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Shark Tooth Hill (Ernst Quarry) Hunt on 2016-01-22


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Recently back from my trip to the San Francisco Bay Area (San Carlos, CA) to visit with my wife's sister's family. The purpose for heading over from South Florida at this time of year was the opportunity to photograph Elephant Seals at their breeding colony at Año Nuevo State Park--which we did and I'll post photos in elsewhere on TFF. I had been reading a lot about Shark Tooth Hill on the forum and considered a side trip to go check this locality out while in California. After a little research online I found that Bakersfield, CA (where the Ernst Quarry is located) is only a 4 hour drive down I-5 through the San Joaquin Valley in central California.

We planned on renting a car and charging up the iPod for a road trip listening to an accumulated cache of podcasts during the 8-hour round trip. Instead, we chose a more interesting alternative. My wife's sister and her husband both worked for one of the dot-com startups in the 1990's that actually worked out. As a result they were able to retire early, build their dream home in San Carlos, and buy a few toys to amuse themselves. My brother-in-law Bob had been interested in aviation and had his pilot's license for some time. Eight years ago was able to upgrade his ride to an Eclipse 500 personal jet. Money can't buy you happiness but it can get you some fun toys.

Bob is always looking for a good excuse to take the plane out and so he offered to fly us to Bakersfield. This condensed the 4-hour road trip into a 40 minute transit at 17,500 feet. We arranged for a rental car to be available at the JetCenter when we arrived and, for the day at least, we were living the jet-set rock-star lifestyle. I guess true rock stars would have been picked up in a chauffeur-driven limo instead of driving off in an SUV and probably wouldn't have stayed at the Holiday Inn and had dinner at an inexpensive Mexican restaurant. But that's okay since I'm more of a rock hound than a rock star anyway.

We took out some of the seats in the back of the plane and secured three 5-gallon buckets to the floor with straps to verify that we'd be able to carry back some matrix from Shark Tooth Hill. Tammy sat in the remaining seat in the back and I got to ride shotgun (co-pilot).

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It was a fun (but quick) flight down. There is lots of aircraft traffic leaving the San Francisco area but things were more peaceful once we headed south into less the populated region of the San Joaquin Valley. We flew VFR (Visual Flight Rules) just under the cloud bases that started at about 18,000 feet.Though the air was rather thick with moisture (rainy season in California this time of year), the visibility was pretty good but we had little time for sightseeing. Before we knew it we were descending toward Meadows Airport in Bakersfield for a smooth touchdown.

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We picked up our rental and with the help of a GPS made our way to our hotel where we unpacked our stuff. We headed out for a fine dinner at Nuestro Mexico Restaurant (good reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp). We picked up some supplies for the following day (drinks and salty snacks) and tried to get to bed early as we had to meet-up with Rob Ernst (the quarry owner) and the other diggers at 7:30 the next morning. Luckily there was no fog in the valley the next day as that might have made for slower driving. We made our way out of town and toward the foothills to the northeast where the quarry was located. Along the way we passed an oil field with the highest density of oil pumpjacks I've ever seen. I've seen these reciprocating piston pumps before on various oil fields in California or Texas but usually they were well separated with just a few pumps scattered across the landscape. The area just outside of Bakersfield must be a very dense or complex oil field as the pumps seemed to be nodding along every hundred feet or so with several hundred densely clumped together. It was quite the surreal sight (for someone who doesn't come from oil country).

We threaded our way along the road till we reached the assigned waiting area to meet with Rob and the rest of the paying guests to his quarry. We had the great pleasure of meeting up with another TFF member for this dig. Tony (ynot) had graciously made the long haul through the night from northern California to meet with us and mentor us while we dug. Members of this forum will realize through the nature of his posts and his generous prizes offered for his many contests on this forum that Tony represents the best of TFF. He is passionate about fossils (and gems and minerals), knowledgeable, and a great companion to dig alongside while on a fossil hunt.

Another TFF member Ted (TNGray) had provided lots of information about the Ernst Quarry via personal conversations (PM) and offered the use of tools stored at the quarry. Tony brought along a second sifting screen and between Ted, Tony and the tools provided by the quarry we were well outfitted for the hunt. Again, I thank TFF for not only making me aware of a place like Shark Tooth Hill but for the providing the contacts in the TFF community that allowed us to have a memorable fossil hunt.

