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LABRADOR

Diving the unexplored waters of Battle Harbour

In July 2008, the first fourth element expedition team travelled to Battle Harbour in Labrador, Canada.

No one had ever dived there outside the small natural harbour yet this place was the centre of the commercial cod fisheries of Labrador in the 18th and 19th Centuries and its waters hold many undiscovered secrets.


Diving Battle Harbour

The Year is 1942, Canada’s direct involvement in World War II has intensified with the Battle of the Gulf of St Lawrence. German submarines are operating with seeming impunity, advancing towards Quebec City. Iron-ore supply ships are being sunk in Conception Bay, Newfoundland from daring U boat raids. Newfoundland, still a British Colony, is under attack.

Further North in Labrador, a Catalina float plane, Z2140, lands and taxies at Battle Harbour, a small remote fishing community since the late 1700s, separated from the mainland by 12 miles of open sea in the summer and 12 miles of solid ice in the winter.

The plane, belonging to the Canadian military was employed in anti submarine duties, patrolling the waters for U Boats, and on September 5th 1942, it was also carrying civilians from the Department of Transport with 6,000 dollars in cash.

Want to dive this location?

Ocean Quest and Oxygene Newfoundland: Ocean Quest Adventures
VIPI lodge Nova Scotia: www.vipilodge.com
Battle Harbour: www.battleharbour.com
Expedition Labrador 2010: www.scubatravel.com

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Trip Report

The Year is 1942, Canada’s direct involvement in World War II has intensified with the Battle of the Gulf of St Lawrence. German submarines are operating with seeming impunity, advancing towards Quebec City. Iron-ore supply ships are being sunk in Conception Bay, Newfoundland from daring U boat raids. Newfoundland, still a British Colony, is under attack.

Further North in Labrador, a Catalina float plane, Z2140, lands and taxies at Battle Harbour, a small remote fishing community since the late 1700s, separated from the mainland by 12 miles of open sea in the summer and 12 miles of solid ice in the winter.

The plane, belonging to the Canadian military was employed in anti submarine duties, patrolling the waters for U Boats, and on September 5th 1942, it was also carrying civilians from the Department of Transport with 6,000 dollars in cash.

As the plane taxied in the “tickle”, the name given to small passages of water between islands in these areas, one of the depth charges exploded on the wing, and the float plane began to sink. Local villagers came out in small boats to rescue the crew and passengers and most were able to get off the plane, before a second explosion sent the Catalina, her captain and co-pilot, and her cargo, to the sea bed. Exactly what happened next is unclear, but a salvage attempt managed only to recover the tail and one of the engines, the rest of the plane remained on the bottom, lost, another of World War II’s many casualties.

Battle Harbour occupies a cherished place in the history of Labrador. From its early inception in the 1770s by a British Mercantile salt fish company, Battle Harbour became the economic and social hub of Labrador. The first hospital in the province was built here, and it was from here that the Arctic explorer Robert Peary wired the New York Times to say, “The pole is ours.” The collapse of the seemingly infinite cod fishery resource in the 1960s led to the resettling of the community or “outport” and Battle Harbour was abandoned beginning a steady decline. However, thanks to a monumental fund raising effort, the outport has been fully restored to its original state and is now a living museum giving testimony to its amazing and chequered history.

It was here we ventured on Expedition Labrador 08, the first Fourth Element Adventure. A team of divers from the UK, Germany, France and Canada, travelled by land and sea from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Battle Harbour, lured by the chance to find one of the wrecks from the Battle of the Gulf of St Lawrence.

Completing the land-based trip over dirt roads, we arrived in Mary’s Harbour, and began to pack our gear, food and compressor into the two RIBs, and left the mainland, heading in the direction of a fog shrouded cluster of islands on the horizon.

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Having launched the RIBs in temperatures of around 25 °C and bright sunshine, we all had to reach for jackets and hats as the temperature fell 10 degrees as we went out to sea and a further 5, as we entered the fog. Approaching our destination, small islands appeared from the white clouds; on the first island, a channel marker, and on the second, three houses on stilts. Almost immediately we entered the narrow channel that constituted Battle Harbour and more buildings materialised from the mist. It was as if we had travelled back in time.

