While Bering Sea Gold often shows the results of teams diving for gold and either hitting pay or coming up empty, a big question we get is "how do you actually decide where to dive in the first place to get on the gold?" Finding gold in the Bering Sea is 50% educated guess and 50% complete guess. There are no certainties in this business.
On BSG teams are often looking for "cobble" and then dropping divers down when they see it on a camera or on sonar. While cobble is a good indicator of what could be productive ground, it's not the full story of how we find gold.
So here's a primer on how we decide where to dive on the lease Emily has been working for almost a decade - lease 14.
For starters "claim 14" isn't a claim, it's actually a lease.
Those of us who work there sub-lease it from the "lease owner" who leases it directly from the state of Alaska. If you're curious about how lease ownership works we covered that topic in an article here and in this video:
There are up to 4 dredges allowed to work lease 14 at a time. Like Tomcod, it's a competitive, productive lease where multiple crews - those featured on Bering Sea Gold and those not - compete to mine gold underwater.
It's about 90 acres short of a mile square and while that seems quite large, you'll see that it's actually a much smaller workable area for a standard dive operation.
The northwest corner of the lease is exactly one mile east of the end of the Nome harbor jetty, which makes it one of the closest leases to town.
The Dive Zone
Right away 30-40% of the lease is cut off as non-viable dredging area due to depth. For those not in the know, once you hit 33 foot depth the diver is at 2 atmospheres of pressure and needs to limit his dive time - and ideally take a "safety stop" at 10-15 feet deep to decompress before surfacing to avoid getting decompression sickness.
We have to be careful about diving even when the transducer reads 30 feet. For one, it sits a couple feet below the waterline, adding to that number straight off the top. Second, the diver is actually digging a hole for himself to work in as he moves material, potentially causing him to drop deeper into that 2nd atmosphere and making a long 5-6 hour dive quite dangerous.
Diver Jeff Orzechowski tells the story about getting bent after doing exactly that - and how he spent a night in the hospital starting at 7:35 in this video:
A few guys in the business will do riskier, deeper dives, but the vast majority of divers, including ours, work shallower than 33 feet, because they want the option to surface immediately in case of an emergency without substantial risks to their health after several hours underwater. Because of this many dredges like the Eroica don't even have enough hose to work depths much deeper than 30 feet or so.
If you draw a line parallel to shore at roughly that 30 foot depth mark you'll see that it immediately cuts 30-35% of the lease off as "unworkable."
"Gold is where you find it"
Now that you have the right depth, where on the lease do you start looking?
For starters the only way to guarantee you're on gold is to have the diver move some dirt and see if there is gold there. There is not going to be any special depth, side scan analysis, or "golden cobble" to look for with a camera that will guarantee you'll get on gold. Sometimes you'll drop on perfect conditions and come up totally empty-handed, and sometimes you'll drop on a spot that seems less-than-ideal and hit a paystreak.
That said, gold dredging is kind of like baseball - you want to swing at fat pitches to increase your odds of getting on base. Here's a few different strategies we might use to increase our odds of getting on the gold:
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Bering Sea Gold-by-the-Gram
Now you can buy real gold from the Bering Sea! Natural placer gold from the Bering Sea is often only available for sale to locals in Nome. Experience a taste of the hardship and the rewards of diving for gold… read more
"Live boating" is a prospecting strategy when you put a diver down to poke holes as you drag him around the lease - and it's the best way to find gold since it involves someone on the bottom. We'll pick a line across the lease we want to work and position ourselves in a starting spot upcurrent and let the diver poke holes every 20-50 feet and check for good ground.
However, due to the lack of a strong anchor set the boat and the diver are in a fairly compromised position when we are live boating. The current and the wind need to be mild to hang on one anchor with minimum scope - while giving the diver a steady spot to work.
For this reason we do all of our live boating at the beginning of the season. June is typically far and away the best month for mining weather in the season. It's tempting to get straight to work moving material but you have to balance that with the fact that that time period is the best opportunity to prospect for hot spots, which get harder to find every year as dredges continue to suck up gold.
If the current shifts or picks up suddenly, it's a scramble to get the diver up top and put a decent anchor set down.
Side Scan Sonar
When the weather gets hairy or the visibility gets bad, the simplest way to prospect from up top is to use side scan sonar and see what the ground looks like. Best practice is to find where a sand patch meets a cobble - or rocky - patch. That could be indicative of a spot where the sand has recently revealed cobble due to changing conditions, or where the sand might be shallow enough to work.
