This month marks a decade since icebergs thrust Otago into the world spotlight as they drifted past the coast of Dunedin. For Otago Daily Times illustrations editor Stephen Jaquiery, it was a career highlight. He recalls how it played out.

15/11/2006 6.30am

"Good morning Graeme, Jaquiery here".

"(yawn . . . "Jackass, what do you want?".

"There's a navigation alert published into today's paper warning shipping about an iceberg sighting off the coast of Otago. I thought we should go and have a look".


"Are you sure it's true?".


"Hmmm, find out what you can, meet me at the hanger at 10am, I have a few things to organise first".

I first introduced myself to Graeme Gale years earlier, shortly after he had sold his Mosgiel sports and garden shop to buy a local helicopter company. Over the ensuing years, while he built his business from one helicopter to its present day fleet of a dozen Bell jet rangers and four twin engine Kawasaki rescue capable machines, we often worked closely together and had built a reasonable understanding of each other. It was not the first time I had woken him with a bizarre idea. Nor he me.

Late at night the previous day, a reporter from the Otago Daily Times had phoned me at home to tell me about the maritime alert. It did not come as a complete surprise; on November 4, the paper reported about 100 icebergs were seen by a Royal New Zealand Air Force Orion aircraft during a fishing patrol 300km south of Invercargill. The "experts", however, predicted the currents would carry the bergs away from the coast and they would melt at sea - well out of sight of land. Perhaps they had not factored in that, in 1931, icebergs were reported as being visible out to sea from the beach at Dunedin.

Arriving at the Helicopters Otago base by smoko time, I found a hive of activity. Bright red deep sea survival suits were being prepared and a Kawasaki BK helicopter fuelled up.

I was pleased to see Graeme chose a helicopter with two engines because the co-ordinates I had tracked down for the previous day's iceberg sighting were 100 km off the coast, quite a swim dressed as a red Sumo wrestler!

Twenty minutes into the flight and I was having doubts about the sighting; there was no sign of any icebergs. By then there was no sign of land either, just grey green sea with white-caps to the front, both sides and behind, but still we droned on in an easterly direction, directly away from land. In the distance we watched as the latest white-capped wave failed to be swallowed by the sea. It soon took on some shape, possibly a ship's superstructure someone suggested. But, as the distance lessened, the magnificence of an iceberg captivated everyone in the helicopter.

Glistening jewel-like as it melted in the warmish sun and sea, water was cascading down vertical faces and it sat in an iridescent aqua blue pool of its own water while a trail of small blocks of broken ice - growlers - marked its path.

We circled the 100m high berg a couple of times before lowering to a hover over the ice, with the intention of stepping ashore. This was not quite a moon landing but, to all on board, it was still a big step into the unknown.

My first tentative step - if that's what you do while being buffeted by an enormously powerful fan above your head - soon proved that the glass-like smooth surface was very slippery. I shuffled rather than walked to an ice boulder to secure myself while the helicopter lifted away. As its roar faded away it was, as they say, followed by a deafening silence.

Just a slop of water and a moaning wind, often punctuated however by cracks as sharp and loud as rifle shots as the iceberg creaked and strained and continued to break-up. How long until it rolled over? I didn't wait to find out. With enough ice in my pockets to chill an anticipated whisky, we marvelled over a couple of more circuits before departing back to land to spread the news.

A sea filled lake sits on this iceberg off the Otago coast. Photo / Stephen Jacquiery
A sea filled lake sits on this iceberg off the Otago coast. Photo / Stephen Jacquiery
And it didn't

take long for the news to spread; within hours it seemed that everyone wanted to get a look at Otago's icebergs. Graeme Gale flew four flights of locals that day while also fielding calls from the North Island and Australia. Within a day, the air traffic was so thick that flight paths were issued by Air Traffic Control. The helicopters flying from 8am to 7pm were joined by air charter flights, private aircraft and even the national carrier, Air New Zealand, diverted flights to the city out to sea so passengers could get a look at the spectacle.

The icebergs, it turned out, had been at sea for some time. They were traced back to a huge calving from the Ronne ice-shelf in 2000.

