On first blush, Venice’s Caspersen Beach seems like any other coastal stretch along the Gulfshore. You’ll find sea oats and beach daisies, buttonwood and sea grapes. Sure, the sand is a little darker than what we’re used to in Lee and Collier counties, but otherwise it’s the same. Right?
One foot onto the beach and you know: There’s something different about this place.
It has to do with the vibe in the atmosphere, a frenetic energy like what’d you’d fine in a casino. Or, better yet, a prospecting camp. This is where fossilized shark teeth wash ashore, and most everyone is here with the same intention—scoring it big. Yes, you’ll find beach chairs and umbrellas, kids building sand castles. But you get the impression those are the amateurs. The serious toothers don’t have time for sunbathing.
Sharks frequently lose and replace their teeth, and over the course of a lifetime a single shark can produce thousands of teeth. Sharks have been swimming the seas around Florida for millions of years. That’s a lot of sharks—and a whole lot of teeth.
These teeth have settled over the ocean floor for ages, and sediment has collected on top of them, creating fossil formations. Most often, these formations are deep underground. But some—like the Peace River Formation, near Venice—are exposed by the slow erosion of rivers. The fossils in this formation slip free and wash ashore.
I stepped off the boardwalk onto the sand and walked past a man knee-deep in the surf. A cigarette hung from his mouth and burned down to ash as he poked through a metal sifter.
“Find anything?” I asked.
He shook his head despondently.
Farther down the beach, I asked the same thing to a woman in a yellow one-piece. She eyed me from beneath her visor before stepping out of the water.
“Not much of anything,” she confided. “Maybe 20 small ones in two days.”
She carried the same sifter as the man with the cigarette, a metal basket at the end of a wooden pole.
“Do I need one of those?” I asked.
She glanced at the tool in her hand. “If you want to find the big ones, you do.”
I thanked her for the information and continued on my way. I wasn’t a serious hunter, I told myself. Finding a shark’s tooth wouldn’t change my day. Still, I surveyed the sand as I walked.
I passed an older couple, the woman crouched over a pile of shells she brought in from the water, sifting frantically. Beside her, a man who must have been her husband had flung himself down on the sand, his arms thrown out to either side, his eyes closed. He wore a mix of weariness and resignation on his face. I wondered, is this what hunting for shark teeth does to people?
I walked until I found an empty stretch of sand, a place where I thought I might spread out my beach towel and relax. But before I could do that, I noticed a pile of shells like the ones people had dumped from their sifters, as if someone had unloaded his or her haul and then decided to move on. Why not? I thought. I crouched down and poked an exploratory finger around the pile, feeling silly, sure there was nothing to be found. Until I found it. A shark’s tooth. Gray and black, small as the nail on my little finger. I let out an excited gasp and then laughed, delighted. I’d done it. I’d found one. And now I wanted another.
I stooped over the pile until I found a second shark’s tooth. And then a third. Soon I had a palmful, each of them no bigger than a thumbprint, in different shapes and colors, clearly from different sharks. Each time I found another one, I was sure that would be my last. But, always, there was the thought: Just one more.
I stayed like that until the muscles in my legs screamed, until my back ached, until the sun had seared the skin on my neck. I would have stayed there all day if my body let me. Finally, I dragged myself up the beach, spread out my towel and threw myself down on the sand. In my fist, I clutched my shark teeth. I closed my eyes and imagined the expression on my face: weariness and resignation and, I liked to think, triumph.
If You Go…
• You’ll want the right equipment. Serious toothers know you have to wade into the water for the best shot at finding shark teeth, and you’ll need a basket scraper to dip into the sand beneath the surf. The gift shop at Sharky’s (1600 Harbor Drive S.) has them for $25.99, but beachcombers told me you can also find them at the Venice Wal-Mart and Dollar Store.
• The keys to finding shark teeth are patience and focus. Be prepared to stay in one spot, sifting, rather than strolling. It’s more like panning for gold than collecting shells.
• When you’ve done all the hunting you can do, head to the outdoor restaurant at Sharky’s on the Venice pier. Expect a hefty wait for your table, but the mango margaritas are worth it. It’s the perfect place to examine your finds.