Peace River • Manasota Key • Venice, FL

The lady running the roadside farm stand stared at us blankly. Moments before she had been chatty and cordial, bagging our produce and asking what brought strangers like us to little Arcadia. Our answer, that we were on vacation, stunned her. She could not imagine why anyone would seek out this rural backwater, far from beaches, DisneyWorld and the usual lures of the Sunshine State. Except maybe to pick oranges, like the migrant workers tramping along Route 17. When we added we were there to hunt fossils she recoiled, like we might be deranged.

The Peace River winds through the moss hung citrus groves and sodden stockyards of Central Florida before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. In upland DeSoto and Hardee counties it exposes fossils from the Ice Age and earlier along its banks and bed. My friend Gordon and I had arrived two weeks before Christmas, visions of monster shark teeth, giant sloth claws and mastodon molars dancing in our heads.

When we flew into Tampa the weather wasn’t much different from what we’d left in New York. A fine rain was falling and it was chillier than anticipated. But as we drove south along the coast the landscape met our postcard expectations: pastel shopping plazas, palm trees, golf courses, and marinas. What surprised us was the abundance of funeral parlors, reminders that for many retirees this earthly paradise was the last stop en route to an eternal one.

I couldn’t help musing this explained the presence of winged undertakers overhead -- vultures hovered on thermals wherever we went. And no wonder. Throughout the 500 miles we covered roadkill was rampant. In this humid climate, when something died you got wind of it pretty quickly. With their olfactory acuity this was truly a buzzard’s paradise.
Our first stop was the seaside town of Venice, touted on souvenir t-shirts as the Shark Tooth Capital of the World. This grand claim is based on the frequency with which said teeth wash up on the local coastline. The town even celebrates an annual Shark Tooth Festival. You'd think this marketing ploy would scare tourists off their beaches were it not for the fact that most of the teeth are, give or take, 10 million years old.

    Megs for sale at the Florida West Scuba School

After lunch on the main drag we checked out one of the neighboring gift shops. Against the back wall, past the flip flops and sunscreen, stood a cabinet full of Floridean fossils. Inside were mammoth molars, like stony loaves of bread, alongside sickle sized claws of giant ground sloths. And front and center was the prize that brought us all this way: the huge, serrated teeth of Carcharodon megalodon, a prehistoric shark of epic proportions.  Judging from its six inch choppers, this fearsome fish could have grown as big as a bus and had no problem chowing down on whales. Though all these fossils were for sale, they just got us itching to collect our own trophies. Gordon grabbed  a “Florida snow shovel” -- a sort of a mesh rake made for catching bait, now sold for scooping teeth -- and we headed for the beach.

Research had advised us to skip the local strand and head a little further south. The sun was emerging from the clouds as we parked at the end of a road, stripped to shorts and clambered across a boardwalk down to Casperson Beach. The rain had stopped, but the wind howled off the Gulf throwing sand and spray at us with the force of Ninja darts. It was too cold for comfort as we scanned the sand for sign of fossils. Before long we spotted a few tiny, black shark teeth and, encouraged, we pushed further down the shore. Casperson sits at the top of a long barrier island called Manasota Key. Beyond the parking lot and boardwalk the beach widened and stretched south to the horizon. Low, palmy woods grew in the high ground above the reach of tides. Sandpipers did their darting dance with the receding surf. A little warmer and it would have been idyllic.

    Low tide, cold day, Casperson Beach, December 2008

We passed a few other beachcombers, at least one with a scoop like Gordon’s, but we weren’t seeing a lot of fossils, just sand and scattered pen shells. We’d walked maybe a mile when we came to a stretch of scree washed up by the ebbing tide. This is what we’d been looking for. If there were shells and stones here, chances were there’d be fossils too. And once we began to look closely we began to find them: dark, surf worn shark teeth scattered among the white shell scraps. They were mostly from small lemon and requiem sharks, in the half to 3/4 inch range, but there were some larger tigers too. We also found ray tail barbs and mouth plates, like tiny hair combs, plus chunks of weathered fossil bone. We’d brought our sieves, but they weren’t much use, clogging up with pulverized shell rather than revealing fossils. Surface collecting was the way to go. We were able to spend a couple of hours stooped over that little patch because each wave refreshed our prospects, revealing previously hidden specimens or depositing new ones.

But these fossils were surf churned beach float. To find anything in a pristine state you'd have to go to the deposits where they originated and that’s about a mile out to sea and 30 feet down. Divers who make the effort are often rewarded with teeth of Megs and mammoths, treasures that rarely make it to shore in one piece. If either of us had had a scuba certificate we would have been out there in a heartbeat.

