How to Find Fossils at Fossil Ledge

Wednesday, May 25, 2011 10:39 | Filled in Dive Training

Megalodon Tooth

Megalodon Tooth

I like to think that I am pretty successful when looking for shark teeth and other goodies when diving at the Fossil Ledge off the North Carolina coast. But, then again, I am still working on my collection. I haven’t found my 7″ Megalodon tooth yet (I can dream!) and I would like to find a Sperm Whale tooth one of these days.  It is always fun to go out and collect artifacts that you can bring home and show off.  I like to give the occasional tooth away as a present.  My relatives and friends really appreciate holding and owning one of these amazing fossils.


Occasionally, I get asked about my hunting methodology and how to find the good fossils when one goes diving out there.  There is definitely a plan when I go diving for teeth and I do not randomly swim and dig holes in the sand looking for the fossils.  You will be more successful with your hunting if you take a few moments to read some of the tricks I have learned over time.


First, lets talk about the type of dive you will be doing when you go to the Fossil Ledge. It is approximately a 2 to 2 1/2 hour boat ride out to the general area. If you tend to get seasick, this is one of the trips where you will really want to take your Dramamine or Bonine.  The last thing you want, is to pay ~$145 for a dive trip and be too sick to actually dive when you get out there.  You will want to make sure that you have a SMB (Surface Marker Buoy) and a wreck reel before you go out also.  It is easy to get disoriented on this dive and lose track of where the anchor and boat are.


During the summer months, the water will be in the high 70′s, but in the off season the water can get below 60 degrees.  The site will typically be 90-110 feet deep depending upon where the captain decides to anchor.  Current on the bottom is usually not an issue.  It is strongly recommended that you have the Enriched Air specialty and use 30-32% O2 to increase your dive times.  If you are going to spend the money to get out to the dive site, you might as well maximize your time underwater.


Clockwise from Left: Whale Rib, Dolphin Vertebrae, Small Megalodon Tooth

Clockwise from Left: Whale Rib, Dolphin Vertebrae, Small Megalodon Tooth

The bottom will consist of a lot of light gray sand and will have various outcroppings of limestone ledges partially covered in sea life.  The limestone outcroppings will rise above the sand from 1 to 3 feet and depending on the area of the outcropping, they could have channels carved into them approximately 2 feet wide.  Visibility will vary greatly.  I have seen visibility as low as 5 feet and as good as 80+ feet. Because you will be focused on looking for fossils directly in front of you, visibility is not a major concern.


Because there are no good distinguishing characteristics for the dive site, you will want to tie off your wreck reel near the anchor on the bottom.  Do not tie it to the anchor or the anchor line, itself.  If the anchor is accidentally dislodged, we do not want you to be dragged on the bottom with it.  Note the general direction of the current and where all the other divers have decided to go and find a direction where you can hunt in peace.  Since you will be spending 90% of your time on the bottom or close to it, you will maintain a somewhat negative buoyancy.  Digging for fossils is easier when you can park yourself over a specific spot.


You will be spending most of your time looking on the surface of the sand, whether out in the open, or around and in between the limestone ledges.  You are looking for two different characteristics.  First, you want to find anything that is dark gray or black on the sand.  Fossils are always darker in color than the surrounding sand.  The second thing to look out for is any unnatural shape or edge.  This could be a modern seashell or it could be the corner of a massive Megalodon tooth sticking out of the sand.  Since exposed surfaces get encrusted with all sorts of critters such as barnacles, coral, bryozoans and even undissolved limestone, you will be looking at more junk than real fossils at first.  That’s fine.  Over time, you will be able to better discriminate the items you are searching through.


