ACROSS THE TOP OF THE WORLD
TO WRANGEL AND HERALD ISLANDS
This unique expedition crosses the Arctic Circle and includes the isolated and pristine Wrangel and Herald Islands and a significant section of the wild North Eastern Siberian coastline. It is a journey only made possible in recent years by the thawing in the politics of the region and the retreat of summer pack ice in the Chukchi Sea. The very small distance between Russia and the USA along this border area was known as the Ice Curtain, behind which then and now lies one of the last great undiscovered wilderness areas in the world.
The voyage journeys through the narrow Bering Strait, which separates Russia from the United States of America, and then travels west along the Chukotka coastline before crossing the De Long Strait to Wrangel Island. There we will spend four to five days under the guidance of local rangers on the nature reserve. Untouched by glaciers during the last ice age, this island is a treasure trove of Arctic biodiversity and is perhaps best known for the multitude of Polar Bears that breed here. We hope to catch many glimpses of this beautiful animal. The island also boasts the world's largest population of Pacific Walrus and lies near major feeding grounds for the Gray Whales that migrate thousands of kilometres north from their breeding grounds in Baja, Mexico. Reindeer, Musk Ox and Snow Geese can normally be seen further inland. A visit to massive bird cliffs on nearby Herald Island is also planned. The ‘mammoth steppe' vegetation complex, a rich and diverse relic from the Pleistocene epoch nurtures over 400 plant species and never fails to astound visitors with its sublime beauty. The number and type of endemic plant species, the diversity within plant communities, the presence of relatively recent mammoth tusks and skulls, a range of terrain types and geological formations in the small geographical space are all visible evidence of Wrangel's rich natural history and its unique evolutionary status within the Arctic.
The human history of Wrangel Island is fascinating on its own. Highlights include a 3,400 year old Paleo-Eskimo camp in Krassin Bay, controversy over discovery and ownership of the island, the amazing story of the survivors of the Karluk, Ada Blackjack the heroine of the island, the Soviet occupation and militarisation and more recently, the establishment of this world class nature reserve. A host of similarly enthralling stories hail from several optional landings along the northern coasts of Chukotka. Our expert expedition team will take you on guided walks, Zodiac cruises and provide lectures to help you better understand and appreciate this unique High Arctic landscape.
Exclusive Overland Experience - explore the interior of Wrangel Island by six-wheel Tundra vehicle, exclusive to Heritage Expeditions. The High Arctic environment that few people experience is now accessible on this 3 day- 2 night extension. Read more here.
Pre/Post cruise transfers, all on board ship accommodation, meals and all expedition shore excursions.
All items of a personal nature, laundry, drinks, gratuities. International/domestic flights, visas and travel insurance.
Private charter flight Nome to Anadyr to Nome $2,000 pp
Overland Traverse: $1450 pp
(All prices are per person in USD)
Our ship - The Spirit of Enderby:
The Spirit of Enderby is a fully ice-strengthened expedition vessel, built in 1984 for polar and oceanographic research and is perfect for Expedition Travel.
She carries just 50 passengers and was refurbished in March 2013 to provide comfortable accommodation in twin share cabins approximately half of which have private facilities. All cabins have outside windows or portholes and ample storage space.
On board there is a combined bar/library lounge area and a dedicated lecture room. The cuisine is excellent and is prepared by top NZ and Australian chefs.
The real focus and emphasis of every expedition is getting you ashore as often as possible for as long as possible with maximum safety and comfort. Our Expeditions are accompanied by some of the most experienced naturalists and guides, who have devoted a lifetime to field research in the areas that we visit. The ship is crewed by a very enthusiastic and most experienced Russian Captain and crew.
The name Spirit of Enderby honours the work and the vision of the Enderby Brothers of London. The Enderby Captains were at the forefront of Antarctic exploration for almost 40 years in the early 1800s. It also celebrates Enderby Island, arguably the greatest Subantarctic Island in the world.
|Day 1||August 1st|
|Position 0600||64°43’N 177°37’E|
|Weather:||Mainly fine, light wind.|
|Sea conditions:||Light swell|
|Wildlife highlight:||Scores of beluga whales surfacing in Anadyr harbour|
|Most unexpected sight:||Locals sunbathing|
|Food highlight:||Entrée of creamed goat cheese, roasted fennel, cherry tomato salad, parmesan wafer and olive tapenade.|
We staggered down into battered steel loading bay of the Anadyr car ferry, clutching our cameras and outsized bags and checking each other out. Within minutes all of us – from Australia, Japan, Russia, Chekia, Switzerland, U.K., Canada and the US - were being welcomed on the deck of the Professor Kromov (a.k.a. Spirit of Enderby) and offered tea and scones in the dining room.
“OK everyone listen up!” (when Rodney Russ briefs you, you know you’ve been briefed). “I’m Rodney Russ, your Expedition Leader and founder of Heritage Expeditions. This is Alexandr the ship’s captain. And these are our staff – Katya Ovsyanikova, Assisitant Expedition Leader and my right hand person. Robin and Connor are your chefs; Heather is ship’s doctor; Katya, Sarah, Agnes, Samuel and Chris will be your lecturers, guides and zodiac drivers. Ok team, come on up and introduce yourselves…”
“Chukotka is one of 88 Autonomous Regions in the Russian Federation and contains 737,000 square kilometres. It is the farthest east part of Eurasia and travel is by permit only. We’re now sailing across Anadyr Bay and will have our first landing at Preobrazhenia Bay. Next day we’ll visit Yttygran, Nuneagran and Arakamchechen Islands, then on up the coast to Cape Deshnev and Naukan Village. From there we’ll turn west along the coast to visit the settlement of Uelen, land on Kolyuchin Island, then head up to Wrangel Island, ice permitting.”
Thus began our 15 day voyage into one of the most remote and wild places left on earth: Chukotka in the Russian Arctic. Anadyr where we started is a frontier port town without a land-link to the rest of the country, populated largely by coal-miners, administrators, the military and indigenous Chukchi. To the west is a vast and virtually trackless wilderness of tundra, wetlands, lakes and rivers for thousands of kilometres. Moscow is 8 time zones to the west, or as they say locally, “God is a long way off, but Moscow is even further”.
Photo credit: K.Ovsyanikova
|Day 2||August 2nd|
|Position 0600 / 1300||64°37’N 178°25’W / 64°49’N 175°25’W|
|Places visted||The bird cliffs and tundra of Preobrazhenia Bay|
|Weather||Mainly fine, light SE wind.|
|Sea conditions||2m swell|
|Nature highlights||The bird cliffs
A brown bear and cubs high on the mountainside
Introduction to the tundra
|General highlights||“My first time in a zodiac!.. lifeboat drill…puffins!...tundra, tundra, tundra! (the Russian speakers clearly have a special relationship with tundra)…the huge landscape….eating cloud berries/moroshka, blueberries/chernika, crowberries/shishka/vadinika…ground squirrels...the bear and cubs...wildflowers…whale vertebrae on the beach…seeing so many bird species for the first time.”|
|Lectures||Introduction to the seabird cliffs by Sarah.
Zodiac boarding and landing briefing.
