JILL HEINERTH waxes lyrical about the underwater delights that lie in store for adventurous divers who appreciate war wrecks and flooded mines
In the pale light of a wintery Canadian dawn, the Arctic blast persuades me to snug my hat securely down over my ears. Emerging from the neck of my parka, my muffled voice emits curly wisps of white vapour into the cold air. A barrel-chested John Olivero vaults clear of his truck in a long-sleeved T-shirt, loudly announcing: “Let's go diving!” My sturdy Canadian resolve cannot hide my disbelief.
“First, we have to get out of the driveway, Johnny!” I mumble.
“No problem.” He smiles backs. “We have a secret weapon!“
Who would have imagined that a diving expedition would require a snowplough? On this day, we need it to move the metre-deep snow that has accumulated overnight. But the list of necessary tools is even more peculiar. For months, John Olivero and Ocean Quest Adventure Resort owner Rick Stanley wrangled volunteers, convincing them to heft pickaxes and shovels to prepare for our visit.
The group of selfless volunteers moved tons of iron ore, built decks and benches, and installed critical lighting in preparation for the dives into the depths of the Bell Island Mine.
February never deterred their dedication. On the contrary, there is plenty of time in the winter for projects and diversions. In Newfoundland, summertime is an orgy of outdoor activity – 18-hour days crowded with whales, World War Two wrecks, beach picnics and icebergs, leaving little room for manual labour. Winter is work time. Summer is for play.
Diving in Newfoundland: A history treasure trove
Most vacationers to this area don’t visit in February, but choose instead to enjoy the summertime. Newfoundland might not be the first name that comes to mind when planning a holiday. North America's easternmost point balances on the verge of Canada’s Atlantic frontier like a launching springboard diver rising from his toes into an aerial pike to be free of the continent.
The vibe of this place is inspiring – strong, homey and a little bit quirky. Living life in extremes breeds a true sense of community. You can’t leave this place a stranger, because a new family will have captivated your heart.
I first visited Newfoundland after making a 4,350-mile bicycle ride across Canada. When I met the genial Rick Stanley, I knew I had to go back to tell the story of its hidden geography.
Flooded iron mines cover 23 hectares and descend more than 550m beneath Bell Island. Historic shipwrecks lie just offshore. The mines were once the area’s economic engine, providing extremely high-grade iron ore to shipbuilding efforts in the Great Wars.
Recognising the strategic importance of the mines, U-boats twice raided the island in 1942. The Germans knew that if they could disrupt the export of shipbuilding materials, even temporarily, the Allied war efforts would be seriously affected.
In two separate attacks, German submariners sank the steamships Saganaga and Lord Strathcona, followed by the ss Rose Castle, and Free French vessel PLM 27, while destroying the ore-loading wharf on Bell Island. The sheer audacity of the attack woke North Americans up to the fact that they were now on the frontline in the Battle of the Atlantic.
Part of the mine closed not long after WW2 because of a decline in the ore’s market value, but the economic hammer slammed down hard over the Christmas holidays in 1966. When miners returned to work in January, they discovered that the mine was full of water.
Determining that extraction was no longer feasible, owners had pulled the plug on the dewatering pumps and allowed the network of tunnels to slowly fill, leaving the entire island in jobless despair.
The remaining dry sections of Bell Island collected cobwebs until a modest museum opened up at the No 2 Mine entrance. Offering walking tours of the first 200m down to the waterline, guides keep their family histories alive by telling (and even singing) stories about the 100-plus men who had died while working there.
Squared-off walls marked with large white numerals enumerate every crossing rib in this maze of haematite ore, which descends 30cm for every body-length we swim. Almost 5m above the floor, electrical wiring with bright turquoise insulators and wooden crossbars lead us on a trail toward some of the heavy machinery that once kept this place dry.
A crumpled bucket, a pair of old leather shoes, broken shovels and saws make it seem as if the site is frozen in time. What remains is a time capsule conserving that demoralising moment of economic desperation when the pumps were turned off.
Gliding over the chassis from an ore cart, we reach a large dewatering pump. A hulking crippled wheel connects long silent gears with broken pistons that supply severed pipelines. An inscription on the wall catches our attention. James Bennett has scrawled his name beside a cartoonish caricature sporting a small pipe and watchman’s cap.