Arriving at the wharf we were greeted by the employees and residents of the outport, who, with characteristic friendliness and generosity, helped us to unload the mountain of gear, cameras and the compressor, and store it in one of the fishing lofts, which had been allocated to us.

Our accommodation was a fishermen’s bunkhouse, improved only slightly since the resettling of the outport, by the addition of electricity. Otherwise, a wood burner kept the bunkhouse, which once slept up to 20 fishermen, warm. Pretty soon, with undersuits hanging up to dry, the place took on an appearance (and smell) more akin to the harder times in Battle Harbour’s history. As a breathtaking sunset set the clouds of fog aflame, exhausted and excited we listened to stories about the plane and other wrecks before sleep beckoned.

The first dive of the following day was to be an exploratory one on Wolf Rocks to search for signs of a shipwreck reported by local fishermen. Splashing in, my first reaction was that of shock. We had been preparing in temperatures of 1C in Newfoundland, but here my computer read -2 and it felt very different on the face and lips. As the initial shock wore off, the crystal clear visibility became more apparent. We could see for perhaps 40 metres in all directions, our vision untrammelled except for the vast numbers of comb jellies, electric light displays pulsing across their soft bodies. The sea floor at first seemed almost barren, populated only with millions of sea urchins, but on closer inspection, brightly coloured sea stars, anemones and nudibranchs shared their space with more drab crabs and territorial Sculpins, spiny finned fish who seemed determined to repel all invaders. Such life was sparse, but the knowledge that this underwater landscape had never been viewed by any scuba diver before us lent a thrill which no coral reef ever could.

My buddy for most of the dives was Colin Fairhurst, a diveshop owner and instructor from Penryn, Cornwall and his was the first find – an iron bar, topped with a spherical stone. Unsure what it was, we tried to wrest it from where it had fused to the rock, but to no avail. A search of the surrounding gullies yielded nothing else and after 40 minutes we returned to the surface, to find out what the other groups had found.

Diving in cold water brings its challenges, and some of the other divers teams had had to abort their dives due to regulator free flows, so we had not made an auspicious start. Back at the wharf, our conversations turned to the plane again, and after poring over the chart, a reconnaissance dive was planned for the general area to get an idea of the conditions in which we would be searching. Rick and Debbie Stanley, owners of Ocean Quest in Newfoundland were the buddy pair allocated to do this dive, and although they found no wreck, they returned to the surface excited by an encounter with a humpback whale. We crowded around Rick’s video camera for a look at the footage – briefly, wrecks were forgotten.

After lunch, we headed out to the Eastern Tickle in two RIBs. Colin and I, and Richard Marsden and Bob Spencer were assigned the area between Gunning Island and Red Island, and the two buddy pairs were dropped in about 40m apart with the instructions “If you find something – send up a bag and tie off.” The conditions were choppy, but as soon as we got below about 5 metres, it was calm and the incredible visibility gave us a good view of the sea bed and just at the edge of our vision, the other buddy pair. Within five minutes we saw something unusual and began to swim towards it. Slowly it resolved into a discernable shape – a propeller. It was the remaining engine and prop from the Catalina. Suddenly, I could no longer feel the numbness setting in in my lips and face, the sub zero temperatures were forgotten as we investigated the remains of the supercharger, filters and pistons that littered the floor. A long eel shaped fish appeared from the tangle of braided hose and metal to discover who called to disturb his home, untouched since 1942. I sent up my SMB and attached my reel to the engine, before signalling excitedly to Rick and Bob, and continuing the search.

The steep sides of the glacier-scoured underwater amphitheatre revealed other fragments of the wreck, aluminium plates, pipes, a battery and a magazine of bullets, but nothing else of any significant size. In what seemed like a heartbeat, we were out of bottom time.