Safety and lifeboat briefing
“ When you leave the ship, make sure you turn over the tag with your manifest number so we know who has gone ashore!”…“And when you leave the ship, climb carefully down the gangway, stand on the zodiac pontoon, take the driver’s wrist, step down into the zodiac and take a seat on the side. Don’t lean too far back! When you leave the zodiac, slide up to the front, swing your legs over and climb out as quickly as you can. Then – now this is very important! - take off your life jacket straight away and put it in the box: That’s how we know that everybody is accounted for when we leave land. If you wander off with your life jacket on, we can’t tell if you are missing…”
Seabirds occupied every possible (and many seemingly impossible) ledge and crevice of the the cliffs at Preobrazhenia! Flying seabirds scribbled themselves all over the sky: Tufted and horned puffins flying back to young with fish hanging neatly out the sides of their beaks; common and black guillemots carrying their fish neatly, tails frontward. Crested and parakeet auklets swarmed, as Sarah described them, like bees from a hive.
Once round the cliffs, we went in stern-first by zodiac to the stoney beach at Preobrazhenya Bay, eased in to shore by Rodney in chest-high waders. Once all were ashore we ambled upstream and inland for a look around: Imagine an undulating plain of grasses, flowers, edible berries and mushrooms, the sharp scent of herbs underfoot, ground-hugging willows and birches, ground squirrels, clear-running stoney streams. Then imagine that it stretches out without fences or roads almost as far as the imagination can travel. It is called tundra and it is simply magnificent.
Photo credit: S.Gutowsky
|Day 3||August 3rd|
|Position 0600 / 1800||64°40’N 172°34’W / 64°39’N 172°32’W|
|Places visited||Yttygran Island (whale bone alley), Gilmymyl community, tundra and hot springs.|
|Weather||8 degrees, rain and wind in the morning followed by a cold front from the NE, clearing in the afternoon.|
|Sea conditions||Moderate swell, choppy sea.|
|Wildlife highlight||Orca, grey whales, humpback whales
Lots of ground squirrels up close
|Landscape highlight||The tundra|
|Cultural highlight||Meeting a Chukchi family|
|Lectures||Katya on the archaelogical site known as ‘Whalebone Alley’.|
|Other highlights||Bird club started|
We sailed around Cape Providence at 6am, hoping for calm whale-watching conditions for zodiacs. From the bridge we had spotted five orca cruising the rocky shoreline, as well as a number of grey whales. However the wind picked up ahead of a front so we sail directly on to Gilmymyl, within Beringia National Park.
As soon as the front had passed, the weather fined up, so we set off by zodiac for Gilmymil immediately after lunch, with a selection of 3 options:
A: Visit a Chukchi family with Katya and Agnes, followed by a soak in the hot pools.
B: Go birding with Sarah and Chris, followed by the same.
C: Go directly to the hot pools, led by Rodney!
Gilmymil, once a permanent Chukchi settlement, is now used by a handful of Chukchi and Eskimo families as a summer residence. Situated in a spacious basin, Gilmymil has plentiful food resources available from sea, lagoon, river and tundra. While the Russian crew scoured the hillsides for mushrooms and berries, the rest of us peered through binoculars, chatted with a Chukchi family or just soaked in the large timber-constructed hot pool, fed by thermal springs in the hillside and situated close to an ice-cold river for cooling off.
Photo credit: K.Ovsyanikova
|Day 4||August 4th|
|Position 0600 / 1800||66°N 169.41’W / 66°10’N 169°49’W|
|Places visited||Cape Drezhnev and Naukan Village; Uelen settlement.|
|Weather||Fine and clear, light SE wind.|
|Sea conditions||2m swell|
|Wildlife highlight||First walrus sighting, grey whales spouting, ground squirrels and voles at the former village of Naukan.|
|Cultural highlight||A slow meander through Naukan Village.
Chukchi cultural dances on the beach (with a backdrop of whales swimming by.)
|Landscape highlights||Visiting Cape Drezhnev, the most eastern point of continental Eurasia.|
|Dramatic highlight||The VERY WET landing at Uelen Beach.|
|Lectures||Katya on the history of Naukan Village.
Rodney’s briefing on the settlement at Uelen.
Katya gave us a quick briefing straight after breakfast on the history of Naukan Village and Cape Drezhnev: Naukan was an Eskimo (as they call themselves locally) village of marine mammal subsistence hunters for thousands of years. Its location on a relatively protected terrace overooking the narrowest point of the Bering Strait made it perfect for hunting. The village had about 400 people living in 83 yarangas (traditional round houses covered in skins), wooden huts and dugouts. That all changed in 1958 with the Cold War, when Soviet officials forcibly relocated the residents to other villages and towns. The border guard post built only a stone’s throw from the empty village was in its turn abandoned after the demise of the USSR and is now crumbling into the sea. We landed by zodiac and wandered slowly through the ruins, pondering the lives and commmunities whose lives echo here still.
Once around the point we sailed west to Uelen Village, built on a long sandspit and the site of a 2000 year old marine mammal hunter settlement. We anchored offshore and took the zodiacs in through the surf. Rodney predicted a ‘very wet landing’, which turned out to be accurate, if understated: the zodiac drivers backed in stern-first, each met and held by a pair of staff members standing waist, chest (and sometimes neck) deep in the surf to hold the boat steady against the breakers. Everybody tumbled out (sometimes literally) as quickly as possible so the zodiacs could be relaunched before taking on too much water over the bow. Nobody stayed completely dry, with a number becoming very wet.
The Soviets set up a bone-carving school at Uelen, so consequently there was a wide array of carved and painted walrus tusks in the local Museum, along with beautifully crafted seal-skin clothing and artefacts.
After wandering the rather bleak main street and playing with some very fit and fun-loving local children, we were treated to Chukchi dancing on the gravel beach. With so many of the adults away hunting or gathering, the dancing was done mainly by children, accompanied by men singing and beating walrus-skin drums. The dances represented animals and every-day events in the lives of a hunting community: a walrus behaviour, a walrus hunt, pairs of loons, friendship, gathering birds’ eggs from the sea-cliffs, and even a ‘white man’s dance’ – an amusing depiction of European ballroom dancing through traditional Chukchi music and dance.
Getting back into the zodiacs was a wonderful piece of theatre, even wetter than than the landing and much re-lived over dinner.
Photo credit: S.Gutowsky
|Day 5||August 5th|
|Position 0600 / 1800||6728’N174°33’W / 67°58’N 17554’W|
|Places visited||Kolyuchin Island|
|Weather||Fine, light NE breeze|
|Wildlife highlight||Kolyuchin Island Bird cliffs and walrus haul-out.|
|Lectures||Katya on history geography of Wrangel Island.|
In spite of the clear day there was an ‘ice-cooled’ bite to the air. Once Katya and Samuel had gone ahead and checked out the abandoned weather station for resident polar bears, we took the zodiacs across to Kolyuchin Island and climbed up a grassy slope to vantage points above the bird cliffs. Every ledge was seething with adults and chicks of gulls, puffins, kittywakes, guillimots and pelagic cormorants.
After thawing out over lunch, we revisited the island to observe a walrus haul-out, mainly males, that we has seen from the sea before lunch. We sat quietly on the steep rocky hillside immediately above them and photographed them to our hearts’ content; as they hauled themselves awkwardly out of the water or lumbered about to find a spot to squeeze in and lie down, provoking annoyed prods and threats from those disturbed. There’s something mesmerising and almost soothing about the sight of 500 rotundalruses crushed together, squirming and sleeping in the sun, flippers over each others’ enormous fatty flanks. The Chukchi hunters at our boat-landing were holding a ceremony to commemorate a friend who had recently drowned on a fishing trip. They told us that a polar bear had visited the beach an hour before our visit. It’s dinner–plate sized pads were still evident in the mud. Needless to say, while most people watched the walruses down below, staff took turns watching out for the bear above.
