Shark Tooth Fossil Collecting: Wish you were here

By Shelley Thomas

hunting for shark tooth fossils in Florida

I know I’m not the only one who wants to press “pause” on time. I’m not alone in wishing I can slow it down, hold onto it, stretch it, make it elastic. With every hula-hoop around the sun, I’m reminded there are finite grains in the hourglass of my life, and even fewer in the glasses of my parents.

Much of my adult life has been spent in classrooms sharing time with those whose interests are far removed from what’s in hourglasses. For my students, the future is only just beginning. They’re filled to the brim with time.

At the start of my teaching career, a veteran teacher announced he was entering his final year in the classroom. The calendar page flipped to September, yet summer’s gold lingered on his face and forearms. This glow, he announced, was earned in his garden that summer, pruning, trimming, tending. He’d spent the months building a sundial. He inscribed on it, “Tempus Fugit,” and then underneath, “it’s later than you think.” A mathematician, a cedar strip canoe-maker, and a jaunty soul with a keen sense of life and retirement around the corner, he was acutely aware of the measurement and value of time.

I remember thinking the inscription somewhat bleak; after all, I was fresh into a career and life unfurled in front of me. Now, some twenty years later, I’ve learned a thing or two about the shape and size of time. I’ve learned to heed warnings from those who have lived more of life than I.

collection of shark tooth fossils

In many ways, my family has been the pointer, the gnomon on the sundial of my life. Present. Reliable. A truth fixed in a world that hasn’t been predictable or certain. They’ve marked the passage of time, milestones, the big moments in my life. I know I’m more than lucky. My childhood was filled with adventure, lore, love of wildlife and wild places. Foraging and beachcombing were part of every family vacation. We each had a favorite spot, a favorite treasure to find.

I first learned about fossilized shark teeth from my New England grandfather. He told me it was possible to find them if I knew where to look along the Atlantic coast. My grandmother wore a silver charm bracelet adorned with fossilized shark teeth, a jangly, jagged souvenir from a holiday on some warm sandy beach in Florida. I loved her bracelet. Serrations still perceptible, sharp to the touch, even after tumbling in the ocean for millions of years. The teeth conjured sleek bodies gliding through darkness, suspended in an ocean older than Time itself. Then ribbons of teeth. Frills. Rows. The bottomless wells of inky eyes. The teeth sunk into my imagination. Their age. Their resolve. Their persistence. The idea of something so old and still here gave me comfort.

searching for fossils of shark teeth on the beach in florida

Not long after, my family spent a March break combing the Florida Keys before traveling north along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. I collected the jet jewels one by one, lifting them from the jumble of jingle shells and whelks at the wrack line. When we returned home, I sent some to Grandpa. The others I gathered into the bowl of a shell on my bedside table. At night I dipped my fingers, traced the outlines of teeth, and touched Time. It was a form of time travel. On some primordial level, my child-self understood the eternal nature of “now.”

dog on the beach while beachcomber looks for fossil teeth from sharks

It’s March break, nearly thirty years later, and I have two weeks to decompress and restore after a winter of flu and storms. I will spend that time with my parents, but my husband insists a portion be spent in the sun, somewhere warm, where I will have different thoughts. Somewhere my shoulders will soften. My parents are now older, of course. They don’t comb beaches like before. My grandparents are in that faraway place where all living things exist after they die.

shark fossil tooth hidden in the sand in florida

I watch as a Floridian shoreline fills with the new day. Young families flap colorful beach towels. Buckets and sifters sing with shoreline treasure. Some children chase seagulls; others squat and pick shark teeth from pebbly patches. I lift a serrated jewel, a jet-black shark tooth, from the sand.

I close my eyes and I see Grandpa’s puckish grin, the glinting silver and onyx dangling from Grandma’s wrist. I’m with my parents, my brother and sister. We’re all here, on a beach again. We’re healthy, full of life, gravid with the present. In this moment there is no fear, no pain. Just this moment. I’m time traveling again.

find shark tooth fossils in florida

I open my eyes and study the fragment of time between my thumb and finger.

I’m grateful for each tooth, each shell, each feather, each frosted nubble of salt-washed glass. Each one a lesson and reminder: in a world gathering loss some things are never out of reach.

It’s true I see sundials and hourglasses everywhere these days. It’s true I’m sad about approaching shadows, finite grains, and the increasing velocity of each passing year. I can’t predict or wrangle life into abeyance or certainty. But I can go to the beach. I can collect teeth along a silver strand of shoreline. I can lift memories from the surf. I can pocket time.

All photos by Shelley Thomas.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine July/August 2023 issue.

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