Yesterday afternoon MHA for Conception Bay East – Bell Island, David Brazil rose in the NL House of Assembly to recognize Rick and the Mine Quest expedition as a “significant future economic venture for the district”. From 10:20 to 11:30 MHA Brazil thanks Rick for the work he has done to “document and map” the “treasure trove of historic gems” in the the sprawling network of mine shafts beneath Bell Island and prepare it for divers from around the world to come explore.
by Robert Osbourne – Scuba Diver Life
This is a unique expedition. For the first time in 50 years, divers are exploring a flooded mine on Bell Island, Newfoundland. They’re part of Bell Island Mine Quest, and ultimately, they’re doing it for you.
It’s been a complicated mission to begin an archeological survey of the hundreds of miles of abandoned tunnels at Bell Island mine. This mine is so special because when the miners walked out in the mid 1960s, they thought they were going on a Christmas break. They left behind everything — lunch buckets, pipes, equipment, shoes — that they used in the mine. But the mine’s owners had other plans. They permanently closed the mine and turned off the pumps, so the freezing water rose, effectively preserving a snapshot of history. That’s what the divers are here to explore.
It’s hoped that the Bell Island mine can join well-known, similar destinations like Bonne Terre in Missouri, as a dive destination. Consequently, the divers are laying out mainlines to create a couple of permanent circuits for certified cave divers to explore the mine. Mine Quest is also conducting scientific experiments on decompression stress in conjunction with DAN — work that NASA is watching closely.
The Mine Quest divers began making forays into the abandoned tunnels at the beginning of last week, identifying and recording artifacts. They also laid more than 1,300 feet (400 m) of main line and conducted daily tests on the divers. All solid progress, but things haven’t been going so well on the surface. The expedition hit some rough waters outside the mine. As expedition co-leader Jill Heinerth observed, not unexpected, “I learned that you can do a lot of research and planning before an expedition,” she says. “Try and anticipate everything and the one thing that’s guaranteed is change…a lot of unexpected things are going to happen.”
One storm after another has blown through the area. First, half the team was trapped on the island when the ferry shut down. The next day the whole team moved over to the island to avoid such delays, but before the move could be completed, the winds kicked up once again. The ferry shut down and half the expedition’s supplies were stuck on the mainland, including bottles of oxygen vital for the re-breathers. In an act of near desperation, Rick Stanley loaded the gear in his 24-foot RIB, put on a drysuit and headed across the bay with the supplies. “We’re adventurers, this is what feeds us,” he says. “We weren’t going to put our lives in jeopardy.” But his easy dismissal of his actions defies belief —remember, a 170-foot steel ferry had stopped running because of the high waves and winds.
As if that weren’t enough, the mine flooded the same day. The huge storms had dumped massive amounts of snow on the ground, and the next storm brought rain and warm temperatures. All the snow melted and started flowing downhill, into the mine. The water rose, effectively shutting down the staging area where the divers had worked all week, and volunteers came in to move thousands of pounds of equipment to a new area. The dive team had to rework all their plans and adjust their safety lines.
And as if to prove the old saying that bad things happen in threes, a third problem arose — this one more about comfort. There were no open hotels on Bell Island, so Stanley tracked down the owner of a bed & breakfast that operates in the summer and convinced them to open for the expedition. One minor problem — there are 11 beds and 20 people. Stanley took it all in his stride, saying “I love a challenge. I love to fix things. We’re on an island, so you know what, all these challenges are fantastic.”
What’s Next at Bell Island Mine?
Despite the hiccups, the expedition’s work hasn’t slowed down for a moment. Divers are making discoveries on a daily basis, including massive carpets of bacterial colonies that live in absolute darkness, personal possessions left behind by the miners, huge pieces of mining equipment virtually intact and graffiti on the walls — personal messages left behind by miners who’ve long since passed away. Exploring the Bell Island Mine has been a sobering experience according to diver Jill Heinerth, “The mine feels a bit like a church,” she says. “I would want to whisper. I feel the presence of those souls who spent their lives and worked for their families there.”
As for the scientific angle, Dr. Neal Pollock’s decompression experiments have led to new information about the effects of extreme diving in cold water on decompression stress. He’s been looking for a sure indicator of the onset of decompression sickness — that goal may be elusive, but he has made a new discovery about divers using electronic vests to stay warm on long, cold dives. Vests not only keep a diver warm, but also cause “better circulation, delivering inert gas into tissues,” he says. “If the garment fails and the diver gets cold as they surface, they can’t eliminate inert gas. That will increase decompression stress.”