Photo credit: K.Ovsyanikova
|Day 6||August 6th|
|Position 0600 / 1800||70°5’N 178°32’W / 70°56’N 179°5’W|
|Places visited||Wrangel Island tundra and the abandoned settlement of Doubtful|
|Weather||Light fog, light SE wind.|
|Sea conditions||Flat, patchy sea ice|
|Wildlife highlight||Musk ox and lemming|
|Landscape highlights||Sea ice, first sighting of Wrangel Island|
|Lectures||Katya on polar bear safety|
We sailed right through the night and awoke to a seascape dotted with sea-ice, glowing through the morning mist. Occasionally a lump would bump and grind under our ice-hardened hull. The Professor Kromov had to sail further west to avoid the worst of the ice (visible via sattelite images), arriving at Wrangel early afternoon. We anchored off the south coast and landed the zodiacs at the mouth of a small creek by 1500 hours. After catching up with local rangers Sergei, Uliana and Ginady, we split into 3 groups and headed out across the arid-looking tundra. There were so many wild-flowers that we started a ‘tundra plant club’ to match the evening ‘bird club’ with a round-up of the day’s botanical treasures.
Wrangel is starkly beautiful: a vast tawny tundra plain with wildflowers, framed by low mountain ranges inland. We left a party of 4 behind to take an overland trip across the island via 6-wheeler, guided by Katya and 2 of the local rangers.
Photo credit: K.Schlegel
|Day 7||August 7th|
|Position 0600 / 1800||70°49’N 178°43E / 72°N 178°47W|
|Placs visited||Unexpected Creek, Goose Creek and Ptichy Bazaar around the western end of Wrangel Isalnd.|
|Weather||Fine, light breeze|
|Sea conditions||0.5m swell, light chop|
|Wildlife highlight||Polar bears!|
|Landscape highlights||Wrangel island plains, mountains and sea-cliffs.|
|Zodiac trips||Morning: Polar bear on ice floe followed by trip to the lagoon of Unexpected Creek, between Cape Thomas and Cape Blossom.
Afternoon: A walk up Goose Creek and back down the spur, or a shorter walk if desired.
Evening: After-dinner sunset cruise around the bird-cliffs at Ptichy Bazaar.
Another red letter day: Samuel spotted the first polar bear of the trip on an ice floe 500 metres from the ship. We took the zodiacs over quietly and approached the bear from downwind, allowing us to get within 25 metres before it noticed us and trotted off. We carried on toward Point Thomas at the eastern end of Wrangel Island, where we had spotted another polar bear and a musk ox. After working our way upwind to the lagoon of Unexpected Creek, we crept on hands and knees to the crest of the gravel spit and sat down quietly to observe two bears lying by the lagoon about 400 metres away. After about an hour a third polar bear came into view from higher in the tundra, strolled down to the beach about 200 metres downwind of us, slipped into the sea and swam down the coast.
Meanwhile the musk ox, a mere speck when we first landed, worked its way up the island to within 100 metres of us, before walking on up the coast. Several flocks of migrating snow-geese flew overhead and a bearded seal’s head popped up a stone’s-throw out to sea. With so much happening at the same time it was hard to know which way to point the camera.
Eventually a second bear stood up, walked across the tundra and lay down on the beach about 100 metres down-wind of us, from where he sat and watched us. We bunched together to make ourselves look more formidable, as groups broke off and left the beach by zodiac. Once our numbers had dwindled to 6, the bear decided it was time to check us out. It stood and walked up the beach towards us, sniffing the air curiously and opening its mouth to reveal a purple tongue and a very healthy set of teeth. Although the bear was displaying more curiosity than agression, once it came within 25 metres Ginady shot off a flare gun to scare it, but not before we’d captured some stunning photographs and had an experience we’ll never forget.
That afternoon we walked up the wide bed of Goose Creek, returning via a windswept spur above it. This gave us stunning vista’s up the braided strands of the river toward the mountains inland. We rounded off the trip with some bird photography at the Goose Stream lagoon, a roosting spot for large groups of Kittywakes and little groups of ruddy turnstones, red and red-necked phaleropes.
As if that wasn’t enough, we took an after-dinner zodiac cruise under the sea cliffs at Ptichy Bazaar. This really was the cream on top: The sky alive with guillimots and kittywakes, a cocophany of chicks and parents calling for each other, kittywakes perched all over pieces of sea ice, which lit up blue in the late evening light – a gorgeous finish to a pefect day.
|Day 8||August 8th|
|Position 0600 / 1800||71°17’N 174.33 E / 70°46’N 178°42’E|
|Places visited||Komsomol Lake, Dremh Head|
|Weather||Morning fog then overcast, 8°C.|
|Sea conditions||Flat and calm with ice floes, sometimes thick.|
|Wildlife highlight||Polar bears on the ice!|
|Landscape highlights||The mist lifting off the sea, Komsomol Lake, white snow geese flying against a leaden sky.|
|Zodiac trips||Along the coast through the mist to Komsommol Lake.|
|Lectures||Sarah on the Alcid family (puffins, guillemots, auklets). Chris on the last voyage of the Karluk, which was crushed by ice off Wrangel Island in 1914.|
“Rodney to Agnes, Chris, Sarah and Costa. Make sure you GPS the position of the ship before we leave for the island, over”. “Roger, copy that Rodney…”
The five zodiacs were idling beside the the ship on a dead flat sea in thick fog, preparing to head off to an invisible island. We followed each other in ghostly convoy, keeping the next boat always in sight. Once at the beach we idled up the shoreline looking for wildlife. A raft of long-tailed ducks materialised out of the mist but kept swimming away to the edge of invisibility. A ring necked seal popped its head up. Then the fog lifted a little to reveal flocks of snow-geese grazing on the tundra, an attentive snowy owl parked nearby. We landed quietly and advanced to within photographic range: The starkly white snow geese looked spectacular flying against the leaden grey sky. From there we heard the deep booming calls of walruses, carrying like fog-horns from their haul-outs on the ice 4-5 kilometres away. I scanned the horizon through binoculars to try and see them, but saw instead a grey whale’s round back break the flat surface about a kilometre offshore.
We landed at Lake Komsomol, the rangers going ahead to check that polar bears were not in residence at the rangers’ hut there. The fog lifted slowly, leaving wreaths of mist like silk scalves tossed over the hillside. With the mist, the reflections from Lake Komsommol, the tawny pallette of the tundra and the grazing white snow geese, it was a landscape photographer’s paradise.
The rangers’ hut beside the lake was a study in improvisation; the original plaster cladding had weathered away on the windward sides and been replaced with short lengths of box wood nailed on to resemble a patchwork quilt; the interior bunks, tables and wash stand were all made from dismantled packing crates. Someone, perhaps a homesick Australian, had carved a sulphur-crested cockatoo from driftwood and hung it on the wall.
In the wood shed the chewed spine of a seal lay next to a scooped out hollow: A polar bear had recently been in residence. Only sharp bear spikes sticking out from all the windows and doors of the hut prevented them from moving in there as well.
During lunch 2 zodiacs sped off between the ice floes to pick up the passengers who had travelled overland by 6-wheel drive from our landing spot at Doubtful, and dropped off the second group to return via the same route. Back on ship the ‘overlanders’ talk was all about lemmings, arctic foxes, snowy owls and herds of musk oxen.
