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Bob Sinibaldi, above, fans the bottom of the Rainbow River looking for fossils or artifacts like the tapir molars and possible partial scraper tool he found earlier
[Times photo: Bill Serne]

Diving into the past


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 8, 1998

ST. PETERSBURG -- Bob Sinibaldi has an incurable case of the Star Trek Syndrome.

The 41-year-old special education teacher likes to boldly go where no one has gone before.

"It is a real thrill uncovering something that might have been buried for 10-or-15,000 years," the fossil diver said. "Once you get started, it is hard to stop."

Seven years ago, when Sinibaldi learned to scuba dive, he attended a local dive club meeting. The guest speaker was a fossil diver.

"They were planning a trip to Venice Beach to look for shark teeth," he said. "We got down there, and the visibility was poor, so they had us tie onto each other with a 10-foot rope."

It didn't take long before diving teams became hopelessly tangled. Some divers got lost, others seasick, all frustrated.

"Things would have gone a lot smoother if somebody had just given us a few practical tips," Sinibaldi said. "It was a real disaster."

Sinibaldi's next hunt for fossils didn't go much better. He knew Florida's rivers were treasure chests for fossil hunters. The trouble was, he couldn't find anyone willing to tell him where to go.

Finally he met a veteran diver who swore him to secrecy and took him to the Withlacoochee River. The dive was near a spring. The water temperature was around 70 degrees, and Sinibaldi was told to wear a wet suit, something he never had done.

But Sinibaldi's friend never mentioned he would need extra weight on his weight belt to compensate for the rubber suit, so he spent most of the dive bobbing like a cork.

"After that, I was determined to find out everything I could about fossil diving," he said. "I've taken everything I've learned and put it into my book so hopefully other people won't have as much trouble getting started."

Sinibaldi covers everything from the basics, such as what a fossil is and what laws govern their collection, to more advanced subjects, such as identifying a find and how to clean and preserve.

"The majority of the diving that I do is in rivers," he said. "The most common thing I find is shark teeth, and people always ask, "What were sharks doing swimming in the middle of Florida?' "

If you read Fossil Diving: In Florida Waters or Any Other Waters Containing Prehistoric Treasures, you will learn that thousands of years ago, water covered much of what is the Florida Peninsula.

"The tooth is the hardest part of a shark's body, and since a single shark can produce as many as 40,000 teeth in its lifetime, we end up collecting a lot of those," he said.

But Sinibaldi also has found his share of rarer remains, such as the pelvic bone of a 200-pound beaver and the tooth of a 15,000-year-old tapir. "Most of the rivers I dive in are tannic (tea-color), so the visibility isn't great," he said. "You always have to keep an eye out around you."

Sinibaldi has yet to see a snake, but he has encountered his share of gators.

"They never bother me. After all, I'm 6 feet tall and with fins on I look 8 feet, which is about the size of most alligators," he said. "But it is something I try not to be complacent about ... because this is something I hope to keep doing for the rest of my life."

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