By the end of the week, everyone feels the expedition has been a resounding success. The divers think they’ve wedged open the door of a whole new world. “We have just scratched the surface,” says Heinerth. “We’ve explored a small piece of the mine. We have to come back and do some deeper and longer penetrations into some of the portions of the mine that were worked last.”
And Rick Stanley thinks he’s started to build something very important for the province of Newfoundland. He hopes to have the mine open for certified divers in the summer of 2016.
With files from Philippe Grenier and Krissy Holmes – CBC.ca
Fifty years after its closure, a group of underwater adventure seekers has embarked on an expedition to document and map the sprawling tunnels that make up the Bell Island mines in Conception Bay, Newfoundland — and they’re doing it for free.
The mine shafts run for hundreds of kilometres beneath the ocean floor and span over 16 square kilometres.
For members of the Mine Quest Expedition Team, the tunnels are a treasure trove of historical gems, all of which have been frozen in time.
“It’s a shrine down there, it’s a real museum of the cultural history of Newfoundland,” says cave diver Jill Heinearth.
When work was abruptly stopped in 1949, pumps were shut off and fresh water flooded the subsea caverns, perfectly preserving the space.
The team’s plan to open the mines up to the diving public earned them the coveted title of Expedition of the Year from the Royal Canadian Geographic Society.
“This is a really big deal. Being granted Expedition of the Year, it’s not only exciting [but] it’s an honour and a privilege,” said Heinearth, who’s also the team’s flag bearer, tasked with documenting the hidden geography of the area.
‘Rock star’ divers make road map
The high caliber of talent isn’t lost on Ocean Quest Adventures owner Rick Stanley, who makes a living taking divers from all over the world to shipwrecks and other untouched sites around the province.
‘We set out to do something for the Bell Island community.’ – Steve Lewis, Mine Quest Expedition Team
“These divers are the elite in the world of diving — cinematographers. We got explorers that go deep and beyond, diving in 600 feet of water … the technology is beyond what anybody can imagine,” he said.
The objective, Stanley said, is to build a road map so that inexperienced divers can be taken down into the mines without concern that they will harm themselves or the artifacts around them.
“What these rock stars have gone and done is build a circuit of diving [for future divers],” he said.
“You can’t pay for that stuff. And not only that, but occupational health and safety would probably be all over us like a dog at dinner time if we had to pay somebody.”
While Ocean Quest is largely shouldering the cost of the project, in partnership with the Bell Island Heritage Society, Stanley said he hopes government will step forward with funding as well.
Much like professional athletes, some of the divers have sponsorship deals backing them and they’ve provided extra equipment for the project. The group’s also received donations from local inns and restaurants.
“This island of Bell Island is a destination and, you know what, it’s rising higher out of the ocean all the time. We’ve got a great group of passionate people here,” Stanley said.
‘An adventure tourism destination’
The team of 13 is returning to the mines to finish what was started nearly a decade ago.
In 2007, Steve Lewis led a group that aimed to assess the “condition, safety and feasibility” of the iron ore mine for future research. It then gave the heritage society details on what artifacts remained.
“We set out to do something for the Bell Island community, and that was to give them an adventure tourism destination that they could market to the world,” said Lewis.
At the time of its closure, the island’s mines were the longest continuous running mining project in the country.
With a headlight to guide them, the divers came across broken wheels from runaway carts and signs once used to guide disoriented miners.
“There are lots of artifacts in there. Saws and picks and shovels and lunch boxes and graffiti on the walls — and it tells a story of the men that worked in these mines, and the men that died in these mines,” Lewis said.
One man in particular, Joe Steffen, isn’t far from his mind.
Steffen, a 51-year-old American diver, died from an air embolism during the first expedition in 2007. The team was unable to save him.
This time around, mapping the mines has brought its own share of difficulties.
“[Just] getting to Bell Island sometimes can be a challenge,” laughed Cas Dobbin of St. John’s.
“It’s cold. Visibility at times can be very poor. Navigation inside there, even though it’s a grid, it can be easy to get lost when you’re in there,” he said.
“The team here this week has set up a fantastic system of guidelines for us to help aid divers to go in and out safely and tour the best parts we found so far … I really have to emphasize … this is really just the beginning, we’ve got a lot to do in here, a lot to explore.”
According to Stanley, 106 people lost their lives while the mine was in operation, and “you feel all that” when paddling through.
The next step, he said, will be to properly market the mines.
A team of filmmakers from the Discovery Channel is documenting the group’s expedition for a two-part series — something the team hopes will help with promotion.
“We’re looking at spring [or] summer of 2016, and we’re hoping that we’ll be coming over on the new ferry,” joked Stanley.
