Namibia the World’s Leading Marine Diamond Mining Country

Namibia in Southwest Africa is today the world’s leading marine diamond prospecting country, where several ships comb the ocean bed, bringing out sediments from the sea bed sometimes as deep as several 100 metres, which was then processed on board the ships for diamonds, and the dredged gravel returned to the ocean floor.

History of Diamond Discovery in Namibia

Accidental discovery of diamonds in 1908

The story of diamond prospecting in Namibia goes back to the colonial period when Namibia was a colony of Germany known as Deutsch Sud West Africa or German South West Africa. In 1908 a young railway worker by the name of Zacharias Lewala picked up a large shiny stone from the sea coast, whilst on duty near the country’s southern coastal town of Luderitz. He handed over the stone to his supervisor, August Stauch, which on investigation turned out to be a diamond. This casual discovery sparked off a diamond rush in Kolmanskop, near Luderitz, leading to an avalanche of diamond hunters descending on the desert land. It is said that during this period diamond deposits were so rich that Stauch and other miners could pick up diamonds from the floor of the valley. The diamond rush led to new twonships and cities springing up on desert land.

Diamond-rich areas are declared “Sperrgebiet” or “Forbidden Areas”

Aerial View of Sperrgebiet.
Aerial View of Sperrgebiet. (Olga Ernst & Hp.Baumeler-CC)

To control the diamond rush, the German Colonial Government declared the diamond-rich areas of the region as “Forbidden Areas” or “Sperrgebiet” and government approved mining operations began in this region. Several colonial companies began operations in the area, and government assisted by constructing the longest narrow gauge railway network in the world, to access this desert area, and introducing innovative equipment such as Plietz Jigs, Schiechel Pots and electric shovels to treat the diamond containing material mined. Until World War I in 1914, millions of carats of diamonds were mined and shipped to Germany for further processsing.

Sperrgebiet warning sign from the 1940s
Sperrgebiet warning sign from the 1940s

Consolidated Diamond Mines of South West Africa formed after World War II

Work resumed after World War 1 and after World War II most of the colonial mining companies, including De Beers, were amalgamated to form the Consolidated Diamond Mines of South West Africa, which later came to be known as CDM, holding the monopoly of the mining rights within the “Forbidden Area.” Subsequently, Reuning Company discovered the raised diamondiferous beaches near Orangemund which led to the mining of these deposits, that continued for nearly 80 years yielding over 65 million carats of high-quality large diamonds during this period.

After Namibia gained independence from Germany in 1990, the Government of Namibia quickly moved to take control of the country’s diamond reserves. This led to the signing of a historic joint venture agreement between CDM and the Government of the Republic of Namibia, that gave birth to a unique Joint Venture Operation known as the Namdeb Diamond Corporation (Pty) Ltd.

After depletion of diamonds in the diamondiferous beaches attention diverted towards possible marine deposits in the Atlantic Ocean in the 1960s

In the 1950s and 1960s scientists discovered that large quantities of diamonds brought up by kimberlite pipes in the Southern African region millions of years ago were carried into the stormy Atlantic Ocean after being washed down the mighty Orange River, while some diamonds were deposited on the coastline to form the diamondiferous beaches at Kolmanskop and Orangemund where land mining for diamonds were carried out since 1908. After the depletion of diamonds in the land deposits attention was diverted by prospectors towards possible marine deposits of diamonds carried by the Orange River. In 1952, Sammy Collins, a Texas Oilman, founded the Marine Diamond Corporation with a view of exploring possible marine diamond reserves. However, the first offshore mining concession was granted only in 1961 and shallow water mining commenced only after this.

The offshore diamond miners adopted innovative methods of mining the marine deposits in the ferocious ocean. The Marine Diamond Corporation belonging to Sammy Collins was among the most notable marine diamond prospector and it was reported that between 1961 and 1970 his company had mined around 1.5 million carats from under 20 meters of water.

Following deep water exploration and sampling from 1971 to 1983 deep water mining commenced in 1986

Unmanned autonomous vehicles being lowered into the ocean to survey the seabed for diamonds
Unmanned autonomous vehicles being lowered into the ocean to survey the seabed for diamonds

Between 1971 and 1983, deep water exploration, deep water sampling and evaluation was carried out and in 1986 deep water mining development was started. In the year 1990 Mining Vessel Louis G. Murray obtained the first haul of deep water diamonds weighing 29,000 carats.

Two-person submarine used to examine the Geology of the seabed
Two-person submarine used to examine the Geology of the seabed

Establishment of Namdeb Diamond Corporation (Pty) Ltd. After Namibian Independence in 1994

In 1994 after Namibia was granted independence the joint venture agreement signed between the Government of Namibia and the Consolidated Diamond Mines (CDM) resulted in the formation of the Namdeb Diamond Corporation (Pty) Ltd. All De Beers Group existing Namibian mining licences and related rights were replaced by a consolidated and rationalized mineral agreement.

