress as the Precambrian-Cambrian Global Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP). This means it is internationally accepted as a place on earth where there’s clear evidence of the end of one geological period and the beginning of another.

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Sheena Butler glances out to sea from a meadow overlooking the Fortune Head Ecological Reserve Fossil Site during an escorted hike.

For my tour of this significant site, I’m led by 22-year-old Sheena Butler of Spaniards Bay, Newfoundland. She’s a geology student at the University of New Brunswick and was working at the centre as a summer tour guide. After we hike out to the fossil site and see it up close, Sheena explains, “The escorted tour out at Fortune Head Ecological Reserve took us up to the Precambrian and Cambrian boundary. This is actually the GSSP, or the Global Stratotype Section and Point, for that boundary. This is very significant, and one of the reasons why Fortune was chosen over sites in Siberia and China [as one of the best locations in the world to view this type of phenomenon] is that we have no missing fossils or rock deformities. When we went down to the site we initially saw mostly trace fossils from the Cambrian explosion of life, such as worm burrows and microbial mats, which are basically ancient bacterial colonies that are found on the sea floor. Those microbial mats kind of have the texture and look of elephant skin. The time frame you are looking at is around 500 million years for those microbial mats. To put things in perspective, the Precambrian period goes back to the beginning of the earth around 4.54 billion years ago and lasts right up to around 541 million years ago when the Cambrian period started. When you are looking at the site, the stuff at the bottom is Precambrian at 600 million years plus. There is a ledge above the water and a metre or two up from that is the boundary to the Cambrian [era] at about 540-million-year-old rock. So you can easily see it.”

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Microbial mats fossils, with a pattern that resembles elephant skin, at the Fortune Head Ecological Reserve Fossil Site. These are around 500 million years old.

As the coastal terrain is challenging in places, taking the escorted tour is the best strategy. Visitors should note that fossil collecting is illegal in this province in National and Provincial Parks and Ecological Reserves, unless you have special permits.

Make the most of your trip

If you make the drive down to Fortune, about 203 kilometres from the TransCanada Highway turnoff at Goobies, there are several other area attractions to fill out your itinerary and make the most of your journey. The best person I found to give me some tourist tips on the area was lifelong resident and entrepreneur Brian Rose. He begins by pointing out Fortune’s close ties to a modern French colony.

“It only takes about 55 minutes to travel the 25 miles over from Fortune to St. Pierre et Miquelon by the ferry, and there is nothing else quite like it in North America. In terms of experiencing those islands, you can explore the French food, the architecture, the natural scenery and many other things,” Brian says.

“In terms of things to do on this side, if you have a few days I would recommend a number of things to take in as much of the region as you can. Of course, we have the Fortune Head Ecological Reserve and the Centre here, but there is also great hiking and the Truxton and Pollux site out at Chamber Cove in St. Lawrence, and the Miners Museum [there]. Closer to here, Grand Bank has an excellent theatre festival and the Provincial Seaman’s Museum. Marystown has many services and places to eat. The town of Burin itself has great hiking and revitalized old town centre that is nice to walk around and explore.”

He adds, “I am not an expert on it, but check out the various tourism websites and speak to locals, and you will be pleasantly surprised at how much there is to see and do in the region.”

I surely enjoyed my latest trip down the Burin Peninsula. May Fortune favour your travels. - By Dennis Flynn

Correction: In the February issue of Downhome, Brian Rose was mistakenly identified as the mayor of Fortune. He is affectionately known by some as the "unofficial" mayor. The elected official is Mayor Charles Penwell. Downhome regrets the error.