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On the open water, chasing gigantic Arctic icebergs

By Mark Robinson
Saturday, December 7, 2013, 7:14 PM

The deck plates of the ship rumbled underfoot as the Ioffe moved out of the harbour toward the iceberg field just south of the town. This was going to be tricky for the captain. He had to get us close enough to the icebergs so that we didn’t have too far to take the Zodiacs, but at the same time, stay far enough away from the big ‘bergs so as not to pull a Titanic. 

Unlike the Titanic, however, the Ioffee was heavily ice strengthened and while it was no icebreaker, it could take solid hits without doing too much damage. This was not something we wanted to test out.

Icebergs began to appear in serious numbers as the ship slid south and the brilliant sunlight lit them up like shards of diamond on a black cloth. The captain slowed the ship and began to maneuver closer to them as the rest of the One Ocean’s crew got the Zodiacs ready. I grabbed my cameras and tripod and headed down to the gangway to await our ride out to the giant chunk of slowly melting glacier.

We didn’t have to wait long. The anchor rumbled to the bottom and the Zodiacs went into the water right after. We were on board moments later and I had the cameras up and running as quickly as I could. The Zodiac hummed over the water towards the icebergs and Jeff took us towards one of the larger ones. The shape of the close one was surreal, almost like a castle that begun melting. The crenellations were formed by ice that was almost a translucent blue with the sun behind it. The lower walls gleamed white in the same light, the thickness of the ice blocking the light from getting through.

The field of massive ice castles went on and on. Jeff deftly maneuvered around the smaller chunks, trying to get us closer to the really big ones. My sense of scale was thrown off as we had nothing really compare them to unless another boat happened to be near or in between us and an iceberg. When that happened, I suddenly realized how enormous some the icebergs were. Just to give you an idea, the little ones that Jeff was running us around were the size of my house. Uh yeah. The big ones were apartment building sized. Or bigger. 

What was interesting was how close to shore we were. Most of the icebergs were massive, but surprisingly close to the beach. As big as the icebergs were, the hills of brown rock behind them stretched many times their height. A slight green sheen glowed near the base of the monolithic slabs of rock and stone.  The brilliant sunlight lit up the side of the hills facing us, picking out every little crevasse and nook in the wall of stone. As we drew closer to the shore, I realized that the green was a carpet of grasses and small bushes. There were even flowers in there. It looked like a scene out of Lord of the Rings.

Even with all that beauty the icebergs were the jewels in the crown. Icebergs are chunks of primordial ice and they begin far up in the ice caps of various spots around the world, the two primary ones being Greenland and Antarctica. As snow falls in the higher elevations and fails to melt year on year, a glacier slowly forms. The process by which snow turns into glacial ice is simple but lengthy. 

As snow accumulates in a bowl shaped “start zone” the weight of gravity begins to compress the small snow crystals into larger and larger ones. Gradually, usually over hundreds of years, the crystals can get very large, on the scale of baseballs to basketballs. These are what make up the very dense glacial ice and over time and with help of gravity, the mass of crystals will begin to flow down the mountain out of the start zone. These tongues of ice slowly move towards the base of the mountain and in the case of Greenland, out towards the ocean. The glacier eventually moves far enough to reach the water itself and, as melting and ablation occurs, the glacier weakens and chunks break off from the front face of the now waterborne ice. These chunks are what we see as icebergs. 

Keep in mind that glacial ice is very dense and that means that a lot of the mass is below the water. In fact, approximately 90% of the ice is below the water and only 10% is peeking up above. So, given that some of the icebergs that we were seeing were the size of apartment buildings, imagine how much ice is below the water. This came into sharp focus after a close call with a massive ‘berg.

We were passing by a tall, triangular shaped iceberg. It’s a bit hard to describe, but think of a giant cone made entirely of gleaming white ice. As we motored towards it, there was a sudden, bass “crack!” that echoed across the water. Even over the somewhat loud engine, the sound was totally clear. And then another one echoed, and another. 

I searched around for the noise and then realized that the iceberg we were heading towards was slowly upending itself. The whole thing was overturning, literally rolling over in the water in front of us. Jeff instantly adjusted the Zodiac, pulling away from the giant mass of ice and getting us into a slightly better position to film. He explained that getting too close would be spectacularly dangerous as an iceberg turning over is often crumbling at the same time. This means that pieces could be breaking off under the water and those can come rocketing to the surface underneath the boat. Getting hit by a house sized chunk of glacially dense ice moving at speed would be … well, bad.

So, Jeff had us a safe distance away when the first chunk began to break off the top of the slowly rolling ‘berg.  A loud crack and then a boom snapped out as the ice hit water with a tremendous splash.  All of in the boat started firing off shots as we all scrambled to get into the best position to get the best shot.  Zooming in was extremely difficult as the boat was rolling in the small swells that were generated by the numerous ‘bergs around us.  Another crack and another massive chunk broke off as the iceberg suddenly ground to halt.  More and more ice plunged off the now saddle shaped iceberg with booms and cracks.

The sudden halt in the overturning iceberg convinced Jeff that we could move around to get a slightly better position and I dropped the camera down for just a second. And that’s when the biggest piece broke off and plunged into the water with a gigantic splash. I stood there with my mouth open and I heard Steffen go: "Yes! Got it zoomed up!” I looked over and he had the biggest grin on his face. 

Aaaagh! I’d just missed a huge money shot and Steffen nailed it. As a documentary filmmaker, that’s just the most aggravating thing ever. I love when my friends get shots, don’t get me wrong, but I want the shot too! Ok, I know, I’m being petty and I apologize. Anyway, I’d get my revenge a few days later. 

Yeah, I’m a horrible person.

Jeff was staring at the iceberg in puzzlement. "They usually keep going over and over again while the iceberg finds it’s new balance. This one has, umm, stopped. That’s just a bit odd."

“Ok, why would it stop? And will it explode like in a Michael Bay movie?” I asked. I think I was still mad about missing the shot.

“Not exactly. It’s probably stuck on the sea bed. We’re really not that far from shore and it’s shallow here. Keep in mind that that iceberg is mostly underwater so its keel is like 200 metres down. And that's probably it for doing anything spectacular.”

I still ended up shooting another ten minutes of footage of the iceberg in hopes that something would happen. Not so much. It was still incredible though. I’d never seen something that big move and collapse right in front of me. Watching something as massive as an iceberg move like it was alive was humbling and awesome at the same time. The ice that formed that iceberg was snow when mammoths walked the earth and now it was slowly melting into the modern ocean around Greenland. I was struck by the thought of how much time was bobbing gently in the water in front of me. The ice was far more ancient than any human civilization and it would be gone before the month was done. 

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