IT IS NOT UNTIL RICK SWITCHES off his 180hp engine that the spirit of the place has a chance to take a true hold on us.
Dimmed by thick clouds of mist, the grey water looks lifeless. Only the brightly coloured beaks of the puffins light up against the dark cliffs that surround the sheltered bay we have entered.
You can hear the wind, and the cold starts to pierce through our thick wetsuits. But then two white fins break the surface; something is about to say hello.
In this surreal environment, a mystical creature pops up, just a few metres away. It is the humpback whale.
I hit the water. My buddy is ahead of me, reaching for the white shimmering caught by the lens of his camera. But the 15m whale is way too big to miss.
Gracefully he passes through the water, belly turned towards us. Throat-pleats pulsate in the direction of his tail, and his immense movements can be felt through the water. He is truly a giant, but known for gentleness.
The whale keeps a moderate distance and soon disappears into the distance.
I can feel my heart pounding, and take my first deep breath since entering the water. But not a second later, he surfaces. Hello again!

ADVENTURE QUEST
The boat nears to pick us up. Judging from the massive grin on Rick’s face, we assume that ours has been far from an average encounter.
“We normally spend seconds to a few minutes with the whales,” he shouts over the engine noise, “but you guys got two hours straight!”
His face is a picture of disbelief:
“But when the humpback becomes too playful, it’s time to get out of the water.”
The experience has affected everyone. Rick is really pleased by the return of the humpback. He recognises him by the massive mark on his lower jaw, which gives him the nickname Scarface.
We have been invited to Newfoundland by Rick and Debbie Stanley, the owners of OceanQuest. Their year-round dive and snorkel facility is located on the coast of the Avalon Peninsula.
Together with Labrador, the island forms Canada’s easternmost province. It is here where the warm southerly Gulf Stream meets the cold Labrador Current from the north, forming one of the world’s richest fisheries – the Grand Banks.
Abundant marine life results in millions of nesting sites for birds, and the migration of thousands of whales along the coast each summer is coupled with the many icebergs that calve from the Greenland glaciers in spring.
We are on a 10-day adventure quest that will take us snorkelling with whales, diving on World War Two wrecks, hiking along the famous East Coast Trail and canoeing and fishing in the Terra Nova National park.
Our first day makes it very clear that Rick has planned some serious action for the rest of our time here.

BELL ISLAND TRAGEDY
A day later, to contrast with the wildlife experience, we dive into history with OceanQuest skipper and regional historian Bill Flaherty. It is early morning as we sail across the Tickle, the local name for the passage between Bell Island and Portugal Cove-St Phillips.
This was once the centre of the iron-ore industry, and the closed mines of Bell Island reach far below the seabed of Conception Bay. In the bay lie four massive wrecks: the ss Saganaga, Lord Strathcona, PLM-27 and ss Rose Castle.
The sun is shining and the water looks relatively at ease. Even in summer water temperatures do not reach far above 2°C, but the cold becomes inconsequential when a diver is faced with the 20-30m visibility that these pristine waters have to offer.
Our first dive is on the PLM-27, acronym for Paris-Lyon-Marseille.
This steamboat operated under the Free French forces of General Charles De Gaulle during WW2.
The shallowest of the Bell Island wrecks, the 120m, 5319-ton PLM-27 sits upright in 15-30m of water.
The shotline guides me to the shallow deck. Despite the torpedo blast amidships and iceberg-scouring on the upper decks, the superstructure is well preserved.
I descend to the bottom and follow the port side all the way back to the stern. Slowly the wreck takes form; it’s the massive propeller I am looking for. The PLM-27 is the only one of the four wrecks with its propeller still in place, and it is an astonishing sight.
Its curvature awakens the steel mass, as if it’s about to lift the ship off the bottom of the bay in time to escape her fate on that November day in 1942.
During WW2 the Battle of the Atlantic reached the far eastern shores of Canada. With it came the wolf-packs of U-boats in search of Allied convoys.
Four big steam-powered ships anchored in the harbour of Wabana at Bell Island, loaded with iron ore for the Allied forces.
On 5 September, 1942, the first torpedo penetrated the Saganaga. PLM-27 was the last of the four to sink. That winter 69 young men lost their lives, set against a backdrop of Nazi Germany.
The Rose Castle, with an impressive 140m length and tonnage of 7546, was bigger than her sister-ship. The wreck is fully intact except for the torpedo hole, and the bridge rises up from depth. This is also the deepest wreck. Its upper deck starts at around 35m and continues all the way down to the seabed at 50m.
Surprisingly, the wreck is a haven for life, its metal frame covered in colourful anemones and seastars. Crustaceans and small fish cluster around hiding-places, and even soft corals claim a niche, contrasting with the decaying rigging and lingering ammunition.
Like the PLM-27, the Rose Castle stands vertical on the ocean floor. Despite the lack of a propeller, the superstructure is breath-taking.
From a distance both bow and stern overwhelm me – I have never been more intrigued by a wreck.
A heavy stern gun is positioned on the back deck, with ammunition lying next to it. We hover above the stern until no-decompression limits force us up to the towering bridge. Inside it, a Marconi radio embodies the cries of agony of 1942; even the maker’s plate is still there.
It is not until our safety stop that I realise how cold I am; we have dived for well over an hour, our computer reading just a few degrees. Back onboard, Bill provides hot moose soup to help us warm up. Quietly we relish the delicious soup and intense experience.

