“I never trust the mind of an iceberg,” Cecil Stockley told me. He estimates its length, multiplies by five and keeps his boat at least that distance away.
Dave Boyd said his safety rules depend on which type of iceberg he’s dealing with. “A tabular is generally pretty mellow,” Mr. Boyd explained as we floated off the coast of Newfoundland, referring to icebergs with steep sides and large, flat tops. “But a pinnacle” — a tall iceberg with one or more spires — “can be a real beast.”
Barry Rogers doesn’t just look at an iceberg; he listens to it, as well. When the normal Rice Krispies-like pop of escaping air bubbles gives way to a much louder frying-pan sizzle, the iceberg may be about to roll over or even split apart, he explained. Another clue, he said, is when a flock of seabirds perched atop the ice abruptly peels away en masse. They can feel the tremors that Mr. Rogers is straining to hear.
“Either way, if that’s happening — it’s time to get the hell out of Dodge,” he said.
Mr. Stockley, Mr. Boyd and Mr. Rogers are all skippers — with more than 100 years of combined experience among them — for tour boat companies who hunt for giant blocks of ice and snow in Iceberg Alley, the nickname for a stretch of water curving along the eastern coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, the easternmost province of Canada. Icebergs that have calved off the giant Greenland ice sheet pass by here each spring on a slow-motion journey southward to the open waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.
In 1912, one such iceberg struck the starboard side of the Titanic on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic. Over the years, plenty of others have done lesser damage to ships, oil rigs and even the occasional unlucky — or foolhardy — kayaker.
But the vast majority of these icebergs, melting as they move south into warmer water, don’t hit anything at all before they disappear into the sea.
As they do, it makes for a truly spectacular show: an eerily opalescent display of colossal icebergs — some looming like high mesas, others spindly and rising like the Matterhorn — destined for decay.
I saw dozens of these mesmerizing icebergs while riding on boats, standing on shore and staring out the window of a descending airplane during a meandering trip in May that took me from St. John’s, the provincial capital, to the Avalon Peninsula (the southeast section of the island of Newfoundland) and up to Twillingate, a charming coastal island in north central Newfoundland that proclaims itself the “Iceberg Capital of the World.”
Twillingate has competitors for that mantle, but I can’t imagine there’s a better place on the planet to learn about icebergs — what causes them to form, why their colors vary, and how they travel and die. It’s fascinating, for example, to contemplate that the berg before you today began as snowfall thousands of years ago. There’s also the seemingly endless number of ways to classify an iceberg, depending on its type, composition, color, size and the various effects of the wind, waves and sun that sculpt its shape.
Or, as an educational display on icebergs at the local lighthouse puts it: “Each one is a unique individual.”
In Twillingate, this connoisseur’s appreciation for an iceberg’s precise characteristics coexists with a certain nonchalance that comes from seeing the annual offshore parade of moving blocks of snow and ice that can reach the size of Lower Manhattan.
Sure, most icebergs here are smaller — the size of Fenway Park, say. And there are plenty of even smaller bits of ice, the size of grand pianos, that don’t even officially qualify as icebergs. (These are known as “bergy bits” and “growlers.”)
But then there was the chunk of ice that broke off the Petermann Glacier in northwest Greenland in 2010 and drifted south past Newfoundland, the biggest recorded iceberg in the last 60 years. At 97 square miles, it was more than four times the size of all of Manhattan.
And believe it or not, the Petermann iceberg was a mere piker compared with the largest iceberg ever reliably measured by satellite, which calved from Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf in March 2000. That one was roughly the size of Connecticut, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
I’d had a hankering to visit Iceberg Alley ever since 2017, when I came across a remarkable photograph depicting an iceberg as tall as a 15-story building that had managed to beach itself alongside the tiny fishing village of Ferryland, an hour or so south of St. John’s.
The brightly painted houses on shore seemed like dollhouses compared with the colossal wall of snow hulking over the place. I found it fascinating that people who lived there could watch the show while sipping morning coffee on their decks.
In a sense, my trip began well before I arrived in the province. A sucker for autumn foliage maps that show where the peak colors are in my native New England, I had become obsessed with a springtime counterpart: icebergfinder.com. The website does exactly what its name suggests, and it’s where Iceberg Alley fans post excited comments and dramatic photographs the way others do with sunsets or birds.
Speaking of birds, there are mind-boggling numbers of them in Newfoundland this time of year — about half a million Atlantic puffins, to name just one species — joined by one of the greatest concentrations of migrating humpback whales found anywhere. Along with the icebergs, the birds and whales make for the province’s camera-ready trifecta, usually on display from about mid-May through the end of June.
