« I never trust the mind of an iceberg, » Cecil Stockley told me. He estimates its length, multiplies it by five and keeps his boat at least that distance.
Dave Boyd said his safety rules depend on the type of iceberg he’s dealing with. « A tabular is generally pretty sweet, » explained Mr. Boyd as we floated off the coast of Newfoundland, referring to icebergs with steep sides and broad, flat tops. « But a pinnacle »—a tall iceberg with one or more spiers— »can be quite a beast. »
Barry Rogers doesn’t just look at an iceberg; he hears it too. When the normal Rice Krispies-like popping of escaping air bubbles gives way to a much louder sizzle from the pan, the iceberg may be about to roll over or even crack, he explained. Another clue, he said, is when a flock of seabirds perched atop the ice abruptly detach en masse. They can feel the tremors that Mr. Rogers struggles to feel.
« Either way, if that’s happening, it’s time to get out of Dodge, » he said.
Mr. Stockley, Mr. Boyd and Mr. Rogers are all skippers — with more than 100 years of combined experience — for boat tour companies looking for giant blocks of ice and snow in Iceberg Alley, the nickname for a mirror of water curving along the east coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada’s easternmost province. Icebergs that have broken off Greenland’s giant ice sheet pass by here every spring on a slow-motion journey south to the open waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.
In 1912, one such iceberg struck the starboard side of the Titanic on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic. Over the years, many others have done minor damage to ships, oil rigs, and even the occasional hapless or daredevil kayaker.
But the vast majority of these icebergs, melting as they move south into warmer waters, hit nothing before disappearing into the sea.
As they do, it creates a truly spectacular sight: an eerily opalescent display of colossal icebergs – some looming like high plateaus, others thin and soaring like the Matterhorn – doomed to decay.
I saw dozens of these mesmerizing icebergs while traveling on boats, standing on shore and looking out the window of a descending plane during a meandering journey 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 on to Twillingate, a lovely coastal island in north central Newfoundland that bills itself as the ‘Iceberg Capital of the World’.
Twillingate has competitors for that cape, but I can’t imagine there’s a better place on the planet to learn about icebergs: what makes them 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 are also the seemingly infinite number of ways to classify an iceberg, according to its type, composition, color, size and the various effects of wind, waves and sun that sculpt its shape.
Or, as an educational iceberg display at the local lighthouse puts it: « Everyone is a unique individual. »
At Twillingate, this connoisseur’s appreciation for the precise characteristics of an iceberg coexists with a certain nonchalance that comes from seeing the annual offshore parade of shifting chunks of snow and ice that can reach the size of Lower Manhattan.
Granted, most of the icebergs here are smaller, such as the size of Fenway Park. And there are plenty of even smaller chunks of ice, about 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 Petermann Glacier in northwest Greenland in 2010 and drifted south beyond Newfoundland, the largest iceberg recorded in 60 years. At 97 square miles, it was more than four times the size of All of Manhattan.
And believe it or not, Petermann’s iceberg was a mere piker compared to the largest iceberg ever reliably measured by satellite, which broke off Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf in March 2000. That had roughly size of Connecticut, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
I’ve been wanting to visit Iceberg Alley since 2017, when I came across a stunning photograph of an iceberg as tall as a 15-story building that had managed to run aground next to the tiny fishing village of Ferryland, about an hour south of St. John’s.
The brightly painted houses on the shore looked like dollhouses in comparison to the colossal wall of snow that covered the place. I found it fascinating that the people who lived there could watch the show while sipping their morning coffee on their decks.
In a sense, my journey began long before I arrived in the province. A sucker for fall foliage maps that show where the peak colors are in my native New England, I had become obsessed with a spring counterpart: icebergfinder. com. The website does exactly what its name suggests, and this is where Iceberg Alley fans post enthusiastic comments and dramatic photographs as 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—along with one of the largest concentrations of migrating humpback whales ever found. Along with icebergs, birds and whales make up the province’s camera-ready trifecta, usually on display from mid-May to late June.
Actually, one could make a quadfecta and take a look at the Titanic, the most famous iceberg victim in history, now resting about 12,500 feet underwater and a few hundred miles southeast of Newfoundland. For that, though, you have to shell out $250,000, the cost of a nine-day voyage aboard a research vessel with OceanGate Shipments.