GRAVEYARD
Rick manoeuvres the large pick-up off the ramp with ease, and launches the inflatable. We are well into our first week in Newfoundland, and have arrived, after a three-hour journey north, in the Terra Nova National Park.
Here the North Atlantic Ocean intrudes into the land via small inlets, creating an area for wildlife protected from the open sea. The surrounding evergreen boreal forest is home to moose and brown beers, and numerous bald eagles circle high above the trees.
We are here to search for a beluga whale that was recently spotted near one of the fish-farms.
No white whale is found, so we decide to stop searching and explore
the environment. We glide in canoes through the clear water and paddle in one of the many coves. We spend the afternoon fishing and gathering blue mussels for dinner until the sun drops below the horizon, signalling that it’s time to head back.
The next day we travel to Dildo, a small settlement that dates back to
200 BC and is known mostly for its cod, seal and whaling industry. The latter eventually ceased, after a 400-year tradition, when whaling was prohibited in 1972. It is unknown how the town got its name, though it has brought some notoriety and forms an attraction for tourists in the area.
By the harbour, next to an old factory, we gear up for the dive. The concrete pier gives us access to a small beach where we enter the cold water.
In the shadow of the dock nothing seems alive, which adds poignancy to the purpose of our dive. We are looking for a whale carcass. Scattered over the harbour floor, like discarded pieces of a giant puzzle, lie the large pieces of bone, fragments of spinal cord.
It is unknown which species these belong to. Not only were humpbacks hunted, but also blue, fin and minke whales. The bones look slightly soft and greyish, with very few fish seeming to find residence in this hidden graveyard.
The landscape feels barren and desolate, and when the cold really starts to seep in, it is time to leave. This solemn place will make me appreciate even more the majesty of these amazing creatures when I see them next, alive!

GEOLOGY
Newfoundland is heaven for anyone interested in wildlife and geology. As a geology student I am overcome with excitement, and soon drag my buddy across the coast in search of fossils, ancient ocean floors and volcanic rocks.
Because of intense tectonic movement, the west is dominated by the extension of the North American Appalachian mountain range, formed over a billion years ago. The Gros Morne national park is one of the few places worldwide where deep oceanic crust and rocks of the Earth’s mantle lie exposed.
Ancient ice sheets and glaciers eroded the central lowlands, now covered with vast taiga and wetlands. The eastern part of the island consists of a 250m-tall plateau of folded sedimentary strata and intrusions of igneous rock that date back some 250 million years.
The 340-mile-long East Coast Trail is the perfect place for hiking along this rugged part of coast, and gives access to many historical sites. Not far from Newfoundland’s capital and North America’s oldest city St Johns, at the south end of the Avalon Peninsula, is Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve.
There, contained within a layer of volcanic ash, is a collection of one of the most diverse and well-preserved Pre-Cambrian fossils in the world, known as the Ediacaran fauna.
These are believed to be the oldest multicellular organisms in Earth history, dating from well before the famous Cambrian explosion.

EYE TO EYE
In between snorkelling, diving, hiking and exploring, we also get the chance to experience Newfoundland’s nightlife and hospitality during the annual George Street Festival in St Johns, and enjoy a vibrant night of Irish live music, dancing and drinking Screech, the local liquor.
But before we leave, Rick has yet another surprise. Together with Holly Hogan from the Baccalieu ecological reserve, we head for Avalon’s most northern park.
Close to the shore, Baccalieu Island is one of the biggest nesting grounds for puffins, gannets and petrels in the world.
The waters are full of capelin, a small baitfish found in Atlantic and Arctic waters, attracting whales and dolphins. When the whales hunt they form nets of bubbles to drive the shoals to the surface.
At last Rick turns his boat into a smaller inlet, protected from the open ocean winds. Fortune is with us, as a mother and calf are resting after a hunt.
Gently we glide into the water to approach the pair. Soon the humpbacks disappear. I thought they had dived, but mother and calf surface an arm’s length away. For the first time I look straight into the eye of a whale, and the whale seems very aware of my being.
It is a strange experience. No longer am I more than an animal; no longer is she less animal than me.
Completely overcome, I don’t notice that the whale has already gone when my buddy joins me. We laugh. It is going to be very hard to top this experience!

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: There is a direct flight from London to St Johns, Newfoundland’s capital. No visa is required for EU citizens.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION:There is a direct flight from London to St Johns, Newfoundland’s capital. No visa is required for EU citizens.
WHEN TO GO: Diving season is May-October, when water at depth can be 0°C but increases to 7°. You can snorkel with whales or dive near icebergs. But year-round diving is available on the Bell Island wrecks, weather permitting.
MONEY: Canadian dollar.
PRICES: Scuba Travel can arrange packages. Seven nights’ B&Baccommodation, flights with Air Canada via Halifax, transfers and five days’ diving in May (“Wreck-reation”) costs £1995. The equivalent week’s B&B in July with four days’ wreck diving and one day with whales (“Wrecks & Whales”) costs £2450. www.scubatravel.com
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.newfoundlandlabrador.com