Winner Solas Awards 2007 (sponsored by Traveler's Tales)
American Way, March 15, 2006
Two million years ago, it wasn't safe to go in the water, thanks to a predator the size of a Greyhound bus. These days, you have to search the Peruvian desert to get face-to-face with the granddaddy of Jaws.
By Gail Harrington
“Roberto, Roberto, come see!”
I’d made a remarkable discovery in the Ocucaje Desert, 12 miles inland from Peru’s southern coast, but my guide was a quarter of a mile away, relieving himself in a gully. I jumped up and down, screamed, and did a few cartwheels, which made my head swirl, but still no Roberto. Here in one of the oldest and quietest places on Earth — a wondrous desert of tiered escarpments, sedimentary rock, and level stretches between Precambrian volcanic mountains — no one else would hear my squeals. Waiting for Roberto to reappear, I paced back and forth across a fossil-embedded steppe, a broken section of the ocean floor that was thrust 2,600 feet above sea level 12 million years ago. When he finally returned and saw my big surprise — a three-inch-long fossilized tooth from a megalodon shark — a beaming Roberto said, “Pachamama [“earth mother”] sent me to the water closet so you’d find this gift.”
Three weeks earlier, I’d read an online posting about Roberto Penny Cabrera, and called him to find out more about the ocean’s largest-ever predator. “Forget Jaws. The megalodon was more than twice as long as a great white shark, much larger than a Greyhound bus,” he told me. “With an enormous mouth 11 feet high and nine feet across, it could break a whale in two with one bite.” Roberto’s enthusiasm for “sharkies” was endearing. Later I learned he was actually saying “shark teeth” so fast that the words ran together, but by then I’d grown fond of the term and chose to hear it that way.
A self-taught geologist and finder of prehistoric shark teeth, Roberto is the eyes and ears of world-renowned paleontologists who share his obsession for the Carcharocles megalodon shark, which terrorized the sea between two million and 16 million years ago. Consumed with the geology of the Ocucaje Desert, this 50-year-old with an aristocratic Spanish heritage prefers a life of few possessions — some desertworthy garb and gear, books, a chess set, and a signed declaration from Peru’s National Institute of Culture that names him an official protector of the Ocucaje. His home in Ica, 200 miles south of Lima, is decorated with satellite maps of the desert. Most of his megalodon collection is stored elsewhere — perhaps someday he’ll open his own museum. Even so, Roberto considers himself a finder, not a collector.
I first met Roberto a few miles from Ica at my hotel in Huacachina, a tiny palm-fringed lake surrounded by monstrous sand dunes. “So, how’d you hear about me?” he asks. “And why would a woman from New York City want to go 150 kilometers off-road to look for sharkies in one of the driest deserts in the world?” I blurt out: “When I was a little girl, my grandfather used to take me to a canyon in California, where we found fossils of fish and seashells. I was completely in awe of the fact that something millions of years old could still exist. My grandpa was the most fascinating man I’d ever met.” Upon hearing this story, Roberto melts. And suddenly I realize that my entrée to the depths of the Ocucaje hasn’t been a sure thing. “You’ve passed the test,” he announces. “I will pick you up tomorrow morning at eight.”
Only then does Roberto pull out a map and an album. “Gail, what you’re about to see will shock you. If I showed these photos to everyone in Huacachina, there’d be a line of people fighting to go with me.” I am mesmerized. We’re talking fossilized whale skeletons, giant shark teeth larger than a man’s hand, pre-Hispanic pottery partially exposed in the sand, and human bones and skulls exposed by grave robbers, or huaqueros, who plundered the 3,000-year-old tombs of the Paracas people.
Clad in hiking boots, a khaki shirt, an Australian oilskin hat, lightweight pants with zip-off legs, and with a 10-inch knife hanging from his belt, Roberto arrives the next morning driving the heavily modified 1981 Datsun truck he fondly calls Hermelinda. Provisioned with food and bottled water, camping gear, firewood, three spare tires, and a makeshift shower with a 27-gallon tank, we are good to go. We take off, first through the little town of Ocucaje, where locals we pass acknowledge Roberto’s desert foray with a salute. We won’t see another human being for two days.
Within an hour, we’re off-roading in a landscape formed over millions of years by colliding tectonic plates. Our first stop: a large fossilized whale skeleton that includes eye sockets, a skull, and a partial spine and vertebrae. So what happened to the rest? “Erosion wouldn’t destroy half a whale,” Roberto says. “No, the lower part had to be taken by something strong, and that’s the megalodon. See the sharp break in the spine? Sometimes you’ll even find teeth marks on the bones.” All around us are earthy-looking heaps, more fossilized skeletons, but Roberto is barely interested in the whales — all he can think about are megalodons.
As Hermelinda bounces us deeper into the Ocucaje and temperatures soar to 96 degrees, caffeine-addicted Roberto guzzles quarts of warm Coca-Cola — diesel for his body, he declares — and I chug bottled water. When the heat gets to him, Roberto stops to take a shower fully clothed and climbs back into the truck, dripping wet. Every couple of hours, he checks in with one of two SOS contacts to make sure someone knows our whereabouts at all times.