Various Small Shark Teeth

Various Small Shark Teeth

The most common fossil you will find is either a small fossilized shark tooth of a different species (Great White, Sand Tiger and Mako are likely) or a piece of whale bone, most likely coming from a rib.  If you happen upon something more substantial like a piece of a Megalodon tooth or even a whole one, that’s even better, of course!  Once you find a fossil on the surface, you will want to stop.  Put the fossil away somewhere safe, if you plan to keep it.  Then start fanning away the sand around the spot where you found the fossil.  Use the flat of your hand or something similar.  Some people carry swim paddles or even table tennis paddles with them.  Try to fan the sand in the direction of the current.  You do not want the silt to drift back over your hole and obscuring your view.  Every few strokes, stop and look in the hole.  Look for those unnatural lines and dark colors.  Do not forget to look over the pile of sand that your fanning is accumulating as well.  Small fossils will get blown out of the hole with your activities.


In general, if there is something on the surface, there is more stuff around and underneath it.  Depending on how lucky I feel and how successful I have been on the dive so far, I will fan a hole up to a size equal to my arms stretched around in a circle with my hands holding each other (approximately 2-3 feet in diameter) and from 6 inches to 2 feet deep (down to the limestone bed).  Once I have ‘mined’ my hole and am done, I just continue on, looking over the surface until I find something else of interest.  If it is something you do not recognize, keep it.  You can always inspect it further when you are back on the boat and throw it in the water if it is something mundane.  I like using the identification guide found on the Aurora Fossil Museum website to help verify what I have brought up.


When you are approximately halfway through your dive (based on remaining air or decompression limits), you will want to start reeling up your reel and heading back to the anchor.  Keep the line feeding into the reel a little taut to prevent it from creating a gnarly tangle.  Your hunting is not done though.  As you reel back, look over the holes that you dug, and holes that other divers have dug.  It is very common for people to miss things because of the silt or just because they were looking somewhere else.  If you find a new fossil on the surface, it is possible that you have time to dig a new hole if you managed your dive well.  Also, it is possible for fossils to become uncovered just with the wake from the fins as a diver swims over it.  I was on one dive where I was swimming back to the anchor.  Right near the anchor, there were three 4″ Megalodon teeth just sitting on the top of the sand.  It seems that as divers descended and reeled out to their spots, they kicked all the sand away and forgot to look at the spot where they started.


This brings me to another point.  A lot of divers will go down and tie off near the anchor.  Then they will immediately swim off 50 yards to claim their clean plot of ledge and start working.  The boat does not anchor at any specific location.  The area right by the anchor will potentially be as good as an area 100 yards away.  Don’t expend unnecessary energy and time swimming to a far away spot.   You will need to make sure that you are not conflicting with your fellow divers, but, otherwise, stay local.


Be careful and monitor your gauges!  It is very easy to be distracted while you are searching for fossils.  I learned this the hard way on one of my dives on the Fossil Ledge.  Make a conscious effort to look at your dive stats including remaining air and your no decompression limits on a regular basis.


There is a lot of luck involved.  I have been on trips where people come up with dozens of Megalodon teeth (not me) while other divers are lucky to come up with a complete tooth.  Sometimes you may not find any whole Megalodon teeth on a trip.  I have always been able to find something worthwhile to keep, though.  Persevere and keep hunting and you will become more proficient over time.  Your collection will build and you will be the envy of your circle of friends.



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3 Comments to How to Find Fossils at Fossil Ledge

  1. Phil says:

    May 29th, 2011 at 2:30 am

    Great post, Frank! Your “About Me” page had a teaser about Megalodon fossils and I wondered, “how exactly does one find those things?” I’m glad you wrote this post to let me know. And the wise/experienced tips you included here apply in many ways to other activities.

  2. Fish says:

    July 3rd, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    Can you tell me how to get to the fossil ledge?

  3. fyue says:

    July 3rd, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    The easiest way to get there is to schedule a charter with one of the area dive shops. The coordinates for the fossil ledges are not public knowledge, though most folks know where they generally are. They are approximately 38-45 miles offshore and 90-110 feet deep. Of course, I recommend using the Aquatic Safaris dive shop in Wilmington, but there are other fine dive shops in the area that run regular charters to the ledge.

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