Iceberg watching off Newfoundland is a bucket list experience.
There are very few places in the world where you can see icebergs. And none are as convenient a perch as Newfoundland. Once here, you almost don’t have to “go” anywhere to see them. Some days you can sit in the linen-and-crystal comfort of the Sheraton Hotel Newfoundland’s Oppidan restaurant and watch them pass by the mouth of St. John’s Harbour. Or you can walk almost anywhere along the shore to see them.
Icebergs are fascinating, in that odd, mammoth way nature can present itself. Of the 800 + icebergs which make it as far south as St. John’s, most come from glaciers in Western Greenland, the rest from the Arctic. Whatever their nationality, to me, icebergs seem to be some gigantic parade of martyrs on a sacrificial pilgrimage to the warmer waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
In Newfoundland, during iceberg season, which is from April to July, you can sit on the shore and watch these silent behemoths floating, like ghosts, across the horizon. Or you can join a boat tour to get a closer look.
Spurred by my friend’s seductive photos, I made my second trip to Newfoundland to see icebergs. My first experience was off Saint Anthony on the tip of that north-pointing finger which sticks up from the island of Newfoundland.
On a bright July afternoon I joined 16 others at Noddy Bay, between the L’Anse Aux Meadows UNESCO World Heritage Site and St. Anthony’s to board an open boat and head out in search of these floating curiosities.
After an hour’s sail, our conversation was suddenly broken by a chorus of “Oh my gawd!”
In the middle of a wall of haze was a dark, ominous structure which gradually revealed itself to be an iceberg. It was frightening and beautiful. This meringue-like mountain glowed in the sunlight on a brilliant blue calm sea, surrounded by hundreds of floating pieces of debris ice. I had a hair-raising glimpse of what it must have been like on the morning after Titanic sank. It’s nature’s perverse joke that the prettiest things are often the most lethal.
While the group struggled to speak – it was so beautiful that coherency and adjectives left us – we snapped photos and pointed as if you could miss an eight-storey-high iceberg a few hundred yards to port. In modern society, we seem to make size comparisons to football fields. The website icebergfinder.com, which is operated by a group of experts at Memorial University in St. John’s, puts icebergs in six, easy to understand, size categories. Extra large is the size of a suspension bridge like Lion’s Gate in Vancouver or the MacDonald over Halifax Harbour. Large would be a football stadium, like Toronto’s Skydome or Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. Medium is the size of a 15-storey office building. Small is church size. A “bergy bit” is the size of a house while a “growler” comes in at van size.
The waters around this first iceberg were a calm, Caribbean-like turquoise colour, which glowed against the blue-black of the North Atlantic. The lightness is due to the reflection from the submerged part of the iceberg. For us, there was an Oz-like feel to being here. But we had gone down a different type of yellow brick road to find a piece of ice the size of several football stadiums. Clarence, the man at the helm of our boat smiled, “You should come here in April month – they’re uuge!’ (Pronounced without the h.)
The iceberg looked big enough to me. It was like a white cake whose centre had collapsed to reveal a translucent blue-green interior. Periodically, we heard a crack, like a gunshot, and then thunder as a wall of ice cascaded into the ocean, adding to the debris field. Icebergs have a dangerous, seductive beauty to them, like a forbidden love.
My second foray into iceberg watching was off Bonavista. A four-hour drive north of St. John’s, this is where the explorer John Cabot landed in 1497. A replica of that original ship made a return voyage in 1997. It is on display in the town.
I arrived late in the season and was supposed to sail out of Trinity Bay on a scheduled cruise with Captain Art of Atlantic Adventure Boat Tours. Unfortunately, our cruise was cancelled because of heavy rain and fog. However, Newfoundlanders won’t ever leave you high and dry. So Captain Art made some calls and found me icebergs in Bonavista. “The guy at the Elizabeth J Cottages – he’s new, from Ontario (this was several years ago – but by Atlantic standards, he would still be ‘new’) – said there were three icebergs off his place now. And he knows a lobster fisherman who was going out. You could probably go with him.”
I hopped in the car and drove the 55 kms to Bonavista, concerned I might be expected to help haul lobster pots on a working boat. I found the two crayon-coloured self-catering Elizabeth J Cottages perched on a rocky cliff overlooking the North Atlantic. Our man there called Scott, the lobster fisherman, who was already out in his boat. We agreed to meet at the wharf at 1:30.
When Scott motored in to the inner harbour at Bonavista, I was expecting a Cape Islander type of boat, with a small wheelhouse to provide some shelter from the elements. Scott’s lobster boat was 20 feet long and wide open. It takes guts to go out to work on the ocean in something like this.
Scott decided he should stay in port to help his partner sell their catch, so he called his friend Larry to take me out in his boat. Then, looking at my clothes he asked if I had my wet gear in the car? I was wearing a light ski jacket, a fleece, jeans and suede deck shoes. “No, I don’t mind getting a little wet,” I naively said.
