Not your average cave dive…

Author Steve Lewis exploring Bell Island Mine
Steve Lewis exploring Bell Island Mine

One of the first people to dive Bell Island Mine was a long-time friend and cave-diving buddy, Erik van Dorn. He was with us when we did a “proof of concept” dive in the summer of 2006.

We didn’t swim for long, just far enough to get some idea about the conditions. We laid a little line, found what looked like the remains of a small shed or stable, left a Newfoundland and Labrador provincial flag, and were back on the surface within 35 minutes.

He called me this morning to wish the team luck for our latest adventure, and he mentioned something that got me thinking about the differences and similarities between diving in a mine, in a cave and exploring the inside of a wreck.

Certainly it got me thinking about the first few dives we did. And the surprising number of artifacts we found… from downed tools and mine machinery, to graffiti written on mine walls with soot from miner’s lamps, and memorials for miners who lost their lives working the ore and trying to put bread on their family’s table.

That’s the sort of thing you simply don’t find in a cave.


Memorial to an absent team member

In February 2007, Joe Steffen suffered a massive embolism while exploring the Bell Island Mine, and passed away a few metres from the surface in the main shaft were today a memorial cross bears his name. Joe, a popular and respected figure in both the cave and wreck-diving communities, had an undiagnosed health issue, which was discovered during the medical examination following his death. The original exploration team’s medical officer (Dr. David Sawatzky), suggested that Joe’s passing would have been instantaneous, and probably caused by an ascent that would not have been an issue for a healthy diver.

Joe Steffen, Mine Quest team member in memoriam
Joe Steffen

The family Joe left behind, the original exploration team, the Bell Island Heritage Society, Bell Island Mine Museum, and the community of Bell Island, decided to continue the expedition back in 2007. We figured we owed it to Joe to push on.

This February, almost exactly on the ninth anniversary of Joe’s death, another team will be continuing the work begun in 2007. The hope remains that by opening the submerged area of the mine to guided tours similar to those conducted above the water line, a new group of visitors will have access to something truly unique in Canada.

With that in mind, and with the permission and support of Jennifer, Joey, Lindsey, and Linda, the members of the 2016 Mine Quest Team are dedicating this year’s expedition to Joe’s memory… RIP, mate: we think of you often.


The scope for exploration…

Bell island Mine Quest
The 2007 project put down approximately two kilometres of line shown in black.

One of the Bell Island Mine Quest team recently asked those of us who were part of the original expedition, how much of the network of passages is there left to explore… “Not the deep stuff running off for kilometers, but shallower stuff accessible to cave divers?”

Fair question and one that’s probably best illustrated by comparing the area we explored during our 2007 project, with a plan of the working area of the mine contained in the Bell Island Museum.

The “green map” shows the scope of our original exploration with the black lines representing gold line laid during our ten-day expedition.

The larger diagram below, shows that map overlaid on a partial map of the Bell Island Mine Workings that’s on display in the Bell Island Museum.

As you can see, the possibilities are almost limitless. For the record, the deepest 2007 dives went to approximately 55 metres / 178 feet, and lined approximately two kilometers (about 6,500 feet) of passages.

Bell Island Mine... size of explored area
What we’ve visited compared to what’s there…

More construction around water level

The volunteer team added to the workplace infrastructure yesterday and today.Approach to water level in Bell Island Mine

The plans call for a boardwalk down to the water’s edge and an entry platform on the water’s surface so that divers can get into the water without silting things out.

Unlike the vertical or near vertical shafts found in many mines, the iron ore seam on Bell Island slopes at a roughly ten degree angle.

During past exploration, the dive teams getting into the water and beginning their dives had to wade for quite a distance before being able to float themselves and their kit. At the end of a “workday” the visibility in the water column from around three metres to the surface could be zero.

Getting measured for work platform
measuring for the work platform
Bell Island Mine shaft
excellent lighting for the work area

This slope, and the average height of the mine workings — approximately three metres/ten feet — makes for a slow descent and ascent… If you recall your High-school trigonometry and sine, cosine, tangent calculations, getting to a depth of 40 metres (130 feet and around the maximum for most of our planned exploration) requires a swim of approximately 230 metres / 750 feet.


Decompression Stress Study

Mine Quest Bell Island HeritageOne of the team goals for this February’s dives are to explore new passages and add to the two kilometers of line we laid during the 2007 project.

But we also want to “do some science.”

Of particular interest to any readers who dive or have friends and family who dive, is that members of our dive team will be part of a study monitoring decompression stress. Data will be collected from two-dimensional echo imaging ultrasound will be used to detect bubbles on both sides of the heart. Also, venous blood draws and buccal swabs will be collected to study stress responses. Study subjects will wear data loggers on all dives to capture their profiles, and information about the dive will be downloaded from PDCs and CCR controllers.

In addition, and in respect to ‘other markers’, changes in gene expression as a response to diving and epigenetic signatures related to repetitive diving will be collected.

Volunteers will have restricted activity for a two hour window after every dive, and will report for three minutes of scanning in every 20 minute time block during those two hours.
The research team will also collect onsite physical state and functional fitness measures before diving begins. Height, weight, skinfold thickness, pushups, situps, and range of motion cover most of the measures.

