In Canada, Iceberg Harvester Seeks Chips Off Really Old Blocks

In Annual Quest, Mr. Kean Scouts, Captures, Melts His Prey; Prized for Vodka

By Will Connors June 5, 2013
It's iceberg-harvesting season in Newfoundland, Canada. WSJ's Will Connors follows Ed Kean as he scours the Atlantic for icebergs to harvest and sell the water to companies who make wine, beer and spirits.

ON THE TRANS-CANADA HIGHWAY, Newfoundland-Somewhere between Random Island and Deer Lake, after the first few moose sightings but before the black bear sighting, Ed Kean's phone rang.

Several dozen icebergs had been spotted off the northern coast of Newfoundland, the caller reported. Not satisfied, Mr. Kean kept driving.

"If you don't see it for yourself," he said, "you get all kinds of stories."

Every summer, Mr. Kean, a 53-year-old, fifth-generation sea captain, heads out into the North Atlantic to capture chunks of icebergs that have cleaved off Greenland glaciers and floated southwest. He harvests the ice for a local vodka maker, a brewer, a winery and a bottled-water outfit.

The companies use the water, which has been trapped in glaciers for thousands of years, in their products, marketing it as the purest on the planet. Demand is growing, the companies say, but getting the prized ice is becoming more difficult.

The process at sea includes massive nets, a giant, ship-mounted hydraulic arm and, sometimes, a rifle and chain saw. Mr. Kean now also has to contend with erratic iceberg drifts, increasing fuel costs and some tourist outfits that complain he is chipping away at their iceberg-sighting business.

Before he even gets on the water, he has to spend several days each spring on the road, scouting Canada's northeastern coastline for the most likely places to navigate his trawler, the "Green Waters," in his yearly ice hunt.

In May, Mr. Kean drove more than 1,000 miles round-trip from his home in St. John's, Newfoundland, into the northern part of the province in search of this season's most promising icebergs. He kept in contact with friends and acquaintances in villages along the coast, asking if they had seen any bergs. And he made frequent calls to his wife, Marina, who monitors government iceberg-tracking services, like

Once he finds suitable ice, he estimates the iceberg's future trajectory as best he can and when it will drift into a calm bay or cove. Then he goes back, gets his boat, cobbles together a crew and motors out to meet his prey.

A permit is required from the provincial government to take the ice.

Beverage companies use water from icebergs.

Most years Mr. Kean finds enough ice to satisfy his top customers, who say demand for iceberg water is booming. Hugh McDermott, general manager of closely held Quidi Vidi Brewing Co., in St. John's, said the company has trouble keeping up with demand for its Iceberg Beer, sold locally during the summer. David Myers, president of Canadian Iceberg Vodka Corp., a privately owned distiller based in Toronto, says business is "very good." Mr. Kean's other customers include the Auk Island Winery and Berg Water, both based in Newfoundland. The companies say Mr. Kean is their only supplier.

His clients maintain their water, taken from deep inside an iceberg, is naturally purer than regular water, protected for centuries from impurities in the air and sea. The companies say they test for the water for cleanliness.

Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said he hasn't done tests comparing iceberg water to tap water. But, he says, since the ice comes from the Greenland ice sheet, "this is pretty darn pure ice, absolutely."

Mr. Serreze says he used to make martinis with glacier ice while on research trips. He can't say how pure the water was exactly, but said the martinis "were great."

In the winter, Mr. Kean has other sources of income: as a snowmobile guide and scrap-metal hauler. But he is spending more time each year iceberging, a pursuit he says can bring in several hundred thousand dollars in good seasons.

Once at sea, he tries to scoop up or manually break off pieces of ice, from rock-size chunks to ones roughly the size of a Mini Cooper. He winches the ice aboard and takes it to shore. There, he melts it and stores it before delivering to his customers.

In past years, when there weren't pieces small enough floating around, he says he would shoot at bigger bergs with a rifle, to create sonic waves that can cleave smaller pieces into the water. These days, he uses a massive hydraulic claw on his boat that tears off chunks of ice.

If all else fails, he gets in close and uses a hatchet or a chain saw.

Some local tourism officials say he threatens the unspoiled beauty of the bergs, which attract swarms of tourists each summer.

Cecil Stockley, owner of Iceberg Man Tours in Twillingate, Newfoundland, said Mr. Kean should do his work far out from coastal villages and tour boat routes, "where nobody can see him tearing the iceberg apart."

Mr. Kean and the businesses he works with say they are harvesting a tiny percentage of the total icebergs out there, and that he tries to avoid tourist-heavy areas.

Mr. Kean's interest in icebergs dates back to the 1990s, when a local nonprofit approached him to help on a project involving icebergs. He was working as a commercial fisherman at the time. In 1997, Iceberg Vodka asked him to start harvesting ice.

Just after dawn on the first day of a recent scouting trip, Mr. Kean left his boat at the dock, where his safety officer Justin Crummy-a former amateur wrestler and Viking-history buff-was cleaning up and giving the ship a fresh coat of paint.

Mr. Kean drove his car several hundred miles northwest of St. John's, to the small town of Conche. He made frequent stops along the way, to peer out to sea with binoculars. He didn't have much luck, thanks to a thick wall of mist.

On a muddy, coastal road he bumped into an acquaintance.

"Seen any bergs lately?" he asked. The man hadn't.

Just as he got ready to leave, Mr. Kean spotted what he thought may have been the edge of a small iceberg. He walked up to a lookout point.

Sure enough, there were three small icebergs off the coast. Not quite worth sailing north for, however; Mr. Kean said they would probably melt by the time his boat got there.

Meanwhile, another contact had called in an iceberg sighting a few hundred miles south. He drove there, but when he arrived, there was nothing to see.

He decided to head home, reckoning he will have to sail further north, to Labrador, to harvest this summer's haul.

"Mother Nature can be pretty cruel," he said.