Amelia Island, Florida, the setting for my first and second novels, “Surfing Treasure’s Wake” and soon, “The Cardinal Pirate” is one of the most beautiful places one can ever wish to find. Wide and sandy beaches surround three sides of this island with the tranquil Amelia River snuggling the remaining western side.
The Atlantic Ocean pushes its waters against these beaches and with each receding wave reveals potential treasure of the kind that makes grown men and women double over with anticipation. This physical and emotional reaction is known around these parts as the Fernandina Shuffle and once one learns how to perform this patient dance of contortion finding treasure is soon to follow.
What is this treasure to be found with each receding wave that causes such a reaction? It must be something very valuable. Could it be Spanish doubloons? Well, there is an ongoing search by treasure hunters for a Spanish galleon that sunk somewhere in the waters around Amelia. But this is not it. Is it something as simple as looking for lost jewelry left behind by some tourist too sunburned at the end of the day to notice their loss? No again. The items that cause such a reaction are petrified sharks teeth.
To understand why this treasure is so abundant one needs to understand the terrain, as any good treasure hunter will tell you. The St. Mary’s and Amelia rivers intersect at the northwest corner of the island. These merged waters then flow between Amelia and Cumberland islands past Ft. Clinch, through the Cumberland Sound and into the Atlantic. Should one travel through this sound, which also happens to be one of the breeding areas for the Shovelhead shark, a smaller cousin of the more famous Hammerhead, up the St. Mary’s river they would find themselves approaching the King’s Bay Naval Station, in Georgia, which is home to a portion of the Navy’s submarine fleet. In order to allow these deep drafting subs to traverse through the Cumberland Sound and up the St. Mary’s river, the Navy has this sound dredged each year. The sand is dumped on the beaches on the north end of Amelia from Ft. Clinch down past Main Beach and beyond. This serves two purposes; the first is to replenish the beaches after the winter storms and the second, although not intentional, is to deposit all kinds of petrified sharks teeth onto these beaches. The sharks teeth that survive the dreaded dredger by not being crushed are then just waiting to be revealed by tide and surf. This is when the Fernandina Shuffle epidemic breaks out and is the most contagious.
The types of teeth to be found are varied. Tiger, Mako, Hammerhead, just to name a few, have all left their teeth ages ago around these waters. Some of these black, rock-like teeth are huge and easily fill not only the palm of one’s hand but can cover the entire hand. The largest of these teeth can command easily $250 and more. I suppose that if one wanted too, one could make money by selling these on EBay. Let the bidding begin!
There are many variations of the Fernandina Shuffle. The basic step is to simply walk in a zigzag pattern along the water line as the waves crash and retreat, with head down and a slight bend at the waist. Those that are more expert at spotting this black shiny treasure might choose instead to ignore the waist bend and simply hold their hands behind their back as if undertaking a leisurely country stroll. These variations can be described using a normal distribution and its bell shaped curve. At one end of the shuffle variation curve is the Hunchback of Notre Dame style. This is perhaps the most common form of this dance as it is practiced by the many tourists that visit Amelia. This version is characterized by a strong bend at the waist, head close to the sand and arms hung low. I’ve used this variation many times and I must say that this is my preferred method, until my back begins to ache; a small price to pay for finding such treasure. The experts at the other end of the bell curve walk erect, head held high, with a long handled wire mesh scooper in hand and floppy hat on head.
However, the easiest way to visualize this wide variety of styles is to envision man’s evolutionary chart. At the far left, the dancing monkey standing erect with its arms extended and hands hung at ninety degree angles represents mostly kids and the inebriated acting out on the beach. The next evolutionary step is the hunchbacked version described above. The remaining evolutionary steps characterized by an ever increasing straightening of the back represents the increasing degrees of expertise until modern man or the most expert of shark teeth hunters is reached; just need to add the wire mesh scooper and a floppy hat.
A lot of these teeth are sold locally to the many tourist oriented shops on Centre Street in downtown Fernandina Beach. Many are made into necklaces by wrapping wire around the upper triangular end to be hung from necklaces, bracelets, and key rings. Some are way too big for this and are better used as ornaments, presents, paper weights, beer can openers or just thrown into one’s ever increasing collection of teeth.
It’s warned by some experts that it’s just a matter of time until the next pandemic illness sweeps the globe infecting millions with whatever happens to be the virus de jour. I’m here to tell you that I think it has already begun, and right here on Amelia. Shark tooth hunting is very contagious, much like chicken pox, and once caught is extremely hard to cure. There simply is no vaccine. The only thing one can do is to give into this illness and join the many others so infected as I have; as such, the tide is dropping so I need to go feed my illness.
Doug Hanau, author of "Surfing Treasure's Wake" and soon, "The Cardinal Pirate."