As the ice grew thicker around the ship, groups of walrus mothers and cubs appeared in little knots on the ice floes, nervously watching the ship pass and if it got too close, slipping into the water and diving. Eventually the ice gew so thick that we had to abandon our plan to to reach Herald Island via the north coast of Wrangel. The captain turned her around with difficulty in the thick ice and we headed back around the south coast.
We had already seen 9 bears in the distance when a call came through the ship’s intercom, “Bears on the port side!”. We stampeded to the rail and there they were: a mother and cubs less than 50 metres away. The ship was turned for another pass, keeping further out so as not to scare the mother into the water. I have never seen so many gigabytes of camera memory card consumed so fast. Damien an Australian photography tutor summed up the mood of incredulity on deck as we snapped shot after shot after shot with some colourful language.
Photo credit: S.Blanc
|Day 9||August 9th|
|Position 0600 / 1800||70°52’N 177°54’W / 71°23’N 175°46’W|
|Places visited||Herald Island|
|Weather||Overcast, stiff breeze, 3°C|
|Sea conditions||Patchy to thick sea ice, flat water.|
|Wildlife highlight||Bears on an ice floe eating a walrus for breakfast|
|Landscape highlights||The forbidding, mist-shrouded cliffs of Herald Island|
|Lectures||Agnes: ‘Sea Ice, the Eighth Continent’.
Russian ranger Ginady: ‘The Life and Work of a Ranger on Wrangel Island.’
We woke up to a gentle back massage as the Professor bruised her way through ice floes, sending shudders up through the hull. With the ice so dense, Rodney debated the value of pressing on toward Herald Island, still 70 kilometres away. He decided to press on and we were rewarded with more open water past the lee of Wrangel Island, where a northerly wind was dispersing the ice. Suddenly it was bear pandemonium again! A dozen polar bears stood or lay on ice floes all around the ship. Three were only 100 metres away, consuming a freshly killed young walrus, faces a red mask, teeth tearing chunks from the walrus’s chest and abdomen in front of our amazed eyes.
“Herald Island ahead!” came over the intercom: We had finally made it to this famously inhospitable intrusion of vertical granite, currently surrounded by ice floes and decked out with streamers of katabatic mist pouring down every crevice. We immediately launched the zodiacs and made for shore, threading our way between ice floes. The cliffs were host to thousands of nesting guillemots, puffins and kittywakes. We motored under the cliffs in the lee of the island, the emerald waters crystal clear, before landing briefly on a beach where the bodies of 4 members of the Karluk expedition had been found in the 1920’s. They were a reconnaisance party trying to find a route across the sea ice to Wrangel Island, from where their ship the Karluk had been crushed by ice and sunk. Unfortunately they reached Herald Island instead, where it appears they became trapped by open water. A less hospitable place to land would be hard to imagine, with almost impregnable granite cliffs and tors surrounding the whole island. An hour and a half later the 2nd mate Max called the zodiacs from the bridge to say the ship was rapidly becoming surrounded by ice floes, the current was running fast and fog was rolling in, so ‘please come back to the ship as soon as you can, while you can’. We sped back between the narrowing gaps in the ice to find the ship surrounded, its engines full thrust. Once the captain had extricated her we re-embarked, stowed the zodiacs and set a course back toward Wrangel, arriving at at Krassen Bay off the historic Doubtful Village at 10pm. Another stunning day in the High Arctic.
Photo credit: K.Schlegel
|Day 10||August 10th|
|Position 0600 / 1800||70°46’N 178°30’W / 70°42’N 17957’W|
|Places visited||Anchored at Krassen Bay, Wrangel Island: Visit to wetlands and tundra at Pavlov’s grave, 8km east of Doubtful Village.|
|Weather||Overcast, stiff easterly breeze, 8-10°C.|
|Sea conditions||Choppy with occasional ice floes.|
|Wildlife highlight||What the ‘overlanders’ saw: arctic fox cubs, lemmings, musk ox, snowy owl.
Waders at the wetland near Pavlov’s grave.
|Landscape highlights||Last views of the tundra and mountains of Wrangel.|
|Lectures||Wrangel Island ranger Uliana: ‘Musk Ox on Wrangel Island.’|
A relaxed morning program gave us a chance to sort photos in the morning before a talk about musk-ox from Uliana, a local ranger on Wrangel Island. The herd of around 1000 are all descended from 10 animals, imported from Canada to help complete the natural ecosystem. There is also a small wild herd of reindeer on the island, descended from domesticated animals introduced under Soviet collectivised farming. Their numbers are limited by severe winter ice and wolf predation.
We jumped into the zodiacs at 1.30 and beat 12 km up into the wind to ‘Pavlov’s Grave’, the ship unable to get any closer to the landing site in the shallow waters of the bay. Pavlov was a hunter who never wanted to leave the island. He evidently succeeded and his grave behind the pebbly beach is marked by a tall wooden cross and an upturned wooden dory surrounded by walrus skulls.
The botanically-minded stayed close to the ground, photographing tundra plants at the extreme margin of their existence in this ‘arctic desert’ ecosytem. And for the birders a wonderful wetland behind Pavlov’s grave yielded ruddy turnstone and dunlin, all frantically feeding to make the most of the brief summer bounty.
|Day 11||August 11th|
|Position 0600 / 1800||68°56’N 177°26’W / 67°N 174°38W|
|Places visited||Wrangel Island to Belyaka Spit at the entrance to Kolyuchin Inlet.|
|Weather||Light winds, overcast, 8-10°C|
|Sea conditions||Light seas|
|Wildlife highlight||Pacific loons, emperor geese, arctic terns|
|Landscape highlights||Dusk walk in Belyaka wetlands in Kolyuchin Inlet.|
|Cultural highlight||Memorial cross, reindeer herders’ graves and ancient yaranga mounds on Belyaka Spit.|
|Lectures||Max on ‘Beringia Park on the World Scene’.
Katya on ‘The Future of Polar Bears in a Changing World.’
Nikita Ovsyanikov’s documentary ‘Life on the Field of Bones’- his polar bear research on Wrangel Island.
After a full day at sea, an early dinner made time for a twilight (6.30-10.30pm) landing at Belyaka Spit, which forms the entrance to the massive Kolyuchin Inlet. The spit was a conjunction between reindeer herder and marine mammal hunter commununities, whose artefacts, graves and dwelling mounds remain in evidence.
The sole inhabitant on our arrival was Alexi, a wading bird researcher living alone in a rudimentary hut beside the lighthouse about 500 metres down the beach. The rifle casually slung over his shoulder was loaded with flare-cartridges due to the recent vagaries of a young brown bear. We delivered him some timber to rebuild a cemetery fence around an old grave behind the beach.
We headed out across the tundra, which alternated underfoot between dry sandy ridges (easy travel and populated with the beautifully camouflaged pacific golden plover) and very wet bogs (heavy going) surrounding the numerous ponds. The mournful cry of loons (elsewhere known as divers) drew us toward the open water, where a pair of Pacific loons with chicks were parading up and down the open ater, unsure of our approach. Their smart black and white plumage was stunning and the little shriek that preceded every dive puzzling – is it the avian equivalent of a scuba diver’s flag?
A little further out we came to a poignant sight which we respectfully walked around: human skulls and bones lying out in the tundra, their owners’ former posessions scattered around them – sled runners, a rusty rifle, a broken cup, a reindeer-herder’s prod. Katya explained that instead of burying their dead deep in the ground (impossible anyway because of the permafrost), human remains were left exposed on the surface of the tundra, open to the big skies and the elements they had known so well in life.
