Indy and the Shark Tooth Dive Trip

What follows is an adventure report from my dive trip over August 4/5, 2007, to Topsail Island, diving with Spear-It Charters. For me, this would be a trip of Firsts, both positive and not-quite-so positive. And yes, it's long, and boring. Good for insomnia. Don't read any further if you want to stay awake today.

A quick background: Captain Tom of Spear-It Dive Charters runs people out to a couple points some 35-46 miles (nautical; equivalent land miles is 42-55) into the Atlantic from Topsail Island, North Carolina. At these two spots are ledges which seem to 'catch' debris as it is being pushed in from deeper in the Atlantic during surging storms. Capt Tom maintains a webpage that you can go to to check out all that he does (from fossilized shark tooth hunts to spear fishing to underwater photography, reef and wreck diving, etc). If you go there, go to the menu links on the left side and click on "Photos".

From here you have two things you can do. First is to scan right down to the bottom and check out the last four photos on the page. This is representative of the teeth that people have found on dives. At the top of the page are three video links. The second link was taken from the 'inshore' ledge (the outer ledge is where we went this trip, and looks nothing like the sandy stretch in the video!). You can get an idea of how easy it *might* be to find teeth - but some amount of skill, eye calibration and luck are involved.

But back to our story.

Last October I tried to go out with the crew, not knowing much more than what I had learned after 15 dives. Which, really, wasn't as much as I know now. We ended up not going because the seas were 5' (there were 5' waves out there on avg) and the Capt said he didn't want to take our money to take us out there, watch us get seasick, not let us go in the water (due to the problems of getting back on the boat again) and bringing us back for no gain. The trip was canceled both days. Due to the unpredictable conditions of the weather and seas, about 50% of the trips are canceled. So we rescheduled for this year. Weekend of Aug 3/4. In the meantime, I took every opportunity I could to get more diving time under my belt. By dive 20 my buoyancy finally started coming into form; I wasn't 'bouncing' up and down all over the place underwater. I felt more confident in my gear and readiness overall.

I took Friday off. Partly because I had a doctor's appt, but partly because I wanted to get on the road before the heavy south-of-DC traffic built up. Desired to get on the road by 10:30a. Aimed to get on the road by 11:00a. Actually got on the road at 11:30a. :(

Traffic was...heavy. Could have been worse. But it was heavy nonetheless. It took me 9-1/2 hours to make the trip down. Most of the hold up was from traffic.

Finally got to the motel (Breezeway) in Topsail at 9:00pm. The other three guys staying in the room (Garrett who first told me about these trips, Garrett's friend and dive buddy Aaron, and another veteran shark tooth diver Paul) arrived about an hour or so later. We quickly spread ourselves around the room (not meant for four guys ;-) ) and crashed. Well, they crashed. I lay awake, anxious and nervous about the coming dives. It'd be the first time I'll have dove off a boat since I got my certification in Thailand a year and a half ago (dives 1-9), and it'd be a much smaller boat than what I had been on, and as I learned as the lights went out, the buddy system we are trained in observing is....loose during these dives. In fact, most people don't dive with a buddy on these shark tooth trips. Everyone pretty much solo dives.

Now having been under, I can understand why that is. While you are down there looking around, your buddy wants to be looking, too, for their 'share of the loot'. As you stir up the bottom, you will very likely affect their ability to see things, and they yours (you're already screwing up your own viz locally). Also, you could bump heads as both of you are focused intently on the seabed below you while you swim along (two of the guys on this trip almost rammed head-on during one of the dives). Still, knowing that it was more or less an 'every man for himself' type of diving, and knowing that I was reasonably confident with my gear and stuff, I really wanted SOMEone nearby in case I needed them. Garrett graciously suggested I stay within view of him and Aaron. While that meant probably being 20 or 40' away, at least we could see each other. Or I them. ;-) It made me feel a tiny bit better.

Still nervous, though.

Morning came all too quickly. I had gotten 4 hours sleep total (woke up earlier than needed as well; still anxious). Got a shower ("why? you're going to be getting wet anyhow!" "this is my version of morning coffee! :-P " ), and started assembling our gear at the dock. Capt Tom and his weekday mate Alan were already there unloading the tanks and prepping the boat (Tom's usual weekend mate is a guy named Mark, but he had to be out of town this weekend for a family emergency, so Alan stepped up to bat...or dive, that is). Under cloudy skies we loaded up stuff onto the 25' twin 250 hp Yakima engine boat and headed on out.

