Dozens of diamonds on Bill Fitty’s $17,000 gold ring shimmered in the moonlight as it slipped off his pinky finger and disappeared into the treacherous Sacramento River. His 38th birthday celebration was wrapping up on a 40-foot party boat around midnight when his girlfriend asked him to retrieve her mother’s ice chest on the top deck. After a long day of merriment and libation in the sun, Fitty, an A&R executive, was a bit wobbly as he stumbled up the ladder toward the cooler, which was barely illuminated by the crescent moon overhead. His fingers shrunk as he dipped his hands into the ice to retrieve the last remaining beers, and as he dumped the ice over the boat’s taffrail into the river, his ring fell along with it.
He considered diving in to rescue the precious heirloom — which belonged to his late brother and bore the letters “NLESS,” the name of their record label — but he’d heard that dozens of people drowned in the perilous undertows of the river, so he returned the next morning to resume the search in daylight. By that time, word of the lost ring had spread amongst locals, each of whom offered similar advice. “There’s a guy, a merman or something, who travels along the waterways of the Sacramento finding people’s lost valuables — for free,” they told him.
A Google search led Fitty to the Facebook page of “Merman Mike” Pelley, a 28-year-old amateur scuba diver who has found and returned more than 50 lost items to their rightful owners since last October, including GoPros, digital cameras, car keys, Apple Watches, iPhones, engagement rings, drones and a purse containing thousands of dollars of payroll cash for a local carpeting company. He accepts donations for his toiling, but he insists they aren’t required. (His primary job is working as an estimator for his father’s construction company, which allows him the financial stability and schedule flexibility to moonlight as a merman, free of charge.)
“I’m having the time of my life whenever my head goes under water,” explains Pelley, whose 29-year-old girlfriend, Natasha, accompanies him on most dives and serves as a de-facto wingman and project supervisor. “If I can make somebody’s day/week/month/year, it’s a win-win for everybody. I don’t want someone to be tortured knowing that a precious heirloom handed down for generations is sitting on the bottom of the river, and they can’t get to it because they don’t have $50 or whatever I’d charge. That would make me feel even more guilty than I already do when I can’t find something.”
Luckily for his guilty conscience, Pelley has found 90 percent of the lost items he’s been tasked with recovering. There’s a misconception that currents significantly move things, he says. Most, particularly rings with hollow centers, will sink to the bottom and stay put. Case-in-point: When Ali Stancil lost her engagement ring on Pine Mountain Lake after jokingly throwing muck at her bridesmaids on the dock, Pelley drove two hours from Sacramento and retrieved it in 47 seconds. “He’s an angel and a hero,” she tells me, matter-of-factly.
When Pelley learned that Fitty’s ring was in the Sacramento River, his first reaction was, “Sorry, it’s gone,” seeing as multiple people had already drowned in the deadly body of water this summer (he had no interest in being the latest). But he makes exceptions for certain situations and prioritizes his dives based on the sentimental value of each item, so when Fitty explained that the ring belonged to his late brother, Pelley asked for more details. Since Fitty had also dumped the ice chest off the side of the boat, which was still docked in the same location, there was a decent chance of Pelley being able to find the ring safely.
But as Pelley sank to the bottom of the river, the current immediately swept him away from the boat and he completely lost his bearings. Worse yet, there was limited visibility, and he could barely see more than a foot in any direction. And so, each time he returned to the surface, he was disoriented and exhausted. After an unsuccessful three hours, a breathless Pelley splayed out on the dock attempting to warm up. When Fitty saw this, he bid farewell and thanked Pelley for his efforts, urging him to call off the mission. Natasha, however, shook him awake, explaining, “You can’t fall asleep, or you’re never gonna get back in.”
Pelley caught the scuba bug at a young age from his dad, but he credits YouTuber DALLMYD, a scuba diver with 11 million subscribers, for inspiring him to get into the treasure-hunting game. “He helps the environment by cleaning up trash, and helps people by finding their lost valuables,” Pelley explains. “I really wanted to do it. Then I thought, Why can’t I?”
In pursuit of his clients’ lost treasures, Pelley has also found more than 200 fishing lures, 150 sunglasses, a wheel to a Model T car, seven fishing poles, two guns, a diamond-studded butt plug and a burlap sack containing individually wrapped brass and copper pieces inscribed in Tamil, a Dravidian language natively spoken by the people of Southern India and Sri Lanka. Anything he can’t return to its rightful owner ends up in the “treasure room,” a converted foyer of his childhood home in northeast Sacramento, which he now rents from his father.
I first meet him and Natasha on the banks of the American River, (which runs from the Sierra Nevadas to its confluence with the Sacramento River), where they will be conducting a search for a woman’s lost Ray-Ban sunglasses under the Rainbow Bridge. The water underneath bridges often reveal the most unexpected treasure, Pelley explains, since people driving over them regularly dump guns, drugs and other contraband as the police chase them. Additionally, the American River is one of the most floated-down rivers in the country and the site of a majority of Pelley’s requests, since people often lose belongings as they paddle-board or jump off cliffs.
