Diving Bell Island Mine
In 2006, while visiting Canada’s newest and easternmost province to dive on four excellent WWII wrecks, I was asked if I had any interest in leading a small expedition to check out the flooded Bell Island Iron-ore Mine in order to help determine if it had the potential to become an adventure dive destination.
In January/February of the following year, that expedition laid around two kilometers of line, discovered countless artifacts and items of interest. We also lost a valued team member during the exploration. Despite Joe Steffen’s untimely death, our final report recommended the opening of portions of the mine to qualified divers.
Unfortunately, during the intervening years, Bell Island Iron-ore Mine has not been added to the list of North America’s ‘must-visit’ dive sites. The exceptional, matchless cultural and historic story it has to tell its visitors in face-to-face meetings, is left untold.
However, after three days of diving in the mine filming for a TV show this past week, I have to say: I hope that changes soon.
The mine is a fantastic heritage resource. It gives us vivid insight into an important part of Newfoundland’s history and the daily lives of Bell Island’s working people. It also connects the region to what remains perhaps the most iconic conflict of the 20th Century.
Uniquely, Bell Island Mine focuses several major tourist attractions: firstly, the current mine museum and underground displays, the four ore carriers resting on the ocean floor a few hundred metres from shore, and of course the surrounding scenery: truly all remarkable experiences. Secondly, the portion of the mine workings now underwater have a very special appeal. The mine is filled with artifacts – machinery, tools, even the graffiti left my miners – and it fills its visitors, who still number less than 20, with a sense of wonder.
As a viable tourism product, certainly the potential buyers of structured and regulated physical access to the flooded Bell Island Mine are limited. Diving in an overhead environment (cavern, cave and mine diving), represents only a small percentage of the total scuba-diving market. But it is an influential population. Clearly, divers trained and equipped to dive in the Bell Island Mine will never flock to the area by the truckload. However, what the flooded mine on Bell Island has to offer, should be made available to those who wish to visit. The quality of the cultural and historic experience are simply too great not to be shared.
What follows is the text of an original article I wrote several years ago for TDI’s eNewsletter. Actually, the brief for the article was “The Benefits of International Dive Travel” but I used it as an excuse to promote diving in Newfoundland, the value of diving the Bell Island Iron-ore Mine, and the wrecks of four merchant ships sunk while loading with iron ore during WWII.
OK, before drilling into a few of the real benefits and surprises waiting for us when we decide on International Dive Travel, and certainly one of the most interesting associations with “foreign lands” in my diving career, we need to walk through a very quick geography lesson, followed by an equally brief history lesson!
Newfoundland is a big island off the east coast of North America. In fact, it is the most easterly point in the whole of North America and Signal Hill outside of Newfoundland’s capital St. John’s is where Marconi set-up his apparatus to receive the first radio signal sent skipping across the Atlantic from Cornwall, England in 1901. Like most of that part of the world, Newfoundland is rich in Celtic culture thanks to the influence of its early Irish-Ulster-Scot settlers, and the locals still sound more Irish than American. The waters surrounding the island are chilly (think icebergs drifting down from nearby Greenland… even in June!), are filled with the most amazing marine life — including many species of whale – and are home to four of my favorite shipwrecks anywhere in the world. We’ll get to those in a few moments.
When the Second World War erupted in Europe, Newfoundland — which today is a Canadian province — was part of Great Britain. Hence, when that country’s Prime Minister declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939, Newfoundland was automatically part of the Allied headcount. Canada followed close behind them, but it was not until a very closely fought referendum ten years later in 1949, that Newfoundland joined the Canadian Federation to become one of its ten provinces.
So, what about those four favored shipwrecks?
Just outside of the city of St. John’s, in the middle of Conception Bay, sits a small blob of land called Bell Island. During the years leading to the beginning of WWII. Bell Island had a very productive mine that exported iron ore to steel mills in several countries, including Germany. At the outbreak of war, steel mills, a little to the south of Newfoundland in Nova Scotia, accounted for about a third of Canada’s steel production vital to the British war effort. With shipments from the Bell Island Mine to German factories cut off because of the war, it was inevitable at some point that the Germans would attempt to interrupt production and throw a “spanner in the works” for the flow of steel to Great Britain. And interrupt they did.
