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Diamonds in the Ocean

Namibia has a rich wealth of diamonds off its coast in the Atlantic Ocean, but getting to them presents specific challenges.

By Ettagale Blauer

The Debmar Atlantic is one of five deep-water mining vessels operating off the Namibian coast. Photograph courtesy De Beers.

Diamonds have a habit of burying themselves in some of the most inhospitable places on earth. Some are in the frozen north of Canada and Russia, others in the hot sands of Australia. But there are few places more difficult to “mine” than the cold Atlantic Ocean, off the southwest coast of Africa. The task falls to the intrepid workers who live and work on diamond dredgers, led by the mv Mafuta, the newly christened ship registered in Lüderitz, Namibia, a coastal town in the southwest area of the country. Previously known as Peace in Africa, the ship moved to its new port in April 2013 and assumed its position as the world’s largest mining vessel. It is one of a fleet of five challenging the high winds and cold, rough seas of the region to recover diamonds from the ocean’s depths.
   The vessels are owned and operated by Debmarine Namibia, the 50-50 collaborative ocean mining partnership of De Beers and the government of the Republic of Namibia that was formed in 2003. All the ships of the Debmarine operation together bring in about 1 million carats a year, more than half of the nation’s total diamond production. Mafuta alone mines approximately 30 percent of Debmarine’s total. Beginning in 2001, Debmarine’s ocean mining production passed Namdeb’s land mining production in volume.
   Like the diamonds mined along the Namibia beachfront, the stones are virtually all gems. There’s nothing like being knocked around in the icy cold Atlantic for uncounted millennia to weed out the weak from the perfect specimens. Namibia has the richest known marine diamond deposits in the world, estimated at 80 million carats.

How it Starts
   The story begins with the obvious question: “How in the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean does one find diamonds?” Or more to the point, why does someone decide to look for diamonds in these inhospitable depths?
   When volcanic activity sent diamonds from the great mining area around Kimberley up to the surface and into the ancient riverbed of the Orange River, the diamonds began their journey to the sea. Those that stopped their journey on shore formed the great diamond mining areas of what is now known as Namibia, a former German colony. As soon as diamonds were first discovered there in 1908, the onshore mining area was marked off with German precision as a huge rectangular swath of land and named with German bluntness the Sperrgebiet, meaning “the forbidden area.” A vast earth-moving operation was constructed at Oranjemund — German for “mouth of the Orange” — because of its position at the mouth of the river that serves as the boundary between Namibia and South Africa.
   The notion of seeking and mining diamonds from the ocean floor was the brainchild of Texas oilman Sammy Collins, who was laying an offshore pipeline to deliver diesel fuel to Oranjemund. Using his ocean expertise, he decided in 1961 to explore the waters off the coast to see if the diamond deposits extended to the seabed. That year, exploration in shallow waters near Lüderitz yielded a total of 45 diamonds. Between 1961 and 1970, Collins’ company, Marine Diamond Corporation, mined an estimated 1.5 million carats of diamonds from 65 feet of water. When money troubles beset the operation, deep-pocketed De Beers stepped in and oversaw the mapping and sampling of the region for the next two decades.

Namibia’s Birthday Gift
   In1990, the economic climate was right to capitalize on all this exploration and experimentation. That year, the mining crawler Louis G. Murray recovered 28,633 carats off the Namibian coast. It was a rather nice birthday present for the nation of Namibia, which became independent of South African rule that year, after 75 years as a territory.
   Various excavation and recovery techniques, including methods that initially served the offshore oil drilling industry, were employed in the search for diamonds. The Coral Sea was the first vessel to adapt this technology to diamond mining before other ships were added to the fleet, including the Grand Banks, Debmar Atlantic and !Gariep — the ! indicates a “click” sound in the local language. The enormous dredgers look more like war machines than the giant vacuum cleaners that they are.
   The venture took a giant step forward with the purchase of an enormous ship, the Dock Express, originally fitted out as a cable layer. A very expensive conversion turned it into the dredger known as Peace in Africa. This past May, it was rechristened the mv Mafuta, a word that means “seas” or “great waters” in the local language. This 16-ton ship, 560 feet in length, is built to withstand the storms and rough seas that are daily conditions in this part of the Atlantic.
   The territory it mines is marked out as precisely as if the mining area was on land. It begins about 3 miles offshore and extends seaward for another 10 to 20 miles. The mining license covers a total area of about 2,300 square miles, according to Debmarine spokeswoman Stella Auala. To date, only 29 square miles have been mined. The ship is essentially a self-contained mining and recovery operation.

Making it Work
   The Mafuta’s dredger sweeps back and forth along a specific area of the seabed, sucking up a mixture of water and gravel at the rate of about 460,000 cubic feet per hour. A metallurgist on board directs the dredging crew, following a path laid out by an underwater vehicle that explores the seabed. The ship can operate to a water depth of more than 500 feet. The gravel is then screened and sieved onboard in a process that is entirely mechanical. No human hand touches the material through the process. The slurry of diamond residue is packed into metal canisters that await regular pickup by the company’s own helicopters.
   Thanks to the cold Benguela current that sweeps northward from Antarctica, landing a helicopter on the helipad is not for the faint of heart as the ship is often rising and falling 16 feet in the rough seas. A crew of about 75 staffs the ship at any given time, working one month on, one month off. There is an ironic symmetry between the marine mining operation and the onshore mining. Both have claimed vast areas to mine. The land operation never worked more than 10 percent of the enormous swaths of land known as Diamond Districts 1 and 2, the “forbidden zones.” The marine operation will likely never use much more than a similar percentage of its officially licensed area, either.
   Though these two dramatically different types of mining yield similarly high gem content, at the end of a day at sea, there is no land to reclaim, no hole to fill in. According to De Beers marine mining experts, the seabed repairs itself within four to eight years. As for the fish in the area, those who work the ocean mining vessels say the sound of the ship’s throbbing engines keeps them out of harm’s way.

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - July 2013. To subscribe click here.

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