Article and photos by Tom Szabo
It was unseasonably cool for March on the Gulf Coast of Florida, but I didn’t care. I fell backwards off the boat – watching the sky flip – then I hit the water. After bobbing to the surface, I signaled to start the decent. February’s high water temperature of 74 degrees was now a cool 68. Even diving with a dry suit, after an hour or hour-and-a-half, I knew the chill would start to set in.
Although the depth was 30 feet, I didn’t see the bottom until I got to 20 or 22 feet. I looked at my compass and began to orient myself in a southeast heading. The bottom was silty allowing my hand to penetrate deep into the muck. I continued in a southeast direction, scouring the bottom for clues. Soon I swam over a sandy portion of the bottom instead of the silt. The sand was a mixture of off-white and black grains forming rows that followed the wave action. The peaks of the rows were about 16 inches apart and the valleys were about six to eight inches deep.
My eyes scanned side to side looking for unique shapes in the bottom. Finning my way along, I happened to run my hand through the sand. Suddenly I felt something flat and smooth – not at all like the gritty sand. As my fingers wrapped around the object, I felt serrations, and when I pulled my hand out of the sand, there it was – a black triangle. The object was about four to four-and-a-quarter inches long. It was beautiful: a near perfect prehistoric Megalodon Shark tooth. My adrenaline pumped to the point that I couldn’t help but yell “Wooo Hooo!” through my regulator. As a rule-of-thumb each inch of tooth is equal to 10 feet of shark length. That means the tooth I just found came from a megalodon shark 40 to 45 feet long!
Florida has gone through many geological changes over time. Major changes in sea level changed the region, and the marine and land animals that lived there. The area now known as Venice has a unique history including a river and changes in sea level and land mass. The changes date back to the Miocene and Pliocene eras 2.5 to 26 million years ago. Yes, that’s right – millions of years. This is the time when megalodon sharks and other ancient animals lived in Florida.
Finding prehistoric shark and megalodon teeth is a little like looking for any form of marine life. You have to learn to recognize potential spots. Sand color is important. The mix of off white and black sand is a big clue. Storms and heavy wave action will churn the bottom enough to expose megalodon teeth that have been hidden for millions of years. You have to look for the triangular tooth shape visible through the sand. A thin strip of black may be the edge of a good-sized tooth. Rocky areas or small bowl like areas of coral should also be checked. Teeth can be captured among the rocks or corals. The only down side is the possibility of breakage due to tumbling inside the rocks or coral. It amazes me that I can see a small three-quarters inch tooth peeking out of the sand but the larger teeth can be so evasive.
Stone crabs live in holes they dig in the ocean’s floor, and as they excavate their home, they push out sand and clay. The mounded ring surrounding the opening is another area to check out. A word to the wise: don’t put your hand in to feel for teeth. You may find yourself in the grasp of the crab.
Turning over rocks, another technique used, can expose a trace of black inviting you to dig around. Since these teeth might be part of the remains of a shark, other teeth may be found in the surrounding area. Spend additional time searching the area and you may find more teeth.
Captain Michael Konecnik is the owner of Aquanutz Dive Charters out of Venice, Florida. You can think of him as the “Google” of megalodon teeth. He is widely known for his knowledge and collection of Megalodon teeth, and has logged thousands of dives hunting for them. He seems to know every square mile like the back of his hand. The vast array of dive sites on his navigation screen is mind blowing. Captain Mike’s dive briefings are a tutorial on shark teeth and other fossils. Briefings describe the areas to search, their location relative to the boat, and hints on how to find the elusive “big one”. His boat will handle four to six divers, so you don’t feel like cattle in a pen. Charters are three tank dives, so plan to be on the water for the day. Dive depths are about 25 to 30 feet, so it’s not difficult to get one to one-and-a-half hours of bottom time per dive. You can learn more about Capt. Mike and his trips at: http://aquanutz-diving.com.
Dive briefings often refer to the initials “SOS”, which stands for South-Off-Silt. The wave and storm action open new areas by moving the loose silt away, exposing teeth. When you encounter silt, head south.
The truth is, there is no sure way to find prehistoric bone and teeth. Although Captain Mike is great at giving you the lay of the bottom, you have to navigate your way to the prospecting areas. That means you may need to rely on your compass. In addition, judging distance underwater is important. Also have some flexibility in your dive; having a “Plan B” is handy.
Diving the Gulf is different from reefs or shipwrecks. Reef and wreck features are pronounced. Whereas silt and sand rows generally all look the same. After swimming from one area to another, you may lose track of where you are, but don’t worry. You’re in 30 feet of water, so you can surface, look around, and re-orient yourself relative to the boat.
As I continued logging dives with Mike over the last few years, my collection grew. My work bench has containers with Megalodon teeth, shark teeth, horse teeth, whale bone, manatee bone, and the inner ears of whales. I had to figure out what to do with all of the specimens as my containers were beginning to stack up. I was very curious about the interior of the bone material. After some research and investing is some equipment, I began cutting bone and grinding. It became evident that no two pieces are ever the same. Each specimen varies slightly in size and color. Even adjacent bone slices vary in size, shape, and color from one to another.
Special diamond coated tools are needed to work the material. Prehistoric teeth and bone are very hard and brittle. It’s a lot like working with glass. Bone especially is prone to breakage and small cracks can be the end of a specimen – the yield from a piece of bone can drop rather quickly. I remember one of my first attempt at polishing a slice of bone. I finally got it shiny, when I knocked it off my desk. As it hit the floor, it broke into small pieces. All that work gone!
All of this material has been in salt water for millions of years, so they may be covered with dead corals; some show signs of bristle worms eating them or damage from boring sponges. Bristle worms can cause grooves in the surface and boring sponges make shells look like honeycomb. To remove the dead coral, a knife or pick works wonders. Access to a rock tumbler also helps. An ultrasonic cleaner is helpful to remove the telltale coral traces.
Some collectors suggest using vinegar to dissolve the dead corals. From what I’ve read the jury is still out on this method. Some report dark appearance of the tooth lightening to a gray. They may lose that deep charcoal/black color.
After I started polishing teeth and bone, I thought I could turn them into jewelry. All of a sudden, I was surrounded by necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and even keychains. My designs often feature a single tooth or polished bone specimen. Adding other gems or shells help to embellish the specimen and add to the design. I’m having fun letting my creative side show in the jewelry I make.
I have to say as divers, we should be open to explore what I’ll call non-traditional dive activities. Had I not given Aquanutz a try, I’d have lost out on a lot of fun. Who knows – this may be the diving you could really sink your teeth into! Till next time remember: surface slowly and don’t forget your safety stop!