The sun set prettily over the Gulf as we hiked back to our rental car, pill bottles rattling with scores of shark teeth. I later learned that a notched length of black bone I’d pocketed was a piece of whale jaw, and something that looked like a slice of ossified freezer cake was a chunk of mammoth tooth. As the moon rose huge and full over the lush flatness of central Florida we drove inland hoping these tidbits were appetizers to a coming feast.

    Some of 500+ fossil shark teeth I bagged: snaggletooths, tigers, lemons, requiems.

The next morning we pulled into the parking lot of a Burger King in Wauchula, a few towns up the road from our motel. There we met an amiable avocational paleontologist named Mark Renz. Renz has dredged mastodons and mammoths, dugongs and giant sloths from the rivers of Florida. He’s the author of Fossiling in Florida and Megalodon: Hunting the Hunter and he hires himself out to guide fossiling excursions. We’d booked him over the phone a few weeks before. That morning we were also joined by a family of four visiting from Australia.

Convoying to a public park, we pulled shovels and sifting screens out of the back of Mark’s pickup and followed him through a quarter mile of muck and brush down the bank of the Peace River. We settled at a grassy patch across from a cow pasture. The river was about a dozen yards wide here, and the water tea-toned, but the gravelly bottom was discernible in the shallows. Mark set the Australian family to sifting scoops of gravel close to the bank, then led Gordon and myself out into the middle of the river. It was a fine day, but the air was still cool and the river cooler. Mark wore a wetsuit, but I stood waist deep in the stream in shorts and a fleece top. It was a challenge. The one consolation was that at these temperatures we weren’t likely to be sharing the river with any alligators or cottonmouths.

Mark showed us how to dig down into the river bed and fill our sieves with gravel. It seemed the deeper we dug, below the sand and silt to a layer of white limestone clay, the more fossils we’d find. It was hard work, fighting the weight of the water to lift a shovelful of gravel into a sieve before the current whisked it away. But every screen-full yielded at least a shark tooth or two. They were predominantly requiems, but tigers and snaggletooths also. Most of the teeth were in better shape than those from the beach, though the larger the teeth, the scrappier they tended to be. I wondered if it wasn’t the digging itself that busted them up. Shy of snorkeling in the silty murk, there was no other way to get at them. This was the start of the winter dry season when the river is at its lowest. During the rainier months snorkeling is about the only option.

Along with shark teeth we turned up the usual ray barbs and plates plus fossil alligator teeth, scraps of turtle shell and teeth from bison and even capybara, a giant rodent found only in the Amazon now. We also found lots of random bones, all stained dark brown like the tannic river. I scored a 2-1/4 inch prehistoric horse tooth, one of the Peace's commoner fossils. Horses had evolved in North America, then vanished in the wave of extinctions that claimed so much of the megafauna some 11 thousand years ago. Having radiated to Eurasia by then, the Spanish were able to reintroduce them in the wake of Columbus.

     Ice Age relics: Horse tooth; Glyptodont scute; Mammoth tooth fragment.

Part of finding anything is knowing what to look for. Before the trip I'd boned up on the local paleofauna. So when Mark handed me a stony rosette 2 inches across and asked, “Know what this is?” I was able to make an educated guess. “Glyptodont scute?” It took hundreds of these plates to form the tessellated dome of an armadillo-like creature the size of a VW Bug. A set of prehistoric creatures I'd had as a child included a plastic glyptodont that was no bigger than the artifact in my hand.
Picking through one screen load I spied a shark tooth shape I recognized dimly from my researches: wide, serrated with a little peak. I asked Mark, “Is that…a baby Meg?” He hooted, “Good eyes!” Though fossil collectors come to the Peace hungry to find the humongous teeth of Carcharodon megalodon, guides like Mark try to temper expectations, saying they’re there, but they’re rare. It was only after two years of collecting in Florida’s rivers that he found a prime specimen himself. This particular site had a reputation for producing juvenile Meg teeth. Experts suspect it was a shallow water nursery where young sharks had a chance for survival before they moved out to sea with the big boys. At three quarters of an inch mine was no monster, but it was my first Meg.

I’d read reports on the Internet of spots in the river where people sieved up multiple Megs a day. The only one of us having anything like that kind of luck was my partner. Pulling his screen to the surface for maybe the hundredth time Gordon let out a whoop and held up a fat blond Meg tooth measuring over 2 inches long. I couldn’t have been happier for him. That is until he scored another Meg soon after. At that point I cursed rather than congratulated him, it just wasn’t fair. My reward for relentless digging and sifting was a few tantalizing shards of big shattered teeth.

But they were Megs, and despite backs sore from shoveling and toes numb with cold, that made for a gratifying day.

