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Hunting for Historic Shark Fossils

(DiverWire) Many of us grew up in metropolitan cities, learning about the ocean and animals through school field trips to the aquarium and the zoo. We saw recreated dinosaur skeletons in history museums. There is something to learn from these venues, but it is not the same as experiencing the adventure. In Venice, you can engage in paleontology for a day, become an explorer, and participate in the quest to uncover a hidden past. You also have the opportunity to take history home with you.

Several years ago I learned of a new diving experience, fossil hunting. It’s very different from typical Florida diving. It’s not like the fresh water springs or rivers that are generally crystal clear with manatees, turtles and game fish swimming by. It’s not like the abundant reef with colorful schooling fish around beautiful coral ledges or encrusted shipwrecks and artificial reefs. No, this is pure muck diving on a mostly sparse sandy bottom with limited visibility on a creepy bone yard that sends chills through your wet suit. On a good day you can see 10’, but on an average day it might be just inches. It’s safe to say, this type of diving is not for everyone.

Imagine diving, your eyes are focused on the bottom, scanning around looking for strange dark shapes poking up through the sand. Something catches your attention, you reach out and pick it up, flip it over, reposition, visualize what creature shared this very spot in a pre-historic time long ago. It’s an incredible, scream-in-your-regulator moment, when you find an object that dates back millions of years. That doesn’t happen on your average dive.

For the new explorers, I recommend using one of the charter boats in the area. Some divers find that acclimating to the limited visibility takes getting used to. In those cases, the diver can use the security of the boat by attaching a reel to the anchor line and do search patterns out. Some buddy teams tether BC’s together with clips on a 5’or 6’ rope. Then, you know where your buddy is at any given time, even when you can’t see them. The bold divers jump in with a flag, compass, collection bag and are off.

On our last trip, we went out with Florida West Scuba. They’ve been working the area for years, going out to spots in the 15-30 foot range. The captain gave us plenty of bottom time per location, and it was such a bonus to have crew on-board that helped identify different fossil pieces. Everyone knows what a Megalodon tooth looks like, however, I’ve seen people bring up a Mastodon tooth and almost throw it back thinking it was a rock. Luckily the crew saved the day and made them one very happy diver.

Experienced hunters are more likely to do beach entries or use a kayak. They know what to look for and what to avoid. The shoreline around Venice is littered with fossils from the Cenozoic Era to the last ice age, during which, it is reported that so much ice collected that the sea level dropped by some 400 feet leaving the Gulf of Mexico an exposed prairie. That explains why you find land based mammals like camels, giant armadillos, and giant ground sloth fossils that date back 10,000 years next to Megalodon teeth, whale bones and stingray barbs that date back 11 million years.

However, keep in mind that if you plan on collecting anything other than shark teeth, you will need a permit from the state. “The fossil collecting permit is only $5 per year and will arrive about 2 to 3 weeks after you mail us the application.” Richard Hulbert with the Florida Museum of Natural History explained. He went on to say, “So you need to get the permit before you dive and have it with you in case you are stopped. Having one means that there is no question about legal ownership of any fossils you find and may later wish to sell, give to a school, display at a fossil fair, or whatever you want to do with them.” He added, “If you do not have a permit, then collecting any other type of fossil vertebrate (other than shark teeth), whether it is just a fragment of a turtle shell or an entire saber-toothed cat skull is a violation of the law and you could be fined and made to turn over the fossils if you are caught.”

If you’re interested in fossils and don’t want to get wet, you can head over to Venice Beach and walk along the water’s edge. There are a variety of small fossilized shark’s teeth that roll up with the surf. It’s not uncommon to come across teeth from mako’s, dusky’s or sand sharks, which are often used in making jewelry. Another option is to shop around at the annual Venice Shark Tooth Festival held in April.

You can fossil dive all year, though, I find that spring generally kicks-off a new season. Typically the water has been chilly and unpredictable so there have been fewer divers on the bone yard. In addition, the winter storms generally expose new fossils. So get your permit in order, and get ready for some spectacular muck diving. You won’t be sorry.


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