Chasing Icebergs in Newfoundland

 Spring in Newfoundland means it's iceberg time. Each year from about April to June these massive sculptures of long since congealed freshwater, fallen off of glaciers in Greenland years before, travel south on the cold Labrador current and appear out of the fog all along the Northeast coast of Newfoundland. At times they number in the dozens or even hundreds and any visitor to the numerous bays and coves that dot the rugged northern coast of the island is sure to spot them. Sometimes visible in the far distance as brilliant white hills rising above the deep blue north Atlantic on a clear sunny day. Others will be almost camouflaged in thick fog, their shapes just emerging, ghost-like, in the cool, shifting, mist. At other times the massive mountains of ice will sit just off shore, their even more massive subsurface lodged on some shallow shoal, waiting for the wind or tide to change, allowing them to work free and continue their journey to oblivion in the ever warming southern ocean.

Massive Iceberg off St. John's

During a recent visit to Newfoundland we decided to spend some time tracing the coastline in search of these frozen wonders. Even before landing we knew it would be a successful trip. As we flew over Conception Bay on our decent into St. John’s International Airport we could see several icebergs in the bay. When the plane made a dramatic pivot out over the Atlantic to align itself with the runway we found ourselves staring almost directly down at two large bergs anchored just beyond the dramatic cliffs outside St. John’s harbour.

Upon arriving we made for our first destination, the top of Signal Hill and its vast open vista of the Atlantic, which, from here, disappears over the horizon towards Europe. From here we were able to take in a rather spectacular view of the two icebergs in the bay that we had seen from the air an hour before as well as the sweeping view of the ocean and coastline with its steep, red cliffs. We only just arrived in Newfoundland and had already seen half a dozen bergs.

From our base at Placentia, about an hour and a half drive southwest of St. John’s, we revisited the city a few days later, this time going out to Fort Amherst at the harbour entrance which gave us a much closer look from a lower perspective. The spot had already been attracting a continuous stream of tourists and locals taking advantage of this excellent viewing location below the sheer coastal cliffs. At the same time we could see the local tour boats going to and from the icebergs, skirting among the ‘bergy bits’ trailing away from the soaring mass of blue-green ice. It’s difficult to say if it was real or imagined but everyone seemed to sense a distinct chill as the ocean air coursed over the nearby ice, flowing over the gathered shore dwellers moments later.

Encouraged by these first encounters we consulted the iceberg finder website and plotted our next course. Noting the reported presence of several bergs on the eastern side of Trinity Bay, once again from Placentia we pointed the car North towards the ‘Baccalieu Trail.’ Following the undulating coastal road, darting in and out between stunted forest and open windows onto the piercing blue waters of the bay we could see, far in the distance on the western side, white specks of ice, blazing in the midday sun but elusively far off.
Pressing on towards the tip of the peninsula, where the wind-blasted trees again gave way to barren, boggy, emptiness, we spotted a sign pointing us towards Grates Cove. Turning left down the twisting road we entered the village. Here we were greeted by a nearly treeless coastline of windswept, patchy, grasses tumbling down towards hard slabs of grey-brown rock tilting into the narrow cove which opened into the vastness of the northern ocean. In the distance, almost due north we spotted our objective. At medium distance but nonetheless impressive, a line of the giant pinnacles of gleaming white sailed slowly past, riding the cold Labrador current.

Distant Iceberg off Grates Cove


Ascending the small ridge at the top of the picture postcard village we stumbled past the remains of rock walls used to enclose the agriculture of early villagers. Cresting the hill were greeted by an expansive sweeping view of the blue sea dotted with distant triangles of Greenland ice.

Again however, the bergs remained distant, their detail visible only through a long lens.

We moved on.

Leaving Grate’s Cove, following the road to the Southeast we entered Bay de Verde, a vibrant fishing community dominated by surrounding hills trailing down to its busy harbour. Just entering the place one is not so much struck by its picturesque setting but by the smells and sounds of an active fishing port, something once common around the bays of Newfoundland but much less so sense the near disappearance of the Northern Cod and it associated fishery. On the day we arrived the sun shone brilliantly and the blue sky was reflected in the harbour and bay. The harbour itself was filled with large fishing boats as trucks and forklifts buzzed around the seafood processing plant, since destroyed in a fire, that lined the entire north side of the harbour.

Dockside at Bay de Verde


Parking on the wharf we walked up some wooden stairs on the adjacent cliff, to a viewing platform. From there we realized we had come to the right place. Just offshore loomed a massive hill of ice, parked, seemingly immovable. From the great berg, streams of icy glacial water could be seen falling into the sea where a circle of debris ice collected. Fishing boats sailed past the cold, hard, ice fortress, surrounded by flocks of squawking gulls. Then suddenly a spray of fine mist and the distinctive near black outline of a humpback whale breaching the surface, a thin sheet of water on its skin glinting in the harsh midday sun. Repeatedly, the whale would emerge, exhale a misty shower, then plunge into the deep, waving goodbye with its massive tail fin. We kept watching as it moved off to the South.