Groups gradually drifted back the zodiacs in the twilight and sat on the beach, chatting and watching the ship’s lights across the water. The serenity was palpable and we were very reluctant to leave.
Photo credit: K.Schlegel
|Day 12||August 12th|
|Position 0600 / 1800||66°54’N 171°20’W / 65°11’N 170°29’W|
|Places visited||Ratmanova Island and the Diomedes group.|
|Weather||Breezy, occasional cloud.|
|Sea conditions||Light seas|
|Wildlife highlight||The bird-cliffs and sea birds surrounding Ratmanova Island.|
|Absurd moment||Super-powers staring across the international date line at each others’ military bases on adjacent islands.|
|Lectures||Sarah on ‘Seabird identification’
Katya on ‘History of Chukotka Pt II’
Rodney on ‘Chokotka by Snowmobile’
We spent the day at sea seeing humpback and grey whales and surrounded by sea birds, their numbers increasing as we neared Ratmanova Island in the Diomedes group. Ratmanova is the easternmost land territory in the Russian Federation and nearest point to the United States of America. In fact the U.S. and Russian military could look at each other’s bases across a strait only 2.3 nautical miles wide. To the casual observer it was hard to understand what benefit each country derived from such an arrangement. It certainly hadn’t helped the marine mammal hunters who were evicted, but it did appear to be working well for the birds, walruses and whales.
|Day 13||August 13th|
|Position 0600 / 1800||64°35’N 172°37’W / 64°35’N 172°36’W|
|Places visited||Yttygran Island|
|Weather||Calm, light overcast then sunny, 10-12°C|
|Sea conditions||Dead flat|
|Wildlife highlight||60-70 grey whales, red-breasted merganser, harlequin ducks en-masse, rough-legged buzzard, sandhill cranes.|
|Cultural feature||The local eskimo community catching, cutting up and dividing a grey whale among themselves.|
|Landscape highlights||Yttygran Island; morning mist on the surrounding mountains; late afternoon sun lighting up the golden tundra; flat seascapes with grey whales spouting in every direction.|
|Cultural experience||A group of eskimo butchering a grey whale for meat.|
|Lectures||Too busy for lectures!|
What a finale! Although we had seen whales spouting on our way north, it had been too rough to take out the zodiacs for ‘up close and personal’ whale-watching. Today we were paid back with interest: The weather was perfect, grey whales spouted in all directions and the surrounding coastline, headlands, mountains and wide valleys completely beguiled us. We were on the water by 8.45am and motoring quietly along the south coast of Yttygran Island. Before we had gone a kilometre Rodney had a readio message from the Bridge that local Eskimo were planning to hunt whales today and that our presence was a problem for that. We negotiated to move further away so as not to disturb their hunt, which is allowed for under a subsistence quoto from the International Whaling Commission. Our 5 zodiacs fanned out and headed for various spouting grey whales before cutting the motors and drifting. The whales, understandably nervous about outboard motors, were unafraid or even curious about a silent boat: They surfaced near us again and again with loud whooshing exhalations of mist from their dual air holes. In deeper water their tails-flukes hung in the air just before they dived; in the shallow waters where they filter small organisms through their baleen plates, they sometimes threw a large pectoral fin skyward as they lay on one side to scoop up and seive productive marine sediments.
After lunch Rodney and Katya motored over to ask the whale-hunters if they minded us going over to watch them butchering the whale they’d killed. They were OK with that and so we motored over, not without mixed feelings. The whale, a relatively young female, had been hauled up onto the gravel shoreline, where it was rapidly being cut up, processed and divided amongst the community. Every male old enough to, weilded a long knife and kept it razor-sharp on a whetstone. The skin and blubber were peeled off in huge strips and processed; the skin and outer fat layer cut into chunks to eat raw, the rest of the blubber discarded into the sea. Once the fat was off, the several tonnes of meat were chopped into large chunks and put into plastic bags. An Eskimo boy of perhaps 7 or 8 stood by the whale’s head for several minutes, staring solemnly at its large closed eye: A penny for his thoughts.
After lunch we headed out for a walk, landing by a headland at the western end of the island. We split into 3 groups; the ‘mountain goats’ who climbed a 1500 metre peak, the ‘striders’ who crossed an isthmus to an old marine mammal hunter’s camp and the ‘meanderers’ who walked quietly around the coastline. The day took on a dream-like quality, warm and still, the sea like glass. A pair of sandhill cranes bugling as they glided down a spur; a rough-legged buzzard soaring overhead; the tundra lit up in golds and yellows; and grey whales surfacing all over the flat waters of the strait, their misty spouting backlit by the afternoon sun. Sublime.
Photo credit: A.Breniere
|Day 14||August 14th|
|Position 0600 / 1800||/ 64°43’N 177°37’E|
|Places visited||Yttegran Island to Anadyr|
|Sea conditions||Calm sea, long rolling swell|
|Wildlife highlight||The ship surrounded by fulmars, short-tailed shearwaters, kittywakes and many more.|
|Lectures||Rodney on the (formidable) logistics behind a Heritage Expedition.
Agnes & Chris on adaptations of the arctic flowering plants and the identification of some of those we saw.
|Day 15||August 15th|
|Position 0600||64°43’N 177°37’E|
|Disembarked at Anadyr for our respective homeward or onward journeys, reluctantly farewelling each other and our beautiful ‘time out of mind’ in the Russian Far East.|
Day 1: Friday, 8 August
Most of us arrived in Anadyr in one of two main groups, one coming from Moscow and another arriving in two flights from Nome, Alaska. The airport was located opposite the town of Anadyr, across Anadyrskiy Bay and a barge took us and our luggage to the city and the ship, respectively. White Beluga Whales were easily seen against the dark waters of the bay and there were also a number of the more inconspicuous Larga Seals. Most of us had a few hours ashore before boarding the ship and we used the time to explore the town, looking into shops, the museum, cafes and admiring the beautiful wooden church above a sparkling bay. The sun was out and the weather was unusually warm, actually sweltering by local standards. In the late afternoon the barge collected us again and shuttled us out to our home base for the next two weeks' exploration of Chukotka and Wrangel and Herald islands. The Professor Khromov operating as the Spirit of Enderby lay at anchor in the bay awaiting our arrival.
After we were all finally aboard, we gathered in the ship's lecture room for greetings and staff introductions. Our Expedition Leader, Rodney Russ, first introduced chefs Lindsay and Jess, our Assistant Expedition Leader Evgeniya, Cruise Director Meghan and guides Laurie and Nikita. Two other guides would be joining us later: Yulia was currently on Wrangel Island with a group of people who were staying there from the previous voyage and tomorrow Oksana would be picked from Yttygran Island. Rodney then introduced our shipboard physician Dr. Leo, a veteran of several voyages with Heritage Expeditions and an indispensable member of the team.
Rodney then gave us a brief introduction to the ship and its operation and afterwards we went up two decks to the bar for drinks and to get to know our traveling companions before going down to the dining room for a late dinner. It had been a long day and most of us retired early. The seas were becoming rough as we left the shelter of the estuary and bay at Anadyr, so we left much of the unpacking and cabin-organizing for later. A glowing orange sun set off to starboard and the moon was already high in a dusky sky as the Spirit of Enderby moved out of the bay on its way north through the waters of the Russian Far East.
