You want to see towering glacier topped mountains? New Zealand has them, as well as – azure and emerald lakes and rivers – fairyland moss and fern infused forests – wineries that rival Tuscany and Napa – millions of sheep with whip smart dogs to guide them – and so much more. However, this might surprise you – New Zealand also has lots of…icebergs!
We got up close and personal with these frozen chunks in Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, part of a vast 2.6 million hectares (almost 6.5 million acres) land mass also known in the Maori tongue as Te Wahiponamu (“Land of Greenstone” – more on greenstone in a later post).
Within Aoraki is the Tasman Glacier – the longest and biggest of its kind in New Zealand. The Tasman, after 300-500 years of expansion through the Southern Alps is now in retreat and in its wake is the milky white Tasman Lake, The creamy color of the lake is due to the pulverized rock and other particles that the glacier has picked up through its slow movement down the mountains. This “flour” will gradually settle on the bottom and the lake will take on the more vivid blues seen across New Zealand.
As the glacier slowly sheds, icebergs of all shapes, sizes and colors are deposited into the Lake and as they melt the Lake grows larger. Eventually the glacier will retreat entirely, and the Lake will reach its maximum size. Quite a feat for a lake having not existed in 1973 and presently 20 feet deep and about 17 miles long.
On the day of our visit we could see many sections of the glacier’s terminus in varying stages of “calving” (breaking off). These developing icebergs are enormous – when one crashes into the lake there is not only a resounding uprising of the water itself, but many large chunks of the iceberg can go careening off quite a distance, presenting a catastrophic danger. In light of this, small boats like ours are prohibited any closer than .9 mile to the 160 foot tall glacier terminal face. Though I would have liked to see an actual iceberg birth, the rational part of my brain was a bit relieved that this didn’t happen.
Here’s what the potential new icebergs look like in their current status:
No worries (a very popular phrase in NZ). There were loads of older icebergs in various stages of melting into the lake for us to enjoy. Their colors were outstanding and let me state now, although I know there will be some disbelievers, that NO photo here has been photoshopped. Variations of color of an iceberg can be seen depending on the sun and cloud cover at the time a photo is taken, but the vibrant blues of the icebergs are not caused by reflection of the sky – a common and lazy explanation. The truth is more scientific:
Glacial ice, unlike the ice from your refrigerator is blue because the ice is extremely dense, having been compacted by the weight of the glacier over a long period of time. It’s thick structure absorbs every other color of the spectrum except blue – so blue is what we see! As the glacier ice melts and thins out it will more resemble our cocktails’ ice cubes, however it will forever be different as it is not purely water but rather water plus pulverized rock and even microorganisms gathered during its travels.
Enough explanation – let’s get down to some real beauties, starting with my favorite that looked like a perfect surfer’s wave frozen in time:
Icebergs also change in looks depending on how young/old they are and whether they have rolled through the water which does smooth them out and remove some of its debris. The above is an older berg which has been carved smooth and “cleaned.” Here are some newer icebergs:
Air bubbles also get stuck in glaciers as they travel and compress and what a marvel to see these ages old spots of air frozen in time within the bergs:
Here is a lovely shot from our wonderful guide, Tia who said she loved how the sun sparkles in the water looked like diamonds:
Once most of the iceberg has melted down, it does become more crystalline and quite beautiful in its own light:
There is more from our visit to Aoraki – including an avalanche – that I’ll be sharing in a later post. But first, the explosion of light and color in the New Zealand skies.