Scuba Diving for Fossils in Black Water Rivers of the Southeastern United States
I am covered from head to toe with over 100 pounds of life support equipment, preparing myself to roll backwards, head-first into water with less than 6 inches of visibility. I am mere moments from scuba diving for fossils in a black water river in the Southeastern United States, this time in South Carolina. I look over my shoulder and see countless swirls and ripples as the rushing current courses towards the sea. I hear a splash nearby. Was it a fish, a cottonmouth, an alligator, or something else? I hope it wasn’t an alligator because I always swore to my wife that if I saw an alligator I would go somewhere else. I know it wasn’t one of the other divers because I’m the last one in the water. I always have to check my gear twice before I go under because the river is no place to figure out that I forgot to turn on my air. I’d better hurry and get in before the other divers finish their dives.
I roll off the side of the boat and the second my mask goes under water, everything goes brown. My buoyancy compensator (BC) is full of air so I immediately float back to the surface for one last glimpse of sunlight. I take my first breath underwater from my freshly serviced regulator… nothing but air. I grab the rope hanging off the side of the boat to get my bearings one last time before I dump the air in my BC and descend into the river. Within seconds the brown gives way to black and I can’t see a thing. This is not the kind of dark you get in a closet, where your eyes adjust after a few minutes and you can see a little bit. I can’t see a thing. I can’t see my bubbles, I can’t see the surface, I can’t see the bottom, and most importantly, I can’t see whatever made that splash earlier. I turn on my light for a little comfort, and now I have a narrow beam of light piercing the dark. Now I can see little particles of debris blasting past me. I can see my bubbles moving in the direction I assume is up. Shouldn’t the bottom be around here somewhere?
After what seems like forever, my fins finally touch the bottom of the river, then my knees, and finally I am laying flat. I position myself to face into the current. I open my goodie bag, put on my gloves, and pull out my screwdriver. The screwdriver is not to fix my gear on the bottom – if any of my major equipment breaks I die. The screwdriver is to stab into the bottom of the river to give me something to hold onto. The current is so strong that it can easily push me wherever it wants. If I turn my head too sharply, it will rip my mask off my face. I check my depth gauge and it says I’m 30 feet under the surface. My compass says I’m facing Northeast. I have 3000 pounds of pressure in my tank. Everything is copacetic and I can start hunting fossils.
I use a 10 watt high intensity discharge (HID) light. It’s the same as the headlight in a Lexus, but even with this light cannon I only have about a 6 inch circle on the bottom where I can see. I can only 6 inches away because of all the material in the water, but it’s plenty. I’m looking for anything that doesn’t look like a rock, and some things that do look like rocks. But there are a LOT of rocks. From boulders the size of my head to sand pebbles, the bottom of the river in this spot is covered with rocks. The river is great at sorting things. It piles all the rocks together, and since fossils are rocks, that’s the best place to look. Both rocks and fossils are remnants of the ancient sea floor, buried by millions of years of overburden. The river has eroded the overburden away and has again exposed the rocks and fossils for anyone who has the nerve to find. The most common fossil finds are shark teeth. I’m actually there to find the biggest shark teeth of all time, those of Carcharocles megalodon. Megalodon teeth range in size from less than an inch to over 7 inches. Most are broken, but a precious few are complete and those are prized among fossil hunters. They are the reason I am here on the bottom of the river.
I can hear another diver humming. He always does that to relax himself. I don’t know where he is, and he doesn’t know where I am. Unlike conventional diving that is always done with a buddy, river diving in black water for fossils is always done solo. Hand signals are useless when you can’t see more than six inches away, after all. Other methods like a buddy line are also ineffective because the line always gets tangled on submerged trees. River diving is not for the inexperienced, anyone who is claustrophobic, or scared of what they can’t see. Speaking of what I can’t see, I am using my hands to feel around on the bottom outside of my circle of light. I am trying to feel the smooth enamel or serrated edge of a big tooth. Suddenly, I see a triangle appear before me. My first tooth! I stash it in my goodie bag and I keep looking. Rocks, rocks, rocks, flounder, rocks, rocks, another little tooth, rocks, rocks, feisty crab, rocks, then SLAM! I ram my head into a tree. That would have hurt, except that my HID light is mounted to a hard-hat. I didn’t used to dive with a hard hat, but for some reason I can’t remember when that was…
All joking aside, submerged trees and log jams are one of the biggest hazards on the bottom of the river, and not just because of bumping your head. They can also snag your gear. I have lost several diverters from my octopus on trees. And rarely is there just one tree. Usually, there are piles of trees called a log jam. Unfortunately, the rocks are often found alongside logjams, and even though it might be tempting to swim into a log jam to look where no one has looked before, NEVER do it. At any moment, a tree could break looks and fall on top of you, pinning you on the bottom until your air runs out. And after your air runs out, too. Log jams are also a common hiding place for fish, a common prey animal for snakes and alligators. Connect those dots!
