Dreaming of scuba diving in Newfoundland?
Shaped by the Atlantic ocean and the frigid north elements, the maritime island of Newfoundland and Labrador is a mere stone’s throw from the Canadian Arctic. With fishing villages peppering the coastline and crystal clear water that boasts shades of turquoise, rivaling a Caribbean island destination such as Bonaire, this province holds a special connection to the sea.
Year after year Newfoundland enjoys large marine animal migrations, rich fisheries and icebergs floating down from Greenland, so it should come as no surprise that this province would pair well with scuba diving.
From the whales frolicking in the wide-open sea to the earliest exploration and settlements of the province, Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula is a place full of natural wonder, Arthurian legend and history. As one of the most populous places of the province, the Avalon peninsula encompasses the St. John’s Metropolitan Area, home to over 200,000 people and five of the 10 largest settlements in the province.
Conception Bay, a 300-meter (980 feet) deep bay, is situated on the Avalon peninsula. This body of water constitutes the southeast coast of Newfoundland and runs from Cape St. Francis in the south to Split Point in the north, covering an area of 1,295 square kilometers. The bay is fed by rivers flowing from land into the Atlantic and houses several islands, the three largest being Bell Island (the famous iron-ore shipwreck diving location), little Bell Island and Kelly’s Island.
Diving into Canada’s Submerged World War II Shipwrecks: Do you enjoy cold water wreck diving? Newfoundland’s Bell Island is a dive destination that will let you experience the best shipwrecks and scuba diving opportunities on the Canadian east coast.
Because if the scenic profile, rocky composition and relatively sheltered location, Conception Bay has many shore diving locations peppered along its circumference, many of which house a surprising amount of biodiversity for being within a stone’s throw of the coastline. Bacon Cove, Shipwreck Harbour, Harbour Main and Holyrood are a few of Conception Bay’s most well-known shore diving sites, and reaching them can take anywhere from 30 minutes to over one hour via car from the capital city.
The confines of Bacon Cove is a nice eastern shore diving option only a short drive from St John. The rocky cove, while part of Conception Harbour, is a fishing and farming settlement on the southeast of Bay Roberts. It provides sheltered access for divers to access a quaint ocean inlet.
Mask on, regulator in, I loved wading out from the calm and easy beach access to ascend below the tideline. Much like Bacon Cove appears on the surface, beneath the water the dive site aquascape varies from dark limy rock to sand, pebbles and mud.
After getting over the initial mind-numbing sensation that comes from the cold Atlantic water I was diving in, Joey and I kicked out from Bacon Coves shallows. Although I don’t have much of a green thumb, kelp, rockweed and plenty of other vegetative life were the first things to fill my field of vision. It wiggled, danced and casually bounced around with ebb and flow of the waves.
Once I’d taken in the jambalaya of rich green plant life, my eyes adjusted to this new environment and I began to spot more amid the boulders and rock walls. Prickly urchins gorging themselves on the all-you-can-eat kelp buffet. Pancake-flat flounders lounging on the sand bottom trying to blend in with their surroundings. Purple tones of sea stars showing in all shapes and sizes.
Though glassy and quiet from the surface, beneath the sea Bacon Cove was alive and well with macro life. I enjoyed playing my dive variation of “I spy with my little eye”.
How to Find Bacon Cove and What to Look For
GPS Coordinates: 47.482056, -53.168083
Address: FRJJ+RQ Conception Harbour, Newfoundland and Labrador
From Bacon Cove Rd take the small dirt road on the right heading towards the ocean to find the bay and shore diving entrance.
Take a ship and sink it underwater and it becomes a dive site. Take that very same ship and sink it the shallows and it becomes a tourist attraction.