I've never been seasick before. Just so you know what's coming. ;-)

The ride out was a lot of up and down. The seas were 2-4' with an occasional 5' wave in the mix. There were rain squalls in the area (but none on us). Riding a small boat like this is kinda sorta vaguely like riding a trotting horse. You need to move kinda sorta with the boat lest you just get thrown about like a doll. And on a smaller boat, the more magnified the waves are. We started out about 22 knots, but very soon throttled back to 15-16 knots when Capt Tom saw the conditions were not letting up as we went further out.

We were destined to the outer ledge (46 nm out). Apparently the odds of finding larger teeth were greater there than the inner ledge (35 nm out). And the teeth would be in better shape (by the time they reached the inner ledge, they'd be fairly beat up and worn). It took us the better part of 3 hours at 16 knots to get there. The first hour was okay. Up and down, up and down. Once in a while, biiiig up then down (5' wave). I was feeling it a little, but it wasn't too bad.

Then we stopped for a pee break.

Suddenly the rocking of the boat changed dramatically. And my stomach decided "Ohhhh, thaz not so good...".

We weren't underway again for 15 minutes when the aforementioned stomach forcibly rebelled. I had enough time to get to a side of the boat - everyone who had seen the look in others that was now on my face had already moved out of my way before I realized what was going on.

Well, there was breakfast! Now fish food. Though a couple of the group commented that I should have eaten something a little more dense and chunky than a banana and muffin so the fish would have something to actually *chew* on.

Nice guys, them. ;-)

Garrett congratulated me. I was now going to be known as "sick guy"...or, at least, knowing he might get sick (and that he didn't take any dramamine), "sick guy number one". Ultimately half the chartering group (there were six of us) would end up in an unhappy state.

We continued underway. I managed to be okay until we got to the dive site. Then...twice more I got sick while others suited up and went in. They all told me, and I whole heartedly believed them, that getting down below the waves - or just even off the boat! - would help. But suiting up was....I can't describe the level of discomfort I was feeling due to being seasick and trying to get into a skin-tight wetsuit, put weights on, a heavy tank and BC (buoyancy control device), fins, and make sure I had everything in my diver's checklist noted. Combine this with the fact I was more or less going buddyless (Aaron and Garrett were already down) did nothing to make things easier. Add to this that this would be my first time going *backwards* from a sitting position into the water just increased my anxiety levels ("how far down below me is it?!?!? 2 feet???? I'm gonna die!!!!").

I was suited up, ready to go in. And I sat there on the gunwale, breathing hard and fast.

"Are you going in?" (Capt Tom)


"Just go backwards. You're ready to go." (Alan)

"I am going in. See? My fins are off the deck."

"Your butt's still on the gunwale."

They could have probably put a finger on my shoulder and over I would have went. But they were kind (I was sick guy #1, after all!) and waited until I was ready. I wasn't. I went over backwards anyhow.

The water wasn't as far down as I had feared. But it took a couple minutes for me to calm myself down. then grabbing the line, I went under (we were admonished strongly that due to the current and waves we absolutely HAD to follow/hold onto the line down and up; none of this free floating stuff between bottom and top, because it would be EXTREMELY difficult to see anyone in these wave conditions - me, I have NO problems following lines up OR down! :-) ).

Below me Garrett and Aaron saw I was in the water and headed on down. I went slow, equalizing my ears in what I refer to as the 'hard way' (holding nose and blowing out it to pop the ears). After 20 dives I still cannot get the pressure to equalize through jaw clicking or swallowing techniques. I was pleased to note I was not the only one in the part to do the hold-nose-and-blow technique. Most of the other guys were doing the same.You just have to blow GENTLY.

Random bottom topography shot

Anyway, down I went. At 40' I could start to make out the bottom topography. There were light patches and lots of dark areas. At 50' I could tell the dark areas were composed of undersea grasses and coral and sponges and lordy knows what else. The light patches were rocky and sandy 'canyons' in between.

At the bottom I found myself deeper than I had ever been - 102'! Prior to this, 92'. At this depth, that 10' difference is a big deal. It really affects your bottom time (the deeper you go, the less time you have to be at that depth as compared to a higher level). Say, for example (without running the numbers against a chart) at 100' your bottom time might be 20 minutes. At 80' or so your bottom time could be 30 minutes. At 110' your bottom time could be a mere 8 minutes. There are, btw, a number of factors that play into extending or limiting one's bottom time, such as the gas mix you are breathing. I was on 33% nitrox - which is an air mix that is 33% oxygen, 67% nitrogen, rather than 'standard' air which is 21% oxygen 79% nitrogen. Details about this I'll spare you for now. Or for good (you can go to wikipedia to get an overview of 'nitrox'), but suffice it to say, it helps ward off decompression sickness and extends one's bottom time during dives (if only by a few minutes the deeper you go).

