Ilulissat, Greenland

Sep 10, 2018 - National Geographic Explorer


Approaching Ilulissat at daybreak, we were in a sea of pale pastels—overcast sky, thin fog, and abundant icebergs in shades of gray, white, and turquoise. Smaller pieces of ice scraped against the hull, and many of us were on the bridge observing Captain Kreuss and his officers navigate between the largest icebergs. Two ghostly vessels materialized out of the fog ahead, and then we saw the rounded hills of the rocky shoreline. llulissat’s harbor is narrow, but ice was abundant there too, so Zodiacs were launched to nudge bergy bits out of the way, so our ship could be backed in alongside the wharf. 

Ilulissat means “the icebergs” in Greenlandic, and the icebergs, bergy bits and growlers are so close to shore here that one could toss a stone at them from many of the town’s colorful buildings. There are even signs posted warning visitors not to walk at the water’s edge due to the possibility of large waves resulting from icebergs breaking apart. 

The source of all the ice is Jacobshavn Glacier, which flows from the Greenland ice sheet and calves into Ilulissat Icefjord. After drifting 25 miles down the deep fjord, the largest icebergs hit bottom at a terminal moraine (a “shallow” area about 750 feet deep!). We spent our day observing this impressive ice. We cruised in local boats out of the cozy harbor up close to the massive, towering icebergs stranded on the bar. Some of them were well over 100 feet high, and they had caves, sheer cliffs, towers—countless shapes. A distant—and giant—iceberg looked like a castle in an icy fairy tale. Fingers of fog lifted or draped over the icebergs, adding to the magical, otherworldly atmosphere on the water. On shore, we strolled along a boardwalk—from which we had gorgeous views of the ice—past low-growing Arctic vegetation in autumnal shades.  

After departing town, the ship nudged its way back through the ice, breaking through medium-sized bergy bits. We caught a brief glimpse of a harp seal, and then noticed two hunters in a small sealing boat. A couple of miles farther into Disko Bay, the water was mostly ice free. 

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About the Author

Berit Solstad

Naturalist

Berit grew up on the rocky shores of Marblehead, Massachusetts. In the tidal cove behind her family’s home she found horseshoe crabs, eels, and feeding frenzies of fishes and birds. Low tides exposed clam flats, crabs, mussels, and snails. She explored this marine environment through changing tides and seasons, nurturing a love of natural history and marine biology.

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