This article is part of our VICE Weekends summer series, presented by Weis
The Ring Finders is a global directory of literal muck-raking metal detecting specialists who hunt lost items, and more often than not find them. In seven years they've been responsible for returning over 3,000 lost rings back to their very happy owners. Nick Richards is one of only three Australian members connected to the service, so we tracked him down on the Mid North Coast to hear about his most memorable hunt, the rush of making a discovery, and the joy of reuniting people with sentimental possessions.
VICE: How long have you been metal detecting?
Nick Richards: I've been detecting for about 17 years. I was introduced to it when I was a kid on the beach. I bought my first detector, a bit of a toy, for $20 and it paid for itself pretty quickly.
What was the first thing you ever found?
Coins, mainly on the beaches around Sydney. To a kid it was like finding gold.
It must be pretty rewarding reuniting people with sentimental objects, but do you get anything in return?
It's not about the money or the dollar value of something you find for someone, it's about the joy of reuniting someone with something, often incredibly sentimentally valuable, that they thought was gone forever.
What's the best part of being a metal detector?
I enjoy the whole process––from the initial gathering of information from the client, the planning of the search, and the execution. Particularly with the underwater searches.
Those sound difficult.
These searches combine two of my passions: scuba diving and detecting. Methodical grid searching for something as small as someone's ring in soft mud and zero visibility, with all the things that mess with your head underwater, make these searches the most satisfying.
What tools do you use when searching?
I use one of two Minelab Excalibur II detectors which are great. I have a nickname for my small sand scoop; she is Alice, Alice Scooper. And I have a larger long handled scoop that is simply referred to as Alice's Mum. They are waterproof to 60 metres underwater and they have never let me down. The deepest wedding ring recovery I did was in 30 metres of water. I use a lot of plastic tent pegs to mark search areas and string lines to mark out grid or circular search areas underwater. The technique is dependent on the visibility, which is usually not very good.
What's been a really memorable hunt for you?
My most memorable hunt was in a deep, dark, muddy bay in Ballina on the North Coast of NSW last summer. A lady called Veronica had lost three rings–a gold and diamond eternity ring, an engagement ring, and a 93 year old gold ring that had belonged to her great grandmother–while playing water polo. She didn't notice that they were missing until she was driving home. She had a local fella search for them a few weeks later without success, then a friend of hers saw an article on me in the Sydney Morning Herald and I ended up doing the six hour drive to Ballina.
What happened once you got to Ballina?
The search involved a survey of the area using photos taken on the day of the loss, followed by seven hours and 10 minutes of scuba diving in zero visibility over two days. And bingo! Three of the most beautiful rings you ever saw were cable tied safely to my dive vest. Veronica was stoked. The Northern Star did an article on that search, which was great.
So all three of Veronica's rings were together?
I heard two yellow gold tones about two feet apart. Different metals produce varying pitches in the headphones. In searches when you can't see a thing, you pick up handfuls of mud and squeeze them through your fingers until, hopefully, there's a ring left in your hand. The first ring I pulled out of the mud was the eternity ring. About two feet away there was another good gold tone, which turned out to be the other two rings lying very close together. The second one found using that same technique was the engagement ring, followed by the 93 year old–and the most sentimentally valuable–wedding ring.
Seven hours kind of seems kind of fast for something that was thought to be lost forever. What's going through your head when you're on a hunt like that?
In those seven hours I covered about 70% to 80% of the search area. The main things running through my head while I'm down there are: 1) I have to trust that the target is lying there somewhere; 2) There's no way I'm heading back home without absolutely knowing that I've given it 100% and; 3) Failure simply isn't an option.
Regarding the seven hours: it's the longest successful underwater search I've done, but I have put about 24 hours into another search close to where I live so far without success, but I'll find it. It's just a matter of time.
What kind of treasures do you typically find?
Mostly I find rings or other jewellery for people. As the word gets out I do less what I call "random detecting" and more targeted searches, which I enjoy the most. Last summer I found 20 rings, two watches, and a gold nugget. Using Facebook I was able to reunite two of the rings and the gold nugget with their owners. These were pieces that I located while searching for other objects. The disbelief of the people who lost these and had them returned was amazing to see. It's great to be a part of that.
Have you ever come across anything really weird?
The weirdest thing I've found, and it's happened twice, is false teeth. One set in the surf in Cronulla in Sydney and more recently a top denture in an ocean pool in Tuncurry. Both times I was lucky not to get bitten.
Do you still get a rush when you make a discovery, like when you were a kid?
I do still get a major rush when I find something. In a lot of searches I forget to pause to enjoy the moment, but I did do exactly that on finding Veronica's rings––and the support from people on the shore who had been watching me over the two days was fantastic.
This article is presented by Weis