The Geography and History of Bell Island Mine

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Jill HeinerthInto the Planet

In 2004, the Department of Natural Resources, Mines Branch for Newfoundland and Labrador produced a report that described some of the history and geography of the Bell Island Mine.

The presence of iron ore on Bell Island was first recorded in the late 16th century, but it was not until the 1890’s that the Bell Island deposits attracted the attention of entrepreneurs and mining interests. By 1892, the deposits had come under the control of the Butler family of Topsail, who brought in agents of the New Glasgow Iron, Coal and Rail Company of Nova Scotia. Scotia opened the first mine on Bell Island in the summer of 1895 with local miners quarrying and hand-cobbing the ore from the lowermost of the three iron-rich beds. In 1899, the Whitney Company (latterly called the Dominion Iron and Steel Corporation or Dosco) acquired the rights to the lower and upper beds on land, and 776 hectares of submarine claims to a distance of 1.6 kilometres from the shoreline. The Scotia Company retained all rights seaward of the Dosco ground.

In 1902, the surface exposures of the Lower and Middle Beds were mined out and underground production began. Access to the submarine iron ore deposits was gained via 4 portal down-dip slopes equipped with conveyor haulage to the surface. The mine workings would eventually extend 15 square km under Conception Bay with recoveries from room and pillar panels ranging from 50 to 63 per cent, depending on physical conditions.

Mining of the Wabana submarine iron deposits spanned a period of 73 years, until closure on June 30, 1966. During its lifetime, Wabana shipped over 80 million tonnes of raw and upgraded iron ore to Canada, Germany, the United States, Belgium and Holland. Until the 1950’s, Wabana was the sole source of iron for the Sydney steel mills.

At the time of closure, Wabana was facing the late-life crisis of all evolving mines; increasing pressure to improve productivity, and demands for a higher quality product in a changing world market place. As iron ore smelters world-wide converted to the new smelting technology, the demand for direct shipping ore began to shrink, and the high silica and phosphorous contents of the Wabana ore made it an unattractive product. Research to improve the ore grade and remove contaminants had been under way for some time but the changes were never implemented.

The Wabana and Bell Island Groups of the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland consist of fossiliferous Lower Ordovician shales and sandstones, with many intercalated oolitic hematite beds, dipping 8 to 11 degrees north-northwest (Hayes, 1928; Anson, 1951; Coughlan, 1965; Buchan and Hodych, 1982; and Ranger, Pickergill and Fillion, 1984).

A Long Day

Saturday, February 20, 2016
Jill HeinerthInto The Planet

One of the most beautiful aspects of expedition life is the amount of pure living that you can pack into a single day. We’ve always said that we would be successful if we began and ended the day with laughter. At dawn the general call to wake up was laced with a request for urine to check for concentration that could help describe the state of hydration of the divers. Stefanie cradled her bag of samples in her lap on the way over to the mine where equipment was available for testing.

The dive day consisted of finishing the last tasks of creating a safe line navigation structure for future visitors. We also needed to complete survey objectives and retrieve all the safety bottles from the mine.

The pack out of the mine took hours and when we reached the ferry, the seas were looking rough. I sat in the back of the van with Neal Pollock and Stefanie Martina and got a very basic education in grading ultrasounds. It was an interesting process spotting and counting bubbles and their location. We had a solid two hour run of talking about Immersion Pulmonary Edema, Decompression Stress and active drysuit heating. For the uninitiated, it might have made their eyes glaze over, but I was giddy with the prospects of having the undivided attention of the best tutor in the business.

Back at Ocean Quest Adventure Resort, we held a traditional screeching ceremony to welcome the new friends into the family. For those of us that are not drinkers, Newfoundland Screech is a a substance better used for wound cleaning than human consumption. The amber liquid boasts 40% alcohol and is a key player in the ceremony called a “Screech-In.”

Newfoundlanders perform the ritual for visitors who “come-from-away.”  The ceremony includes eating some traditional niblets of local survival food such as hard tack biscuits, salted dried fish and pressed meat that looks like boloney (Newfoundland Steak).