Giant Berg, Port de Grave


Then suddenly there was a commotion right in front of us. Something large and dark had moved swiftly past our position on top of a large square boulder at the narrow harbour entrance. I say something because while everyone there caught a glimpse of the dark shadowy thing just beneath the surface, none could quite be sure what they had seen. It was gone in seconds having never announced its arrival.  We all agreed that we had seen something, the uncertain consensus being that it must have been a whale.

Probably, a whale.

Icebergs in Bonavista Bay


A few days later we decided to push even further north in our quest. This time up the Bonavista peninsula, which promised us views not only into the other side of Trinity Bay but Notre Dame Bay and the North coast of Newfoundland as well. Setting out on another clear blue day we drove northwest on the Trans Canada Highway to the Bonavista exit and turned right. Again just as on our previous trip up the other side of Trinity Bay we took our time to duck in an out of tiny villages along the route. Down narrow winding roads, past traditional Newfoundland salt-box houses in green summer meadows, we again glimpsed far off gleaming icebergs in the blue waters. We continued this pattern into the afternoon, the days being long this far north in June. We then arrived at the historic fishing port of Bonavista, home to several interesting attractions, such as the Ryan Premises National Historic Site and the Matthew Legacy Museum, containing a full replica of John Cabot’s ship which sailed across the North Atlantic to Newfoundland in 1497.

Bonavista Harbour


In keeping with our goal for the day we made for the nearby lighthouse at Cape Bonavista. Following the winding road along the rocky coast up a small hill to the parking area we headed for the lower land beyond the lighthouse. Through green grass and low lying shrubs interspersed with boulders and rocky outcroppings we were presented with a wide expanse of the bay and the boundless Atlantic off to the north. Directly in front of us a small barren island populated by seabirds and seals. To our right a fishing boat lazily cut through the dense salt sea, its crew just visible on deck.

Not only did we find a bay populated with numerous distant birds but again, like at Bay de Verde, numerous whales exhaling into the summer sun like a string of distant geysers.  Sometimes one would surface in the near distance drawing a synchronous reaction from the small groups of people dotting the shoreline. This coast provided an almost endless series of marine attractions for the keen observers on shore. Icebergs, whales, seabirds, seals, ships, islands, and waves as far as the eye could register.

Cape Bonavista with Lighthouse (under renovation at the time)


Leaving the lighthouse area we continued south through the near treeless, gently rolling terrain on our right and with low headlands of rock extending into the sea to the left, towards Dungeon Provincial park.

Turning onto the gravel road at the park boundary we continued slowly until we happened upon a surprise, not the famous Dungeon but an icy visitor from the far north. Parked just offshore was a small, though the term 'small' being relative, iceberg. Just meters away offering a close up view like none other we had seen yet.  It was revealed to consist of two distinct peaks above the surface with a gap of interconnecting ice just beneath the water. One side looking almost like a Viking helmet in profile, the other a partially carved neolithic stone tool. Everything about these structures suggests something ancient and timeless. From here again it could be observed that the ice itself had a distinct blueish tinge, unlike the blue-green seen in the massive bergs off of St. John’s. The walls of the upper peaks had a coarse, uneven texture which transitioned to smoothness near the water. The extreme visible ends of the berg taking on the shape and texture of sand blown by the wind. The extended dimensions of the ice were visible just beneath the surface. The whole berg resembled the rocks on the coastline. Rough, fractured surfaces rising to triangular peaks suggesting material had broken away over time leaving behind this pattern. In the distance another small berg glared in the summer light. The Cape Bonavista light station was visible from here, propped up on the stony cape.

'Small' Icebergs near Cape Bonavista


To finish our visit we stopped at the Dungeon, a collapsed sea cave that resembles something out of the legend of King Arthur. A medieval cathedral in rock, its roof gone and floor flooded by the tides but the stone columns and archways intact. Its upper surface becoming overgrown with green, its marine floor with brown algae. The water within, sun specked, green, grey and silver, contrasting with the dark blue of the sea beyond. Water having this chameleon-like property of shifting its hue to mimic its surroundings.

The Dungeon


So ended our pursuit of the ice, on a perfect summers evening on the Bonavista Peninsula, under the bluest of skies, the long fading rays of the sun warming the colour of the land and a last glimpse of a distant frozen visitor shining like an ice diamond in the blue distance.