SI Vault
Coles Phinizy
July 06, 1970
Aragonite worth billions is being mined in the Bahamas. Sometimes on a clear day you can't see the bottom
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July 06, 1970

Dredging Money From The Bank

Aragonite worth billions is being mined in the Bahamas. Sometimes on a clear day you can't see the bottom

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Across the inky-blue Gulf Stream from Florida, near the sheer edge of the Great Bahama Bank, a new island is emerging from the sea. Although it bears the appealing name Ocean Cay, this new island is not, and never will be, a palm-fringed paradise of the sort the Bahamian government promotes in travel ads. No brace of love doves would ever choose Ocean Cay for a honeymoon; no beauty in a brief bikini would waste her sweetness on such desert air.

Of all the 3,000 islands and islets and cays in the Bahamas, Ocean Cay is the least lovely. It is a flat, roughly rectangular island which, when completed, will be 200 acres and will resemble a barren swatch of the Sahara. Ocean Cay does not need allure. It is being dredged up from the seabed by the Dillingham Corporation of Hawaii for an explicit purpose that will surely repel more tourists than it will attract. In simplest terms, Ocean Cay is a big sandpile on which the Dillingham Corporation will pile more sand that it will subsequently sell on the U.S. mainland.

The sand that Dillingham is dredging is a specific form of calcium carbonate called aragonite, which is used primarily in the manufacture of cement and as a soil neutralizer. For the past 5,000 years or so, with the flood of the tide, waters from the deep have moved over the Bahamian shallows, usually warming them in the process so that some of the calcium carbonate in solution precipitated out. As a consequence, today along edges of the Great Bahama Bank there are broad drifts, long bars and curving barchans of pure aragonite.

Limestone, the prime source of calcium carbonate, must be quarried, crushed and recrushed, and in some instances refined before it can be utilized. By contrast, the aragonite of the Bahamian shallows is loose and shifty stuff, easily sucked up by a hydraulic dredge from a depth of one or two fathoms. The largest granules in the Bahamian drifts are little more than a millimeter in diameter. Because of its fineness and purity, the Bahamian aragonite can be used, agriculturally or industrially, without much fuss and bother.

It is a unique endowment. There are similar aragonite drifts scattered here and there in the warm shallows of the world, but nowhere as abundantly as in the Bahamas. In exchange for royalties, the Dillingham Corporation has exclusive rights in four Bahamian areas totaling 8,235 square miles. In these areas there are about four billion cubic yards—roughly 7.5 billion long tons—of aragonite. At rock-bottom price the whole deposit is worth more than $15 billion. An experienced dredging company like Dillingham should be able to suck up 10 million tons a year, which will net the Bahamian government an annual royalty of about $600,000.

On the basis of such big, round figures, the mining of aragonite seems to be a bonanza operation. In reality it is still a doubtful venture for both Dillingham and the Bahamas. For Dillingham the big question is whether the aragonite can be hauled to market cheaply enough to compete with other suppliers. For the Bahamas the question is more provocative: What effect will the dredging have on tourism, the major industry of the islands? Two years ago the Bahamian government made a study of the tourist trade and found that out of a gross business of $193 million, about $52 million in wages and profits ended up in Bahamian hands. The bright beaches and clean waters, the deep reefs and shallow coral gardens, the game fish of the fiats and the bigger game fish of the open sea—these are the basic assets of tourism that are apt to be diminished by a dredging operation.

Dredging is inherently a dirty business. Worthy servant though it is, a hydraulic dredge simply does not fit into the natural scheme. The spume created by the cutter of a dredge's maw and the cloudy water from its discharge pipe are usually more than God's little marine creatures can tolerate for long. The Bahamian government does not say much about the aragonite operation, and the Dillingham Corporation says almost nothing. In this day when all sorts of strident anti-pollutionists are at the palace gates, reticence on the part of anyone who is roiling the beautiful Bahamian waters is understandable—understandable but also deplorable and, in the long run, stupid. It is human nature to suspect big operators, particularly the big, quiet ones who—true or not—seem to be making money hand over fist. By their reticence the Dillingham people are inviting distrust and as a consequence will probably be charged with crimes they have not committed.

A mile or two west of the Dillingham Corporation's artificial island, Ocean Cay, charter boats run the edge of the Gulf Stream in quest of billfish and tuna. Often, on the ebb tide, cloudy water driven by prevailing easterly winds moves from the Great Bahama Bank over the deep. This cloudiness is sometimes caused by long swells born of distant storms and sometimes by stiff local winds that kick up a fuss in the shallows. When the Dillingham operation gets going full blast, it will certainly add to the natural siltiness. In the future the cloudy water that fishermen encounter may be the work of a Dillingham dredge or it may be an act of God—or a combination of the two. It will not matter which. Since fishermen are human, innately suspicious and easily disgruntled, they will be inclined to blame all the dirty water on Dillingham.

One of the Dillingham mining concessions completely surrounds the Joulters Cays, a bonefishing area of proven worth. In the future, when the water is cloudy and the bonefish do not respond to the lure as they did of yore, the unlucky anglers will not take God to task; they will curse Dillingham.

Northwest of Ocean Cay there is a deep and little-known reef that stretches intermittently for eight miles along a submerged terrace—a rich and spectacular range. There are narrow canyons and caves in this drowned scarp, and a profusion of fish large and small. From the way the living corals spread over the buttresses of ancient rock it is obvious that the existence of the deep reef depends on a prevalence of clean water from the Gulf Stream. In the future if the water is often cloudy and the life of the reef seems to be wasting away, the scuba divers probably will blame Dillingham.

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