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Icebergs and Sea Kayaking

Newfoundland is surely one of the most interesting and beautiful places in the world for sea kayaking. Where else can the combination of wild life (e.g. whales and birds), majestic scenery, and visual clarity of seawater be found? And be found with such ease! A good example, amongst many, is Bell Island, a wonderful paddling site, just minutes from the cities of Mount Pearl and St. John’s. 

In the spring and summer of most years we also get awesome visitors from the north, icebergs. It is impossible to describe, or even capture on film, the brilliant white color with delicate blue and green hues that emanates from an iceberg floating on a blue sea under a clear sunny sky (Image 1, Bay Bulls iceberg).




The large size of some icebergs enhances their beauty, but  even the small ones have their own charm in the shapes and patterns they exhibit (Image 2, Torbay  bergy bit).







Iceberg ice is primarily white in appearance because of the scattering of light by multitudes of tinny air bubbles. These bubbles were left over from the compaction of snow  that formed the ice in glaciers thousands of years ago. Most icebergs seen around Newfoundland originated from glaciers on the west coast of Greenland.  Icebergs get their blue/green tint because ice absorbs light radiation in the red and infrared part of the spectrum.  Sometimes you can see very distinct narrow dark blue bands in an iceberg. These bands are actually regions of bubble free ice. They formed when fractures occurred in the parent glacier before the iceberg was calved. These fissures filled in with fresh water that froze into clear bubble free ice. 

As beautiful as icebergs are, however, they have some terrifying aspects and necessarily demand respect. Thanks to James Cameron, and earlier film makers and writers, most people have a pretty good sense of just how nasty icebergs can be. While there are obvious reasons for big and medium size ocean going vessels to avoid close interaction with icebergs, there are also considerations for smaller vessels, even as small as sea kayaks.

Because of its size it is easy to get a false sense of changelessness of an iceberg. That is, if one observes an iceberg for a few minutes only, you can get the impression that not much is happening. But its a bit like watching the minute hand on a watch (for those of you in the digital world who still remember what a minute hand is), its hard to perceive the movement. With icebergs, slow movement of the whole iceberg and gradual changes within the ice are always occurring, and they inexorably lead to sudden catastrophic events. A good example of this was demonstrated by an iceberg that drifted into the Bay Bulls area on the East Coast of Newfoundland in the summer of 2000.

This iceberg was a spectacular specimen that showed up around the beginning of May and was grounded on the north shore of the bay near where the walking trail begins. The berg had a few high pinnacles and a dry dock area (shaped like a bowl) in the middle. To the casual trail hiker the iceberg would appear motionless and its shape unchanging. However, for anyone with the patience to watch it carefully for half an hour or so it could be seen to rotate about 90 degrees around the point where it was snagged on the bottom. In fact over the period of a few days the berg weather vaned a lot in the current and moved along one shoreline, then crossed the bay for a while and then drifted back again. More importantly, and to the point as far as kayaker safety is concerned, the berg was constantly changing shape. One cause of the shape change in icebergs is  melting due to sunlight, warm air and wave action. This causes fairly gradual shape changes and it leaves the melted surface characteristically smooth and sculpted.  The other source of shape change is fracture that causes large pieces of ice to fall off the above-water portion. Ice can also break off from underneath, but the most hazardous would be ice falling from above the waterline.

Ice is a solid but it deforms slowly if a stress is applied to it at normal temperatures. The stress on iceberg pinnacles and other elevated structures high above the water is very great because of the mass of the ice and gravitational pull. Due to the stress in the ice some cracks at the surface can extend and open slowly to become fissures running quite deep.



Eventually the stress along the fissures causes a rapid catastrophic failure that completely separates a large piece(s) from the berg and it crashes into whatever is below. A rough and angular surface is left on the remaining ice face after ice has broken off an iceberg, unlike the smooth areas that result from melting. If you see such surfaces on an iceberg then you know that not too long ago ice fell from that area. Does it happen often? You bet. By the time icebergs get down to our latitude they are deteriorating fairly quickly. The Bay Bulls berg shed a lot of ice in just one 24 hour period. A video image taken on May 27 (Image 4) shows a small opening in the iceberg, and another image taken the next day (Image 5) shows the opening had expanded to form a huge arch, all due to ice pieces breaking off. 






The arch itself persisted for a few days and then on June 1 it collapsed in a very dramatic fashion, as captured on film by a French tourist and shown on the front page of the Evening Telegram.




You are in trouble if ice falls from an iceberg when you are too close to it, or worse if you were crazy enough to paddle into a dry dock zone surrounded by pinnacles. If  you are lucky and you or your kayak don’t get hit by the ice, you will still have to contend with massive spray and very serious waves of a frightening height and shape.

Another issue associated with icebergs is instability. Since they are constantly loosing mass to melting and fracture they eventually become hydrostatically unstable and roll over to a more stable orientation as a consequence. On the internet I read about an experienced kayaker (sorry, I lost the reference) who was killed when an iceberg rolled on him. Rolling is another good reason to keep a good distance between you and the iceberg. Without knowing its underwater profile its very difficult to know how stable an iceberg is just from what you see above water.

Generally speaking smaller icebergs, called bergy bits (house size), and even smaller ones called growlers (car size) don’t pose a hazard as far as falling ice is concerned, but they are more mobile in swell and waves so care has to be exercised so you never get yourself trapped between them and any other hard object such as a cliff, wharf, or large boat etc.

In summary, here are a few guidelines for safe viewing of large and small icebergs from sea kayaks:

  1. Keep a safe distance from the iceberg, at least a distance greater than the highest feature you are observing.
  2. Never paddle into the dry dock area of an iceberg, ice falls frequently from the surrounding pinnacles. Apart from the danger of falling ice, the wave action in a dry dock can be heavy and chaotic even in a mild swell.
  3. Avoid paddling in between a bergy bit, or growler, and any other nearby floating or fixed objects.

With proper caution icebergs can be a great source of enjoyment for sea kayakers. When paddling in the vicinity of an iceberg you may see small pieces of iceberg ice (a few kilograms or less) floating around. If you can safely pick up a piece or two from the water take it home because it goes great in cold drinks. The melt from it is extraordinarily pure and the compressed air in the tinny bubbles causes the ice to fizz as it melts.  Who knows, the air and water you smell and taste from it could be the atmosphere and snow that fell thousands of years ago when people were building the first kayaks.

Note: Thanks to Tim Curtis for Images 1 and 2. This article was first published in October 2000.