We signed liability waivers when Rob arrived and followed him along the road into the quarry. Heavy rains earlier in the week had washed out the road to the East Quarry. They had tried to fill in the 8-foot hole in the unpaved road where it had washed out but continuing rains the following day made it clear that the East Quarry was going to be off limits for some time till they could get the road navigable again. This made our decision of where to dig a simple one. We were intrigued about digging at the East Quarry and would probably have gladly spent a day there trying our luck. The bone bed layer of the "Premium Dig" at the Slow Curve area was also enticing and we were wondering if it would be possible to get a taste of both locations on our first trip out to the quarry. The rains had narrowed our options and so it was an easy decision to spend a little extra money to dig directly into the bone bed fossil layer at Slow Curve (rather than digging through the spoil piles at Slow Curve).

Over last summer Rob had removed the large amount of overburden at the fossil exposure known as Slow Curve. This makes it much easier to dig into the fossil rich bone bed without having to deal with the overlying layers. Their website has a nice explanation of the work they did there: http://www.sharktoothhillproperty.com/DID.pdf

Here you can see how Slow Curve currently looks and some of the surrounding spoil piles that were removed when the area was leveled.

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Rob showed the newbies around (Tammy and me as well as another couple from the San Francisco area). Tony had been there several times before and didn't need the informational tour of the quarry. There was another group of two guys who had been visiting the quarry quite regularly recently looking primarily for large makos (and megs) and they worked off on the far side of the quarry area moving lots of material as they were in it for profit rather than the experience. They also had a Pandora internet radio and provided the music backdrop to our day of digging.

We picked up our tools for digging Slow Curve Premium (a 3-pound sledge hammer and a large spike) and got to work clearing out an area to start working. Tammy spotted an interesting cylindrical sifter that someone left out at the quarry. Looked like an interesting device but we were going to use shaker table sifting screens instead.


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In no time at all the chilly morning temps warmed into perfect weather for digging. The rain of earlier in the week had moved off to leave a bright day with broken clouds and just the occasional light breeze. We couldn't have asked for a better day to be out doing what we love. The earlier rains had, however, soaked into the matrix into which we were digging. There was no standing puddles or sloppy muddy areas but the recent precipitation had moistened the matrix enough to interfere with sifting. It might have possibly made the matrix a bit softer and easier to excavate with hammer and spike. I've heard others describe this layer as concrete-like but for us it wasn't nearly so difficult to penetrate. Tony's first attempt at using the sifter demonstrated that fine matrix collection was going to be a problem though.

Tony's sifters are built on a PVC pipe frame which allows just enough flexibility to allow the sifting screens mounted on top to be shaken back and forth to sort the matrix as it passes through. We were using double stacked sifters--something I've done while collecting micro-matrix in the rivers and creeks in South Florida. The top sifter was fitted with 1/2" wire mesh screen and the bottom sifter (securely attached to the PVC support) was lined with 1/4" wire mesh screen. Tony's initial plan was to use a window screen mesh inlay (roughly 1/16"-1/20" mesh size) in the bottom sifter to let much of the fine sandy silt drop through while catching the micro fossil material that would be washed and rescreened at a later time. The silty matrix was just damp enough to completely clog the tiny mesh screen instantly. This meant that we would not be able to collect micro matrix the way we wanted but would have to settle for "mini matrix". The larger screen on the top was useful in uncovering larger teeth that had been obscured by the crumbly matrix. I spotted several nice mako teeth in the upper sifter while sorting through the matrix I dug from my spot in the bone bed.

When most of the larger material had been broken up in the upper sifter so that the odds of a nice tooth hiding in the remaining clumps was pretty low, the upper sifter was pulled off and dumped to the side. The smaller material (less than 1/2") that was left in the lower screen was then spread out and shaken some more. This released most of the finer powdered material and left rounded chunky material that looked like dried dog food pellets. There were occasionally some smaller shark teeth evident in this lower sifter and I pulled those out and stored them in the little plastic boxes we used to keep our finds. The remaining "mini matrix" was scooped into nearby buckets. The cone of powdered matrix that grew underneath my sifting screen undoubtedly contained many micro fossils (small shark and ray teeth among other tiny treasures) but with a limited amount of material that I was able to schlep home I had to be selective in what I could take back.

