Newfoundland’s Iceberg Alley Spotting castles in the sea
“That, my dear, is just the tip of an iceberg.” No kidding, that’s what my waitress really said. Sitting in Rumpelstiltskin’s pub overlooking St. John’s harbour, I had glimpsed out of the corner of my eye a jagged white sculpture afloat beyond the cliffs.
By the time the waitress had set down my pot of tea, my “mirage” had floated like a great white ship into full view. I was so ecstatic I almost scalded myself. The waitress and the locals barely lifted an eyebrow.
Iceberg sightings are as common a Screech, jigs and fiddle music to Newfoundlanders. Each spring and early summer these ancient alabaster mountains, calved from massive glaciers of Greenland and the Arctic, are funneled by the frigid Labrador current along the east coast of Newfoundland, known as Iceberg Alley.
“That’s just a bergy bit. I hear there’s a good size one in Bay Bulls,” said Aggie. (My waitress and I were now on a first-name basis.) “You should call O’Brien’s.”
“Yep, we’ve got a real beauty just outside the harbour,” confirmed Anne O’Brien, who with her two brothers Loyola and Joseph, run O’Brien’s Whale and Bird Tours in Bay Bulls, about 45 minutes drive south of St. John’s. The next morning I was on the deck of the Atlantic Puffin, parka zipped up, toque and mitts in my pockets, camera at the ready. Joseph sang a few sailor ditties and gave us an informative and entertaining lesson on the bergs and birds.
He was explaining that as icebergs melt they release air bubbles that have been trapped inside for thousands of years, so that when you get close you can actually smell them—and suddenly, there it was! A shimmering eight-story ice castle with turrets, spires, caves–a sight I’ll never forget. I got a whiff of those ancient bubbles, felt the chill in the air and the goose bumps down my back. Clinging onto the rails as we rode the choppy waves, I snapped an entire roll of film in an effort to capture every angle of this natural wonder.
We were only seeing a fraction of the massive berg; about seven-eighths lies below the sea’s surface. Icebergs, Joseph cautioned, are unpredictable, so it’s wise to keep your distance. If you spot birds suddenly flying away from a berg they’ve been perched on, it’s a good sign that it’s about to roll—not an event you want to stick around for. Icebergs come in all shapes and sizes. A ship’s radar can more easily detect the gigantic ones than the smaller growlers or bergy bits, that can range from the size of a car to the size of a large home.
We rounded the south end of our sea castle and motored out to Gull Island in the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, nesting place to over 2.5 million seabirds. “Put your hat on and keep your mouth shut when you look up,” joked Joseph, as thousands of adorable Atlantic Puffins, Newfoundland’s Provincial bird, swooped and dove overhead. Puffins with their prominent orange, yellow and grey bills, white cheeks, plump black bodies and orange feet share the Ecological Reserve with graceful Northern Gannets, Kittiwakes and myriad seabirds.
Originally a fishing family, the O’Briens started their bird, berg and whaleboat tours about seventeen years ago. “My Newfie friends thought we were nuts,” recalls Joseph. “They said who on earth would pay to go bird-watching on a boat.” Contrary to the skepticism of his fishing buddies, however, their tours have been very popular. The worldwide success of the movie, Titanic, didn’t hurt business either. Late spring and early summer are the best times for icebergs. Later in the season it’s whale-watching time when humpbacks, minkes, killers, blues and more come to feed.
After about two and a half hours my newfound shipmates and I bade farewell to our berg and decided to celebrate our iceberg sighting with a night on the town in St. John’s. I now understand why the renowned Welsh travel writer, Jan Morris, wrote in the late 1980s that Newfoundland’s capital was her favourite Canadian city. No doubt, she was impressed with the genuine hospitality of this bustling seaport.
It would be hard to find a more colourful downtown—literally. Locally known as jelly-bean row, the shops, B&Bs, restaurants and homes on Water, Duckworth and Gower Streets, are painted a riot of Crayola hues. Some claim the fishermen painted their homes and shops with leftover paint from their boats; others that the bright colours were chosen because they stood out in a fog. I’m not sure if they were referring to the weather or a night of the town. St. John’s has most pubs per capita than any other place in North America. George Street, lined on both sides with bars and taverns, jumps ‘til 3 am. Jazz, blues, country and western, folk, Irish music and more, there’s no lack of places for a little scuff around the dance floor.
We ended our pub crawl at The Ship Inn, a cozy snug on Soloman’s Lane. By now our berg had grown to Titanic proportions and we had tall tales and some bottles of fizzy glacier water to take home. ‘Twas a sight and a night I’ll never forget.