A feeling of a subdued, anxious weight fills my throat and stomach whenever the hunt begins. A hard to describe obsession mixed with a competitive, possessive spirit has haunted me since my early teens, not long after my father taught me how to spot this rare black jewel. The raw joy of hunting in beautiful locations is overshadowed by the tension of trying to find that precious shark’s tooth before someone else does.
Lisa Dye, another amateur paleontologist, admits, “I picked up the obsession when I found my first shark’s tooth in Garden City years ago. As rewarding as it was then, it is even more exciting and rewarding now.”
So, what is the allure of finding a shark’s tooth, or any fossil, that seeps into your blood, creating a monster that can be quite exhausting to subdue? The only logical answer is the skyrocket thrill and satisfaction of finding an object hundreds or thousands of years old and truly appreciating and learning about the one-of-a-kind discovery you have made!
A shark’s tooth takes about 10,000 years to become fossilized. The color of the tooth depends on the mix of sediments in which the tooth has been embedded. The most common is black, or it may be brownish or grayish. White teeth are from present day sharks.
No shortage of teeth will occur as long as sharks exist. During its 20-to-30-year lifespan, each shark produces around 30,000 to 35,000 teeth on its multiple rows of teeth. According to the SeaWorld website, “Shark teeth grow in conveyor belt-like series and rows, with the biggest teeth facing outwards. Over time, the smaller teeth in the back grow and move up, replacing the ones in front.” Remarkably, a shark will lose up to 100 teeth per day!
Patience and focus are required when looking for sharks’ teeth on a coastline (even though they are found in some great inland spots, too). Your eyes and attention must be focused on the ground, like an anteater seeking his minuscule meal, while looking for those triangular shapes that have a distinct glimmer and definitive form that differ from every other piece of black triangular shell or rock on the beach. Upon finding that first tooth, you have an easier time spotting them in the future. A difference in the shape and shine of a shark’s tooth distinguishes it from the other shells and matter on the beach. And be aware that 80 percent of shell pieces on the beach have a black, triangular shape.
From the book Shark Tooth Hunting on the Carolina Coast, the best bet to find teeth is to look in one of the seven beach “zones” where teeth can be found: “1) at or above the high-tide mark; 2) at the water line; 3) in shell beds; 4) in the washout below the shell bed; 5) in the surf; 6) in a tidal pool; and 7) on an exposed bank.” Weather, wind, tides, and dredging also affect the chances for finding sharks’ teeth.
Sharks’ teeth can be found abundantly in South Carolina from Cherry Grove to Hilton Head. While the teeth of the tiger shark are the most plentiful in our state, teeth from the great white, sand tiger, hammerhead, lemon, bull sharks, and many others are strewn along our Lowcountry waterways. And for the more adventurous, the large megalodon teeth in our blackwater rivers are just waiting to be picked up by those who are comfortable scuba diving in water with limited visibility that contains many sharks as well as alligators. Yet great courage rewards with great finds!
“I keep my sharks’ teeth in a jar in my den, and I look at them at least once a week,” says Lisa. “I can tell you where I found all the good ones and even what bathing suit I was wearing when I found them!” she says with a laugh. “The best part is that I could literally look for teeth all day long, and it is costs absolutely nothing to do it, which makes my husband very happy!”
All over South Carolina are an abundance of fossils and American Indian artifacts. Alone or as a family outing, fossil hunting provides the opportunity for an affordable, enjoyable, and educational experience, along with the inexplicable thrill of finding that one-of-a-kind fossil that no one else in the world will have.