ST. JOHN'S, Newfoundland and Labrador - Standing on the shore here on a foggy day in 1992, I could see what looked like gigantic floating ghosts. That was my first iceberg sighting, and it took my breath away.
To reach the east coast of Canada these chunks of glacial ice from western Greenland had traveled as long as three years and more than 1,800 nautical miles.
I was standing on the shore of what is known as Iceberg Alley, the portion of the Labrador Current that flows south from the Flemish Pass, along the eastern edge of the Grand Banks, onto the Tail of the Banks.
At the Toulinguet Inn in Twillingate, Hazel Young gave me a glass of water with chunks of ice chipped off the berg. They made a fizzy sound like seltzer when their compressed air bubbles popped.
Young knew how excited I was and when I left she gave me a plastic bag filled with a big chunk of iceberg. Despite my best efforts to keep it frozen, by the time I got to the west coast of Newfoundland island, about an eight-hour ride, it was pretty watered-down.
What is the appeal of an iceberg? Is it the sheer size or constantly changing contours or that 90 percent of it is unseen under water? Is it that it is ancient ice, some 3,000 years old? Or that one can't think of icebergs without thinking of the fate of the Titanic?
Icebergs are common along the coast from March till July. Some years there are only a few. At this time last year there were 20 or 30 on our coast. When the International Ice Patrol flew over our waters this year, there were 890.
Asked whether global warming is causing the large number of icebergs, Don Murphy, an oceanographer since 1984 with the US Coast Guard International Ice Patrol in Groton, Conn., said, "The short answer is no." In the time it takes them to travel from Greenland to here, Murphy said, "the effects of the ocean current and meteorological conditions can either assist them or drive them ashore on Baffin Island or the Labrador Coast. If there are strong winter storms that persist, they drive the icebergs ashore, and there are low iceberg populations.
"When you have a winter with persistent northeast winds that bring the cold weather," he said, "that creates more sea ice than normal. . . . The icebergs are protected by the sea ice; they are moved southward and the ice is maintained by how cold those winds are."
The best place to look for icebergs here in the provincial capital is from the top of Signal Hill. The rocky, jagged cliffs at their highest rise 525 feet from the Atlantic.
"I think they're gorgeous," said Lisa Patten from nearby Torbay of the bergs. "There's a big one in Flatrock but it's really dirty looking. They almost have personalities. It looks like it's had a hard old life.
"I grew up with icebergs in my backyard. My mother's house is that close to the ocean," she said. "One morning I got a fright. I got up and looked out the kitchen window and the whole thing was white. It was full of the iceberg, and all of a sudden it split, and I heard a big rumble, and the kitchen shook."
Craig Keats, a fisherman from Elliston in Bonavista Bay, made an 11-hour boat trip into St. John's Harbor and was confronted with mountains of ice.
"Tourists love them, but to us they're a pain in the butt," he said. "They're dangerous if you get too close. They are unpredictable, and it's a big risk. You have no idea how big they are underneath. So, the tides and water temperatures eat at the bottom of them, and you know what happens when they get smaller underneath? They'll roll on you."
Icebergs range from about three to 250 feet above sea level. They drift about 0.4 miles per hour, if they don't become grounded on the ocean floor. They are classified by their size - full-sized, bergy bits, and growlers - and shape - tabular, dome, pinnacle, wedge, dry-docked, and blocky.
The tallest known iceberg in the North Atlantic was 551 feet or nearly the height of the Washington Monument. But the most famous iceberg is the one the Titanic ran into full speed on the moonless night of April 14, 1912, killing more than 1,500 people. That berg had traveled down Iceberg Alley and reportedly was 50 to 100 feet high and 200 to 400 feet long.
The wreck of the Titanic lies 365 miles southeast of Newfoundland, and a signpost on Signal Hill points to its resting place. The Ice Patrol was formed in 1913 as a result of that disaster to track bits of glacier that float through Iceberg Alley and threaten international shipping lanes.
Today you can see icebergs from the shore of Newfoundland's harbors, bays, and coves, but you can also take a boat tour that gets you up close.
"Now, we advertise a scenic tour and I'll not guarantee you'll see an iceberg, but this year they're coming out my ying-yang," said Randy Gulliver, manager of Dee-Jay Charters Boat Tours. "I've seen people on the boat start to cry when they see them for the first time."
If you think this is your year to see icebergs, wear layers of clothes along with your gloves and a warm hat. It's cold on the North Atlantic, sometimes cold enough to freeze tears.
Wanita Bates can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.