Paul Reinckens kicked slowly over the sandy bottom 30 feet deep in the Gulf of Mexico looking for triangular objects — not an easy task with visibility a mere four feet and this dive being his first underwater fossil hunt. But suddenly, there it was: a hard, brownish-gray chevron lying on the sand.
Elated, Reinckens picked it up, stuck it in a mesh bag and continued looking. A few minutes later, he found and pocketed a similar object.
“It’s fun!” said the Long Island, N.Y. volunteer firefighter, as he climbed back on board the dive boat Aris-Ta-Kat. “I got the bug!”
What Reinckens and several other divers from captain Jamie Bostwick’s boat found off Englewood Beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast were full or partial teeth from prehistoric megalodon sharks, the largest fish ever to swim in the world’s oceans.
Megalodons, which grew to 60 feet and up to 77 tons, roamed the ocean, eating whales and dugongs — predecessors of the manatee — from 17 million years ago until they became extinct about two million years ago. Each had as many as 270 teeth up to seven inches long, adding up to a vast treasure trove for fossil hunters and collectors.
“There’s a big addiction to hunting for megalodon sharks’ teeth,” Bostwick said. “Once you find a big one, you’re hooked. When you get a tooth, it’s permanent. It’s a piece of history.”
Megalodon sharks’ teeth were not the only finds that day. Paul Steffen of Punta Gorda found the ear bone and a tooth from an ancient whale. Dave Flinchbaugh of Port Charlotte found the tibia of a prehistoric horse.
“Anything you see that’s black, you want to flip,” Flinchbaugh, 71, explained of his hunting technique. “The more you do it, the better you get at it.”
The six-person party on board the Aris-Ta-Kat was hunting south of Venice, renowned as the “Sharks Tooth Capital of the World”. Swimmers, snorkelers, scuba divers and beachcombers regularly turn up fossil shark teeth — bull, lemon, dusky, great white, seven-gill, sand tiger, mako and thresher, among others. But “megs” are king, fetching from a few bucks to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on their size and condition. At Venice’s annual Shark Tooth Festival in April, several “meg” molars sold for around $2,000 each.
Perhaps the most popular fossil hunting area is the “Bone Yard” — the nearshore waters from the Venice jetty and pier to about 1 1/2 miles out. But ancient bones and teeth also spread out about 11 miles to the south, which was where Aris-Ta-Kat’s crew dived.
“The beach gets the teeth after they roll up,” Bostwick said. “Here, it’s before they roll up. If they’re encased in clay, they are the best preserved. They are worth more if the enamel is shiny.”
Fossil hunters, unlike most Floridians, pray for hurricanes because they flush sharks’ teeth up from the clay bottom where they can be readily spotted. Following Hurricane Debbie’s passage last summer, a meg tooth was found in the parking lot of the Venice jetty.
Another popular hunting area is west-central Florida’s upper Peace River, which would have been a shallow, saltwater bay millions of years ago when sea levels were much higher than today. Paleontologists believe those waters served as birthing and nursery sites for the big sharks.
Joshua Frank of Naples, who serves on the board of the Fossil Club of Lee County, goes scuba diving in search of sharks’ teeth every chance he gets. He posts videos of his finds on YouTube.
“I’ve liked collecting sharks’ teeth since I was a kid,” Frank said. “Finding out I could dive for them makes for fun on the weekends.”
On his trip aboard the Aris-Ta-Kat, Frank uncovered three pieces of a tooth from an ancient mammoth and seven meg teeth. His fellow divers gathered around admiring them.
Flinchbaugh, who became a certified diver at age 65, sells fossils to supplement his retirement income.
“At my age, when I croak, my kids will have a garage sale and they might make a nickel or a dollar,” he said.
But the real draw of fossil diving, Flinchbaugh and others say, is the hunt.
Said diver Chris Vaught of Tampa: “I moved down here from St. Louis, Missouri, so I could do this for the rest of my life. I like diving and hunting for stuff and it all works out.”