Photo: © M.Kelly
Day 2: Saturday, 9 August
We awoke to Meghan's greeting on the intercom this morning as the ship continued its northward journey through rolling seas. Breakfast was scheduled for 8:30am, allowing us some extra sleep after our previous long day. Conditions were a bit too rough for comfortable activity about the ship, so some items of business were postponed until later in the day when we could find some shelter from the wind and the waves.
After lunch we anchored in the calmer waters of Preobrazheniya Bay and gathered in the lecture room where Rodney presented an overview of the expedition and explained what we could expect, which, as an expedition, included the unexpected. Rodney then went over the lifeboat drill that was to be held a bit later in the afternoon and covered the basics of how to board and exit the Zodiacs safely under different conditions. Later, at the scheduled time for the lifeboat drill and upon hearing the seven short and one long blasts from the ship's horn, the captain came on the public address system and instructed us to proceed to our muster stations. We donned lifejackets as instructed and went to the port or starboard station and climbed into the lifeboats to get a true feel for the whole procedure. It was a good exercise for all of us to be prepared for an emergency.
The sea conditions remained too rough for a Zodiac cruise along the bird cliffs at Preobrazheniya Bay, but the ship remained close to shore and we could watch many species flying or floating near the ship: guillemots, Tufted and Horned Puffins, Crested and Parakeet Auklets, shearwaters, kittiwakes, Glaucous Gulls, and Pelagic Cormorants. We continued along the coast when Meghan announced the second order of business for the day: credit card imprints were taken and Evgeniya collected our passports. When that was concluded, the bar was opened and we enjoyed drinks and conversation until dinner time.
Both the Cossack beef casserole and the blue cod with capers prepared by Lindsay and Jess for dinner were fantastic, and everyone — especially those who may have missed lunch due to the rough seas — filed happily out of the dining after the hearty meal that did not disappoint. The going was still smooth and we looked forward to a good night's sleep and an interesting day at Whale Bone Alley.
Day 3: Sunday, 10 August
Yttygran Island and Gilmymyl Hot Springs
This morning there were over a dozen Gray Whales between the ship and the shore feeding along the sea bed. The breeze and whitecaps made it a little difficult to see their blows, but patient observation rewarded anyone who took the time to watch for them to surface. The dark clouds and even darker mountains in the distance were dramatic and ominous, but the rain held off.
Just after breakfast we met in the lecture room where Rodney briefed us on our plans for the morning. Just before the briefing he and Meghan had driven over to Yttygran Island to collect Oksana, a Russian cultural anthropologist who was introduced to us at the briefing. Oksana would be our guide to the cultural aspects of the region and its people and our first landing would be at Whale Bone Alley. We suited up for the short Zodiac ride to shore and were soon exploring the site.
Whale Bone Alley on Yttygran Island is an ancient Eskimo ceremonial and hunting site that was given its nickname by the rows of paired whale jaw bones that form a kind of alleyway up from the shore. Most of the tall jaw bones have fallen down but about seven are still standing, anchored in the permafrost and wedged in with stones, giving an idea of what it must formerly have looked like. There were also a number of whale skull bones lined up at the top of the beach crest and behind two of these, as well as elsewhere around the site, was a stone-lined pit partially filled with soil and hidden by tall grasses. Carefully bending aside the grasses in one corner of the pit revealed the precisely stacked stones that still form a solid wall. Archaeological investigations of the area have discovered whale meat in the pits and they were thought to have been used as cold storage lockers for food.
Tucked in amongst the lush grasses that blanket the area behind the beach were bluebells and monks' hood flowers, both beautiful rich shades of blue. Rising away from the flat, grassy area was a long, smooth expanse of tundra reaching up to a saddle between two low peaks. At the top of the saddle was a beautiful vista through a long valley down to the water on the other side, and off to one side was an area with graves marked by stones.
All around the area were jumbles of rocks and boulders that serve as great habitat for shy Pikas (rabbit relatives) that could be seen best by patient observers who were willing to sit quietly in one spot for a time. Also amongst the boulders was a circular area defined by rocks that could have been a kind of council circle or meeting place of some significance. The size and shape of some of the rocks in the circle made perfect seats.
Another briefing after lunch prepared us for an afternoon at Gilmymyl. Nikita led a wildlife walk while Laurie explored the tundra with the plant enthusiasts who did not cover much ground due to the ground being covered in sweet, ripe blueberries!
Rodney led the hot-tubbing group through the tundra and along the river to where a rustic wooden soaking tub had been built to collect the thermal waters from the hot springs. The water temperature was 33.5 degrees C, so after warming up in the tub, a few people cooled down in the shallow river running alongside. Closer to the lagoon where we landed, Oksana took a group to visit Ivan, a local Chukchi fisherman who had his summer camp there. He graciously showed us his house and pet Arctic Ground Squirrel that scampered under our feet and posed for photos. Ivan told us that a Red Fox had a den and some kits under one of the out-buildings, so a few people went off to see if they could spot them.
Soon after we returned to the ship the bar opened and we gathered for drinks and chats. A recap of the day followed, with Rodney and Oksana leading off with some background on the people and history of the area. Laurie explained what tundra vegetation was and pointed out that the kind of tundra here was ‘southern’ or ‘shrubby’ tundra that had a greater abundance of woody species than more northern tundra, including a species of Alder. Some of the notable birds of the afternoon included the elegant Sandhill Cranes and a White-tailed Sea Eagle. To conclude, Rodney briefly outlined the plan for the landing at Cape Dezhnev, 119 nm away. It was then time for dinner and an early night for most.
Photo: © M.Kelly
Day 4: Monday, 11 August
This morning we arrived at a windy Cape Dezhnev or ‘East Cape’ as it was historically known. After fortifying ourselves from the breakfast buffet, we met in the lecture room where Rodney gave an introduction to the former village of Naukan that was located there. The site had been occupied for at least 2,000 years until 1957 when the residents of Naukan were relocated to other settlements by the Soviet government.
From the easternmost shore on the Eurasian continent where we landed, it was a steep climb up the trail that ran alongside a rocky stream to the former settlement. At the top, on either side of the stream, were the scattered stone foundations of numerous dwellings. There were still vestiges of the original roofs that had huge whale bone rafters spanning the width of the houses; the more modern roofs had wood supports. On the monument side of a steep gully were wooden buildings in every state of collapse, some barely clinging to the edge of the cliff. A porch had detached from one and was scattered down the cliff face. These houses had been used by government officials during Soviet times.
The wind was very strong and the swathes of long grasses covering the site rippled like the waves on the sea below. It looked as if the people of Naukan had left in a hurry as many rusting tubs, pots and kettles remained scattered over the site. Whale jaw bones still stood upright in a few places along the cliff edge. Old photos of the site showed skin boats upturned over the pillars to keep them off the ground. From the sea, the tall white bone pillars would also have served as markers for landing sites. The whole place, however, did not seem to be the most convenient location for a settlement; perched high on a cliff, boats likely had to be pulled up some distance because they could not have been stored safely on the narrow beach. Moreover, the dwellings must have been fully exposed to the elements. The exposure however, gave the inhabitants a 180 degree + view of the Bering Strait, so for a community dependent upon finding and hunting whales for survival, the location was ideal.
Our view from the top included large flocks of Eider Ducks flying south, which we were told, portended an early autumn. Short-tailed Shearwaters however, were flying north, and we also spotted the dark grey head of a Bearded Seal bobbing among the white caps below.
