Hunting a giant: PBS Nature special shows how a 'Jurassic Sea Monster' was unearthed

Feb. 11—Steve Etches has always been fascinated by the world around him.

Originally a plumber by trade, he began collecting fossils from the Kimmeridge Clay over 40 years ago.

His fossil collecting began at the age of 5 with a flint fossil sea urchin which he found in his back garden.

Completely self-taught, what began as a hobby has now resulted in a collection of over 2,800 fossils that are now on display at The Etches Collection Museum of Jurassic Marine Life in Kimmeridge, England.

In 2022, the skull of a sea monster was found — of course, Etches was there.

"It was amazing to see how well-preserved it was," Etches says of the fossil.

Etches' journey is chronicled in Nature's "Attenborough and the Jurassic Sea Monster." The program airs at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 14, on New Mexico PBS, channel 5.1. It will also be available to stream on the PBS app.

According to the program, while dinosaurs ruled the land more than 150 million years ago, the oceans were dominated by a mysterious sea monster, the pliosaur, one of the largest Jurassic predators.

Not much was known about this creature until a giant skull was discovered in southwest England in 2022.

Host Sir David Attenborough joins two top British fossil hunters — Etches and Chris Moore — on their perilous expedition to excavate the nearly intact skull from the cliffs of the Jurassic Coast. Attenborough talks with an international team of scientists and paleontologists searching for clues about how this fearsome beast not only looked, but how it swam and hunted its prey.

The pliosaur skull marks one of the greatest fossils that Attenborough has ever encountered. Cutting-edge visual effects sequences bring the sea monster to life, showcasing its astonishing size — thought to be a massive 40 feet long — and its phenomenal strength.

With extremely powerful jaws, massive flippers and dagger-like teeth, they could quickly hunt and crush their prey into pieces. Witness the tale of one of the most formidable predators of the Jurassic world.

"I've had film crews follow me before," Etches says. "This time around we had very limited space. The film crew was very aware of our work. I was out there to do a job."

Etches and his crew had to rappel down the side of the cliff and begin the excavation project.

He says to actually locate the fossil, the team had to take a drone and examine the cliff.

"When I got down there, we realized that this animal died upside down," he says. "That means it was on the sea floor and the gas inside of it caused it to flip over. Once we realized that, we had to get everyone on board."

Etches says rappelling down the side of the cliff was part of the job and he had no nerves about it.

"Once you are on that rope, you know nothing will happen," he says. "It did look daunting but the hardest part was finding logistically how it was going to happen."

The documentary will air in America for the first time and Etches hopes that the story fascinates the audience.

He says there's a crowdfunding effort to raise money to get the rest of the skeleton uncovered.

"We know where it is," he says. "We need to take more time and money to get it excavated and extract the whole skeleton."