Two Hours Before the Mast

See here for previous dispatches from South Africa.

PORT NOLLOTH, R.S.A. — The real world is a rough place. After several days wandering South Africa like medieval goliards, straining to opine wittily on what we see, many in my troupe of bloggers look weary, in desperate need of sleep, an unhurried cup of tea, a nice book, and reliable access to 110-220V power. The last of these is most important, since many of us live by our cameras, laptops, and digital recorders. My camera-phone just died, so my power needs have pruned themselves helpfully to just a laptop. But for others, the need for a socket is an unquenchable addiction, and their nerves have been frayed visibly by the spotty access to the Web and to outlets on this tour. At the restaurant where we stopped for lunch recently, half a dozen bloggers descended on a single power strip. Each plugged in, and profound relief and tranquillity washed over the dining area, as if our starter course were not springbok carpaccio but a long collective drag off an opium pipe.

But today is not a day of relaxation. We’ve risen early and swapped our blogger pajamas for neoprene thermal suits and life jackets — safety requirements in case we fall out of the Sikorsky helicopter that is scheduled to take us from Port Nolloth to the Peace in Africa, queen of the de Beers diamond cartel’s navy. In addition the kimberlitic pipes from which de Beers mines underground diamonds, the alluvial fan of the Orange River has been a site of diamond exploitation for about a century. And in the last few decades, de Beers has figured that many diamonds are probably out at sea near the mouth of the Orange. The Peace in Africa sucks mud off the ocean floor, and inside, under strict security, a crew of grizzled miners-of-the-sea runs a whole ocean-going diamond-mine in the ship’s belly.

At the Port Nolloth helipad, we’re advised to expect a carefully monitored, sometimes inhospitable environment, followed by careful bodily searches on return from the ship. We will have to wear special clothing to cope with the wet steel and generally harsh conditions of sea life. We will eat lunch in the miners’ mess, and should expect conditions markedly sparer than the fine hotels we’ve enjoyed so far. “Do the ladies get a free diamond?” asked one bloggeuse, only half joking, as the helicopter powered up. The de Beers handler, Tom Tweedy, had heard that one before. “If you don’t pay for it,” he smiled, “it’s not worth as much.”

Fifteen minutes later, we landed on the ship, ducked under the still-turning chopper blades, and filed an orientation room. The ship, we learned, is ten miles offshore and moves just a few meters in a typical day. During daylight, it sends down a sort of benthic bulldozer to cut five meters down into the seabed. A big tube sucks the churned-up water and earth at a rate of 400 tons per hour, and any object over 19mm gets tossed overboard summarily, including very large diamonds. Diamonds that size are so unlikely, says the ship’s metallurgist, Ezizly Steyn, that it isn’t even worth looking for them. She says fish get drawn into the works, too, but only rarely, since most fish are too spooked by the underwater carnage to want to get close.

According to de Beers, which has been accused of exaggerating the scarcity of diamonds, the ship produces just a handful per day — about 570 carats, which fits comfortably in one of my own mid-size paws. Which isn’t to say that I was allowed to handle the stones themselves. The most remarkable feature of the vessel is its security; the mining operation is really not much more than a suck-and-filter system, with radiography at the end to find separate shiny stones from dull ones. No person ever sees or handles a diamond. All the work is done, as it were, virtually, often with computers and closed-circuit videos. There’s always a layer of steel between a human and a precious stone. In the end of the process, the diamonds go in steel cans, which even when they leave the ship by helicopter are still roughly half full of worthless shiny objects (mostly quartzite, calcite, and shell pieces) that the machines can’t distinguish from real diamonds.

We bloggers hadn’t been so far away from our computers for days. Some swooned, and the rest popped Dramamine. Was it the pain of separation, or the six-inch swells? Before we descended into the ship’s bowels to meet the crew, we all donned special boots (“OIL AND PETROL RESISTANTANTISTATIC,” they said on the soles) and earplugs.

Steyn, the 27-year-old metallurgist, acted as a sort of spokesman for the crew. She said she loved her work. Being aboard an industrial ship with two other women and 57 men didn’t cramp her style at all, she said, and she was still “enjoying the single life” onshore. She wore a hot-pink hard-hat, in case her strawberry blonde locks didn’t differentiate her enough from the rest of the crew. “She’s Ripley!” said one blogger.

But even the others had style. When we clomped in our boots into one of the operations centers — a roomy command post filled with a wall of computer screens and an HP printer the size of a tanning bed — we saw a man with a nicely cropped goatee, designer glasses, and an earring leaning back in a plush chair and manipulating the undersea bulldozer. A joystick attached to his chair, and he could lean back and click away, in all the comfort you’d expect if he were playing Starcraft in a South Korean cybercafe.

I asked what they did for leisure, and kicking up his feet (he wore orange Crocs, the sandals of choice on most parts of the ship), the operator said the ship had a nice library, a tea room, and satellite television. The Peace in Africa was actually quite a pleasant place. Plus, he said, “We work two hours at a time, because it’s very difficult to be looking at a screen all that time.” Half a dozen bloggers nodded in agreement.