Oksana had been many places in Chukotka but this was her first time at Naukan. It is an Eskimo custom that when visiting a deserted settlement, one should offer a tribute to give thanks and express appreciation for being able to visit. Oksana had forgotten to bring something with her, but Sue generously offered up a couple candies and a beautiful blue stone she had with her. The tributes must have been acceptable because not only did we have a wonderful time exploring Naukan, but the seas had been quieted substantially by the time we had to depart and we all made it safely back aboard.
We cruised close to Cape Dezhnev as we headed further north towards our next destination. Communication from contacts in the nearby town of Uelen indicated it was too rough for a landing there, so we continued directly on to Wrangel. The afternoon programme began with a lecture from Oksana on Beringia National Park as the Spirit of Enderby headed north through the Bering Sea. Oksana had just started working for the Park which consisted of large separate areas throughout the region with various levels of protection that ranged from completely protected, to areas for restoration or multi-use. The size of the park is enormous: 1,819,454 ha, or about 4.5 million acres. It is a relatively new park and its operation, resource management and the education of the local residents, were still works in progress.
Nikita's presentation later that afternoon entitled ‘An Introduction to Wrangel Island’ served to increase our anticipation of visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Wrangel Island has been a strict nature reserve since 1976. In 1997 a 12 nm wide protected marine area was added around the island and in 1999 a further 24 nm wide buffer zone was added. Altogether the 36 nm wide marine area with the terrestrial part of the Reserve encompasses 57,000 square kilometers of land and sea, connecting ecologically linked zones and preserving an intact ecosystem. The island is very diverse with rivers, mountains, lagoons, lakes, tundra, rocky coasts, sandy beaches and all other arctic landscape elements with the exception of glacial features.
Many things make Wrangel Island unique, among which is the fact that species have been present and evolving uninterrupted there for millions of years because the area was never glaciated. A dwarf mammoth lived there as recently as 3,500 years ago, and there are 417 species of vascular plants. This is two to two-and-a-half times as many as in other comparably sized Arctic areas. That number also includes 23 endemic species, plants that occur on Wrangel and nowhere else in the world. The island is no less unique for its wildlife and boasts the only surviving Snow Goose nesting colony in Asia with an estimated 60,000 nests. It is also an important nesting area for Snowy Owls.
Drinks, dinner and a well-earned night's rest were next on the agenda. Breakfast, we were told, was scheduled for later than usual, giving us time to sleep in and recharge our batteries for tomorrow's adventures.
Photo: © M.Kelly
Day 5: Tuesday, 12 August
To Wrangel Island
Today was spent at sea as we made our way through the Chukchi Sea and across the DeLong Strait. After breakfast Nikita showed the documentary he filmed while living alone and studying polar bears at Cape Blossom on Wrangel Island. ‘Life on the Field of Bones’ gave us a fascinating look at the life and behavior of this marine mammal as it comes ashore to live in an ‘unnatural’ terrestrial habitat during summer when the ice retreats far from land.
Wildlife watching from the bridge yielded the sighting of one male Orca or Killer Whale. The males are identified by their large dorsal fin. In preparation for our visit to Wrangel, Nikita presented his Polar Bear safety talk to instruct us how to conduct ourselves around the animals keeping both them and us safe. He is trying to change the way most of the Arctic regards and reacts to perceived threats from Polar Bears and points out that on Svalbard guns are the ‘safety plan’ of choice. One very telling statistic was that on Wrangel, where there are the most Polar Bear v human encounters in the Arctic, no one carries a gun, no Polar Bear has been killed and no human has died. Conversely in Svalbard everyone carries a gun, many Polar Bears have been killed and several people have died. Nikita's behavioral observations of Polar Bears have revealed that they are very predictable and easily managed by following simple rules which protect both bears and people.
We then viewed a video prepared especially for us by Jennifer Niven, author of ‘The Ice Master’. Jennifer was to have travelled with us on this voyage for the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Karluk, but was unable to join us at the last minute. She recorded her lecture so we could still hear the story of her research and writing of the book and her personal journey from its inception to her own visit to Wrangel Island in 2005.
A briefing was held before dinner for the five ‘Overlanders’ who would be leaving us and living on the island accompanied by Oksana and staff of the Wrangel Island Reserve. They would cross Wrangel Island, staying in the same cabins that the rangers and researchers use and would rejoin us on the ship in three days’ time.
Day 6: Wednesday 13 August
Doubtful, Wrangel Island
We encountered beautiful bright sunshine as we anchored off Doubtful, one of the two main settlements on the southern coastline of Wrangel Island. Here we met up with Wrangel Island rangers Olga and Denis and researcher Irina, who would accompany us during our visits to the Reserve. We also greeted the ‘High Arctic Expeditioners’ who had remained on Wrangel Island from the previous voyage and would now rejoin the ship for the rest of our voyage. They had arrived at Doubtful in the balloon-tired ‘Trekol’ tundra vehicle the night before and had stayed overnight, awaiting our arrival.
There were a number of old houses and one newer building at Doubtful that serve as residences for the researchers and staff who live on the island seasonally or year round, and also for housing visitors. Farther back from the houses and down what constituted the main road were the remnants of a Soviet-era military installation and airstrip from the late 1960’s, with rusting metal buildings and the omnipresent fuel barrels.
People divided up to explore the area with staff from both the ship and Wrangel Island. We headed down the road or up the riverbed and across the tundra in search of wildlife and wildflowers. Irina remarked that over the past several days they had had beautiful warm weather making swimming in the river near her camp delightful. The heat however, had dried out the vegetation and the plants were struggling from the lack of water although many species, such as the Forget-me-nots and Arctic Poppies, were in flower everywhere. Wildlife spotting resulted in a pair of Musk Ox at a distance, many Pomarine Skuas and a Plover with chicks.
The groups made their way back to the landing site along the beach. Offshore, floes of ice slowly drifted by and we scanned them with our binoculars in case a bear or group of walrus were among them. We returned to the ship with the High Arctic Expeditioners and bade farewell to the Overlanders who left us for their three-day island crossing. We tucked into lunch as the ship sailed off in search of a promising stretch of ice for more wildlife viewing.
After lunch most of us were either on deck or on the bridge with binoculars, scanning the bright white ice for signs of life. Both the hot chocolate served on the bow plus a prize offered for the first sighting of a Polar Bear, encouraged everyone to be out looking. It was not long before a group of Walrus was seen piled on an ice floe, so we launched the Zodiacs to see if we could get closer to them. Not only were we able to approach the Walrus without disturbing them, but Meghan spotted the first bear, or rather ‘bears’ as there were five of them, including two-year old cubs. Although they were wary, their curiosity meant we were able to get some excellent photos of the group as they watched us for a good while.
The temperature was dropping and the bears moved on, so we returned to the warmth of the ship and a late dinner. Lindsay and Jess had both been out cruising with us but still managed to provide a tasty meal.
Thursday, 14 August
Komsomol Lake and Ptichy Bazaar
Seas were calm all night as we made our way around Wrangel Island to Komsomol Lake. Right after breakfast and a briefing, our planned excursion was temporarily delayed by a Polar Bear at the landing site. We waited and after a while the bear moved off so the coast was clear for landing.