The ceremony began with lots of local folk music interrupted by the official recitation. Our leader Nick asked participants if they would like to become a Newfoundlander. The proper response: “Yes b’y!” Each participant is asked to introduce themselves and their hometown, often interrupted by the ceremony leader who pokes fun at their accent. Local history and folklore follows with a few tricks that leave the screechers soaked in water.

Finally, each individual is given a small dram of screech and are asked, “Are ye a screecher?”

The response is: “’Deed I is, me ol’ cock! And long may yer big jib draw!” (Though with a Newfie accent, it often sounds like this: “‘Deed Oi is, mee-all cahk! An’ lahng may-yer big jib-jrah.”) Translated, it means “Yes I am, my old friend, and may your sails always catch wind.”

After the shot, the screecher must kiss a cod fish – or any other fish ugly enough to suitably replace the cod. A certificate is offered after the ceremony but it might have been smarter to distribute aspirin and water rations.

A River Runs through Us

Friday, February 19, 2016

Jill Heinerth Into The Planet

Today we arrived at the mine to discover a major river running down the

slope. With the intense rain and snow melt on the island, all the water had to go somewhere. When we walked down to the dive staging area we were shocked to discover that we had lost more than 20 feet of waterfront. The dock was close to the ceiling and the benches and staging area were submerging. It was simply not safe to use our walkways and dock.

Not to be discouraged, the skeleton team jumped into action. Volunteers were unable to make it across The Tickle on the ferry, so we were a little short handed. All hands moved tanks, tables and gear and deconstructed the lighting system and rest of the infrastructure. Repairs will need to be made when the water level drops. The water came up six feet through the day. With a hard freeze tonight, we are hoping the inflow subsides.

The rushing water also destroyed visibility for a significant distance. Cas Dobbin and I entered the water in another column and groped through 250 feet of zero-visibility muck. When we finally emerged from the clay colored water, we could see white misty in-feeding seeps further polluting the visibility. We made our way down to 130 feet of depth and spent some time shooting equipment near the pumping station. We found a lot more interesting graffiti and even managed to identify one of the people named on the wall. His friends were assisting at the mine and told us about his prowess playing strongman on their hockey team.

Cas and I were the only ones eager to make a second dive. We worked on a video mission and searched for the best area to lay line the following day. The visibility seemed to be best on the east of our entry, as far away as possible from the in-feeding meltwater. Our dive went well until our decompression stop when Cas tore a mouthpiece and experienced what we call a caustic cocktail. Water leaked into his rebreather and mixed with the carbon dioxide absorbent material, creating an alkaline fluid that can burn the mouth. We were in inches of visibility when he quickly switched off his loop and got on open circuit air.

He coughed and I reached out to hold him. The scuba air was the same temperature as the water at 3 degrees, so he became quickly chilled. Rebreathers create an exothermic reaction that gives a diver warm moist air to breathe. Traditional scuba is like inhaling freezing air, chilling the diver more quickly. Cas handled the emergency like a really well practiced explorer and managed through the chill to complete his full decompression obligation.

After the dive, we jumped right into our medical tests and learned many more new things about decompression stress. I’ll leave the details for a future blog, but suffice to say, the medical research being done here is incredibly valuable to the team and to understanding extreme dive profiles. We are grateful for Neal Pollock and Stefanie Martina who have to put in days as long as ours to collect the important data.

Between The Rock and a Hard Place

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Jill HeinerthInto The Planet

We awoke to screaming winds and were worried about getting across The Tickle to Bell Island. 12688096_10207468909693268_513838827366422355_nWe packed everything we could and rushed to the ferry. At the dock, the winds were blowing 80 kph and getting stronger but most of us got across on the last boat before they had to suspend service. With winds increasing to 100 kph, one team vehicle and important equipment was left behind at Portugal Cove. Rick and Debbie Stanley will never say never. They grabbed the critical gear including shoulder height T-cylinders of oxygen diving gas and loaded it up in their inflatable RHIB. In gale to hurricane force winds, they made the dangerous crossing to deliver the goods to keep the expedition running. Torrential rains are continuing to pour down and fill the boat quickly. Every two hours, a team member will need to go to the dock and bail the boat. It is so rough and wild, we are unable to pull it or secure it any better. Just the act of bailing is risky in this weather.

