Sixteen thousand millennia ago, a huge expanse of seawater covered a patch of land that would come to be known as Baker's Field.
Later dubbed the Temblor Sea, the body of water covered the future location of California's southern San Joaquin Valley.
This ancient sea teemed with life. And death.
On Thursday, and continuing through Sunday, a 16-million-year-old remnant of that sea known as the Sharktooth Hill Bone Bed was open to rock hounds, fossil hunters and amateur paleontologists.
Organized by the Buena Vista Museum of Natural History & Science and landowner Rob Ernst, the four-day paleo-dig opens up a time machine in the earth, allowing enthusiasts to experience the wonder of discovery that geologist William P. Blake must have felt when in 1853 he became the first European to find and document ancient shark teeth strewn like common stones atop a dry hill not far from present-day Bakersfield.
"I always wanted to go on a dig, but my mother never thought it was proper for a girl to go," said San Mateo resident Jan Esaki, who along with her husband, Dennis, used a rock hammer Thursday to explore the Round Mountain Silt that encases the bonebed.
"She's been talking about going on a dig for a long time," said Dennis Esaki.
After doing some research, they learned that the Bakersfield-area dig was relatively inexpensive at $70 per day, plus the cost of Buena Vista Museum membership.
"And you get to keep what you find," said Bob Lewis, who was at the site for the third time with his wife, JoEllen Perkins.
Some fossil hunters, including Lewis and Perkins, wear masks to protect themselves from the dust. The area has long been associated with spores in the soil that are known to cause valley fever, although one organizer said there have been no reports of valley fever infection from any of the thousands of fossil hunters who have participated in organized digs at the site.
Perkins was jazzed Thursday. By midday, she had already found several shark teeth at the site Ernst calls Slow Curve, although she hadn't found the tooth of a megalodon, the Greyhound bus-sized shark that bit the tails off of whales, crippling them before cutting them to pieces with their fearsome rows of 5-inch teeth.
"Finding a meg tooth, that's the holy grail," said Koral Hancharick, director of the Buena Vista Museum.
Yes, fossil hunters get to keep meg teeth if they find one, Ernst said. However, they must leave behind fully articulated skeletons or scientifically significant remnants of needle-nose dolphins, sperm whales, baleen whales, hippopotamuslike creatures known as desmostylus and other natives of the Temblor Sea.
Ernst pointed out fenced-off areas of his quarry where scientific digs are ongoing, including one by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
"CSU Bakersfield is working on an excavation of a whale mandible," he said.
Sharktooth Hill's ultra-rich fossil bed boasts one of the most concentrated fossil deposits in the world. It's a paleontological treasure trove.
But shark-tooth hunters really want to meet Meg.
"Megalodon was the meanest thing that ever lived," said Chuck Mast, a docent for the museum who acted as the museum's field guide at Thursday's dig.
"Its bite was 10 times more powerful than T. rex," he said.
And the teeth can reach more than five inches in length.
That's a paleontological souvenir if there ever was one.