Canadian Geographic’s Explorer in Residence, Jill Heinerth, Drawn to Bell Island

Jill is an underwater explorer, who actually wanted to be an astronaut, but settled for being an aqua-naut instead upon realizing Canada has no space program. What Canada does have is plenty of sea to dive in.

The Royal Canadian Geographic Society is best-known for their magazine Canadian Geographic, which has over 3.4 million monthly readers. They also happen to have an “Explorer in Residence Program.” And their current Explorer in Residence, Jill Heinerth, was recently in Newfoundland, exploring Bell Island’s sunken treasures. 

Jill is an underwater explorer, who wanted to be an astronaut, but settled for being an aqua-naut instead upon realizing Canada has no space program. What Canada does have is plenty of sea to dive in.

There are parallels between the two professions, from needing a breathing apparatus, to needing the nerves to fearlessly foray into the unknown. “I think the urge to explore is in every human being,” she says, “we prove that as children: if we weren’t explorers we wouldn’t learn anything and develop.”

It was in this spirit that The RCGS created its Explorer-in-Residence Program, “to foster greater awareness among Canadians of the expeditions and field research being carried out by the nation’s top explorers, scientists, and conservationists.”

Jill is from Ontario, and is considered to be one of the world’s most accomplished cave divers, with over 7,000 dives under her belt. For example, she was the first person to dive into the depths of an Antarctic iceberg-cave ecosystems, and she has travelled more than three kilometres into a cave on a single dive — farther than any other woman in history.

To quote director James Cameron, “More people have been to the moon than to places that Jill Heinerth has explored deep inside our watery planet.”

It Was Bell Island That Brought Her to Newfoundland

In 1942, Newfoundland was attacked by German U-Boats, twice. It was unprecedented for Canada to be attacked right on its own shores like that. The Germans’ goal was to disrupt the flow of high grade iron ore being transported from Bell Island’s mines.

By disrupting the flow of these precious shipbuilding materials from Newfoundland to their anti-German allies, the Germans could keep North American battleships on the wrong side of the Atlantic. Two separate attacks sank the SS Saganaga, SS Lord Strathcona, SS Rose Castle, and the Free French vessel PLM 27, as well as the Bell Island loading wharf.

Her documentary on Bell Island explores 100 km of tunnels plunging beneath the sea floor of Conception Bay where the WWII wrecks reside. The site of these wrecks is now a haven for certified cave divers looking to explore Bell Island’s history. The tunnels include sunken mines.

“Beyond [the history], it’s just remarkably beautiful,” she says of the sunken ships that have turned into artificial reefs, and of the submerged mines, and of the whales and other wildlife, and of the personal remains left behind by those who lost their lives in the attacks, including old vinyl records, spinning in the tides, on the surface of the sea.

Check Out This Stunning Doc on Bell Island Made by SeaproofTV:

Like Jill, married couple Russell Clark and Trisha Stovel are die-hard divers, and their quest for adventure brought to Bell Island for a vacation this summer. SeaproofTV is their non profit, “a passion project born through a love of the ocean, and sharing it with others.” Enjoy this doc they made while here on vacation:

Written By
More from Chad Pelley

5 Things You Didn’t Know about Traditional Newfoundland Cuisine

What we call cod tongues are actually a gelatinous bit of flesh...
Read More

8 Comments

  • A wonderful review of the Island. I often wondered why that part of its history has been ignored. However no more thanks to Jill.

  • Yes I’m also from Bell Island and I’m very proud of this Video… thanks to all who made this possible…

  • I am from Bell Island but now live in Halifax,Nova Scotia.Great job on video.Loved every minute of it…Clay Murphy,Halifax.?

  • Two more ships they forgot to mention or dive on that are at the bottom of the tickle, The Garland and The Golden Dawn!

  • Hi – Very nicely done, thank you.
    Very proud of my hometown and hope exposure like this enlightens the rest of NL / Canada and the world to this very special place.

  • Your statement that it was unprecedented for Canada to be attacked on its own shores is inaccurate. In 1942 Newfoundland and Labrador was governed by Responsible Government and was a colony of Great Britain. Newfoundland and Labrador, and its shores, joined Canada in 1949.

    • actually that don’t make the statement wrong, unprecedented means, never before known or experienced, so whether or not Newfoundland was part of Canada or not, it doesn’t change whether it was unprecedented

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.