The Iceberg Wars

Competition for one of Newfoundland's chief natural resources heats up

"It's right over there where it happened," Cecil Stockley told me as we motored out of the Twillingate harbor aboard the M.V. Iceberg Alley. Located on Newfoundland's northern coast, Twillingate not only has a name seemingly borrowed from The Hobbit—it has the landscape as well. The treeless hills are woolly with mosses and lichens; in the late afternoon light they appeared as if draped in chenille. All that was lacking was a cloaked figure holding a crooked staff and gazing enigmatically off into the middle distance.

What happened is this: in the summer of 1998 an iceberg floated into the harbor and ran aground. That was not in itself unusual—some summers hundreds of icebergs drift just offshore from Twillingate, and occasionally one or two find their way into the harbor. But what happened next was unusual: a barge equipped with a crane loomed from around the headlands, tethered itself to the iceberg, and started noisily and methodically chipping away at it with a device designed for dredging rock. "I think everybody in town was kind of peeved off," said Stockley, who has been running iceberg excursions since 1985. "Here we were, trying to do a boat-tour operation, and people were stealing the iceberg right in front of our eyes."

Iceberg tourism is one of the few new growth industries in Newfoundland, an island still reeling from the collapse of the cod fishery a decade ago. Icebergs are becoming to Newfoundland what wines are to Napa Valley: tourists can be overheard talking about individual specimens in precise yet lofty terms, discussing the cragginess of towers and the sapphire radiance of blue streaks as if comparing rare vintages. Island gift shops sell framed photos of especially charismatic icebergs; the shots have the gauzy, soft-focus feel of cheesy studio photos.

But as the incident in Twillingate suggests, icebergs have lately attracted the notice of another business: the extractive industry, which harvests floating ice for processing into vodka, beer, and drinking water. Although commercial harvesting began only in the past decade, iceberg products are rapidly evolving from a novelty to a commodity, and the business is gearing up for greater industrialization. Sipping iceberg beer at a hotel bar in St. John's the next evening, I chatted with Ron Stamp, the vice-president of sales and marketing at Iceberg Industries, a firm he co-founded in 1996. "We have," he told me with satisfaction, "gone beyond the pet-rock stage."

The possibility of towing icebergs to the Middle East and other arid regions around the world was studied and widely discussed during the 1970s. Nothing much came of the idea, for a number of reasons, chief among them being that it was stupid. (One report noted that it would take 128 days to tow an iceberg from Antarctica to the Middle East—twenty-four days longer than it would take for the iceberg to melt.)

Although towing icebergs proved impractical, harvesting ice at sea did not. The first commercial efforts, by the Canadian Iceberg Vodka Corporation, were modest. Fishing boats would edge alongside an iceberg, and workers wielding chain saws lubricated with vegetable oil would lop off a manageable section and hoist it aboard with large nets. A more ambitious harvesting technology was later developed by Iceberg Industries, the company responsible for the Twillingate caper. This involved a crane and an eight-claw grapple installed on a salvaged barge (originally used to transport molasses on the Great Lakes) equipped with heated storage tanks.

The harvesting of ice is tricky but not terribly sophisticated. During the season, which runs from April to late November, Iceberg Industries sends spotter planes in search of bergs that have drifted into coves, away from the swells of the open ocean. The barge then chugs in, secures itself to its prey, and begins chomping away. Each bite of the grapple picks up about half a ton of ice, which is fed into a crusher and conveyed into the tanks for melting. When the barge is filled to capacity (about 1,200 tons), it returns to the firm's tank farm, on Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula, where the meltwater is stored for bottling, brewing, and making vodka. "It's not rocket science," Stamp admits. "You hang on, chew it up, hope for the best, and get out of there before the damn thing rolls over."

Stamp says that his company has already completed much of the engineering for its next project—essentially a floating bottling plant. This operation will be centered on what Stamp calls a "mother ship," where the meltwater is to be filtered and bottled. A seventy-five-foot-long iceberg excavator will do the actual harvesting ("It's basically like coal mining," Stamp says), and ice fragments will be suctioned back to the mother ship by a sort of pneumatic tube. "We got the idea from central vacuuming," Stamp says.

The Canadian Iceberg Vodka Corporation is also gearing up for a major expansion. Before the end of the year the company hopes to start construction on a 240,000-square-foot drinking-water bottling plant near the tip of Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula, close to productive iceberg fields. "We've developed a conveyor-and-auger system, and we'll use mining techniques to carve into the side of the iceberg," Gary Pollack, the company's president, told me. "It's very similar to open-pit mining." Pollack envisions a fleet of "maybe thirty ships" that will eventually prowl the seas in search of icebergs, making frequent trips back to the plant.

Talk of these projects inevitably raises the question, Why go to the considerable expense and hassle of capturing and melting icebergs? Why not, say, just back a tanker truck up to a garden hose?

The answer, not surprisingly, has to do with marketing. "A lot of people want pure water, and they'll pay the price," Pollack says. Proselytizers are quick to point out that the water in these icebergs fell on Greenland as snow 10,000 or more years ago and has been bound up in glaciers ever since, safely sequestered from modern contaminants. Pollack and Stamp claim that their product is purer than spring water (which is merely filtered naturally) and more natural than distilled water (which is mechanically processed). "It's great that a large inland city can clean its drinking water and strip out impurities," Stamp says. "But ten million people pee in it on a daily basis. And you know what? Nobody peed in mine. Isn't that worth an extra ten cents a bottle?"

"We're talking about a major, major pure product—it's the purest water on earth," Pollack says. Iceberg water is so pure, he claims, that the vodka produced from it can be consumed in quantity with little or no risk of hangover. "I've seen people drink a whole bottle and not have any problem," he says. "Not that I'm recommending that to the general consumer."

Although no environmentalist opposition has arisen to the mining of icebergs, the impact on tourism has yet to be fully gauged. After Stockley and others made the press aware of the Twillingate iceberg grab, Iceberg Industries untethered itself from the local attraction and moved up the coast, where other icebergs awaited safely out of view of tourists. "Tourism has its place," Stamp admits, although he insists that his industry's expansion offers an entrepreneurial opportunity for the tourist trade: "People do factory tours all the time."

About a dozen tourists were aboard Stockley's boat the day I took the harbor tour. Most stood at the bow, some doing that annoying Kate Winslet splayed-arms thing from Titanic, others quietly scanning the horizon with binoculars, as if tracking a wily quarry. In time an iceberg was spotted in the distance, an event that triggered much excited gesturing.

I peered through my binoculars and saw it, a white apostrophe punctuating the hazy line between sky and sea. It looked uncommonly small—not only physically but metaphorically as well. What was once a terror of the sea, inciting awe in landscape painters of the nineteenth century, balefully stalking shipping lanes in the twentieth, now seemed captive and defeated—destined to end up in dreamy snapshots or decanted into plastic half-liter bottles.