Do Savannah Magazine: Savannah scuba diver/fossil hunter makes incredible finds in muddy waters of Coastal Georgia by Linda Sickler

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Bill Eberlein made the discovery of a lifetime in the mud of a local riverbed when he recovered a fossilized mastodon jaw with teeth still attached.

A professional diver, Eberlein will include the find July 1 and 2 in a display of fossilized shark teeth at First Friday and Saturday on River Street.

“I have been diving in Coastal Georgia rivers for over 15 years for prehistoric shark teeth, but this is the first time I have discovered a mastodon jaw,” Eberlein says. “I was doing my normal dive when I felt what I thought was a fossilized log but when I felt the molars, I knew I had found something very rare.

“I have found individual mastodon teeth occasionally in the past, but this is very exciting,” he says. “It was really heavy to bring to the surface after I dug it out of the mud and weighs about 60 pounds.”

During the Ice Age, mastodons roamed North America. They were found in what is now the American South from 75,000 years ago until they become extinct 10,000 years ago.

Large, elephant-like mammals, mastodons stood about 9 feet high at the shoulder and weighed between 4 and 5 tons. But Eberlein recovers fossils from an even larger species — the giant megalodon shark, which became extinct more than 2 million years ago.

Most kids love dinosaurs and sharks.

“The megalodon is like a dinosaur shark,” Eberlein says. “There are all kinds of amazing things about them.”

A former college instructor turned entrepreneur, Eberlein got hooked on diving 25 years ago and now spends his days diving for ancient shark teeth, which can measure up to 6 inches long. It’s dangerous work; in the muddy waters of coastal Georgia rivers, there is only zero to 3 inches of visibility in the places he dives.

“When you learn to scuba dive, we always say dive with a buddy and never dive in strong currents or low visibility,” Eberlein says. “Never dive if you think dangerous animals are around, like alligators, sharks, stingrays.

“Now I do all these things at once. If I’d dive with a buddy, we’d just kick each other.

“I’m always grabbing something and a stingray comes up or I get bumped by something really big I can’t see,” he says. “I don’t know what it is and have to wait to see if it’s coming back.”

To fossil hunt the way Eberlein does, it’s necessary to be certified as a diver.

“The conditions are a lot more hazardous than in normal scuba driving,” he says. “I trained and did a lot of classes in limited visibility.

“There’s a big difference in scuba diving in this way. You have to know your gear.

“Here you have no visibility,” Eberlein says. “If you have to come up right away, you have to have specialized equipment because it’s easy to run out of air.”

Special equipment helps keep Eberlein safe. .

“I have a computer that is one of the few you can see in water,” he says. “People ask, ‘How do you know when it’s time to come up?’

“I say when it starts to get hard to breathe, it’s time to get up. It sounds like a joke, but it’s not.

“When I have trouble breathing, I know it’s time to come up,” Eberlein says. “But if you’re in the middle of something else, you might not notice it.”

So why does Eberlein do something so dangerous?

“Other than animals, I’m pretty much in control of everything,” he says. “I used to drive Interstate 95 to Gulfstream and felt that was more dangerous than scuba diving.

“Ninety-five percent of accidents are due to the diver doing some wrong. It is more hazardous than normal scuba diving, but I think a lot of things are more dangerous.”

Collectors prize Eberlein’s finds, many of which are museum quality.

“I set up a booth display and sell some fossils I find scuba diving in Savannah,” he says. “Most are megalodon teeth. Both adults and children collect them.”

The megalodon was huge.

“It was a 60-foot shark and 10 times more massive than the shark in ‘Jaws,’” Eberlein says. “It was the size of a large whale today. It ate whales.

“When I scuba dive, I find a lot of whale fossils from back in that time. There are pieces of jaw bone, vertebra, skeleton and other fossilized bones.”

Between 2 to 5 million years ago, the megalodon went extinct.

