>We recently had an incredible opportunity to explore the length of the St. Lawrence, from our dock near Lake Ontario to the distant shores of Newfoundland and Labrador, for a National Geographic magazine article published in May 2014. The proposed development of a significant petroleum discovery known as "Old Harry" in the Gulf of St. Lawrence provided the incentive to explore and share what is at risk in the surrounding waters. With the help of our colleagues Michel Gilbert and Danielle Alary, we began planning our expedition.
>Our dock is only minutes away from shipwrecks, storybook castles and sturgeon. In late May, when the river temperature touches 50°F, lake sturgeon gather to spawn on nearby gravel beds. A 3- to 5-knot current roars across their spawning areas, aerating their precious carpet of eggs. Diving here with this ancient, threatened species is like swimming against a fire hose. These magnificent fish can live 100 years and are programmed for slow reproduction: Females first spawn at 25 years and males at 14-16 years. Against a backdrop of diminishing habitat and unsustainable harvest for caviar, this is leading to crises in sturgeon populations worldwide.
>We crossed the gulf to the west coast of Newfoundland to meet up with Rick Stanley and Robert Hooper, Ph.D., to explore the deep, cold and clear fjords of Bonne Bay. The plummeting rock walls of the fjord are covered in startlingly dense carpets of stalked anemones. The gentler slopes are home to Atlantic wolffish, which peered out at us from their dens. Their grumpy, gray and somewhat comical expressions reminded David of some of his relatives from Montreal. We surfaced from every dive into a living painting of sunlit coves filled with golden algae and flounders that wafted like leaves. Lion's mane jellyfish of every shape, size and color pulsed past a striking Canadian canvas of evergreens and ancient rock, a perfect stage for David's signature half-and-half imagery.
>Testosterone-fueled males swirl beneath the ice pack eagerly awaiting an opportunity to mate. There is a tense pulse of life in this cold and challenging world. We spent days in the ice, the pups' cries echoing through the steel hull, sounding like those of human babies. The diving was exhilarating and exhausting. We experienced life-changing encounters that will stay with us.
>As we left the seals we were met with a storm that pummeled the weak sea ice, turning it into a blender and killing most of the pups in the gulf for the second year in a row. Warming in the gulf has led to poor and unstable ice that disintegrates beneath the pups.
>This dynamic and evolving winter world of the Gulf of St. Lawrence is a current that runs through our lives. We migrate back each year when the frozen sea silence is broken only by the wind and the cries of the harp seal.
>THOUSAND ISLANDS REGION
>How To Dive It
>Getting There: The Thousand Islands region is 90 miles north of the Syracuse, N.Y., airport and a six-hour drive from Boston or New York.
>Conditions: Summer weather means warm days (mid-80s°F) and cooler nights. Water temperatures brush 70°F in the freshwater corridor, and most divers use drysuits or 7mm wetsuits. Current can be significant, requiring intermediate to advanced diving skills. Late summer and early fall offer the best visibility.
>On the Surface: Topside diversions include castles, wooden speedboat rides and helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft charters. Or drop by our house for a coffee; we are a great diversion.
>ST. LAWRENCE ESTUARY
>Getting There: Les Escoumins, an international favorite near the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park, is a four-and-a-half-hour drive east from Quebec City. They make diving easy. For advanced wreck and technical divers, the Empress of Ireland can be reached by ferry to the south shore at Rimouski.
>Conditions: Summer weather means warm days, cool nights and cold water. Drysuit experience is required. This is rewarding diving but seriously cold water.
>On the Surface: Whale watching is a must. Hiking and fixed-wing air charters are available.
>GASPÉ PENINSULA, GULF OF ST. LAWRENCE
>Getting There: Fly into the Michel-Pouliot Gaspé Airport, or make the nine-hour drive east from Quebec City.
>Conditions: Moderate currents require intermediate to advanced diving skills. Cool temperatures prevail here. Water temperatures are typically in the 60s°F, so divers generally wear drysuits.
>On the Surface: The gannet colony on Bonaventure Island is an absolute must do. Quebec cuisine is a close second.
>ISLES-DE-LA-MADELEINE, GULF OF ST. LAWRENCE
>Getting There: Fly into Îles-de-la-Madeleine airport.
>Conditions: In the winter the island is covered in ice, which means survival suits topside and waterproof suits for diving.
>© Alert Diver — Fall 2014