Bell Island

Return to Bell Island

By | All Posts, Bell Island, Newfoundland, Sidemount Diving, Underwater Photo and Video, Women Underwater | No Comments
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.

Share Button

Lord Strathcona

By | All Posts, Bell Island, Newfoundland | No Comments

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.

Share Button

Back to Bell Island

By | All Posts, Bell Island, Newfoundland | No Comments

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!

Share Button

Why We Do It

By | All Posts, Bell Island, Newfoundland | No Comments

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).

Share Button

Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly Recognizes Bell Island Expedition

By | All Posts, Bell Island, Newfoundland | No Comments

On March 10, 2016, the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly recognized the Bell Island Expedition, mentioning the honor of being the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s Expedition of the Year. The MLA specifically recognized Rick Stanley and Ocean Quest Adventures for their part in making the project possible and bringing a future cultural heritage and tourism opportunity to the region.

The Geography and History of Bell Island Mine

By | All Posts, Bell Island, Newfoundland | No Comments

In 2004, the Department of Natural Resources, Mines Branch for Newfoundland and Labrador produced a report that described some of the history and geography of the Bell Island Mine.

The presence of iron ore on Bell Island was first recorded in the late 16th century, but it was not until the 1890’s that the Bell Island deposits attracted the attention of entrepreneurs and mining interests. By 1892, the deposits had come under the control of the Butler family of Topsail, who brought in agents of the New Glasgow Iron, Coal and Rail Company of Nova Scotia. Scotia opened the first mine on Bell Island in the summer of 1895 with local miners quarrying and hand-cobbing the ore from the lowermost of the three iron-rich beds. In 1899, the Whitney Company (latterly called the Dominion Iron and Steel Corporation or Dosco) acquired the rights to the lower and upper beds on land, and 776 hectares of submarine claims to a distance of 1.6 kilometres from the shoreline. The Scotia Company retained all rights seaward of the Dosco ground.

In 1902, the surface exposures of the Lower and Middle Beds were mined out and underground production began. Access to the submarine iron ore deposits was gained via 4 portal down-dip slopes equipped with conveyor haulage to the surface. The mine workings would eventually extend 15 square km under Conception Bay with recoveries from room and pillar panels ranging from 50 to 63 per cent, depending on physical conditions.

Mining of the Wabana submarine iron deposits spanned a period of 73 years, until closure on June 30, 1966. During its lifetime, Wabana shipped over 80 million tonnes of raw and upgraded iron ore to Canada, Germany, the United States, Belgium and Holland. Until the 1950’s, Wabana was the sole source of iron for the Sydney steel mills.

At the time of closure, Wabana was facing the late-life crisis of all evolving mines; increasing pressure to improve productivity, and demands for a higher quality product in a changing world market place. As iron ore smelters world-wide converted to the new smelting technology, the demand for direct shipping ore began to shrink, and the high silica and phosphorous contents of the Wabana ore made it an unattractive product. Research to improve the ore grade and remove contaminants had been under way for some time but the changes were never implemented.

The Wabana and Bell Island Groups of the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland consist of fossiliferous Lower Ordovician shales and sandstones, with many intercalated oolitic hematite beds, dipping 8 to 11 degrees north-northwest (Hayes, 1928; Anson, 1951; Coughlan, 1965; Buchan and Hodych, 1982; and Ranger, Pickergill and Fillion, 1984).

Share Button

Escape from Bell Island – The Sequel

By | All Posts, Bell Island, Newfoundland | No Comments

We had a very productive morning with efficient deployment of the dive teams. Cas Dobbin and I did a 2-hour dive with the goal of reaching major targets in the 120 foot depth range and taking still photos. Steve Lewis lead the survey team with Sabine Kerkau and John Olivero, while Phil Short and Gemma Smith pushed the gold line further out. About an hour into our dive we crossed paths with Gemma and Phil and took photos of them at work then met Steve’s team during our decompression.

After the dive, Cas and I began our medical scans while I spoke with a reporter from Canadian Geographic Magazine. Soon after we received word that we needed to get off the island early in case of transport issues for the ferry. It is a transitional time right now for the Bell Island Ferry system. A new ferry named Legionnaire is coming online for the 100 anniversary of devastating battle that took place in the First World War. The Newfoundland Regiment advanced on Beaumont Hamel on the morning on July 1, 1916 losing the majority of their regiment during the battle of the Somme. In a single 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. Each day as we travel to and from Bell Island, we are ferried on a vessel named Beaumont Hamel.

