Digging in to the Mine

Monday, February 15, 2016

by Jill Heinerth – Into the Planet

Our first order of business was to take a ferry across to Bell Island and then dig the entrance of the mine out of the snow. Fortunately in Newfoundland, every expedition is equipped with their own personal snow plow. Rick Stanley plowed with his truck while John Olivero and Jack Wood dug the doorway out of the hip deep snow. The entire team packed the SteveSpool5174lwmPushPlow5131lwmSteveEmergencyExit5184lwmgear into mine and we set up our rebreather station, medical center and dock area. The infrastructure is well thought out. We are able to use an electric golf cart to get equipment and people down the slope 750 feet to the water. It makes the medical testing and logistics possible in a warm, dry location up top. As soon as we exit the water, we need to rush out of our gear and check in for blood tests, ultrasound and spirometry tests. These tests are repeated every 20 minutes for two hours. At that point we are able to return to gear and camera maintenance.

We had a successful dive mission with 7 divers installing line, working on surveys and documenting the mine. For a first day, we accomplished a lot and we were still laughing at the end of the day.

Homemade Spaghetti and Science

Sunday, February 14, 2016

by Jill Heinerth – Into The Planet

Newfoundland is known for kitchen parties. They usually involve friendship, music and home cooking. NealPollockCasSkinFold5018l SpirometrySteve5024l StefanieMartina5021lWe’ve transformed the kitchen into something even bigger. Dive team members are subjecting their bodies to scientific examination. Dr. Neal Pollock from DAN, assisted by Stefanie Martina will be gathering data for decompression stress studies. Today, divers were subjected to a battery of fitness testing. Quarters at the lodge are quite close and that meant getting skin fold and spirometry tests at the kitchen table and doing pushups on the floor in the midst of cameras, cooking and gear prep. There will be little privacy, but the results of this research could offer significant information for the divers themselves and for our general understanding of decompression stress under extreme dive profiles.

Ready to Launch

Sunday, February 14, 2016
By | Into The Planet


We had some warm up dives at Conception Harbour in the morning to CasPhotoCOnceptionHarbor4648lwmshake out the final bugs in the rebreathers and cameras. Robert Osborne JillSnowRinse5000land Rick Stanley tweaked their sidemount units while Cas Dobbin, John Olivero and I went for an hour spin in the blazing sunlight. Last night’s storm passed and was quickly dispatched by local plows. Many more team members arrived safely and we are only short Gemma Smith and Phil Short to make the team complete. The mission control at Ocean Quest Adventures Resort has turned into a TV studio, physiology lab, dive center and commercial kitchen. Tonight we make our plans for tomorrow’s hard launch in the mine.

First Day Dip in a Blizzard

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Jill HeinerthInto the Plant

I like to arrive on an expedition with plenty of time to assemble gear and work out the kinks before a project begins. I’m really pleased I kept to that plan, since today we are experiencing an epic blizzard in St. Johns. Several of our team members are stranded midway here due to cancelled flights. Johnny, Cas and decided to hit the water in full gear and make sure everything was operational. One flooded glove and one broken inflator meant more of a dip than a dive, but at least we identified some issues and will dive again in the morning.


Our shore dive site was an interesting spot in Conception Harbour with three wrecked whaling ships. One sticks up out of the water, so it makes a gorgeous backdrop for the snow.

Site info from the Shipwreck Preservation Society:

SS Charcot was a steel whaling ship built in Tønsberg, Norway in 1923 for the A/S Hvalen whaling company. In 1943, it was sold to the Polar Whaling Company (owned by Christian Salvesen) and was based at the Hawke Harbour whaling station in southern Labrador. In 1956, Charcot was sold to the Hawke Harbour Whaling Company (owned by Johan Borgen) and it remained catching whales in southern Labrador. The Hawke Harbour whaling station burned down in 1959 and Charcot ended up in Conception Harbour, where it was berthed during the 1960s. Between 1968 and 1970, Charcot broke its moorings and ran aground on the beach in Conception Harbour, where it remains today.


In 2013, the Shipwreck Preservation Society surveyed the three whaling shipwrecks in Conception Harbour and identified this ship as Charcot (it had previously been mistakenly called the Sposa by many in Conception Harbour). This wreck is visible from shore and is a favourite with photographers.

Mine Quest: Diving Into Bell Island’s Underwater Mines

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Robert OsbourneHuffington Post



This week some of the best cave divers on the planet will mount an expedition to penetrate into a subterranean world that’s remained hidden for more than 50 years. Along with a crack scientific and support team, Jill Heinerth, Phil Short, Sabine Kerkau and Steve Lewis will travel to Bell Island, Newfoundland in Canada and attempt to explore the old iron ore mine that runs under the island and adjacent bay.