As I settled at the bottom a weird-looking fish came up to me. A hogfish I would later learn. To date all the fish I'd ever encountered (in Thailand or in local quarries) might come close, but you could never touch them. They bolted to a safer distance when you stuck your finger or hand out towards them. I tested the hogfish's reflexes just to see it move.

It didn't. I poked it. It just looked at me. "Food? Food?" it seemed to ask. Producing none, it went off to find someone else to bug.

I checked my computer (which I had programmed to 32% nitrox for an added safety measure). I had 35 minutes of bottom time! Hot damn! So I noted where Garrett and Aaron went and followed behind and parallel to them a bit, searching as I went

I searched and searched and searched and SEARCHED. I found one whale bone fragment, part of a rib. No shark teeth. Garrett and Aaron drifted over to where I was (or I them...or we just ended up at the same area; I really don't know). Aaron was having issues with buoyancy and his computer, though I didn't know that. And Garrett was doing a deco dive (decompression dive; he had an extra pony bottle to breathe from at his various rest stops) whereas Aaron and I were not. So when I turned my dive, Aaron decided to go up with me. Garrett stayed down longer.

Up top I was fairly unhappy. Not one tooth. Everyone else (except Aaron, who also got nothing, but he spent his entire time dealing with buoyancy issues and fighting other stuff in his gear, had no real time to look) had gotten at least three, if not a dozen. I was somewhat disheartened. I suck.

Then during my surface interval I got sick again. :-(

And shortly after this Aaron got REALLY sick! The sun had come out, the seas had calmed (1-3' waves now), but he was wiped out in one stroke. He even bailed on his second dive. Didn't have the energy to get up after his surface time interval and redress. Garrett also got sick, but you would only have known that if you were looking straight at him when he leaned over the side. He gets sick VERY quietly.

The other guys either had taken dramamine beforehand, or just don't get seasick. Alan noted that he hadn't seen anyone get as sick as I had in a long time.

The order we went into the water was Paul (probably the most experienced of the charter group), then the two guys who dive out of the Solomon Islands (Mike, who is either is part of or owns the dive shop there, and Gary, who is his dive partner), then Garrett, Aaron and then myself. Once the last of us were up, Alan (the mate) would go down with a scooter and do some hunting of his own. He came back with half a sack full of teeth. He also dug us a bunch of holes to search through, but none of us really clued into that and thought the holes were ones he had already excavated teeth from. As it turned out, they were *filled* with teeth, as at the end of his second dive his goody bag was bulging. Dammit.

Anyway, when Alan came up from his first dive, he told us there was a hammerhead swimming around in the area. They'd seen her before, and that she would not bother anyone. She was just checking us out and would move on.

A hammerhead. Of all the sharks I'd like to see, that would be the one.

After an hour and a half of surface time we started kitting up and going back in again. I was too heavy on my last dive so I had taken off 8 lbs of weights. Still wearing 20 lbs with my 7mm suit. The Captain thought I could go lighter, but I didn't want to fuss with the weight system any further. One of my weight retaining clips had busted earlier in the morning and I thought if I fussed with it more, it would break clean off. I didn't have a spare in my save-a-dive box (yet).

I was still feeling the effects of being sick, but I knew I wanted to be DOWN THERE. If not finding teeth, then at least just to be out of the wave action and off the boat a while. Again, of the group, I was last in (except for Alan, who would go very last and free the anchor after his last tooth hunt).

I got down and started following Garrett's trail (partly because he was using my reel I had borrowed from Capt Tom; I had left it behind on dive one so Garrett could follow it back to the anchor when he was ready, and he left it down there for dive two). Halfway out from the anchor I saw a tooth!! Laying right there in the sand. Garrett must have looked just the other way to not have seen it; I couldn't understand - THERE IT WAS!

I grabbed it and stuck it in my goody bag. Then I checked my bottom time limit again. Dammit, I had 5 minutes left. Playing conservative, I turned my dive at this point.

But I had a tooth. :-)

Up top I found the other guys had gotten half dozen each. Bugger! And that my monstrous find was "only" a 4-1/2 incher. Moderate sized for the finds here. Three of the other guys (including Garrett when he came up) had at least one 6 incher (the 'prize' size). And most of theirs were in decent condition. Mine...pretty beat up.