Namdeb Diamond Corporation (Pty) Ltd. was renamed as Debmarine Namibia (DBMN) in the year 2000

In the year 2000 the joint venture company between the Government of Namibia and diamond giant De Beers came to be known as Debmarine Namibia (DBMN) and the two shareholders agreed that the company must migrate to Namibia, while production operations continue without interruptions. In the first half of year 2001, four production vessels which were already engaged in marine operations were sold and transferred to the Joint Venture Company Debmarine Namibia (DBMN), and De Beers workforce began their migration from Cape Town to Namibia. Subsequently, in January 2002 Debmarine Namibia (DBMN) commenced marine operations.

A significant milestone achieved by Debmarine Namibia in the year 2002, was the awarding of the National Occupational Safety Credited Award (NOSCAR) 5 Star Status by the National Occupational Safety Association (NOSA), a prestigious status which has been maintained by the company since then. This was followed by another distinction in the year 2004, when Debmarine Namibia achieved the Top 100 International Award from NOSA for safety management systems adopted by the Company.

In the year 2005 diamond production from marine resources overtook land-based production

In the year 2003, a fifth production vessel, Mining Vessel “MV Ya Toivo” was chartered by the Company, and by the year 2005 for the first time in the history of diamond mining in Namibia, diamond production from marine resources overtook the land-based production, making DBMN the biggest diamond producer in Namibia, producing a total of 922,000 carats. This was followed by a record production of 1,000,000 carats by DBMN in the year 2006. Another distinction followed in the year 2007, when Debmarine Namibia was awared the Chamber of Mines, Best Safety Programme Award.

During the period between 2008 and 2012 Debmarine Namibia became a Joint Venture Company in which both the Government of Namibia and De Beers held equal shares.

Between the year 2008 and 2012, there was a temporary setback in the activities of Debmarine Nanibia, as all mining operations and support activities were temporarily halted due to the Global Financial Crisis. As a result of this MV Ya Toivo Charter was terminated and the MV Grand Banks remained in lay-up until April 2012.

During this period the Government of Namibia and De Beers signed new shareholder agreements that altered the shareholding structure, with the Government of Namibia increasing its shareholding from 15% to 50%, and both parties holding equitable shares in the Company. Thus Debmarine Namibia became a Joint Venture Company in which both the Government of Namibia and De Beers held equal shares.

Debmarine Namibia commissions mining vessel “mv Peace in Africa” renamed “mv Mafuta” in 2013

Following the resumption of normal mining operations after the world economic recession, Debmarine Namibia embarked on an expansion of its mining activities. One of the first steps taken in this regard was to expand its mining fleet and in 2012 the Company purchased “mv Peace in Africa” the world’s largesr marine diamond mining vessel, from De Beers Consolidated Mines. In 2013, Debmarine Namibia commissioned the which was renamed “mv Mafuta.” With the introduction of the new mining vessel annual production increased from 1.1 million carats in 2012 to a record 1.273 million carats in 2014.

In 2017 new mining vessel “mv SS Nujoma.” built in a Shipyard in Norway commissioned by Debmarine Namibia that could sample for diamonds at double the speed of other ships

Debmarine’s SS Nujoma commissioned in 2017 sets sail from Kleven Verft AS Shipyard Norway to Cape Town in South Africa in July 2016
Debmarine’s SS Nujoma commissioned in 2017 sets sail from Kleven Verft AS Shipyard Norway to Cape Town in South Africa in July 2016

In the year 2015, the Company decided to add another mining vessel to its fleet and after securing co-funding placed an order with Kleven Verft AS Shipyard of Norway for the new vessel, to be named as “mv SS Nujoma.” Construction began in 2015 and was completed in 2016, and “mv SS Nujoma” was successfully launched from the slipway of the Kleven Verft AS Shipyard of Norway.C The ship sailed from Norway to the Port of Cape Town in South Africa in July, 2016 and later in December, 2016 “mv SS Nujoma” arrived in Namibia waters.

The 113 metre long SS Nujoma at the time of its launch in 2017, was the world’s largest diamond exploration ship that could sample for diamonds at double the speed of other ships and help extract higher-value diamonds than on land, as the diamond producer looks for such gemstones to help fight off increasing competition, said Bruce Cleaver. De Beers Chief Executive.

