It’s an otherworldly experience to stand on a rocky shore and watch a colossal iceberg drift slowly by. That’s exactly what locals and visitors alike experience along Iceberg Alley each year between late April and early June.
Iceberg Alley refers to the waters of the Atlantic Ocean that run along the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador on the easternmost point of North America. Here are 11 fascinating facts about this wonderful place.
The arrival of spring means the melting of ancient glaciers in the North Atlantic Ocean. As the weather gets warmer, giant expanses of frozen water break off from the ice shelves and glaciers of Greenland. They then begin a journey south along Iceberg Alley that lasts months from the time they calve – break away from the glacier – until they completely melt into the sea. Icebergs only move only at an average of 0.4 miles per hour, or up to 10 miles per day, but their speed depends on many factors such as ocean currents, wind and waves.
Each spring, hundreds of icebergs slowly cross Iceberg Alley. They vary in size from small pieces called bergy bits and growlers to colossal structures that tower over small villages. In 2017, a giant iceberg measuring 150 feet tall washed ashore near the Newfoundland village of Ferryland, eclipsing all nearby homes and making headlines around the world.
There is some truth in the phrase “tip of the iceberg”, because only a small part of an iceberg can be seen above the water. The saying is familiar to anyone familiar with the story of one of the most famous maritime disasters in history.
It was in the waters of Iceberg Alley where the unfortunate Titanic collided with an undetected iceberg. After the ship sank in 1912, Canada, the United States and 12 other countries formed the International Ice Patrol to warn ships of any large frozen obstacles floating around the North Atlantic.
As the icebergs melt, they take on many different shapes, creating beautiful shapes and arches until the last pieces melt into the sea. Their different appearances can be categorized into one of six shapes following: blocks are square-shaped icebergs with steep sides and a flat top, while corners have a flat surface that slopes from end to end. Pinnacles are icebergs with, as the name suggests, a pinnacle or peak shape, often referred to as a pyramid. Dry docs are U-shaped icebergs that have a flat water-level section in the middle with two pinnacles or columns on each side. The domes are slightly rounded and the tabular icebergs have flat tops with a width far greater than their height.
The waters of Iceberg Alley are rich ecosystems that support whales, seals and other marine life. This is thanks to icebergs breaking off from the bottom of a glacier, dragging soil and other land nutrients into the sea. The same thing happens when large icebergs scrape the ocean floor: they release the rich nutrients that are trapped on the seabed. As they melt, the fresh water creates small currents in the salty ocean; these are excellent conditions for zooplankton and phytoplankton. The presence of this plankton makes the waters of Iceberg Alley a favorite feeding ground for many aquatic animals.
As an iceberg melts, its weight shifts, creating an imbalance and often forcing it to tip to one side. Sometimes it even causes the whole iceberg to tip over. The force of the movement can be so great that it causes the iceberg to explode, sending shards of frozen water flying through the air.
The inhabitants compare the noise of this rupture to the roar of a cannon. You can also hear them below the surface: For many years, researchers have recorded loud underwater noises from moving and melting icebergs.
Spring in Newfoundland brings determined people to lay their eyes on one of the colossal ice giants. For anyone interested in iceberg hunting, there is a simple tracker that can help; it allows users to locate and track the movements of the many icebergs heading south. The Government of Canada also provides daily updates on the presence of icebergs in the region.
Many coastal towns, including St. John’s, Newfoundland’s capital, offer boat tours that take visitors up close to icebergs, offering a unique perspective of these ancient floating blocks of ice. The captains of these vessels are experienced in navigating the tricky waters around icebergs; adventurers can even choose to kayak or go out in a zodiac for a better view.
Twillingate is a quaint little fishing village in the Twillingate Islands. It is unofficially known as the “Iceberg Capital of the World” for being one of the best places on the planet to see glacial monoliths. From Twillingate, you can take one of the boat or kayak tours to get up close to the icebergs. Another option is to hike along the east side of Spiller’s Cove Coastal Path or hike to Long Point Lighthouse for the best views of icebergs drifting out to sea.
Newfoundlanders have found an innovative use for iceberg water: they make beer, wine and vodka! Boats ply the waters around Newfoundland picking up chunks of ice that have broken off. Once collected, it is melted and added to certain drinks. Mix an ice cube of a berg into a drink for a little extra fizz and crackle while admiring the spectacular views along Iceberg Alley.
People come for the icebergs, but leave equally impressed by the many other magnificent sights found along the shoreline of Iceberg Alley, both in water and on land. Be sure to stop for a famous fish and chips in one of the historic coastal villages and learn about Newfoundland’s many historical and cultural attractions.
Wildlife viewing is also incredible: the waters are home to minke, sperm and humpback whales, and the rocky cliffs teem with seabirds, including the 500,000 Atlantic Puffins that nest in the Ecological Reserve of Witless Bay. The area is also home to some of the highest numbers of bald eagles in North America. You might even spot a moose – the government estimates that 110,000 moose call Newfoundland home (roughly the size of the US state of Tennessee).