Zigzag Surf Magazine

Michael Adams picks up some of the finest teeth in Cape Town. He sleeps in a disused railway tunnel near Milnerton Lagoon and walks to the beach each morning at dawn. First he rinses his face in the ocean, facing Table Mountain and the giant metal cranes of the container terminal; then he steps back to study the currents and pray.

“Just two or three teeth,” he asks, holding his shoes behind his back. “Just one good find.” He opens his eyes and sets off.

Adams, 29, has been collecting fossilized shark teeth in Table Bay for nearly two decades. The teeth are millions of years old and can fetch hundreds of dollars apiece on the international fossil market. Less valuable specimens, sold locally as trinkets or jewelry, are popular among tourists and children. Adams supplies a loose network of dealers, collectors and flea-market vendors, usually earning a fraction of what his discoveries are worth. The money is enough to tide him by between seasonal work as a commercial fisherman, which pays poorly and takes him to sea for weeks on end. On good days he picks up enough teeth to pocket a few hundred rand — he buys bread, soup mix and tea, cooking on fires lit in discarded paint tins. Other times he wanders the beach until the lighthouse powers up and the car park empties, returning to his shelter with nothing at all.

The teeth, which range from fingernail to palm-sized, lie scattered among shells, driftwood, pebbles, seaweed and trash. Often they are partially buried. Regularly spotting them requires skill, focus and extraordinary patience. Exceptional finds — megalodon teeth, flawless great white fossils — are the product of persistence and dumb luck. “It’s like looking for gold,” Adams said. “Very few people know this.” He walks slowly with his head bent forwards, leaving winding trails in the sand. Occasionally he nudges things loose with his toes. The activity is mentally exhausting. After a while the detritus blurs. The prospect of success becomes maddening. Every other object begins to resemble a tooth. The trick, Adams explained, is to scan the ground without looking too closely: in time your brain picks out the shapes automatically. “You must have the eye for this work,” he said.

Adams usually works alone but sometimes accompanies other collectors, who refer to themselves as ‘sharkies’, on their treks. It is possible to converse while doing this — all that’s needed is a certain degree of detachment. One cannot get too distracted while hunting for specimens. In this regard the pursuit of shark teeth is a meditative practice. “I walk and let my mind flow,” Adams said.

Adams is one of approximately 25 homeless men who earn a living picking up fossils in Table Bay. Many of them are addicted to tik, using their bounty to score from dealers who cruise the parking lots. “I’ve seen fights over teeth,” Adams said. “People will do anything to get their next packet.” He avoids these situations and keeps walking. “It’s no use being competitive. The teeth will be here tomorrow. I take things day by day.”

A beachcomber with methamphetamine in his system charges up and down the beach all night, feverishly scouring the sands by torchlight. Adams works more strategically, choosing his locations according to tidal movements and swell. “If there’s a rip current running, and the tide starts coming in, then the teeth will be on that side,” he said, hypothetically gesturing towards the harbour. “It isn’t difficult, but a lot of the guys don’t stop to think.”

Shark teeth are easiest to find in winter, when large swells bend into the bay and churn up the sand, bringing buried deposits to the surface. Sharks have no bones — their skeletons are made entirely of cartilage — and their teeth, hardened by enamel and dentine, are often the only body parts that fossilize. (Collectors occasionally pick up fossilized vertebrae, jaws, scales, fin spines and faeces, known as coprolites, but these are all rare.) Sharks have multiple rows of teeth, which are loosely embedded in their gums and fall out easily: a single individual can lose tens of thousands in its lifetime. The shark lineage extends back more than 400 million years, comfortably predating the evolution of dinosaurs and flowering plants. There are many millions of shark teeth strewn around the world.

Most of the Table Bay specimens were deposited within the last six million years, when global sea levels rose 25 meters higher than they are currently. Teeth left inland by the retreating waters were later returned to the ocean by river currents. “It’s likely that there are teeth right across the Cape Flats — the entire area was submerged,” explained John Compton, a marine geochemist at the University of Cape Town (UCT). “But nothing much has been found yet. The local shark fossil record isn’t well understood.” A large number of Western Cape deposits had been “obscured” by windblown sands in the last ten thousand years, he said. “Rivers cutting through these sand layers would have washed fossil shark teeth to the coast.”

The sum total of human history in the Cape — San nomads and strandlopers, Khoi herders, colonists, migrants, slaves — can be expressed as a fraction of the fossil lifetime of a single tooth. Individual specimens have existed for longer than there have been human hands to hold them. But according to John Parkington, an Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at UCT, there is no record of fossil shark teeth in local archeological sites, meaning that there is no way of knowing whether early beachcombers ever picked them up. (A single great white tooth pendant, not fossilised, was recovered from a 4000 year-old site near Gansbaai in the 1980s.)  Given the fossils’ striking appearence — a serated tooth measuring six centimeters from root to tip seems intrinsically compelling — it is plausible that people have been collecting them on Cape shores for thousands of years. In Ancient Rome scholars thought that fossil shark teeth were meteorites that fell to earth during lunar eclipses. Medieval Europeans believed that they were the tongues of serpants that had been turned to stone. The significance local collectors might have attached to their own prehistoric discoveries is not known.