I envision this man taking a smoking break in the dank, dust-filled darkness. A nearby tangle of rusty box springs might be evidence that he took a few covert naps as well.
Around the next corner is an epitaph. A tiny white cross adorns the wall in a place where a miner has lost his life. Was it a fall of rock, or was he run over by a cart racing through the darkness on this now-empty track?
It was a tough business, and not a single family was spared tragedy. If you didn't lose a loved one in the mine, you might have a family tale about the nights that torpedoes brought the war to your doorstep.
The wrecks themselves convey a sort of intimacy. You might stumble across an antique LP record or even a sextant, as one of our teammates did a few years ago. Inside the wrecks, the telegraph and other artefacts are still intact, a testament to Canadians’ strict protection efforts.
But for me, the exterior beauty is second to none. Every square centimetre of heavy plating is festooned with colourful life.
Puffs of plumose anemones frame the entrance to an intact Marconi room, where an operator sent a call for help. Bulbous red lumpfish guard eggs in a ventilation shaft, and large cod swarm around a massive anchor-locker. Brass plates identify unfired deck-guns, but parts of the ships bear wounds where torpedoes ripped them apart.
Each year, things are a little different. The icebergs mow a path through the debris in winter, and summer growth of marine life hides the scars once more.
While giving a presentation to schoolchildren on the island, I thought the gymnasium seemed too large for the assembled kids. The island population is one-fifth of its former glory, and yet the room is filled with vibrating energy – there are not too many presentations like this on Bell Island.
After our workshop, we chat with kids about their vision of the future. Although most will leave the island for work, some are discovering their sense of place.
A small boy walks up to us, and enthusiastically offers a simple statement that lets me know we have accomplished our work: “I didn't know we were important. I didn't know Bell Island mattered.”
Embark on an Ocean Quest
Ocean Quest Adventure Resort co-ordinates all local diving activities. Certified cave-divers are escorted into the mine, briefed and supported by local safety staff.
Landlubbers can enjoy a fascinating tour of the No 2 Mine and museum, or a hike through abandoned mine-tunnels at the Grebe’s Nest. Ocean Quest offers packages, daily recreational and full technical excursions for diving the WW2 wrecks, which are large enough to merit numerous visits. Advanced diving qualifications are essential, but personal guides and instruction are also available.
No trip is complete without a RIB excursion to swim with wildlife such as the humpback whales that feed in the region in the summer months. In late June and early July, a parade of icebergs drift down the coast.
Advanced divers comfortable with navigation, down-currents and free ascents can participate in this activity based from a RIB. Divers wear provided helmets and should carry a compass and surface marker buoy so that they can ascend away from the ice-face.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
When to go: The diving season runs from June through September, with the best weather and wildlife opportunities in late June and early July. Special accommodation for groups can be made in off-season.
Dive conditions: Shipwreck depths from 25-45m, with near-freezing temperatures at the bottom and up to 13°C at the surface. Wrecks are relatively sheltered from all but the worst weather.
Vessel: The Mermaid offers a large transom lift and ample warm, enclosed space, with the best onboard soup you’ll find anywhere!
Operator: Ocean Quest Adventures
Newfoundland History Timeline:
c3000 BC – Maritime Archaic Indians moved to the island.
1497 – John Cabot arrived, claiming land as a British colony
1550 – Whaling stations established
1819 – Mining begins on Bell Island
1896 – Miners strike for two cents an hour rise
1899 – 8m dinosaur fossil with wings found in mine, photographed and discarded to prevent mine closure
1941 – US troops arrive and construction of naval base at Argentia begins
1942 – U-boat torpedoes ss Caribou ferry, 127 passengers killed; U-boats sink ships at Bell Island; US naval ships Truxton and Pollux lost off St Lawrence with 189 officers and men.
1949 – Newfoundland becomes 10th province of Canada; Joseph Roberts Smallwood elected first premier
1966 – Bell Island Mine closed and flooded
1985 – Titanic wreck found 400 miles east of Newfoundland
1992 – Canadian government closes northern cod fishery
1997 – Hibernia offshore drilling platform pumps first barrel of oil