Meanwhile, thanks to Tricky Rick and Debbie Stanley, we had a stellar day in the mine. The rain has decreased visibility due to runoff, but we managed to lay lots of new line. Phil Short and Gemma Smith dumped two more large reels of permanent guideline While Cas Dobbin and I continued with photo and video work. Sabine Kerkau continued documentation of artifacts with John Olivero and Steve Lewis finished a significant amount of survey work.

Medical tests on the dive team continued and we have discovered that there are some incredible learning opportunities form this study. I’ll save the medical news for later in the blogs, since a single day of information cannot really be treated as much more than anecdotal evidence.

After a very long day, we returned to the Grand Wabana Inn, where owner Alfred Hynes literally opened the door and took in the entire stranded team. We have grown to 20 people from off island in addition to mine safety staff, so there will be some cozy sleeping conditions tonight. There may be a fight for the extra couch downstairs if the snoring gets too intense! We’re all very tired. Mary from Dicks’ Fish and Chips by the ferry dock generously sent over fresh hot pizza and garlic sticks for us for dinner. You simply cannot be a stranger on Bell Island because the kindness of the local residents is overwhelming. We have had so many visitors and volunteers helping us out in our quest and their generosity is quite humbling.

At nearly 130 feet of depth, Cas Dobbin and I slowed to look at a broken ladder. On the floor, we saw billowing piles of iron bacteria. But what caught my eye was a tiny cross on the wall; a sign left to indicate where a miner had lost his life. These moments give us pause to remember all the people lost while working hard to support their families; the men in the mine, the lost sailors and those that went to war.


Doris is just one of the many people taking care of us on Bell Island. Hot soup, fresh baking and great sandwiches are never far from reach.

Team Meeting

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

by Jill Heinerth – Into the Planet

It is incredible having an engineer on the team. Cas Dobbin is able to look at the equipment within the mine and help us all understand how operations might have worked.

This becomes mission critical when trying to find new targets for exploration. Tonight he described two theories about how the mine was dewatered from such incredible depths with 100 year old technology. He has also surmised how and where miners were able to tap into steam pipes to run their drills. This knowledge is helping us understand what we are looking at and envision where other infrastructure might be located. It makes it all that more interesting and gave us a refreshed vision of our unfolding map. My conclusion is that there are months if not years of work needed to explore and document this remarkable place.SteveCasMap5260lwm

Escape from Bell Island – The Sequel

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

by Jill Heinerth – Into the Planet

We had a very productive morning with efficient deployment of the dive teams. Cas Dobbin and I did a 2-hour dive with the goal of reaching major targets in the 120 foot depth range and taking still photos. Steve Lewis lead the survey team with Sabine Kerkau and John Olivero, while Phil Short and Gemma Smith pushed the gold line further out. About an hour into our dive we crossed paths with Gemma and Phil and took photos of them at work then met Steve’s team during our decompression.Ferryman5231lwm FerryWait5224lwm Wharf5242lwm

After the dive, Cas and I began our medical scans while I spoke with a reporter from Canadian Geographic Magazine. Soon after we received word that we needed to get off the island early in case of transport issues for the ferry. It is a transitional time right now for the Bell Island Ferry system. A new ferry named Legionnaire is coming online for the 100 anniversary of devastating battle that took place in the First World War. The Newfoundland Regiment advanced on Beaumont Hamel on the morning on July 1, 1916 losing the majority of their regiment during the battle of the Somme. In a single morning, almost 20,000 British troops died, and another 37,000 were wounded. The Newfoundland Regiment had been almost wiped out. When roll call was taken, only 68 men answered their names – 324 were killed, or missing and presumed dead, and 386 were wounded. Each day as we travel to and from Bell Island, we are ferried on a vessel named Beaumont Hamel.

In order to circumvent any delays from commuting, we made a team decision to book lodging on Bell Island for the remainder of our dives. Kind owners of the Grand Wabana Inn have offered to take us in so we won’t be facing weather delays. Tomorrow weathermen are predicting 100 kph winds and significant rain. Getting off Bell Island would be unlikely. So we will hunker down in the Grand Wabana Inn and see if we experience any of their fabled ghost sightings.

