Exploring the Heart of Bell Island

Jill Heinerth swims down a mine tunnel, documenting artifacts.

My heart skips a beat as I descend into the chocolate-brown water at the entrance to the Bell Island mines in Conception Bay, Newfoundland. A freak winter gale has washed more than 3 feet of brown runoff into the mines during the night. Our floating dock is stuck to the ceiling, and the diver prep area is submerged beneath an inflowing river of melted snow. It's bone-chillingly cold, the visibility is low, and I am lugging a large camera, lights and strobes to capture images in water that I hope will be clear a few hundred feet into the submerged passages.

Cas Dobbin approaches the anchor hanging from the bow of the wreck PLM 27.
The Royal Canadian Geographical Society has honored our project as its 2016 Expedition of the Year, recognizing our efforts to reveal the unseen depths of Canadian geography. The Explorers Club has granted Flag #80 to our mission, likewise acknowledging the importance of sharing the secret, submerged assets of Bell Island.

Few people know that Bell Island was attacked during World War II. In 1942 German U-boats blitzed the island twice in attempts to disrupt the flow of the high-grade iron ore being extracted from the mines. Raiding U-boats sunk the SS Saganaga, the SS Lord Strathcona, the SS Rose Castle and the Free French vessel PLM 27, and they blew up the loading wharf on Bell Island. In all, 70 men were killed, and the region's inhabitants were awakened to their precarious position on the front lines of the Battle of the Atlantic.

The goals of our project are ambitious. We are establishing a visual archive of the history that was submerged when the first mine closed in 1949 and the last mine closed in 1966. With no inventory of mine assets, we'll be the first to reveal the cultural history that was abandoned when it became too expensive to continue the extraction of ore. In addition to documenting the mechanical and engineering history of the mine, we will be collecting biological samples from ferrous oxidizing bacterial colonies and hydrogen sulfide pools for DNA analysis. For me the greatest revelations of all will come from physiological examinations conducted by a team of scientists led by DAN® research director Neal Pollock, Ph.D.
Inner Space
After each dive we rush to stow our gear as quickly as possible and move up the 650-foot slope to the public museum area of Mine #2. Pollock and Stefanie Martina have set up a makeshift lab where they are poised to poke, prod and query our bodies and minds. I peel off a sweaty heated drysuit undergarment and lay prone on a mattress while Martina preps a cold ultrasound probe to place onto my ribcage. She gently rotates the device to find her landmark, and a miraculous image appears on the screen. I watch my beating heart, the valves of which look like a downward-swimming mermaid in a black void. Martina doesn't have to tell me that my mermaid is navigating a field of bubbles on the right side of the heart. My decompression stress is clearly visible as rogue white dots that bounce off the walls and move upward on the screen.

The first time I see it I am slightly alarmed. I feel great, but Martina informs me I am showing grade IIIb on the scale of bubbles (0, I, II, IIIa, IIIb, IVa, IVb, IVc and V, with 0 being no visible bubbles and V being a whiteout). I assure her that I am an open book and am ready to publicly share every detail of my results. The questions begin pouring out of me: Have I been bubbling for my last 7,000 dives? Is this happening after most or all of my dives, or is it particular to these cold, physical dives? How closely correlated are these bubbles with decompression sickness (DCS)? Pollock is generous with his educational offerings but careful to explain that these investigations are anecdotal. We're all guinea pigs in this world of technical diving, trying to apply mathematical probabilities to an infinite set of parameters encompassing bodies, plans and diving history. We can't conclude which of the myriad factors were most important in leading to my bubbles after so few dives — or even know if the bubbles might cause long-term issues — but we can certainly try to reduce stress in future dives in many ways.

Pollock tells me about research that was done on commercial divers in the 1960s and 1970s, when many occupational divers were experiencing dysbaric osteonecrosis. This condition involves lesions of dead tissue in long bones such as the humerus (upper arm) and femur (thigh). An extensive monitoring program of North Sea divers led to changes in diving protocols that resulted in a reduction in the frequency of cases. Three factors were identified as important risk factors at the time: a history of repeated dives below 165 feet, a history of DCS and a pattern of diving profiles that could be considered experimental. That sounds much like technical diving today, which is the reason Pollock started this study. We tech divers are an odd lot, participating in an edgy aquatic experiment with our bodies over time.

