By Laura Deering
I was eager—a bit too eager—to try my hand at beachcombing for ancient shark teeth fossils in Venice, Florida, considered one of the best hunting beaches in the world.
Reading past Beachcombing articles on the topic, amped up with the anticipation of discovering a giant megalodon tooth, I had glimmers of a fistful of teeth for the taking. Except, I didn’t know one thing: exactly how does one hunt for fossilized shark teeth?
On my first day, the ocean was frothing from the aftereffect of the previous day’s tornado-filled January storm. Eyeing the roaring waves, I allowed time to first visit local shops for equipment and advice. I then scouted out several beaches recommended by the knowledgeable locals.
The Hunt is On
With an early morning start, the violent waves had simmered down, yet the force was still visible against the gray silky clouds. South of town at Caspersen Beach, I set up a perimeter on the sand with my tea mug and tennis shoes. I shouldn’t have staked out my section of the sea—I was quickly foiled. Angular waves and blistering gales pushed me at their whim.
Armed with a newly purchased metal scoop contraption, and submerged up to my knees, I edged purposely to a drop-off ledge about six feet from the shoreline. The ledge is like a sudden step going down about 16 inches. Perched above the step and ladling up along the inside of the edge, I invoked ballerina-like poses and the strength of a linebacker to keep from being knocked over by the waves.
Cocky at first, I thought all the snow shoveling I did during Minnesota winters prior to the trip had me in top-notch physical shape. Maneuvering the scoop was like shoveling snow, except reverse—you draw the scoop towards you. More than once a mischievous wave reminded me who was stronger. It wasn’t until a rogue wave in full force bashed the scoop into my shin that I quickly learned to keep the scoop to the side of the body. But it was in that scoopful that I found my first shark tooth. Pain and embarrassment? Who cares, I found a shark tooth!
The Scoop on the Scoop
Having mastered the maneuvers, the next—and most important—step was what to do with the sand, rocks, and shells captured in the wire mesh scoop. At first, I brought the entire contents up the beach beyond the greedy fingers of the waves. I then flipped the contents over and quickly spread the pile with my hands. Usually seeing no shark teeth, I would repeat the laborious process of returning to the water edge with another scoopful. That was until I noticed casual beach walkers strolling by my piles. In a split-second they would spot a shark tooth and snatch it without breaking their stride. Since the beach is a public place, the take-away (ahem) lesson was to pay closer attention and devote time to the hard-earned pile.
Pile it On
Instead of quickly scattering my pile in all directions, I learned to first look at the items on top. Shark teeth tend to be heavier than crushed shells, and when you flip the contents over, the choppers are on top smirking at you. Speaking of sand and shells; before dragging the heavy scoop up to the beach, pull the scoop to where smaller waves reside, and let it (and your arms) rest for a bit in the water. This allows Mother Nature’s wave machine to run an extra rinse cycle, and no extra quarters are needed. This makes the scoop lighter, and you’ll have less debris to distract you.
By the end of the day, I was pleased to have found seven teeth in two hours. I knew, however, that the tormented ocean was going to have a bigger payout. I soon discovered yet another lesson was in store the very next day.
Try, try again
Waking to a burst of sun that kick-started the day, I was beckoned by the call of a fresh adventure. Instead of dirty, choppy water, it sparkled jubilantly, bouncing off the royal blue skies above. Dashing on a hot tip from my niece who found a shark tooth laying on the sand bar, I ventured further south to Manasota Beach. My niece also shared that a local couple gave all their shark findings to her small children, who thought the teeth to be very cool indeed.
Manasota Beach lazes in a rural setting, giving the spacious, unhurried park a relaxed vibe. Better yet, it set the tone—the sidewalks leading to the shore were loaded with shark teeth embedded in the concrete—hundreds of different ones to ooh-ahh over. Rubbing my hands in anticipation, grinning like Humphrey Bogart in the film “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” I was primed and ready.
Now wiser, with one outing under my belt, I honed my strategy, fully expecting my tooth-finding ratio per scoop to boom. But it was not performing as expected. This was partly due to my arms being tired from the previous day of lobbying the relentless tosses the briny sea threw at me. Likely noticing my fatigue, a young man asked if he could borrow my scoop for a few tries. Honestly, any excuse for a break was welcome—those ten-million-year-old toothless sharks would just have to take a ten-minute break too.
Next Lesson: Style & Finesse
Suddenly, shark teeth appeared. Every scoop the young man unloaded had at least one pearly gray, if not several. Even after studying the Adonis, I still couldn’t quite understand his technique. Adding to the humiliation, he did the quick scan of my previous piles and handed me a few unnoticed incisors.
Baffled, I asked the Pied-Piper of shark teeth what he was doing that made them mystically appear. He pointed out two factors. His style, or method when emptying the scoop on the shore, was to shake it out in a sweeping motion within the shoreline. Here the shallow waves are on a gentle cycle and wash away finer debris. Next was finesse—with the smaller distractions gone, he’d focus only on gray/brownish triangle shapes. Blocking out the background (ignore the darling lion’s paw shell), eventually the jagged tooth will bite if you stare at it long enough.
The concentration factor reminded me of hunting for morel mushrooms during the spring in northern woods; overwhelmed with seeing oodles of awaited blooming flowers and bright lit butterflies, the mind wanders. Once focused on the mission at hand, and finding the first morel, it makes it easier to discover more. It is known brain science that imparting the image—in this case the morel—into one’s brain results in higher yields. Interestingly, when I shared this analogy with the young man, I discovered he too was a morel hunter. Later, after chatting with other shark enamel aficionados, it turned out every single one of us also foraged for morels.
After three weeks of trial and error, the last day proved to be the best. Returning to Caspersen Beach, I tripled my output. The tips listed below all played a part in tipping the scale in my favor—until something even better, more meaningful, and more special happened.
Joining me on the previous jaunts were my two sisters. On our final day, my true-blue supporters were once again there to cheer me on (after dropping me off at the beach, while they found a parking space—another vital element). They could not understand the lure of the hunt, until a bit of beach magic unfolded.
Near the walkway to the beach, a woman on the shore had a card table set up. She was giving away tiny shark teeth, fossilized stingray mouth plates, along with dainty shells. My sister happened upon her and was impressed with her friendly and generous spirit. The table also had a mini display of a scoop pile and she patiently pointed out the goodies hidden within. Akin to a “Where’s Waldo?” version of the see-what-you-can-“sea” exercise.
Suddenly having my sister by my side scanning my discarded piles was a combination of shock and welcome. Of course, she found a spectacular fang in a flash
By the end of the day, now with all three of us gathered around the day’s treasure, we examined which ones belonged to what type of shark, identified the oldest, and voted for the most frightful looking. Seems like I was not the only one bitten by the shark.
- Good tools make for good work: buy or rent the metal scoops, as they are worth their weight in shark teeth.
- Let the wave action of the ocean do the heavy lifting by washing away the dense sand from the submerged scoop.
- Allow the mild shore waves to do their thing, sorting out lighter remaining material and gifting you with the heavier shark teeth.
- Share and spread the joy!
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine September/October 2022 issue.