“It had a 10,000-pound bite force,” Eberlein says. “It lived in the Atlantic Ocean and all the rivers.

“A good bit of Georgia was under water, up to 40 feet deep. Sharks were swimming right where we walk today.”

In 1986, Eberlein was living in Erie, Penn., where he was certified for diving.

“I was part of a search-and-rescue team,” he says. “I also did it as a hobby.

“I moved here to Savannah in 1999. I got immediately hooked, not only on scuba diving, but also on having the chance of finding fossils.”

At times, Eberlein finds land fossils, like the mastodon jaw, under the water.

“In an ice age, the ocean will recede,” he says. “What is now ocean was once land.

“You can find elephant fossils on Gray’s Reef and shark teeth in Macon. The geography of earth has changed constantly over the years.”

The mastodon jawbone is an amazing find.

“The lower left portion of the jaw has two teeth in it,” Eberlein says. “There are four teeth in the upper jaw.

“I get excited when I find a mastodon tooth. To find a big section of jawbone weighing about 60 pounds with teeth still in it is probably the neatest thing I’ve ever found.

“I went out to that same spot the next 10 days hoping to find more of it, but I didn’t,” he says. “Probably what happened is that it died on land, maybe in a marshy area. Part of the jawbone was under water in the mud.

“As it decomposed, that portion of the jawbone was replaced with minerals and sediment and fossilized,” Eberlein says. “The rest of it decomposed and fell apart.”

Because a shark is composed mostly of cartilage that does not fossilize, the only proof that the megalodon existed is its teeth. Most are found by divers diving in tidal rivers.

In addition to sharks and whales, Eberlein has found fossilized teeth from sperm whales, giant ground sloths, mammoths and a giant 30-foot crocodile.

“They all lived around here,” he says. “There were three-toed horses that lived here millions of years ago.

“I’ve found woolly rhinoceros teeth and camel teeth. The vertebra and rib bones are usually broken up, so it’s hard to tell what they were from.

“I’ve found fossilized deer antlers and jawbones,” Eberlein says. “It takes 10,000 years for bone to fossilize.”

Most people who visit Eberlein’s First Friday booth are most interested in the megalodons.

“More and more of the most popular television nature shows are about the megalodon,” Eberlein says. “Usually, 95 percent of the time, I find something.

“Today, I dove and all I found were three tiny shark teeth,” he says. “On the second dive, I found three 5-inch megalodon teeth and more teeth, so it was a great dive.”

Eberlein guards his diving spots like a fisherman guards a prized fishing hole, refusing to say where they are.

“I dove 200 spots off Savannah and only found teeth at a dozen to 20 sites,” he says. “It’s a lot of hits and miss, but when you find a good spot, you can go back time and time again.

“But when you go back in months, everything has changed and the sediment has moved. What’s there today will probably be gone tomorrow.

“One of the rivers I always dive in has been 40 feet deep,” Eberlein says. “Now there is one drop-down to 60 feet, like a wall has come down. I dove it hundreds of times and there was no deep spot like that.”

Now there are boulders of mud at the site.

“The bottom is always changing,” Eberlein says. “I love it. Of all the hobbies I ever had, there is nothing like it.

“When you’re a little kid and wake up on Easter morning, you don’t know what you’re going to find. I’ve got a chance to find something really neat today.

“Even days I don’t find something, I get to go out on the water and scuba dive,” he says. “You can’t complain about that.

“I do a lot of fossils shows in Florida and every month at First Friday and Saturday on River Street,” he says. “If people want to see an actual megalodon tooth, they can come down and hold it.”

As for the mastodon jaw, Eberlein wants to share it with the public.

“It’s very delicate, but I want to display it in a local museum,” he says. “People always ask me what makes something really nice.

“It’s all about condition and size. Some people have hundreds of teeth and no two are alike.

“You can find something unusual about every shark tooth,” Eberlein says. “It’s neat because it’s science and nature and history, not video games.”

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