The Thrill Seeker plows through the choppy waters surrounding Twillingate Island, churning up a chilly Atlantic froth that sprays the six of us passengers. Captain Dave Boyd doesn’t much care for the 40-mile-per-hour winds buffeting his 23-foot boat, so he noses her away from the enormous iceberg sitting placidly, tantalizingly, close to us. Motoring out to that berg, he explains, would be tempting fate. The stronger the wind and the bigger the iceberg, the farther away you need to stay to be safe.
No matter the boat’s name, there is only so much thrill-seeking a prudent captain can stand.
“Do you know if there are any other icebergs out there today that are safe enough for us to see?” I ask.
“Oh, we’re just exploring now, right?” he replies cheerfully. No, he doesn’t know.
My heart sinks. Ice is what has lured me to Newfoundland’s remote northern reaches. Every spring and early summer, some 25,000 to 40,000 icebergs split away from glaciers in western Greenland with thunderous cracks. First lumbering north, then slowing circling counterclockwise around Baffin Bay, the massive chunks of ice eventually flow into the powerful Labrador Current, which propels them past the eastern coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, then all the way down to the Grand Banks in the Canadian province’s far southern reaches — the very area, incidentally, where the Titanic famously met her demise in 1912. Only 400 to 800 icebergs survive this two- to three-year journey. The rest grind to a halt when they become grounded in shallow fjords off Baffin Island or the Labrador Coast, drift into straits and bays or simply melt silently into the sea.
For centuries, this annual iceberg parade was the bane of Newfoundland and Labrador’s cod fishermen, as the hulking mammoths shredded fishing nets and split apart cod boxes while drifting along the coast on their southbound journey.
“Today, people call them majestic,” said Mayor Ernest Simms of St. Anthony, a city farther north than Twillingate Island. “But if you asked fishermen of old,” he added with a wry smile, “that’s not quite the word they’d use to describe them.”
In 1992, with cod feared on the brink of extinction from overfishing, the Canadian government abruptly shut down the industry. About 30,000 people in the province lost their livelihoods, and a historic way of life was snuffed out. Residents were devastated. But then they realized that not all was lost. While the waters surrounding Newfoundland and Labrador were no longer rich in cod, they were still rich in something else — icebergs. Beautiful, majestic icebergs. And with the twinkle of a bit of ice, a tourism industry was born.
Afloat amid ice
Captain Dave is tall and ruddy-cheeked, barely a wrinkle in his 68-year-old face. Owner of Prime Berth, one of several berg-peeping tour companies on the island, he rests one hand lightly on the Thrill Seeker’s wheel as he scans the water for approachable icebergs.
“When I got up this morning, I saw an iceberg in the main tickle that was movin’ as fast as a boat,” he says. Now, just a few hours later, it’s nowhere in sight. He points to four or five white mounds squatting far in the distance. “Those over there? They’re in the open ocean, right? So they’re gonna escape. Once they go out that far, they’re goners.” He’s not sounding very encouraging about our prospects.
And then, just like that, we spot one. Instead of loud hurrahs, though, the six of us fall silent. The iceberg is small and misshapen, nothing like the impressive giants on the horizon. Captain Dave idles the Thrill Seeker and we glide near the glistening piece of ice. A collective gasp rises from the boat. Up close, the baby berg no longer looks malformed. It looks stunning. Cameras start clicking like lobster claws as we lean forward to better see its larger end, shaped like a wolf’s head. Now we glimpse waves rhythmically splashing up its midsection, carving and polishing the ice with each splash. Its smaller end delicately flips up like a seal’s tail.
We slowly circle the entire iceberg — it looks remarkably different from every angle — then putter away in search of another. Minutes later we score again, sighting a much larger specimen caught between two rocky shoals. “That one’s not going anywhere for a long time, that one is,” Captain Dave says gleefully.
The boat approaches gently. The warm sun smiling from the sky is causing the berg to sweat rivulets down its curved, rounded back side, which is wet and glistening. “This one looks like a big butt,” the woman next to me whispers.
“That’s just what I was thinking,” I reply.
“It’s a mighty big chunk of ice,” says Captain Dave thoughtfully. “And it’s well-washed by the sea. But it doesn’t have the character of the smaller one.”