Actually, one could make it a quadfecta and throw in a look at the Titanic, history’s most famous iceberg casualty, which now rests some 12,500 feet underwater and a few hundred miles southeast of Newfoundland. For that, though, you do need to pony up $250,000, the cost of a nine-day passage aboard a research ship with OceanGate Expeditions.
In St. John’s I ran into OceanGate’s founder, a fellow Seattleite named Stockton Rush who proudly showed me the ship and his 23-foot Titan, the carbon fiber and titanium submarine he uses to take his mission specialists (i.e., customers) down to the ocean floor for a five-hour look around the stricken liner and its huge debris field.
I admire Stockton’s passion but lacked the money needed to become a mission specialist. For a considerably lesser fare of about $75, I instead stayed above the waterline and went seeking icebergs aboard a 63-foot ship owned by a company named Iceberg Quest. Barry Rogers, the skipper who uses his multiply-by-five formula for keeping away from icebergs, kept up a steady stream of narration during the two-hour out-and-back tour to Cape Spear, a jut of land that happens to be the easternmost point in North America.
I learned a lot from Mr. Rogers, a jovial man with a bushy iceberg-white beard — and not just about icebergs. He is also a fount of history about Newfoundland and the bitterly contested vote leading to confederation in 1949 — or, as he called it, “our decision to allow Canada to join Newfoundland.”
Like the other skippers I met, Mr. Rogers turned to iceberg tours only after the collapse of the province’s once-legendary fishing industry. Industrial-scale overfishing in the Grand Banks decimated the cod stocks, leading to a 1992 moratorium that threw thousands of Newfoundland fishermen out of work.
There is plenty of blame for the disaster, and one can still hear it being bitterly apportioned today, but the province has also moved on to promoting tourism, and Iceberg Alley is one of its main draws. Newfoundland is not exactly easy or inexpensive to get to, but it’s a lot easier and cheaper than going to Antarctica, the other spot on earth where one can reliably expect to find a lot of massive icebergs.
I found the people in Newfoundland to be friendly, funny and frank, if a bit stubborn in their ways. They even insist on their own time zone, a half-hour ahead of provincial mate Labrador and the rest of Atlantic Canada. Being closer to Galway on Ireland’s West Coast than they are to Winnipeg, many Newfoundlanders still have accents traceable to their Irish and English ancestors who settled the land.
In Twillingate, I signed on with Mr. Boyd, who runs a 28-foot, 12-passenger aluminum boat named the Silver Bullet, which he deftly maneuvered into close enough range that we could see the turquoise underbelly of a tabular iceberg. The white above-water mass was laced with lines of a rich royal-blue color, which were essentially narrow channels cut by melting water. (Similar channels in some algae-heavy icebergs make them look for all the world like giant green-striped peppermints, but most have hues of blue.)
Here, by the way, is as good a place as any to include the caveat that what I saw was only — and I’m sorry I have no more creative way to say it, which is why I waited — the tip of the icebergs.
Normally, what you and I see of any given iceberg above the surface of the water is only 10 to 12 percent of its total mass, explained Stephen E. Bruneau, an ice expert at Newfoundland’s Memorial University and author of the super-definitive book, “A Field Guide to Icebergs of Newfoundland and Labrador.”
Mr. Bruneau has advised companies on how to lasso and tow icebergs, generally in a bid to redirect them away from hitting oil rigs or fishing equipment. He also entertains a few calls every year from people who want to know whether they could solve chronic fresh water shortage problems by towing giant icebergs to, say, Saudi Arabia or Southern California.
“That’s crazy — it makes absolutely no economic sense to do that,” Mr. Bruneau told me. “I mean, in theory, it might be possible. But the fuel costs alone would pay for a desalination plant.”
The other question Mr. Bruneau gets, much more frequently, is how climate change and warmer global temperatures will affect the icebergs in Iceberg Alley. This turns out to be a rather complex issue, with so many factors at work in any given year that no one really knows the answer. Higher temperatures could well trigger more and bigger icebergs, but also accelerate the pace of their melting, he explained.
I did come across an iceberg melting in real time, late one afternoon while I was poking around the back roads of New World Island, a few miles south of Twillingate. The scene was hypnotic: The berg had managed to beach itself in a secluded cove up against a larger tabular iceberg, and it was taking a pounding from the incoming surf. I watched it diminish over the course of an hour from twin-spired grandeur to a double humpback to a bereft-looking bulbous mound.
But then I noticed that, in its dying hours, it was actually protecting the larger iceberg behind it, enabling its cousin to live to fight another day, or at least another tidal cycle. The iceberg had performed a noble sacrifice. A unique individual, indeed.
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