The SS Charcot is an old 36 meter (117 foot) steel whaling ship found in Conception Harbour (also known as Shipwreck Harbour). The rusty, weather worn vessel can be seen from Route 60 and sits directly offshore of a small parking and picnic site. For many years, the Charcot was mistaken for the whaling vessel SS Sposa until the Shipwreck Preservation Society of NL began doing underwater surveys. While surveying the ship, the society found two additional whaling boats on the seafloor behind the Charcot, the SS Southern Foam and the SS Sukha.
The Charcot was built in 1923 in Tonsberg, Norway and made for hunting whales in the North Atlantic. In 1943, the Charcot was sold to the Polar Whaling Company based out of southern Labrador, and then again to Captain Johan Borgen of the Hawkes Harbour Whaling Company based out of this bay. It was one of five whaling vessels owned by this captain.
Thanks to a storm in 1970, the SS Charcot broke its moorings and was pushed ashore. At present, the rusty hull of the ship remains half in, half out of the water beached on the bays sandy bottom making for a very intriguing dive site. Along with the partially submerged hull, many old mechanical parts from the Charcot are scattered on the beach.
How to Find Shipwreck Harbour and What to Look For
GPS Coordinates: 47.4422048, -53.2063285
Address: 47 Corporal Jamie Murphy Memorial Dr, Conception Harbour, NL A0A 1Z0
This beach and picnic site has a small parking lot and easy sand access.
Harbour Main is a community with rich agricultural soil and good fishing grounds settled around 1675. It lies on the west side of Holyrood Arm and comprises three formerly independent settlements located on the Admirals’ Coast.
Just off Conception Bay Highway, towards the base of the bay, is a spacious gravel parking area and the Harbour Main dive site. As much as the parking is readily accessible and the ocean appears to be right there, the path down to the water’s edge is virtually non-existent and can be a little difficult to maneuver.
In the water Harbour Main is home to tonnes of marine life. A fun sighting during the appropriate time of year is the Newfoundland icon and star critter – cod. We found a few juvenile cod, barbels and all, hanging out in the shallows wary of predators.
Did you know? A barbel is a slender, whisker-like sensory organ. Barbels house the taste buds of certain fish species and are used to search for food in murky water. They can be located in many different places on the head of a fish, the most popular locations being on either side of the mouth, extending from the nostrils or on the chin.
When we weren’t swimming after cod, I loved poking around the rock ledges. Like I’ve said before, in all the places we dove in Newfoundland, the macro life was prosperous. There were so many teeny weeny things to watch.
The delicate swaying frills of red-gilled nudibranchs are a treat to watch. I found so many of these slug-like hermaphrodites crawling and bunching on rocks and kelp.
How to Find Harbour Main and What to Look For
GPS Coordinates: 47.440929, -53.157411
Address: Harbour Main, Newfoundland and Labrador A0A 1Z0
This site is easy to see and find as it is right beside the main road with ample parking space.
Finding Harbour Main’s “Church” dive site was a happy accident on our dive adventures in Newfoundland. We stumbled across this site while looking for a quieter entry point to the Harbour Main shore dive site.
As the name hints, the Church dive site is located across from Saints Peter & Paul Parish in a region of Harbour Main deemed Chapel Cove. Access to the shoreline is by means of an overgrown dirt road opposite the church. This rough terrain road is less than 100 meters (328 feet) long and can be tricky to travel or for low driving vehicles.
The Church shore diving site affords a wonderful rocky beach entry and gradually sloping bottom. After exiting the beachy narrows and veering right, divers will find a bubblegum pink coralline algae coated rock wall. The wall begins around 3-4.5 meters (10-15 feet) and can be followed down to 10.5-12 meters (35-40 feet) depending on the tide and water levels.
Lumpfish, pout, cunner, wolfeels, cod, flounder and sculpin are all common fish sightings that we had the opportunity to enjoy at this shore diving site with an even longer list of invertebrates. We even had a magnificent and fleeting encounter with a ray in the rockweed clogged shallows.
