Special Olympics Florida

The Venice Shark’s Tooth Festival is something special

Written by: Carlos R. Munoz, Herald Tribune

Lewis Stieffel was a boy on the beaches of Venice when he started looking for shark’s teeth.  And it wasn’t hard.  Stick your hand in the shell line at any beach from Manasota Key to Englewood and you’ll get a hand (or sifter) full of the glistening black teeth of a tiger, hammerhead, mako or even a prehistoric megalodon, the largest shark ever.

“It’s always a thrill no matter what you find — it’s a discovery,” said Stieffel at the 27th Annual Shark’s Tooth Festival in Venice, a fundraiser for Special Olympics Florida – Sarasota County.. “Out of nine billion people on the planet you’re the very first person to see it, to ever touch that fossil. It’s always a thrill, even if it’s a common fossil.”

“This is the first year Special Olympics Florida has conducted this festival. Obviously when you have shark’s teeth, fossils, 165 vendors, food, bands, it’s a great event.”  In past years, the proceeds were split between Special Olympics Florida and individuals with special needs.

The main attraction this weekend was the giant, charcoal-colored megalodon teeth on display in three fossil tents. They were estimated to be anywhere from 2 to 3.6 million years old.

Megalodon could grow to be about 60 feet long and had 45 front teeth — 24 in the upper jaw and 22 in the lower jaw. The largest teeth ever found were about 7½ inches long, the distance from the serrated tip of the extinct shark’s cutting tooth to the top of the root.

Stieffel said the large teeth, which can weigh just a few ounces to about a pound, are interesting, but he’s not one of those “triangle guys.” He likes putting together fossilized bones.  Fossils can be found just about anywhere in Florida — and are not necessarily limited to Gulf waters.

“Anywhere they’re digging a hole in this part of Florida you stop and look,” Stieffel said. “I found a mammoth skull, I found some walrus tusks in the Peace River they needed for a study. I’ve found a lot of different fossils.”  Megalodon teeth can fetch anywhere from about $20 for a small, partial tooth to over $5,000 for a pristine 7-inch tooth.

Doug Mann of Fossilicious.com, an online vendor selling teaching materials and fossils, says it depends on the quality. He published a megalodon buyer’s guide on his website, fossils-facts-and-finds.com,to help rookie fossil hunters.  “A lot of them have the enamels chipped off,” Mann said. “Some are pretty complete and some have serrations on the end.”

The plethora of shark’s teeth in Florida are because of the rise and fall of the glaciers, which last submerged most of the peninsula under 100 feet of water about 2.5 million years ago. Only about a 50-mile wide area of the central state extended south from the Florida Panhandle.  That allowed sharks to freely swim over most of South Florida.

Stieffel said he attended one of the first Shark’s Tooth Festivals in Venice as a boy, when it was held at a nearby beach.  “It’s a transition that still surprises me how fast it’s grown,” he said. “Until the day I die, I’ll be interested in this. You just can’t not be fascinated with it.”

Festival-goers Mike Berry and his family, of Venice, all clad in shark-related regalia, said the area’s prehistoric past is what drew them to the area. “Go down to Englewood Beach,” Berry said. “Put your hand in the shell line and you’re going to find five or six teeth.”

They recommended Blind Pass Beach, known as Middle Beach, for shark tooth hunting, where Berry’s son, John, found a partial megalodon fossil.  “I thought it was a rock to be honest,” John Berry said.