In St. John’s I bumped into the founder of OceanGate, a Seattle colleague named Stockton Rush, who proudly showed me around the ship and his 23-foot Titan, the carbon-fiber and titanium submarine he uses to carry mission specialists (i.e. customers) down to the ocean floor for a five-hour look around the stricken ocean liner and her massive debris field.
I admire Stockton’s passion but lacked the money to become a mission specialist. For a considerably lower fee of about $75, I instead stayed above the water line and went looking for icebergs aboard a 63-foot vessel owned by a company called Searching for the iceberg. Barry Rogers, the skipper who uses his five-folder formula to steer clear of icebergs, kept a steady stream of narratives during the two-hour round trip to Cape Spear, a bump of land that happens to be the easternmost point of North America.
I learned a lot from Mr. Rogers, a jovial man with a bushy beard as white as an iceberg – and not just about icebergs. He is also a source of history on Newfoundland and the hotly contested vote that led to confederation in 1949—or, as he called it, « our decision to allow Canada to join Newfoundland. »
Like other skippers I’ve met, Mr. Rogers only turned to iceberg tours after the collapse of the province’s once-legendary fishing industry. Industrial-scale overfishing in the Grand Banks decimated cod stocks, leading to a 1992 moratorium that threw thousands of Newfoundland fishermen out of work.
There’s a lot of blame for the disaster, and you can still feel it being bitterly shared today, but the province has also moved on to promoting tourism, and Iceberg Alley is one of its main attractions. Newfoundland isn’t exactly easy or inexpensive to get to, but it’s a lot easier and cheaper than going to Antarctica, the other place on earth where you can reliably expect to find many huge icebergs.
I have found the people in Newfoundland to be friendly, funny and outspoken, if a little stubborn in their ways. They even insist on their own time zone, half an hour ahead of fellow provincial Labrador and the rest of Atlantic Canada. Being closer to Galway on Ireland’s west coast than Winnipeg, many Newfoundlanders still have accents traceable to their Irish and English ancestors who settled the land.
At Twillingate, I signed on with Mr. Boyd, who runs a 28-foot, 12-passenger aluminum boat called the Silver Bullet, which he deftly maneuvered within close enough range to see the turquoise underbelly of a tabular iceberg. The white mass above the water was drenched in lines of a rich royal blue color, which were essentially narrow channels cut by the melting water. (Similar channels in some algae-rich icebergs make them look like giant green-striped peppermint everywhere, but most have shades of blue.)
Here, by the way, is as good a place as any to include the caveat that what I saw was just — and I’m sorry I don’t have a more creative way of putting it, which is why I waited — the tip of the iceberg.
Normally, what you and I see of any given iceberg above the water’s surface 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 book Super -definitive, « A practical guide to the icebergs of Newfoundland and Labrador ».
Mr. Bruneau advised companies on how to lasso and tow icebergs, generally in an effort to redirect them away from hitting oil rigs or fishing gear. He also gets a few calls every year from people asking if they could solve chronic freshwater shortage problems by towing giant icebergs, say, in Saudi Arabia or Southern California.
“It’s crazy – it makes absolutely no economic sense to do this,” Mr. Bruneau told me. “I mean, in theory it could be possible. But 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 problem, with so many factors at work in any given year that no one really knows the answer. Higher temperatures could trigger bigger and bigger icebergs, but also speed up the rate of their melting, he said.
I came across an iceberg melting in real time late one afternoon as I was poking around the back roads of New World Island, a few miles south of Twillingate. The scene was hypnotic: the iceberg had managed to run aground in a secluded bay against a larger tabular iceberg, and was taking a beating from the oncoming surf. I have watched it diminish over the course of an hour from the grandeur of two spires to a double hump to a desolate looking bulbous mound.
But then I noticed that, in his final hours, he was actually protecting the largest iceberg behind him, allowing his cousin to live to fight another day, or at least another tidal cycle. The iceberg had made a noble sacrifice. In short, a unique individual.
Follow the journey of the New York Times ON Instagram AND sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to get insider tips on how to travel smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Dreaming of a future escape or simply traveling in an armchair? Check out our 52 places to visit in 2023.