Gold and its incredibly high value was the main reason why the reality-TV series, “Bering Sea Gold,” captured the interest of millions of viewers around the world. John Bunce was one of the divers helping team leader Zeke Tenhoff, the captain of the dredging boat called “The Edge,” in mining for the elusive gold from one of the most dangerous bodies of water in the northern Pacific Ocean, the Bering Sea. Unfortunately, John was reported to have died in 2012 at the time the second season of the show was being aired.
- 1 John Bunce’s early life and family
- 2 Bering Sea Gold, the show’s popularity and influence
- 3 How did John become part of “Bering Sea Gold”
- 4 Interesting stories about John’s brief time on the show
- 5 How did John Bunce die?
- 6 Some behind-the-scenes rumors about the show
John Bunce’s early life and family
John Patrick Bunce was born on 13 November 1985, in Portland, Oregon USA, to parents John Patrick Bunce Sr. and Noqah Elisi Adkins. He spent his early childhood in the nearby town of Estacada, but when he began his schooling, his mother thought it would be best for them to transfer to the city of Ashland, in the southern part of Oregon, so that she could work and pursue a college degree at the same time.
Then in 1993, mother and son left Oregon and moved to Alaska, which became his home. His father was believed to no longer be in the picture. John went to North Atlantic Regional High School, and then attended Northeast State College in Tennessee but, graduated from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks with a degree in Geology and Diesel Mechanics.
He concurrently worked as a waiter and dishwasher in their family-owned restaurant, as well as doing other odd jobs, including a computer technician, lens polisher/grinder for an optical clinic, and deckhand on a fishing boat. After college, he became a maintenance refueler and truck driver for Nome Gold, a drill sampler for Metal Logeny, and later on, a gold dredging diver.
Bering Sea Gold, the show’s popularity and influence
“Bering Sea Gold” was a reality TV series filmed in Nome, Alaska, produced by the same people behind the highly successful TV shows “Deadliest Catch,” “Storage Wars,” and “Ice Road Truckers.”
A camera crew followed the gold dredging operations of several teams during the summer season. The boats would go to the vast ocean the moment it was clear of ice in June. Each team used their preferred type of dredge boat and system, including gadgets such as sluicing apparatus and diving life support gear. With enough luck, the captain of the boat would be able to spot the right area and scoop up a huge amount of gold hidden in the water. However, it was not as easy as it looked on paper, as the Bering Sea could be very unpredictable, and each team would encounter problems including storms, machine trouble, lack of underwater visibility, and personal issues among the crew, that could very well distract them from their main purpose of going out to sea.
— Bering Sea Gold (@BeringSeaGold) October 10, 2020
The first season of the show attracted an average of over three million viewers; it premiered in January 2012, and been available on one of the television’s top cable networks, Discovery Channel, for more than a decade already. Its 13th season started airing in April 2021, and loyal fans were relieved, as they were worried if their favorite show was able to film during the pandemic caused by the Covid-19 virus.
The success of the cast in collecting gold from the bottom of the sea inspired many people in and around Nome, Alaska. People flocked to the area and started their recreational gold mining operation, using various techniques, especially when the summer months kicked in. The TV series attracted more people, and helped in boosting the town’s economy as gold prospectors visited the area. For nine months in a year, Nome was isolated with very few people staying there, as it can get extremely cold.
However, the moment the sun was up and shining, the mining area would be filled with prospectors, as they rushed to find the gold, and the once quiet town would be bursting with all sorts of sounds.
Due to the success of the original show, a spin-off series was created entitled “Bering Sea Gold: Under the Ice,” focused on how the miners dive under the ice to dredge gold on the seabed during the cold winter season.
How did John become part of “Bering Sea Gold”
John joined the second season of the “Bering Sea Gold” TV series, because one of his longtime friends – Ezekiel “Zeke” Tenhoff – was a member of the regular cast of the show. Zeke lost most of his money during the winter dredging operation, and so he rented a more powerful dredge boat christened “The Edge” to help his team mine more gold. This time, he convinced John who was an experienced diver to be part of his team.
John loved going deep underwater, as he felt so much at peace down there, and would welcome any opportunity to explore the ocean bed. It was of no surprise that he shared in an episode that he left a good-paying job just to be part of Zeke’s team, even if there was no assurance of him getting paid after the summer gold dredging season was over.
Interesting stories about John’s brief time on the show
John only spent one season with Zeke and his team on the show; it could have been more, if not for the unforeseen circumstances. Here are some of the most interesting anecdotes about him:
He had hypothermia
In the first episode, John drove his girlfriend to the airport and failed to make it on time to be with Zeke’s team. After running his personal errand, he called one of the crew, Emily Riedel, and asked if he could swim to reach the boat, but she discouraged him as they were already quite far from shore.
However, John felt bad that he wasn’t able to join the team on its first day out on the sea, so he decided to swim to get to them. Unsurprisingly he didn’t make it, and an ambulance was called since he needed medical attention after he was rescued. He had hypothermia, because he was halfway to the boat when he could no longer move his hand and feet due to the cold temperature of the water. Zeke and Emily stopped their operation and went to check up on him at the hospital; he could have died that day if the coast guard hadn’t seen him.
