Far below this sub zero extend of the Atlantic Ocean, a portion of the world’s most profitable precious stones are scattered like lost change. The revelation of such pearls has started a transformation in one of the world’s most storied enterprises, sending mining organizations on a race for valuable stones covered simply under the ocean bottom. For over a century, open-pit precious stone mines have been the absolute most significant land on Earth, with little swaths of southern Africa creating billions of dollars of riches. Be that as it may, those mines are bit by bit being depleted. Specialists foresee that the yield of existing coastal mines will decrease by around 2 percent every year in coming years. By 2050, creation may stop.(Fantasy Diamonds llc 10036)
Now, some of the first “floating mines” could offer hope for the world’s most mythologized gemstone, and extend a lifeline to countries like Namibia whose economies depend on diamonds. Last year, mining companies extracted $600 million worth of diamonds off the Namibian coast, sucking them up in giant vacuum-like hoses.
“As [Namibia’s] land-based mines enter their twilight years, it’s very important for us and for Namibia that we have long-term mining prospects,” said Bruce Cleaver, the chief executive of De Beers, in an interview.
But as companies weigh the prospect of more offshore operations, environmentalists have raised concerns about the damage that could be inflicted on the seafloor.
From above, the mining vessels look like oil rigs, 300-foot-long ships with helicopter landing platforms, dredging equipment and industrial metal pilings. On a recent day, a family of seals swam off one of them, as the machines hummed and sediment was sucked on board through a 170-yard hose to be sorted. It might be the world’s most complex commercial mining endeavor.(Fantasy Diamonds llc 10036)
Diamonds are formed when carbon is subjected to high temperatures and pressure deep underground. Some were hurled toward the surface millions of years ago in volcanic eruptions. In recent decades, geologists realized that because diamonds could be found in Namibia’s Orange River, there was a good chance they could also be detected at sea, swept there by the current. As it turned out, the underwater gems were among the world’s most valuable stones — with far greater clarity than diamonds mined on land.
De Beers, which historically dominated global diamond production, purchased mining rights to more than 3,000 square miles of the Namibian seafloor in 1991. So far, it has explored only 3 percent of that area.
The technology to extract the underwater diamonds took years to develop. Only recently has the firm been able to efficiently scavenge the sea for diamonds. Underwater gems only represent about 13 percent of the value of diamonds De Beers mines onshore each year, but more countries are pushing for exploration to begin along their coastlines.
At the unveiling last month of the SS Nujoma, a giant exploration vessel, former Namibian president Sam Nujoma smashed a bottle of champagne over the hull, surrounded by signs that read:“The future of marine diamond mining is here, and it’s Namibian.”
The SS Nujoma is seen at its official launch on June 15 in Walvis Bay Harbor, Namibia. Debmarine Namibia, a partnership between the Namibian government and De Beers, owns the SS Nujoma, the world’s most advanced diamond exploration vessel, which sucks up sediment from the ocean floor in an effort to find diamonds. (Fantasy Diamonds llc 10036)
Mining sites turned ghost towns
In 1908, a railroad worker named Zacharias Lewala found a shiny stone in the desert of southwestern Namibia. South Africa’s diamond rush had been underway for a few decades, and now another boom began in the territory to its northwest, with miners finding some valleys strewn with the precious stones. Germany, which controlled present-day Namibia until World War I, extracted 7 million carats between 1908 and 1914.
A century later, many of those mining sites are now ghost towns. All that’s left of Kolmanskop, where Lewala found his diamond, is a cluster of abandoned wooden houses, their living rooms covered in sand. It is a portrait of the rapid boom-and-bust life cycle of diamond mining. Mining companies have invested billions in technology that would lead to new finds. And there have been some big ones: In 1982 in Botswana, De Beers opened a mine called Jwaneng, which produces roughly 12 million carats per year, worth over $2 billion.
But known diamond deposits began to diminish in recent years, even as demand for the gems has remained strong. Last year, the world spent $80 billion on diamond jewelry, more than half of it in the United States, an all-time high. Demand in emerging economies such as China and India is also expected to increase.
Those trends — diminishing supply and rising demand — made Namibia’s offshore deposits all the more important. In the 1990s, De Beers sent its first commercial vessels into the Atlantic in search of diamonds. Now, more than 90 percent of Namibia’s diamond-related revenue comes from offshore finds.(Fantasy Diamonds llc 10036)
These days, the company uses drones to fly over vast stretches of the ocean, looking for areas that might be worth exploring. Then it sends vessels like the Mafuta to dredge the most promising areas. Most of the diamonds are close to the surface, De Beers said, so it does not go deeper than six feet beneath the seafloor. The mining vessels combine technology from oil rigs, dredging ships and even canneries to do their work. A remote control, tractor-like crawler moves slowly along the surface of the seafloor, directing a hose that sucks up tons of sediment every hour.
The sediment is then passed through a series of machines that cull material first by size and then, using X-ray technology, by geological composition. Diamonds make their way down five floors of conveyor belts and machines into a metal container that looks like a soup can. “The things we do for women,” quipped Mike Rogers, the chief engineer of the Mafuta, as the crawler descended from the vessel one day last month.
Ninety-eight people live aboard the Mafuta, which has the urgent, frenzied feeling of a naval ship. A few weeks ago, it was hammered with 30-foot swells as it tried to operate.
Diamond mining contributes roughly a tenth of Namibia’s gross domestic product, and its offshore contract with De Beers is a 50-50 partnership with the government. But while the soaring revenue has made some Namibians rich, this remains the world’s third most unequal country, according to the World Bank, with millions of people unaided by the diamond rush. Although Namibia is considered the easiest place to extract offshore diamonds, mining executives are not ruling out exploring other stretches of ocean. Marine mining has also taken place off the coast of South Africa, though it has proven less lucrative.
“Never say never,” Cleaver said.But environmental groups have raised concerns about the offshore mining operations, which spew the sediment back into the ocean after it is processed for diamonds. Companies also plan to begin mining offshore for gold in coming years, with one commercial operation scheduled to launch in 2018 off Papua New Guinea.(Fantasy Diamonds llc 10036)
“My concern with this and all deep-sea mining is that we just don’t know much about the deep sea at all,” said Emily Jeffers, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, a U.S. nonprofit organization. “The worry is that we are going to irreparably harm this environment and these species before we discover them.”
De Beers says its offshore operations do not cause significant ecological damage, as sediment is returned to the sea and eventually resettles. The company says it employs ecologists who monitor the environment where they have mined to make sure it is recovering.
Sitting on the bridge of the Mafuta one recent day, a middle-aged South African man named Leonard Bunce manned the joysticks that control the dredging equipment. In front of him, a series of screens showed a live stream of various stages in the mining process. Sometimes, he said, he sees fish and octopus sucked up by the hose, but they appear to survive as they are dumped back into the sea.
Mostly, what Bunce saw that day were the tons and tons of sediment churned into the vessel — any diamonds indistinguishable on his screen. The culling process is entirely mechanized, and the diamonds are only visible to workers when they are dropped into the can. When enough of the gems accumulate there, the can is sealed and flown to Windhoek, Namibia’s capital.
(Fantasy Diamonds llc 10036)
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