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Shark tooth hunting on the coastal islands in Georgia

Updated on July 16, 2016

Bird Island: a.k.a. Shark Tooth Beach, Savannah, Georgia

Looking out over the Savannah River to South Carolina.
Looking out over the Savannah River to South Carolina. | Source

There is a certain allure to finding old bones, teeth, fossils, stones, and there are plenty to be found on Shark Tooth Beach in Savannah, if you can find them

I had heard the name Shark Tooth Island a lot in the last four years, but didn't know where it was or how to get there.

I knew it was somewhere near Tybee Island and accessible by kayak, but imagined that it was just a ploy of kayak trip sales people to get tourists to spend their money on kayak rental and that there were very few actual fossils or sharks teeth to be found.

Still, when a friend said he was going there and invited us to join him, I jumped at the chance to find this secret island, even if there weren't any shark teeth around.

In general I am like the unlucky charm when it comes to finding things. I have gone on three dolphin tours and have yet to see a dolphin on any of them, though as an afternote, I once went kayaking with another friend and we laughed like maniacs when the yellow topped dolphin tour pontoon went past us with the captain saying, "I don't know where all the dolphin are today," as they popped up directly behind the boat where none of the tourists could see them! It was like they were playing with them.

The last time my friends went to Little Tybee without me, they found dozens of expired sand dollars. When i went with them we found one third of a broken one. I've yet to see a live star fish either or a fossilized on either, so I was hoping that this island was remote enough to give us a chance of finding something special we would want to take home and not just a bathing suit bottom full of sand. Oh, like you haven't been there.

While professional kayak tours leave from the back part of Fort Pulaski, which takes a direct route to the island, park rangers informed us that they did not allow the public to leave from this spot. We had actually thought of dropping the kayaks off and parking because no one ever goes out to that part of the park anyway, but who wants to end up in jail for disobeying and besides you have to paddle by the US Coast Guard, so that might be a little intimidating.

We decided to leave from the midpoint of Rails to Trails which was the site of an old railway that ran along the southern channel of the Savannah River past Fort Pulaski toward Tybee before most people could afford cars or gas to drive to the beach.

There is a little landing at the half way point, but it's designed for crabbers and fishers, not kayaks and the mud is thick, gray/black and gooey and sucks you down to mid calf and deeper with rocks and oyster shells in abundance. There is nothing like having your imitation crocks get sucked down a foot and a half along with both legs, so that you have to grab hold of the kayak and stick your arm down into the muck to pull your shoe and your foot out as you sway back and forth like a buoy in the surf. Still, we were in the water!!!

Bird Island

Our adventure begins amid crab traps and fishing lines and foot sucking mud

It doesn't help that the locals use this spot to fish and crab, but they were kind enough to let us pass through the tangle of lines. Once in the water, we headed west away from Fort Pulaski the ocean and the beach, and followed the marsh along the north side of the river, keeping to the right hand side to avoid larger boat traffic.

Technically we are still on the Georgia side of the Savannah River, but once we round the bend and head back east to Shark Tooth Island, South Carolina is on the left. I desperately want to paddle over there to say we have paddled from Georgia to South Carolina, but my companion is set on reading the island before the tide goes completely out.


The bad thing about paddling on a going out tide is that you have the tide against you for over a mile before you turn back east toward the front part of the island. The back part is all marsh. My friend sees an alligator come out of the marsh and into the water, but by the time I catch up to where he is, there is nothing there but some folded down marsh and I wonder if he really saw a gator, but have heard that they are out there, so should not be in doubt. I have yet to see an alligator in salt water, though have seen a few in fresh and brackish waters along the marsh and the larger barrier islands.

You can see Elba Island where natural gas is stored in sky blue tanks. Everyone always worries the tanks will blow up and take out half the city, which supposedly is why they are on an island in the middle of nowhere, well technically in the middle of the Savannah River, but since I have been alive, i never recall hearing anything bad that happened there and I have been alive for a pretty good while.

The tide is low when we get there and you can see red and tan clay lines where the shore has been washed away near the tree line. It looks like a mini grand canyon wall with striated colors reminiscent of the sand art jars we made in Bible School.

