The tranquil waters of the Peace River made national headlines when two Central Florida divers uncovered a 50-pound, 4-foot-long, fossilized leg bone from a Columbian mammoth. An extinct relative of the Asian elephant that roamed the Earth more than 10,000 years ago, this large bone was a significant find.
“Many people don’t realize that our freshwater rivers and creeks located in the interior of our state are exposing fossils and remnants of ancient sea life,” says Caryn “Ryn” Johnson, owner and “kayak concierge” of H2O Adventures & More. “This is because the ocean once covered the entire state of Florida, and the evidence of ancient marine life lies buried here.
“It is intriguing to me that things that lived millions of years ago—marine and land animals—left behind evidence that can be found today in the Peace River. Just waiting to be revealed, some fossils found in the Peace River and in areas near Venice, Florida, have been classified from the late Miocene to the early Pleistocene Epoch’s—23 million to 11,000 years ago.”
Before discovering her passion for fossil hunting, Ryn—a graduate of University of South Florida and a determined environmentalist—had a 20-year career as a counselor for first-time juvenile offenders in Hillsborough County.
An invitation from friends in 2019 led Ryn to go paddleboarding and fossil hunting along the Peace River. Her adventurous nature piqued, and she launched a kayaking business.
The next year, she took groups of friends and friends of friends of all ages to explore the Peace River from Fort Meade south to Zolfo Springs. She also led digging and diving adventures at beaches in the Venice area. The business benefited as outdoor excursions offered brief respites from COVID-19 restrictions.
“These excursions continue to provide nearby opportunities for getting out into nature and getting some exercise while practicing social distancing all at the same time,” Ryn notes.
Flowing 106 miles through Central Florida, the Peace River was called Rio de la Paz (River of Peace) on 16th century Spanish charts. It appeared as Peas Creek or Pease Creek on later maps.
The native Creek and later the Seminole called it River of Long Peas due to the abundance of pea vines along its banks.
The river originates at the confluence of Saddle Creek and Peace Creek northeast of Bartow in Polk County. It flows south through Fort Meade in Polk County and into Hardee County, then to Arcadia in DeSoto County and southwest into the Charlotte Harbor estuary at Punta Gorda in Charlotte County.
The river’s drainage basin is almost 1,400 square miles. Most of the northern watershed comprises an area known as “Bone Valley” because so many fossils have turned up there.
Pleistocene, Pliocene and Miocene fossils were found throughout the river area, and phosphate deposits were discovered.
As sea levels fluctuated with Earth’s climate cycles over millions of years, layers of sediment on the banks and bottoms of the river constantly shifted and eroded, freeing remnants of deposited prehistoric species.
Awaiting discovery are plentiful and rich fossil deposits of fragmented teeth and bones from sharks, giant sloths, camels, llamas, saber-tooth cats, jaguars, giant armadillos, horses, gators, barracuda mastodon and mammoth; sand dollars, agatized coral and shells; turtle carapace; and deer antlers.
Missing from that list are dinosaur fossils, because dinosaurs became extinct prior to Florida rising from the sea.
“According to scientists, 95% of every type of plant and animal ever to live on Earth has yet to be discovered,” Mark Renz writes in “Fossiling in Florida.” “In other words, only 5% of the total sum of life on Earth has been accounted for. So, we amateurs have countless opportunities to discover something new—or rather, something old that’s new.”
Forays into nature-filled settings offer possibilities to find not only a piece of Florida history, but a new hobby. Armed with a shovel, sifter, maybe a snorkel and a keen eye, opportunities abound. Adventurers are almost guaranteed to find sharks’ teeth.
The coveted and harder-to-find prize is a megalodon tooth from the largest and most fearsome shark that ever lived. Dominating the oceans millions of years ago, these giants could measure up to 65 feet long—almost the length of two school buses—and with teeth up to 7 inches long. They have been found in DeSoto, Polk and Hardee counties.
October through April are considered prime time, but hunting can be done any time of the year. Ryn plans her river excursions by determining accessibility, weather, wind and water levels.
“Sometimes I feel like I am a meteorologist, an event planner and guide because of the continual monitoring of conditions to get out on the water,” she says.
The Peace River’s water level is solely controlled by rainwater. Ryn says the best time to hunt fossils is when the water is 12 inches below normal level, allowing explorers to stand in the middle of the river to dig and sift. When river levels are high, the best way to find fossils is to explore feeder creeks or to dig, scuba dive or snorkel in the Gulf of Mexico in the Venice area.
Ryn—who describes herself as a bit of a nerd—has had success searching gravel piles and around sandbars or bends in the creeks and river where the gravel collects, and identifying her finds.
“I love the library and researching things,” she says. “I am a member of the Tampa Bay Fossil Club, have attended fossil fests and have spoken to numerous people in the field, learning along the way. When I am passionate about something, I dive into it and go, go, go.”
She also continues to care for the environment that is so important to her and her business. When leading excursions on the Peace River, Ryn provides collection bags for participants to gather trash in and around creeks and rivers where they dig. For their efforts, she rewards them with discounts on future adventures.
Whether you opt to paddle, hike or dive, Ryn encourages you to dig and lose yourself sifting gravel and unearthing history.
“It is clearly a wonderful opportunity to get unplugged, but it’s tough to stop looking once you get the hang of it,” she says. “If you don’t believe it, come see for yourself.”
Know the Law Before Digging
Fossil hunting is regulated nationally and individually by states. In Florida, you can collect all the sharks’ teeth, invertebrates and plant fossils you want, but hunting for other fossils requires buying an annual permit for $5 from University of Florida.
You may dig into the riverbed, but not into riverbanks. Those are considered private property. Digging into the riverbank also speeds erosion and can cause the banks to collapse, which becomes dangerous.