All along the coast of Venice from Nokomis Beach south to Manasota Key, an inexhaustible supply of sharks’ teeth lies just beneath the sand. Those teeth are why Venice bills itself as “The Shark Tooth Capital of the World” and celebrates that designation with an annual Sharks’ Tooth Festival each April. The teeth are free for the taking, as many as you like, perfect as vacation souvenirs, or to tie on a leather lanyard and wear as a badge of your love for our wild Gulf waters.
But there’s a catch. You must have the elusive “shark tooth eye.”
I don’t have it. Even after 20 years walking the beaches here, I’d never spotted a single shark’s tooth until I married my wife. In the fall of 2016, Emily and I were walking on Nokomis Beach, a long stroll with the waves rolling over our toes, when Emily stopped, stooped, pinched something in her fingers and held it up to the light. It was a triangle-shaped shark’s tooth—beautiful and black, glistening like obsidian, serrated at the edges, about the size of a quarter.
“This can’t be real,” she said. But she stooped again, found another, then another, each find punctuated by a “Wow!” By the time we had finished the quarter-mile hike from where we had parked to the Venice jetty, my hands were full of small teeth that Emily’s magical eye had picked out from the shells where the waves break on the sand.
“This is the coolest thing ever,” she said, her happiness making me happy.
Because of Emily, we now have a collection of a few hundred sharks’ teeth displayed in shadow boxes in our home. I can still find only one for every 10 of hers; I’ve watched again and again as she’s helped tourists find sharks’ teeth they weren’t able to see right in the sand at their feet. We have our secret spots on Nokomis, Caspersen and Manasota where we know that we can always count on finding teeth, more than we could ever need or want, and these days, we only collect and keep those specimens that we deem special: larger teeth with distinct serrations, golden and amber in color, sharp to the touch and as perfect as the day they were shed. Emily also started finding other things in the sand that, though they weren’t teeth, had patterns and stratifications.
Jayson Kowinsky’s excellent “Fossilguy” website soon told us that not only were we finding teeth from mako, tiger, bull, great white and a plethora of other sharks, but also sting ray barbs and mouth plates, dugong bones, and arthropod parts—Emily’s favorite for their polished look, gorgeous as finished mahogany. She taught me the secret to developing the “eye”: scan for dark specks like coffee grounds in the sand. Somewhere in that patch, teeth are hiding.
According to Kowinsky, those dark specks are phosphate particles washed ashore from the Peace River Formation, an ancient buried riverbed that once flowed just offshore. Dr. Bruce McFadden, distinguished professor of paleontology at the University of Florida, further explains that Venice’s beaches are loaded with fossilized sharks’ teeth that date back from 20 million years ago to as recently as 2.5 million years ago, spanning the early Miocene, Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs.
“Venice is very special,” McFadden says. “It’s not unique in the world for finding fossils, but special is the right word.”
Over the eons, Florida has been submerged and raised again and again from the sea, allowing fossilization to occur all over the state. During the Ice Age, the coast of Florida extended more than 100 miles into the Gulf, and the region was a savannah that was home to mastodons, mammoths and glyptodons—an armadillo the size of a car—all of whose fossilized remains can be found here.
The waters around Florida were always rich with sharks, including the extinct megalodon—the largest shark that ever lived. And that means the waters were rich with sharks’ teeth, too. Sharks’ mouths are full of teeth—some have as many as 15 rows of teeth—and they produce and lose teeth constantly. A single shark might lose 50,000 teeth in its lifetime. And the shallow and sedimentary conditions of Venice allowed for the creation of thick fossil beds. Wave action exposes and erodes the fossil layer and deposits the teeth and bones daily on our beaches.
On the Venice pier in early January, I met Tom Wendel, the gregarious proprietor of Papa’s Bait Shack, a gentle, funny spirit who has the best job in the world. His shack looks over the Gulf and everyone he encounters is happy. A retired chemist and scientific instrument salesman from Cincinnati, Wendel and his wife Jan came to Venice at the end of their careers 17 years ago.
“I retired with the idea of fishing all day and walking the beach,” Wendel told me between fielding questions about how to find sharks’ teeth from a group of pale Wisconsin tourists. “Six months of that and I went home and told my wife I needed to find a job.”
Serendipity landed him in the bait shack, where he rents out fishing poles and the “Florida snow shovel”—a colander-like basket at the end of a metal pole that helps those without the “eye” sift sharks’ teeth from sand and shells. Until she passed away four years ago, Wendel’s wife Jan found teeth that she turned into a thriving jewelry business. Wendell still sells the type of shark tooth necklaces she made for $10 a strand.
“I haven’t looked for teeth since then,” Wendel told me. “It hasn’t been the same without her. My wife was really good at finding teeth. Before Sharky’s Restaurant parking lot was paved, it was sand, and she would find them walking to the car. I’d never see them.”
The gift shop at the Venice Pier has since been named for her, Jan’s Beachtique. “People don’t know what they are looking for,” Wendell says. “They think they’re looking for white teeth. But they have to look for brown or black. People are so in awe of sharks, and then to find their teeth yourself, it’s exhilarating. You’re connected to millions of years in the past.”
Though small teeth wash up on the beaches, out in the Gulf, much larger megalodon teeth—some as big an adult’s palm—await. Captain Steve Jones of Venice’s Florida West Scuba runs an $84, two-tank dive that takes the intrepid up to two miles offshore to hunt for megalodon teeth and mastodon tusks in up to 30 feet of water on the exposed fossil bed.
“You can start finding meg teeth in 15 feet of water,” Jones tells me in his shop, which is filled with glass cases of fossils, including an ancient walrus tusk. “It’s dynamic and always changing. One day you go out there and find a spot and it’s great, and then you go there again and it’s covered with sand and silt. You can be swimming along and find a mammoth tooth next to a camel bone. Everything is jumbled up together.”
The 26th annual Venice Sharks Tooth Festival will take place April 13-15 at the Venice Airport. Director Maggie Riggall says the festival draws collectors and vendors from all over the world in part because the quality of Venice’s fossilized sharks’ teeth is considered high. Admission to the family-friendly festival is $4; children under 12 are free, and the event includes a sharks’ tooth “dig” for kids sponsored by the Venice Lions Club.
In the meantime, on any given day off, my wife and I will be treading the beaches, looking for the black specks that mean sharks’ teeth. “Found a good one!” my wife will shout, holding up a serrated little triangle, excited as a kid. The truest thing about collecting Venice’s sharks’ teeth is this: I don’t really care what she’s found. I just love to see her happy.