My arms and shoulders are tired. We've been fighting the current most of the way here and while I am in pretty decent shape, it is not easy keeping up with a guy whose arms are twice as big around as mine and a good deal younger. The people who were supposed to go with us backed out, so we went alone. Even though we are not dating or interested in each other in that way, it is still an awkward feeling like when I went to a dance with my dad and everyone thought I was his younger girlfriend. You know people think you are "together" even though you are just friends and you feel obligated to communicate and be closer to them than you would if you were in a group, yet you don't want to be too close for fear they will think you are coming on to them. It's not that way when you are with girls, but then again I like doing things with guys, so I guess it is a trade-off

There is a couple on the beach with a gorgeous German Shepherd dog that comes up to greet us and noses around in my kayak, possibly smelling the peanuts I have brought along for a snack.

The owner apologizes, but I love dogs, especially black German Shepherds so it didn't bother me a bit. Right away we found a small white shark tooth as we were pulling the kayaks up away from the waterline. The tide goes out and comes in quickly on these barrier islands and can rise as much as several feet in an hour. It is easy to get stranded on the beach in a big boat when the tide goes out and easy to have your kayak washed away when a big cargo ship comes by sending three to four foot waves, ten to twenty feet inland. Those cargo ships can swamp a fishing boat anchored on shore. It's like a mini tidal wave coming at you!

We find a small white shark's tooth right after landing and we get a bit more excited about the trip. We had met a guy on the way over who had found a mastodon vertebrae and a gray sharks tooth in tannish cartilage that was about an inch or so in height.

An hour later, after sifting through sand and pebbles we had only few small black teeth to show for our efforts and the constant sand sifting was not helping my sore muscles one bit, so we took a walk down the beach, which at low tide is fairly substantial but contains a lot of slick gray and red clay stores, which while not sucking mud like the landing on the trail, are none-the-less, ice slick and hard and even walking barefoot on them sent me perilously close to hitting the ground, which was also laced with large rocks, though few larger than three feet.

One had to wonder where they came from and if they were placed there to shore up the island or washed there off ships, maybe as ballast years ago, or for trading to line driveways or fill in roads. We continued to search for treasures. I found lots of neat rocks and even some green basalt rock which supposedly comes from volcanic eruptions and figured next to the little white shark tooth, it was a pretty neat find. There are no volcanoes anywhere on the east coast of the US to the best of my knowledge, so the rocks must have been really old.

i also found a white pearly rock that was in the shape of a white bean or sucked to the core Jelly Belly bean that for some reason I found fascinating. I guess it is like when you are a kid and have those miniature kitchen play sets with the plastic potatoes and peas... just something neat and interesting.

Foamy water stuck to feet like fuzzy bathroom slippers
Foamy water stuck to feet like fuzzy bathroom slippers
East end of the beach
East end of the beach
Muddy shoes
Muddy shoes

There's one, right on the surface

Two hours later, we'd yet to find any substantial caches of shark's teeth, but kept on looking

Digging and sifting sand and rocks yielded very little results for the effort. A few small teeth were discovered, but nothing to get excited about, so we headed further down the beach as dark clouds rolled in from the east, splitting around us going across the river to Jasper, South Carolina and further over toward Wilmington Island.

The largest shark's tooth, a half inch gray colored one was found sitting on top of the sand. Shark's teeth are the state fossil of Georgia, which is odd considering the small amount of land that is actually located on the sea, but it is the most readily found fossil, so I guess that's how it got elected to stardom.

Apparently Shark's Tooth Island, as the natives call it (I later discovered it is called Bird Island (N 32.05966 and W -80.95539 GPS coordinates if you want to check it out), was made from dredging or either collected a lot of wash up from the beaches and oceans because it is rare to find soil of that type in Savannah and even rarer to find rocks that obviously come from further north; again, something we will have to do more research on to find answers.

There are some islands in the same area that were built to prevent erosion of inland beaches and structures, so it's a possibility, though it could be a natural feature as well.

We don't find anything really spectacular and think that maybe we need to go further east or come as the tide is going out, rather than at ultimate low. The gentleman with the dog asks us how we are doing. He has a huge sharks tooth in his hand that is slightly broken that he found near the water's edge. Maybe we need to take a dog with us and train him or her to find the teeth like they train pigs to find truffles in France. It would save a lot of back strain anyway.

The eastern end of the beach is pretty interesting with a lot of downed trees and dead trees with roots still in the ground like giant gnarled fingers forming a hobbit hut. We would like to explore more but it is getting late and another storm in blowing in, this time coming right toward us. As we head back to the kayaks, the wind whips us with stinging sand and a misting rain that quickly turns cold and biting as it pings off our skin.

