Iceberg spotting bonanza for flight operators off southern New Zealand

Airplane operators have struck a small bonanza off New Zealand as scores of tourists and the curious pay to fly over a flotilla of icebergs floating near the coast, industry operators said Wednesday.

Two helicopter companies and several airplanes on New Zealand's South Island are making up to six trips a day to the Antarctic ice blocks, which first appeared off the coast nearly two weeks ago after drifting north from the frozen continent.

It is rare for whole icebergs to drift so far north before melting, but a cold snap around southern New Zealand and favorable ocean currents have brought the towering visitors to the region intact.

Tourists were paying up to 500 New Zealand dollars (US$335; Ђ261) for each return trip and some have been out twice, to view the spectacular ice blocks drifting off the coast some a kilometer (5/8 mile) long, said Helicopters Otago pilot Graeme Gale, reports AP.

"It's pretty full on, really," said Gale, estimating that several hundred people had made the trip. "I've never seen so many people get off a helicopter so happy."

The icebergs were slowly melting, changing their shape all the time, he said.

"It's an ever-changing ice-scape," Gale told The Associated Press. "The beauty of the icebergs is incredible. It's crystal blue-white with a turquoise color mixed in among it. It's colors you don't normally see."

Fishing boats reported icebergs about 60 kilometers (37 kilometers) off the coast of the southern city of Timaru on Tuesday the furthest point north since they were first spotted by an air force fisheries patrol on Nov. 3.

Last year, icebergs were seen in New Zealand waters for the first time in 56 years, while last week one was visible from the shoreline. The last time one was visible from the New Zealand shore was June 1931, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research oceanographer Mike Williams said.

Williams said a combination of ocean currents and southerly winds were keeping the icebergs close to shore, but predicted they wouldn't last long.

"I certainly wouldn't expect them to last beyond Christmas," Williams said.

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