In depths of At­lantic, a quest for di­a­monds

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY KEVIN SIEFF

off the coast of namibia — Deep be­neath this frigid stretch of the At­lantic Ocean, some of the world’s most valu­able di­a­monds are scat­tered like lost change.

The dis­cov­ery of such gems has sparked a rev­o­lu­tion in one of the world’s most sto­ried in­dus­tries, send­ing min­ing com­pa­nies on a race for pre­cious stones buried just un­der the seafloor.

For over a cen­tury, open-pit di­a­mond mines have been some of the most valu­able real es­tate on Earth, with small swaths of south­ern Africa pro­duc­ing bil­lions of dol­lars of wealth. But those mines are grad­u­ally be­ing ex­hausted. Ex­perts pre­dict that the out­put of ex­ist­ing on­shore mines will de­cline by about 2 per­cent an­nu­ally in com­ing years. By 2050, pro­duc­tion might cease.

Now, some of the first “float­ing mines” could of­fer hope for the world’s most mythol­o­gized gem­stone, and ex­tend a life­line to coun­tries such as 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 vac­u­um­like 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 170yard hose to be sorted. It might be the world’s most com­plex com­mer­cial min­ing en­deavor.

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.”

Low sup­ply and high de­mand

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.

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 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.

Dis­put­ing eco­log­i­cal dam­age

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 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.

“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 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 Leon­ships ard 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.

That is where, in an of­fice on the 11th floor of a non­de­script build­ing, Peter Kayser in­spects high-value di­a­monds that could be worth any­where from tens of thou­sands to mil­lions of dol­lars.

One day last month, his at­ten­tion was on a di­a­mond about the size of the tip of his thumb that had re­cently been vac­u­umed up from the ocean floor. He passed the gem through a ma­chine that cal­cu­lated its weight. It took a few mo­ments be­fore the num­ber flashed on a screen: at least seven carats. Kayser smiled. “This could be a very ex­pen­sive stone.”

CHRISTO­PHER TORCHIA/ASSOCIATED PRESS

A hand­ful of di­a­monds is sorted at the Namibia Di­a­mond Trad­ing Co. in Windhoek, Namibia.

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