Most viewers are happy to sit at home and watch divers take the risk to suck up gold at the bottom of the Bering Sea from their couches. But some of you are crazy enough to want to put that mask and wetsuit on and do it yourselves. That’s why our most frequently-asked question on social media is this: How do I get a job as a Bering Sea Gold diver?
If you’re one of that rare breed we just want to say welcome – you’re our kind of people. Only the ambitious and the slightly insane need apply in this line of work.
Diver-operated suction dredging for gold in the Bering Sea is a very small, tight-knit industry, and it’s in a very remote part of the world. Thus, breaking into the business has a number of unique challenges – it’s not as easy as just acquiring the proper certifications and sending your resume to a company.
So today, to make the first official guide on how to get a job as a Bering Sea gold diver, we’re talking to someone who has deep experience in the business – Jeff Orzechowski.
Jeff has dove on most of the biggest dredges in Nome and has worked on the Eroica on-and-off for a number of years. As recently as this last summer I’ve personally seen him dive, and cleaned and weighed the gold he mined. I know how much gold he produces per-hour underwater, and I can attest that he’s the real deal.
If you want to watch the 45 minute interview instead and get the fullest picture possible – feel free to watch our discussion on Youtube instead of reading this article:
How Jeff got his start
Jeff started diving for gold in Nome in 2013 with a friend on a 6″ river dredge. He, his friend’s dad, and his friend spent 45 days building the dredge, only to bury the hose on the first day of operation. His friend’s dad, who was funding the operation, lost his tolerance for the business on that setback and packed up and left.
But Jeff stayed. He finished the summer working on another friend’s 6″ dredge, pocketing a few ounces for his efforts and catching a case of gold fever in the process.
Since then he’s worked his way up in the business, diving on a series of increasingly large dredges and over the last 8 years and becoming one of the most prolific gold divers in Nome.
His story is a common one, as he says the most common way most divers get into the business is by starting small operations, and then selling them or retiring them to work as a freelance diver.
If you want to reap the rewards from working a large dredge, but you don’t want to make the financial investment in the boat and systems, the ongoing storage and infrastructure costs, or the lost time in building an operation – working as a freelance diver offers a way to make a significant portion of the gold without the hassles of owning a boat.
In fact, during Jeff’s worst summer his dredge sank and he lost all his capital and hard work. It’s a serious financial risk to own and operate a dredge in Nome, and for some being a freelance diver is a better proposition from a risk-reward standpoint.
Gold divers command a pretty penny in Nome, not just for the dangers and rigors of the job, but because good ones are rare and in high demand. A good diver can make your season or, quite literally, sink it.
Jeff says the key is in the “box split” or how the gold mined gets divided up between the major stakeholders:
- Royalty. The lease owner gets as low as 15% and as high as 25% of the gold mined right off the top.
- The boat. The boat will take anywhere from 40%-60% of the remaining gold after the royalty is paid to cover operating costs, parts, tools, projects, and profit.
- The diver. The rest of the gold goes to the diver, which is 40%-60% of the split with the boat.
As you can see the diver can make as much gold as the boat does, or potentially even more, for his or her hours in the water. And the expenses are far less. Here’s what a day might look like:
5 hour dive on ground that is paying 0.5 troy ounce (ozt) per hour. The diver sucks up 2.5 ozt of placer gold during that dive.
As I type this the price of gold is $1,900 per ozt. 2.5 ozt is worth $4,750. The placer gold in Nome is about 87% pure, so let’s say it’s actually worth ~$4,130.
The lease owner gets 20% of that total which is $826.50, leaving $3,303.50 for the boat and diver.
If the boat and diver do a 50/50 split, that means for one day of work the diver earned $1,651.75.
Now there are a lot of things that could move that number up or down materially. You could get less than 5 hours in the water because of weather or breakdowns. You could be on ground that is more or less productive than 0.5 ozt per hour. You could have a better or worse gold split with the boat.
All in, Jeff says it isn’t unreasonable to earn $1,000 a day on average as a diver every time you get in the water, nor is earning $10,000 to $15,000 a month working the equivalent of half the time of a 9-to-5 job. It’s a rare golden opportunity, he says, for someone who doesn’t have a college degree or special training to earn some good scratch without investing a huge sum into a business.
However, there is a price to that kind of earning power. Gold diving in the Bering Sea is a high-risk job – one aspect of the profession that’s covered extensively on Bering Sea Gold. While it hasn’t been studied as much as, say, commercial king crab fishing, you don’t have to go far to find a diver who’s faced a life threatening situation on the Bering Sea.
In our interview with Jeff he tells two harrowing stories: one is the first time he got bent from unintentionally diving too deep for too long, and the other is when he came so close to drowning he was certain of his impending death before being rescued by his friend and tender.
Jeff mentally handles the dangers of the job, he says, by building confidence in the equipment he’s working with – and that boils down to two systems in particular: air and communications (“comms”).
He knows the ins and outs of the major air compressors on the market, and says he won’t dive on a shaky air system, since it’s how he breathes and stays alive underwater. Hot water and suction can both be mediocre, he says, but poor performance of those systems won’t immediately threaten his life.