The mine’s tunnels stretch for hundreds of kilometres under the island and adjacent bay. The last miner walked out in the mid 1960s leaving most of their equipment and tools behind. When the mine was shut down, the pumps were turned off and it flooded. Eventually the water levels rose, covering more than a hundred years of mining history.


So why is this team mounting this expedition, disturbing this long dormant underwater archive? Partly for the pure spirit of adventure.

The divers want to go where no person has walked for nearly half a century and explore what amounts to a perfectly preserved underwater mining museum. When the cold water rose it preserved a perfect working iron ore mine.

The divers are looking to see what historical artifacts remain that should be preserved and catalogued in the local mining museum. For 100 years men lived and died in this mine. They recorded their triumphs and tragedies in these dark tunnels. Local historians think their lives should be honoured and preserved, and these divers are taking the first step to do that.

Others agree. The expedition has caught the attention of the prestigious Explorers Club. Impressed with the potential for original exploration, they’ve granted Mine Quest the honor of carrying one of their flags. These flags have flown at both polar poles and on top of the highest mountains in the world. Thor Heyerdahl carried one on the Kon Tiki expedition, as did the astronauts on Apollo 11.


Mine Quest has also been noticed by the Royal Canadian Geographic Society. They’ve accorded the expedition the title of “Expedition of the Year.”

But exploration isn’t the only driving force behind the expedition. It also has a heavy scientific bent. Diver Alert Network researcher Neal Pollock will use the opportunity to monitor the divers for bubbles in their hearts by taking ultrasound readings post-dive. He’ll also be taking blood samples to look for blood markers indicating decompression stress. The overall goal of the study is to look at the effects of multi-day diving on people in high-stress environments.

Scientist Dawn Kernagis will also be doing some ground breaking research into how stress can virtually reprogram your body at a genetic level. It’s called epigenetic modification and if the right triggers are initiated these changes cannot only affect you, but be passed on to your children. She’s currently doing similar research for the U.S. military.

And the final reason for the expedition — trying to see whether the mine can be made into a safe place as a diving adventure destination.

Rick Stanley, one of the primary organizers of the expedition hopes that if this can be accomplished then there will be some economic spin offs to the local community — hard hit since the mine closed. “If we raise the profile of the mine, then more people will visit to dive and to take the mine tour,” said Stanley. He hopes that will give Bell Island a little economic boost.

A group of local volunteers have been doing back-breaking labour in the old mine to clean up the debris in the tunnels that lead up to the water’s edge — getting the site ready for the divers. Mark and Marcia McGowan, John Olivero, Nick Dawe, Kyle Morgan, Teddy McCarthy, Des McCarthy, Ron Reid, and Bonnie and Tom Spracklin had to make sure a proper lighting system was installed, and built a staging area for the divers to work from — a floating dock and tables. After two weeks of work, everything is ready to go.


Once the expedition begins, the divers will face a somewhat daunting set of challenges. The layout of the mine is a veritable labyrinth; old equipment presents a series of jagged obstacles ready to trap unwary divers; fine sediment that can shut down all visibility just waits to be stirred up. The tunnels run deep and, of course, they’re pitch black.

An attempt made in 2007 to penetrate the mines ended in the death of one diver. There’s no doubt the expedition is a risky venture.

But at the end of the week-long expedition, with a little luck, the team will have re-discovered a slice of history, they’ll have made some scientific discoveries and they may open up a whole new opportunity for properly trained divers worldwide — a chance for dive experience extraordinaire.

I’ll be diving the mines (after the pros have laid in safety lines, of course) and filing daily reports from the Mine Quest expedition. It kicks off on February 15.

Not your Average Cave Dive…

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Steve LewisTech Diver Training

Author Steve Lewis exploring Bell Island Mine

One of the first people to dive Bell Island Mine was a long-time friend and cave-diving buddy, Erik van Dorn. He was with us when we did a “proof of concept” dive in the summer of 2006.

We didn’t swim for long, just far enough to get some idea about the conditions. We laid a little line, found what looked like the remains of a small shed or stable, left a Newfoundland and Labrador provincial flag, and were back on the surface within 35 minutes.

He called me this morning to wish the team luck for our latest adventure, and he mentioned something that got me thinking about the differences and similarities between diving in a mine, in a cave and exploring the inside of a wreck.

Certainly it got me thinking about the first few dives we did. And the surprising number of artifacts we found… from downed tools and mine machinery, to graffiti written on mine walls with soot from miner’s lamps, and memorials for miners who lost their lives working the ore and trying to put bread on their family’s table.

That’s the sort of thing you simply don’t find in a cave.