“We’re hoping that this is going to be a profitable endeavor, and everybody’s going to be happy at the end of the day.”
by Jill Heinerth – Into The Planet
The Canadian Association for Underwater Science annual Scientific Diving Symposium was hosted in St. John’s Newfoundland this year with perfect timing. Our team put in a good performance. Neal Pollock gave a seminar on Physical Fitness for Scientific Diving. Rick Stanley and Phil Short gave an excellent talk on our project and surprised us will a 3-minute video clip edited by our extremely talented cameraman Cecil Johnson. He stayed up to the wee hours of the morning to prep a fabulous preview of our project. I ended the day with the Keynote talk on Operational Dive Safety. After a meal at Yellow Belly’s in St. John’s and some rousing conversation I had to rush off to the airport to catch an 11:15 pm flight. Freezing rain was on the way and it was advised to try to get out to Halifax instead of awaiting my morning flight. I would not be too worried about flight delays, except I have to get to Chicago to the Our World Underwater Dive Show to host the Friday night Film Festival and give some presentations on our project. No rest for the weary. Sleeping on the airport bench, awaiting my dawn departure from Halifax now, I am officially tired.
by Jill Heinerth – Into the Planet
The world came to Bell Island today or vice versa I suppose. Today we created an amazing global collaboration with the help of TED. TED Ed has over 2000 clubs in 120 countries. During TED’s Connect Week, clubs were asked to write a short essay or send a picture that answers the question, “Why explore?” The best responses were granted coveted camera spots in our pilot virtual classroom experience. As preparation for our online meeting, the participants have been studying the IntoThePlanet.com website and reading the Newfoundland blog as well as watching my recent TED Talk. I gave a short presentation and then we opened the mic for questions that ranged from “how do you handle the pressure of deep diving?” to “what was it like the first time you went underwater?” with lots of questions about the mine and wrecks too.
In our first session, we welcomed students from Mumbai India from Podar School (it was really, really late for them). WH Morden School in Oakville, Ontario tuned in from very close to my hometown. Mrs. Smith’s class from White Oak Elementary in Georgia enthusiastically waved from their classroom. Case Middle School might have been the closest to Newfoundland at the time of the call and Crossroads Intermediate got the recognition for the biggest delegation with Ms. Debreuill, Ms. Zufelt, Ms. Croke and Mr. Vasquez all bringing groups online. There were other viewers that I was not able to see on my screen.
Our second invited groups from Turkey, Spain, California, Massachusetts and Anchorage Alaska. North High School members got to skip 6th period class for the session and I was really happy to see my friend Chelsea Ha in that group. She and I shared the TED stage together last November and discovered a common passion for protecting our planet’s resources. South Anchorage high School and East Bridgewater School in Massachusetts tuned in and all groups shared some of their own personal goals and TED talk ideas.
We’re working on ways to keep the conversation alive and will further this venture in the summer when I return with more diving adventures on the shipwrecks offshore of Bell Island. I will post links to today’s efforts soon!
by Jill Heinerth – Into the Planet
This morning the team traveled to Villa Nova School in Conception Bay South and had an assembly with the sixth grade students. We brought lots of cave diving equipment and shared some of the results of the expedition thus far. Neal Pollock enthralled the kids with pictures of a beating heart from his ultrasound results. It seemed as though every kid had great questions including specific queries about our diving technology, scary encounters as well as a keen interest in whether we had dived with sharks.
On the ferry across The Tickle, Neal Pollock and I were interviewed by the Voice of the Common Man (VOCM) radio station in St. John’s. We also got word that the CBC was so taken by our project that they have extended their broadcast into a three-part series and web special that will air next week.
Thanks to Tonya, the St. Michael’s High School Principal, we had a quick lunch at Dicks’ Fish and Chips and said one last thank you to the owner Mary who has been so kind to us. The entire school gathered in the gymnasium for our afternoon presentation. The school AV Club and Radio Club did an impressive job setting up the equipment and running a professional show. They recorded the presentation for local radio. After a few questions, we invited the kids forward to the stage to touch and feel the gear and ask more questions. That informal session was very rewarding. I could see the recognition from many of the kids that they could do something incredible with their own lives. Gemma Smith demonstrated the rebreather to a large group of kids who were full of questions. Daniel Rees, a young maritime archaeologist from Conception Bay South was a shining role model of achievement for the kids. He answered questions about archaeology and about how to get into university.
