July 8, 2013 4:32 pm

WATCH: Up-close look at icebergs off Newfoundland

Global News’ Ross Lord and cameraman Grey Butler recently toured the field of icebergs off St. Anthony, N.L., getting an even closer view than they had ever imagined.

They are fully formed works of art, sculpted by nature, ancient yet vibrant.

This year, the sliver of ocean that runs between Newfoundland and Labrador’s Northern Peninsula is teeming with icebergs.

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The Canadian Coastguard estimates there are more than 300 icebergs in and around the Strait of Belle Isle — three to four times more than in the previous five years.

The first iceberg we encountered — after our long helicopter flight across the peninsula — resembles a pure, white mountain.

Filled with a sense of child-like wonder, I found myself mouthing an over-used word I generally avoid — awesome.

I soon realize these chunks of glacier, that take up to three years to float from western Greenland to the Strait of Belle Isle, are powerful stokers of imagination.

Like a cloud that retains its’ shape indefinitely, the second berg strikes me as a massive foot with a conspicuous, circular hole in the ankle.

After buzzing around a throne-like structure, and twin bergs with the appearance of aircraft carriers, we approach a cluster.

Our pilot, Dave Bursey of Newfoundland Helicopters, decides to ramp up the wow factor.

Bursey smoothly glides toward, then onto a large, flat iceberg.

Stunned, in partial disbelief, I turn toward him in need of confirmation that we in fact touched down on one of the glacial fragments.

“We’re on an iceberg!”

“Yes, we sure are,” Bursey replies.

WATCH: Landing on an iceberg

He later explains his decision was not as impulsive as it seemed. The chopper was fitted with “floats,” an inflatable flotation system, for safe emergency ditching.

His $3-million Bell 407 chopper was equipped with survival suits and other emergency equipment. Given our close proximity to shore, he was confident any potential risk was manageable.

Despite the safety measures, hopping out for a handful of 15,000-year-old ice was unfortunately not an option.

After 20 or so “WTF” seconds, we were in the air again — revelling in our privileged perspective, barely above these products of nature’s majesty.

And, they are products.

Traditionally, fishermen considered icebergs a nuisance by fishermen because they, along with the plentiful humpback whales in these waters, would foul up their fishing lines.

When the cod fishery collapsed, and the government imposed a cod moratorium in 1992, the remote coastal town of St. Anthony decided it was time to thaw its’ icy relationship with the bergs.

Seventeen years ago, the Alcock family started a tour boat business, taking visitors to see icebergs and whales up close.

Paul Alcock, son of a cod fisherman, is the manager and tour guide.

He’s grateful the family enterprise allowed him to stay in the province, and use his biology degree and knowledge of local lore, to enlighten tourists from all over the world.

Paul-Alcock

(Iceberg guide Paul Alcock with a crew of iceberg tourists off St. Anthony, N.L. Photo: Ross Lord/Global News)

“It can be hard to put into words until you actually see one up close,” Alock said, as his custom-built boat bobs in the choppy ocean waters.

Like most days this year, his boat is full of passengers — none of whom are showing outward signs of sea-sickness.

“It seems to captivate a lot of people,” he said. “I guess ever since the movie “Titanic,” too, it’s drawn more interest around icebergs and I think it’s one of the major icons for people to come and see when they come to Newfoundland.”

While viewing icebergs from a boat might not be as exotic as a helicopter fly-over, the folks travelling on Alcoks boat share a powerful sense of awe.

“It’s amazing to see it in person — the colours, the immensity” says Rick Rottman, from Washington state.

“It’s the purity, I think.”Nova Scotian Gundi Pieper said.

That purity is now being marketed like never before, notably in Iceberg Vodka — which has been around for a few years — and more recently in Iceberg Beer, bottled by the Quidi Vidi Brewing Company, in the provincial capital of St. John’s.

In the culture of adult beverages, it seems icebergs are a multi-purpose ingredient.

The mayor of St. Anthony, Ernest Simms, beams with pride as he explains “You can actually get two shots of rum on one ice cube, with iceberg ice.”

“It doesn’t melt at all. It’s so dense, that it doesn’t,” he said.

Of course the glaciers where icebergs originate do crack.

The Canadian Coast Guard suspects many of the bergs visible this year are remnants of the giant iceberg, 260 square kilometres, that broke off Greenland’s Petermann Glacier three years ago — the largest Arctic iceberg to calve since 1962.

Whether the Petermann event is related to global warming is a matter of opinion.

The environmental activist group, Greenpeace, believes it is at least part of a pattern of global warming.

But Coast Guard officials are non-committal, when it comes to that line of reasoning.

Newfoundland’s foremost iceberg researcher, Stephen Bruneau, also gave a guarded assessment.

Bruneau, who studies icebergs for Memorial University in St. John’s, said he simply doesn’t know if they are breaking off more frequently in recent years.

He expects the icebergs dotting the waters this year will dissolve, before they can float down to the St. John’s area.

That means the full visual feast might be available only to those who travel to the northern part of the province.

With summer temperatures topping 20 degrees there, time for sight-seeing will soon expire.

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