Top Mine Diving Destinations
By Gemma Smith
Broadly speaking, as divers we tend to class ourselves as a particular ‘type’ of scuba junkie. For some of us, it’s being a wreck-head, a cave (wo)man, or perhaps a fish-life fanatic that floats our particular boat. It’s often all too easy to limit ourselves to thinking of always diving just in these favoured environments. Remember there is so much more out there though! My particular interest, for instance, is for diving in flooded mines. For me, it has everything I love. The challenge and complexity of diving in an overhead environment? Big tick. The archaeological and historical intrigue normally associated with sunken shipwrecks but actually visible in all forms of industrial archaeology? A second big tick. Mine diving is a perfect blend of all that excites me. So to hopefully inspire you to go out and begin your own mine diving journey, here are my top mine diving destinations to wet your collective appetites:
I’m starting with one of the most iconic mine diving sites in the world. Even if you have never thought before about mine diving, or even diving in an overhead environment, chances are you will have heard of this place. Ojamo is an old limestone mine in the town of Lohja, some 60km from Finland’s capital city of Helsinki. Mining operations began here early in the 19th century. This continued until Finland entered the war with Russia in the late 1930’s, when it became a makeshift prison camp. Normal work resumed here in later years, but in the 1960s mining operations ceased for good, as operations moved to nearby mines. Over the past few decades, this mine has slowly filled with water. Finland itself doesn’t have any naturally formed caves. It’s partly because of this that Ojamo has become one of the most popular diving destinations in Scandinavia for technical divers, if not the world. And rightly so. Firstly this mine has, hands down, some of the coolest underwater structures to be found on a dive site. Hearing the names of areas such as ‘Hell’s Gate’ and ‘Lucifers Pillar’ still gives me shivers even now. The names are actually the least impressive thing about the place though. ‘Awesome’ is a word used too often, but in this instance, it’s well and truly deserved. Some of the tunnels are so big I literally can not see from one side of the mine to the other. I can’t pretend that the 4 degree Celsius water found in the mine year round isn’t ‘refreshing’. It is more than a fair price to pay for the clarity of the water though. The visibility seems never to end. Amenities for divers have grown better and better over the years. Large heated changing rooms are now available, and a spacious yet cosy habitat sits at 6m/20ft. Honestly, this makes any deco you may have bearable, if not comfortable even. This habitat makes a great place to sit, off gas, warm up, and replay again and again in your head the truly unbeatable diving you have just experienced.
Bell Island Mine
A very different type of mine from Ojamo, but an equally intriguing one nonetheless. Bell Island, Newfoundland, first came to industrial attention several hundred years ago. Records dating back as early as the 1500’s document the discovery of iron ore here by a British merchant. For many years after, the iron ore industry on Bell Island grew. The work the mine provided allowed a whole vibrant community to flourish in this slightly off the beaten track location. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last. Between the start of World War One and then the Great Depression, mining on Bell Island was hard hit. Finally, the competition in other areas just became too fierce. Bell Island iron ore became financially unviable, and the mine shut its doors in the mid-1960’s for the final time. With pumps no longer in operation, the water levels quickly rose and flooded the passages. From this, an intricate and sprawling underwater maze made of the many miles of interconnecting tunnels was created. It is partly the sudden closing of the mine that has added to the intrigue of this place. At Christmas time workers ended their shifts as normal. Long hours and hard physical work meant they were more than ready to take a few days off over the holiday season. The return to their jobs was never to happen though. In the days that passed over Christmas, it was determined that the mine was not suitably profitable. The owners shut it down. What is left behind is now a window onto a fixed moment in the past. A real-life time capsule of industrial archaeology. For me what makes the diving so special is the human stories behind what can be seen here. As well as the impressive mining equipment still to see (think steam engines and ore carts still looking as though they could be used), it’s the personal items I think that are the most touching. A lone boot, lost or abandoned by its owner all those years back, a scrawled graffiti on the wall, or even a small white cross scratched on the wall. Accidents sadly were not uncommon with this dangerous work. Entrance to this site is, rather aptly, through the Bell Island Museum. For a truly personal and touching glimpse into this period in time, Bell Island really is hard to beat.
Sweden’s Classic Trio
Sweden has many world-class Mine dives, but without a doubt, the ‘Classic Three’ are Sala, Tuna Hastberg and Langban. Each of these definitely has it’s own unique character and feel. What makes all three stand out though is the amount of industrial archeological remains that can still be seen both above and below the water.
Langban is controlled by a club type organisation, with the support and permission of the Mine Museum. This resource right on the doorstep is a great way of learning more about the industry that took place here. For those history geeks who may be interested, the mine village is also the birthplace of John Ericsson. This incredible man was the inventor of the screw propellor, as well as the Monitor class of battleships. For the discerning diver who appreciates such things, the Museum to his memory is of great interest for those who love their wrecks, as well as mines and caves. Langbans has many open shafts to the surface, including the Nya Schaktet (New Shaft) and the Loka Schaktet (Closed Shaft). The Loka Schaktet and the Nya Schaktet both have starring roles in most dives. They are passed at various levels by most divers. One of these open shafts is actually the diving entrance here. Fitted with kitting up benches and stairs into the entrance pool, it is more than worthy of any Florida-style cave dive. The mine has primary dive levels at 20m/65ft and 50m/164ft, with other secondary tunnels between these to also explore. One of the things that make Langbans so special is the quantity and quality of artefacts to be seen! Tools, railway tracks, wagons and ore carts, water pumps, elevators, and control panels, as well as incredible hanging bridges, can all be viewed.
Sala Mine is a popular tourist destination as a dry mine tour and museum. The experiences involve descending deep into the earth in a mine elevator to then be guided around the dry tunnels in the level just above the current water level. As with Langbans much of the surface infrastructure remains. Sala is also access controlled by a club type organisation who work with the Mine Museum. A guide is required for first time visiting divers. The tour follows routes through sections of the old mine. Some parts of these were hand dug by pick, shovel, and lots of muscle! Horse footprints are still seen on the floor!! Wooden drainage adits, buckets, and barrels lie randomly around. These were used to hand drain the mine in early times… amazing what will be done just for the chance of finding silver!
Tuna Hastberg is a commercial run site with a variety of activities. This includes an underground Via Ferrata mine tour (very Indiana Jones!). The water level is deep below the surface, so all gear is loaded into an original mine elevator and lowered down to dive base level. From here trolleys are used to take gear horizontally to the dive area. Kitting up benches and a heated briefing and dry changing room are provided. This is necessary as the mine at depth is well below the permanently frozen ground, and chilly! The diving is just staggering. The water has unending visibility and numerous levels to dive. Water temperatures in all three mines are fairly constant year round. It varies from 2 degrees Celsius in Sala, to 4 Degrees Celsius in Tuna Hastberg, to a balmy 6 Degrees Celsius in Langban. Get proper exposure protection though (drysuits, dry gloves, and heated vests) and you’ll find this classic trio truly to be immensely enjoyable and totally unforgettable.