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.

Mine Quest: The Science

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Robert Osborne

Making astronauts and scuba divers safer and decoding the mysteries of the human genome.  The kind of science
that’s taking place on the Mine Quest expedition is cutting edge and figuratively speaking, out of this world.

Dr. Neal Pollock, research director for the Divers Alert Network and scientist at the Center for Environmental Physiology and Hyperbaric Medicine at Duke University Medical Center wants to close the gap between the theory and reality behind decompression sickness.  He says that much of the information on decompression provided to divers and astronauts is based on theoretical modeling.  While theory is important, human testing is incomplete, and theory does not include many variables that can affect individual risk.

His team will use ultrasound on Mine Quest divers to track the presence of microbubbles in their hearts—indicators
of decompression stress.  They will monitor the divers closely after each dive to determine if and when microbubbles appear and progress.  They will also collect blood samples to assess other measures of decompression stress to compare with the bubble data. Studying divers in the field is important since “they’re diving profiles that are difficult to produce in the lab.”  The Mine Quest team will provide an opportunity to study decompression stress over repeated days of repetitive, cold-water diving.

The results will benefit divers and other who experience decompression stress, including astronauts who decompress to complete spacewalks.

The second experiment isn’t concerned so much with outer space, as it is inner space. Dr. Dawn Kernagis of the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Florida, will be looking at whether and how stress can actually
re-program humans at a genetic level.

They’re called epigenetic changes and science is only just starting to realize that such a change is possible.  Prior to now the conventional wisdom was that our genetic code was fixed.  Not so, according to Kernagis.  She says a number of factors, including stress, can bring on changes to our very genetic make up.  She’ll be having blood drawn from the divers before and after they dive that will enable her to look for micro particles that develop in response the stress.  Based on the appearance of those markers Kernagis can conduct further work to see whether that results in a corresponding change at a genetic level.

Her work could have enormous implications for such afflictions as childhood obesity and elder diabetes.
Dr. Kernagis’ work is currently being partly supported by the U.S. government.

If it was easy, everyone would be doing it!

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


Our project has had a bit of a setback this morning. Newfoundland has been experiencing record breaking rainfall and with unseasonal warmth, all the winter snow melted. The flood of water submerged some of the infrastructure in our dive staging area and meant final installation of our floating dock was not possible at the current water levels. Adjustments will be needed to improve the infrastructure, dock and staging area.

I’m having flashbacks to a project in 1995 in a deep canyon in the mountains of Central Mexico. We experienced mudslides that obliterated our camp and the cave resurgence we were exploring. We tried to build a dam to reroute the mud pouring into our cave. It seemed like a disaster. And yet, as we conspired to find way to deal with over 1000 feet of zero visibility, Dr. Bill Stone asked me to think much bigger. He said, “let’s find a way to map a cave we can’t even see.” That was the birth of the 3D Mapper. I was driving Dr. Stone’s mapper in Wakulla Springs a few years later. Great things come from adversity.

In the interim, mud and rain won’t slow down our expedition, but it does mean that we’ll be a little dirtier at the end of this. Hopefully water quality will improve as the rain abates. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

It’s all building a story where we triumph over difficulties!




Sabine Kerkau Recognized with DIWA Award

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


Team member Sabine Kerkau was recently recognized with a DIWA Award (Diving Instructor World Association) at the Boot Show in Dusseldorf, Germany. The award recognizes her work in exploration and diving journalism, most notably for feature stories on technical diving projects. Kerkau will be writing articles about the Bell Island project in her native German language for several media outlets in Europe.

Award of Explorers Club Flag #80

Saturday, February 6, 2016

While our team awaits the arrival of the Explorers Club flag, we have received some history associated with it. This notice has arrived ahead of our precious cargo! It is wonderful that some good friends and colleagues have shared this flag in the past, most notably Tim Taylor with whom I have worked on another Explorers Club flagged expedition.


Continue reading “Award of Explorers Club Flag #80”

Royal Canadian Geographical Society Joins Expedition

Thursday, February 4, 2016


The Royal Canadian Geographical Society will be partnering with the Bell Island Expedition and has recognized the project as their Expedition of the Year.

The Royal Canadian Geographical Society is dedicated to promoting and enhancing public awareness for Canadian geography, and to strengthening the bond between Canadians and their diverse and vast geographical heritage.

As one of Canada’s oldest and largest educational, non-profit organizations, the RCGS, and its iconic publication, Canadian Geographic, has been Canada’s most recognized voice for connecting Canadians with the land, culture and environment in which they live.

The Bell Island exploration team will be working closely with, Canadian Geographic Education in outreach initiatives. RCGS currently provides free geographic educational material and supports over 16,000 educator-members, with membership expanding each year.

The team is extremely honoured by the recognition and looks forward to working very closely with the RCGS in the coming year.


February 4th, 2016

Steve Lewis – Tech Diver Training

Royal Canadian Geographical Society




We have just heard from The Royal Canadian Geographical Society to learn that The Bell Island Expedition has been honored as their Expedition of the Year.

Of course, the entire team is extremely proud to have our project picked for this accolade, and for the opportunities it opens up to work with the RCGS to promote Canadian exploration, and education.

The Royal Canadian Geographical Society is dedicated to promoting and enhancing public awareness for Canadian geography, and to strengthening the bond between Canadians and their diverse and vast geographical heritage.

As one of Canada’s oldest and largest educational, non-profit organizations, the RCGS, and its iconic publication, Canadian Geographic, has been Canada’s most recognized voice for connecting Canadians with the land, culture and environment in which they live.