Divers search for fossils in Waccamaw River
There’s a fossil bed just off Highway 90 near Lees Landing that contains ancient artifacts and fossils that date back millions of years.
It’s not a secret place — most local fossil hunters know the location that has produced a plethora of Native American artifacts, as well as the teeth of long dead sharks and ancient lizards.
The trick is in accessing the bed that stretches below 10 feet of water in the Waccamaw River — a body of water so dark that scuba divers describe the descent as a lunar landing.
“The water is jet black, there’s no visibility. It’s like duct taping your eyes,” said local fossil hunter Greg Holt, as he strapped on about 30 pounds of weight to prepare for a dive Sunday morning.
Holt has dived in blackwater rivers for decades, but this was the first excursion in the Waccamaw River for Jay Manzano, a master diver who moved here several years ago from Florida.
The two men joked about alligators and snakes as they pulled the air tanks onto their backs, hoping the only bubbles plopping to the river’s surface that day would be their own.
Holt recalled one dive at Edisto Beach when something grabbed his swim fin and pulled him about two feet down river. He suspects it was an alligator.
“It was the longest two feet of my life,” Holt said.
“Every once in a while you get bumped by a catfish and you think it’s an alligator,” said Holt, who has come across catfish he estimates weigh 30 to 40 pounds.
“You do see alligators along the shore … and you’re diving right in front of them,” Holt said.
“If I ever do see an alligator underwater, I’m taking up golf. It’s over. I’m finished,” said the 65-year-old native New Yorker.
Armed with lights that are of little use until they hit the river bottom, the two men silently slipped beneath the water for an hour of adventure — and potential danger — for the chance to find objects that no human has ever seen.
But first, Holt had to do battle with fishing line. Yards of it that tangled around him nearly forcing him back to the surface to wriggle free.
Once they hit the river bed, their discs of light illuminated the river bottom giving them the first chance to actually see anything, but only within six inches of the beams.
They almost instantly found the first shark tooth.
Holt fanned the gravel and muck for Manzano to see how fossil hunting is done in murky rivers — fanning and digging — then the two drifted away to begin their individual searches.
Holt returned with a dozen shark teeth, an arrowhead, some Indian pottery shards and one tooth from a long-extinct, giant marine lizard, the mosasaur.
So how old is this bed of fossils?
“The minute you say mosasaur teeth, that goes back 65 million years,” said Don Kirkpatrick, associate in paleontology for the Horry County Museum.
“Mosasaur would have been around in the time of the dinosaurs,” Kirkpatrick said.
It’s not just the Waccamaw River where these fossils are found. They also wash ashore Myrtle Beach and are sometimes found by tourists, Kirkpatrick said.
Manzano wasn’t as lucky on his first dive. He normally dives for adventure and exploration, this was his first time hunting for underwater artifacts.
“I just picked up rocks,” Manzano said of his first dive.
It will take numerous more trips into the murky blackness before Manzano says he is more knowledgeable about what he’s looking for in the gravel and shell beds.
For his first blackwater dive, Manzano says he was content to just lay on the river’s bed and stare up towards the surface.
But after sifting through Holt’s find, Manzano was ready for a second dive. This time, he returned with an arrowhead and two shark teeth.
“It takes a strong-willed person to do that, a lot of people chicken out,” said Cathy Holt, Greg’s wife.
Holt says he will keep what he found last Sunday. He doesn’t sell anything, he collects the smaller pieces in jars, and hangs the larger shark teeth on the walls, which Cathy Holt says consumes the second floor of their home.
“It’s a neat way of learning about history,” Holt said.
“It’s like a time capsule, and you’re the first person who’s seen it in thousands of years,” Holt said of his adventures.
To learn more about fossil hunting in Horry County, Holt recommends following the Facebook group Fossils of Myrtle Beach.
Fossil hunting is permitted in South Carolina, however a hobby diver license is required from the S.C. Institute of Archeology and Anthropology. The cost of a two-year permit is $18 for in-state residents, and $36 for out-of-state visitors.
Teeth that once belonged to the mosasaur as well as other fossils found locally can be seen on display at the Horry County Museum.
The collection includes the fossilized bones of mastodon, enchodus, and mammoth teeth, said Walter Hill, director of the Horry County Museum.
“Isn’t it fascinating that you can find that sort of stuff here in Horry County?” Hill said.