We met in the parking lot of the Burger King in Wauchula. “My wife saw you waiting and she said, ‘That young woman looks like a fossil hunter,’” a man who introduced himself as Fred said to me. “We figured you must be with us.”
It’s true that I was part of that day’s fossil hunting expedition, but to say I’m a fossil hunter feels like an exaggeration—though I do like poking around in the dirt and seeing what turns up. The Peace River area near Arcadia and Wauchula has some of the best fossil-finding dirt in Florida, and it’s an easy day trip from Lee and Collier counties.
“This state has been land then ocean then land again at least 24 times in the last 2 million years,” the leader of our expedition, Mark Renz, told the small group. “The river is like a time machine cutting through.”
Fossils like this megalodon shark tooth can still be found in and around the Peace River.
We followed Mark in a caravan from the Burger King to the site he had chosen for the day. Once there, he handed out our tools—shovels, floating wire sifters and small pocketed waist aprons to hold our finds—and led us down a path beside the river. When we reached the spot, I took my time tying my apron and testing the heft of my shovel while the other fossil hunters waded right in. The slow-moving water reached to their waists, but they didn’t seem to mind as they set to shoveling and sifting.
“You coming?” Fred called to me as I stood on the bank.
I put a tentative foot in the water. It was colder than I’d expected, and it felt strange to ford a river fully dressed. But you don’t find fossils on the banks. If I wanted a good haul, I knew, I’d have to get in. The water was the color of weak tea, and I could just make out the sand bottom at my feet. Upstream, a marine biologist who’d flown in from California specifically to hunt fossils scanned his sifter with intense concentration.
“Is that one of your finds?” I asked as I waded up to him, pointing to the fossilized shark’s tooth on a cord around his neck.
He smiled proudly. “It’s a megalodon tooth. I found it on my last dive off Venice Beach.”
He’d just dumped a fresh shovelful into his sifter, and I was standing close enough to spot a glossy black shark’s tooth caught in the mesh.
“Look at that,” I said, pointing.
“It’s from a sand shark.” He handed me the tooth. “Here, keep it.”
I tried to protest—it was from his dirt, after all—but he shook his head and said, “There are plenty more.”
He was right. There were a lot more—a seemingly inexhaustible supply of fossilized shark teeth in a range of sizes, plus other fossils. Mark, the trip leader, came to stand beside me as I scooped a load of sand from the river bed. He leaned over the sifter basket to help comb through my finds.
“That’s a dolphin ear bone,” he said, palming a rounded piece of black fossil the size of a peach pit. “Look at the striations here.”
A few shovelfuls later, we discovered part of the fossilized rib of a dugong, a relative of the manatee.
“You can see where the marrow would have been,” Mark said, showing me.
Fossil hunters around the Peace River will often find bones from the mammoths and mastodons that walked there when Florida was grassland, as well as shark teeth from when the peninsula was covered with water. Our site is known as an especially good place for finding megalodon teeth.
“This is a piece of megalodon right here,” Mark said, holding up a broken sliver of tooth pulled from my sifter. “But don’t go shouting ‘megalodon’ or you’ll have everybody rushing over.”
I quietly slid the piece of tooth into the pocket of my waist apron and felt, finally, like a legitimate fossil hunter.
If You Go …
It’s possible to hunt along the Peace River on your own, but you’ll need a permit from the state. Download the application from the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History site, but expect to wait up to two weeks for the permit. flmnh.ufl.edu
If you don’t have two weeks to wait, guided trips are a good bet. Fossil hunting guides know the spots with the highest chances of scoring good finds, and their permits cover the entire group so you don’t have to apply for one yourself. Mark Renz at Fossil Expeditions has an excellent reputation. Serious fossil hunters know to go out with him when they’re in town. 239-368-3252, fossilexpeditions.com
If you go on Mark’s trip, be sure to buy a copy of one of his books when you’re done. His Megalodon: Hunting the Hunter has a large selection of photographs that will help you identify your fossil finds after you’re home.