But it was my first find. They say you always remember your first. ;-)

While I was down, I had looked around for the hammerhead. Never saw it. I did see a plethora of other fish, some identifiable (triggerfish, grouper, jacks, sardines, clown, puffers (small), parrot) and many, many others that I don't know. I took some photos of the bottom topography and some of the fish, but they barely came out. Been too long since I've played with the underwater camera, and between my poor aiming ability and the sediment stirred up in the water, most of the shots were of 'eh' quality.

By now the seas up top had calmed a LOT. 1-2' waves, sunny skies. Much more civil! We motored on back to shore. Along the way I saw some bird-like thing flee out of our wake. There are bluish-grey birds way out here?!? Nope! It was a flying fish! How cool is that? I tried to spot more. Mostly I failed miserably. Over the course of the next hour or so I managed to see 7 more flying fish. Paul, Gary and Mike all tried to help me spot them, and I think they racked up around 50 or so ("there's one right there" "there are two, no three!" "There's one right next to you!!") before they decided to take naps. I could not see the darn things! Man, I suck.

Back in Topsail we rinsed off our gear and headed inland a short piece for food at one of the locals-only type establishments (by "locals only" means tourists typically don't go there, but the locals do to avoid the tourists ;-) ). The food was average. But by all accounts, better than the tourists restaurants in Topsail! Make note...

Afterwards we went to check out a brand new local dive shop (where I picked up a couple more weight retaining clips for my save-a-dive box) and then stopped at the nearby Food Lion to pick up some supplies (like - dramamine!!!!). Back at Topsail the sun had set. Paul and I hung out on the beach checking out the stars and chatting about all kinds of space things. Garrett and Aaron took their small kayaks out into the surf to, well, surf! Every once in a while in the darkness we'd hear a "waaahoooooo!" as one of them caught a wave. Once they were done we waited until 9:38 when an iridium flare event was to occur. And it did, right on schedule.

After that, back to the room and lights were OUT. Moments later I was asleep.

7 hours later I woke up. We had the AC cranked, and I was freezing. I turned it down, then got up to shower after another hour. Again, 6am, Tom and Alan were unloading tanks and prepping the boat. The sun was just coming up over the horizon. Deep red ball of fire. The forecast for today was for a MUCH better day than yesterday. But I had already taken dramamine the night before and twice this morning - I wasn't going to take any chances!

Loaded, we headed out. As the seas were all but flat (1' waves) we motored onward at 23 knots. Including the pee breaks, it took us just over 2 hours to get to our destination. I was in the water this time by 9:30a!

Aaron was going to follow me down, as his dive computer was not working, he was going to turn his dive when I turned mine. Everyone else was running on their own gear. About 60' down Aaron was having issues and turned his dive. He was still not feeling good, and wasn't comfortable with everything. He thought it better at this point to stay on the surface and didn't dive again the rest of the trip. I was having issues keeping my mask from fogging up, which was a pain. But I managed to use what tricks Ive learned and continued downward to the anchor. Once I tied in my reel I headed off in a direction no one else's lines had gone.

I hunted around and used up just about all my bottom time. I found...no teeth. I found one LARGE (near football-sized) whale vertebrae. I stuffed that in my goody sack and turned my dive. My time down there was up. I went back to the anchor line and fought trying to rewind the reel. It got snarled and tangled. Dammit. I had no time left down there to fuss with it. I'd deal with it at my safety stop.

On my way up at about 50-60' below the surface I suddenly found myself *surrounded* by a school of jacks (or coho salmon). It was just weird, they were SO close to me! I was still fighting with my reel (trying not to drop it while trying to untangle it) and fought to get my camera out, so never thought to try and touch them. By the time I had the camera ready, they had drifted off. Dangit.

Up top everyone commented on the size of the vertebrae I had brought up. Capt Tom asked if I saw any teeth near it. No, I hadn't. He seemed very disappointed. Maybe teeth are often near whale bone of that size? That's the impression I got, anyway, from his reaction.

The seas were flat (gently rolling) and the sun shone brightly. The captain and the six of us sat there going over our respective finds, snacking, discussing the school of jacks (they apparently swarmed around all the divers as they went up to their safety stops), and the barracuda that was sitting off 30-40' away from the anchor line (I never saw the barracuda either). Then Alan came up, excited as all can get out.

"Did you guys see the sailfish!!"

What?? SAILFISH?!?!? #&%^*(#!!! I'm up here, in the blazing sun, enjoying watermelon bits, and Alan got to see sailfish! Not only did he see sailfish, he saw them working the baitball - the baitball which we all mistook as a "school" of jacks. It seems that the jacks were using the divers as protection from the sailfish, who were circling out at the edges of visibility. Since the jacks were SO CLOSE (a couple of the guys said they had petted and chin-scratched a couple of the jacks), we ended up focusing on them, not what was beyond. No, none of us saw the sailfish!

