Shark Tooth Fossil Hunting in Florida - Fun Time!
Arcadia, Florida -- Armed with a shovel, a ¼-inch sifting screen and optimism, we launched canoes and set out on a hunting expedition, looking for things, or at least parts of things, that have been dead for millions of years. The hunting ground was a stretch of the Peace River in southwest Florida, a historic waterway draining into Charlotte Harbor.
Inspecting the sifter after you gently shake free the sand is like opening a box of Forrest Gump chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get. Countless small pieces of black, broken rock that look like nothing - but were once part of something – fill the screen. Sometimes, fossilized pieces of turtle shells or small bones from various critters are in the mix. The main prize, however, are shark teeth.
The Florida Museum website explains that fossils are remains, traces, or impressions of ancient life preserved in rocks. These include mineralized bones, teeth and shells as well as casts of footprints, scales, skin, hair and dung. Certain conditions must exist for fossilization to occur. Tissue must be insulated from microbial destruction and a supply of soluble minerals must exist to take the place of that tissue. Once-living tissues may be replaced over eons to create a cast in stone of the original structure.
A Guided Tour
Trent Anthney of Canoe Outpost Peace River led Jennifer Huber and I on the trip. Huber is a former tourism official for Charlotte Harbor [www.pureflorida.com] and has a popular “Solo Girl Travel” [https://solotravelgirl.com/] blog. She is also the current president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. We only had a couple hours to learn about the river and Anthney, who has guided countless groups, was eager to share the many ways fossil hunters can fill their tags, figuratively speaking.
The river was full of groups of families and friends camping. Music danced over the water from small boats and kayaks with modern boom boxes. Just about every spot with a small beach had canoes pulled ashore with people playing or hunting in knee-to-waist-deep water. The river is relatively shallow, which makes fossil hunting easier, especially in the early spring before the rainy season begins.
“I tell people, if you fall out of the canoe, the first thing you do is try to stand up. It’s likely the water won’t be over your head,” Anthney said.
The water depth lets you easily walk around, feeling the riverbed with your feet or using a snorkeling mask to take a firsthand look. You are looking for places with good sections of large gravel-like material. If quantity is the goal, namely smaller fossilized teeth usually under an inch long, using the shovel and sifter is a fast way to work. Importantly, digging is only allowed in the river. It is against the law to dig into the riverbanks.
Anthney submerged his wood-framed sifter, which was ringed with foam flotation pieces. He stepped on it to hold it down, then took a couple shovelfuls of gravel and dumped them underwater onto the sifter. A cloud of silt rushed downstream as he carefully let the sifter rise to the surface. A couple gentle shakes and he was soon quickly inspecting the myriad rocks and shapes leftover.
“I usually get at least one shark tooth with every sift,” he said. “Ah, here’s one – a mako.”
Anthney explained how to tell if a tooth was a top or bottom tooth and how the tooth would have been oriented in a shark’s powerful jaws. Nature designed them such that they helped hold prey and pull it into the shark’s mouth.
We found teeth from multiple species. To my layman’s eye, a shark’s tooth is a shark’s tooth, but Anthney, after decades of experience, easily determines the species. Less than an hour of sifting saw us collect about two dozen small teeth.
Why are shark teeth relatively easy to find? Well, some sharks can have up to 3,000 in their mouths. Sharks regenerate teeth throughout their life. In some sharks, a new set of teeth develops every two weeks. A shark can lose over 30 000 teeth in its lifespan – hence a lot of fossils for us to find.
The real prizes are the large teeth of an extinct shark called a megalodon, purported to be ancestors of today’s great whites. Some were up to 60 feet long. Their teeth can be huge, several inches long and wide. Perfectly formed megalodon fossils that show the root, crown and other related structures can be worth thousands of dollars. Even run-of-the-mill megalodon teeth can fetch hundreds of dollars.
An interesting thing about shark fossils is they can turn up in interesting places. Remember, much of the landscape, especially in Florida, was once covered by ocean, so places that are mostly dry now can still have deposits with huge numbers of fossils.
