Still in the hunt: Largo paleontologist's old passion turns to new journeys

Published August 12
Updated August 12

Twenty-something years ago, James Pendergraft took a reporter to a fossil site in Polk County. On that day, he was dazzling, spotting and identifying the ribs and teeth of extinct dugongs and sharks and mammoths.

Now, in 2018, he walked Indian Rocks Beach, scanning for forgotten flip flops, washed-up foam buoys and cheap sunglasses. This had become part of his ritual, most days around sunrise.

Wearing his faded "Paleontologists dig it" T-shirt, he studied lighter-colored, rectangular spots on the sand. "You can tell towels were there, which means people were there," Pendergraft, now 73, said. "It’s a good spot to look."

No artifacts there, but Pendergraft still has an eye and a mind that tends to ponder.

What was here? What was left behind?

He kneeled at the edge of the surf and wrote in the sand with a mangrove seed, "Savanna, Daddy loves you."

He began to talk about his ex-wife, as he does, then switched subjects to the new action film The Meg. Jason Statham plays a guy who must battle a giant, thought-to-be-extinct shark that’s trying to eat his estranged wife. It was the third time he’d brought it up that morning.

• • •

Pendergraft tells everyone about the movie, like couples he meets on his walks and strangers at the store.

It is something to look forward to, but also a way of looking back.

Pendergraft has a museum in a separate building behind the Largo house where he lives with his terrier mix, Bella.

During a rare tour, he started outside near a pile of buoys, many wearing sunglasses covered in barnacles. There were rows of neatly organized children’s shoes, towers of Frisbees and flat boxes overflowing with goggles, hotel towels and everything else he finds on the beach.

He went in and shut the door, so the snakes wouldn’t come in, and confronted a shelf of deserted Barbies. The beach junk had started encroaching on his other collection, a bounty of rare and valuable fossils found since the 1970s.

He turned on the lights to reveal museum-quality display cases filled with sabre-tooth cat skulls, teeth and bones. He pointed out a prehistoric cormorant skeleton and giant ammonites and teeth from extinct three-toed horses. They were displayed on the same shelves as photos of his daughter Savanna, 19, and his ex, Susan.

He’d been president of the Florida Paleontology Society. He was one of the first to excavate at the Leisey Shell Pit, the biggest fossil find in Tampa Bay history, which turned up thousands of specimens from more than 40 extinct species near Cockroach Bay. He remembered the "boom days," when a guy could wander this state plucking mastodon jaws from the phosphorous soil limited only by the time on his hands.

He showed off more than 1,000 megalodon teeth, "maybe the largest collection in the U.S.," and held a serrated tooth that covered his entire palm. Florida, underwater for much of prehistory, never had dinosaurs, but until about two million years ago, it did have the megalodon, a shark as long as a bowling lane that could probably swallow a great white whole.

That is the shark from The Meg.

"I was the first one to get megalodon teeth out of Chile," he said. "The color is totally different. People went crazy for them. They flew off the table."

Hunting fossils was just for fun when he started, but by 1993, the year Jurassic Park came out, it was lucrative enough that Pendergraft left his job operating heavy equipment for Pinellas County, and his chance at a cushy pension.

He made friends with the rich guys who paid big bucks for his prehistoric teeth and invited him to lavish weddings in Italy. He had a cool ponytail, and he’d taught himself, no college degree.

A tip about a fossilized glyptodon, a sort-of giant, Ice Age armadillo, led him to a remote part of Bolivia where he started unearthing it until he was arrested, he said, and thrown in a cell with walls browned from prisoners who’d chewed coca leaves and spit the juice. He told the story over an old Bolivian newspaper documenting his arrest. 

His lawyer told him he’d likely get eight years, so he fled the country with the help of a local official, taking a taxi through the jungle to the Argentinian border, where he posed as an American engineer. He said friends made him cut off the ponytail, so the border guards wouldn’t think he was a cocaine dealer.

He met Susan in 1980, not long after she’d graduated high school. They married and roamed together, hunting around the world but also in nearby "Bone Valley," the fossil and phosphate-rich mining area where Hillsborough, Polk, Manatee and Hardee counties come together.

