Exploring the vast network of flooded passageways on Bell Island in Newfoundland
The Bell Island Mines expedition set out to map and explore the vast network of flooded passageways on Bell Island, in Newfoundland, Canada. Diving in challenging conditions and extreme cold, the international team were able to trace some of the fascinating history of this island, exploited for natural resources and to discover many artefacts hinting at a bleak and challenging existence working in these mines.
The Bell Island Mines are an abandoned iron ore mine complex in the community of Wabana on Bell Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Opened for commercial mining in 1896 and eventually occupying an area approximately nine square miles in size – stretching under the seabed in Conception Bay - they were worked until 1966 and now most of the submarine passages are flooded.
The objectives of the project were to explore the mine system to assess the suitability of the mine complex as a future diving destination for the increasing numbers of cave divers worldwide.
The plan was to investigate as much of the many kilometres of sunken mine as practical within the 12-days available. 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 in the main shaft. In addition four ‘jump lines’ were laid in side passages and planned to extend approximately 300 metres East and West of the main shaft. Overall a total of 2km of line was laid in the mine. Many artifacts including mine equipment and graffiti, drawn by the miners using the soot from their carbide lamps, were found. 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. These include gas management, lighting, and navigation.
Additional risks in the mines included thermal stress and poor visibility in some areas caused by silt. The challenges presented were met with careful team selection and the specification of Fourth Element thermal protection for all divers and surface support. To reduce the risks associated with spending long periods exploring in cold water, Fourth Element supplied Xerotherm and Xerotherm Arctic, which proved invaluable to the dive team.
Additionally, Xerotherm base layers were provided to support team members who spent extended period in the cool, damp surface area of the No.2 Mine.
“Fourth Element’s gear continues to impress me with its performance in the most extreme environments.”
Phil Short – fourth element team diver and member of the deep penetration team. Phil spent 16 hrs underwater in the cave in temperatures between 4 and 8 degrees Celsius.
“The Xerotherm Arctic was very impressive. Warm, comfortable, low volume and resistant to compression. I look forward to diving it for many years”
Dr David Sawatzky, Project Physcian and Surveyor
David is a Diving Medical Specialist. He has completed over 500 cave dives and most of these dives were original exploration and surveying dives and is on the Board of Advisors for the International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers (IANTD).
During the expedition Joe Steffen, a hugely experienced technical diver, tragically lost his life. He will be greatly missed by his family and friends. A plaque dedicated to his memory was placed on one of the Bell Island Wrecks by members of the team, who remember his unstinting enthusiasm and dedication to exploring new places.