Neal Pollock examines expedition diver Steve Lewis using 3-D ultrasound.

The battery of tests, which lasts for two hours after each dive, includes collection of blood for microparticle analysis (cell fragments in the blood that could show signs of decompression stress), collection of DNA samples for epigenetic study (analysis of how stress factors can reprogram gene expression) and testing of lung function.

The tests also include questionnaires about our dives. Were we comfortable? Were we using active or passive heating? Was our exertion level high or low? For me, the questions bring insight and revelations about my personal diving protocols. I have always assumed that a warm and cozy diver would be a safe diver, yet my active heating efforts could be promoting increased ongassing of inert gas during the deepest portions of my dives. As I chill during decompression, relatively still in the cold meltwater, I might not be offgassing as effectively as I thought. Or perhaps my additional exertion when taking photographs means added decompression stress. Diving with me is like walking a dog. I swim laps around my subjects to get a shot, shifting my vertical position in the water column while panting and handling heavy camera gear. I suppose it's no surprise that my hardest photo and video dives netted the highest bubble scores.

One might ask how Pollock's research could ever result in valid conclusions if every dive is such an uncontrolled mess of variables. It might be tough to publish, but the value of his mission goes far beyond a published article in a scientific journal. His most important work may be to reveal to the diving community that even if we feel great and follow what we believe to be a conservative algorithm, we may still face risks now or later in life. His questions and careful observations create a framework for education and discussions in the technical diving community. We really don't know a lot about our experimental technical dives, but if we can push for more research in this field, we should be able to improve our understanding and safety in the future.

I've emerged from the heart of Bell Island with an indelible image in my mind. My downward-facing heart-valve mermaid is strong, but I don't want to see her navigating a field of bubbling blood again. I know I need to make some changes that can reduce my decompression stress. I'm going to re-evaluate how or whether I choose to use active heating on cold-water dives. I'm going to add more light exercise to my decompression hangs and lengthen my last decompression stop. I hope that with more of this cutting-edge research we'll acquire better data to enlighten our community and usher in a set of safer protocols.
Into the Murky Depths
The chocolate-brown water yields to a wispy veil of vaporous white. A dive light casts a warm glow in the distance, and I emerge into clear water that reveals a 17-foot-high tunnel with squared-off walls. A pair of rusting metal pipes covered in gelatinous silt lures us deeper down the shaft, and a hulk of gears and wheels takes form in the dark room ahead of us. We find a large pump system and a junction of broken pipes and gear. Cas Dobbin, an engineer in the oil and gas industry, looks around at the equipment, noting the broken valves and severed connections. He files away the information for later, trying to create a picture of how steam pipes and dewatering equipment allowed this mine to function.


Cas Dobbin photographs the SS Saganaga.
note a caricature and name on the wall. Apparently James Bennett had an idle moment while working in the mines and painted his own pipe-smoking visage on the wall in lamp black. I photograph our targets and begin the inventory of the abandoned mine that was vacated so quickly that nobody bothered to take stock before allowing it to flood. Around another corner, a small white cross on the wall gives us pause. A miner died here, perhaps from a rock fall or from being run over by an ore cart that plunged down the slope on the tracks below us, now buried under silt.

The first phase of our project concludes; we remove the safety tanks from the mine and sum up our successes. We've laid the essential guidelines that will be necessary for future visiting divers. We have begun the enormous task of documenting the submerged industrial artifacts and will now begin to share our findings with the world. The tiny community of Bell Island will once again become widely known. The descendants of the miners generously recount the folklore of the region, welcoming a new wave of curious visitors to explore the mines and wrecks, diving through time to touch the face of history.
Learn More
For more information, visit www.IntoThePlanet.com/Newfoundland or www.BellIslandMines.com.
Explore More
See more of the Bell Island expedition in Jill Heinerth's online photo gallery and in the videos below.

© Alert Diver — Q2 Spring 2016