"I don't see anything," I said as I scanned the ground for ancient teeth and bones on a sand bar in a creek.
"Look right down at your feet," Ashby Gale of Charleston Fossil Adventures encouraged. (Has there ever been a better name for a paleontologist from Charleston than Ashby Gale? No, no there has not.)
"Nope. Nothing." I just saw a bunch of black rocks.
Ashby was the definition of patience. "How about right at the tip of your left boot?"
I looked again, and finally saw it clear as day: a shiny, black, pointy tooth.
We were hunting for fossils in the tidal rivers and creeks that surround Charleston. And there, right in front of us, literally under our feet, were dozens, maybe hundreds, of fossils, washed up on the quiet sand bars.
Some people have a knack for finding shark's teeth. My husband and daughter each found more than a dozen specimens, some of them almost 2 inches long, and one of them, according to Ash, a very rare tooth. So rare that he didn't have one in his own collection, so rare that it wasn't pictured on his reference card, so rare that he whooped just a little bit when she shyly showed him. He called us all around and explained what she'd picked up, going into detail about the shark who was once the owner of the tooth and when he lived, 20 million years ago. His passion for the fossils was infectious. Her pride in her find was palpable.
This was best part of the day: Ash himself. The little thrill of finding each fossil was addicting, the kayak trip out to the sand bars was beautiful, the chance to spend the day in the sunshine in such lovely places was wonderful. But being accompanied by a person whose knowledge of fossils and the animals they once were changed the entire outing. Suddenly, we felt like paleontologists, too.
We didn't find only teeth. Far from it. We found pieces of bone and fragments of ancient turtle shell, and teeth from horses and whales. I even found an entire vertebrae of a whale from millions of years ago. We found a dozen beautiful steinkerns, the rock that remains after an ancient shell filled with mud that solidified while the shell eventually decayed. But if Ash had not been with us, it's likely we would have walked over these treasures, unaware of what they were. We would have seen, as I did, just a bunch of black rocks.
South Carolina is home to millions of fossils, if you just know where and how to look. In fact, according to Gale, one of the first fossils ever discovered in the US was found here in South Carolina-the Columbian Mammoth. The huge elephant-like creature lived more than 10,000 years ago. A fossilized tooth was discovered on a plantation in the 18th century. The plantation owner had no idea what to make of the strange object, but an enslaved African recognized it right away as some sort of elephant tooth. The Columbian Mammoth is now the State Fossil of South Carolina.
Another popular ancient resident is the megalodon, an enormous ancestor of today's sharks. A complete megalodon tooth can be as big as the palm of your hand. We found the root of a megalodon tooth, impressive in its size even without the tooth attached. For many people on a South Carolina fossil hunt, a megalodon tooth is the ultimate prize.
According to South Carolina regulation, anyone may collect a "reasonable amount" of fossil teeth. Above the low water mark, anyone may collect the fossils. If you want to collect below the low water mark, or scuba dive for fossils, you need to acquire a special hobby license.
Sharks teeth and fossils can be found on most, if not all, of South Carolina's beaches and even many inland locations along rivers, streams and drainage areas. Some beaches might offer better opportunities than others, so it pays to do some research ahead of time. And using a knowledgeable outfitter such as Charleston Fossil Adventures (or any of the similar companies up and down the coast) can help you maximize your efforts to ensure a great time for your family and guarantee a day to remember.