The surge and surface current slosh me around like laundry in a spin cycle. I'm scuba diving on Gadd's Wall, a precipitous dive site in Bonne Bay, in Western Newfoundland's Gros Morne National Park, that just may be one of the top dives on the Rock. Kicking hard to descend, where I hope it will be calmer, I dislodge one of my lead weights, almost hitting my dive guide, Rick Stanley, beneath me. He recovers it, secures it to my buoyancy jacket, and gives me the Okay sign. Five meters down, I pass through a thermocline, a disorienting layer of colder water that scatters light and blurs my vision.
I've come to explore a seldom seen part of this iconic Park, but so far I'm stressed out.
As I reach a depth of 20 metres, the currents calm. I drift along at a gentle pace and begin to relax. My eyes adjust to the dim light and the reef comes into view. Huge tufts of yellow soft coral drape the wall in golden hues. Orange and white plumose anemones and elephant ear sponge are crammed into every cranny. There's not an inch of bare rock. If it weren't for the drysuit and three-degree water, I might think I was diving in Fiji.
The fjord of Bonne Bay plunges to more than 200 metres. It was formed by plate tectonics and glaciation, geology that earned the 1,805-square-kilometre Gros Morne National Park a UNESCO World Heritage listing. Most of the 175,000 tourists that come here each year marvel at the fjords and stunning landscapes on a boat cruise or scenic drive. I wanted to see things up close: How did the land get this way – and what lies beneath the surface?
My trip began with a geology lesson. The classroom was a zodiac zipping across 15-km long Trout River Pond, under a cool, hazy sky. I felt the exhilaration of speed and solitude, of being lost in a big landscape.
The engines were cut and we drifted a Parks Canada Interpreter, began his spiel. "These are the continental plates," said Cedric Davignon, a lanky bearded thirtysomething using a homemade model of Styrofoam and dental floss. "Do you know about the Moho?" he asked us, as he went on to explain Mohorovicic Discontinuity, subduction and continental drift. "And of course, we have the glaciers." He pulled out a small cooler and rubbed a melting ice block over the foam.
In this spot, some 500 million years ago, two plates collided, pushing up the ancient seafloor. Then, 12,000 to 15,000 years ago, glaciers came along, scrubbed the rock bare and carved the fjords of Gros Morne.
On the south side of Trout River Pond, dark cliffs covered in leafy birch and balsam fir rise 550 metres above the water. Across the fjord, the Tablelands, a sparse 685-metre-high, Martian-red massif stands in striking contrast. "That's the mantle of the Earth," Davignon said.
On the way back to Norris Point, the town on Bonne Bay's waterfront where I was based, I stopped for a short hike to see the Tablelands up close. There are no tall trees, only scrubby junipers, dwarf and arctic birch, since the high iron and magnesium content of the peridotite rock renders the soil nearly infertile. In the warm afternoon light, the landscape seemed to change by the minute, becoming ever more saturated. I hopped over metre-high boulders, mantle material that would normally be found more than 30 kilometres below the Earth's surface.
The dominant feature of Bonne Bay is Shag Cliff, an ancient seabed thrust up into 100 metre-high, limestone bluffs. From across the bay, the bare, layered rock looks like a giant has cleaved off part of the mountain. To get a closer look, I went sea kayaking.
Peter Broderick, a young guide from Gros Morne Adventures, and I paddled out under a gunmetal sky, crossing from Norris Point to the rocky promontory that is the dive site of Gadd's Wall. A brisk wind meant we couldn't make it to Shag Cliff so we hugged the shoreline for shelter, passing bald eagles on black spruce before landing on a rough beach. We hiked up to a grassy hummock.
"There were about a dozen families living here," said Broderick, about the community of Gadd's Harbour, a plucky group who lived on fishing, hunting and whatever else they could eke from the land. All that exists today are some depressions, where houses once stood. "They left in the late 1950s and took everything with them." When roads were introduced to the park, these small communities congregated into the larger towns of Norris and Woody Point, and life got a little easier.
On my last day in Gros Morne the winds have calmed and conditions are ideal for a dive on Shag Cliff. I follow Stanley down a steep, black-rubble slope to a wall plastered in anemones and purple and red encrusting hydrocoral. I spot a sea raven, a scorpionfish resembling a frilly, football-sized tadpole, camouflaged almost perfectly against the reef. It realizes its cover has been blown, puffs up its head, and swims haughtily away. Drifting along, I find a red-gilled nudibranch, an ornate, sea slug with translucent red tendrils. It's barely the size of my thumbnail, but I am stopped by its beauty. It's a tiny wonder, in a landscape of mountains and fjords.
IF YOU GO
What to do
OceanQuest Adventures runs scuba excursions at Gros Morne each summer. They are based out of the Bonne Bay Marine Station at Norris Point, a teaching and research facility operated by Memorial University. Cold-water diving experience is recommended. OceanQuest also runs Trout River Pond tours. For dates and pricing contact the company. oceanquestadventures.com
Two-hour, guided kayaking trips with Gros Morne Adventures cost $55 and include all equipment. grosmorneadventures.com
Parks Canada offers several free hiking tours in Gros Morne. Info is available at pc.gc.ca/grosmorne.
Where to stay
Neddies Harbour Inn at Norris Point is a modern, boutique hotel with impressive vistas over Bonne Bay and comfortable rooms starting at $148 a night. theinn.ca
Where to eat
The Black Spruce, located in Neddies Harbour Inn, is one of the premier restaurants in Gros Morne. theblackspruce.ca
Darryl Leniuk specializes in adventure travel. He visited as a guest of Newfoundland & Labrador Tourism. The agency did not review or approve this story.