We hope that although the sample is small and the vastly diverse in age, gender, fitness level, and dive experience, useful information on decompression stress and its successful management will be the outcome of this aspect of the expedition.

The team leading these endeavors will be:
Neal W. Pollock, Ph.D., Research Director, Divers Alert Network
Dawn Kernagis, PhD, Research Scientist, The Institute for Human & Machine Cognition (IHMC) – Pensacola, FL

Every Project Needs a LOGO!

Bell Island Mine Quest
Jill’s excellent rendering of team project logo

During yesterday’s team conference call (team members make their homes across North America and Europe), Jill Heinerth, our group’s renaissance woman, unveiled our project logo. We love it and hope you folks do too.

One of the project sponsors is Fourth Element. These folks have supported the efforts to map Bell Island Mine since we first started exploration in 2006. They have been super generous and have supplied team members with various bits of essential kit.

And now, they will be supplying us with hoodies adorned with our brand-spanking new “project identity!”

A BIG thank you. Fourth Element Equipment for adventure


Prepping our playground…

Mine Quest Bell Island Heritage

Many things set expedition diving apart. One issue is that successful expedition diving is always the result of a team effort, and the outcome of a dive can depend as much or more on the individuals schlepping gear, and pumping gas, than it does on the folks laying line or surveying. Another thing to consider is that every moment spent in the water is bought with the effort of several hours work by many, many more people than the few who “get wet and glorious” in the water. Needless to say, in expedition diving, especially of this type, the term “dive team” covers everyone… even the folks making sandwiches and tea.

To illustrate the point, here’s a precis of a recent posting by Rick Stanley of Ocean Quest (the main project sponsor). It tells us a little about the clean-up process in the mine shaft where we will be basing our operations in February. By the way, the main shafts in Bell Island mine are not vertical as they are in many mines. In Bell Island, they slope at about 10-degrees from horizontal… both above and below water. Makes for an interesting challenge in both environments.

“Another successful day with another third [of the prep work] done, with volunteers Mark and Marcia McGowan, Johnny Olivero, Nick Dawe and myself. Belle Islands Staff Volunteers Bonnie and Tom Spracklin and Teresita (Teddy) McCarthy all on hand.

“We cleaned up big area where large picnic table will be going along with an area around the Rib 32’ for a gear set-up work bench and storage. We cleaned down walking area down the slope to the water’s muddy edge. We installed steel supports over a deep trench to attach our platform and for a gangway to floating dock. ( Docks and platforms yet to be built).

Bell Island Mine Newfoundland“Lunch today was prepared by Marcia in the cafeteria of the mine…fantastic sandwiches cakes and cookies…and she’s coming again tomorrow with special chilli…..going to keep her on…and you should see her moving iron ore…the miners were turning over in their graves today…ha, ha, ha!

“In the afternoon we continued working on bridge area and cleaning slopes… We edged the walkway with iron ore chunks and old Powerline posts that were nearby for safety to keep folks on track walking down slope. We cleaned away iron ore off old water pipes as they are artifacts and to have that nice line looking down the shaft to the water.

“Good day had by all and tomorrow we work on lighting, diverting water running down slope and installing a water pump and hose for wash-down area. Also beautification will continue ;-)”



Investigation into Bacterial Growth

Steve Lewis exploring the Water Pipe Tunnel
Image: Jill Heinerth

One of the scientific tasks our team will undertake during the Bell Island Mine project this February is collecting samples of bacterial mats, sediment, and water at various collection points throughout the exploration area, and sending them for analysis to Dr. Cheeptham, in the microbiology department of Thompson Rivers University, B.C.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that because daylight does not penetrate caves and mine shafts, these environments support no life at all. However, this is far from the truth. Life will find a way to thrive even in conditions that seem harsh to surface-dwellers. Certainly in the dark, underground environment of Bell Island Mine, life is tough and organisms must find an alternate energy source to sunlight. But we noted very prolific bacterial growth on equipment and fixtures during our initial exploration.

Fascinated by this, we contacted Dr. Cheeptham, who has several papers published on cave life. Our hope was she had a grad student willing to research exactly what’s made its home deep in shaft #2. Luckily she agreed. Thanks Ann!

Mine Quest 2.0 Sponsors

Royal Canadian Geographical Society BELL ISLAND MINE

Projects of this type are realized in part by volunteer efforts: each team member making a significant personal commitment of time and expertise. Most are also largely self-funded, and without team members making the required financial investments to cover travel, equipment, and other expenses, projects such as this simply would not happen.
However, another important contribution to the viability of any endeavor on this scale is made via the generosity of many companies and equipment manufacturers who support both individual team members as well as the team as a whole.

Many thanks to the folks who have supported and sponsored me in the past, and for this particular project:

Many Thanks to All
Many Thanks to All


Ocean Quest Adventures
Newfoundland, Canada
Primary Sponsorship for MineQuest 2.0

O’Three Ltd.
Come in from the Cold

Dorset, UK…
Drysuits, and Thermal Protection

Deep 6:
Expedition Dive Gear

Georgia, USA…
Regulators, and Accessories

Light Monkey:
High-Quality Technical Diving Equipment

Florida, USA…
U/W Lighting Systems, and Batteries

Made by Divers for Divers

Florida, USA…
SF2 eCCR, and Reels

RAID Diving:
Excellent Diver Training

Logistical support