Nick Hollie, a 59-year old refrigeration engineer who currently lives in Brooklyn, a working-class suburb near Milnerton, claims to have been the first dedicated shark tooth collector in Table Bay. Hollie was born in England and moved to Cape Town at the age of eleven. Milnerton, where his family settled, was still largely undeveloped in the early 1970s: Hollie and his friends used to hunt rabbits and buck in the bush that encircled their homes. They fished and surfed at the river mouth — single-fin boards, no wetsuits — and camped out on Woodbridge Island, which was deserted except for the lighthouse and a lonely Tuscan mansion. When they were fifteen years old Hollie and a friend named Patrick stole a parent’s car and drove it onto the beach. “His father owned a Taunus station wagon — a heavy thing.” Hollie said. “We got stuck in the sand so I jumped out to push.” As he sweated behind the vehicle a dark object spun out from under the wheels and flew past his face. “I thought it was a piece of coal. Another one came flying by so I turned and picked it up. It was three inches long and looked like a tooth. I said to Patrick: ‘But why is it black?’”

After getting the car home and rinsing it off (the boys were never caught) they showed the strange items to Patrick’s father, who got excited and handed the teeth in at the South African museum. “A few weeks later they told us that we had picked up fossils between twelve and 25 million years old. Wow, we freaked out.”

Hollie spent the next few years searching for more. He paced the sands while Patrick surfed, kicking up pebbles and shells. When Patrick got cold he would join the hunt. The boys mounted their discoveries on a large display board, identifying the species using books from the Brooklyn library: great whites, makos, raggies, white-tips, snaggletooths. They read about the megalodon, the largest shark species on record, which grew longer than fifteen meters and weighed more than 55 tons before going extinct 2.6 million years ago. “Those teeth looked like horse jawbones,” Hollie said. “We picked up a few.”

As they meandered along the shore, gazing at their feet, picking things up, people would stop and ask what they were doing. “Nobody knew about shark teeth. They were amazed when we told them. Next thing there were all these other people involved — it just grew and grew and grew.”

Hollie and his friends began fishing for sharks from the container terminal, which had just been built. (Rietvlei, a large wetland five kilometers north of the lagoon, was dredged for its construction.) They finished school, got jobs and girlfriends, bought themselves motorbikes and left the sea behind. A few years later Patrick was killed in an accident — his bike skidded out hours after a margarine truck overturned on the N1 interchange near Paarden Eiland, leaving the tarmac slippery. Patrick’s father moved away from Milnerton and took the display board with him. Hollie hasn’t picked up a tooth in more than thirty years.

“We used to pick up ten teeth in a day. Now the guys are lucky if they get one or two,” he said. “The whole dynamic has changed. It’s big business now. People advertise on the Internet. It pisses me off. You shouldn’t put prices on these things.”

Michael Adams, who lives under the railway bridge, says that he has picked up “millions” of teeth in his lifetime. He grew up in Strand and ran away from home at the age of ten, after both of his parents died in quick succession. His mother was pushed onto the tracks at Bellville Station. His father, a military man, was blown up by a landmine two weeks later. Adams has lived at the coast ever since. “I learned about shark teeth from a man called Uncle Eric,” he said. “He taught me what to look for. I was good at finding fossils from the start.”

Adams remembers nine other sharkies — John, Marius, Melvin, Donovan, Shane, Peter, another John, Waldo, Marko — searching for teeth when he started in 1996. These men represent the generation that followed Nick Hollie, who says he has kept in touch with many of the younger collectors. “Those men taught everybody working on this beach today,” Adams said.

In addition to shark teeth he has picked up the remains of dinosaurs, whales, mammoths and saber-tooth cats. Five years ago he found a megalodon tooth larger than his palm and sold it for R5000. He is certain that there are more like it. “The teeth will always be here. They’ve been underground for millions of years. You don't find them every day. But winter is here and so more will come up.”

He wears faded jerseys and old tracksuit pants rolled up to the knee. His eyes point slightly outwards, like a shark’s. He melts into crowds of joggers and dog walkers and children when the beach is busy. When it is quiet he is alone with his thoughts. Michael Adams searches for teeth every day that he can. A good discovery is always a few steps away. One never knows when a good tooth will rise to the surface. He threads a line between the water and the dunes until he vanishes from sight.

Portrait © Peter Lambert for Zigzag Surf Magazine.