“The Great Treasure of the Bismarck Sea”

By Travis Johnson, Stock Gumshoe, July 18, 2011

Nothing quite stirs the soul like the promise of undersea adventure and finding sunken pirate treasure — just ask Clive Cussler, who has so excited millions of readers with his stories of undersea adventure and treasure hunting that he doesn’t even have to write his own books anymore.

And that fact hasn’t escaped the investment newsletter copywriters — they know how to get the blood pressure rising:

“How a Tiny Exploration Company Just Unearthed 28 Million Ounces of Gold on the Ocean Floor…”

The intro to the ad even reads like the prologue of a Cussler novel:

“Chapter 1: A Shadowy Image

“The Captain of the Wave Mercury knew he was getting close…

“His electromagnetic scanners were pinging wildly – indicating massive amounts of gold somewhere nearby.

“For months, his robotic vehicles had combed a mountainous region 5,249 feet beneath the Bismarck Sea… Searching tirelessly for their target:

“A treasure of gold and silver so large, it’s worth more than the entire U.S. declared value of all the gold in Fort Knox.

“And then it happened…”

Provide your own drumroll in your head, please. All set? OK, so what the heck is being teased here?

Well, despite the fact that this is described as “the greatest treasure ever found,” dwarfing the well-publicized finds of Spanish Galleons and gold-laden ships, it is, of course, not a “treasure” in that sense at all — it’s an exploration project.

And apparently it’s super duper exciting:

“It’s already been appraised at $63.7 billion!

“But here’s the incredible part…

“The discovery is also potentially worth 164 times the value of the tiny exploration company that found it. And shares are likely to jump at an unprecedented rate from their current level of around $2.50.”

So those of you who’ve been around these parts for a while probably already know the name of the company and the full story — there aren’t, after all, terribly many deepsea miners out there. But just in case you want the full Gumshoe treatment, here’s a bit more of the tease from the ad:

“Chapter 2: The Hunt Is On

“It all started five years ago when a small Canadian company (I’ll call them “Treasure Corp.”) made a bold decision.

“They picked up shop in Toronto and traveled 8,600 miles to one of the least traveled places on Earth, Papua New Guinea.”

OK, I give up — you can listen to the video or read the presentation here if you like, it gives lots more tease-y details about this company and their “treasure” find, which they describe as “100 million tons of very special rocks called ‘massive seafloor sulfides.'” and “28.4 million ounces of gold and 528.8 million ounces of silver – all in less than one square mile.”

But I can’t keep up the pretense any longer, I’ll just have to tell you that yes, as you probably suspected, this must be … Nautilus Minerals (NUS in Toronto, NUSMF on the pink sheets).

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And hell no, it didn’t “all start” five years ago — that would be pretty quick even for land-based mining. The primary resource that Nautilus is trying to exploit, the Solwara 1 field, was discovered in 1996, and Nautilus got a license to do commercial exploration in 1997. At which time they envisioned hundreds of millions of dollars of fabulous shiny metal (mostly copper, but lots of gold, too) flowing into their coffers “in the immediate future.” Fourteen years later …

Interestingly enough, this time the pitch for treasure is for an inexpensive newsletter — they want to get you to join the Oxford Club, which at $79 is far cheaper than the last service to tease this underwater treasure (that was Frank Curzio’s Phase 1 Investor, which will cost you at least $3,000 and which teased this as “underwater gold sands” about a year ago — click here for that article if you’d like more chatter about the company).

But of course, though folks have known that there are lots of mineral resources on and under the ocean floor … pulling them up from under a mile of water, and doing so economically, is another thing entirely. Which explains why Nautilus has had “two or three years” as their expected commercial production timeline for, well, many years. And that’s still the expectation today — there are massive volcanic sulfides all over the ocean floor, and they are similar to the kind of resources that have made for some huge discoveries of gold and copper (and other stuff) on land … volcanoes don’t care, after all, whether they’re under land or water.

And none of those resources underwater have really been tapped so far, unlike the land-based sulfide deposits — so there are probably lots of extraordinarily rich deposits out there. The Solwara 1 project, which is planned to be Nautilus’ first extraction project (they finally got the mining lease in January), is indeed very high grade compared to most land discoveries.