We take our small treasures, vowing to return another day. I keep feeling like I am annoying him and give him some space while we are there, but don't want to get too far separated him, especially with a storm coming. It feels as if I am with my brother who can only tolerate me for so long before leaving me behind to find his own space. I don't think I am the clingy annoying type, but then again, you never know with guys. They all seem to have a built in autism spectrum much higher than that of females, so maybe it is less me and more him, like I should care anyway, but I do. It's the girl in me I guess.

He sets his GPS to see how far we have traveled. He thinks it is four miles, but it turns out to be barely three, but feels a lot longer. The rain stays with us, but is not heavy, so we paddle back with the tide for about a half mile and then turn into an oncoming ocean wind and returning current. I feel like crying, again the girl in me I guess. I am paddling as fast and as hard as I can, but my shoulders and my neck ache and my left wrist keeps going numb and has little power left to it. My right trapezius muscle in my neck is spasming and I stop to rub it quickly and toss water on it hoping it will calm it down. I can't even stop to drink my Powerade because it only slows me down more and I am beginning to get a bit of an attitude with my friend who is so far ahead of me now that I can barely see him.

I was raised in the south, where men look after women like we are airheaded children too stupid to find our way home without their guidance, and yet I do expect a certain protection and comradery with guys. Instead I feel like we are competing for Olympic gold and I am on one of those poor third world country teams in my sit-on-top kayak with the 39.99 paddles that don't quite cut it for speed and agility.

It is a very unpleasant trip back to the take-out spot and the dark clouds, wind and lightning, which is behind us now, is not helping with my mood which is becoming as dark as the clouds around me. It is a good thing my friend is so far ahead of me, otherwise if I caught him, I might beat him to death with my paddles (not really, but we southerners are known for both our tempers and our colorful use of terms only we could get away with like, "slapping the biscuits out of someone" or as mom's like to say, "I brought you into this life and if you keep sassin' me child I will take you out of it!". We actually wouldn't do that, but somehow saying it seems to dissipate the anger and often the hurt that is welling up within us. It's a southern thing...

Tree roots washed away by the tides and wind
Tree roots washed away by the tides and wind
Home made sifter worked great, but got heavy with the wet sand and mud
Home made sifter worked great, but got heavy with the wet sand and mud
Dark clouds bring rain
Dark clouds bring rain
Two toned rock on the beach
Two toned rock on the beach

We got home with barely five sharks teeth, lots of mud and a bit of wind burn

As hard as I tried to keep up with my friend, the further I fell behind. At one point my entire right arm went numb and my paddle blades were slapping the water, rather than slicing through it. It seemed like I was barely moving forward, but I could see progress as the shoreline slowly passed by in steady increments.

At one point I thought maybe it would be faster to pull up to the graded trail and carry the kayak back with me. Finally we saw the takeout point. It seemed less than a half mile ahead, but an hour later we or at least, I, was still paddling to get there. When my companion disappeared out of view entirely I wondered if I had zoned out and passed the landing. I felt like crying and giving up and leaned back in the seat to try to restore feeling in my arms and neck,telling myself not to act so stupid and reminding myself that I drove us here and I had the key. It wasn't like he could leave me stranded if I didn't arrive at the same time he did.

The left arm now hurt at the elbow, like I had struck my funny bone on something, but it wasn't funny and it wasn't quite that intense. I kept splashing water on my arms and shoulders and that seemed to help. Once, when the dark clouds gathered behind me I tried to paddle harder and faster and did for about 100 strokes... yes, I was counting. It is the thing I do when I want to give up... only thirty more and then you can rest, thirty more after that and then you can take a break...come on another thirty, you can do it... I am my own personal trainer is this regard, but I don't ever get mad when I push myself, so I guess that is a good thing. Let someone else push me and I would probably slap them. Again, not really, but I would want to.

Now I was getting worried,. I could hear traffic, so knew I was close, but saw no signs of any other humans. I wasn't afraid of falling out or getting eaten by the alligator my friend saw earlier, but I didn't want to stay on the water all night and didn't want to get caught in a storm with aluminum paddle shafts either, still I paddled on.