How to Find “Church” and What to Look For
GPS Coordinates: 47.440929, -53.157411
Address: CRRV+92 Harbour Main-Chapel Cove-Lakeview, Newfoundland and Labrador
This site has an overgrown single lane road just across from a small church. Access is via a rocky beach.
Pulling into the harbour of the Holyrood dive site, I quickly made note that this site was much less secluded than the previous fishing bays. As a marina and boat docking area, there was lots going on at Holyrood and plenty of curious bystanders watching our group prepare for the dive. Dropping our tanks at the water’s edge and finding parking along the street above, Joey and I readied ourselves to explore the breakwater running out along the cusp of the marina.
From the sandy beach, Holyrood dropped off quickly enabling us to go from 1.5 meters (5 feet) deep to hugging the bottom at 9 meters (30 feet) in the blink of an eye. The retaining wall we followed was composed of large boulders with plenty of pockets for marine flora and fauna to use as a hideout.
Swim, stop, swim, stop. Watching the flurry of cunner dart left and right, I lowered myself so that my mask was eye level with one cheeky cunner’s scaly body. It repeatedly came close and then swam away trying to decide if I was friend or foe. Besides the unending amount of cunners, there were also many snails, sea stars and flatfish.
While not as biologically diverse or interesting as some of the previous shore diving sites we’d visited, at Holyrood, I loved how bold the cunners were. I took full advantage by capturing many photographs.
How to Find Holyrood and What to Look For
GPS Coordinates: 47.389306, -53.125889
Address: Sir Albert Walsh Dr, Holyrood, NL
This marina has a small beach access. Divers are encouraged to bring a surface marker because of high boat traffic.
Whether you’re diving solely for fun or looking to take a course, diving in Newfoundland and Labrador will surely leave you with a love for cold water diving like never before.
Lose yourself in the numerous Bell Island wrecks scattered off the coast or dive at your own leisure with the menu of shore diving places just waiting to feast your eyes on. On the island, there is a nice mixture of beginner and advanced places to check out.
One of the things we loved about this diving in Newfoundland, is that you don’t need to spend days at sea to reach spectacular dive sites – they are smack-dab in front of your nose, in low current easy to access locations. Dust off that drysuit, strap on those fins and get your dive butt to this maritime province!
Shore diving around Conception Bay can cost as little as a tank rental or fill for divers who are self-sufficient or $149.99 + HST for those looking to have a guide accompany them on two guided dives. Guided shore dives run from May 21st – September 3rd with the duration being from 9am to approx 3pm.
This price does not include transportation to the dive site or rentals. For nitrox and equipment cost, divers will need to reach out to the dive shop, however generally the full dive kit rental is around $100 + HST.
The Newfoundland diving season runs between May 19th to November 11th weather pending. During this time, the coldest water temperatures typically occur in May and June where water can be 2-6°C.
May and June is also iceberg season where large chunks of ice will drift from Greenland and the Arctic. As long as the weather stays cold enough and icebergs remain intact, divers are able to indulge in an adrenaline pumping iceberg dive.
Shore diving around Conception Bay is a nice change up from the experience needed to dive on Bell Island. A minimum of open water scuba certification is required and a drysuit is strongly encouraged because of the cold water. Divers will need to present their certification to rent gear, tanks and get air fills. Expect to need to answer the following questions with regards to your experience level:
Recreational diving is also limited from May to November. Outside of those months, the dive shop is closed.
The only company, to our knowledge, that offers recreation scuba diving in Newfoundland is Ocean Quest Adventures.
Ocean Quest has three locations; one land tour, one retail and one for diving. Scuba divers will want to head to the Conception Bay South locations.
Are you a fan of shore diving? What is the coldest and most remote location you have tried shore diving at?
Writers Note: The Bell Island region of this diving location was featured in DAN’s Alert Diver Magazine – Newfoundland: Where History and Diving Collide as a part of the February 2020 Q1 publication. Want to explore more diving in Canada’s eastern province of Newfoundland? Take a look at our Canadian Splash project to discover more underwater adventures.
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