A true-life underwater adventure
In 2007, one of a team of expert cave divers died in strange circumstances while exploring Bell Island’s flooded Iron-ore Mine in Newfoundland, Canada. Joe Steffen’s death was a terrible shock for his team-mates and an unexpected and unwelcome tragedy for his friends and family. Although the expedition continued until its scheduled conclusion, and successfully placed two kilometres of permanent guideline in the mine’s network of passageways and galleries, Steffen’s death closed the mine to further exploration and the possibility of guided dives for almost a decade.
In his new book, best-selling author Steve Lewis tells the story of Steffen’s death and its aftermath, from his perspective as expedition leader and Steffen’s roommate during their time together in Newfoundland. He writes honestly about the profound effect his friend’s death had on him, how it wove itself into his life — both underwater and above — until finally, somewhere on the road to Spain’s Santiago de Compostela, how he rid himself of the heartache and guilt associated with it.
He says: “I needed to write this book because it turns out the story of Bell Island is more important than four shipwrecks, several square kilometres of flooded mine, and a dead friend. What started out as one local man’s quest to put Bell Island on every diver’s bucket list, became much more complex than anyone — certainly any of the people involved in that quest — would have guessed.”
From Lewis’ childhood dream of sinking below the surface of the ocean into “a blue world as quiet and as soft as cotton wool” to dropping in on a shark out for a morning constitutional, all the way to floating in a Mexican cave and reading in the flowstones and stalactites “all the complicated activities acted out in the sunlit jungle overhead,” this book is not your average dive book. This is not an average story.
According to one reviewer, Lewis’ narrative “delves into the very nature of adventure and what drives people to push the limits of their existence.”
Robert Osborne — a Toronto-based documentary film-maker who produced a TV show about the 2016 expedition to Bell Island Mine — writes: “Death in Number Two Shaft is not only a book anyone fascinated by adventure should read, but everyone interested in a good story, well told and giving us insight into the human condition.”
A BRIEF PEEK BETWEEN THE COVERS
Except from Death in Number Two Shaft
A reproduction of La Pinta is moored in Baiona, a few hour’s walk north along the coast from where we were standing. You can see it for yourself if you travel there. It is the size of a dill pickle, not much bigger, but made out of wood rather than a cucumber. It looks beautiful, staggeringly small, and appallingly fragile compared to the ocean beyond its mooring. It is a faithful, modern rendering of a significant piece of Spanish history and pride. More importantly, it is a hard-edged and tangible illustration of what stepping outside one’s comfort zone actually means.
Christopher Columbus, a crazy Italian, and his little band of equally crazy fellow explorers set off into a night sea similar to the one Sue and I were watching. They were bent on finding Japan. They had funds from the king and queen of Spain, three little dill-pickle ships, and enough faith to overcome doubt.
All they knew for sure was the world was round, and if they kept sailing towards the setting sun they’d find land, perhaps the Orient. That was about it; the rest was pure balls and luck.
Eventually, they made landfall in the Caribbean, a whole half world away from Japan. But so it goes. They made a mistake, a miscalculation based on a false assumption, and things turned out very differently to what they expected. Nevertheless, it was a remarkable accomplishment and a noble one. Action and faith in the face of a challenge brought them much better results than sitting on their collective arse waiting for the sea to be calm enough so they could work safely within the confines of predictable circumstances. They took a monumental chance; moved beyond what they knew, gave into their curiosity, risked it and won!
It’d be a huge stretch, and comically self-centered hubris to compare what we did — signing up for our little expeditions swimming around in a flooded iron-ore mine — to sailing across the ocean and finding a new continent. But looking out there into the blackness, reminded me of the dark threat and allure beckoning from the water’s edge in Bell Island Mine.
If Columbus or any of his men were alive today, I thought out loud, they’d be pulling similar capers to exploring Bell Island themselves. They too would be swimming into holes in solid rock with a rebreather on their back, a smile on their face looking for something to lay claim to.
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