    Screening in the Peace

That evening we poured over topo maps in our Arcadia motel room. Our strategy was to get the lay of the land from Mark, then strike out on our own. At Wauchula we’d accessed the Peace via a public boat ramp. We’d heard of another at Zolfo Springs. Seeing these and other ramps dotting our maps we targeted a couple more within what we knew to be the fossil rich reaches of the river.

Route 17 shadows the Peace through this area. Passing through Gardner the next morning Gordon navigated us down a dirt side road.  A half mile through moss decked orange groves the road dead ended at a concrete ramp sloping to the river. We reconnoitered along a trail that let us survey the shallow water where we saw stretches of gravel exposed beneath the surrounding silt. We gathered our gear and waded down there, lugging a shovel we’d picked up the day before. An amiable fisherman directed us to a some small rapids where he’d seen fossil hunters prospecting in the past. We started there.

Each day was thankfully warmer than the last. We only had to stand knee deep here and as we dug into the bed we began to find fossils. Soon Gordon had a nice alligator tooth and I a scute from a giant armadillo. The water was swift and clear so I alternated excavating with simply peering below the surface. That was how I spotted a chunk of bone 5 inches long and over an inch and a half around. It was a piece of dugong rib, from a cousin of the manatees that still inhabit the coastal waters of the state.

I also found a stout, 2 inch canine tooth of unknown origin, big enough to be from a bear, or, as one expert judged from the thinness of the enamel, a marine mammal.

    Big canine tooth, tapir tooth, turtle shell.

While we prospected an airboat went roaring upriver and a couple of canoes paddled past. We had considered renting a canoe from  a local outfitter to cover more ground but we’d heard the river was so low we’d be humping through the shallows. This was a pleasant enough spot but we weren’t finding shark teeth and I was still suffering Meg envy. So in the afternoon we retraced our tracks to the site Mark had taken us the day before. There I waded up to my chest in the river and continued expanding the hole we'd worked so successfully 24 hours earlier. Maybe we had exhausted that spot, maybe I wasn’t digging at the right level, or maybe I just didn’t have Mark’s touch. We weren’t as lucky. We uncovered more shark teeth and other fossils, but no trophies.

On our way back to the boat ramp we chatted briefly with a local fisherman. He recalled finding lots of big teeth in that stretch of river when he was a kid, but thought that area was pretty well picked over now. He suggested we try another boat ramp a few miles away. We followed his directions and easily found the spot off a back road. But even before we parked the car we were struck by the stench of rotting flesh. Several deer carcasses had been dumped right out in the open, by hunters? And big severed catfish heads bobbed in the sluggish eddies at the bottom of the ramp. We didn’t linger there. As we were leaving a car pulled up and a kid jumped out with his fishing rod and ran excitedly toward the river. “Enjoy”, I thought.

Later Gordon trawled the Internet for Peace River fossiling information and discovered a site just upriver from where we’d been at Gardner. In the morning we parked by that ramp again and followed the muddy shore upstream. As we rounded a bend the bank went vertical and we were forced to walk in the river. The water was clear and dark objects popped out against  pale sand on the bottom. When I stooped to inspect some they often turned out to be soggy scraps of wood. But almost as often they were chunks of fossil bone. I began filling my pockets.

We came to a stretch with a long gravel bar to one side just below a fork where the Charlie River joined the Peace. This was the site. We dropped our packs on the gravel bar and settled in for a morning of exploration. Sifting turned up alligator teeth and other small items, including a tapir tooth. But wading and scanning the bottom worked best for me. In Fossiling in Florida Renz writes of snorkeling sections of river like this, of finding bone on the bed and fanning away sand to uncover more. We found lots of bits of turtle shell, some armadillo scutes and many other chunks of bone we couldn’t identify. Much more, in fact, than we were willing to carry away.
    Dugong rib; 2009 teeth: big tigers, medium busted Meg; giant armadillo scutes

The day was splendid, woods dripping with moss framed either side of the river. Hawks and vultures wheeled overhead. The water was warming up so I kept an eye out for unfossilized reptiles, but all we saw were some tiny lizards. Another collector sloshed up and set to sifting there at the river junction. Aside from a brief hello, he seemed to relish the meditative concentration of the hunt as much as we did. A passing airboat did more to disrupt the tranquil scene than any idle chatter.

