Chasing icebergs in St. John's is a very cool thing (yeah, sorry about that)

18 May 2012

The Toronto Star
By Jim Byers
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ST. JOHN’S, NEWFOUNDLAND - You’d think icebergs are a regular occurrence in and around St. John’s. But apparently not.

I took a boat tour with Iceberg Quest the other day and found out there was a pretty solid period of several years not long ago when the winds weren’t right and the bergs didn’t make an appearance. But just as the oil business has given this town a shot in the arm – and how – so has the return of the icebergs.

For a mere $60 ($28 for kids 12 and under), they’ll take you out on a reasonably-sized, very steady boat to check out the icebergs. When the season’s right, and it’s approaching fast, you’ll also (or instead) see puffins and friendly humpback whales.

They also do tours from Twillingate, the iceberg capital of Newfoundland, where you’re more likely to spot bergs. But, this year anyway, it’s pretty good in and around St. John’s. We did a two-hour tour and spotted three reasonably-sized icebergs, all within a few miles of the city.

The first part of the tour is through the harbour and you get great views of downtown and the brightly painted homes called Jellies or Jelly-bean houses. Then you get even better views of the equally colourful homes on the Battery (see photo above right), that stretch of land that reaches from downtown out towards Signal Hill, just above the entrance to the harbour.

The day I went I was accompanied by some tourists, including roadies and members of music star Chris De Burgh’s band, De Burgh having played St. John’s the night before. We had a great time, although it was pretty chilly out on the boat. Luckily there’s a glassed-in portion with a heater, as well as a small bar dispensing beer and rum and other spirits.

The cliffs along Signal Hill are massively impressive; huge chunks of brown stone slashed and broken through eons of wind and water and towering up over the ocean. After cruising along outside the harbour for maybe ten minutes we spotted a couple of bergs that have been partially blocking the entrance to Quidi Vidi harbour for some time.

A few minutes later we spotted a flat top iceberg and a small, spiky one nestled up against some cliffs.

The big one (well, by my standards, not a Newfoundlander’s) was a few minutes after that. We approached it through a trail of small chunks of ice that had broken off and were floating about in the water. Then we came up to the main attraction of the day; a flat-top berg that I’m guessing was 100 metres long and perhaps six or ten metres high; depending on where you measured.

It was pale green-blue and dozens of gulls were stretched out on top and nesting, which I’m told means it’s a relatively stable chunk of ice – birds preferring not to make their homes on pieces of ice that are about to break off and send their eggs off towards Nova Scotia and all.

The colours in the water were beautiful, and it was incredibly serene to navigate around the iceberg, said to be thousands of years old and not long ago part of some distant glacier. The patterns and markings on the berg also are something you don't expect; all roughly chiseled with sharp angles and smooth surfaces and wavy bits.

It’s hard for photos to do it justice but it was a terrific couple hours. And these were relatively small bergs compared to the big boys you can often find…

The guys working my boat told me puffin season is perhaps two weeks away, while the time for whale watching is also getting close; depending on the weather.

“The humpback whales are awesome,” they told me. “They’re really smart and they even seem to recognize our boats. They come to us year after year and we’ve named some of the ones we recognize.

“There are two we call Mutt and Jeff, because whatever one does the other does the same thing. It’s really cool.”

Yes, it would be.