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Since my column has been on the Internet, I’ve routinely gotten e-mails from people in other hemispheres and on distant continents. Often these writers begin by saying they know little about North America and nothing about Maine and then go on to ask one question or another. Several people have asked if Maine is near the Arctic Circle, and one even wondered in print if sailors have to look out for icebergs while navigating our waters.
Then Mary from Casco wrote: “John, I’ve been enjoying your columns for years and immediately thought of writing you when this question occurred to me.
People say, “It’s only the tip of the iceberg.” It’s a phrase that is used constantly. I know it means there’s a lot more to something than what is visible, but -- visible or not – there’s a lot I don’t know about icebergs and I’d like to be informed. So, what can you tell me about icebergs, John?
Thanks for the e-mail, Mary. I guess I should avoid asking why my name came immediately to mind when you thought about icebergs, but the fact is I do know a lot about these frozen ocean giants. As a kid I was fascinated by the story of the Titanic and how the “unsinkable” ship went to the bottom on her maiden voyage after hitting a giant iceberg at 20 minutes before midnight on April 15, 1912. I remember the time, because my mother used to tell me that I was born exactly 20 minutes before midnight, not on April 15 but almost six months later on October 14. No, I wasn’t born in 1915 but in 1944.
As a kid I would take iceberg books out of the library and read them cover to cover. In one book I read that during World War II there was a highly secret program, code-named “Habbakuk,” that was planning to manufacture icebergs for use as aircraft carriers. I think the plan was shelved when they discovered they couldn’t fit the iceberg ice tray in their Sears freezer.
As far as we know, the first European to observe icebergs in their natural habitat was probably the Irish abbot St. Brendan. In describing what he saw on his legendary sixth century voyage (which was long before Europe had even been invented) St. Brendan describes passing towering crystals that rose up to the sky. Since Hollywood special effects were also a long way off, we can only assume the good monk was talking about icebergs.
We often hear about how dangerous icebergs are but seldom read about the good they’ve done. According to some maritime stories, icebergs have sheltered vessels during fierce North Atlantic storms. Clever sailors have hitched their vessels to icebergs and have been towed against the wind. Icebergs have been known to clear paths in areas clogged with sea ice. I’ve also read that in June 1875 the schooner Caladonia went down off Newfoundland, but her crew of 82 was saved because everyone managed to get aboard an iceberg from which they were later rescued.
Sailors routinely go aboard icebergs but have to be careful that the one they’re on doesn’t decide to suddenly roll over. When birds suddenly take flight from an iceberg in great numbers it could be a sign that the monster is about to do just that. It’s thought that birds’ keen sense of balance enables them to detect slight movements in icebergs long before we humans can.
In Newfoundland, iceberg ice is now harvested for bottled water. Some is used in making vodka. As more traditional sources of water dry up, so to speak, it’s expected that more and more people will enter the iceberg business.
I just want people out there on the Internet to know that I learned all this about icebergs from books not because I live next-door to the Arctic Circle – not that I have anything against the arctic circle, or any other geographical location named for a geometric shape. OK, I do have issues with the Bermuda Triangle.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly throughout
New England. Contact John at or 899-1868.
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