Diving Into the Past

N.L. Shipwreck Preservation Society Helping Reveal Historical Secrets From Beneath the Waves


Above: SPSNL Diver Ysabelle Hubert pictured with a base ring from the deck guns of the HMS Raleigh, which sunk near Port Amour, N.L. Photos courtesy of Neil Burgess, SPSNL

The Shipwreck Preservation Society of Newfoundland and Labrador (SPSNL) dives onto the province’s most notable wrecks and encourages anyone interested to get involved.

The SPSNL was first formed in 2012 by like-minded individuals looking to promote awareness of shipwreck history throughout the province. Its membership includes divers, historians, people in the ocean technology sector and interested hobbyists from all occupations. It began with having formal meetings, but eventually took most of their discourse to Facebook, where the group has grown to nearly 800 members.

“Here in Newfoundland, often what happens is we go through several stages in investigating a new shipwreck,” said Neil Burgess, president of SPSNL and a retired wildlife biologist whose hobby is diving on shipwrecks around the world.

“So, we’ll have someone in the group who’s interested in doing the historical research to kind of figure out a general location for where a shipwreck might be; researching the story of the ship and the crew and how the ship came to grief. Then we have another group that are out using sonar technology and we can give them a pointer or two of a general location and they may go have a look for it. If we’re lucky they can find the remains of a shipwreck, and then the divers can get involved and go down on the shipwreck. Each of those stages we share on social media and people can follow along. It’s like a detective story, kind of figuring it out.”

The SPSNL’s most recent accomplishment in their detective work was the discovery and subsequent photography of a crashed World War II-era B-24 bomber in Gander Lake.

Artillery shells and machine gun ammo from the USS Truxton, which ran aground in Chambers Cove near St. Lawrence, N.L. Photos courtesy of Neil Burgess, SPSNL

The bomber, flown by the No. 10 Squadron of the RCAF, crashed into the murky waters of the lake shortly after taking off from the Gander airport on September 4, 1943. Four crew members died on that day and only one body was ever recovered. The remaining three are assumed to still be within the downed plane.

“One of our group, Tony Merkle, grew up in Gander and he’d always heard about some of the plane wrecks from World War II there,” said Burgess. “And about nine years ago, he got really interested in this one: it was a Canadian Air Force bomber that went down. They think they lost an engine on takeoff, and it crashed in the lake. It’s very close to shore, and it’s right near the end of the runway.”

After some research, they discovered crash reports as well as the latitude and longitude of the crash. This past summer, Kirk Regular, a director for SPSNL and the marine geomatics lead at the Centre for Applied Ocean Technology, was working with his sonar vessel in the other half of Gander Lake on behalf of New Found Gold Corp. Regular asked the company if he could take an afternoon to search the lake near the Gander airport, which they enthusiastically agreed to.

“He zipped up and within 10 minutes of starting the search he found it,” said Burgess. “Kirk was able to get one of his colleagues to zip up with an ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle) and put the ROV down on the plane. They shot some video with that, but the limitation was the water in Gander Lake is so brown and the lights on the ROV weren’t super strong.”

SPSNL diver Chris Power taking photos of a gearbox from the USS Truxton.

Just as the SPSNL was planning a dive in August, they heard that underwater filmmakers from Ontario and British Columbia were coming to N.L. Together with the film crew, the SPSNL went into the depths of the murky lake on Labour Day Monday.

“It’s got to be the spookiest dive I’ve ever done,” said Burgess. “Because you couldn’t see very far, it was even spookier than diving at night. At night if you’ve got a bright light, the light carries in the water a distance and you get to see things.  But in this, the water was so brown it was eating up the light in about a metre. So, my dive partner is professional filmmaker Jill Heinerth from Ontario. She had a great camera set-up, great video lights. If she got more than six feet away from me, she completely disappeared.”

After diving about 125 feet in the unnerving, murky waters of the lake, Burgess and his team found the plane. While mostly intact, the B-24 bomber landed upside down at the bottom of the lake. The crash was impactful enough to dislodge the gun turret from the bow of the plane and sudden enough that the pilots didn’t even have time to retract their landing gear.

According to Burgess, he didn’t remember many details of the dive. He was suffering from nitrogen narcosis, a change in behavior, consciousness and neuromuscular function caused by breathing compressed gasses. Burgess has since learned from this experience and has ordered helium to help him dive deeper with a clearer head in future projects.

“What I found diving down that deep is that nitrogen narcosis becomes a real issue,” said Burgess. “So, I was stunned. I was working at about 30 per cent mental capacity.”

The SPSNL has plans for more dives in the future.

Ocean Quest divers Luc Michel and John Olivero with SPSNL diver Neil Burgess preparing to dive on the B-24 bomber in Gander Lake.
Photo submitted by Rick Stanley, Ocean Quest

One of their goals is to investigate two World War II shipwrecks — one off the coast of Ferryland and the other near St. Shott’s.

“The one off Ferryland was a merchant ship that had a catapult on the bow to launch a hurricane fighter (a single-seat fighter plane) into the air,” said Burgess. “That’s a really unusual shipwreck, but its down 100 metres or 300 feet. So, its very, very deep — far too deep for any of us to dive on. But it might be a good wreck to investigate with an ROV.”

The wreck near St. Shott’s is a Royal Navy submarine that was sunk by accident when a Royal Canadian Navy ship rammed it while blinded by the fog in the Second World War.

One of the crewmen aboard was a man from St. John’s and another was a Canadian officer hitching a ride back to Canada.

“That’s in shallow enough water to dive on, we think that’s at about 45 metres off St. Shott’s,” said Burgess. “So, we’re really keen on relocating that submarine and seeing if we can dive on that.”

Another ambitious goal by the SPSNL is to explore more ancient wrecks from hundreds of years ago, many of which met their demise near Newfoundland and Labrador’s perilous shores.”

“There are shipwrecks going back certainly to the 1500s, and perhaps even to the 1400s around Newfoundland. I’m just as interested in looking at those old ones,” said Burgess. “There’s actually some people who have been contacting me and asking me to go out diving to explore some of those older shipwrecks, older sailing ships that came over from Europe.”


Staff Writer

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