On the night of September 4th, 1942, a German U-Boat sneaked into the anchorage at Wabana, Bell Island where ships loaded ore to be carried away to various “customers”. The next morning and within sight of the guns of the Bell Island Battery, the U-Boat sank two ore carriers moored at the loading docks: SS Saganaga and SS Lord Strathcona. Twenty-nine men were killed in the attack, all of the victims were seamen aboard the Saganaga.
The Battle of the Atlantic had suddenly come to within a few hundred metres of North America’s shoreline.
The strategic importance of the mines on Bell Island did not diminish of course, and just a couple of months after the first attack, a second U-Boat crept into Wabana and found several ore carriers at anchor.
The U-boat captain fired a torpedo at the 3000-ton Anna T. It missed and exploded ashore ripping into part of the loading dock and disturbing the sleep of many inhabitants on the island. In the next several minutes, two more torpedoes were fired at SS Rose Castle. Rose Castle sank, taking twenty-eight of her crew with her, five of whom were native Newfoundlanders. The Free French vessel PLM 27 was the second target. She sank almost as soon as a torpedo hit, taking twelve men to the bottom of the bay with her.
In the space of less than 15 minutes, two ships, several thousand tons of ore and 40 men had been lost. The U-boat escaped even though there were three allied navy escort vessels in the area.
The four Bell Island wrecks sit today at reasonable depths (the PLM 27 the shallowest at around 23 metres / 75 feet, the Rose Castle the deepest at 43 metres / 145 feet), and within a radius of a few minutes boat ride of each other and only a stone’s throw from land.
When I was first invited to dive the Bell Island wrecks, I must admit that Newfoundland seemed as remote to me as the dark side of the moon. Newfoundland was, at least in my ignorance, nothing but folk singers, remote fishing communities, moose, and wild, wild countryside battered by strong winds and salt spray off the North Atlantic. Through a number of visits over the following few years, I discovered that it was all of this and so much more.
The wrecks were one of the first surprises. Four shipwrecks each more interesting and more crammed with history than the last. After the first handful of dives, I christened the area Truk Lagoon North. Perhaps using a little poetic license but the things that seemed common to both areas were history, the awe inspiring evidence of the destructive power of torpedoes, the sadness of the lives lost, and the contrasting beauty of the creatures that had made the wrecks their home. Like many divers, I have a fascination with WWII casualties and the story all wrecks have to tell those with time enough to listen. Like the Japanese fleet in Truk, The Bell Island wrecks are master story-tellers.
One of the best pieces of luck I had on my first visit to Newfoundland and Bell Island was meeting Rick Stanley. Rick is a proud local who owns and operates Ocean Quest Resort, which was home-base for our group during our visits. Rick is a strong advocate for all things relating to Tourism for Newfoundland, and almost single-handedly has promoted responsible diving on the wrecks, as well as campaigning to have them designated as a war grave and a protected site.
During all my visits to the island, he and his staff, seem to go out of their way to make our group welcome and introduce us to local hospitality… including the infamous Screeching-In Ceremony.
Screeching In is when visitors (people from away, is how the locals refer to tourists) are made honorary Newfoundlanders. Space prohibits a blow-by-blow account of a true Screech In ceremony but proceedings include strong rum, eating local delicacies such as cod-tongue, hard-tack (ship’s biscuit) and dried capelin (a small smelt), singing, dancing, and “kissing the cod” which really does involve getting close and personal with a large dead Atlantic Cod (gadus morhua). Having survived being “Screeched In” during several trips, I can honestly say, it is one of the most bizarre and funniest things I’ve done during the course of several dozen dive trips.
Partway through my third trip to dive the Bell Island Wrecks, Rick Stanley asked me if I would be interested in putting together a group of divers “Capable of exploring the Bell Island Mine.” Of course I said yes.
The mines were abandoned when it was no longer economically viable to operate them; but the closure was oddly abrupt.
The mines on Bell Island opened for commercial mining in late 19th century and were once the world’s largest submarine iron ore mine with passages occupying an area under the seabed of Conception Bay roughly five kilometers by five kilometers or approximately nine square miles in size.
The mine that Rick was interested in having surveyed and accessed — and that was the project’s main aim — had been closed since Christmas 1949. The story goes that the workers downed tools for the holiday and were never allowed back into the workings.
