Watching the Detectors

Searching for coins in the sand may not sound chic, but skill and patience make this hobby golden.

An open beach hunt in Belmar.
Photo by Bjoern Kils.

It’s low tide the morning after the early September day when Hurricane Earl brushed the New Jersey coast. To the naked eye, Earl left hardly a trace when he passed through last year, but in the beach town of Margate, Brian Mayer senses the storm surge may have churned up gold.

Mayer had been tracking Earl’s approach all week, updating the Facebook page where he shares information about the storm. Now that the seas have settled, he is ready to hit the beach in his hunting best: neoprene socks, a “Powered by Minelab” T-shirt and a pair of bright yellow shorts—perhaps meant to attract that precious, nonferrous metal of a similar sunny hue.

Just to the north, Atlantic City casino-goers are hoping to get lucky at the tables and take home a bit of treasure. Mayer hopes to get lucky, too, but in his own fashion.

Equipped with his Minelab Excalibur, Mayer dons his headphones and scans the sand, waiting for a familiar beep. He’s mainly listening for the pitch—some metals yield a flatter tone, others, sharper—and for the signal strength, which will vary depending on the type of metal and how close the object is to the surface.

Finally, he hears a tone and makes the call: a penny. Then he thrusts a scoop with a 5-foot-long handle into the sand, loading up its sieve and drawing it back to the surface. He shakes the sieve until the prize clinks at the bottom like a coin tumbling from a slot machine. And there it is, as only ears with 30 years’ experience could have predicted: a copper Abe Lincoln encrusted in sand.

Not all the bounty reaped by these intrepid hobbyists, known as detectorists,  is penny-ante. Yes, they typically turn up common coins and plenty of scrap metal. But bigger prizes are there for the taking if you know your stuff. For pros like Mayer, hunting is a science, involving a knowledge of tides, weather systems, and erosional and depositional patterns.

For skilled detectorists, the hobby pays for itself, yet many claim that profits are secondary to the thrill of the hunt. There are diamond rings out there, gold chains, Mercury dimes, Indian-head pennies, perhaps even some old French and Spanish coins waiting to be discovered.

There’s an art to this too. Mayer doesn’t just stroll along the shoreline. He carves a W pattern from mid-beach to the water in search of the treasure zone. “Things of like density stick together,” he says. His method starts to reveal a 10-foot swath of beach that most frequently sounds the alarm. He homes in on this zone, hears another beep and in goes the scoop.

From a sunbather’s perspective, metal detectorists are slightly quirky retirees who wear high socks with shorts and have nothing better to do than prowl for scrap. People often ask them, “Do you ever actually find anything?”

Even Mayer, an imposing 6-foot-tall bike-patrol officer at the Showboat Casino in Atlantic City, has heard the wisecracks. He fends them off with a cold glare—then turns his attention back to the potential prizes.

Detectorists live for special moments—like a couple years ago when a beach-replenishment project just south of Margate spewed hundreds of 18th–century Spanish reales onto the shore, touching off a frenzy among local detectorists.

Mayer holds up a silver eight-real piece dated 1778, its sparkle belying the fact that it had been sitting on the ocean floor for hundreds of years. “You get this rush of history, knowing that you’re the first to touch it since the ship sank, probably in the 1700s,” Mayer says. The coin in question is valued at about $250. “It would have been worth more if we knew what wreck it came from,” he observes, adding that its existence suggests there are scores of other coins to be found.

In fact, mariners have been frequenting New Jersey’s coastal waters for centuries, and many a ship has wrecked just offshore. Dredges try not to disturb these relics, but sometimes they err, or the wrecks are unmapped.

More typically, detectorists find less antiquated booty, including gold chains accidentally brushed off beach blankets and diamond rings that slip off unlucky bathers’ fingers as they contract in the cold water. These are hardly easy finds, but with the right gear—and plenty of perseverance—detectorists can increase their likelihood of digging up what they call good targets.

Ron DeGhetto runs a metal detector business out of his home in Raritan. His showroom is stocked with dozens of models from the top makers—Minelab, White’s, Garrett. Some say there are differences among the brands, but more important are the differences in technology. A pulse-induction machine will sound the alarm for any metal, while other machines can be set to discriminate among metals. Some models—including Mayer’s Excalibur—are made to slip beneath the waves, allowing detectors to hunt right in the surf rather than waiting for the tide to wash the targets ashore. Prices for metal detectors range from $150 up to $1,500.

