A hobby turned business with BITE
Bill Eberlein discovers ancient treasures in Savannah rivers
Since arriving in Savannah in 1999 from Erie, PA, to work for Gulfstream, Bill Eberlein has “strapped on a tank” almost daily to dive Savannah’s local rivers and search through the dark and silt for fossilized teeth.
“I got hired at Gulfstream Aerospace here and moved in 1999,” Eberlein said. “I was certified as a diver in 1986 in Lake Erie. I mostly did shipwreck dives in the lake, but I never found anything valuable.”
Eberlein was excited at the opportunity to be in warmer, clearer water once he made the move to the Lowcountry.
“I did a lot of research on SCUBA message boards and was excited to have a longer boating season,” he said. “I actually ended up meeting a guy who also worked at Gulfstream who was a diver. He was the one who told me about how he and other friends would dive in the rivers for shark teeth.”
Eberlein met his colleague for lunch one day where he shared some of the megalodon teeth he’d collected diving.
“I was amazed,” Eberlein said. “I had heard of and seen pictures of megalodon and shark teeth, but I never knew they were that large. I also didn’t know you could find them diving in the rivers here… and, my God… to just find one.”
“I did a charter out of Hilton Head and when we got to the spot, I went down and dug like I would do in the lake shipwrecks. I did really well that first day and I was hooked.”
Eberlein said it is almost like an obsession for him.
“We were on a four-day workweek at Gulfstream—four 10-hour days—so I was able to go diving on my days off as well as on the weekend. Now, it’s daily.”
He would eventually move jobs to teach information technology at Savannah Tech.
“I went out so often and I would find so many teeth that I’d toss them into an empty pizza box and shove it under the bed. After a year, I had more pizza boxes under the bed than you can imagine.”
When the prehistoric fossils began piling up, Eberlein turned to eBay to sell some of them for extra money—help with boat expenses and fees.
But, using his computer skills, he built his first website to showcase his experience, background, dives, and his discoveries and found his new career.
“I wanted to be able to sell enough teeth every month to make a boat payment and it went beyond that quickly to where after a few years, I knew I could probably make a living at it.”
Even when the economy crashed in 2008, Eberlein quit his job at Savannah Tech to manage the business of finding and selling teeth on a full-time basis.
“I’ve never regretted it or looked back,” he said. “Not even once. It doesn’t feel like work to me. On the coldest, worst day, I’d rather dive than sit inside at a desk job.”
Diving for megalodon teeth is not an easy job. In addition to being a certified SCUBA diver, one also needs to expect zero visibility on such ventures into the water. While Eberlein has found somewhere upwards of 20,000 teeth doing anywhere from 400-500 dives per year, it’s often frustrating.
“When you’re getting certified as a diver, you’re told never to dive alone or in hazardous situations, yet here I am doing these deep, dark dives on my own.”
On a given day, he will do at least two dives per day in the morning and then be home by the early afternoon to examine his finds.
“I’m diving down anywhere from 40-60 feet and often looking for holes or the hard bottom,” he explained. “I have a favorite spot in the ocean that I go to that is almost 80 feet, but most materials I find in the rivers will be more in the 25–50-foot range.”
Once submerged, he settles on the bottom and begins to dig through the mud and sand on to where fossils lie.
“If I find fossilized whale bones—rib bones, vertebrae—I know I’m in a good location and I’m likely to make some good finds.”
Eberlein said he averages about three teeth per dive. He knows when he has his hands on a tooth because he can feel the enamel.
“I have a 10,000 lumens light I use underwater, but in conditions like that, it’s like using your high beams in the fog. Most areas have little to no visibility. But, the enamel on the tooth feels like glass—very slick.”
Eberlein scoffed and added. “There have been times I think I’ve got the right material out of the mud and it turns out to be… a stingray! You have to be very careful when you’re searching. The claws of the blue crab can also be a snapping surprise if they get you.”
When asked why the rivers around Savannah and the Lowcountry seem to be ideal spots for finding relics such as these, Eberlein explained, “It’s not so much about our waters specifically, rather these types of fossils seem to be found predominately from North Carolina all the way down the East coast to Florida more than anywhere else. These waters have traditionally been warmer areas that could provide a lot of food for the megalodon.”
However, there is a distinct difference between shark teeth and megalodon ones.
Eberlein noted, “Sharks teeth are loose and not imbedded like ours. They usually lose a lot of teeth from eating, so you’ll find more of them. The features of the teeth are similar to the megalodon’s which are thicker, larger, and have a bourrelet characteristic.” (Bourrelet is a French term for the ridge-like feel of the tooth.)
The largest megalodon tooth Eberlein has found to date measures 6 15/16 inches. “I have it in a safety deposit box because it is the discovery of a lifetime,” he said. He has been offered up to $10,000 for the tooth, but he doesn’t want to part with it.
Most of the teeth he discovers are worth about $100 each.
He stresses, though, “If you’re going into the battle of getting a boat, equipment, and diving, you better love hunting for fossils because it’s going to be a while before you’re successful at it.”
Eberlein said he has searched in about 300 spots and has only found teeth in about a dozen different ones. “Only about six or seven are worth going back to over and over again.”
According to Eberlein, there is no way to properly do carbon dating on megalodon fossils because they have been surrounded by mud and mineral that affect the color. Also, there is no organic matter to do proper tests. However, scientists state megalodon teeth date back anywhere from 2-10 million years old.
The experience of finding these fossils never grows old with Eberlein.
“I find myself in awe when I’m diving. There’s all of this emotional excitement and exhilaration. I could be going along for a while—in a bad spot—and I may be about to give up when I find a gigantic tooth.”
“To know it has just been here for millions of years and now it’s getting exposed… by me. I’m the one who found it. I love what I do and would still go diving even if I couldn’t sell the teeth anymore.”
“I think the most important thing that makes me feel really good is when a parent or grandparent calls me to say their kid or grandchild got all these expensive toys and a bike or such for Christmas, but it’s the megalodon tooth the kid can’t put down or take their eyes off.”
“Other folks will contact me throughout the year because the kid in their life is into dinosaurs and sharks and science and they want to get him/her a tooth.” Eberlein added, “I want that tooth to steal the kid away from video games and toward science and the Earth. It’s something real. It wasn’t made in a factory.”
Eberlein said it’s rewarding to hear stories of past holiday gifts that still mean something to people today. “A lot of times, someone tells me they got their child a tooth from me years ago and he or she still has it on their desk. It moves me to hear how kids are inspired and how a simple fossil can make an impact. It’s paleontology at its best.”
And, it’s in Savannah’s backyard.
While Eberlein does not take anyone out diving with him due to liability and safety issues, his finds can be viewed and purchased through his website megateeth.com.