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The Bell Island Mine Quest Expedition      

Some of the world’s most intrepid cave divers have begun an expedition to explore a subterranean world that’s remained hidden for more than 50 years. Ultimately, they’re doing it for you.

A superstitious person might believe that there’s some cosmic force at work trying to prevent the Bell Island Mine Quest Expedition in Newfoundland, Canada from succeeding, and it’s not an unreasonable conclusion. From the beginning, one natural force after another has seemingly conspired to oppose the project.

Readers may remember that the Bell Island Mine Quest project is an attempt by some of the world’s best cave divers to explore a long-abandoned and flooded mine and to re-open it for the dive community. At the same time, several groups of scientists are using the opportunity to study the effects of extreme diving on the body. It’s a project that’s been endorsed by the Explorers Club and the Royal Canadian Geographic Society.

But these lofty goals have taken a dramatic beating in the first few days of the expedition. It started with an epic snowstorm that locked down the entire province of Newfoundland on the day all the divers and scientists were supposed to fly in, with nearly 12 inches of snow falling on the airport at St. John’s within a few hours. Flights from around the world were cancelled, and divers Phil Short and Gemma Smith, arriving from the U.K., were stranded at the airport in Halifax for nearly 24 hours. Photographer Sabine Kerkau, flying in from Switzerland, was held up in Toronto, finally arriving at 3:30 in the morning. On the day the expedition started, the crew had to dig out the mine-shaft entrance before they could even start to take equipment down to the water line.

Then there were the windstorms blowing across Conception Bay. Each day, the team must catch a ferry across to Bell Island, but on February 16 the winds kicked up and the tiny ferry was cancelled — leaving more than half the team stranded for the night on a rocky island that has no operating hotels or restaurants. The winds kicked up again the next day and after abandoning our vehicles we managed to make it out just in time.

Today, the winds are supposed to hit 62 miles per hour.

And yet despite the constant adversity, the project has been making huge strides. Exploratory divers have laid down more than 1,200 feet of mainline in the mine. Others have begun to make an inventory of the artifacts that are being discovered, along with a photographic log of the treasures. A massive biological life mass has been discovered, and nobody is quite sure how it survives in the pitch dark.

DAN scientists have already made some interesting discoveries: the dives to this point have not been deep or long, and researcher Neal Pollock suggests that traditionally, people might assume that decompression risk would be low. And yet in this kind of cold water, with the divers under significant workloads, Pollock and his assistant Stefanie Martina are finding surprising decompression-stress indicators as they scan the divers.  What that means in terms of impact on dive tables and computers could be profound, potentially changing ideas on DCS that are currently based mostly on theory, not extensive field research.

So far the expedition has been a classic struggle between an unstoppable force and an immovable object. The unstoppable Bell Island Mine Quest discovery team has met the immovable object of brutal weather and so far has been able to prevail. Today, the team is relocating to Bell Island in an attempt to foil the weather gods, and we’ll feature more updates later in the week as this author finally dives the Bell Island Mine.