Sunday, August 19, 2018
Movies

Long before 'The Meg,' the hunt for megalodon teeth has been on in Florida

Along the beaches in Sarasota County, they call it a Florida snow shovel. It’s a mesh scoop on the end of a stick that’s perfect for hunting teeth from prehistoric sharks the length of semi-trailers.

You can rent one at the Venice Fishing Pier and sift the shelly sand along the waterline, pulling up teeth from makos, bulls and tiger sharks, and if you get really lucky, the megalodon.

Florida, underwater for millions of years, never had dinosaurs, but it had the megalodon, the largest shark to ever live and possibly the fiercest predator in state history. You could call its chompers, viciously serrated and up to 7½ inches long, the signature Florida fossil.

Megalodon went extinct about 2.6 million years ago, University of Florida researchers believe, but action star Jason Statham will battle one in The Meg, opening in theaters Friday. The movie, based on Florida author Steve Alten’s 1997 book Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror, is an effects extravaganza in which the crew of an underwater research vessel encounters a not-extinct and very bloodthirsty megalodon.

The real megalodon was four or five times as big as the great white, up to 60 feet long, with a bite force estimated at 4,000 pounds. It was probably a solitary hunter that preyed on whales and dugongs, which are similar to manatees and also left fossilized ribs scattered around Florida. Like modern sharks, megalodons skeletons were made of cartilage, so all that’s left are teeth. They had hundreds of them in several rows.

Though they’ve been found near warm waters around the globe, Florida is one of the best, and easiest, places to hunt for meg teeth. A small community of Florida business owners who help people search for them hope the movie is a boost.

RELATED: Still in the hunt: Paleontologist’s old passion turns to new journeys

Aristakat Charters is one of a handful of companies specializing in taking people down to "the bone yard," a famously tooth-littered fossil bed 10 to 30 feet underwater off Venice Beach.

"It’s a thrill to know that something you found hasn’t been touched for millions of years," said Aristakat charter captain Jamie Bostwick. "I’m really thinking this movie is going to spark interest for people who want to know more about megs. We already have a cult following of people who come here from around the world and dive for them every year, but this could be big."

A small megalodon tooth is occasionally found on shore, but the bone yard is where people find the prized 4- to 6-inchers that can be worth hundreds or thousands of dollars at Venice’s annual Shark’s Tooth Festival.

Florida’s other top spot for hunting megalodon teeth is the Peace River and its tributaries, running roughly 100 miles from Bartow to Port Charlotte, where guides help visitors wade into the water and walk along the banks in search of fossils.

Mark Renz, who runs Fossil Expeditions and wrote the nonfiction book Megalodon: Hunting the Hunter, said the river was a prehistoric nursery where young megalodons hunted before growing giant and migrating up the Eastern Seaboard.

"The trailer’s a bit sensational, but that’s what it has to be," he said of commercials for The Meg. "And any kind of publicity for the megalodon might help my business."

State law requires a permit to take fossils from Florida waters or state-owned land, but shark teeth are exempt.

Alten, who lives in West Palm Beach and published the first in what would become his series of Meg novels in 1997, said it has been a long road to the movie. He first optioned the rights in 1996, before the book even came out. He’s seen production fall through twice, before an eight-year effort got The Meg made with an estimated $150 million budget.

"Over that time, I’ve gotten to know this shark and this community. There are people who die for these teeth," Alten said, referring to friend Vito Bertucci, a former Long Island jeweler who found some of the largest-known meg teeth before drowning in Georgia’s Ogeechee River in 2004. Authorities found a bag of teeth with his body. Another tooth diver drowned in South Carolina in 2016.

While the meg teeth found in Georgia and South Carolina tend to be larger on average, the deeper dives required, poor visibility and sharks make hunting there more dangerous than Florida, Alten said.

If you’d like to see megalodon teeth in a more serene environment, the Florida Museum of Natural History on the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville and the South Florida Museum in Bradenton both have recreations of megalodon jaws made with hundreds of real, fossilized teeth in their permanent displays.

Contact Christopher Spata at [email protected] Follow @SpataTimes.

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