Alan relayed how he watched for several minutes the sailfish gracefully swooping around then diving through the jacks. Said it was the absolute most beautiful thing he's ever seen in his years of diving.

Finally the surface interval was over. One last dive! Man, I hoped to find some teeth. :-(

I went over last, but Garrett had regulator and computer issues so came back up to deal with them. He would come down again as I was going back up at the end of my dive.

I got to the anchor and to where Alan's line was. He said he had dug some holes for us to excavate out there where his line was. As there were three other guys ahead of me already, I held no hope of finding anything at the holes. They would have gotten there, picked them clean, and stirred up the bottom. I went off parallel and zig-zagged to the left of Alan's line (I opted to not carry a line of my own, as my plan was to stay within visual sight of Alan's line; that worked out just fine). While I was down, I saw two of our divers (Mike and Gary) almost run headlong into each other. They were coming from opposite directions, and being so intent on the seabed below them, didn't see each other. Whoops! :-D Almost a Laurel and Hardy moment.

I continued searching. In vain, it seemed. I found nothing. Well, no teeth. Found bunches of rib shards from whales. I picked some up, but stopped after a while. I had too much whale; I wanted shark teeth.


I eventually found myself at the end of Alan's reel. I was now at my deepest ever - 106'! No one around, and the sediment didn't look all stirred up (turns out none of the three guys got to the end of Alan's reel). There were depressions all over the place. I couldn't tell what was a 'depression' vs what he had blasted open with his scooter's propeller. I poked around in one, found nothing. Poked around in another. Nothing. My bottom time was counting down the final minutes. I poked into one more hole. In the stirred up sediment I spotted a tooth!!!! Not large, but dammit, a tooth! I grabbed through the silt and somehow caught it. A nice broadtoothed mako. Into the goody bag it went!

3 minutes bottom time left. I dug desperately again. My hand clasped on another tooth, same size as the one I found yesterday: a 4-1/2 inch megalodon. Pretty beat up, but overall intact. I stuffed it in my sack.

1 minute bottom time. I had to go. I floated up to 90' then 85' to give myself several minutes of bottom time (a 'trick' several of the other divers taught me early on in the trip, in case I were to run out of bottom time). I followed Alan's line (20' below me and still easily visible) back to the anchor (I saw Alan pass beneath me when I was halfway back, motoring along on his scooter). Then up the anchor I went.

I paused at 40'. There, maybe 20' away was a large silver fish - the barracuda! Sweet! Didn't see the hammerhead, didn't see the sailfish, but at least I got to see the 'cuda. I snapped a photo (got him in it, though not very centered), and continued up to my safety stop. I hung out there a while, just taking in the last minutes of being in the ocean, burning my gas down to just under 500 psi (I started at 4000), then went up.

Everyone's finds were examined as people came up. Gary had suffered my luck on the earlier dive and came up with nothing. I had two teeth. Garrett, Mike, and Paul each had a half dozen or more teeth, and Mike had possibly the largest one found on the trip yet - maybe 6-1/2 inches. The thing was huge and beautiful. In very good shape.

Then Alan came up with his goody bag bulging. Heh.

The seas were now about as flat as they could be without being a mirror. We motored back to Topsail Is at about 23 knots. I watched for flying fish, and saw a great many. In that first hour I lost count at around 50 (I saw several pods of 6-8 or more leap and fly from our wake at once). Then I noticed that everyone else, including the captain and mate, were sleeping. I was the only one awake. A beautiful day out on the ocean. I was tired. I laid back and took a nap.

1.5" mako and two 4.5" megs

That was the end of the trip. No further events all the way back to Topsail. We unloaded, hosed down the gear, packed our vehicles, and headed home. I got on the road a bit after 4pm, home a bit after midnight, taking some backroads (and one wrong turn) to avoid the interstates initially (which would be crowded with people leaving the barrier islands). In Virginia went through rain showers and heavy but mostly moving traffic (rarely did we slow down below 40 mph, and never did we come to a complete stop like on the drive down). Unloaded the car, took a shower (was still salt-crusty), and crashed into bed.

And that was the trip! It was a great time (despite being seasick, and despite not finding many teeth). I'm definitely going to do it again, and am toying with going out on the November trip (need to decide soon, as there are only one or two slots left).

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Mk - Sept 5, 2007