Here is a look at the double sifter with a load dumped into it. Sometimes shark teeth will reveal themselves in the upper screen like this one that came off the shovel and landed on right on top of the material in my screen.

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Shaking the two screens to sort the matrix and (hopefully) uncover some teeth in the process. The larger chunks of matrix are broken up by hand and once the upper screen appears not to have any teeth hiding in any of the clumps, the upper screen is removed and dumped off to the side.

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With the upper screen removed, the smaller matrix is shaken to remove most of the finer powdered material. Sadly, many interesting micro fossils were likely contained in this pile of matrix under my screen. Any smaller teeth (those that would fit through a 1/2" screen) that were spotted in the lower sifter were plucked out to make sure they didn't fall through the lower screen or get broken or lost during further processing of the matrix. Finally, the "mini matrix" was scooped into waiting buckets.

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Here are some images of me working at the excavation site. You can see the sledge and large spike (provided by Rob) used to dig at the Slow Curve Premium location. The trick seems to be to pound in the spike and carefully pry off chunks of the matrix. Larger chunks are probably better as the fewer times you have to pound in the spike the less chances of driving the spike directly through a tooth (did this once). in the first picture you can see the fossil bed layer stained orange with iron deposits. The little black holes in the back wall that look like they were made by a large and deranged woodpecker are the marks left by the spike (seen to the side of the hole). I made a bit of a trough in the layer of spoil material in front of the fossil bearing wall. I used this trough to push material broken free from the wall away so that it could be easily shoveled up into the nearby sifting screen. The last photo shows me removing the ledge of material on top that was created as I dug under it into the fossil rich layer. This top layer occasionally contains fossils (I found one shark tooth) but is not as fossiliferous as the bed that it overlays.

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Here, you can see Tony in the area he was excavating just to the right of where I was digging. Actually, Tony chose his spot and I dug to his left so that I could be close and learn from him--it also made it easier to carry on a conversation. Tammy dug a little ways to my left so we were all together.

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Tammy takes a break from digging to stretch her legs and to grab a snack near the sifting tables. You can see the spoil piles in the background. People have found shark teeth that were missed in these spoils but we chose to dig at the fossil bed and get first crack at them.

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Great story. It looks like you had a good day.

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Finally, some in situ photos of our nicer finds just as they appeared to us after waiting patiently for some 15 million years.

The area we chose to dig in was adjacent to the "Fire Zone" where teeth with deep reds and oranges are found. These colors are caused by larger amounts of iron oxides penetrating the teeth. While the colors are spectacular, it tends to make these teeth more brittle than others found in the area. Some of our teeth had nice red (and pumpkin orange) colors when pulled out but we had to be really careful with the roots which were often quite fragile. Here's a shamer--a beautiful tooth but you can see that the corner of the root is already detached.

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Here's a nice view of one of Tammy's first finds as it was found in the matrix and as it popped out. Many of the teeth were in more solid matrix and were left with the surrounding material supporting the root till the tooth could dry out which makes the root less fragile. This tooth was in softer matrix and separated cleanly.

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This was a tooth that fell out of the matrix and was found as I was sweeping the material out of my digging area to where I could shovel it into my sifting screen. I spotted the telltale shape of the tooth before it had to go to the sifting screen.

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Here are some before/after shots in situ. Many times when peeling away a section of the fossil layer by pounding in and prying the large spike, a large chunk of the wall would loosen and could be arefully pulled down. Occasionally, we'd be rewarded with a hint of a tooth that had just been uncovered. These teeth exposed in the wall were then relatively easy to pry loose with the surrounding matrix so that the tooth could be removed safely.

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Here's a nice curved tooth in matrix that Tammy found. You can see in the smaller tooth that some of these teeth had really nice translucence--something we don't really see in shark teeth from the Peace River.

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Nice report, digit. Makes me want to go. It looks like they flattened the whole hill that was in the middle of Slow Curve. I know most folks go for the teeth, nut did you find any cool bones in this stuff? It is an amazing fossil site.

Edit: I just read the pdf you linked to... yup, they flattened that whole hill... wow now I really want to go.

