The diving appeal of the Bell Island Wrecks and Iron Ore Mine

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OK, before drilling into a few of the real benefits and surprises waiting for us when we decide on International Dive Travel, and certainly one of the most interesting associations with “foreign lands” in my diving career, we need to walk through a very quick geography lesson, followed by an equally brief history lesson!

Newfoundland is a big island off the east coast of North America. In fact, it is the most easterly point in the whole of North America and Signal Hill outside of Newfoundland’s capital St. John’s is where Marconi set-up his apparatus to receive the first radio signal sent skipping across the Atlantic from Cornwall, England in 1901. Like most of that part of the world, Newfoundland is rich in Celtic culture thanks to the influence of its early Ulster-Scot settlers, and the locals still sound more Irish than American. The waters surrounding the island are chilly (think icebergs drifting down from nearby Greenland… even in June!), are filled with the most amazing marine life — including many species of whale and are home to four of my favorite shipwrecks… anywhere in the world. We’ll get to those in a few moments.

When the Second World War erupted in Europe, Newfoundland — which today is a Canadian province — was part of Great Britain. Hence, when that country’s Prime Minister declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939, Newfoundland was automatically part of the Allied headcount. Canada followed close behind them, but it was not until a very closely fought referendum ten years later in 1949, that Newfoundland joined the Canadian Federation to become one of its ten provinces.

So, what about those wrecks? Just outside of the city of St. John’s in the middle of Conception Bay sits a small blob of land called Bell Island, and Bell Island had a very productive mine that exported iron ore to steel mills in several countries including those in Cape Breton, Canada. At the outbreak of war, these mills a little to the south in Nova Scotia, accounted for about a third of Canada’s steel production. With shipments from the Bell Island Mine to German factories cut off because of the war, it was inevitable at some point that the Germans would attempt to interrupt production and throw a “spanner in the works” for the Allied war effort. And interrupt they did.

On the night of September 4th, 1942, a German U-Boat sneaked into the anchorage at Wabana, Bell Island where ships loaded ore to be carried away to various “customers”. The next morning and within sight of the guns of the Bell Island Battery, the U-Boat sank two ore carriers moored at the loading docks: SS Saganaga and SS Lord Strathcona. Twenty-nine men were killed in the attack, all of the victims were seamen aboard the Saganaga.

The Battle of the Atlantic had suddenly come to within a few hundred metres of North America’s shoreline.

The strategic importance of the mines on Bell Island did not diminish of course, and just a couple of months after the first attack, a second U-Boat crept into Wabana and found several ore carriers at anchor.

The U-boat captain fired a torpedo at the 3000-ton Anna T. It missed and exploded ashore ripping into part of the loading dock and disturbing the sleep of many inhabitants on the island. In the next several minutes, two more torpedoes were fired at SS Rose Castle. Rose Castle sank, taking twenty-eight of her crew with her, five of whom were native Newfoundlanders. The Free French vessel PLM 27 was the second target. She sank almost as soon as a torpedo hit, taking twelve men to the bottom of the bay with her.

In the space of less than 15 minutes, two ships, several thousand tons of ore and 40 men had been lost. The U-boat escaped even though there were three allied navy escort vessels in the area.

The four Bell Island wrecks sit today at reasonable depths (the PLM 27 the shallowest at around 23 metres / 75 feet, the Rose Castle the deepest at 43 metres / 145 feet), and within a radius of a few minutes boat ride of each other and only a stone’s throw from land.

When I was first invited to dive the Bell Island wrecks, I must admit that Newfoundland seemed as remote to me as the dark side of the moon. Newfoundland was’ at least in my ignorance, nothing but folk singers, remote fishing communities, moose, and wild, wild countryside battered by strong winds and salt spray off the North Atlantic. Through a number of visits over the following few years, I discovered that it was all of this and so much more.

The wrecks were one of the first surprises. Four shipwrecks each more interesting and more crammed with history than the last. After the first handful of dives, I christened the area Truk Lagoon North. Perhaps using a little poetic license but the things that seemed common to both areas were history, the awe inspiring evidence of the destructive power of torpedoes, the sadness of the lives lost, and the contrasting beauty of the creatures that had made the wrecks their home. Like many divers, I have a fascination with WWII casualties and the story all wrecks have to tell those with time enough to listen. Like the Japanese fleet in Truk, The Bell Island wrecks are master story-tellers.

One of the best pieces of luck I had on my first visit to Newfoundland and Bell Island was meeting Rick Stanley. Rick is a proud local who owns and operates Ocean Quest Resort, which was home-base for our group during our visits. Rick is a strong advocate for all things Tourism for Newfoundland, and almost single-handedly has promoted responsible diving on the wrecks, as well as campaigning to have them designated as a war grave and a protected site. He and his staff, made our group welcome and introduced us to local hospitality… including the infamous Screeching In ceremony.

Screeching In is when visitors (people from away, is how the locals refer to tourists) are made honorary Newfoundlanders. Space prohibits a blow-by-blow account of a true Screech In ceremony but proceedings include strong rum, eating local delicacies such as cod-tongue, hard-tack (ship’s biscuit) and dried capelin (a small smelt), singing, dancing, and “kissing the cod” which really does involve getting close and personal with a large dead Atlantic Cod (gadus morhua). Having survived being “Screeched In” during several trips, I can honestly say, it is one of the most bizarre and funniest things I’ve done because of diving.

