Bruce Cleaver.   Picture: SUPPLIED
Bruce Cleaver. Picture: SUPPLIED

De Beers and the Namibian government have a new $157m ship dedicated to finding the best sources of diamonds in the sea to keep output steady at around 1.2-million carats a year.

The 113m-long, 12,000-tonne ship, the SS Nujoma, will ply the sea off southern Namibia, exploring the seabed about 140m deep for diamonds, accurately sampling and recording where diamonds are to be found so that five other ships in the equally held Debmarine Namibia joint venture can precisely mine for diamonds.

De Beers CEO Bruce Cleaver said the technology on the ship, which is essentially a floating mining operation, allowed the rate of sampling to double to between 70 and 80 samples a day, making it a far faster and more efficient process.

Namibian mines minister Obeth Kandjoze said the Nujoma represented the "largest ever" investment in underwater diamond mining.

De Beers had done work extracting diamonds off SA’s west coast up to 2008, but the grade was lower than that of the seabed off Namibia and there were no immediate plans to send the diamond mining fleet south any time soon, he said.

"I wouldn’t preclude it, but for now it’s more about making it work properly in Namibia," he said.

The lease on the 6,000 square kilometre offshore site expires in 2035, but the partners believed mining would go on long past that date, Cleaver said.

"We have sufficient confidence based on the geology and sampling that with the current mining fleet we can do 1.2-million carats a year for the duration of the mining licence," he said.

The higher-grade portions of the deposits had been targeted since the joint venture was set up in 2002, and the Nujoma, with its crew of 80 people, would allow for a more targeted mining process.

"As the grade gets lower we have to mine more. To mine more, you have to sample better and mine faster. We’ve done massive improvements in the mining vessels, and now with this vessel we will be able to maintain the mining rate where it is, maybe increasing it a little bit, but not materially," Cleaver said.

"There is potential one day for more mining vessels and there’s enough technology for that. We would certainly think about that in the future."

The diamonds on the seabed are the ones that survived the long journey from somewhere in central SA, washed down the ancient river that is now the Orange River. The quality of these diamonds makes them some of the world’s most valuable stones.

Diamonds are important in the Namibian economy, with annual diamond sales in the partnership generating N$10bn a year and accounting for 20% of the country’s foreign earnings.

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