Edited by jpc
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Tony said he usually finds a higher density of nice large teeth than we were finding that day. In his estimation it wasn't a bad day of digging (we had some nice finds) but it was nowhere near his better days of digging there. We had nothing to compare it to and so were quite content with our experience. Here are a couple of photos of some of Tony's finds.

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In situ and as recovered:

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Here are a few more of my finds which went home in matrix to be released with the help of a dental pick and toothbrush.

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Sometimes, even the tiny teeth can be revealed when a chunk of the matrix is removed from the wall. If you look closely, you'll see two tiny orange colored teeth peeking out of the iron stained matrix.

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I think Tammy scored the find of the day with this beautiful upper mako just at 2" in length. It made her day and will be a cherished memento from this trip.

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Cheers.

-Ken

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Ken, it looks like you and Tammy had a great time. I am so jealous. It's on my bucket list to hunt over in that area. The teeth are gorgeous, definitely some great finds. You guys rock! (pun intended)

P. S. How much can I bribe you to get some of that matrix :P

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I absolutely understand what happens when enamel meets digging tools at STH.

OUCH !!!

Ouch is right--that's a heartbreaker. I only hit one smaller mako tooth and pretty much split it right in half. Several other teeth separated from their roots before I spotted them or, even worse, while handling them with kid gloves (though actually I chose not to wear gloves and my fingernails show the wear from that decision).

Cheers.

-Ken

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Ken, it looks like you and Tammy had a great time. I am so jealous. It's on my bucket list to hunt over in that area. The teeth are gorgeous, definitely some great finds. You guys rock! (pun intended)

P. S. How much can I bribe you to get some of that matrix :P

It was a dream trip and I can't thank the TFF members Ted and Tony enough for making it come off without hitches. I'm sure I'll be back again now that I've got my first taste of this place. It is so different from sifting at the Peace River and Tammy and I love new experiences--this was quite novel for us.

I had hoped to get to the East Quarry where the matrix is looser and the micro-matrix easier to collect. Weather closed off that option this time but I plan to return during drier conditions where I can collect more matrix. Out of the three 5-gallon buckets I schlepped back on my brother-in-law's plane I reduced it quite a bit before packing it in my suitcases for the flight back to South Florida. I'll post some additions to this topic showing my processing of the matrix as soon as I get caught up on some things. I've already removed enough of the sandy silt from this to condense it to less than a quarter of a bucket. Even so, it is mostly still nuggets of clumpy silt that need to be dissolved and removed. There are a lot of tiny bone fragments now visible in the concentrated matrix--the fossil layer is full of very brittle porous bone bits. When all of this is taken out it will be interesting to see how much fossil bearing micro-matrix is actually left.

I had planned on being greedy and gluttonous in collecting micro-matrix from this locality because I have seen the tiny treasures that have come from other collections of this matrix. I had hoped to have enough to make one or more offerings available as auctions to support TFF but I don't suspect I'll have enough to make a viable prize to attract any bids. We're hoping to get back out there again sometime this year--not in rainy season and not in the dog days of summer. If we do, I'll hope to be more efficient at collecting micro-matrix to share with the members of TFF who are not able to get to Shark Tooth Hill first hand.

Cheers.

-Ken

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Hey Hi Ken & Tammy,

Great trip report. There is nothing I can add to it. Love the in situ pictures.

Thank You for the accolades! I also had a good time meeting up and digging with Y'All! (My first time to dig with fellow TFF members.)

I have not finished cleaning My finds yet, but will post when I do.

Thank You for the great experiance!!!

Tony

PS If You used a window screen to wash the "mini" matrix there should be some good micros in the mix as well.

Edited by ynot
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That's one fantastic trip report! I've always wanted to go there, but driving from WI is what stops me. I think though because your story was so detailed I can almost say I was there! Just minus the spoils and well, actually being there..lol

Thanks for sharing and as always another great report with everything needed to start the itch. Ha

Best regards,

Paul

Edited by Raggedy Man
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Hey Hi Ken & Tammy,

Great trip report. There is nothing I can add to it. Love the in situ pictures.

Thank You for the accolades! I also had a good time meeting up and digging with Y'All! (My first time to dig with fellow TFF members.)

I have not finished cleaning My finds yet, but will post when I do.

Thank You for the great experiance!!!

Tony

PS If You used a window screen to wash the "mini" matrix there should be some good micros in the mix as well.

