OFF THE COAST OF NEWFOUNDLAND - The icebergs may be big, but the
ocean is endless.
And so the hours pass as Tristan Krein stares out the window of
the Hercules C-130, searching for ice. Sometimes, he takes out his
binoculars and scans the empty horizon; other times, clouds obscure
the waves and he is a man looking at nothing.
"Sometimes, we're begging for things to look at," says Krein,
But sometimes, the members of the International Ice Patrol look
down and they see peaks of glistening white, floating in the frigid
currents. They record the iceberg's location, its size and its shape,
and they know that every observation they make is crucial.
Every other week during the iceberg season usually, from
February to July the Ice Patrol flies over the North Atlantic,
keeping track especially of the southernmost area in which icebergs
have been spotted. This is key; the patrol's findings tell mariners
how far south they must sail to avoid any chance of hitting an iceberg.
These, after all, are the waters that claimed the RMS Titanic.
Indeed, the Ice Patrol, operated by the U.S. Coast Guard on behalf
of 17 countries, has been looking for icebergs since 1913, when
a horrified world resolved that it would never again allow the kind
of accident that sent the Titanic to the Atlantic's floor.
In all those years, there has not been a single reported loss
of life or property from a collision with an iceberg in an area
the Ice Patrol proclaimed to be safe.
"It's incredibly important," says the patrol's commander, Bob
It's obscure, as well. There have been books written about the
patrol in fact, Krein remembers reading one when he was in
grade school but mostly, it does its work quietly.
Krein did not join the Ice Patrol because of that children's book
(by the time he'd enlisted, he'd even forgotten that the patrol
was part of the Coast Guard). He, like his fellow "ice picks," joined
the patrol because it's a small unit with a unique mission.
"It was different from everything else," says Bryan Grebe, 26.
Like the others, he is a marine science technician. Chances are,
if he wasn't a member of the ice patrol he would be inspecting vessels
to ensure they are safe.
Instead, they supervise as temperature and current sensors are
dropped from the huge cargo plane. They stare out the windows, or
they watch over the shoulders of technicians "tweets"
who monitor forward- and side-looking radar.
And at the end of a day aloft, they examine their data and send
it to patrol headquarters in Groton, Connecticut. There, it is plugged
into computer models that will project the drift of the icebergs;
twice a day, the patrol issues reports that are dispatched to the
nations that share in the dlrs 11,000-an-hour cost of the patrol's
The icebergs calve from Greenland's glaciers, the result of thousands
of years of accumulated snow. After melting slowly in cold Arctic
bays, they are carried south to the Grand Banks by the Labrador
Current. Four hundred to 800 make it as far as the 48th parallel,
which is even with St. John's, Newfoundland. Eventually, they melt
in warmer waters.
The smallest ones are known as growlers, because they make a growling
noise as they rise and fall with the ocean swells. The portion above
water the smallest part is less than 3 feet (90 centimeters)
high and less than 16 feet (5 meters) long.
The largest iceberg ever seen in the North Atlantic was 550 feet
(165 meters) tall, nearly as tall as the Washington monument. But
most are small or medium-sized, like the one that destroyed the
Titanic 50 feet (15 meters) to 100 feet (30 meters) high
and 200 feet (60 meters) to 400 feet (120 meters) long.
Most of the time, the ice picks fly at 6,500 feet (1,950 meters),
and the icebergs appear to be "a thumbnail on the horizon," Desh
says. About 70 percent of the time, he says, they don't see the
icebergs at all they're obscured by clouds or fog, and are
only observed by radar.
So this is the Ice Patrol's glamorous duty: six to eight hours
in a cold, noisy (earplugs required), 29-year-old tin can of an
airplane, with the likelihood of seeing nothing.
Sometimes, a flight crew member will set up a hammock back in
the plane and sack out.
Climb up on the flight deck and you'll find flight engineer Chris
Collins paging through a book filled with compact discs Veruca
Salt, George Thorogood, Rush, Shania Twain. He pops one into a CD
player connected to the intercom system. "That's our flight entertainment,"
Pilot Carey Hixson and co-pilot Wes Hester often have their feet
up. The plane must fly precise routes so that its radar will map
the seas precisely, and autopilot does that.
"Takeoff and landing otherwise, it's boring," says Hixson.
So why do they do it?
Partly, it's the pay a dlrs 70 per diem while they're in
Newfoundland, and dlrs 150 per month in flight pay. Partly, it's
because they like coming up from Groton and Elizabeth City, North
Carolina, where the tweets, the flight crews and the mechanics are
There are local delicacies, like moose steak and codfish tongues.
And Krein says he and others have had girlfriends in Newfoundland.
"They're very friendly up here and I mean that in a very
respectful way," he says, hastening to add that he is true to his
current girlfriend back in Connecticut.
But mostly they do it because they feel they are accomplishing
They know what happens when ice meets metal. Every year, they
mark the anniversary of the Titanic's sinking with a ceremony outlined
in the Coast Guard's manual of standard operating procedure.
On this year's 90th anniversary, on April 15, the C-130 dipped
to 400 feet (120 meters), affording the crew a remarkable view of
two icebergs, one of them about the size of the one the Titanic
hit. "It is with great respect and reverence," Hixson said, that
the Coast Guard remembered the 1,522 victims of the Titanic and
paused "to remember the importance of our mission."
And then crew members dropped two bouquets from the open cargo
"It puts a lump in my throat," says Jim Wineteer, 32, one of the
Wineteer has given a lot of thought to the Titanic disaster. Those
1,522 people weren't really killed by the iceberg, he says; they
were killed by the arrogance of the engineers and the technicians
who did not believe in their own fallibility or the power of nature.
It is a mistake, he says, that the International Ice Patrol will
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