Exploration

Photos from beneath Bell Island, Newfoundland

Diver and photographer Jill Heinerth shares a glimpse into the summer phase of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society's Expedition of the Year
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It’s been a busy summer for Explorer-in-Residence Jill Heinerth. In June, the world-renowned cave diver returned to Bell Island, Newfoundland, where she continued leading a team to explore the flooded cave systems and shipwrecks left over from the Second World War. 

In 1942, German U-boats attacked Bell Island twice in a bid to disrupt the flow of high grade iron ore being transported from the local mines. They sunk the SS Saganaga and SS Lord Strathcona followed by the SS Rose Castle, Free French vessel PLM 27 and the Bell Island loading wharf. Now, funded in part by The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, Heinerth and a team of technical divers are documenting the underwater graves of the 70 men that were killed and exploring the marine life that now calls the shipwrecks home.

When she last visited the site in February, they were hit with a variety of underwater emergencies, from torrential rains and snowmelt on the island, to a torn mouthpiece

This time, the team was met with thirty-five knot winds upon arrival. Though the weather initially kept them off the boat, it did give them a chance to introduce new team members to the Bell Island mine.

“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,” Heinerth wrote on June 19.

Below are some photos from Heinerth’s last trip to Bell Island. 

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While grounded due to high winds, the team did some dry caving and explored the original mines that were cut at sea level. The rocks were treacherous, with shale pancaked on top of ancient tram rails and machinery. (Photo: Jill Heinerth)

Even though the next day was the solstice, giving them the longest day of the year, the team had to start early to beat the howling winds that were bound to get worse through the day.

They first dived the Free French Vessel PLM27. It had sunk quickly, losing 12 crewmen. The Uboat that hit it escaped undetected beneath a corvette Drumheller and two Fairmile fast boats patrolling Conception Bay. At the time, locals questioned the loyalties of the boat’s captain, as he’d been ashore selling his piano the night of the attack. 

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A lumpfish guards his mate’s eggs. (Photo: Jill Heinerth)
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The anchor and the massive torpedo hole in the side of the PLM27. (Photo: Jill Heinerth)

The second dive was on the Saganaga, which was sunk on September 4, 1942 by U-513 which had waited quietly overnight in 75 feet of water. In the morning it rose to periscope depth and sunk the Strathcona and the Saganaga, killing 29 crewmen on the Saganaga.

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A lumpfish now calls this wreck home. (Photo: Jill Heinerth)

“The wreck of the Lord Strathcona leaves one speechless.” Heinerth wrote on June 21. “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.”

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Heinerth’s diving partner Sandra Clopp inspects the stern deck gun on the Lord Strathcona. The ship was sunk by U-513, under Kapitän-Leutnant Rolf Ruggeberg on September 5, 1942. (Photo: Jill Heinerth)
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The team’s all here! (Photo courtesy Jill Heinerth)
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