We were out at sea, surrounded by icebergs of all shapes and sizes. It was almost midnight, and the sun was hovering in the sky, casting an otherworldly light on the ice. I had never seen anything like it. This was Ilulissat, the iceberg capital of the world, on the west coast of Greenland.
The Iceberg Capital of the World
I realised I didn’t actually know what icebergs were, or how they were formed. I discovered that these were freshwater icebergs that had broken off (or “calved”) from massive glaciers on the land. Because new ice was constantly forming, and pressing down on the layers of ice beneath, it was the bits at the bottom that were squeezed out. By the time the ice got to the sea it could be thousands of years old.
Ilulissat is said to be the “iceberg capital of the world” because of its proximity to Sermeq Kujalleq, one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world. Certainly we were surrounded by icebergs all the time we were there, even though it was the height of summer. We even had a view of the ice field from our hotel room, allowing us to watch the way the icebergs changed, and moved about, from one day to the next. The area has a dubious claim to fame: it is said that the iceberg that sank the Titanic had its origin in Greenland.
Icebergs of All Shapes and Sizes
I had heard that icebergs come in just about any shape and size you care to imagine, but I didn’t really believe it until I saw for myself. There were small ice floes; towering blocks with caves at the base; and pieces so perfectly sculpted they hardly seemed natural. I found myself giving names to them: the Disney castle, the walled city, the oyster shell, and numerous whales or giants on their backs.
Another surprise was the colours. The pure white ice can have a smooth or snowy surface. Or it can pick up dirt as it moves from land to sea, resulting in black or striped icebergs. Then there is the blue ice. This contains little or no air, and a higher concentration of water than the white ice, causing it to reflect blue light while absorbing other colours.
Watching the Icebergs at Ilulissat
Our first sight of icebergs was when we entered the Arctic Circle on the Greenland Coastal Ferry. But it was at Ilulissat where we saw the most impressive ice field, and it was from here that we sailed among the icebergs at midnight. Although we were lucky enough to see the midnight sun, the ice is also spectacular at other times of year, when it is often illuminated by the northern lights.
If you go further out to sea you may spot a whale or, less frequently (because they are extensively fished), a seal. You will certainly see lots of birds, sometimes perched on the ice, their feet seemingly immune to the cold. For the locals the sea is a source of food, but it is also a playground. We saw canoes and small fishing boats at all times of day and night, and in winter the packed ice becomes a place for dog sledding.
As for us, we toasted the midnight sun with a glass of whisky and a chunk of glacier ice. The ice, we were told, was 3000 years old. It really was an experience like no other.