Why you should care
Danger is the only route to relative prosperity for these gold divers.
From the days of Spanish colonial rule, the coast of Pinut-an on the central Philippine island of Leyte has drawn explorers searching for gold mixed in the region’s quartz deposits. But it was only in the 1970s that locals started diving into the sea — without any equipment — to search for the precious metal. Now, after half a century of the gold rush, quartz deposits are hard to find in shallow waters. That’s prompting local miners to turn to even more dangerous methods, with only marginally better equipment than their predecessors.
With underwater boulders of quartz hard to find close to the beach, miners are increasingly digging into the bedrock with tunnels that run along known underground deposits of gold. This is the land entrance to a 30-meter-long tunnel where L Seber, a 58-year-old veteran diver (above, in the blue shirt), worked for five years. He sports a tattoo of Jesus on his forehead and believes it will protect him underwater.
But even the tunnels are rapidly getting depleted. Seber’s tunnel — where he is unable to find high-grade gold anymore — connects to the ocean and is filled with dark yellow water. Miners effectively can’t even see what they’re looking for. They need to smash suspected silica-quartz deposits and listen to the sound pebbles make to determine if they’re close to the ore. “The Philippines is the only country where even the blind can mine,” jokes 69-year-old Ernie Gaylo, a retired mechanical engineer from Pinut-an, who was once a diver and is now a tunnel owner. Instead of his tunnel, Seber looks for gold in the sand on the seabed. Above, he’s preparing to dive for just that.
Back in the 1970s, divers didn’t have any oxygen supply and so could stay underwater for only very short periods. Now, divers like Seber work with young men like Danian — he’s wearing the cap with the dollar sign above — who operate and manage diesel-powered compressors that can simultaneously feed the lungs of five underwater gold miners. The compressor sends oxygen through a thin hose into the mouth of the miner.
The fine sand off the shores of Pinut-an also carries gold, deposited over centuries of natural grinding through erosion and pounding waves. Today, Seber hauls the sand he has collected in recent days. He pulls himself along a rope that extends to a depth of 15 meters. He places his sandbags into a big bowl that’s carried by buoyant drums. He’s close to the entrance of the tunnel where he once worked. Skillful submarine miners like Seber have even learned to find lunch underwater in the form of seafood such as fresh clams and sea urchins.
The sand is run through a sluice box, where finer particles are separated. Then, traditional panning techniques are used to extract gold.
Once they’re out of the water, divers must attend to their oxygen supply. Here, two divers untangle their pressured hoses in the late afternoon after eight hours in search of gold underwater.
In the garden of Gaylo’s home, his 45-year-old son, Gamalliel (above left, in the blue shirt) grinds pebbles from the quartz deposits found by miners in their tunnel. After three hours of grinding, the pebbles turn into slurry. Like his father, Gamalliel too was an underwater miner but stopped because of back pain. His two children are about to graduate from high school, and he doesn’t want them to continue in the family profession. He wants them to be safe.
Tanillo (above, in the yellow shirt) mixes liquid mercury with the slurry, the next part of the gold-extraction process. While gold dissolves in the mercury, impurities don’t. But the process is dangerous: Mercury vapors, when inhaled, can form deposits in one’s lungs. In the nearby region of Mindanao, mining using mercury has been banned. And even in Pinut-an, authorities have tried cautioning local communities, but it’s hard to give up a decades-old practice that is the community’s biggest economic driver. And authorities know they would need to arrest entire villages of people, numbering in the hundreds, to forcibly stop the practice. So it continues.
Gaylo heats a small piece of amalgamated gold over the kitchen stove, shielding his nose and mouth with an old T-shirt to avoid inhaling mercury vapors. Many miners, he says, don’t even take that basic precaution. Gaylo, who earlier worked as a surveyor for multiple mining firms, says gold mining offers “monetary opportunities” and helps him support the community and even workers from other regions with jobs. Each gram of gold fetches 1,300 pesos — more than $25 — in the market.
Once the mercury vaporizes, what remains is a small lump of gold with 75 percent purity (18 karat). Impurities such as pyrite, iron, copper and silver make up the remaining 25 percent. This gold will be sold for refining in cities in Mindanao to undergo further purification. The gold is then sold to private clients in the form of jewelry or tiny gold bars.
In a country where the annual per capita GDP is just over $3,000, the earnings from gold mining are no small amount. Amang, 30, used to work as a machinist on a ferry, which stopped operating. Here, he poses in his diving suit. His new occupation is dangerous and carries long-term health hazards. But for now, it brings a smile to his face.