Periodically, he makes a close-up inspection of an area before promising that shark teeth can be found there. What is he looking for? “First, you must find a spot with brown,” he says, fingering some powdery rust-colored soil, “organic remains, mostly plankton. And when you have plankton, you’ll find a chain of consequences of life — fossils, shells, small pieces of bone, and also shark teeth. But you won’t see the teeth unless a strong wind hits the ground at just the right angle to bring them out into the open.” Taking them out of the desert is entirely legal, I learn, because within 10 to 12 weeks, wind and sun will break them into little splinters.
Roberto spots a dozen teeth before I find my first, an inch-long mako shark tooth. I quickly realize this sport can be addictive — we don’t even stop for lunch. By late afternoon, I’ve found only a few small teeth, but Roberto reassures me. “Don’t worry, Gail. We’re just starting today. Tomorrow you’ll find the big one. Now it’s time for some dinner.”
We set up camp in a sheltered spot below a six-foot-high ledge of diatomite, a sedimentary rock that’s rich in ocean plankton remains. Within minutes, Roberto unloads lounge chairs, sleeping bags, a small table, firewood, and the food — fresh-baked rolls as soft as cotton balls, plus cheese and assorted canned goods. Famished, I grab a can of frijoles, which Roberto opens with his knife, and I eat them straight from the can without even bothering to heat them up. As I wolf down my meal, I realize how extraordinary it is to be dining beneath a 23-million-year-old piece of the ocean floor, and I think that perhaps the remarkable surroundings help make the beans so sweet and tasty, despite their being cold. Later, Roberto builds a campfire and pours boxed red wine into our mugs — he spikes his with Coca-Cola (more diesel) and then we toast: “Salud! Mañana, el megalodon.”
For a while, we stop talking about sharks, or anything else for that matter, indulging only in the delicious absence of sound. And when our campfire burns down to a few glowing embers, a moonless dark sky graces us with a larger-than-IMAX screening of a meteor shower.
Search and Rescue
“Wake up, Gail, you can’t miss the sunrise,” Roberto mumbles. I appreciate the 5:15 a.m. heads-up, but I’m not ready to emerge from my bag. Roberto goes back to sleep and starts snoring, but I am so wide awake that I give up. When the sun comes up, I wander far enough to feel entirely alone in the mysteriously beautiful desert that lacks living creatures, rainfall, or anything that has a scent. An hour later, Roberto tracks me down — by following the aroma of my SPF 45 sunscreen, he claims — to bring me a mug of campfire coffee.
“If you want a big find, Gail, get ready for a hard ride,” he warns, which doesn’t worry me until too late. As we bounce along in Hermelinda and up impossible inclines, I swear he’s this close to driving us off of a cliff. Then he spots something, a long shape that stands out in the layers of rocky sediment, and he screeches Hermelinda to a stop. “See the tooth sockets? That’s the jawbone of a dolphin, so we know that we’re on a broken piece of the ocean floor.” Roberto starts searching for other signs too — patches of brown organic matter, fossils, small bone fragments, and the wind. It’s as if he can almost smell a big find, following these clues right to the exposed tip of a magnificent four-inch megalodon.
“Imagine how many sharks lived over millions of years. Then realize that each one had about 140 teeth that could be replaced hundreds of times,” Roberto says. “For every megalodon that lived, there could be thousands of teeth — the only remnants, since sharks don’t have bones. Your chances of finding one are pretty good. So search this area thoroughly, and I’ll be back.”
About 50 feet from the place where Roberto made his find, I spot a pointed shape that stands out in the sediment. I am thrilled but cautious — until I carefully brush off the powdery magnesium-rich sediment that had protected the tooth for millions of years, and I can fully see its size and serrated edge. At that moment, I know I’ve found a shiny, well-preserved megalodon. And where is my shark master in this moment of discovery? Indisposed.
When he finally returns, Roberto is even more excited than I am as he works cautiously with brush and tools to extricate the tooth, which comes out nearly intact. “Don’t worry about that small damage on the root. My restorer, Nestor, will make it perfect,” he promises. And he does. Back in Ica, I relinquish my 28 shark teeth to Nestor Diaz Cegarra, who cleans, polishes, and repairs them before I leave for Lima the next day.
The handover takes place at Ica’s best restaurant, El Otro Peñoncito, where Nestor spreads out the polished sharks’ teeth on the dark green tablecloth for my approval. Everyone is amazed — diners, waiters, and sidewalk passersby who hear the fuss. Later, Roberto and Nestor see me off at the bus station and wave until I am out of sight. That’s when I unroll the cotton-wrapped teeth. Suddenly, I understand why Roberto calls himself a finder, not a collector. It’s not about hoarding and storing, it’s about rescuing a piece of the past … before it’s too late. ■