There are also different machines for different types of locations. While metal detecting is typically associated with the beach, New Jersey’s history makes it ideal for hunting battlefield war relics.

DeGhetto keeps Revolutionary War officers’ buttons on display in a cabinet in his shop, along with other favorite objects like coins from the 1700s minted by New Jersey and Connecticut—long before there was a federal agency to do so. Many of his treasures are found on farms and fields to which he has been granted access. Rarely does he have a clue as to what he is pulling out of the ground.

“It’s made me somewhat of a historian,” DeGhetto says, acknowledging that some pieces require a lot of research to identify. “Every find has a story.”

Good beach detectorists also have to be meteorologists and geologists, because knowing weather patterns and coastal formations makes for better decisions about where to search. Mayer highlights the basics on his YouTube channel, Surfdigger. Rule number 1: hunt during low tide—there’s more surface area. Two, a full moon brings a lower low tide than a new moon. Three, brave the cold and hunt during winter. That’s when storms sweep sands out to sea, doing the digging for you. Summer poses more of a challenge because that’s when sand is redeposited—and beachgoers may get in the way.

For skilled detectorists, the hard work pays off. Mayer says his $1,000 machine paid for itself in six months; by his estimate, he pulls in $500 to $600 a year in coins alone, not counting jewelry—some of which has gone up sharply in value with the rising price of gold.

Yet beach detectorists are not just heartless hoarders. If there’s a way of finding the owner of a piece of jewelry, many say they will pursue it. Tracing class rings to their owners is relatively easy; wedding rings carved only with initials present more of a puzzle.

There are several metal-detecting clubs in the state and members are always willing to help someone looking for lost valuables. Contact information on their websites can help connect a panicked beachgoer with a detectorist in their area.

Detectorist Joe DeMarco of Millville, who runs a retail shop that sells detecting equipment, recalls seeing a man painstakingly combing the beach in Ocean City. When the man saw DeMarco’s gadget, he asked for help finding the wedding ring his bride had placed on his finger only two weeks earlier. Soon it was jingling in DeMarco’s scoop. Weeks later, DeMarco received a thank-you note from the relieved groom, handwritten on a wedding invitation.

“I keep all my thank you letters,” DeMarco says. “When it comes down to it, I do a lot of things just because. There’s no rhyme or reason. I just want to help people.”

The South Jersey Metal Detecting Club, of which DeMarco served as president for five years, posts similar stories on its website. Seekers can also reach out to the Mid-Jersey Research & Recovery Club and Deep Search Metal Detecting Club, among others. All clubs and individual detectors are bound by a code of ethics, which includes returning finds to rightful owners whenever possible. Another tenet: Always fill in your holes, lest kids or runners fall in and sprain an ankle.

And never, ever, hunt in a crowd, flinging sand into beachgoers’ eyes. Those who don’t follow the rules give other detectorists a bad name, says Mayer.

Yet nothing bothers Mayer as much as improper technique. After about an hour on the beach in Margate, yielding only a few pennies, nickels and quarters, Mayer sees two men approach from the direction of Atlantic City, rapidly swinging their metal detectors like pendulums and walking parallel to the ocean—two big mistakes. Keeping the detector head parallel to the sand at all times and using the W pattern is more effective, Mayer says.

“I don’t call that competition,” he whispers just before stopping to chat. The men have traveled from just outside Philadelphia but haven’t found anything good; so much for the first big storm of the season.

Even when you play your cards right, the hobby “can be very frustrating,” Mayer admits. Still, he’ll probably go home with a few more coins in his pockets than many of the casino revelers just to the north.


Metal Detecting Clubs:
Deep Search Metal Detecting Club
Headquarters: East Brunswick

Mid-Jersey Research & Recovery Club
Headquarters: Hamilton

South Jersey Metal Detecting Club
Headquarters: Haddon Heights

Metal Detector Sales:
Ron DeGhetto
Showroom: Raritan

Joe DeMarco
Showroom: Millville

Facebook Group:
Jersey Shore Beach & Surf Hunters
Moderator: Brian Mayer

Kristina Fiore is a staff writer at MedPage Today. She lives in Glen Ridge.

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