Search and Rescue
"Wake up, Gail, you can't miss the sunrise," Roberto mumbles. I­appreciate the 5:15 a.m. heads-up, but I'm not ready to emergefrom my bag. Roberto goes back to sleep and starts snoring, but Iam so wide awake that I give up. When the sun comes up, I wanderfar enough to feel entirely alone in the mysteriously beautifuldesert that lacks living creatures, rainfall, or anything that hasa scent. An hour later, Roberto tracks me down - by following thearoma of my SPF 45 sunscreen, he claims - to bring me a mug ofcampfire 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 thisclose 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.

Gail Harington is a freelance writer in New York who collects seashells, shoes — and now, shark teeth. She has written for Cooking Light, Departures, More, Spa, and Travel + Leisure.

For tours in the Ocucaje Desert, call Roberto Penny Cabrera at 011-51-56-962-4868 or e-mail him at Per-person rates start at $100 per day. Round-trip service between Lima and Ica costs $30 on the Ormeno bus line and takes about four hours each way.