Nautilus is still saying that it will take about 2-1/2 years to start production once they have gotten “Project Sanction” — I don’t know exactly what that means, but apparently it’s more than just raising the money and getting the mining lease. They do have the lease, for 20 years, from Papua New Guinea, and they do have deals in place to procure most of the needed equipment, but most of the equipment has not yet been built. The key component, we’re told, is the production support vessel, which I guess will run the whole operation — Nautilus is developing a new industry, based largely on underwater oil exploration technology, but they have to develop new stuff, too, in conjunction with some engineering and shipbuilding partners. They will essentially use robotic undersea mining vehicles that will dig up the deposits, which from what I’ve read are right on the ocean floor, not a lot of waste rock to clear, then turn it into a seawater slurry that will be pumped up to the support vessel and offloaded to barges for dewatering and transport to port, where it will then go through the same kind of concentrator as land-based ore, and refining, and etc. They talk about developing a seaborne concentrator to lessen the need to ship raw rock to port, but that sounds like it’s still pretty far off, it’s not part of their initial mining plans.

So you can imagine how important it is that the resources really are super high quality — you have to pump it up a mile from the ocean floor and then barge the rock to port before it’s even concentrated, which will cost a lot of money. The company has estimates that ongoing production will cost $70 per ton, and my wild guess is that they’re almost certainly being cockeyed optimists. That’s true of pretty much any mining operation, of course, but when it’s an operation that entails trying something that has never been done before, mining copper and gold from a mile under the ocean’s surface, well, as I’ve said before, you don’t have to try hard to imagine all the things that might go wrong. That guess comes from pure skepticism, not from any personal expertise or knowledge about their specific project or engineering solutions.

The capital expenses are estimated to be something in the neighborhood of $300-400 million to get started, largely buying the production vessel and support equipment and the robot miners and undersea slurry pumps, though that has probably changed a bit as they’ve made joint venture deals with the Papua New Guinea government to buy in to the mining operation (they’ll own 30%) and with the shipbuilder to buy into and co-own the production support vessel. They have a lot of cash, and ,indeed, have been teased as cash-rich in the past, though that cash is all spoken for and more if they’re going to go through with development — Nautilus Minerals will undoubtedly have to raise more money, either by selling off joint venture shares to a big miner or by issuing new stock or borrowing money, and probably no sane bank would lend at reasonable terms just yet — they planned just recently to issue shares for this fundraising, but pulled back their recent attempt to raise $150 million because the market wasn’t amenable (ie, they must have gotten word that it would have crushed the share price).

I can’t think of anything else to say — every time I write about this one, and it does come up every year or two (it is, after all, a fabulous story — perfect for selling newsletters), they are slightly further along in terms of permitting, leases, finding new deposits to exploit after this first one, getting equipment deals, and placing orders … and yet, they still always seem to be saying they’re two or three years away from production. Eventually it will probably be true, but I don’t know if it is yet — the company is extremely individual investor-savvy, since they know their story is key to raising more money, so you’ll find plenty of investor presentations and details on their website here if you’d like to dig in for yourself.

Is it crazy to dig up the sea floor for copper and gold, or is this a great idea that has finally hit its stride? My guess is that they’ll eventually actually produce something, but that it will cost far more and take far longer than is now predicted … and therefore, none of us will have the patience to make any money from it even if the operation does eventually spawn a profitable new industry that looks for these deposits around the world. They’ve been thinking about how to mine this seabed for 15 years, and it still seems to me like its pretty early days yet. Let us know what you think with a comment below.



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August 25, 2011 2:01 pm

You have to buy a company called Teck Resources Limited (TCK) and it is at $40/ now. They bought about 7% of the company…I am not sure if it is the best option or not. I would rather buy NUS, but do not have access to TSX.

October 2, 2011 2:52 pm

There is an article called the Intel of NFC something to do with paying bills with a smart phone, any idea who they are and what the real “skinny” is?

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mangi lo ples
mangi lo ples
October 4, 2011 12:18 pm

Another project in Papua New Guinea. I live on the Bismarck Sea. However local land owners are concern that their only means of survival which is the fish will disappear or poisoned. That is a start to Land owner power to the on going operation of the mine in future like you have experienced in many project in Papua New Guinea. Otherwise it is a good project once again taken from us and make somebody richer rather than the living standard of the landowners living around the mine. Classic example is one of the worlds biggest gold mine in the vacinity of the bismarck sea Lihir Gold Mine where the landowners are still trying to appreciate the exported richness of their land. Probably there is a reason why we land owners have to cry because the deal have been sign by some ill informed leaders representing us which is the Government. Land owners have to take a fair cut other wise its another repeat of Bougainville copper Limited and the rest.

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