Gold rush

Words & photographs by Claudio Sieber

In the wild setting of Southern Leyte in the Philippines, some natives still mine sub-aquatic gold for their day-to-day survival.

It has been centuries since the tiny village of Pinut-an became something of a gold mining hotspot for explorers. Today, remarkably, there are still people who harvest the area’s gold-bearing quartz underwater, using coconut shells and high-pressure hoses which supply oxygen to their lungs. Many of the small-scale mining families have set up temporary homes and sluice boxes right on Pinut-an’s shoreline, base camps from which they can follow the gold vein extensions in search of the precious element.

During the summer months when the sea is calm and the currents mellow, Pinut-an’s shoreline is crowded with gold miners diving in search of gold or processing their silica-quartz. With the first sunbeams dancing across the rocky beach, the early risers appear from their makeshift houses to set up sluice boxes and check their mining gear. The equipment usually consists of helmets, coconut halves for digging, a weight belt made of stones wrapped in rags and clipped to a rope around the hips, home-made teak goggles and, occasionally, footwear to withstand the currents. For health reasons, an underwater work shift shouldn’t exceed two hours, but many miners work until they’re tired or the currents get too strong.

Young Danian puts on his favourite baseball cap and starts the diesel-powered compressor which will feed the lungs of five fellow gold divers. Nourished by a bowl of rice, 58-year-old veteran miner Severino Mujar who has nine years of gold diving experience checks the pressure of his hose. Whilst underwater, Severino will bite the end of the hose with one side of his mouth and move his jaw slightly to inhale some oxygen. Once the air has circulated, he will bubble it out through the other side of his mouth.

Next to the Jesus tattoo on his forehead which he believes will protect him underwater, he’s imitating the Christian cross, indicating that he’s all set for the dive. As for above-water mining, the glittering yellowish colour of the silica-quartz will indicate whether there is a possibility of sub-aquatic gold under the surface. Since the visibility underwater can be poor, the miners smash out samples of the suspected silica-quartz first to check the sound of the material close to their ears. Quartz will make a different noise to ‘standard’ rock and tell the miners if they’re close to the ore.

Today, Severino is hauling out the sand which he has collected over the previous days. The fine offshore sand around Pinut-an also bears a relatively high content of sub-aquatic gold that has collected on the bedrock through centuries of erosion and the impact of the pounding waves. Severino is pulling himself along the rope, down to a depth of 15m. Near his collection of sandbags lies the entrance of Severino’s underwater tunnel in which he was working for years until he couldn’t find any more high-grade gold, seeing nothing but mustard yellow water all day long. To haul out the sand, Severino places his bags into a big bowl which he brought down to the bottom by using buoyant drums.

He measures the weight of his load, inserts oxygen into the drums with a different pressure hose and tows the rickety construction back to shore. The following day he will run the sandy harvest through the sluice box to concentrate the gold before panning it. It took Severino four days to shovel the sand into the bags with his coconut shell, and one more day to bring the whole load to the beach. This work will likely bring him up to $170, so a total of $30 for a day’s work, just enough to feed his family of four and get the children to school. Like most of his colleagues, Severino sells his treasure to a financier in the village, or if it’s worth the trip, he brings it over to a gold buyer on the nearby island of Mindanao. The melted gold will then be sold off to get refined in major Philippine cities like Tagum or Davao from where it finally finds its private buyers in the form of jewellery or tiny gold bars.

Despite the sub-aquatic gold diving venture being dominated by men, their wives and children also participate in the mining process, mainly in the amalgamation process or panning and sluicing the quartz-bearing pebbles. Small-scale mining has become an important source of income for financially vulnerable families in an overpopulated country where a tenth of its citizens work overseas for better pay. While many families strive to provide a different future for their children through education, not everyone on Pinut-an’s shoreline is fortunate enough to have someone to look after them. Many young Filipinos who join the mining operations come from broken families or dropped out of school at an early stage.

In nearby Mindanao, sluice mining was banned a few years ago by the provincial government due to its environmental destructiveness, including mercury contamination. In Pinut-an, however, small-scale gold diggers continue with their work – something of an anomaly in the region. The barrier to a ban? The fact that any prospective ban would come with the subsequent arrest of 300 miners across three Barangays (sub-villages) who have turned to mining to feed their families. That’s about 15% of the combined population…


This is only a short excerpt of the story. Read the full story, Gold Rush, in Issue 23 of Oceanographic Magazine. 

Related stories

Explore the current issue

Beautiful photography. Captivating storytelling.
Take a look inside the latest issue of Oceanographic Magazine.

Explore and bUY


Subscribe to the digital edition for just £20 a year, or enjoy it for free courtesy of Oceanographic’s partnership with Marine Conservation Society. No cost, no catch.

Read more