Thanks for making it a special and very memorable trip. Glad we were able to be your first TFF member dig. I encourage others on this forum to use TFF as a means to meet-up and have some shared adventures. The social aspects of meeting up with like-minded folk while doing something you love cannot be beat. I actually wish I'd taken more photos but the fossil fever of that bone layer was calling to me with such a strong siren song that I'm surprised I remembered to grab my camera at all.

I've been sorting out the silty clay-like mud while washing the matrix I collected with a stainless steel colander (bought specifically for sifting micro-marix). The mesh size is pretty close to that of window screen. I'm sure lots of interesting micros escaped out the bottoms of our 1/4" sifting screen while out at the quarry but hopefully some got held up in the mini matrix and will soon reveal themselves. I've already picked out 5 nice Angel Shark teeth while washing the matrix. When I spotted teeth while washing and sieving the matrix in the colander, I'd pick them out so they had less chance to get banged up by the matrix concentration process. You mentioned that I'd find Angel Shark teeth in the matrix and indeed I have. I was amazed to find an Angel Shark tooth in my Florida micro-matrix and was surprised at how quickly it was correctly identified. Now that I see that these are not uncommon teeth in the STH matrix it makes sense that it is a well known tooth.

That's one fantastic trip report! I've always wanted to go there, but driving from WI is what stops me. I think though because your story was so detailed I can almost say I was there! Just minus the spoils and well, actually being there..lol

Thanks for sharing and as always another great report with everything needed to start the itch. Ha

Best regards,

Paul

Yes, driving from Wisconsin would be a heck of a road trip. I'd keep my eye out for inexpensive airfares and try to get to an airport near Bakersfield on the cheap. You can then rent a car (which you'll need anyway) and drive into Bakersfield. The airport there (Meadows Field) is so small that I doubt it is served by any major airlines--likely mostly charter or private aircraft. We chose to fly Southwest because they are the only major carrier not to charge extra for the first two checked bags. If you decided not to bring back half the quarry in 5-gallon buckets to wash and sort for micro fossils and only cared about the larger teeth, then you could probably find a greater selection of airlines where you might discover an inexpensive airfare.

Glad you enjoyed the trip report. I try to describe it adequately and illustrate with photos to bring it alive, as much as possible, so that others can vicariously share in my experience. Of course, as you state, nothing beats being there in person, working hard all day, and bringing home the spoils (and memories). I hope I've managed to move STH a few spaces higher in your fossil bucket list.

Cheers.

-Ken

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That was a great trip report, Ken. The accompanying photos do make it seem as tho we were along for the hunt. :) Looking forward to seeing your cleaned finds both large and small.

Julianna

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Wow guys, what a great trip! Thanks for the pics and the story, I wish we had as many Makos here :fistbump::envy:

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Wow guys, what a great trip! Thanks for the pics and the story, I wish we had as many Makos here :fistbump::envy:

Interestingly, one of Tony's favorite finds of the day was a nice Hemipristis tooth. Reasonably rare in the Round Mountain Silt Member of the Middle Miocene Temblor Formation that comprises Shark Tooth Hill while the Hooked Tooth Mako Shark (Isurus planus) is relatively common. In Florida we can find dozens of hemi teeth for every mako we pull out of the Peace River. Relative abundance is what makes various teeth sought after prizes. I have more than doubled my collection of mako teeth from eight years of river collecting in Florida after just one trip to Shark Tooth Hill.

A gripping account!

My back hurts just reading it :P

Good. Then my account was accurate enough to induce muscle spasms. My back hurts from writing it--well, its probably actually the stiffness setting in from last Sunday's exercise. Surprisingly, the back of my knees where the straps of the kneepads chafed are actually more sore than my back or hands. The shaker table sifters really made for efficient excavating with little overall effort.

Tony actually got "bit" by one of the 15 million year old mako teeth that seemed extra hungry after its long fasting nap. Pretty impressive for a Miocene shark tooth to still be capable of drawing blood.

Cheers.

-Ken

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As Ken alluded to.. it is a lot of work. I noticed when I was there that the younger folks got through much more dirt than I did. Also folks who don't care for the bones in the bone bed go through more dirt.

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Yes the search and collection of the outstanding bones takes more time, care, and patience,

which seriously cuts down collecting time

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