Of course, if everyone on the lease is looking for these intersections of sand and cobble, then it could just as likely be a spot that has been worked hard. There's no way to know except to drop a nice, wide anchor set and put a diver in the water to find out what's down there.
As the season goes on you're always playing this game with the other dredges on the lease. Each season is different of course, but usually guys will have their favorite areas of the lease to work. Often it's along that 18-20 foot depth as it's cobble-rich ground with an old beach line and a comfortable dive depth that has paid for many seasons. But the name of the game is finding new gold, and if we're looking for gold later in the season we might choose a spot based on other dredge positions - with the goal of finding a paystreak that hasn't been worked too hard.
Let's say the Eroica is the pirate ship in this scenario. One strategy, if everyone else is spread out along that old beach line, is to go deeper. The whole lease has been worked hard over the years, but some areas have been worked harder than others, and that's roughly equated to depth. The shallower areas have been worked the hardest, so much so that you don't often see dredges working that 9-14 foot area. The deeper areas, up to 30 feet, have been worked also but not as thoroughly. So there's the opportunity to go deeper.
Half the reason for the invention of non-diver operations like excavator/bucket dredges and subsea crawlers is just to work the deeper untouched ground. The other half, of course, is the ability to move a much higher volume of material. Both mean more gold.
This sort of flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but if you think about it, it makes sense. Most divers in the past have avoided sand, and for good reason. If you have to dig a sand pit neck-deep just to get to the gold - even if it's good gold - it's not likely to pay well on an ounce-per-hour basis.
However, if you find a spot covered in sand where the diver only has to dig knee-to-waist deep to hit cobble and the ground hasn't been worked for that reason, it can pay.
The advantage for the Eroica in sand is that not every dredge on 14 is a 10" dredge. Often 1 or 2 are 8" dredges. We can move an order of magnitude more material with our 10" nozzle and so it's not likely that 8" dredges can make a sandy spot pay. Less competition means more gold. "Going sandy" and "going deep" are likely the last frontiers to make good gold offshore as dozens of dredges attack the mining grounds year-after-year.
Finally, if you're feeling a bit cheeky, you can always try to get on another dredge's gold. We on the Eroica have been on the receiving end of this strategy often, but pretty much never do it. I'll first explain the logic of why it might work and why we don't do it.
If you're watching the other dredges carefully over the course of the season you might see one staying and working the same spot over the course of several dredge periods. If they're a savvy operator then you know they're on ground that is paying a reasonable return of gold for their time.
Maybe it's a spot you've worked hard before and winter ice ridges or storms have churned up some new material. Maybe it's a spot you haven't really explored much. Either way, you can roll the dice and if you think the gold is running east you can set up close to the legal distance - 100 yards away - to the east of the dredge and put a diver down and see if you can't get on their paystreak.
There are a few reasons we don't really like this strategy.
One is it just pisses people off and, in our opinion, makes unnecessary enemies. We've always been able to find our own ground, so why turn a roughly friendly competitor into a total adversary on the off chance you find some workable ground right on top of them. For more ornery gold miners (believe us there are a few) though this is a feature not a bug.
Second is 100 yards might as well be two miles underwater. Paystreaks are compact these days and you're not making that much better than a blind throw at the dartboard dropping that far away.
Third is, if the dredge has been working that spot for a substantial period of time, there's a good chance you are dropping somewhere they've already worked recently, which is only way to guarantee you won't get any gold. It's hard enough to track our own movements with any precision on our GPS over the course of a season, let alone a competitors'.
Former GPS Coordinates
The final, and most important piece of information we have to make decision is GPS coordinates we made in seasons past. If we end a season on good pay in October - guess where we're starting next year in May/June?
This is the hard-won knowledge you get after years of working the same lease. You know the sandy spots. You know what spots paid in 2016 and what spots paid in 2021. You can go back and re-check old paystreaks or find fresh ground you haven't worked before.
If you're thinking about getting into the business, check out the 5 biggest mistakes new gold dredgers make on our Youtube channel.
I hope this gives you a better idea of how we find gold on Lease 14. If you have something you wish to learn about gold dredging or ideas of an article we should write, join our Facebook Group and tell Emily yourself!