Partway through my third trip to dive the Bell Island Wrecks, Rick Stanley asked me if I would be interested in putting together a group of divers “Capable of exploring the Bell Island Mine.” Of course I said yes.

The mines were abandoned when it was no longer economically viable to operate them; but the closure was oddly abrupt.

The mines on Bell Island opened for commercial mining in late 19th century and were once the world’s largest submarine iron ore mine with passages occupying an area under the seabed of Conception Bay roughly five kilometers by five kilometers or approximately nine square miles in size.

The mine that Rick was interested in having surveyed and accessed — and that was the project’s main aim — had been closed since Christmas 1949. The story goes that the workers downed tools for the holiday and were never allowed back into the workings.

Rick and the Bell Island Historical Society were curious to have a team of divers explore the mine system — or as much of it as practical in the 12 days available — and look for evidence of cave-in, collapse, artifacts and other things that might interest a different type of visitor than the ones currently coming to the mine museum sitting at the old entrance to Mine Shaft Two.

The questions they wanted answers to where simple: can it be dived? Is it interesting enough to attract divers? Are conditions supportable for regular visitors? There were some side issues that needed to be addressed, but the hope was to open up a unique form of adventure tourism for the island and its economy. With a background in Tourism Marketing, I was certainly curious enough to take Rick up on his offer and set about building a team that would be able to pull things off. After a simple exploratory dive in July of 2006, we set a target date for the following January/February, and started planning.

Our goal was to investigate as much of the inundated mine as practical within the short time available. We knew the water would be cold, and because of the surface support needed, we also knew that our efforts would have to be focused on a time when normal tourist activity would not interfere; and that meant winter which also would be cold.

I was lucky to find the perfect group of men and women who were not daunted by the challenges that the season, the logistics, and the challenging dive site would present to us.

Newfoundland in the heart of winter is an interesting study. Stuck as it is with both feet in the Northern Atlantic, and its face weather-beaten by winds coming off the glaciers of Greenland or Labrador, it is not for the faint-hearted. Several of the team where Brits whose experience with a real Canadian winter had been limited to movies and books, got to experience a true winter storm on arrival and several of us had plane delays getting into St John’s airport. My plane was almost on the runway but the pilot aborted and we headed back to Halifax International with our tail between our legs and our hearts in our mouths.

But eventually, all 16 of us were together in the lounge at Ocean Quest Resort, sorting gear, knotting line, and pumping gas.

During the following two weeks, the team surveyed the mine looking for any evidence of cave-in or collapse in the mine shaft and laid permanent guidelines from the surface along the main shaft to a depth of approximately 30 metres. The seam of iron ore slopped at an angle of approximately ten degrees and continued many thousands of metres under the overlay of ocean floor below Conception Bay. In addition to the main line, four ‘jump lines’ were laid in side passages. The initial plan was to extend these side passages (roughly horizontal) approximately 300 metres east and west of the main shaft. Overall a total of 2km of line was laid in the mine.

The search for artifacts left behind when the mine was abandoned turned up mine equipment, personal effects such as lunch boxes, and we discovered graffiti, drawn by the miners using the soot from their carbide lamps. The system was mapped sufficiently to enable the conclusion that the mine would make a challenging diving destination for cave divers to explore.

Every overhead environment presents divers with a number of challenges well beyond the scope of recreational diving. As well as the obvious threats to the team’s well-being — gas management, navigation, light, depth and the cold — the health of one of our team played a role. On Sunday, February 4, Joe Steffen, well-known in the diving communities in both the Great Lakes and North Florida, suffered a massive embolism and died. Joe perished in a few metres of water just a couple of minutes from the surface operations. Ironically “Iron Man” had an undiagnosed problem with his lungs which did not show up during a medical he’d had before joining the team from his home in Ohio, and attempts to revive him at the dive site and the medical facility adjacent to the mine were unsuccessful.

We lost a great buddy, and Joe — a career police office — left behind a wife and young son, and many, many friends.

In consultations with the various sponsors — which included TDI, Fourth Element, Whites, the NACD, and Ocean Quest — as well as local authorities, the exploration of the Bell Island Mine continued and its success was dedicated to Joe’s memory.

The following year, Joe’s widow, Jennifer, visited Bell Island for a memorial service which included two of the team (Mike Fowler and Steve Lewis) placing a memorial plaque and an urn containing Joe’s ashes in the main shaft of Bell Island Mine No. 2.

Tourists continue to visit the Mine and divers enjoy the four wrecks that sit above its vast network of passages, but underwater operations at the mine await further work.

The Team: Rick Stanley, Debbie Stanley, David Sawatsky, Phil Short, Ralph Hoskins, Vlada Dekina, Dave Clemmens, David Powell, Mark McGowan, Stephen Phillips, Aaron Bruce, Mike Fowler, Joe Steffen, Steve Moore, Susan Copp, Steve Lewis

article by Steve Lewis

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2 Responses to The diving appeal of the Bell Island Wrecks and Iron Ore Mine

  1. Steve Lewis says:

    When I wrote this piece I neglected to mention that Joe Steffen also left a daughter, Lindsey. My deepest apologies.

  2. Linda Steffen says:

    Thanks for acknowledging Lindsey now. Merry Christmas- we all miss Joe alot! Linda

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