Jeff also maintains that he won’t dive without comms since the closest he came to drowning was when he couldn’t communicate with his tender. It’s essential to be able to convey a problem to the person up top.
The necessary skills
“It’s hard to find good people that come up here with multiple…things that they bring to the operation,” Jeff says. “You can bring 10 good divers up here but can they park a boat? Can they work on a motor? Can they weld? Are they motivated? Can they solve problems?”
There are “fire sales” at the end of every season because people come up, they aren’t able to be self-sufficient with the available tools and finances, and they drop out, selling their lightly used equipment for pennies on the dollar in the process. Most new operations, he observes, aren’t really profitable until after the first or even second season as newbies learn to make gold.
The most important skill for a diver, or anyone who wants to be in the gold business, is a solid mechanical background. Each dredge has at least a large pump motor (a Cummins 4BT diesel on the Eroica), at least one or two small motors – like a generator and an air compressor, and an outboard motor or something to power the dredge.
It’s not going to be economical to replace a motor every time it stops working, so being able to diagnose and fix a faulty generator, for example, is crucial.
Steel and aluminum welding, while not an essential diver skill, is always in high demand in the gold business and if you’re smart it could help you get paid during slow months, too.
In the water, new divers need to be trained to find gold by experienced divers. A new diver usually can’t identify ground that’s been worked before, and could dive for two weeks straight and come up with two ounces of gold.
Dredge owners are much more inclined to give someone a chance who can add value outside of diving, especially if they don’t have much experience finding gold underwater.
On the plus side, certification and advanced diver training is fairly rare in the business. You don’t need to invest in advanced scuba certifications to open doors.
When the boat is running and working – a two diver operation will typically be working 12 hours per day. It takes the boat an hour to go out and get setup, and each diver will do 4-6 hours in the water, plus you’ll have to take time to pack up at the end of the day and come in if the forecast looks bad.
If there is no designated tender or non-diving owner like on the Eroica, the divers will have to stay for the full day and tend topside for each other during the dives.
Although the working days can be long, over the course of the May-thru-October season (about 5 months of dredging, 6 overall with pre- and post-season work) most dredgers are lucky to get 60 days in the water. 2021 was short, with the average being ~10 days short of that.
The work schedule is short, intense, and weather-dependent.
Idle time and an unpredictable work schedule might sound cool, but it is actually one of the biggest reasons new divers wash out of the business. Some will drink all their money away at the bar and then struggle to pay their living expenses during a long stretch of no work. Some won’t be motivated enough to get up and at it after a stormy period. Some just go crazy with boredom, or from living in a rough housing situation during a month straight of wind and rain.
A good diver needs to be a self-starter, with enough self-control and mental strength to deal with weeks of not working. And if you run out of money in Nome, well, there often isn’t much recourse other than to beg for a plane ticket out of town.
Despite the very real risks of being a gold diver, every currently successful diver started in the same place – with no time underwater and no experience finding gold.
In some ways is very simple to get a job as a gold diver, but it doesn’t mean it’s easy.
The first step, Jeff agrees, is to put your boots on the ground in Nome.
While there aren’t an abundance of gold divers in Nome, there are enough people in town willing to do the work that dredge owners aren’t hiring people who ask for jobs over social media.
Plus, someone who isn’t even motivated or financially stable enough to get a flight to Nome and somewhere to live in town isn’t likely to be a good candidate to deal with the ups and downs of a long gold mining season.
Once you’re in town and you’ve committed to getting digs and wheels for the summer then you’re in the game.
The plus side of living somewhere that’s as expensive and remote as Nome is that the wages for employees at local businesses are much higher than average. He says the local Safeway starts new employees as high as $23 an hour.
From personal experience I know that there is a severe shortage of competent, motivated employees and that most businesses are looking for good people. So it shouldn’t be hard to find a steady paycheck as you get settled.
Nome is a very small town and if you hang out for even a few weeks you are guaranteed to meet gold divers and dredge owners in some capacity. A few nights at any bar in the summer and I guarantee you’ll meet folks from the gold business.
With little or no experience you will likely get your first opportunity on a dredge as a tender, or someone who watches the boat and systems topside while a diver is underwater. That position pays hourly, and often not even in gold, but it will give you invaluable experience in how the gold dredging business works. Eventually, if you’re competent, the opportunity will come to get a shift in the water, even with little experience. Every season new divers get a chance to don a wetsuit and suck up some gold in Nome.
Hard work and a respectful attitude, over time, will open up opportunities in Nome.
“Your reputation is who you are,” says Jeff. “Miners in Nome, we already don’t have a really good name…so that’s the other key thing too. When you come up here, even as a diver, you have to understand that you have to respect this land, and respect the people, and just do your job, and you’ll go a long way.”
“Even in 8 years I’ve made a lot of family. For years I couldn’t even get people to say hi to me, until you get to know them. If you show up in Nome, even as a diver, not everyone’s going to wave at you. But over time, they will. It’s a friendly town…deep down it’s friendly.”
So why does Jeff do this? One word, freedom.
“That’s the reason why I do this. It’s the freedom to leave town, go spend time with my daughter, come back and go to work. I did a 9-to-5 in the military for 17 years and I’m over it. Once you have all the skills, you make your own time.”
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