In order to circumvent any delays from commuting, we made a team decision to book lodging on Bell Island for the remainder of our dives. Kind owners of the Grand Wabana Inn have offered to take us in so we won’t be facing weather delays. Tomorrow weathermen are predicting 100 kph winds and significant rain. Getting off Bell Island would be unlikely. So we will hunker down in the Grand Wabana Inn and see if we experience any of their fabled ghost sightings.

Share Button

Sharing a Toothbrush

By | All Posts, Bell Island, Newfoundland | No Comments

Good friends will share a toothbrush when they need to. Even better friends trudge through the snow to buy one for each friend unable to make it home in the snow squall. (Thanks Cas Dobbin)

We lined up for the ferry off Bell Island at 6pm thinking that an early night would help facilitate an early start tomorrow. Unfortunately, a squall has prevented the ferry from taking us back to Portugal Harbour. We’re stranded on the island and have started to barter survival items. I thought I could barter a headlamp and a full oxygen tank for the morning dive. Others offered fresh dry socks.

Steve Lewis, Cas Dobbin and Sabine Kerkau and I are dressed in some variation of dry suit undergarments and ski jackets. Steve thinks that he looks like he just popped out of a New York dance club. We have called around and found an inn that will take us all. They are trying to find a cook and some food, but we have a small convenience store that is still open as a backup plan.

Neal Pollock and Stefanie Martina from DAN are much cleaner than any of us! Rick Stanley took a couple of slips on the muddy floors today, so he wins the grime contest. Mark McGowan flew in from Curacao this morning and came straight to the mine to help out. For his efforts, he has joined in the mass stranding too.

But seriously, if I ever had to be stranded with a group of people, this is a really nice one!

Share Button

Mine Clean Up Continues

By | All Posts, Bell Island, Newfoundland | No Comments

Volunteers Mark ( Magoo) McGowan, John ( Johnny O) Olivero, Nick Dawe, Kyle Morgan and Rick Stanley were hard at work in Bell Island Mine #2 preparing it for the upcoming cave diving expedition in February. Ultimately, they intend to build the infrastructure that will permit safe cave diving operations for qualified visiting divers. Leaving in the early morning hours, the team took the ferry from Portugal Cove to Bell Island and drove to the access point at the Mine #2 Museum. All equipment had to be hand-carried 750 feet down the shaft to the future site of the diving platform. They installed temporary lighting and held safety briefings with master craftsman and Safety Advisor Ron Reid. Reid and the team also identified and removed some loose rock from the ceiling and walls before the heavy work began after lunch. With a solid day of manual labor using shovels and pick axes, everyone developed a new respect for the efforts of the men who worked the mine for a lifetime.

The exploration team wishes to thank all the hard working volunteers in addition to the dedicated staff from Bell Island Heritage…Teresita ( Teddy) McCarthy, Des McCarthy, and Tom Spracklin.

Share Button

Team Working Hard in Mine to Prepare for Cave Diving

By | All Posts, Bell Island, Newfoundland, Cave Diving, Rebreather Diving, Sidemount Diving, Women Underwater | No Comments

The team at Ocean Quest Adventures is hard at work preparing for the upcoming cave diving expedition that will establish safe guidelines and infrastructure for future visiting divers. An amazing group of volunteers is putting in lot of hard labor installing the following:

1/ Extending waterline by aprox 1000 feet for controlled water hose and electrical for lighting.
2/ Cleaning off 125 feet of mineshaft 4-6 feet wide for a walkway to staging area.
3/ Cleaning a 12×12 area for staging and benches along column pillar.
4/ Building benches and seats along pillar area or install HD picnic tables.
5/ Building and install 4x 24′ foot dock system so to have on dry slope going into water with 6 feet of water depth at end.
6/ Ramsetting 10 posts and 100 feet of rail starting from wood step landing area for rigid 100′ to staging area.
7/ Pressure wash all to have clean with no rust or mud in any of area.

For further information on the project visit: www.IntoThePlanet.com/Newfoundland

Share Button