Lerato Tsaoane sails the coast of Namibia and into the Atlantic Ocean in search of diamonds

Published: 08/05/2015


Anglo American, 02 OCT 2014

Meet Lerato Tsaoane, an inspiring woman, who manages a mining vessel and a crew of 106 people, sailing off the coast of Namibia and into the Atlantic Ocean in search of diamonds.

For millions of years, the Orange River has been carrying diamonds from the centre of South Africa to the Atlantic coastline. Now these diamond deposits are scattered across the ocean floor and it is up to De Beers’ marine mining division, Debmarine Namibia to pick up this precious cargo.

We chatted to Lerato Tsaoane, vessel manager on the Coral Sea – a sampling vessel utilised to provide sampling services to De Beers Marine Namibia. Find out more about her journey, and what it takes to navigate the seas of marine diamond mining.


Running the day-to-day operations of a ship is no easy task. “As vessel manager, my job is to manage the sampling process after the mineral resource team have given an indication of possible deposits based on exploration results. The Coral Sea not only gives an indication of the deposit but also mining methods requirements. These mining methods are indicated by the geological make-up of the area sampled. Details and accuracy of information are therefore crucial,” says Lerato.

“On a day-to-day basis, I need to consider all traditional management activities like planning, controlling, directing and organising. This involves sitting down with a team of experts to determine the way to achieve required deliverables,” says Lerato.

In the marine world, mining is a different kettle of fish, so to speak. There are so many different factors to consider, especially when it comes to environmental and safety concerns. “We need to comply with many different rules and regulations as we face different natural forces from traditional mining operations. On a ship we need to know how to deal with potential pirate attacks, sinking, rough weather, undersea exploration, and a number of other things. We constantly run drills to stay on our toes,” she says.


Lerato feels that being a woman has both challenges and benefits. “The biggest challenge is coming into a field filled with men so you have to really prove your capabilities. The good thing is that as a woman, I have been blessed with the quality of dealing with people. I feel we have a softer touch while at the same time remain quite assertive. This really helps when managing a crew of 106 people,” she says.

Now Lerato is living her dream, and to top it all off, she recently got married too. But she will always remain a true woman of the sea and a people person at heart. “I love it out at sea. I find it so refreshing, and as a manager, I love to be with my people, maintaining that face-to-face contact that is so important. We’re like family.”

One of her passions is developing her young protégés and watching them rise through the ranks – to see them educated, graduated, and developing as people.

Lerato likes to motivate her young colleagues through her own story. “Youngsters these days want things to come easy, but they need to put in the time and effort. I didn’t have it easy. I fought. I wanted this job so I made sure that I was going to have it. It meant working harder than anyone else and constantly looking for opportunities to better myself. If you want something you don’t just expect someone to give it you. You need to go out and get it for yourself!”

When Lerato was a student completing her final year in chemical engineering at the University of Cape Town, she heard that De Beers Marine was looking for students to help with research and development. This was not an opportunity she could pass up.

“I applied and it wasn’t long before De Beers came back with fantastic news… I got the job,” she says. “After I finished my studies, I applied for a permanent job as a process engineer and the rest is history. Now I’ve been working for De Beers for 11 years. I will always remember the day I first became a vessel manager in 2011. A whole ship under my control, my life would never be the same.”


The vessels of De Beers Marine and Debmarine Namibia run on 28-day cycles. As they have to be constantly out at sea, there are always two crews dedicated to each vessel, who work 28 days on and 28 days off. Every three years the vessels are docked in Cape Town for statutory maintenance, which keeps the operation shipshape.

In Debmarine Namibia, there are two types of vessels, one for exploration/sampling, which Lerato manages, and one for the actual mining, which is significantly bigger. The fleet of five specialised marine mining vessels are nothing less than full-forced mining operations out at sea as they mine diamonds from the seafloor at depths of 90 to 140 meters.

To detect diamond deposits, specialist teams of geologists track the movement of the ground in conjunction with the ocean currents. More often than not, this theory proves fruitful.

“The geologists determine where the currents should have landed and the theory goes that this is where the diamonds would have fallen. Once this is established, we then send an exploration vessel to grab some samples,” says Lerato. “The thing with diamond mining is that only 2% of what we suck up will actually be diamonds, so we need to be sure about the deposits we mine as it’s an expensive operation.”

At Debmarine Namibia, two different mining methods are used for marine operations. The first is called ‘horizontal marine mining’, which makes use of a remarkable seabed crawler that uses flexible hoses along the ocean floor to bring diamond-bearing gravels to the surface. The second is ‘vertical marine mining’, where a large-diameter drill is used to bring diamond-bearing gravels to the surface. Although vertical marine mining is not able to cover the same surface area, the vertical drill is able to find diamonds at greater depths than the crawler. So each method has its place.

If you want to find out more about how our Peace in Africa vessel (now called MV Mafuta) mines diamonds in the Atlantic Ocean, the Discovery Channel’s Mighty Ships dedicated an entire episode to it.

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