Sharks Tooth Island: A Hidden Cape Fear River Gem
Fossils, artifacts and, yes, shark teeth are waiting to be discovered at this island in the Cape Fear River.
It can be difficult to envision the Cape Fear River as we know it now — a focal point of the downtown scene, home to canoes, pontoon boats and tour boats — operating as a highway for shipping and trade. But that’s essentially what it was during colonial times, says Don Harty, owner of Mahanaim Adventures, a business providing kayaking, camping and team-building excursions in the Cape Fear area.
Harty says that the river’s history is nowhere more evident than at one of the man-made islands located within it. Sharks Tooth Island in particular is a goldmine for colonial-era artifacts, Harty says; it’s where countless prehistoric fossils can be found, including, but not limited to, the kind that gave the island its name.
According to Harty, Sharks Tooth Island and the string of islands to the north were formed by dredge spoil in the late 1800s when developing commerce compelled the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dig channels deep enough for large ships to pass through — so that the deep-draft vessels’ passage no longer had to be dependent on the tide.
Thus, the islands consist of sand, sediment and limestone rock that UNCW geologists estimate is between 35 and 40 million years old, Harty says.
Robert Smith, owner of the tour guide service Watersmith Kayaking and department manager at Outdoor Provision Company, shares that the limestone rock is known locally as “marl.”
“Marl used to be the bottom of the shallow coastal ocean,” he says, which explains why shark tooth fossils abound on the island. “But you can also find an amazing number of other things, including Native American artifacts, Revolutionary and Civil War items, broken shards of pottery and glass…”
Smith says his most interesting finds have been a piece of petrified reed — 3 inches long and hollow — and a turn-of-the-century tobacco pipe.
Harty says that Mahanaim Adventures’ most exciting find has been a prehistoric horse’s tooth.
“[When you think of these kind of artifacts] you think more of aquatics, but this coastal area was at one point underwater,” he says. “Who knows what’s fallen off or been tossed over the side of the boat and dredged up?”
Today, visitors to Sharks Tooth Island can comb through 2 acres of sand, sea grass and rocky shoreline to search for fossilized shells, shark teeth and other treasures.
“It’s so exciting,” Smith says of the kidney-shaped island approximately the size of a baseball diamond.
Smith and Harty take clients out to Sharks Tooth Island via kayak through their respective companies. They paddle out from River Road Park, always coordinating their trips with the tides. With high tide comes hardly any beach to explore and more safety risks.
“A high tide enhanced by wind can overwash the island,” Smith says.
He also shares a little-known fact: “The current goes backwards twice a day, and many people don’t realize how strong it can be. Even for the short distance to Sharks Tooth, it can be very difficult to get to there.”
Another safety consideration is avoiding and managing inclement weather, which is why Harty recommends hiring a guide with knowledge of the river and environmental conditions. Too often, he and his colleagues have rescued people whose boats have capsized.
When the weather is ideal, Harty describes Sharks Tooth Island as a “great and fun place to spend a couple of hours, to see a lot of cool wildlife and bird species.”
The surrounding islands are fun to check out, too, but there’s something unique about Sharks Tooth, says Harty — “the way it sits in the river and continues to stir things up.”
Harty says that many people focus so much on the local beaches that they miss out on the many other exciting adventures this town has to offer. It’s one of the reasons that Sharks Tooth Island has remained a hidden gem of sorts — a destination that’s at once very popular yet relatively undiscovered.
“Compared to the Intracoastal Waterway, the lower Cape Fear River is little used,” Smith adds. “People just seem more attracted to the beach and salty, clear water. The lower Cape Fear estuary is an unknown for many people. They see the marshes and dark, tannic water and hear about gators and just go to the beach.”
But Smith says that as long as appropriate precautions are taken — one of the benefits of using an experienced tour guide — the Cape Fear River is well worth a visit.
He and Harty agree that it’s an especially enjoyable experience for families with young kids.
“It’s a great way to keep kids entertained,” Harty says.
Smith says his guided trips to Sharks Tooth Island can take between three and four hours, depending on the size of the group. Instead of paddling directly to the island, which is only about 400 yards from the dock, Smith tends to first venture north of Sharks Tooth, past several small islands and up a creek above River Road Park before paddling back to the main attraction.
Those who have the tools to make the trip themselves can even camp out on the island, under the canopy of cedar trees.
But as this special place becomes less obscure, it’s also becoming more polluted, Harty says. He and others who cherish Sharks Tooth Island implore people to do their part in preserving its natural beauty.
“I wish there’d be more people that would take care of it,” he says.
Harty shares that the best time to experience the magic of the island is at low tide, and Smith says the best time of year for a visit is the fall, which is “the best time to paddle anywhere in our region.”
Regardless of the season, Smith says that new fossils and other artifacts will continue to appear on Sharks Tooth Island, as a result of the water’s movement and the continual erosion of the Fossiliferous limestone.
“It’s always worth a visit,” he says. “You never know what you’ll see or find.”
Want to explore Sharks Tooth Island?
Experienced local paddlers can access Sharks Tooth Island on their own by putting in at River Road Park in Wilmington. But a guide is recommended to help you access the island if you’re not familiar with the currents and tides in the Cape Fear River.
Mahanaim Adventures: (910) 547-8252; mahanaimadventures.com
Watersmith Kayaking: (910) 443-3345; Facebook: Watersmith Kayaking