Scott shook his head and, in the rain, stripped right there on the wharf. It wasn’t the full monty, he just took off the rubber jacket and pants and told me to put them on. Then looking at my deck shoes, he offered me the boots he was wearing. It’s one thing to take the slicker off a fisherman’s back, but I couldn’t take his boots.
The boat fueled and me covered in fishy-smelling, water-repellent clothing, Larry and I set off in a heavy rain, on a five-mile boat ride, banging over white caps in the North Atlantic, to the closest iceberg. Water splashed over the sides and poured down from overhead. I was more than a little glad for the borrowed wet gear.
Larry kept up a steady dialogue. I don’t know if he didn’t notice the rain or was keeping me distracted or if he was just very sociable. Like I imagine most men of this coast, Larry knows everything about the sea, the catches, where you catch what, which boats are best for which fishery and has opinions on government and the Cod fishery. I don’t think many Newfoundlanders are in the diplomatic corps. I also learned about life on a crab boat. It was a first-hand lesson in the fishery.
As we got closer to the iceberg, it looked more blue than it had from the shore. Icebergs are full of tiny air bubbles which reflect the available light, so the overcast sky contributed to the bluish hue. In addition to their scale, icebergs can be filled with interesting caves, the odd waterfall and can seem decorated by dark lines as if some deft-handed artist decided to detail the structure.
Larry matter-of-factly explained we had to keep our distance while circling the iceberg “because if she tips over or breaks apart, we’re goners.” He seemed not to notice my look as he detailed the dangers: we could be sunk by flying ice or by the waves created by a major breakup or flipped over by a submerged part rising above the waterline. Suddenly, the luster was coming off this little adventure.
After an hour of tasting salt on my lips, trying to keep my glasses clear, of maintaining a death grip on my camera to keep it from flying overboard, and wondering if my feet would ever be dry again, we headed back to shore.
My contact at the Elizabeth J Cottages told me that morning he watched an iceberg disintegrate. “I was walking the dog along the shore and I heard this loud crack and suddenly the iceberg just exploded!” he said. It broke into two halves, with the centre part flying into the air.
Stave Bruno, an engineering professor at Memorial University , and author of Icebergs of Newfoundland and Labrador, explained, “The ice itself is under a lot of tension, so when it does break through some catastrophic failure, like an iceberg breaking in half, there’s so much stress being relieved that things do snap and fly. And the iceberg is quite high, so big chunks may fall and splash or may splinter up and outwards. When huge icebergs roll over and chunks break off and strike the water, they give the appearance of bombs blowing up with water spray shooting way up in the air, so it does look every bit like an explosion.” But that’s one of nature’s illusions.
As amazing as icebergs are to watch, Newfoundland provides an equally curious array of land-based discoveries to fill in your non-water-based schedule. For example, I don’t know that a lot of Canadians understand the importance of the viking settlement at L’Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site. A thousand years ago 75 Norse men and women settled this site, making it the only known Viking settlement in North America.
L’Anse Aux Meadows feels like the place time forgot. Aside from a few houses in the distance, the landscape looks untouched. It’s almost spooky in its raw, rugged naturalness to be in a place where Lief Eriksson and his party lived 500 years before Columbus set sail. It is far enough north that it’s possible to see the Aurora Borealis, polar bears in spring and moose all the time.
L’Anse Aux Meadows is also the first place in the world to earn a World Heritage Site designation from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It earned this designation – before places like the Pyramids, Great Wall of China and Venice – because when the Vikings landed here, they completed the human circle. Scientists believe the human race originated in Africa. Between 150,000 and 250,000 years ago some tribes went East as far as Siberia, while others went west and north to Europe and Scandinavia. The descendants of the Siberian populations are the indigenous people of North America, so the Vikings’ arrival in Newfoundland was the first time the two arms of the human race reunited and the encirclement of the globe was complete.
Less important to the world, but interesting for visitors, are places like Port Union, which is Canada’s only union-built town, and a place so progressive that it had electricity before New York City. At the Ryan Premises, in Bonavista, I learned about the various fisheries that built a once-prosperous economy here. In the town of Trinity I found a pretty, yet somewhat sad place. Architecturally, it is filled with well-maintained and colourfully decorated homes. The sad aspect is that this once thriving community only has 20 elderly year-round residents. In summer the population climbs to 250. That’s when the place comes alive, when parking lots fill with visitors staying in B&Bs, visiting the historic buildings and attending performances at the Rising Tide Theatre.
This area is off the beaten path for many visitors to Newfoundland, but it has all the elements for a successful holiday. In addition to the raw beauty of nature, there are elegant accommodations, seafood so fresh you can see it being landed, and people so friendly they will literally give you the clothes off their back. And then there are icebergs, whales, seabirds. Where else can you have all this?