Bell Island, Newfoundland

Return to Bell Island

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A blossom in the scar of the torpedo hole.

A blossom in the scar of the torpedo hole.

In 2016, I embarked on the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s Expedition of the Year: The Hidden Geography of Newfoundland. This project documented little-known history when the Battle of the Atlantic arrived on North American shores. On two separate raids, U-boats sunk four vessels in Newfoundland waters and destroyed a loading pier for the strategic Bell Island iron ore mine. Recently, I received first-hand confirmation regarding rumors surrounding the involvement of a spy in the sinking of the vessels Saganaga and Lord Strathcona.

Newfoundland resident Lloyd Walker reached out to me to describe an encounter he had as a young boy while playing in the woods at Topsail Beach. While playing with his friends, the group of boys discovered a small clearing in the woods filled with things they could only imagine from comic books. A lean-to and fire pit were constructed in a glade littered with discarded tin cans. Lengthy wires draped from tree to tree and connected to a radio perched on a shelf. As they approached the equipment, a stranger in a dark turtleneck sweater and a dog chased them through the woods. Pursued beyond the woods and into a field, the man threw rocks striking one boy on the ankle. Finally reaching a road, the terrified children were picked up by a car and taken to report their experience to the Canadian Army field station in Topsail Beach. At that moment, nobody knew that the SS Saganaga and Lord Strathcona had just been sunk by torpedos fired from the U-boat 513 captained by Rolf Ruggeberg and that 29 men had lost their lives in the attack. The following day, the boys were interviewed again, and a strange man was picked up on Black Head Road.

Today the wrecks still reveal new clues about the past, but I have much happier memories than Lloyd Walker, who still bristles at the sight of a big black dog. As I perch my camera to take a shot of the location where a torpedo ripped open the hull of the PLM 27, I marvel at the delicate beauty of the sea anemones. A bouquet adorns the scar, beautifying the very spot where the ocean poured into the hull. We cannot forget the sacrifice that so many made during WWII. Soldiers, sailors, rescuers, and families still carry the weight of the fall of 1942, when Bell Island Newfoundland lost its innocence.

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Both of my Grandfather’s served their country in the “Great Wars.” My husband served in the US Navy Seabees. These men survived their ordeals and came home appearing to be in one piece. Yet, the unseen wounds of their sacrifice are difficult for those of us that did not serve to understand. For this Remembrance Day I will reflect on those that did not come home as well as those that left a piece of their body or soul in a place of conflict. Their sacrifices are unimaginable.

There are many people that made sacrifices that are little known to Canadians; some dying in explosive sinkings on our Canadian shores in 1942. This week, my diving friends at Ocean Quest Adventures in Newfoundland will place a wreath on the Bell Island shipwrecks to recognize the sacrifice of the men who perished after their four vessels were struck by U-Boat torpedoes. The deceased and the people who were rescued will be in our hearts this week. They and the countless other departed soldiers and veterans will be treasured for their sacrifice. We shall not forget.

Explorer in Residence

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In June 2016 I was named the first Explorer in Residence for the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. One of the major goals of the program will be to find funding that will enable school visits and online outreach to kids across Canada. I’ll be sharing the journey of exploration and encouraging kids to dream and discover their world. I’ll also be offering critical lessons about water literacy along the way. I created this video to support fundraising efforts in progress.

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Beaumont Hamel, July 1, 1916

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shell-beaumont-hamelIt may be a joyous Canada Day for some but others recall the tremendous sacrifices made by the Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont Hamel on July 1, 1916. Heritage Canada has a lengthy post that recognizes the first day of the Battle of the Somme, when most of the regiment was killed. The attack was a huge failure. That morning, almost 20,000 British troops died, and another 37,000 were wounded. The Newfoundland Regiment had been almost wiped out. When roll call was taken, only 68 men answered their names – 324 were killed, or missing and presumed dead, and 386 were wounded.


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Canadian Geographic Covers Women Explorers

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RCGScoverJill Heinerth graces the cover of this month’s Canadian Geographic Magazine. The edition hits newsstands July 4, 2016 and covers Canada’s Greatest Women Explorers. Jill Heinerth is featured as the new Explorer in Residence for the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

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Lord Strathcona

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The wreck of the Lord Strathcona leaves one speechless. It has become remarkable artificial reef. The anemones celebrate the fact that no men were lost on this ship. The crew was able to abandon ship and safely reach shore. Today the site has become incredible habitat and a colorful museum of war history. Wrecks in Newfoundland are well protected and today you can still see a radio on the upper deck, phonograph records and silverware inside the ship. Thanks to the conservation ethic, many more divers will be able to share in the beauty.

Sandra Clopp views the stern deck gun on the Lord Strathcona, adorned with life. The ship was sunk by U-513, under Kapitän-Leutnant Rolf Ruggeberg on September 5, 1942.