Susan, now Susan King, also became a president of the Florida Paleontology Society. She got a degree in anthropology and said she’s now more interested in humanity and culture than paleontology, but back then, she was almost as fossil crazy as he was, though it was really the outdoors and adventure she loved most.

Savanna said she grew up thinking it was normal to be surrounded by bones, but friends would come over and be amazed.

Their house had more fossils than furniture. And the business, J&S Fossils, was good for a time. Pendergraft still hands out the business cards, though Susan’s name is crossed out with purple pen.

He claims to have once sold a meg tooth for $40,000 because it was over 7.25 inches long. Individual teeth went for as much as $4,000, he said, depending on size, shape and color. Various skulls fetched tens of thousands.

A few years back, that business began to dry up, and the hunting, as "addicted" as Pendergraft says he was, became too much trouble.

First, his feet hurt from the plantar fasciitis, and fossil hunting requires lots of walking.

More importantly, the best hunting spots were always the Polk County phosphate mines, where companies dig giant holes that unearth millions of years of fossil record, but it’s nearly impossible to get permission to go there anymore.

"Now you get caught out there and it’s a felony," he said.

What others thought of as thievery, King said, they thought of as salvaging, since the mining companies were just going to grind up all that history anyway.

Formerly rich sites such as Florida’s Peace River also aren’t producing the number of megalodon teeth they once did, and there’s more competition, Pendergraft said. There’s a cottage industry for megalodon teeth divers find off Sarasota County’s Caspersen and Venice beaches, and the prices have dropped.

"Once people found out there was money in it, all the bees started swarming," he said. "That’s what I always say."

Not that long after Pendergraft’s fossil hunting days ended, so did his marriage.

"He’s a good, decent guy, but you grow apart," King said.

"I miss my wife," he said, looking at a photo of her holding a 1-year-old Savanna, standing inside a megalodon jaw he’d constructed with over 100 real teeth. "She was a good person, but she was a lot younger than me, and, well …" He trailed off.

Pendergraft got the fossils in the divorce.

• • •

He’s since sold the life-sized megalodon jaw, but has a smaller one. The family of ancient tapir skeletons is gone now, too. One Ice Age cave bear sold already, but he has another. He has a nice mammoth skull and a stegomastodon palate and many more meg teeth, if anyone’s in the market.

He’s selling off most everything. After three decades as a vendor, his upcoming trip to the Arizona Mineral & Fossil Show, one of the nation’s largest, will be his last.

"I need to put money in the bank, for retirement," he said. "To be able to live halfway decent." He gets social security and some money from the county but says the divorce cost him a lot.

Ask him now what the point of all that collecting was, thousands of specimens carefully cataloged over the years, to let go of them, and he seems unsure how to reply and reluctant to think about it too deeply. He feels good about having donated so much to museums and having done his small part to contribute to science. The money was great sometimes, and he remembers the thrill of finding a fossil, holding it and imagining the ancient landscape, asking, why did this animal die here, surrounded by these other animals?

"I don’t know what you believe in, god or heaven, but I believe in paleontology," he said. "I’ve found things far more than 6,000 years old."

Savanna moved to Tallahassee for college, "which I know has been kind of hard for him," she said. "He knows so much about so many things, and he doesn’t even use a computer, but I think he gets kind of lonely."

The Meg, though. There’s hope in The Meg. He thinks it’s going to be a big hit. If it happens, maybe there will be new customers interested in owning a 5 million-year-old shark tooth.

It could be one more taste of those exciting boom times, when his name was in the paper and the Discovery Channel was calling to use his megalodon jaw to promote Shark Week. Back before the divorce and all of that.

• • •

Another day on Indian Rocks Beach, where the sand is soft on the feet, Pendergraft eyed a sandal that was missing its mate, then narrowed his eyes at a pair of women carrying a bulging Best Buy bag.

He picks up a plastic bucket. The strap that serves as a handle is broken.

"You wouldn’t believe how many have broken straps. I always wonder why."

The bucket isn’t old or valuable or scientifically noteworthy. But it’s proof that something was there before him. That keeps him moving.

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

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