The Bell Island mine has lain dormant for more than 50 years; the last miner walked out in the mid 1960s. But it’s about to be rediscovered by a crack team of cave and technical divers, including Jill Heinerth, Phil Short, Sabine Kerkau and Steve Lewis, who will travel to Bell Island, Newfoundland, along with a scientific and support team, and attempt to explore the iron ore mine that runs under the island and adjacent bay. When the mine was shut down, the pumps were turned off and its tunnels, which stretch for hundreds of miles, flooded. Eventually the water levels rose, literally covering more than 100 years of mining history.
Exploring the Bell Island Mine: Why Now?
So why is this team mounting this expedition, disturbing this long-dormant underwater archive? They cite a number of reasons, the first of which is the pure spirit of adventure. The divers want to go where no one has walked for nearly half a century and explore what amounts to a perfectly preserved underwater mining museum. When the miners left, they virtually dropped everything in place and walked out, and when the cold water rose, it preserved a perfectly working iron-ore mine. The divers, with the cooperation of local historians, will investigate what historical artifacts remain, and what should be preserved and catalogued in the local mining museum.
The expedition has caught the attention of adventurers outside the diving world, too. The prestigious Explorers Club, impressed with the potential for original exploration, has granted the team the rare honor of carrying one of their flags, which have flown at both polar poles and on top of the world’s highest mountains. Thor Heyerdahl carried on on the Kon Tiki expedition as did the astronauts on Apollo 11.
The expedition also has a heavy scientific bent. Divers Alert Network researcher Neal Pollock, assisted by scientist Dawn Kernagis, will use the opportunity to run a unique series of tests. Pollock will be monitoring the divers for bubbles in their hearts by taking ultrasound readings post-dive at 20-minute intervals for two hours. He’ll also be taking pre-dive and post-dive blood samples to look for blood markers indicating decompression stress. The overall goal of the study is to examine the effects of multi-day diving on people in high-stress environments, research that will ultimately benefit all divers.
Finally, the exploratory team intends to see if the mine can be made safe as a diving adventure destination. The divers will explore the tunnels and, if they’re stable, start to lay out a mainline and a network of secondary lines that other divers can follow. Rick Stanley, one of the expedition’s primary organizers, hopes that if the mine can be turned into a tourist destination, that the local economy will benefit. “If we raise the profile of the mine, then more people will visit to dive and to take the mine tour,” he says.
But in order to accomplish these goals, the expedition will first have to overcome a number of hurdles. First, a group of local volunteers has been hard at work in the old mine, preparing the tunnels that lead up to the water’s edge, clearing them of debris, as well as installing a proper lighting system and building a staging area for the divers, a floating dock and tables. After two weeks of back-breaking labor, everything is ready to go.
The hurdles don’t end at the water’s edge; the divers will face their own challenges. The mine’s layout makes the fabled Minotaur’s labyrinth seem simple by comparison. The old equipment presents a series of obstacles just waiting to trap divers, and fine sediment that can destroy all visibility just waits to be stirred up by an errant fin. The tunnels run deep; they’re pitch black; and there’s only one way in and one way out. A 2007 attempt to penetrate the mine ended in the death of one diver. There’s no doubt the expedition is a risky venture.
But these divers are the best of the best and there will be massive surface support: stand-by divers ready to help; first-aid attendants; a cast of scientists, including the best diving physiology researchers in the business; and scientists to keep track of what’s in the water to make sure there are no organic risks — oddly, living organisms have been detected in the mine (cue horror-movie music).
At the end of the week-long expedition, with a little luck, the team will have accomplished a number of firsts: they’ll have re-discovered a slice of history; they’ll have made some scientific discoveries; and they may have opened up a whole new opportunity for properly trained divers to explore the rediscovered Bell Island mine.
I’ll be filing daily reports from the expedition when it kicks off on February 15th from above and below the water — stay tuned for more.