Later we drove south into the Everglades. While we hadn’t been keen on wading into a river with alligators we really did want to see some. When I was a kid I desperately wanted a pet alligator. In those days I prayed every night at the side of my bed and there was a long period where that’s what I prayed for. I’d had dimestore turtles and anoles, garter snakes and mice and parakeets (along with the family cats and dogs) but a gator was the Grail. Finally, one birthday I got a baby caiman, the South American variety that was the only kind of crocodilian you could buy legally. He was a little over a foot long. He never did get big enough to walk around on a leash, as I’d fantasized, but succumbed to some illness a few months later. I can't even remember his name. On a recent trip to the Ecuadorean Amazon I’d hoped to see caimans in the wild, but never glimpsed more than their eyes reflecting our flashlights at night.

Now I was in the Everglades and our first morning we went kayaking in a mangrove swamp. No sooner had we put in to a wide lagoon than we began to spot alligators floating like semi-submerged u-boats. Basically at our level. And these were big, open water gators, longer than our kayaks. Most sank warily below the surface as we approached, but we got within yards of a couple, until our guide wisely turned us back. The nine year old in me was very excited. Later we gawked at the big reptiles sunning themselves across a canal that runs along Route 41. The area was alive with birds as well: storks, herons, ibis, anhingas, hawks, pelicans. And, of course, vultures.

    Drifting on the "River of Grass"; one of the locals.

Heading north again, we spent our last morning back on Manasota Key, this time entering from Englewood. This southern end of the island is more developed, and we drove through a few miles of residential neighborhoods before we found access to the shore at Blind Pass Beach. The day was sunny and heating up and we discovered we had more competition than our first day at Casperson. It seemed half the people on the beach were bent over, combing the tideline. Most I suspect were retirees. But there was more beach float washing up here too, so more booty to go around. Some folks were carrying mesh bags bulging with sea shells. The region is even more famed for these than its fossils.

Again, the shark teeth were plentiful but tiny, often broken, edges dulled from tumbling in the surf. And there were lots of bits of black bone, rounded like smooth stones. I'd already gathered hundreds of little shark teeth this trip so I relaxed and strolled the beach picking up some pretty conch and cowry shells. Some of these still housed their inhabitants, and as the shells cooked in the sun they sent a stench heavenward. This attracted a coven of black vultures to the beach, plucking at sea urchins displaced from the deep.

In the end Florida – with its buzzards, viscera slicked boat ramps and funeral parlors – seemed a paradox, morbid yet paradisaical. A paradise for fossil hunters certainly. And what are fossils, even at the aseptic remove of eons, but long dead things? Sifting in the Peace we'd turn up a pale, fresh fish vertebra and toss it joking, "Not dead long enough." But find one blackened by millions of years of fossilization and suddenly it's precious. Now there' a paradox for you.

    Sifting Casperson at sunset, 2009

We returned to the Peace River a year later, but had less luck this visit. Buckets of unseasonable rain the week before had swollen the river four feet above the December norm. Most fossil beds were sunk too deep to reach without dive gear. We went out one day with another local guide, Fred Mazza, who took us by canoe to some sites north of Arcadia. Again, the digging was hard, but the water was warmer than the previous year. I turned up dugong ribs, some large tiger shark teeth, an alligator vertebra and bivalve steinkerns, new to me from the Peace. I also scored a medium sized partial Meg tooth with half the crown snapped off. Gordon got a small, complete rear Meg, a horse tooth and his own alligator vert. That and a smattering of smaller shark teeth was our take for the day.

We did see a lot of wildlife along the river: Great Blue herons, ibis, hawks, a Redbelly turtle and an otter. I caught a beautiful little Southern Ringneck snake with a blazing vermillion belly. As we paddled along I spotted a big alligator on a mud bank soaking up what sun it could on that cloudy day. It was the first one I'd ever seen in the Peace, and should have made us think twice about wading waist deep in the river. It was the sole gator we saw on the trip.

Later we returned to the boat ramp at Gardner. Last year the river barely lapped at the foot of its slope. This year the entire ramp was submerged. We attempted to bushwhack through a cypress swamp to the mouth of the Charlie River, but ultimately turned back lacerated by low palms and covered with burrs. Wildness prevailed.

The next day, at Fred's suggestion, we rented a kayak and paddled out to some dredge spoil islands in the Venice inlet. There we screened and scanned for teeth, but only found a few. Gordon managed to score an alligator scute. Wading in the shallows I happened on a large welk attended by a half dozen smaller ones. I lifted the big shell to see if it was occupied and interrupted a big black snail ingesting a clam. Nature red in tooth and claw -- in slo-mo.

We returned to Casperson to try to salvage the day in some small way. On the walk to the beach we ran across a big gopher tortoise who darted surprisingly nimbly back in his burrow before I could get a picture. We closed the day sifting the surf line with our lacrosse sticks, finding the usual dinky teeth. A lady walking by related how back in the 60s the beach was littered with big shark teeth. Not anymore, sadly. They still get good sunsets though.