More than anything, I think the Bell Island kids left our presentation with a new sense of place and pride in their community. We extended our thanks to them for hosting us in such a remarkable place
by Jill Heinerth – Into the Planet
Exploration diver/underwater photographer Cas Dobbin is an engineer in the oil and gas industry. After many dives, he was able to piece together a concept of how the mine might have operated. He offers:
The dewatering equipment appears to have been set up in stages from the depths of the mine to surface. The drainage water would have been pumped from the deeper sections of the mine and utilized for dust mitigation in drilling operations. Given the limitations of the materials available in the late 19th and early 20th century, one is lead to believe that the water would have been pumped by a network smaller pumps that would then feed a high volume pump located on the east side of the main slope at a distance of ~1300 ft from the entrance to the mine. This type of arrangement would have reduced the operating pressure required to move the water to the surface as the differential head across each pump would be reduced.
The “main” pump we have seen in the mine is a triplex piston pump. Installed on the discharge piping on the main pump is a pulsation dampener. This vessel is used to reduce surging in the piping as it provides room for expansion in the line and would protect the piping from pressure surges so that it would not be dislodged from it’s very basic wooden supports.
The air supply for pneumatic tools runs down the slope with several takeoffs available for the miners to connect their drills and other equipment.
The power house and the compressor which would have been stationed on surface near the entry to the mine are now long gone which leaves many questions of the mine operation unanswered.
The remainder of the utilities consist of telecoms and electrical which are run throughout the mine and would have been repositioned as required as each area of the mine was no longer considered feasible to mine.
by Neal Pollock – TeckDiver Publishing & Training
I arrived home early on Tuesday morning, after a month on the road. Bags filled with memories of a wonderful expedition that had its challenges, but which has already produced some positive results.
On Wednesday, a friend/colleague sent an email congratulating the #Minequest team on the “successful conclusion” of our project. I thanked her for the thought but pointed out that the project is far from concluded… in reality, it has just started. What we wrapped up last week was simply one small aspect of a rather large master plan… getting a circuit marked surveys and ready for visiting divers to follow.
What begins for the team now, having finished our underwater work (for the time-being), is to spread the word about the #bellislandmine and the historical significance or it and the four WWII wrecks sitting on the floor of the Tickle just a few kilometers from the mine entrance.
Another aspect is the ongoing educational commitments made on behalf of the project. Several members of the team toured local schools with a “show ‘n’ tell” immediately following the wrap in the mine. The reception from kids was “awesome” literally
Jill Heinerth also spearheaded a TED ED outreach bringing kids from around the globe into direct contact with explorers.
Stay tuned for more on this score as the year rolls on.
One other ongoing aspect is the impact made on divers participating in decompression research conducted during the project #drnealpollock #DAN #diveresearch. Several of the team, all experienced technical divers, and many teaching advanced decompression techniques, left Bell Island with a slightly altered, perhaps more circumspect view of #divesafety and the vagaries of decompression stress thanks to Dr. Neal Pollock and his research associate, Stefanie Martina from Divers Alert Network.
Steve Lewis – Tech Diver Training
The Bell Island Project, #minequest, or at least the 2016 phase of it, has essentially wrapped with most of our expectations met. We set an ambitious list of goals and a couple of boxes remain unticked thanks to logistical, equipment, weather issues, but also simply being a victim of a short working schedule.
Overall, the outcome is truly positive. #OceanQuestAdventures #divebellisland and #bellislandmine have world-class potential if the mine is added the the #bellislandwrecks as an adventure dive destination.
I am looking forward to the time… In the near future… When I can bring students and other divers here for a really remarkable historic and cultural experience.
Jill Heinerth – Into the Planet
Our team had an afternoon hike around St. John’s to get the blood flowing in the fresh winter air. We were able to see several Canadian Historical Sites and then enjoy traditional Newfoundland cuisine.
Our first stop was a visit to the Cape Spear Lighthouse which is perched on North America’s most easterly point. Constructed in 1836, the Cape Spear Lighthouse is still in service today. The winds were howling and light snow was blowing horizontally as we clambered up the rocks to the top of the hill where the beacon was brightly rotating in the storm clouds. One can only imagine the bone chilling cold that must creep through the batten boards of the house.
We moved on to Fort Amherst for our second walk. Completed in 1777, Fort Amherst was a British fortification guarding the mouth of St. John’s harbour. Fort Amherst lies in its strategic location and has a long history of use as a military defensive installation. Today is lay in ruins, but scaffolding around the lighthouse indicates that restoration efforts are underway. We passed the East Coast Trail markers that pointed back towards Cape Spear and beyond.
We drove through the colorful Battery area that locals call lollipop row with a final stop that took us up Signal Hill in a growing blizzard. The Cabot Tower, where Marconi received the first trans-Atlantic voice transmission in 1920 tops Signal Hill. It was built as a monument to John Cabot’s 1497 voyage to North America and to the 60th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s reign.