At first, diving in South Carolina’s Cooper River sounds distinctly unappealing. After all, who in their right mind would want to descend into the chilly waters of a fast-flowing river, so rich in tannins that after a few feet the visibility falls to almost zero? Factor in a healthy population of resident alligators, and the Cooper River begins to sound like any normal diver’s nightmare. Yet every year, countless divers brave the river’s inhospitable conditions, and more still feature the river on their bucket list. Why? Because this current-ravaged, alligator-infested, mud-brown river just happens to be one of the best places in the world for finding ancient artifacts and fossils, some of which date back several million years.
Specifically, the silt and gravel on the Cooper’s riverbed is known for a wealth of fossilized megalodon teeth, amny measuring more than six inches long. Believed to have been the ancestors of present-day sharks like the great white and the mako, megalodons are thought to have measured more than 52 feet (16 m) long. Although they have been extinct for approximately two million years, scrabbling for their teeth in the pitch-black conditions is an otherworldly experience that requires only the tiniest bit of imagination to bring the monsters of the past back to life.
Megalodon teeth aren’t the only treasure in the murky waters of the Cooper River. Millions of years ago, the South Carolina coast as we know it today was completely submerged. Prehistoric sea creatures lived and died there, their bones and teeth preserved by the silty seafloor. Over the millennia, the ocean retreated, creating a flourishing jungle that in turn provided a home for mammoths, giant beavers, cave bears and saber-toothed tigers. Fossilized remains of all of these creatures have been found in the Cooper River, where the strong current erodes the riverbanks, covering and uncovering new caches of ancient fossils all the time. South Carolina’s rich human history is also on display here, and divers often retrieve Native American and Colonial-era artifacts as well.
It is the sheer thrill of discovering the Cooper River’s prehistoric past that makes braving the current, the poor visibility and the river’s present-day toothy residents worthwhile. Several operators offer day charters to the gravel beds, and to dive here requires several key pieces of equipment — a strong torch, a collecting net and a screwdriver, for anchoring oneself against the current. Extra weight is key, enabling divers to descend quickly to the bottom and remain there. Most of all, divers must have nerves of steel and the dive experience to cope with the river’s challenging conditions.
Above all, divers who wish to keep what they find must apply for and attain a Hobby Diver license in advance. The license application process takes approximately four weeks, and allows divers to legally collect fossils and artifacts without violating South Carolina law.