The sea fog frothed over the headland like smoke from a magic potion. It wasn’t a stubborn, dense kind of fog, but a fluid, swirling shroud that flirted with the lighthouse and played tricks with the eye. Just when I thought it had snuffed out the sunrise, the fog would thin until a pale tangerine light seeped through its translucent cloaks. Then it would suddenly congeal into a stodgy peasouper, cool droplets misting my face; the foghorn rasping through the greyness and resonating across the veiled Atlantic.
“They’re out there.” Gerry, my guide at Quirpon Lighthouse Inn, has joined me on the helicopter pad for the daily dawn vigil. “You mean icebergs?” I said, glancing hopefully at the Canadian who had spent the past five summers at this northernmost point of Newfoundland. Gerry shook his head and laughed. “Maybe, maybe not. I was thinking more about our other visitors.”
There was a 26-second pause between each blast of the foghorn; 26 seconds of calm when all you could hear was a soft chuckle of waves against the base of the cliffs. But then another sound began to permeate the fog – soft and indistinct at first, then stronger and more rhythmic. It was the sound of whales breathing. “Humpbacks often come right into the cove below the lighthouse,” said Gerry. “Too bad about this fog.”
Too bad indeed. I was desperate to scan that ocean, to gaze north where the icebergs would appear on the horizon like tall ships under full sail. Carried south from Greenland on the Labrador Current, many would drift right past the 7km-long island of Quirpon (pronounced “Carpoon”), cruising Iceberg Alley before snagging on Newfoundland’s crinklecut coast.
Icebergs had become an obsession. One of my earliest travel memories was glimpsing them on a trans-Atlantic flight where, from 10,000m, they resembled grains of rice scattered on the sea around Greenland. On later trips I had witnessed bergs calving from glaciers in Spitsbergen and Alaska. But there was something altogether more mysterious and alluring about an ocean-going iceberg carried far from its polar birthplace.
I had barely paused in Deer Lake, my arrival point in Newfoundland, before driving six blinkered hours along the length of the Great Northern Peninsula and taking the boat across to Quirpon. “Welcome to the island, my dear. Come on in and make yourself a cup of tea.” Madonna, the lighthouse innkeeper had greeted me with typical Newfie exuberance. But no sooner had I stepped inside the wood-pannelled interior of the restored 1922 building than I was quizzing her about icebergs.
There was one in the bay about a week ago, I think,” Madonna had said before plying me with pancakes and bakeapple jam. “Got some of it in the freezer if you fancy a drink tonight.” The fog had blown in that evening but by noon the following day it was beginning to turn back. Although some 40,000 medium to large icebergs are shed by glaciers in Greenland every year, just 2% make it as far south as St. John’s, Newfoundland’s capital at 48?N. That still meant 800 or so icebergs would pass Quirpon each spring, their numbers peaking in June…
Soon my gaze began slipping from the horizon. There were too many wonderful distractions. At one point a squadron of gannets began plunge-diving for fish close offshore, folding their wings and hurling themselves at the sea in a salvo of black-tipped arrows. Porpoises then surfaced nearby, no doubt drawn to the commotion. And even when the feeding frenzy was over, the sea was rarely a blank canvas. Skeins of eider duck, puffin and black guillemot skimmed its surface, while kittiwake and gull pirouetted about the gentle swell.
Later that afternoon, Gerry took me sea kayaking, nosing into narrow inlets where the water was so clear I could see jellyfish pulsing deep below like globules of liquid amber. He showed me huge slabs of half-submerged rock where humpbacks whales often rubbed themselves, and described how the 15m-long leviathans occasionally surfaced alongside his kayak. We didn’t see or hear any blows during our paddle, but it was impossible to feel a frisson of excitement and anticipated as you glided inches about the water, wondering if the dappled patterns in the sea beneath you were about to morph into a 35-tonne whale.
Slowly, barely realizing it, I was being weaned off my fixation with icebergs. Newfoundland was seeping into my subconsciousness as, one by one, its other natural wonders demanded attention. I had arrived with the sole aim of spotting an iceberg – now I had whales on my mind.
Humpbacks were breaching offshore during my final evening at Quirpon, rising like plump exclamation marks above a peach-colored sea. As the fiery dusk faded over the Straits of Belle Isle, Gerry described how this area of sea, where the Gulf of St. Lawrence met the North Atlantic, was a feeding ground for numerous species of cetacean, from humpback to orca.
Inside the cozy Lighthouse Inn, Madonna served ‘Jiggs dinner’, Newfoundland’s traditional Sunday meal of salt beef, boiled potatoes, cabbage, turnip, carrot, pease pudding and dumplings with molasses. “Rough food, we call it,” said Madonna, heaping another pile of vegetables on my plate. “You probably saw how local folk grow it by the roadside when you drove up here.”
I nodded unconvincingly, but made a mental note to look out for the intriguing vegetable plots when I left Quirpon Island the following morning. There was much I’d overlooked in my race to reach the island. I now had four days to slowly backtrack to Deer Lake, determined not to become too distracted by icebergs. But Hubert, Quirpon’s boatman, had some news for the day.
“Fisherman just been on the radio. About 100 bergs on the south coast of Labrador. Could come across the Straits any day now.” So I lingered in the north, driving slowly through small fishing communities, snatching glances at the cobalt sea and trying to imagine how a cathedral spire of ice might transform these sheltered inlets and sleepy villages. I’d read that particularly large or unusually shaped bergs gained celebrity status when they ran aground here- hardly surprising when you consider what it must be like to draw your curtains one morning to find a 200,000 tonne, 60m-high ice mountain looming over your house…