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Beating the Winds

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June 20, 2016

The solstice gives us the longest day of the year but we needed to start early to beat the howling winds that built through the day. Our first dive was on the Free French Vessel PLM27. It was sunk quickly and 12 crewmen were lost. The Uboat U-518 captained by K/L Friedrich Wissmann snuck away, escaping undetected beneath a corvette Drumheller and two Fairmile fast boats patrolling Conception Bay.

This was the second attack in Conception Bay and locals thought a spy had been involved. The captain of the PLM was not onboard the night his ship was sunk and had recently sold his piano to a Bell Island local. People wondered whether his loyalties were genuine since the Germans were occupying France. Perhaps the Nazis had turned the captain?

The second dive was on the Saganaga. This ship was sunk on September 4, 1942. U-513 captianed by Rolf Ruggerberg followed the Evelyn B into the Bell Island anchorage on the night of September 3 and waited quietly in 75 feet of water. In the morning it rose to periscope depth and sunk the Strathcona and the Saganaga. 29 crewmen, all form the Saganaga were killed while U-513 escaped on the surface.

My diving partner Sandra Clopp was using a Hollis PRISM2 rebreather. The rebreather recirculates our exhaled breath and removes carbon dioxide. We inject small bursts of oxygen to maintain a safe breathing gas. The device has an exothermic reaction that keeps us a little warmer that we would otherwise be in the near freezing water.

The anchor and the massive torpedo hole in the side of the PLM27.

A lumpfish guards his mate’s eggs.

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Back to Bell Island

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Thirty-five knot winds kept us off the boat today, but we took the opportunity to take new team members over to Bell Island to the mine. We met our dear friends Ed, Bernie and Bonnie and had some coffee and sandwiches before heading into the mine for a tour. We saw the plans for the new museum building which has just begun raising funds. They will need a lot of community support to reach their goal. They’re knitting hats, offering tours and working hard to find creative fundraising solutions.

It is hard to imagine the strength of the miners at Bell Island. They loaded 20 carts a day of 1.5 tons per cart before they were able to go home. On Fridays they tried to load 30 so they could go home early on Saturday and have one precious day at home before heading back to the mine Sunday night.

We had traditional fish and chips with dressing and gravy at Dick’s on the Wharf and then went off the road to the Grebe’s Nest to do some dry caving and exploring of the original mines that were cut at sea level. The rocks are a little treacherous and seeing tons of shale pancaked on top of ancient tram rails and machinery was a little sobering. In the distance we watched a grounded iceberg and hope we can dive it when the winds calm down.

It is good to be back here!

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Jill Heinerth Appears on The Social

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Why We Do It

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Carol daughter of Harold BickfordlPeople have often asked me why we explore places like the mine on Bell Island, Newfoundland. The project was named Expedition of the Year by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, but it is not honor and glory that compels us to explore. For me it was totally personal.

In 2013, my husband Robert McClellan and I bicycled across Canada sharing my film We Are Water in efforts to spread water literacy. When we neared the end of our ride, I phoned Rick Stanley who owned Ocean Quest Adventure Resort in Conception Bay South. Could we complete our ride at his business and home? Could he extend us the generosity of a warm bed at the end of a three month journey. Rick opened his arms wide, helped us arrange more outreach opportunities to tell our story of water conservation and introduced us to Newfoundland at the same time. It was the one corner of my country I knew very little about.

I did not know Rick Stanley, other than by reputation, prior to that phone call. But as with most Newfoundlanders, he practically gave us the shirt off his back and welcomed us in to a wonderful new family. Rick put us in his Zodiac boat and drove us to Bell Island. He showed us the war memorial and told the story of the shipwrecks sunk by Uboats in the nearby harbor. He took us to the mine and described the economic hardships that the islanders had faced. He was a proud, strong and affable character whose personal convictions could not help but sweep you off your feet.

StMichaelsSchoolGemma5643lI knew I needed to give back. The people of Newfoundland welcomed me into their homes and lives and now I want to share their story with others and give them more tools to develop their local economy. 15,000 people resided on Bell Island when the mine was fully operational. 3,000 strong souls remain today. Bell Islanders are a picture of what it means to be Canadian. When the mine closed, they struggled on. When the cod fishery collapsed, they helped each other prevail. Each time the economy fails this corner of our nation, they prove what being good neighbors is all about.

I was recently contacted by a man named Paul. He wanted to gift a photo to his Mother-in-Law Carol, daughter of Harold Bickford who toiled in the mine. Did I have a suitable photo I could share with them that could help her remember her Dad and connect with his sense of place? Carol shared her new picture that is now proudly hung on the wall of her home. It gave me goosebumps. If we can help connect more people with their sense of place and share this gem with more Canadians and the world, then our mission is accomplished.

Photos: Carol and her new wall art (top). Gemma Smith, team member, describes diving gear to kids in Bell Island during one of our school visits (bottom).

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