Was this trip worth it? I had expected or hoped to find more shark's teeth. I knew better. Why was I so unlucky at finding things that others just stumbled over accidentally? It seemed my metaphor for life.

When I finally got to the clearing my friend was there waiting. He had set up a series of rocks to mark the location and help me to step out without sinking in the mud, so I felt a little bad getting mildly upset with him earlier. Besides, I liked to think of myself as a strong independent woman, so what did it matter really?

i have never been so glad to see the tops of the old white port-o-lets, not that I had to go potty, but that it meant I had found my way home and the trip was over. I could barely stand up and had to walk bent over for several feet before I could even straighten up.I still had no feeling in my left hand and a burning pain in my right shoulder, but said nothing and hauled kayaks to the truck with my best game face on.

Shark Tooth Beach

Looking back at Elba Island to the west
Looking back at Elba Island to the west
Huge oak down, even had a tree fort built in it.
Huge oak down, even had a tree fort built in it.

Upon reflection it was not all bad and I would go there again

After I got home and showered and cleaned things up as much as possible, I tried to find the very few and very small sharks teeth I had managed to scavenge, but they seemed to have gotten lost, so it was like the whole trip was wasted, but upon reflection, later, it really wasn't so bad and I really wasn't mad with my friend. He had a penchant for doing crazy things and getting other people in trouble who went along with them, so it wasn't like I wasn't aware.

A few months later we went back, this time with a larger group and some women who were not into competing to see who could get there fastest and stuck with the group on the way back. I would highly suggest this is the best way to go, or better yet, take a real boat, but be careful of the cargo ships and tides as you can still get into trouble.

There was also another sandy beach to the west that looked promising on the Elba Island cut, but I would recommend you have a strong set of arm muscles and a patient partner to kayak either route. It was not a leisurely paddle either time by any means and at times felt like Poseidon was underneath the water pulling us back with a giant rubber band.

The beach may be secret, but a lot of people go there. We found just as many teeth on top of the sand as we did under it, but it was fun sifting the sand in a hardware style frame. The second trip back we found hundreds of little black shark teeth near the rising bluff walls, but it seemed the island had eroded even more so its no telling how long it will continue to exist there, though the trees on one side and marsh on the other should afford it some protection over the coming years.

The fellow we passed on our first trip, who found the biggest pieces, had floats on his sifting frame so he could sift in the water, where there is less weight to handle as the wet sand did take its toll on already tired arms.

A simple garden trowel is all it takes to dig into the sand and you really should cover up or flatten out your holes to prevent more beach erosion or someone twisting an ankle.

We know that people have discovered some pretty good finds and it is possible that new storms and high tides wash up debris from the ocean and unearth larger finds. If you go, take a cell phone in a sealed up bag, your camera, sun screen, lots and lots of water, a snack or two to replenish tired muscles and sunglasses and hat. You might even want to bring a scarf to tie around your face if the wind picks up to keep the sand from pelting you in all directions and a poncho that snap down to help protect from rain.

Just be mindful of the tides as when high tide comes, it comes in really fast and if you are further down the beach you will find that you get trapped with no sand to walk on, only mud or downed tree areas that can trap you in. We had no problem with bugs along the beach, but further inland toward the trees, both the mosquitoes and biting flies were plentiful.

It is a trip worth taking if you are with a group that meets your needs or speed or casualness and it affords a good view of the Rails to Trails area when you get up close to the main area. We saw no actual sharks or dolphins, but lots of shore birds; pelicans, egrets, crows, red wing blackbirds, seagulls and terns.

The water is kind of dirty and hard to see through so not the best for swimming, but the pebbled beach is a welcome relief from the mud. Don't expect to find any great treasures or a shark's tooth as big as your hand, though rarely it is not impossible.

The neatest thing I found on the whole trip was a rusted metal docking loop about four feet high from one of the cargo ships that looked like a giant hangman's noose and a skull sized piece of coral, both of which I left behind, which reminds me, if you do go, bring a zip lock or mesh bag to haul your goodies home and if you kayak, tie everything down as if you expect to be tipped over, then you won't lose your precious haul if a rogue wave hits.

Maybe you will have a better time at finding your special treasure, but as for us, I guess we will have to keep looking and see what the future brings. You never know, there could be buried treasure out there just waiting to be discovered and you might just be the one to discover it! Good luck with that!!!

What and where is your favorite place to find shark teeth?

Where do you find most of your shark teeth?

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