It is always best to be mindful of the dangers of the river diving, but also best not to dwell on them. My friend’s humming brings me back to reality. I swim around the tree, plucking teeth from the rocks all along the way. I check my gauge and I’m down to 2000 psi. I still have a while to go. Fighting against the current, I continue pulling myself along the bottom. The rock pile is dwindling down now. I have swam past the best deposits into a hard, smooth bottom. Seldom a productive area to hunt, the hard bottom is normally where the main channel of the river flows, aka, the most current. If you do manage to find anything there, it’s usually blasted to smithereens and not worth the trouble to find. I back-track and get back into the rocks. I find the trees again, and this time, I swim the other way around them. That seems to be the right choice because the rocks are getting thick again. Then I brush something smooth with my right hand. I grip it and pull it into my light – nothing but a piece of glass broken into a triangular form. Glass is another hazard. Slice your hand on a piece of that and its bad news. Infection is almost a given, but remember that predators can “smell” blood in the water. I refuse to be chum so I always wear gloves. I keep swimming, always scanning in my little 6 inch circle of light. This end of the log is completely submerged in gravel. I see big pieces of bone mixed in with the gravel. That is a good sign. The bones are fossilized, too, and they are an indicator for megalodon teeth. There! On the surface, I see the smooth edge of a big tooth poking out of the gravel. I grab it and unfortunately it’s only half a tooth. I’m only slightly bummed. I’m used to finding broken shark teeth. I have 1500 psi left. That’s not much longer. I’m getting worn out fighting the current so I’m starting to suck down the air faster than before. This is probably my best shot for a megalodon tooth so I decided to give up the surface scanning in favor of fanning. Fanning involves waving your hand or another object at the bottom, using the force of water to move sand and gravel. I find a few more fossils, but no big ones. I’m down to 1200 psi. I decide to continue against the current and surface scan with my last few minutes. Just past the spot I was fanning I notice a V shape, just appearing out of the sand. A quick fan reveals a large, complete megalodon tooth! I marveled at the giant underwater, careful not to grin too big, lest I get nasty river water in my mouth. I secure the tooth in my goodie bag and check my gauge. I’m down to 1000 psi. That’s when I always surface because I want to be sure I give myself enough air to get to the boat. Most divers say you should surface with 500 psi, but on several occasions that has not been enough to get me back to the boat, so now I go at 1000 psi.
Surfacing is, perhaps, the most dangerous part of a dive. Foremost, I am breathing compressed air. In my scuba certification class, I learned how to properly ascend while breathing compressed air. To make a mistake here is certain death, and that is not an exaggeration. Certification involves both classroom and in-water training by a qualified instructor. Any reputable dive shop will ask to see a dive certification card before selling any dive gear, filling any tanks, or renting any dive equipment. I cannot stress enough the importance of proper training before engaging in any scuba diving activities.
Besides for the compressed air ascent issue, boat traffic is the main reason that surfacing is the most dangerous part of river diving. I always take a few seconds, close my eyes, and really listen closely for boats. Even though I never dive without a dive flag as a warning to other boaters, other boaters don’t always recognize it as a reason to slow down. Divers have been killed by careless boaters who ignored a dive flag. Since sound carries so well underwater, I can hear them coming from a long way away. Once I’m sure there are no boaters speeding my direction, I inflate my BC and I am whisked away like a bird to the surface. Like my descent in reverse, everything starts off pitch black. All I can see are the particles suspended in the current. Eventually, everything turns a dark brown, then a light brown, then my head breaks the surface and I can see daylight again. I quickly locate the boat, and since I swam against the current the whole time on the bottom, I came up well in front of the boat. All I have to do is float and kick a little and in no time, I am clinging to the ladder, shedding gear and piling it on the boat. Once I’m lightweight enough to crawl in, I heave myself onboard and just lie motionless for a minute or two while I catch my breath.
I pull myself and my gear together and I notice my friend has already switched out his tank and is back in the water again. We don’t do surface intervals because we’re not diving deep enough. While I am switching out my tank, I see another boat off in the distance heading my way. I ignore it and continue tending to my gear. The boat slows, just as they should when a dive flag is being flown. I notice them getting closer so I look up and see a Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officer guiding his boat closer to ours. We exchange pleasantries and he asks if I found anything nice. I show him my bag of teeth including my nice megalodon tooth, and he is impressed. He obviously knows his fossils because he tells me about other teeth he has seen come out recently. Then he requests to see my hobby diver license. I am diving in South Carolina where a license is required to recover fossils and artifacts from below mean low tide. A license can be obtained from SCIAA . I show him my license, he thanks me, and goes on protecting South Carolina’s waterways. Other states have similar legislation, so always make sure you are in compliance with local laws before doing any fossil and artifact diving.
I am finished switching out my tank and I’m ready to go back down for another dive. I am confident in my gear which I had checked out at the beginning of the season. It performed well on my first dive so I can expect the same on this dive. I have rehearsed many lessons from my certification which prepared me for scuba diving in general. I am experienced in solo diving, particularly in the rivers and heavy current and low visibility situations. I have considered all the hazards of river diving like wildlife, boaters, and the mental aspects of complete darkness and isolation. I’m legal, and most of all, I already have a nice megalodon tooth to show for my efforts. I wonder how my friend is faring? I’ll have to wait to get back on the bottom to see if he’s humming a dirge or a show-tune.