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Reflections on Disko Bay

By Patricia Seed

Miniature icebergs that would fit in the palm of my hand float along the water’s edge, but the air is cold enough to resist the impulse to crouch down and remove my gloves to pick them up. Looking up across the glass-like surface, I spot hundreds of similar chunks like pieces of frozen vanilla popsicle that have fallen just out of reach. Yet these extraordinary white chunks are the famous icebergs of Disko Bay, the birthplace of the object that sank the Titanic over a hundred years ago. Yet from the shore, no hint of that danger appears from this place natives call “Illulisat,” or the “place of the icebergs.”

Standing still, the icebergs float by peacefully and quietly like clouds. Then suddenly a flash of snow appears like powder kicked up by a skier and an instant later a slab of snow tumbles from the side of the iceberg and lands in a single splash. This splintering of an iceberg called “calving,” echoes the image of a cow giving birth in the stable as the newborn plops onto the straw. Only once the snow “calf” has splashed into the water, ripples of its birth rapidly spread out in a circle. A few moments, the ripples disappear and the water surrounding the bergs resumes its former smooth and seemingly motionless surface. Moments pass, then minutes, then perhaps an hour, before another flash of snow and another iceberg calves into the water.

Out on a boat moving among the icebergs the sense of safety melts away. The birth of smaller icebergs, so stunning from land, takes on a more menacing aspect. The popsicle pieces are giants, towering hundreds of feet above the small but sturdy ship that maneuvers cautiously around them. Several hundred feet away, a small amount of powder flashes out just near the bottom of a berg, followed by the distinctive single plop. While the slow moving concentric circles that seemed as harmless as a pebble landing in a brook, once in the water, they rocked the entire boat from side to side as if a giant ship has just passed us by. The chatter on board ceased and the boat was suddenly silent. The ice that has just hit the water a quarter of a mile away was only fifteen feet long and tumbled from merely one-tenth the way up the side of the iceberg. It has dawned upon each one of us, just how deadly this place of icebergs is, and just how exposed we are to danger standing on a small wooden platform among nature’s slow moving giants.

Map of the Crown Prince Islands, Disco Bay, Greenland.  Created by Silas Sandgreen. Public Domain via Library of Congress.
Map of the Crown Prince Islands, Disco Bay, Greenland. Created by Silas Sandgreen. Public Domain via Library of Congress. Appears in the Oxford Map Companion.

Yet as quiet as it appears from the shore, moving among the bergs, the landscape rarely remains silent. From the small outboards to small factory size trawlers every fishing vessel must push the ice aside in order to move across the bay. The ice hisses, growls, groans, snaps, and cracks smartly as dozens of boats strike those palm size pieces that appeared so tempting from the bay’s edge. With a sound grinding like the wheels of a train screeching to a halt, each boat jerks forward to the next piece of ice. Two-thirds of an iceberg (on average) lies beneath that hand-sized sliver. Looking straight down at the blue-green water surrounding the tip of a slim iceberg that barely rises above the surface, an inverted giant white mushroom blooms.

I wanted to find a map of the waters of this incredible place, but had trouble making myself understood. I had gone down the steep hill to the working harbor and dodged in and out of stores selling marine equipment, replacement parts for engines, ropes, and everything else that commercial fishermen would need. No one seemed to know what I was talking about. My Danish was very basic, my Greenlandic non-existent. But one man, dressed in fisherman’s clothes like so many others, understood. Like everyone else in this tiny place, he had many jobs, he said; he was also a cab driver, and the high school science teacher. As he whipped out his iPhone a map appeared, and as he skimmed his fingers across the screen, the depths of the bay, the map that I had been searching for days suddenly appeared in vivid color with the familiar depth lines and numbers. I was the old fashioned one, looking for a map drawn on paper, while the Inuit fishermen had turned to modern cell phones and electronics years before. Aware of the irony, I asked where I could find the paper versions of iPhone charts. My befriender said that halfway up the hill from the harbor was a marine store, where the owner was still stuck with the paper that no one had used in years.

I trudged back up the hill, and into another marine store like so many others. Only this time I asked for the paper version of what everyone used to navigate and now the store owner understood me. He was delighted to get rid of them; no one in Illulisat had needed anyone of these in years, just the foreigner who wanted something for that similarly old-fashioned object, a history book.

As the noisy turboprop revved its engines for take-off I looked one last time at the bay below. Icebergs resemble clouds; look up at the sky and you see one pattern, look away for an instant, and they are gone. Like winds in the sky, the currents of Disko Bay tug the towering mountains of snow and ice away, so that even watching the same chunk of ice, a different shape or angle appears the next time you glance up. The shapes, angles, and even sizes shift in a continually scrolling landscape where nature never repeats the same forms. And then in a minute, even the bay disappeared.

Patricia Seed is Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of several books including The Oxford Map Companion: One Hundred Sources in World History, American Pentimento: The Pursuit of Riches and the Invention of “Indians” (2001) and Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640 (1995). In recent years, Seed has been intensively involved in research on old and new questions in cartography.

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