Memorial to an absent team member

Monday, January 18, 2016

Steve LewisTech Diver Training


In February 2007, Joe Steffen suffered a massive embolism while exploring the Bell Island Mine, and passed away a few metres from the surface in the main shaft were today a memorial cross bears his name. Joe, a popular and respected figure in both the cave and wreck-diving communities, had an undiagnosed health issue, which was discovered during the medical examination following his death. The original exploration team’s medical officer (Dr. David Sawatzky), suggested that Joe’s passing would have been instantaneous, and probably caused by an ascent that would not have been an issue for a healthy diver.

Joe Steffen, Mine Quest team member in memoriam
Joe Steffen

The family Joe left behind, the original exploration team, the Bell Island Heritage Society, Bell Island Mine Museum, and the community of Bell Island, decided to continue the expedition back in 2007. We figured we owed it to Joe to push on.

This February, almost exactly on the ninth anniversary of Joe’s death, another team will be continuing the work begun in 2007. The hope remains that by opening the submerged area of the mine to guided tours similar to those conducted above the water line, a new group of visitors will have access to something truly unique in Canada.

With that in mind, and with the permission and support of Jennifer, Joey, Lindsey, and Linda, the members of the 2016 Mine Quest Team are dedicating this year’s expedition to Joe’s memory… RIP, mate: we think of you often.

The scope for exploration…

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Steve LewisTech Diver Training


Bell island Mine Quest
The 2007 project put down approximately two kilometres of line shown in black.

One of the Bell Island Mine Quest team recently asked those of us who were part of the original expedition, how much of the network of passages is there left to explore… “Not the deep stuff running off for kilometers, but shallower stuff accessible to cave divers?”

Fair question and one that’s probably best illustrated by comparing the area we explored during our 2007 project, with a plan of the working area of the mine contained in the Bell Island Museum.

The “green map” shows the scope of our original exploration with the black lines representing gold line laid during our ten-day expedition.

The larger diagram below, shows that map overlaid on a partial map of the Bell Island Mine Workings that’s on display in the Bell Island Museum.

As you can see, the possibilities are almost limitless. For the record, the deepest 2007 dives went to approximately 55 metres / 178 feet, and lined approximately two kilometers (about 6,500 feet) of passages.

Bell Island Mine... size of explored area
What we’ve visited compared to what’s there…

More construction around water level

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Steve Lewis- Tech Diver Training


The volunteer team added to the workplace infrastructure yesterday and today.Approach to water level in Bell Island Mine

The plans call for a boardwalk down to the water’s edge and an entry platform on the water’s surface so that divers can get into the water without silting things out.

Unlike the vertical or near vertical shafts found in many mines, the iron ore seam on Bell Island slopes at a roughly ten degree angle.

During past exploration, the dive teams getting into the water and beginning their dives had to wade for quite a distance before being able to float themselves and their kit. At the end of a “workday” the visibility in the water column from around three metres to the surface could be zero.

Getting measured for work platform
measuring for the work platform
Bell Island Mine shaft
excellent lighting for the work area

This slope, and the average height of the mine workings — approximately three metres/ten feet — makes for a slow descent and ascent… If you recall your High-school trigonometry and sine, cosine, tangent calculations, getting to a depth of 40 metres (130 feet and around the maximum for most of our planned exploration) requires a swim of approximately 230 metres / 750 feet.

Decompression Stress Study

Friday, January 15, 2016

Steve Lewis – Tech Diver Training


One of the team goals for this February’s dives are to explore new passages and add to the two kilometers of line we laid during the 2007 project.Mine Quest Bell Island Heritage

But we also want to “do some science.”

Of particular interest to any readers who dive or have friends and family who dive, is that members of our dive team will be part of a study monitoring decompression stress. Data will be collected from two-dimensional echo imaging ultrasound will be used to detect bubbles on both sides of the heart. Also, venous blood draws and buccal swabs will be collected to study stress responses. Study subjects will wear data loggers on all dives to capture their profiles, and information about the dive will be downloaded from PDCs and CCR controllers.

In addition, and in respect to ‘other markers’, changes in gene expression as a response to diving and epigenetic signatures related to repetitive diving will be collected.

Volunteers will have restricted activity for a two hour window after every dive, and will report for three minutes of scanning in every 20 minute time block during those two hours.
The research team will also collect onsite physical state and functional fitness measures before diving begins. Height, weight, skinfold thickness, pushups, situps, and range of motion cover most of the measures.

We hope that although the sample is small and the vastly diverse in age, gender, fitness level, and dive experience, useful information on decompression stress and its successful management will be the outcome of this aspect of the expedition.

The team leading these endeavors will be:
Neal W. Pollock, Ph.D., Research Director, Divers Alert Network
Dawn Kernagis, PhD, Research Scientist, The Institute for Human & Machine Cognition (IHMC) – Pensacola, FL