Rick and the Bell Island Historical Society were curious to have a team of divers explore the mine system — or as much of it as practical in the 12 days available — and look for evidence of cave-in, collapse, artifacts and other things that might interest a different type of visitor than the ones currently coming to the mine museum sitting at the old entrance to Mine Shaft Two.
The questions they wanted answers to where simple: can it be dived? Is it interesting enough to attract divers? Are conditions supportable for regular visitors? There were some side issues that needed to be addressed, but the hope was to open up a unique form of adventure tourism for the island and its economy.
With a background in Tourism Marketing, I was certainly curious enough to take Rick up on his offer, and set about building a team that would be able to pull things off. After a simple exploratory dive in July of 2006, we set a target date for the following January/February, and started planning.
Our goal was to investigate as much of the inundated mine as practical within the short time available. We knew the water would be cold, and because of the surface support needed, we also knew that our efforts would have to be focused on a time when normal tourist activity would not interfere; and that meant winter which also would be cold.
I was lucky to find the perfect group of men and women who were not daunted by the challenges that the season, the logistics, and the challenging dive site would present to us.
Newfoundland in the heart of winter is an interesting study. Stuck as it is with both feet in the Northern Atlantic, and its face weather-beaten by winds coming off the glaciers of Greenland or Labrador, it is not for the faint-hearted. Several of the team where Brits whose experience with a real Canadian winter had been limited to movies and books. They got to experience a true winter storm on arrival, and several of us had plane delays getting into St John’s airport. My plane was almost on the runway but the pilot aborted and we headed back to Halifax International with our tail between our legs and our hearts in our mouths.
But eventually, all 16 of us were together in the lounge at Ocean Quest Resort, sorting gear, knotting line, and pumping gas.
During the following two weeks, the team surveyed the mine looking for any evidence of cave-in or collapse in the mine shaft and laid permanent guidelines from the surface along the main shaft to a depth of approximately 50 metres. The seam of iron ore slopped at an angle of approximately ten degrees and continued many thousands of metres under the overlay of ocean floor below Conception Bay. In addition to the main line, four ‘jump lines’ were laid in side passages. The initial plan was to extend these side passages (roughly horizontal) approximately 300 metres east and west of the main shaft. Overall a total of 2km of line was laid in the mine.
The search for artifacts left behind when the mine was abandoned turned up mine equipment, personal effects such as lunch boxes, and we discovered graffiti, drawn by the miners using the soot from their carbide lamps. The system was mapped sufficiently to enable the conclusion that the mine would make a challenging diving destination for cave divers to explore.
Every overhead environment presents divers with a number of challenges well beyond the scope of recreational diving. As well as the obvious threats to the team’s well-being — gas management, navigation, light, depth and the cold — the health of one of our team played a role. On Sunday, February 4, Joe Steffen, well-known in the diving communities in both the Great Lakes and North Florida, suffered a massive embolism and died. Joe perished in a few metres of water just a couple of minutes from the surface operations. Ironically “Iron Man” had an undiagnosed problem with his lungs which did not show up during a medical he’d had before joining the team from his home in Ohio, and attempts to revive him at the dive site and the medical facility adjacent to the mine were unsuccessful.
We lost a great buddy, and Joe — a career police office — left behind a wife a young son, and a daughter, as well as many, many friends.
In consultations with the various sponsors — which included TDI, Fourth Element, Whites, the NACD, and Ocean Quest — as well as local authorities, the exploration of the Bell Island Mine continued and its success was dedicated to Joe’s memory.
The following year (2008), Joe’s widow, Jennifer, visited Bell Island for a memorial service which included two of the team (Mike Fowler and Steve Lewis) placing a memorial plaque and an urn containing Joe’s ashes in the main shaft of Bell Island Mine No. 2.
Tourists continue to visit the Mine and divers enjoy the four wrecks that sit above its vast network of passages, but underwater operations at the mine await further work.
The team consisted of: Rick Stanley, Debbie Stanley, David Sawatsky (diver and map-maker), Phil Short (diver, deep explorer), Ralph Hoskins (diver and record keeper), Vlada Dekina (diver and expedition photographer), Dave Clemmens, David Powell, Mark McGowan (dive safety officer), Stephen Phillips (diver), Aaron Bruce (diver), Mike Fowler (diver), Joe Steffen (diver), Steve Moore, Susan Copp, Steve Lewis (diver and expedition leader).