Back on the RIBs we were all elated, adrenaline surging through us. Having identified the area, we then swept it using the echosounders on the two RIBs to try and find the rest of the wreck in nearby waters. Eventually, we found a spot that looked promising, the echotrace looked as if it could be the fuselage of the plane. We marked it and headed ashore to plan and prepare over dinner. It was heady stuff.

A beautiful dawn predicted a spectacular day. The previous day’s fog was nowhere to be seen, instead being replaced by swarms of hungry mosquitoes. As I walked around the breathtakingly beautiful outport, intermittently swatting at myself and the air, I was not sure that I didn’t prefer the fog. When, for about 20 minutes, I was distracted and transfixed by a humpback in the Eastern Tickle, roughly where we were about to go diving, I must have lost about half a pint of blood. An entire day dressed in my drysuit looked like a good escape.

After breakfast, donning our suits and gear, we headed out to the site expectantly. But as soon as we hit the water we could see the bottom at 30m, and it was clear that there was no wreck – just a gully ridden sea bed. Suspecting that we may not have gone in at the correct point, we searched the area in the direction of Red Island, sweeping from one side of the gully to the other until, running low on air we were forced to abandon our search. The other groups had similar bad luck and, with our tails between our legs, we returned to Battle Harbour.

Conducting a lengthy search with the echosounder, making comparisons with the charts, we identified a couple of other possibilities for the position of the wreck, along with a third position identified by one of the locals having seen grey “ribs” from the surface. So, with one chance left to do a deeper dive, we split up. Ingo Vollmer, owner of VIPI Lodge Dive Center in Nova Scotia and his RIB set off to explore the area around the propeller, Richard and Bob went to check out the grey ribs, Luc, our itinerant Frenchman searched close to one of the islands, and Colin and I headed towards the Northern end of the Tickle. Here we were greeted only by some folded aluminium sheets and other flotsam and jetsam. Old shoes, a teddy bear and even a dog’s skeleton, eerily adorned with two urchins in its eye sockets added to a landscape punctuated with other detritus left by a society that considered the sea to be its dustbin.

Bitter disappointment was soon replaced with a sense of purpose as Colin set off in the direction of our secondary objective – a valuable anchor lost from a ship many years previously. Just about able to keep up with my split fin wearing buddy (note to self – that’s the next bit of kit for the Christmas list), I searched the undulating horizon. Serendipity smiled on us, as we came across a huge anchor – broken into three pieces; but this was not the anchor we were looking for. With fate smiling on us further, we also found the second anchor complete with chain, so feeling as if we had achieved something, we surfaced, signalled the RIB and headed in.

The other teams had turned up pieces of wreckage, but not the fuselage we had hoped for, so we immediately began planning a return to Battle Harbour and consoled ourselves with a dive in the harbour itself. More of a muck dive, we were in search of our own unique mementos, drawn from over two centuries of garbage. Fishermen returning from a successful trip would, upon reaching shore, break the pipe they had been smoking and cast it into the sea – an offering of thanks for safe passage. Fossicking around amongst the debris in the comparatively warm waters of the harbour (a balmy zero degrees) yielded a few of these pipes (of which we kept one each) amongst earthenware pots, cups and cutlery, along with, a little deeper, an old lifeboat and ancient timbers.

With our souvenirs secured, we prepared to return to the mainland the following day. The party that evening was another example of the unique and wonderful nature of Battle Harbour. The entire population of the outport, visitors, workers, the crew of a wooden schooner that had sailed in from Greenland, all gathered in a salmon loft for a few beers and to sing a few songs. In a fashion not unlike that of 200 years ago, we made our own entertainment through the telling of stories, jokes and the singing of shanties. It was with a heavy heart, and sore head, that we left for the mainland the next day.

The adventures continued throughout the expedition with dives on uncharted sites in the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, descending down the side of a free floating iceberg and exploring the famous World War II shipwrecks of Bell Island in Conception Bay, which coincidentally were sunk by U boats on the same date as the Catalina was lost in Labrador. Another highlight was snorkelling in open ocean with one of the world’s most gentle giants, a humpback whale.

This was no ordinary dive trip.

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