Anthney likes to snorkel when looking for megalodon teeth. “I just move along, fanning the bottom,” he said. “I can cover a lot of area and see larger things people sifting don’t find. Plus, I’m not digging holes in the riverbed.”
Serious fossil hunters also have to be a bit intrepid, getting away from the crowds and willing to explore places and structures others are unwilling to tackle. This can include places where storms have created snags with dead trees partly in the water.
Anthney laughed as minnows nibbled at his skin while he felt around one particular snag.
“One time I was doing this, I grabbed a tail of an alligator that was in there,” he said, adding he practically levitated out of the water and got away as quickly as possible.
There are other options when it comes to finding shark teeth. Barbara Golden, communications manager for the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau, is an expert at finding megalodon teeth. She is an avid paddleboarder and has access to a couple private quarries that are honey holes for the larger shark teeth. She refused to tell me where they were!
She did tell me, showed me actually, how she finds jarfuls of smaller shark teeth. Hint. If you visit Florida beaches, you might want to look more closely at that little brown-black gravel stuff in the surf. Many of those pieces are fossils or small shark teeth.
Golden took me to beautiful Ponte Vedra Beach, part of the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve, one of only 29 National Estuarine Research Reserves in the country. From the ocean to the forests, this beautiful, natural landscape is home to a wide diversity of plants, animals and sea creatures.
We followed the walkway over the highest sand dunes in Florida, cresting the top to gather the incredible vista of miles of unspoiled (read-undeveloped) beachfront. The tide was coming in rapidly and each incoming and receding wave tumbled the small shells and broken, granular “coquina” a sedimentary rock composed wholly or almost entirely of shell fragments. Whole blocks of coquina were used in the building of the massive Castillo de San Marcos fortress in St. Augustine.
“These dunes were under water millions of years ago, so there were a lot of sharks swimming through here,” Golden said. “As the beaches erode, the sand washes out and these shark teeth come to the surface.”
Armed with a simple kitchen strainer, Golden spent 20 minutes scooping up and picking through coquina. She found 10 teeth with minimal effort.
The best time to hunt for beach shark teeth is as the water approaches low tide, she explained. “As the water recedes, it pulls the sand out and exposes more teeth. This is also the best time to find larger teeth, some up to two inches long,” Golden said. “Sometimes, you’ll find pockets of them, getting several in a very small area.
“You need to look closely at shapes. They’re very triangular, very defined, and the fossilized enamel has a gray-black, shiny look that you can spot as the water runs over them. If you know what you’re looking for, they are easy to find,” Golden said, “even when they’re this tiny.”
Teeth from sand sharks and lemon sharks are the most common, although other species turn up. Golden has found teeth from a great white and one small megalodon tooth on the beach. “They’re here, you just have to pick carefully. Each wave churns things up. You can look in a spot and see nothing, but the next couple waves can wash in or uncover shark teeth. It is constantly changing,” she said.
Golden likes using a sifter in wet sand. She digs a healthy scoop of sand and conquina, rinses it out and hunts for treasures.
No permits are needed to look for shark teeth on the beach. Parking is just $3 per day. Some of the best hunting comes after storms have blown through. The increased wave intensity tends to uncover a lot of things hidden in the sands.
Shark tooth hunting is also popular in many locales along the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. For example, Westmoreland State Park has a beach that’s popular with fossil hunters. Chippokes Plantation State Park in Surry County is also popular. Calvert Cliffs State Park or Purse State Park in Maryland are other options.
I have even stumbled onto shark teeth just looking at gravelly beaches along Virginia's Rappahannock River.
Be mindful of where you’re hunting, though. Some locations, such as national park lands prohibit fossil hunting or other forms of relic hunting.
I must admit, searching for shark teeth is an incredibly relaxing pursuit. My collection is just beginning and, thanks to Golden, already include a megalodon. Here's a tip, though. When beachcoming, go barefoot or wear easily drained footgear like flip-flops. I had enclosed Croc-like shoes and the coquina steadily built up inside them and under me feet. Not comfortable at all having "coquina feet."