Two oxygen tanks, allowing for 90 minutes of diving, rest in the back of his 14-foot inflatable boat, which is powered by a silent Newport trolling motor connected to a battery onboard. It costs about $7 to fill the tanks at a local dive shop, but on Pelley’s most recent visit, he learned someone had anonymously gifted him 20 free air fills, emblematic of the support he receives from the local community. He thanked whomever it was on his YouTube channel, explaining he used one of the fills to find a wedding ring that had been lost for five years.
Dressed in an Xcel Wetsuit, Pelley’s unruly beard peeking out from a customized mask designed to hold a GoPro camera, Pelley attaches a six-inch knife to his wrist, which he never dives without, and a yellow mesh trash bag and purple-topped Tupperware cylinder to his waist to collect treasure. While underwater, he’ll be looking for any symmetrical object that doesn’t have a natural shape, and anything that shines. As he sinks below the surface, Natasha raises a red flag with a diagonal white line, indicating to passersby that a diver is down below.
A private ambulance dispatcher, Natasha relishes the opportunity to be out on the water with Pelley so she can keep him safe while also working on her tan. “Obviously, if the bubbles stop, I know there’s a problem,” she says. A black bikini reveals an oversized tattoo on her back of three roses, representing three stages of life and death, which she added following the death of her great-grandmother when she was 18. As a curious kayaker floats by, clearly startled by the bubbles rising to the surface, Natasha effortlessly shifts into the role of brand ambassador. “That’s just my boyfriend diving below,” she explains, handing the kayaker a Merman Mike sticker with contact information. “He dives in the local lakes and rivers retrieving things that people lose in the water. Let us know if you ever need help!”
It’s this kind of outreach that led Pelley to return his most significant valuable in October 2019 — a lost camera with irreplaceable photos. Here on the American River, a kayaker happened to see Pelley diving and Natasha handed her a sticker. Perfect timing, since her son had just dropped a brand new iPhone in the river, which Pelley quickly recovered, posting the video to YouTube. Karen Beres, a 50-year-old physical therapist from Sacramento, saw it and asked if he might be able to help her recover a digital camera she’d dropped in Lake Clementine in Auburn, California, in the summer of 2018. Presumably, it had now been underwater for more than a year.
“The camera wasn’t as important as the memories on it,” Beres tells me, explaining it contained photos of a trip to Germany she took with her mother who had since died. After seeing Merman Mike’s video, she posted a comment suggesting that if he ever wanted to try to find a camera at Lake Clementine to let her know. Fifteen minutes later, he messaged her back and asked when she wanted to go.
Pelley and Natasha kayaked behind Beres for 45 minutes to reach the spot where she’d lost the camera beneath a set of trees that flipped her kayak. After making a couple of passes to first see if he could spot the camera by eyesight, he then used a metal detector to determine if it could pick up a signal. Within seconds, it began beeping, and he stuck his hand through four inches of silt and felt a small square, which he pulled up to the surface. “Her face was in absolute disbelief,” Pelley recalls. “The camera itself was unsalvageable, but with the help of rubbing alcohol, the SD card was able to pull up more than 2,000 photos.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” Beres says, fighting back tears. “I never, ever thought I’d see those pictures again.”
The discovery was personal for Pelley, too. “I’m an extremely empathetic person, and lost my grandmother who raised me,” he explains. “If somebody found a treasure trove of photos of me and my grandma that I didn’t have anywhere else, there’s literally not a single amount you could put on that. I was so happy to be able to give that to her.”
Back on the Sacramento River with Fitty, after Pelley caught his breath and warmed up on the dock for 20 minutes, he and Natasha changed their strategy. Instead of entering the water at the side of the boat, Pelley decided to start at the bow, which would allow him to use the current to guide him to the target area. A rock was tied to a line, which Natasha dropped in the water exactly where Fitty had lost his ring. Pelley was able to spot the rock immediately and began making increasingly large circles with the metal detector, slowly expanding the search zone. “After two or three swings with my arm, it hit on something large enough that I mistook it for a soda can or a solid chunk of metal,” he says.
It was, of course, the ring.
Fitty was so grateful that he donated $1,500 toward a brand new Minelab Excalibur II metal detector, which Pelley refers to as his “space gun,” as it’s able to penetrate 18 inches while pinpointing specific metals.
The thing is, Pelley seems just as happy to retrieve a half dozen cans and castaway toys as $17,000 worth of diamonds, thoroughly believing that if he’s going to hunt for treasure, he must also hunt for trash. Or as he later tells me as he deposits the meager contents of his dive into a dumpster, “It’s the only way I can be giving back to the river.”