As soon as the first bergs disappeared from the Otago coast, others drifted in to take their place and the tourism flights continued.

But often when something special happens, there is someone who turns up to spoil the party and this was no different. They had already claimed the pavlova, Phar Lap and Split Enz, and now the Australians, in the form of their top rating Channel Nine programme, A Current Affair, arrived to film the icebergs and they were packing an Australian flag.

Afterwards, their cameraman Tim Hawkins, who had filmed top news assignments including the Iraq War and 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, rated the iceberg assignment as "easily up there as a lifetime experience I will never forget". His time at Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion did not even come close.

Reporter Ben McCormack concurred, despite admitting later that he had been absolutely terrified. Turbulence caused by wind buffeting around the iceberg as they tried to land tossed their helicopter like a leaf. Once on the berg, a small slip could have seen the crew slip into a beautiful looking lake on one side or the heaving sea on the other. They did plant their flag, but in a typical victory for New Zealand, the powerful down wash from the departing helicopter knocked it over . . . a bit of bad luck, that.

A Dunedin couple explored romance on the ice, proposing to hold their wedding on an iceberg. However, cold water was poured on their plan after being advised it would be too dangerous and Internal Affairs questioned the legality of such an offshore union.

The wedding never went ahead but another bizarre event did. It still makes me smile and think how lucky I am to live in Otago - because it would have never happened anywhere else.

A very woolly hermit sheep captured on Bendigo Station in Central Otago had previously stopped a nation and millions of viewers around the world as they watched his huge fleece being shorn on live television.

"Shrek", an unlikely ambassador and fund-raiser for the charity Cure Kids was ready to be shorn for charity again. With two and-a-half years of new fleece on his back, Shrek's owner John Perriam posed the idea of shearing him on an iceberg.

"Not a chance", was my reply, "too dangerous", . . . but, after hesitating, I added, not unless a safer berg came along.

And a few days later, that's just what happened. An iceberg the size and shape of an aircraft carrier floated within range. It was all go. Shrek had some crampons fitted. A large woollen mat to conduct the shearing on was flown down from Christchurch. Sponsorship to pay for two helicopters was secured. And champion blade shearer Jim Barnett was plucked from the farm.

Four of us, as well as Shrek, were landed on the ice. As soon as the helicopters left, a horrifying cracking and creaking filled the air. It sounded like the iceberg was splitting in half but our fears were unfounded - it was only a house size chunk breaking free and crashing into the sea. Sobered by this happening, we cracked into our work. Shrek was a model of decorum as Jim sliced sugrplus fleece from his hide. Pictures taken, hand shakes shared, it was time to clean-up and head home.

Jimmy Bennett shears Shrek the sheep on the iceberg. Photo / Stephen Jaquiery
Jimmy Bennett shears Shrek the sheep on the iceberg. Photo / Stephen Jaquiery

Unbeknown to me, John had dined in Queenstown the previous evening with some iceberg experts. They had warned him about the delicate structure of the icebergs and how even a small scratch on their surface might cause a catastrophic fracture. Imagine his horror then, while he was gathering Shrek's fleece into a woolpack, to hear a metallic donk, donk, donk, of metal on metal.

Ignorant of this information, I was busy hammering in a waratah to fly the company flag. Job done, we took a few more pictures before flying back to Taieri and a throng of cameras and reporters to report on the latest iceberg event.

The first aircraft the next morning made an interesting observation; exactly where the flag had been drilled into the ice the berg had broken. There was no flag, no waratah and no sign of a sizeable chunk of iceberg!

Three weeks after they drifted into our waters, the last of the icebergs drifted out of range again. Hundreds of aircraft passengers had the thrill of a life-time. Many others saw the icebergs from the hills around Dunedin. Some went out by boat, one group even dived under one. In a time when human suffering and conflict often leads the world news, our icebergs made a pleasant change. And unless global warming makes this a more common occurrence I'm sure generations of Dunedin children will listen, wide-eyed, to stories about how in 2006 off the coast of Dunedin, Antarctica came to visit.