A PLUMBER by day and a fossil hunter by moonlight. What started as a hobby for Steve Etches, from Kimmeridge, as a young boy has turned into a lifelong passion spanning decades – leading to the discovery of thousands of fossils on the Jurassic coast.

Steve's story of fossil hunting is nothing short of extraordinary – though he'll be the last to admit to that. He's a modest man – and that only adds to the elusive nature of his work.

Deep in the dark waters of Kimmeridge Bay, predators and their prey lived side by side. But when feeding time came, everything changed. 150 million years ago, life could be savage in the world of marine reptiles.

Steve's collection of fossils, which is now housed at the impressive museum The Etches Collection in the heart of Kimmeridge, has captured the story of those creatures and recreated it using the latest technology.

Meeting Steve in his workshop at the multi-million pound Heritage Lottery-funded project where he preserves the fossils, he starts by making me promise not to call the fossils 'dinosaurs'. These fossils are different.

He said: "Marine reptile fossils can reveal the enormous diversity of life during the Kimmeridgian period. You can make direct links between these fossils and some animals that are still alive today.

"In some of the fossils you can even see what the reptiles had for dinner as you can spot the fragments of bones and teeth worn away from feeding on hard scaled prey."

But collecting the fossils, albeit with 35 years' experience, is still very difficult, despite the obvious art to it that Steve has.

While most of us left our childhood hobbies behind long ago, Steve continued to master his into something incredible.

Steve said: "You have got to collect the fossils blind. What happens more often than not is you cut a big block out, but it's always a guessing game.

"To find a fossil you'll just see a touch of it. Something that suggests there's something more. The shingle on the shore acts like an abrasive, going over and over all the time. But unless you get a fossil when it is nearly exposed it will get damaged.

"You can't just uncover it because the material is highly fragile."

Steve added: "The excitement is the same with every find. When you are the first person to find it, the buzz – it's still the same, it's like a drug in some sense, the chemicals flowing through your blood to give you that high.

"It's the day you go out not expecting to find something that is the day you do."

Born in Dorset, Steve found his first echinoid fossil aged five. Decades later he has more than 2,000 late Jurassic specimens from Kimmeridge.

"My success in some ways is the whole spectrum and the diversity of the collection. Dorset is so rich in fossils. There was a niche in the collection because the Kimmeridge clay fossils were the least interesting to some before."

The collection pieces together the fascination and curiosity of the collector. More than 2,500 fossils from the Kimmeridge Clay are new to science and of huge palaeontological importance.

Steve collected so many fossils that it soon became a problem of where to store them. Carla Crook, Steve's daughter, knows a thing or two about that.

Now working alongside her dad at The Etches Collection helping to promote and run it, Carla is bursting with passion for her dad's work, but she didn't always.

Carla said: "The way he prepares and conserves them is quite amazing. He filled the garage up at home and it dominated our house.

"He changed the double garage into a private museum and then between him and his friend Jane Clark they decided to kick this all into action and here we are with the Heritage Lottery-funded museum."

A blue room surrounded by a modern CGI virtual aquarium and dramatic ocean sounds brings the fossils' stories to life.

Giant fossilised femurs and two metre-long jaws of pliosaurs line the walls while sharks and ichthyosaurs glide the surrounding digital waters. It's a fusion of the past and present at its best.

Carla said: “It’s so exciting – this is dad’s life. He used to drag us down the beach and collect and we would get so bored. But as you get older you gain more respect and appreciation for it.

“This is his gift to the nation and his legacy that the general public can benefit from for years to come.

“He was always worried about when he dies what would happen to the collection, and now there is a safe and secure home for it in Dorset.”

Steve received an MBE in 2014 for his services to palaeontology. His aim has always been to make the collection available to the public and ‘share the remarkable stories behind the extraordinary creatures’.

He said: “Each fossil has a different story. The stuff is completely new to science and a glimpse into a time that hasn’t really been concentrated on before.

“It was just a childhood interest of mine and developed from there.”

For more information about The Etches Collection in Kimmeridge and to visit, see the website theetchescollection.org