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Fossil Finders Gather with Ancient Gifts

By Staff | Dec 3, 2011

Long time seasonal residents of Sanibel Island, Ted Oakes, Richard Kemper, Linda Kemper and Pat Oakes, show-off some of their fossil finds from years of hunting throughout Southwest Florida. Photo by BILL SCHILLER

It is a very well known fact that many people come to Sanibel Island in search of the beautiful shells that so frequently grace the shores of local beaches. However, in some cases, there are people of Sanibel who prefer to go off island, in search of shells that are, by far, rarer and older… in fact, millions of years older.

“It is an amazing experience to find a fossil,” says Linda Kemper. “When you come across that rare fossil and consider, YOU are the first person to discover and hold this thing that is millions of years old, and maybe even an extinct species, that is a truly an amazing feeling.”

Those amazing feelings are now manifested throughout Kemper’s home in Periwinkle Park where fossils can be found within jars, decorative displays and coffee-table drawers. A storage unit in the back offers less space for the relegation of Richard Kemper’s tools, but serves more as a repository for other fossil finds.

But to be sure, they are not hoarders in the traditional sense as both Richard and Linda frequently gift their finds to anyone with passing interest in their hobby. This includes a certain young boy who lives in their neighborhood. As Richard Kemper asserts, “I would much rather encourage a young child’s interest in science and fossils than see him take-up interest in drugs or getting in trouble.”

The Kemper’s fascination with fossils was fueled after setting up a seasonal home on Sanibel some five years ago. Spending five months out of the year here and the remaining time in Kankakee, Illinois, the Kemper’s met another seasonal couple, Pat and Ted Oakes from Canada.

A retired, municipal attorney from Ontario, Ted Oakes first came to Sanibel in 1967 after reading an article about Florida beaches by Canadian Sports Columnist Scott Young (the father of Musician Neil Young). As Ted recalls, “I called the writer after he wrote a story about New Smyrna Beach. I asked him, ‘Are there any shells on that beach?’ and he said, if I wanted to find shells, I need to go to Sanibel Island.”

That was that; the Oakes visited and later set-up a home and it wasn’t that long later the local shells simply failed to suffice for their passionate pursuits. Ted went on to help establish the Fossil Club of Lee County, and he and wife, Pat, frequently gather at locales around the county with other fossil hunters.

Linda Kemper says “Shell people are like maniacs.”

Her husband Richard says, “What do you mean – like?”

Which is to suggest, they are especially driven in their determination to secure rare finds.

Because Sanibel Island is only some 5,000 years old, Ted Oakes says fossil hunters have to travel more inland to search among quarries and pits in Sarasota, Immokalee and other areas where they have secured permission from various mining operations. These locations, like so much of Florida, were underwater many, many years ago. As what was once an ocean floor is now covered over by fauna and terra firma, one has to go some ways below the surface to find good specimens. It isn’t just shells for the offering, Jack Boyce of Sanibel once found a two million years old megalodon tooth. Some have found fossilized walrus tusks, which today seems curious for Florida, but thousands of years ago, walrus ventured in these waters.

Sometimes, fossil hunters don’t have to travel too far. Ted shares a story about a time when fill was delivered for the building of Sanibel’s new library. A truck dumped a mound of mined material for fill needs, and he, and some other local people, quickly recognized that debris had been dug-up from a quarry and chock-full of fossils. Not quite under cover of darkness, he and local fossil lovers sifted through the rubble to grab what they could find. Ted and Pat ultimately constructed a display case for many of those fossils which now reside in the Sanibel Library.

The couple admits the hobby is not necessarily something for the faint of heart.

As Pat attests, when hunting for fossils, it can get hot, dirty and a little tricky to maneuver in the terrain. Ted shares a story about an Alligator he once encountered in the recesses of a pit that had a pool of water.

The gator, he noted, was resting beside a shell that looked like it could be a good find. He waited much of the day before going down, and only after the alligator was out of sight. The shell, turns out, was broken, and as he started experiencing some difficulty climbing out of the hole, he quickly realized that he was serving as something of gator bait.

Serving, for that matter, is very much on the mind of Richard Kemper. A career military man, Richard says he too shares his wife’s interest with fossils and has no issue joining her on hunts. He does, however, say, “I get the thrill of carrying everything we find.” In this case, that may mean many pounds of material that has to be sifted through and cleaned in order to capture the best specimens.

There are many married couples among Lee County’s Fossil Club, of course, not all spouses are as enthused as their significant other.

Ted shares a story about one afternoon when one husband elected to remain in the car while his wife searched. After an hour or two, the man approached his wife informing her of how much time had passed. She simply said, “I know.” The man departed, but returned again after a couple more hours, saying, “Dear, it’s 12:00 now.” Again, the wife dismissed his prodding. As her husband shrugged away, the lady turned to the fossil group and said, “I’ve found two husbands in my life, but I’ve never found an ecphora and I’m not leaving until I do.”

This humor, by the way, isn’t lost on fossil hunters since they know that an ecphora is the genus of a fossilized sea snail, an extinct species in the Muricidae family of marine gastropod mollusks – better known among fossil hunters as “the one” as Pat Kemper asserts, “a real treasure.”

While some fossils may garner a small measure of monetary gain, both the Kempers and Oaks claim the real value is the fun of the pursuit and sharing the experience with like-minded friends.

The Fossil Club of Lee County serves as a “support group” of sorts for those so inclined, but also organizes a variety of programs and field trips that uniquely cater to local fossil lovers.

On Dec. 3, the club will sponsor Lee County’s 2011 Fossil Show at the Calusa Nature Center in Fort Myers. In addition to exhibitions of rocks, minerals, gemstones, shells and vertebrate fossils, the venue provides a “kid’s dig” with fossils waiting for discovery and presentations by paleontologist Dr. Charles O’Connor.

Club President Bill Shaver, says the fossil show typically attracts wide appeal. “It’s a learning venue,” he says, “for anyone interested in science, or geology, or history for that matter.”

As a hobby, Shaver says fossil hunting is a lot like the pits and quarries they explore, “It sort of draws you into it.”

The Fossil Club of Lee County traditionally meets on the third Tuesday of every month at 7:00 p.m. in the Calusa Nature Center. For more information, phone President Shaver at (239)834-0694 or visit club website at www.fcolc.com