As we head back to shore, we again pass our smaller find. Just as I’m thinking it looks different somehow, a melodic chattering commences. The iceberg calved while we were gone, its lost poundage shattering into hundreds of tiny “bergy bits.” The icy pieces are clustered together in a long, sparkling ribbon — an oceanic Milky Way — which the Thrill Seeker is motoring through. The bergy bits bob in the waves, tinkling with laughter as we slice through, winking at us like diamonds.
A stay in St. Anthony
My quest to spend a week feasting my eyes on icebergs actually began several days earlier in St. Anthony, which sits at the very tip of what Newfies call Iceberg Alley. After checking out the local Iceberg Festival, held in the area every June to celebrate the year’s crop, I booked a night at a lighthouse-turned-inn perched on Quirpon (kar-POON) Island, a speck of rock poking out of the ocean not too far from shore. Surely it would be easy to spot icebergs galore here.
It was a gray, blustery day when inn owner Ed English ferried several of us guests to the island in his puffy red Zodiac. En route, we zipped over to see two icebergs, one so enormous it looked like an aircraft carrier.
“This is nothing,” said English. “Last year an iceberg came down that was about 10 acres. It had lakes and rivers and waterfalls on it.”
When icebergs of that magnitude are seen, it generally means they got sucked into the Labrador Current immediately after emigrating from Greenland, bypassing the multiyear trip around Baffin Bay and the regular calving that occurs during that time, shedding girth. But while a 10-acre iceberg with lakes, rivers and waterfalls sounds mind-bogglingly large, consider this. The tallest North Atlantic iceberg ever recorded rose out of the water 550 feet, nearly the height of the Washington Monument. And the largest iceberg overall ever recorded, birthed in the Antarctic around 1956, was 208 miles long and 60 feet wide for a total of 12,000-plus square miles, making it larger than Belgium.
That night at dinner, English’s staff prepared me and other visitors a traditional Newfoundland dinner of boiled corned beef and vegetables. Cooling our pitcher of water were two bergy bits. Perfectly clear, with just the teeniest of air bubbles, glacial ice was formed 10,000 years ago, English said, long before the Industrial Revolution, when the air and land and water were sweet and clean. This is the purest ice we’ll ever taste. It’s also so dense, so lacking in oxygen, that it takes much longer to melt than the ice cubes we get from the fridge. Put one in your drink, and it’ll last for hours. But don’t try to bite it; it could break your teeth, he told us.
We laughed, but then English became serious. A wilderness survival instructor, he said it is imperative to know that while icebergs are gorgeous, they’re also deadly. For starters, they’re not floating on top of the water. Ninety percent of an iceberg is hidden under the sea. Get too close in a boat, and you can easily hit an iceberg before you think you’re anywhere near it. And then there’s the calving and rolling. Icebergs are constantly breaking up as they float along the ocean. When a piece calves, the berg often rolls to re-establish its equilibrium. Calving and rolling happen abruptly and without warning. If you’re bobbing in a boat just a wee bit too close when an iceberg calves, you can be hit by a piece of flying ice or tossed into the sea. Not a good thing when an iceberg is harder than a chunk of concrete and the water is about 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
To English’s knowledge, no tourists have been killed by feisty icebergs. But locals constantly worry about adventure-seekers and those who aren’t iceberg-savvy. One tourist, said English, asked to be ferried to an iceberg so he could camp out on it overnight. Never mind that the surface temperature of an iceberg is about 32 degrees. “He had no idea what he was talking about,” English said, shaking his head. Another tourist went ice-climbing on a berg, which fortuitously remained intact during his dangerous exploit. One young man dove into the Atlantic’s frigid waters to try and swim to an iceberg and back. He nearly died from hypothermia.
Now in Twillingate, our iceberg hunt with Captain Dave nearly over, I quiz him about the silliest tourist request he’s ever received. Without hesitation he says, “I had a 75-year-old man and his 30-year-old girlfriend out with me last year. There was a berg out here as big as a football field. She said to her boyfriend, ‘Darling, we could get married on an iceberg like that.’ I said, ‘Sure! You could have a helicopter take you and the wedding party out, and we could get a minister there, too. There’s only one problem, my dear.’ She said, ‘What’s that?’ ‘You might get cold feet!’ ”
Melanie Radzicki McManus writes about travel and fitness; she lives in Sun Prairie, Wis.