Story by CINDY REID Photography by JOHN WOLLWERTH
While we swim or boat on the beautiful Beaufort waterways, we are typically enthralled with all the gorgeous nature around us. We notice the soft lights and muted colors of the marshes and the long legged birds that navigate more gracefully then we ever could with our kayaks, canoes and outboard motors. It is a pleasure to the eye to be on these waters. We are so occupied observing what is on the surface that we usually ignore what lies beneath us, below the water, under the muck and mud.
Diver and artifact hunter Lauren DeLoach has been looking below for many years. And not just looking- he has been finding historical artifacts since he was 12 years old. He still has his first find, an amber John Ryan cider bottle that sits among the many other antique bottles he has brought up from below. Growing up in Port Royal, Lauren says when he was a young boy he would “walk on the banks of the marsh and find a lot of bottles. Trash had been dumped on the riverbanks back then and you could poke around and find these bottles easily. That’s how I got interested in collecting them.” He says, “My mother would drop us off in front of ‘The Castle’ on The Point and we would drop a rod into the mud. Sure enough, we always found something down there.”
He says, “The old guys that fished along the shore line had them in their houses, and even rolling around in the bottom of their boats. You could always find something where all the old docks pilings were.”
A natural water man, Lauren also tried his hand at finding food below the surface. “When I was 15, I had fifty crab traps during the summer. Edward Caesar, who made crab traps, gave me a little job and so I learned how to make them. I made mine myself, and I crabbed for three years.” Lauren thinks about for a minute and says, “It is a hard way to make a living.”
It is also hard, if not impossible, to accumulate the kind of collection Lauren has assembled from his underwater finds over the last forty years. Collectors may spend years purchasing what they desire but Lauren has spent decades finding his artifacts underwater. He has bottles that date from the early 1700’s on past the Civil war, some predating the rice plantation era, some predate America. He has Dutch glass bottles, mallet and English onion bottles, (which refer to the bottle shape), big bottles and little bottles. In Lauren’s collection are some of the rarest of these bottles, ones that have the initials of the owner stamped on them. Lauren says, “The initial markings were to circumvent the King’s tax.” (They are called sealed bottles because they have an applied glass seal, a molten glob of glass that has been stamped with words, initials or symbols, on side of the bottle.)
Not just aesthetically fantastic, his antique bottle collection offers the viewer a way to grasp a bit of our past. “History” is such a dry word but when we can hold an everyday item that was made and used hundreds of years ago we have the opportunity to make a physical connection, to get a real sense of the people who were before us,before they became our “history”.
Lauren says “I started looking for fossils around 15 years ago, after old bottles became scarce. I was in the Morgan river and found two teeth on my first dive and that’s how it started.” He is too modest to add that he has since become one of the more successful fossil divers in the area.
The Megalodon shark was the largest of the prehistoric sharks; in fact it was the biggest predatory marine creature in the history of the planet. It’s body could reach lengths of 65 feet and its teeth could reach over seven inches. Lauren says, “Just think, when these big sharks were here, Beaufort was under 400 feet of water”.
Megalodon shark teeth are the prize to find, and for various reasons, the lowcountry is one of the very few places in the world where these massive 7-20 million years old teeth can still be found. As Lauren says, “The bigger teeth come from this area, they are out there in the deeper holes.”
Diving for Megalodon teeth in the lowcountry means you are blackwater diving, which is pretty much what it sounds like, which is diving without any light. In addition, the diver has to contend with strong currents, tricky tides and the ever present alligators. This kind of diving is not for the amateur, and even the most expert diver may not make it back to the surface. In 2004 Lauren’s dive partner Vito Bertucci, one of the best known shark tooth divers in the world, died while on a dive with Lauren. This cannot be stated strongly enough- this is dangerous diving and not for the novice.
Megalodon teeth are not the only ancient finds Lauren has brought up from below. His fossil collection includes teeth from ancient giant sloths, wooly mammoths, petrified tree roots and many other amazing items. Something as simple as an oyster shell is incredible for its twelve inch size.
When asked if he was able to summon the memory of where he obtained everything, Lauren said, “Oh yes, I almost always remember where I found something.” From the care taken with his astounding collection, it’s easy to see that he would indeed remember. Lauren says at some point he and his wife Robbie plan to donate some of their more important pieces to museums so all will have a chance to enjoy them as they have.
Lauren met his wife Robbie in Columbia, SC at an antique auction, and they have been married 21 years. They raised two children, now grown, Matt and Anna. They moved to the Lowcountry in 1991 and opened Bellavista, an antique shop, in downtown Beaufort in 1993. Their second store, What’s In Store, opened in 2000 on St.Helena Island.
They moved Bellavista to St Helena Island in 2006 and opened a third store, Octopuses, on St. Helena in 2006.
In 2006, Lauren and his wife were badly injured in a motor vehicle accident on their property in North Carolina. His neck was broken extensively and he went through numerous medical procedures and surgeries. After being told by his doctors he would definitely never again dive, in fact he would be lucky to even walk, he said, “Give me a year and I will be back in the water.” Fourteen months later he was diving.
Lauren says his passions are diving and painting. “I like to stay busy. I don’t feel right unless I’m being creative.” He says, “I also love painting, I draw inspiration exclusively from Beaufort waterways, sounds and beaches. I like to paint people on the beach and water birds from photographs taken by my wife, especially the ones taken down at the Rookery in Port Royal.”
He adds, “When I head out in the boat early in the morning I am always reminded how fortunate I was growing up in such a beautiful place. I think it is like God gave us this giant buffet of beauty and nature in the lowcountry. And all we have to do is reach out and take part in it.”