Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
Picture a scene where hundreds of bergs, some thousands of years old, are floating along the sea in an eye-catching ‘parade’. Andrew Eames heads to Iceberg Alley.
So here’s a riddle for the well-traveled … What’s bigger than a multi-story car park, calves ‘growlers’, sinks ships, and weeps gently as it comes sashaying down a spectacular ‘alley’ that runs for over 100 miles?
The answer, of course, is an iceberg, and the catwalk in question is the so-called Iceberg Alley off the coast of the island of Newfoundland in Atlantic Canada. Here, on a productive day in the heart of the season, as many as 300 bergs can be found whispering along the shore at any one time.
The waters in these parts have long been known for their big lumps of ice—ever since a famous one sank the Titanic near here, back in 1912. Most of these bergs break off from the edges of the expanding glaciers of western Greenland, 1,000 miles north, and the Newfie shoreline in the months of May and June is the last stage of a reluctant migration.
They parade past in a stately fashion, some sporting pinnacles, some arches, some table-topped and some—very occasionally—carrying polar bears. From the shore, they are mapped, watched and photographed, as if they’re in some kind of slo-mo art show. And they’re certainly mesmerizing when seen up-close, especially when you realize that some are as ancient as 10,000 years old.
Technology may have moved on since the days of the Titanic, but bergs are still scary beasts—especially when you can’t see them. “When they’ve got a completely flat surface, it’s sometimes hard to pick them up on the radar,” says captain Barry Rodgers as we steam out from Newfoundland’s St John’s Harbor on his day-trip boat, Iceberg Quest—and are instantly swallowed whole by the cotton wool of a fog bank, a regular hazard here in spring.
Rodgers reduces speed—he knows there’s something near—and mentions that the floating ice sometimes carries passengers; namely, polar bears that realize too late that they’ve chosen a drifter when the ice starts to diminish around them and air starts to warm. What usually happens is that they are tranquilized by local rangers, and then airlifted back north.
Suddenly, out of the fog, looms an enormous white shape, round-cornered, blue-veined and “like a dementor!” gasps a Harry Potter fan on board. A huge beast, or at least it seems huge from this close, and one that would easily sink a ship.
The fog clears, revealing an archway through its middle which looks like a gateway to an icy, parallel world. And when the sun hits it again, it ‘calves’ with a noise like thunder, releasing growlers the size of grand pianos into the water. Rogers stays well clear; a melting berg is very unstable, he says, and a sudden change in weight distribution can cause it to cartwheel, which is lethal for a small boat if you’re too close.
And Iceberg Alley is very much ‘small boat’ territory. Newfoundland is still fundamentally a fishing community, its shoreline a picturesque jigsaw of creeks, inlets and secret harbors, with fishing villages of pastel-colored clapperboard fishermen’s houses scattered about. In the sunshine, it looks like a distillation of Scotland, Ireland and Norway, while its main town, St. Johns, looks and feels a bit like an Irish San Francisco, with painted houses climbing uphill away from the bay.
“I’ve been around icebergs for many years and doing iceberg tours for over 20 years, but I’m still in awe when I’m near one—sometimes it’s the smaller ones that are the most awesome.”
Chuck Matchim, iceberg 'cowboy'
From St Johns’ quayside, once I’ve said goodbye to the Iceberg Quest, I drive up through town, past adverts for locally made Iceberg vodka and gin, made with 10,000-year-old meltwater from harvested ‘bergy bits’. I pass the offices of Berg water, one of the most expensive bottled waters in the world—it retails for upwards of $19 a pop. The largest iceberg ever recorded around here, back in 1882, weighed nine billion tonnes—that’s enough water to allow everyone in the world to drink a liter a day for four years.
I’m headed upcountry for the second half of my iceberg quest. For a while, the road veers inland through a rolling interior of lake-spotted moorland and tundra, with intermittent forest of birch, spruce and pine. With a landmass twice the size of Great Britain, but a population of barely 500,000, Newfoundland is clearly a hard-scrabble place to survive.
Half way to Happy Adventure—which sounds like a story from children’s TV—I make a detour on the advice of icebergfinder.com, Newfoundland’s iceberg-spotting website. From the headland at Bonavista, with its commanding view up and down Iceberg Alley, I can count at least 30 bergs in various states of disarray, dazzling white against the deep blue sea. I’m not the only berg-spotter to come here: Global warming these past few years has produced a bumper crop of visitors, and that in turn has generated a handy tourist upsurge.
Happy Adventure turns out to be a hamlet of houses on a tiny bay, one of which is the Inn at Happy Adventure, whose proprietor I’ve come to meet. Before coming ashore to be a restauranteur and innkeeper, Chuck Matchim used to be a cold-water cowboy—he worked for the offshore oil industry in the Labrador seas, skippering powerful tugs that would lasso any bergs drifting towards oil platforms, and try to tow them off course. Mostly, he says, it worked, “but then you get a berg over 15 kilometers long, and in that case, it’s the drilling equipment that has to get out of the way.”
“That’s where my first real fascination and respect for icebergs came from,” Chuck says, “Our job was to keep bergs free from a six-mile zone of the drilling ships. We had a large rope—a mile long with a 10-inch circumference—and attached to it was a smaller rope with a retrieving buoy. We’d circle the berg, attach the smaller rope to our winch, and tighten the rope until the iceberg was secured. Then the twin 8000-horsepower engines were put to use. How successful we were depended on the size and shape of the bergs.”
I can hear it whispering to itself in a private language of hisses and cracks as it melts. It carries an overwhelming presence, and I am overcome by an overwhelming sadness; this apparently living thing, tens of thousands of years old, has reached its end.
“Having spent time with bergs, you develop a deep respect for how instantly they can either roll over or completely break apart,” he says. “At times, it sounds like an explosion.”
“I’ve been around icebergs for many years and doing iceberg tours for over 20 years, but I’m still in awe when I’m near one—sometimes it’s the smaller ones that are the most awesome. The best way to experience bergs is definitely by boat. They look so different from each angle as you circle around them.”
Chuck takes me out in his rib to see a berg in its death throes. It’s a dull, wet day, which imbues the beached beast with a strange kind of luminosity. Once a giant among giants, it ran aground on the sullen shore some weeks earlier, and it is now a shadow of its former self.
The rib noses in almost within touching distance. With the berg well aground, and in a sad state of undress, there’s no chance of a capsize. So now I can see its purple veins, see the tears streaming down its flanks, and I can hear it whispering to itself in a private language of hisses and cracks as it melts. It carries an overwhelming presence, and I am overcome by an overwhelming sadness; this apparently living thing, tens of thousands of years old, has reached its end.
I’d have given it a cuddle, if it hadn’t already been ice cold.
Travel writer, broadcaster and ex-newspaper journalist Andrew Eames writes for UK publications from the Financial Times to the Sunday Mirror. He's also the author of five books and often speaks at travel writing seminars.