Chief Executive De Beers explains why offshore diamond mining is becoming increasingly important

He further stated that, offshore diamond mining is becoming increasingly important in meeting global demand for diamonds, as many of the major onshore deposits have now been discovered and are getting depleted. As the world changes, it’s very important to have profitable production. Offshore mining is more expensive than mining on land but carats are much more valuable. Diamonds from the seabed in Namibia are worth US$500 a carat, double the average value of De Beers current production, according to Mr. Cleaver.

CEO of Debmarine, explains the technicalities of marine sampling, exploration, and identifiacation of mineable areas

Debmarine Namibia has been given a licence for marine diamond mining off the coast of Namibia in the Atlantic, within an area of 2,316 square miles. The validity of this license lasts until the year 2035. According to CEO of Debmarine, Otto Shikongo, this does not mean that every single square mile within this area will be mined. Only areas that are mineable and profitable are mined. The resource is patchy and not homogenous. It’s not the same as a land-based resource which you can see with your eyes. This one is 120 metres or nearly 400 feet under water.

The future of marine mining will depend on our understanding of the seabed and technological advances. Unmanned autonomous vehicles are sent out to survey the seabed using sonar technology. Two-person submarines are also used to examine the geology of the seafloor. Apart from this a 12,000 ton exploration vessel scoops large samples from areas that are believed to hold diamonds. Using these combined technologies Debmarine Namibia have identified a mineralized area or area containing diamonda of 617 square miles in extent, which works out to just over a quarter of the total license area. The Company hopes to discover more diamond-containing areas through further exploration and sampling

According to the CEO, Debmarine Namibia has depleted only a total area of around 50 square miles since production began in the year 2002. This is just two percent of the licensed area of 2,316 square miles.

CEO of Debmarine on why marine exploration is worth the effort as 95% of diamonds recovered from the sea are of “gem quality”

While exploiting marine diamond sources is indeed a very difficult task, such exploration during the period of nearly two decades since it first began in 2002, has shown that the results were indeed worth the effort, as a very high percentage of the diiamonds were of gem-quality unlike diamonds recovered from land-based kimberlits pipes. According to CEO Shikongo 95% of diamonds recovered from the sea are of “gem quality” compared to just 40-60% of diamonds recovered from land operations. Shikongo thinks only the best gem-quality diamonds free of impurities and having the highest hardness on the Mohs scale, were able to survive the rumble and tumble of the high energy rough ride along the Orange River and make it to the ferocious ocean, where even the hardest rocks and stones are given a regular shape by underground wave action. The weaker impure and imperfect diamonds cannot survive that rough ride to the sea. This explains the high percentage of gem-quality diamonds recovered from the ocean as opposed to those recovered from the land.

Debmarine Namibia operates five diamond mining vessels employing two types of mining technologies, the airlift drill and the crawler mining technologies

Debmarine Namibia operates five diamond mining vessels, that comb the ocean and suck sediments from the seabed. The Ships bear the names Debmar Atlantic, Debmar Pacific, Grand Banks, Gariep and Mafuta. The ships employ two types of mining technologies, the airlift drill and the crawler mining technologies. The highly advanced drill technology is supported with sophisticated tracking, positioning and surveying equipment. To ramp up production the Company in 2017, was planning to construct a US$ 142 million ship-cum tanker, which was projected to be the world’s largest custom-built diamond mining vessel, of length 176 metres (544 feet). The new vessel was expectedl to join the fleet by 2021.

No Human hands touch the diamonds during the entire mining and production process at sea.

Crawler Ship has a 280 ton track-mounted crawler that moves in a horizontal arc and mines in lanes
Crawler Ship has a 280 ton track-mounted crawler that moves in a horizontal arc and mines in lanes

This type of ship, called a crawler ship, has a 280-ton mechanical arm, that moves in a horizontal arc, dredging material beneath the sea floor, upto a depth of 120 metres (400 feet). There is a sophisticated treatment plant onboard the ship, that sifts the diamonds from the dredged gravel. The gravel is then returned to the ocean, and the diamonds are automatically sealed into barcoded steel briefcases, and flown by helicopter three times a week to vaults back on dry land, in the capital city Windhoek to be graded subsequently. The unique thing is that no human hands touch the diamonds during the entire mining and production process at sea.