No Room at the Inn…we took it all

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Steve Lewis Tech Diver Training

We last stragglers packed up our gear, finished our post-dive battery of testing for DAN, and headed to the ferry… But the ferry wasn’t going anywhere tonight and eight of us (Rick, Sabine, Jill, Cas, Mark, Neal, Stefanie, and me), were on the other side of the Tickle from our street clothes, food, and beds.

Here’s a tip, pick the company you travel with carefully. Certainty in mind, only go on a dive expedition with folks who can see the funny side of being stranded on an island without any prospect of being fed, washed, and tucked into a warm bed for the night.

But as bleak as things seemed, the community on Bell Island, and in particular the owners of Grand Wabana Inn, came through once more… Opening their doors to us, and feeding us breakfast for supper.

Cas and Rick even managed to find toothpaste and brushes for us all… I’m getting mine framed as a reminder of a fun experience, if we ever make it back.

Weather playing havoc with team travel

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Steve LewisTech Diver Training

The eastern-most portion of North America is not blessed with the mildest, most timid winter weather… Fact is, it’s cold, snowy, windy, and inhospitable for months… Short hours of daylight too. Not great for air travel, and true to type, two of our team (Gemma Smith and Phil Short), spent an unscheduled layover in Halifax on their journey in.

So why organize an expedition in winter?

Simply a case of access. The Bell Island Mine museum is closed to visitors which gives us full range of the facility… DAN researchers Neal Pollock, and Stefanie Martina running ultrasound scans on the museum floor, and taking blood draws in the theatre, rebreathers and drysuits drying on racks, other dive gear in semi-organized piles, tea, coffee and food catered in the snack bar, and the film crew spreading equipment in the spaces in-between.

Certainly not much difference between temps in the mine… Chilly and super humid in the approach to the water, six-degrees below the surface.

Sharing a Toothbrush

Monday, February 15, 2016

by Jill Heinerth – Into the Planet

Good friends will share a toothbrush when they need to. Even better friends trudge through the snow to buy one for each friend unable to make it home in the snow squall. (Thanks Cas Dobbin)

SleepSteve5070lwm Wheelhouse5080lwm

We lined up for the ferry off Bell Island at 6pm thinking that an early night would help facilitate an early start tomorrow. Unfortunately, a squall has prevented the ferry from taking us back to Portugal Harbour. We’re stranded on the island and have started to barter survival items. I thought I could barter a headlamp and a full oxygen tank for the morning dive. Others offered fresh dry socks.

Steve Lewis, Cas Dobbin and Sabine Kerkau and I are dressed in some variation of dry suit undergarments and ski jackets. Steve thinks that he looks like he just popped out of a New York dance club. We have called around and found an inn that will take us all. They are trying to find a cook and some food, but we have a small convenience store that is still open as a backup plan.

Neal Pollock and Stefanie Martina from DAN are much cleaner than any of us! Rick Stanley took a couple of slips on the muddy floors today, so he wins the grime contest. Mark McGowan flew in from Curacao this morning and came straight to the mine to help out. For his efforts, he has joined in the mass stranding too.

But seriously, if I ever had to be stranded with a group of people, this is a really nice one!


Monday, February 15, 2016

by Jill Heinerth – Into the Planet

There are a lot of things that happen behind the scenes on an expedition. PensiveJohnny4933l Plow4924l SnowShovel4957lEveryone needs to be fed. Someone has to shop for that food every day since the fridge is full with one day’s supply. Tanks need to be filled after the diving is done. Boosting oxygen tanks is a slow process when done safely. Rebreathers are cleaned up and repacked with carbon dioxide absorbent for the following day. Oftentimes repairs are needed. Film crews offload footage and check their work. Backups and review can take hours. The medical team has a full day until all their data is gathered. After 10pm, there were will still dive team members doing pushups, filling out questionnaires and getting their pulmonary function tested.

Our mission control at Ocean Quest Adventure Resort is a hive of activity 24 hours a day. It takes a village to run an expedition. This is a great team!