Kyle Keller and Christopher Conti created Fossil Voyages, a local tour guide service that specializes in fossil finding excursions.

Illustrations by Bryce Chan.

At Rum Island Springs County Park in High Springs, the morning sun caught the lush cypress leaves above the Santa Fe River on March 31, casting a green glow on the kayakers below. River goers gathered at the recreational complex, unaware of the hunters that idled beside their skiff boat at the water’s edge.

These are no typical hunters. Kyle Keller and Cristopher Conti spend their weekends leading Fossil Voyages, a local tour guide service specializing in fossil finding excursions.

Keller and Conti, veteran fossil hunters, created Fossil Voyages over a year ago to guide fellow enthusiasts on fossil hunting journeys and introduce amateurs to the joy of uncovering treasures from the past. Their tours by boat and on foot both explore North Florida and take participants back in time through local natural history.

They greeted their guests for the day with a spring in their step, gesturing emphatically toward the river, the boat and the clear blue sky, which promised perfect weather. 

“There’s just something very nice about sharing a passion with people and them being able to appreciate it,” Conti said.

Since its creation in early 2017 after a successful hunting trip, Fossil Voyages has taken over 40 people hunting, aiming to inspire and educate.

On what was their second trip ever, Keller and Conti found a miocene formation dating between 5.3 to 23 million years ago, filled with dugong bones.

“We found like literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of vertebrae, tail bones, some pieces of skull, and we were just piling them up,” Conti said.

Florida in particular is a treasure trove for fossil hunters. The state’s beaches, creeks and rivers teem with megalodon and shark teeth, mastodon and mammoth bones and tusks, whale vertebrae and fossilized poop.

The reason for this fossil diversity is twofold: Until geologically recently (about 23 million years ago), Florida was more like a sandbar than a proper beach — aquatic animals would swim close to the ocean floor. During the last glacial maximum 20,000 years ago, when the oceans were about 300 feet below current-day sea level, Florida was opened up to land animals.

The pair’s dedication to sharing what they love goes beyond tours. They take their passion for fossil hunting into schools as well.

Fossil Voyages brings buckets of gravel and fossils to local schools in hopes that, through pieces of prehistoric treasure, they can inspire kids to take interest in the sciences and the many beautiful things Florida has to offer.

Conti recalled a school visit where kids sifted through buckets endlessly, noting their ability to quickly memorize patterns that classify which animals each fossil belonged to.

“You could tell that it instilled an appreciation for nature and science which we both believe is extremely important,” he said.

“I literally pulled an all-nighter the other night just looking at maps and reading geological publications from the 1960s.”

On the March 31 tour, the guides discussed the water clarity of the Santa Fe, a result of the absence of recent heavy rain. Conti talked about how after Memorial Day weekend he would scuba dive in the clear river and see more beer cans than river bed.

His eye on a site, Keller jumped out of the boat and tied it off to a cypress root. Rock fragments at foot, it was time to discover what could be found at the site.

Fossil hunting is a closely regulated activity: It’s prohibited on national and state parks, all finds must be recorded, and no artifacts may be extracted. In order to be allowed to participate in fossil hunting at all, Fossil Voyages has a permit granted through the University of Florida.

Keller and Conti meticulously choose sites where hunting will not disturb the ecological balance, and they only use sustainable methods. They don’t use prohibited items, such as shovels that can harm the site, and all of their techniques and equipment are approved.

“We do spend a lot of time checking topographic maps and geological maps and combing through old like very obscure publications like the US Geological Service.” Keller said.

The hunters’ tools are simple: homemade sifting screens framed by wood or drawers, gardening gloves, and a worn folding table planted firmly into the muddy bank. These tools would uncover countless fossils, pulling treasures from the dirt and exposing them to the hunters’ eager eyes.

The sifting screens, basic but ingenious, were creations of necessity by Keller and Conti. The two said you may find remnants at the river’s edge, but you are more likely to find fossils in the deposits of the river’s floor. The screens are vital to retrieve these.

The process of uncovering fossils was a simple but specific one, refined over their combined 25 years of hunting. As the two explained the process, they demonstrated the movements. They removed large rocks from the water bed’s loose sediment and pushed water out of the way to remove the silt around deposits of gravel.

After placing newly uncovered handfuls of rocks into the screens, they shook the frames to remove any more loose silt. With the full screen in hand, the two waded back to the table to pour their load, each screen full of fossils.

“See all the black pieces?” Conti said. “Those are all fossils.”

Even the untrained eye could spot the dark treasures strewn throughout the rubble. He plucked out two particularly interesting fossils and explain them in detail with ease and confidence.

“That right there? That’s a white tail deer fossil,” Conti said. “See this here? It’s a piece of mammoth.”

The pair took turns pointing out fossils. Another find was a turtle shell, dating back to the pleistocene era, gnawed on by a rodent before the shell was buried and mineralized beneath sediment.

Keller carefully set the piece aside to photograph and inspect more closely later.

“We always enjoy fossils that tell stories,” Keller said.

Every screen contained more wonders, of fossils and the past: Dugong teeth, alligator bones, giant tortoise spurs from upwards of 10,000 years ago. The pair’s years of experience make it easier for them to identify the fossils.

“We’re science nerds before collectors,” Conti explained.

Each find contributes to a larger picture for Fossil Voyages. With time and effort, the pair is able to create a context for their sites, putting together timeframes through their research. Conti and Keller laughed over their shared love of sitting behind a computer to uncover even more history from the fossils they find.

“I literally pulled an all-nighter the other night just looking at maps and reading geological publications from the 1960s,” Keller said.

At the close of the hunt, the sun hung lower in the sky, casting a warmth over the river as satisfied hunters reflected on the bounty of their day’s finds.

Conti explained the beauty of Fossil Voyages.: “Treasure hunting,” he said. “I realized all this stuff was in my backyard.” •