AMV3 the largest diamond recovery vessel in the world sets sail from Damen Shipyards in Romania to Port of Cape Town, South Africa to be fitted with mission equipment, before commissioning in Namibia early next year

Debmarine’s latest diamond recovery vessel departs Damen, Mangalia, Romania to Cape Town, South Africa
Debmarine’s latest diamond recovery vessel departs Damen, Mangalia, Romania to Cape Town, South Africa

Debmarine’s new diamond recovery vessel, whose construction was planned in 2017, is the largest diamond mining vessel in the world and was built in a shipyard in Romania, at a cost of US$ 470 million, much above the projected US$ 142 million. The 177 metre ship, known as Additional Mining Vessel-3 (AMV3) is fitted with heavy equipment for sub-sea crawling extraction and subsequent processing of dredged material on board to sift the diamonds. The ship was officially handed over to Debmarine on the 18th and 19th of August at Damen Shipyards, Mangalia, Romania. The Ship set sail from Damen shipyards on a four-week long maiden voyage to the Port of Cape Town, South Africa, where it will be fitted with mission equipment, before beginning operations off the coast of Namibia early next year. The AMV3 is now the largest diamond recovery vessel in the world and the new flagship of the Debnarine Namibia fleet. The vessel, according to the manufacturers is expected to operate for at least 30 years

Addition of AMV-3 to the five-strong fleet expected to increase production by 500,000 carats to more than 2.0 million carats per annum

Close-up view of the helicopter deck side of Debmarine’s latest AMV3 recovery vessel built by Damen Shioyards
Close-up view of the helicopter deck side of Debmarine’s latest AMV3 recovery vessel built by Damen Shioyards

AMV-3 is expected to join Debmarine’s existing five-strong fleet, that will dredge thousands of tonnes of sediment from 150 metres below the seabed, 12 miles off Namibia’s South Western coast. It is expected that the participation of AMV3 in the marine mining operations, will increase Debmarine’s output of diamonds by a additional 500,000 carats. Presently, Debmarine produces around 1.4 million carats annually, which will increase to more than 2.0 million carats after the addition of the sixth ship AMV3.

The advanced power system for the world’s largest diamond recovery vessel was provided by the Swedish-Swiss Company ABB

Another image of the world’s largest diamond recovery vessel – Image credit – Marin Teknikk AS
Another image of the world’s largest diamond recovery vessel – Image credit – Marin Teknikk AS

The building of the ship involved many challenges of which the most difficult was the engineering challengs that included the installation of a DP2 Dynamic Positioning System based on a seven-thruster propulsion system powered by six generators, to enable flexibility in the vessel’s operations.

The advanced power system for the world’s largest diamond recovery vessel was provided by the Swedish-Swiss Company. ABB, ASEA Brown Boveri, the same company that suppled the power system for mv SS Nujoma in 2017. ABB supplied an integrated power system package to ensure that the world’s largest and most technologically advanced diamond recovery vessel meets exceptional safety, efficiency and availability requirements. The success of the SS Nujoma with high reliability, efficient positioning and low fuel consumption, coupled with safe operation, were some of the factors that led to the selection of the same systems for the new diamond recovery vessel, with ABB’s power systems being an integral part of the solution.

The latest ABB technology will ensure that the vessel achieves unsurpassed uptime. In addition to the advanced system for power generation, distribution and variable speed drive propulsion systems, the solution includes a large online double-conversion marine uninterruptible power supply (MUPS) to support the ship’s vital control processes, significantly reducing the risk of critical power loss and downtime. ABB’s MUPS is designed for undisrupted availability, ensuring power backup for the vessel’s onboard control systems of the subsea-crawler and processing plant that sorts through sediment lifted from the seabed to extract diamonds. ABB’s advanced and tightly integrated power system will help optimize engine loading, as well as reduce running hours and fuel costs, and decrease maintenance needs.

The building of the Super Vessel AMV3 at Damen Shipyards was indeed a Multinational Effort, the largest ever single investment in the history of marine diamond recovery

Commenting on the launching of the ship from the Damen Shipyards, Michael Curtis, Head of the AMV3 Project said, “De Beers celebrates the conpletion of the vessel, which after a long period of design, construction and testing, has now proceeded to sea. The building of the vessel has been a truly multinational effort, which has converged successfully at Damen Shipyards, Mangalia. Apart from this the building of this magnificent ship had also enjoyed an acceptance as a high profile project in Namibia, being the largest ever single investment in the history of marine diamond recovery.”

Continuing in the same vein, he said, “Today marks a significant milestone in the project and for our company, as the vessel starts its journey to Cape Town, where it will be outfitted with the mission equipment. Damen’s dedication in building this high-quality and complex vessel, under very difficult circumstances and to do so with an excellent safety record is acknowledged by all concerned, and the quality of the ship is a testament to the skills of all who had been involved in this project.

Namibia has the richest known marine diamond deposits in the world, with Debmarine Namibia extracting some of the highest quality diamonds available anywhere from water of between 90-150 meters deep off the south west coast of the country. Traditionally, onshore along the coastline of Namibia, diamond mining is done in open-cast mines, however, with the land-based output in Namibia expected to run out in 15 years, offshore mining is on the rise.

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