Andrew Eames welcomes a procession of fleeting icebergs off Canada’s Newfoundland coast
This is the time of year when a strange kind of migration starts off the shores of Canada’s Newfoundland. The warming air currents bring not birdlife, nor whales — they come later — but a procession of beasts even more massive than the world’s largest mammals. Icebergs.
The island province is the sort of setting where you’d expect to find mythical creatures. Its interior is rugged and bleak, like parts of northern Scandinavia. Its coastline, however, is far more picturesque, with secret harbors and creeks dotted with fishermen’s villages, like a distillation of Norway and Ireland. But just offshore is another scenic dimension, etching brilliant-white shapes on the horizon.
In season, they call the coast here ‘Iceberg Alley’, and the local berg-finder website (icebergfinder.com) is registering an amazing 375 in the alley when I arrive. I’m told these bergs break off the Arctic ice cap when the weather gets warmer, and the trade winds bring them here, the same winds that brought them into the path of the Titanic, when it sunk 400 miles off the Newfoundland coast.
My first encounter with an iceberg is almost a Titanic-like experience. I take a tour boat out of St John’s harbor, and as soon as we’re into the open sea a fog bank swallows us up. The boat plods on, and suddenly, out of the fog, looms this most enormous white shape; round-cornered, blue veined. It’s a huge berg, one that would easily sink a ship.
We’re not allowed to get too close; melting bergs can turn over without warning. Even at a distance we can see it calving what are called growlers or bergy bits, some of which will be scooped up by harvesters who sell the melt-water to make bottled water, vodka and even beer. Iceberg water can be very pure, having frozen long before modern-day pollutants were even invented.
Back onshore I want to see more, so I make contact with a ‘cold water cowboy’, Chuck Matchim, a man whose job used to be to lasso icebergs and try to alter their course so they don’t collide with nearby oil rigs. Chuck lives out at a place called Happy Adventure, on Bonavista Bay, a spectacular mix of deep blues and verdant greens with the brilliant white slow-mo show of at least 30 icebergs moving across the horizon, like curiously shaped sailboats.
But not all of them are moving. As we set off in his rib, Chuck explains to me how these bergs ground themselves off Newfoundland, and dissolve to nothing. And to illustrate his point he takes me out to find one that has come ashore, so securely wedged that we can safely go close enough to touch it. Up close, there’s something very sad about this stranding. The berg is still huge, but it’s horribly scarred, the meltwater carving grooves in its flanks. The whole thing is weeping, creaking and cracking apart; as I touch it, I almost expect to feel it quiver. It’s a thing of grandeur, possibly thousands of years old, and it’s meeting its end. This is one migration that inevitably ends in tears.