He worked as a power tool
Zeke said that if John’s under the water, he worked very hard and compared him to a power tool. On the day they had John back on the boat, 36 hours after the hypothermia scare, they were able to mine gold. John’s a workaholic when he’s in the right state of mind and that was one of the reasons Zeke chose him to be part of his crew.
John and Zeke’s friendship
The two met when they were still very young, and shared 18 years of friendship at the time of John’s death. Zeke knew that John was a great worker and diver, but he was apprehensive each time John went down under the water after he contracted hypothermia in the first episode. He said he wouldn’t be able to forgive himself if John died under his watch. Zeke liked to cover for his friend, and it was revealed that the reason why John was absent during the first day they brought the boat out to sea was that John was so drunk the night before that Zeke couldn’t wake him up the next morning. Zeke just made up a story that John was on a personal errand. John shared on his introduction video in the show that he and Zeke were the best of friends, and most of the time, Zeke acted like his big brother who took care of him.
How did John Bunce die?
In the 11th episode of the second season of the TV series, it was announced that John had died and the cause was suicide. The show even dramatized the 911 call that was received, and apparently someone witnessed the actual suicide. The 911 operator even asked the caller if he knew the victim, and he said it was John Bunce.
Zeke shared what he knew, and revealed that John was an alcoholic. They were together in a bar the night before he committed suicide, and he kept telling Zeke that he wanted to die. Zeke discouraged him as best as he could, but when he left the bar, John stayed and continued drinking. That same night, another friend of theirs went to John’s place to be with him, as he was quite unstable. When their friend reached John’s place, he opened the door holding a loaded .44 caliber Magnum in his hand; he shook out all the bullets except for one and played Russian roulette.
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After he spun the cartridge, he put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. He spun the cartridge one more time and when he pulled the trigger the second time, John blew his brains out in front of their friend.
Zeke said that he tried talking him out of ending his life. Some said that it might have been just an accident, as he was blind drunk that night. He probably thought that he was able to remove all the bullets from the gun. Whatever the case may be, they all blamed it on his drinking problem.
John’s family and some friends in the community along with Zeke and Emily, held a tribute for him in Anchorage. Zeke even sang a song for him, and shared some stories. John was cremated and some of his ashes were brought back to Nome by Zeke. He and some of their friends scattered the ashes over John’s favorite place, the sea.
Some behind-the-scenes rumors about the show
Lots of rumors and unconfirmed reports were usually the price of being one of the most popular reality/documentary series on cable television.
Some of these behind-the-scenes stories about the “Bering Sea Gold” had been talked about by fans on social media.
Not all residents in Nome, Alaska wanted the show there
While tourism increased in Nome, and had put this unknown city on the map, not everyone was happy with their presence in town. It had been reported that some “concerned citizens” had filed petition after petition in the courts or with the local government to stop the Discovery Channel crew filming the “Bering Sea Gold” series in the city. However, it seemed that their petitions were ignored, probably because the TV series’ presence had more positive than negative effects in this Alaskan town.
Not all drama is real, but some were unedited reality TV
As with most reality television series out there, not everything on it was real. Most of the personal issues between the stars of the show, as well as the tension during the actual dredging operations were part of a script.
Some of them were probably real, but it was presented in such a dramatic way that the viewers could feel the anxiety of the cast when they watched the show. Professional gold miners were extremely careful with everything they did, and they wouldn’t make mistakes such as those seen on the TV show. That being said, some real drama was caught on camera and shown unedited, which the producers loved. For instance, they were able to record the little altercation between Vernon Adkinson and his former employee, Scott Meisterheim, when they saw each other again. In earlier episodes, Vernon accused Scott of lying and stealing his gold when he left the dredging operation to Scott, which resulted in a huge loss for Vernon. It became more interesting when Scott came back the following season with his own dredging boat, that he claimed he’d bought using money that he borrowed from shady people.
No more gold claims in Nome
While some people were inspired to do their own gold mining in Alaska, due to the success of the show, the Department of Natural Resources in the state had announced that there were no more gold claims left in the city. There were only two public areas where recreational mining had been allowed, but the TV show persuaded viewers that there were still lots of accessible places for recreational gold mining, but in reality there weren’t anymore, unless the legal claimant of an area would allow it.
Not-so-secret run-ins with the law
The antics of Scott Meisterheim on and off camera added a bit of spice to the TV show’s narrative. Apparently, it had been reported that Scott was famous for showing up to work smelling of liquor, and liked to pick a fight not only with the other stars, but also with the filming crew. He also claimed in earlier episodes that if he failed to make money from gold mining, he would be arrested for not being able to pay child support.
Yvonne Adkinson, one of the daughters of Vernon Adkinson, the captain of the Wild Ranger boat, was arrested in 2014 for possession and sale of illegal substances. Two years before the arrest, she was one of her father’s crew in the earlier seasons of the show. Yvonne initially pleaded not guilty, but then three years later she entered a plea deal, and was sentenced to two years in prison and another three years on probation under court-ordered conditions. She currently works as a hairstylist in Fairbanks.
Shawn Pomrenke, son of Steve Pomrenke, the captain of the biggest dredge boat in the show named Christine Rose, has been arrested several times for driving under the influence. He once totaled his car, but fortunately no one was hurt. In earlier episodes, he worked under his father, but when he proved that he could handle the operation on his own, Steve gave him the keys and made him captain of the boat.