Rapaport Magazine

The Last Outpost

By By Ettagale Blauer & Jason Laure
The ancient geologic upheavals that spread diamonds along the beach front of Southwest Africa and then spilled their bounty into the sea led initially to deep-water diamond mining. (See “Diamonds in the Ocean” story.) But, given the violent ocean currents that occurred over the millennia, it was inevitable that vast numbers of diamonds would make their way to the ocean floor. 
   Diamonds may still be found on the beach itself, just offshore, in the shallow but treacherous waters along the South African Atlantic Ocean coast and further offshore at greater depths. There are miners who specialize in working every one of these locations, eager to make the fortunes promised by these very high-quality gem deposits.

Under the Sea
   Forty-five miles south of South Africa’s border with Namibia lies the forlorn and nearly forgotten diamond mining outpost of Port Nolloth. Situated along a schizophrenic weather zone, with the blistering desert on one side and the icy cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean on the other, the town is home to about 4,600 souls, a dozen fishing boats, one grocery store, one gas station, a one-man museum and a well-patronized bottle store. Yet, this sleepy little town that is regularly swept by sand coming from the desert plays a role — albeit a small one — in the world supply of diamond rough, thanks to the efforts of a handful of intrepid diamond divers and their ramshackle boats. The town also continues to serve a role in provisioning the large ocean diamond mining vessels of the vast De Beers operation in this part of the world.
   Port Nolloth’s main claim to diamond fame is the discovery in 1925 of the first alluvial diamond, a find that set off a frenzy of mining and ultimately resulted in a profitable industry of harvesting diamonds from the ocean. That history can be seen in Port Nolloth’s little museum, owned and operated by former miner George Moyses. Here, the region’s history can be traced, starting in 1854 as a harbor and railway junction for the copper industry, its decline as the copper mines closed and its resurgence as a diamond mining area. The museum exhibit confirms the treachery of the local waters, which saw two huge freighters run aground in 1947 and 1950 while attempting to ride out storms. Only the smallest ships can navigate in the tiny harbor.
   From the town of Alexander Bay to the north, on the South Africa side of the Orange River that forms the border with Namibia, down to Port Nolloth, a speck on the map barely deserving the title of port, the waters are marked off in concessions granted by Alexkor, the South African state-owned diamond mining entity based in Alexander Bay. Since these concessions are entirely in the ocean, miners use GPS to travel to, and stay within, the areas to which they have been assigned. It’s a rough trip to the working area, with steadily diminishing returns.
   The weather in this part of the world is governed by the cold Benguela current that sweeps up from Antarctica. A dense, cold fog blankets the shoreline many mornings. Just offshore, waves roil the waters close to the shoreline. Farther out to sea, the ocean currents kick up dirt and gravel from the seabed, obscuring the visibility. For the small boats that use vacuum tubes to suck up diamond-bearing gravel, sea conditions are rarely good enough to chance putting a diver into the water. It is estimated that boats go out no more than 50 days a year, and that number has diminished in recent years as the sea has become more turbulent.
   These small boats spend most of their days anchored close to shore, while the men who own and operate them wait for better conditions. Most of them are former South African Navy veterans, who bring a vast knowledge of the sea to this work. An oceangoing miner may spend half an hour sitting on the beach in the morning, scanning the ocean surface, looking for conditions that justify a trip to his concession up the coast. Once he makes the decision, his small crew sets out. At the site, one man goes into the frigid water while other crew members monitor the hoses that supply air to the diver and suck up the gravel. The crew usually spends four hours a day traveling to and from the concession and then diving to the seabed. Once back in port, they unload the diamond-bearing gravel into canvas bags and pack it onto small skiffs for the short trip to shore.

   While the waters off the coast are known to produce a high percentage of very fine, gem-quality diamonds, the miners don’t know the specific value of their haul. In the past, the ore was sorted right in Port Nolloth. Now, they must wait to get the results from Alexkor, the official diamond buyer. In South Africa, no one is allowed to possess rough diamonds other than licensed diamond buyers. Artisanal miners such as the divers at Port Nolloth have no choice but to sell their production to Alexkor. About once every two months, a check arrives from Alexkor, payment for all the diamonds recovered during that period. The miners seem to be happy enough with the results, according to a visitor who was present the day one of those checks arrived.
   Port Nolloth isn’t much of a port but it’s the best available for a long stretch of the treacherous coastline. It is also the last viable port in South Africa before the Namibian border.
   The far more important marine mining effort of Debmarine — the De Beers, Namibia 50/50 joint venture — has ships that stay out at sea for two years or more. Since they don’t make port, they need regular infusions of oil to fuel the ship and its exploration and recovery equipment, as well as fresh food and other supplies. These are first brought by truck to the tiny pier at Port Nolloth, where a crane loads them onto two De Beers–owned ships that journey northward.
   The DeBeers supply depot at Port Nolloth is housed in a small office within sight of the pier. The company ships then transfer the goods directly to the large marine mining ships out at sea. This is the lifeline for the ocean mining vessels.

Future Prospects
   The future of marine mining at Port Nolloth is likely to be quite short. Very few younger men aretaking over from the old salts who still go to sea. The number of viable sea days has diminished dramatically since the beginning of this century, making it less and less possible to wrest a living from diamond mining in spite of the high value of these stones.
   A visit to Port Nolloth is akin to visiting a museum. The exhibits are still alive and move about, but it’s possible to foresee a time when they will be frozen in place. 

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

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