This summer, two boys made the find of their young lives on a Chesapeake Bay beach.
The boys were combing the shoreline for fossils at Calvert Cliffs State Park in southern Maryland, where waves tumbled the fractured jumble of ancient geology at their feet. Like most visitors, they sifted through the sand in search of shells, bones, and teeth — traces of life that became embedded in the cliff formation millions of years ago.
In the meantime, a gift was on its way from another direction.
A short stretch inland, a pond spilled into a small stream that emptied directly onto the beach. The flow had dislodged the soft wetland soil and picked up a few things along the way.
In the shallow pool that formed where the stream met the Bay, the boys made an impressive discovery — teeth from a monstrous prehistoric shark.
"Two big Megalodon teeth just came drifting out," said park manager Karen Jarboe.
The name Megalodon itself means "big tooth." The Megalodon was a powerful marine predator, similar to a great white shark but reaching lengths of more than 50 feet. The diagonal length of its teeth can top 7 inches.
"People wait their whole lives to find something like that," Jarboe said. "It's not just skill. It's luck."
But a trip to Calvert Cliffs State Park, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, will definitely bump up the odds.
Fossil hunting is the main draw at this park because its short stretch of beach is part of the unique cliff formation exposed along a portion of the Bay's western shore. The cliffs rise like a white wall above the beach, streaked with gray layers of clay at mid-height and reddish layers of bog iron near the base.
Water churning against the cliffs pulls sediment and fossils into the Bay. Megalodon teeth are rare, but smaller teeth from sharks and crocodiles, as well as beautiful bits of ancient snails and shellfish, are quite common.
Unlike much of the Chesapeake shoreline, where a low-lying landscape seems to drift into the water, the cliffs here create a sheared edge hundreds of feet above the Bay. Yet these cliffs and the land around them were once completely submerged.
"The majority of the fossils are from the cliffs because they are eroding," Jarboe said. "But the fossils are everywhere because this whole area was underwater."
On a quiet fall morning, Jarboe spotted a number of fossils along the tideline. There are tiny sand dollars, delicate white disks whose survival through the millennia seems miraculous. The fan-shaped shells with wide ribs are Chesapecten, an extinct scallop.
Jarboe also picked up pieces of Ecphora, Maryland's official state fossil. The patterns of ridges on these fragments look mysterious, but were once part of the spiral markings on the shell of a sea snail.
Even the oyster shells here are a piece of ancient history. They are relatively large, with a rosy sheen.
"Lots of people don't realize these are fossilized oyster shells," Jarboe said. "Oysters formed differently back then, and they have a notch or dip that modern oysters don't have. Also, there were a lot more oysters then, in general, and on this beach you are more likely to find the old shells than the modern ones."
Jarboe has been coming to the cliffs since she was child but said she never got the knack for spotting teeth.
"You visualize the tooth and watch the wave line, and they'll float along as the water moves. But think small. Not Megalodon. At least that's how I was taught," Jarboe said.
The fossils at Calvert Cliffs got their start 8 million to 18 million years ago during the Miocene Era, when the world was a radically different place.
This part of the Chesapeake was connected to what would later become North Africa, where portions of the modern shoreline contain fossils that match those in Calvert Cliffs.
It was also a warm, wet place. The Atlantic Coastal Plain was flooded and the Susquehanna, Potomac, and Patuxent rivers were carving ancestral paths to the sea.
"Sediment from the Piedmont and the Appalachians were washed along and laid down to form the cliffs here," said Stephen Godfrey, curator of paleontology for the nearby Calvert Marine Museum.
When marine creatures died, they sank into the sediment and became buried by incoming layers. Over millennia, the water receded and the land rose. "The remainders of animals living here at that time are entombed in the cliffs," Godfrey said.
The Calvert Marine Museum, about 15 minutes from Calvert Cliffs State Park, is also a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network and a perfect companion stop for fossil hunters.
The museum details the story of the cliffs with a computer animation that shows shifting seas and shorelines and a peek into the lab where dedicated volunteers help to clean and preserve important finds. A restoration of a 35-foot Megalodon skeleton, with gaping jaws and a full set of teeth, will impress visitors of all ages.
A large glass case features local fossils, from mollusks and other marine animals, along with early forms of land mammals like rhinoceros, pigs and camels.
"This is our field guide," Godfrey said. "People can bring their fossils in here and match them up."
Researchers have identified about 600 species from the cliffs, most are extinct. But new creatures are still being discovered and occasionally there is a spectacular find.
In 2003, Hurricane Isabelle exposed a baleen whale skull displayed at the museum and this past spring beachcombers alerted Godfrey's team to a remarkably intact skull from a dolphin.
The Calvert Cliffs formation runs for about 35 miles, beginning in lower Anne Arundel County and stretching south through Calvert County to the mouth of the Patuxent River.
Most of the shoreline is privately owned, so Calvert Cliffs State Park is a treasured spot for both locals and day-trippers.
Its beach is a gentle two-mile walk from the parking area, following a small stream through the woods as it widens into a dramatic pond flush with wetland vegetation and then drains past a small beaver dam into the Bay.
"To me, it really captures the heart of Calvert County," Jarboe said, "the forest, the wetlands, and the Bay itself."
The park is quieter in the fall, which makes it a great time to linger on the beach and enjoy more than 1,000 acres of woodlands and 13 miles of trails.
Bring a small bag, a pail, or wear pants with deep pockets, so that a trace of the Chesapeake's past can go home with you.
Calvert Cliffs State Park
Calvert Cliffs State Park in Lusby, MD, is open sunrise to sunset daily, year-round. The park also features nature trails, picnic areas, playground equipment and opportunities to fish or hunt. Bicycles and horses are permitted on the service road.
Note: Because of the danger of the landslides caused by cliff erosion and the serious injuries that can result, climbing upon and walking beneath the cliffs is prohibited.
Admission is $5/vehicle for Maryland residents; $7/vehicle for out-of-state residents.
For information, call 301-743-7613 or visit www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/.
Calvert Marine Museum
Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, MD, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. It is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.
Admission is $7/adults; $6/seniors, military & AAA members; and $2/ages 5–12. Children younger than 5 are free.
The museum's staff is happy to help the public identify unusual fossils from Calvert Cliffs. Call 410-326-2042 x28 to make an appointment.
For information, call 410-326-2042 or visit www.calvertmarinemuseum.com.
For information about other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network, visit www.baygateways.net.