How Icebergs Can Surf After You in Your Kayak

Gail Ferris


My notes about my experience in 2008 tell about my distress with the sheer quantity of icebergs on the water in Upernavik Greenland.

I wrote on 8/1/08 I am not too sure about where I can safely paddle around here because of the icebergs I dont want to find myself trapped somewhere or have one suddenly split apart just as I am going by.

I awoke and looked out to the west from my tent to see a gigantic iceberg off the end of the passage, something I really fear. I am glad I am safe from these where my tent is. As always the berg is silently gliding along.

The icebergs are spaced well apart here so they are not so much of a threat unless a really big one happens to breaks sending out huge waves.



There was a huge iceberg outside the narrow passage which broke up. I did not think much about the effect this might have on me in my kayak because I was preoccupied with taking some pictures in the shallows

I had an eye opening experience with the surge from the breaking iceberg came down a passage while I was in a narrow and shallow Y shaped passage.

I heard a large iceberg in the outer wide portion of the passage make a large rumble as it broke apart sending waves and ice chunks after me



My back was to the waves coming in from the outside when just from out of the corner of my eye I saw to my complete shock that a small iceberg about 8 to 10 feet square was surfing on the wave toward me.

Sure enough the berg was being lifted up and surfing the wave just like I could do with my kayak. Only the berg was surfing directly toward me just like a surfboard. I instantly realized that I was being surfed upon by this burg in the picture above and that it was time for me to get out of here right now.

I grabbed my paddle and as fast as possible paddled through the ten foot wide three to four foot deep passage opening away from the path of the berg.

I had never thought that a berg could riding a wave just like a boat, but there it was being lifted up on the wave surfing along right down the passage after me until it grounded out on the shallows moments later.

I realized that I have been run right over in an instant by that chunk of berg. It was shocking to see how fast it shot through the water.

There from my kayak I saw that the following waves were alternately flooding and exposing the rock bottom. Suddenly I could be precariously grounded out on the jagged granite bottom rocks and in the next moment I could be swamped out by the following surge.

I knew I had to paddle around the corner into what I knew was deeper water.

How lucky I was to happen to be in an area where I could quickly get to deeper protected water rather than be at the end of a very shallow area with no choices.


How glad I was that I had learned how to surf and white water paddle because I had to quickly surf on the surges and make an eddy turn into safety.

From safety I was able to take a couple pictures of the waves to illustrate how big the waves were as the rocks bared themselves.

I thought about how Geno Watkins might have died. He had to have been in a narrow inlet where a large iceberg suddenly broke up sending out huge chunks of ice and steep waves with chunks of ice surfing on the waves. The chunks of ice must have done instant damage to him and his kayak putting a big hole in it and swamping it.

In my notes a couple hours later after I had secured my kayak above the high tide line I wrote I just happened to lift my kayak back up the rocks above the tide line just moments before some wave surges caused by a big iceberg breaking apart came in from the outside washing in over the rocks. I took a video to illustrate what happens when a berg breaks up on the outside.

What you dont notice when a wave like this comes in without any sound first it floods in and then it pulls back exposing all the rocks which could leave you suddenly and precariously stranded only to have in the next moment the surge sweep in and lift you off the rocks sending you farther up into the shallows. This is dangerous for a kayak paddler because you have to know how to handle a kayak quickly in white-water conditions so that you can control you kayak and not get precariously stranded.




In another days notes I wrote On the way back from paddling at the Island Qeqertarssuaq across the way a couple miles away I noticed an iceberg that looked very unstable.

The iceberg had large tunnel with a thin ceiling in it.

As I neared the iceberg I could hear the typical clicks coming from deep inside the tunnel which signify that a slab was starting to separate from the main body of the berg.

A few seconds later I heard the sound like a small cannon going off as the slab deep inside the tunnel split off.

The moment the slab hit the warm water it exploded into small bits and a few large pieces of ice. The conglomeration formed an arc of debris scooting across the water from within the tunnel.

I thought about how huge a wave this iceberg would generate should this berg collapse to me in my little kayak.

Although surfing is nice I did not want to be on the receiving end of large pieces of ice and of a bunch of chunks of ice shooting instantly across the water with surfing waves.

As I was continuing my couple mile crossing I happened to see what looked like just an innocent rectangular tabular iceberg near the rocks to the south.

The end toward me was with clean white stable ice but the opposite end away from me was dirty ice.

Oh that is nothing to worry about I thought to myself as I continued paddling and rechecked my GPS route when suddenly with no warning a huge portion exploded off the back of the berg shooting out and splattering in a fifty foot wide arc across the water.

The violence, speed and dimension of this disintegration was absolutely shocking.

Below are a series of mostly tabular icebergs in Natip Ilua. I was just rounding the tip off Innarsuit. Conditions were fairly safe but I did pass by the largest berg in the picture which was clicking and shedding small sections off its side that was facing the sun. Very clean looking tabular bergs of this type generally do break up in small pieces gradually.




I never thought something like this could happen so drastically. I was glad I did not happen to be near that berg when it blew apart. I was just shocked at the sheer distance and distance that ice exploded out to from that berg. I could have easily been within its range had been paddling in that area because it did not look all that dangerous.

I happened to be leaving and just outside the passage was an iceberg about 30 feet wide, the one in the three picture series below. I had considered paddling along the rocks you just see on the right side of the picture between the rocks and the iceberg. This iceberg was only 40 feet away from the rock cliffs.

Notice that the iceberg looks different in each picture. The iceberg is actually doing complete revolutions. This happened suddenly because it calved a piece from its bottom underwater which changed its center or gravity so completely that it rolled over several times, enough times for me to capture the moment on camera.



and it is rolling down the left side is submerging


now it has rolled up and the right side is submerging



Had I just happened to have chosen to paddle between this iceberg above and the rocks there was no refuge for me other than to utilize my surfing skills.

Below is a photo showing just what was available only the vertical rock faces you see in the photo. I was very glad that I did not happen to have taken that route at that moment. With icebergs one never knows when they will do something.




One thing I learned on this 2008 trip in Upernavik Greenland is that you have to have a sixth sense about the ice. You just never know what the ice might do.





Always give yourself a way out. Icebergs are not stable. When you hear a click the iceberg is going to break. Icebergs can roll over doing summersaults violently without warning. I witnessed an innocent looking iceberg do a number of summersaults right next to the cliffs where I would have been paddling just moments earlier.

You just never know in the ice listen to your instincts dont make assumptions.

Gail Ferris 3/9/09