"So…now the year's first snogging is out of the way."
The "monster diggers," led by Professor Jørn Hurum of the Natural History Museum at the University of Oslo, are back in Svalbard for the tenth time. A new mountainside, new sea reptiles from the time when dinosaurs ruled the Earth and many new diggers.
But the humor – as the plaster splatters, stones fly and energy drinks are slurped down lustily – is much the same.
"Yeah, I am so glad it was you I was snogging with."
"Ho, ho, ho!" comes the chortles in unison from the steep slope in Flowerdalen, an hour's march from the cabin area at Vindodden.
The team brushes the messy plaster remains off themselves, take off their gloves and wait for the mantle – cast over a fossil that has not seen the light of day for 250 million years – to solidify.
It's night, but the day has barely begun under the midnight sun.
"It's so nice to be back," Hurum says. "As good as every other time."
READ MORE: Footprints of the apocaplypse
Molding a a large marine reptile fossil requires surrounding it with stones possessing same consistency as dry biscuits, which must be done quickly. After many years of trial and error, the team is finally past their novice mistakes, Hurum says.
"In 2004 we did not get the plaster to harden one time," Hurum says.
Experience notwithstanding, this year they are on new, unknown ground – literally.
In contrast to previous years, the reptile miners are going back in time in the geological rock layers and looking for the very first ichthyosaurs that appeared during the Triassic period.
They resembled dolphins, but are reptiles that at some point decided to move from the land to life in the ocean.
Over millions of years, they became perfectly adapted to life in the water. But how did this occur? Hurum says he's hoping to find some answers.
"Previously, we were working on the Jurassic period and then it was much easier to instantly see if we, for example, had found a new species," he says. "We simply do not know enough about the period we're now working on to be able to say the same. This year is the first time we're getting thoroughly into this. Nobody else has done anything similar here before."
On a treasure hunt
The monster diggers were only on their first week of work during Svalbardposten's visit, but they had already found enough fossils to justify several science degrees.
An ichthyosaurs, protected by toilet paper and plaster, is just a stone's throw from the food tent and is so far a big question mark.
"It is huge, maybe four to five meters long and one of the largest of this period," Hurum says. "But we do not know if it is something that is found elsewhere previously. Until now we have found parts of the head, vertebrae, ribs and flipper bones. Now we'll dig a little deeper into the mountainside and see if we can find more of it."
Saving bones with a spade
A short distance away they found a leg bone, basically a bunch of bones from a different animal.
So many that there was no point picking them up one by one.
"We just had to shovel everything up into bags," Hurum says, one week before the expedition is scheduled to end. "There were huge amounts."
He believes a big discovery is just around the corner.
"We're keeping to the schedule so far, but it is tradition that we make a big discovery at the last minute," Hurum says. "Then everybody must step in."
The monster diggers returned to Longyearbyen on Friday.
More about their discoveries will be featured in the next issue of Svalbardposten.
Translated by Mark Sabbatini