Down the gangway and into the Zodiacs we filed and motored over to offload in front of a small cabin between the beach and Komsomol Lake that spread out at the base of a foreboding dark line of mountains. The structure was a typical hunter's cabin and had been used by a man who lived there with his family and trapped Arctic Fox along the coast. He also hunted Walrus and seals to eat and to bait the fox traps and was the last person on the island to make the traditional walrus skin boats called ‘Baidaras’. The cabin was exposed to the worst that nature could throw at it from every point of the compass. Nikita showed how sheets of a kind of roofing material were fixed to the outside walls to seal any possible opening that would let in the wind or snow. The windows were shuttered and metal grating or spikes protected other potential points of ingress from inquisitive Polar Bears.
From the cabin we could easily see a female bear with two cubs resting together on the far side of the lake. The three of them remained there almost the entire morning. At the cabin we divided into groups to go exploring. Nikita headed off in one direction to spot wildlife and Laurie set off in another to explore the tundra. Irina, Olga and Denis joined one group or the other. The landscape seemed rather severe and we were told that the area received very little snow in winter. Without a protective layer of snow, the vegetation showed the effects of the extreme exposure; plants were low and scattered, and the tops of the sprawling gnarled trunks of the willows had been worn smooth by wind, sand and ice abrasion.
Offshore we watched a lone Gray Whale feeding and nearby there were three female Eider Ducks with ducklings, as well as a large flock of Long-tailed Ducks. On a distant mountainside we could see two Polar Bears lying in day beds in a large patch of snow. They remained still for a long time, but eventually one of the bears approached the other who then got up and let the approaching bear have its bed. Later the second bear went back up to its original bed and the two switched positions again, ever so politely, it appeared. Nikita said these could have been females or males, as both sexes often pair up and interact very peaceably.
The afternoon was spent in the area of the Sovietskaya River that empties into the East Siberian Sea on this side of Wrangel Island. Rodney led the serious hikers on a long walk and returned with a report that ten Polar Bears were seen at a distance, in addition to an Arctic Fox and several Snowy Owls. Nikita took a shorter route but still covered a lot of ground and tallied about seven bears. Laurie's relaxed hikers went up a nearby ridge and followed it parallel to the beach to a small ranger's cabin that consisted of a tiny metal caravan with a wood addition. Irina opened up the cabin so we could take a look inside. It was very cozy with artwork on the walls, decorative carvings made by various visitors on small shelves and a guest book with notes from people who had stayed there.
It was getting colder as everyone eventually made their way back to the landing site after our long exploration of the area. Donning life jackets we loaded up and were soon back aboard the Spirit of Enderby. A quick cup of tea or a drink at the bar was all we had time for before dinner, which was early so we could get in a Zodiac cruise along the bird cliffs at Ptichy Bazaar as the sun was setting.
At 8pm we set out for the nearby cliffs. The seas had calmed since the early afternoon and the light was perfect for photographing the myriads of Black-legged Kittiwakes, Black Guillemots, Horned Puffins and Pelagic Cormorants nesting or sitting on every available ledge or crevice on the rock face. Huge stranded icebergs and smaller floating blocks of ice provided additional perches. As the sun sank lower and lower, more and more birds gathered in the sky and on the sea. Large rafts of Black Guillemots undulated with the waves and the birds would stream away at our careful approach, but then turn back and swim towards us as their curiosity overrode their caution. As we were heading back to the ship, a three-quarter moon shone over Wrangel Island, while a glowing orange sun sank offshore, a serene close to a very full day.
Photo: © M.Kelly
Day 7: Friday, 15 August
Dreamhead, Wrangel Island
There was a layer of fog resting on the top of Little Dreamhead Mountain on the coast this morning. It did not seem to lift at all during breakfast, but at least it was not settling lower and visibility was still good. Rodney briefed us at 8:15am about our planned outing for that morning and we were soon in the Zodiacs and driving along the shore. However, we all know what is said about ‘the best laid plans...’ and we could not have planned for a better morning that was nothing like what had been planned! We first had an excellent view of a mother and two-year old Polar Bear cub on the shore that sat and watched us with as much interest it seemed, as we sat and watched them. After they became sufficiently bored with us and moved back behind the beach crest, we continued farther down along the coast and spotted a lone Reindeer. There are very few Reindeer on Wrangel Island so it is unusual to see them. This individual sported a huge spread of antlers from which the velvet was still hanging in long shreds. He would alternatively trot a short distance or graze a bit and then stand and stare at us staring at him.
We quietly landed the Zodiacs and got out on the beach with instructions to keep just our heads above the beach crest to watch and photograph the deer. We stayed low and remained quiet and got some very nice photos of the animal out in the tundra. While we were observing the reindeer, a Polar Bear was seen far down the beach and walking our way. It was likely the bear would come much nearer so we closed ranks and squatted down on the sand above the beach and kept very quiet. The bear, a big beautiful female, came closer and closer without noticing us. Finally, she stopped and smelled the air and you could see that she was thinking as she caught our scent. Then it must have registered that this smell was something to avoid and she turned around and loped away, but not before we all had had the thrill of our lives being so close to this iconic mammal of the north.
At Dreamhead we welcomed aboard the Overlanders who had been driving across the island and enjoying the spectacular landscape for the past three days in beautiful weather. Denise mentioned that one of the most interesting aspects of the overland trip for her was staying in the cabins and experiencing how the rangers lived while they patrolled and worked in the Reserve. The new houses that were being built seemingly everywhere were much less attractive and seemed out of place. At lunchtime the inbound and next outbound group of Overlanders exchanged places; we would meet up with the newest five Overlanders in three days' time on the southern coast, at Doubtful.
We celebrated Margaret's birthday today at lunch with a beautiful chocolate and caramel cake prepared by Jess. With a small gift from the staff and a hearty rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ from everyone, Margaret took a deep breath and blew out the single candle after making a wish and we all shared some of the cake with her.
In the afternoon Nikita presented his lecture on the future of Polar Bears by prefacing it with some background on the species' innate intelligence and adaptability. Bears survive extreme environmental changes regularly in their lives by changing feeding and social behaviors with the seasons. The species evolved over tens of thousands of years of past climatic events, including warm periods, and adapted and survived. The present warming trends, however, confront them with the additional pressures of human impacts such as pollution, hunting, disturbance and increased contact in shrinking areas of habitat in which the bear is usually the loser. From over 300 maternity dens on Wrangel and Herald Islands in past winters, only 30 dens were recorded recently. Fewer and fewer cubs survive and adults regularly appear in underfed, stressed conditions. If sustained and serious protection measures are not implemented, the Polar Bear will likely disappear within 20 to 25 years — just one bear generation.
By late afternoon we arrived at Nakhotka Island, a small flat piece of land that is an extension of the northern Tundra of the Academy of Sciences on the mainland. The rough seas, poor visibility and very difficult landing conditions did not allow for a visit, so we continued on towards Herald Island.
That evening Rodney, Laurie and Nikita recapped some topics related to our latest experiences. Rodney summarized our progress so far on Wrangel Island. Then, because we had recently seen some of the last ice of summer, Laurie explained the ecological role sea ice plays in supporting the base of a marine food chain that culminates in whales and Polar Bears and the repercussions when there is no longer this foundation — literally and figuratively — in the Arctic Ocean. Nikita followed with some history of the Reindeer on Wrangel, which were introduced to the island in 1948 and again in 1952. Our lone Reindeer sighting earlier in the day was rare these days, but back in 2004 there were about 8,000 Reindeer on the island. However, a series of winters with warm spells caused ice to form on the tundra vegetation that killed thousands of animals, but it was not because the deer could not get at the food. The Reindeer could easily get to the frozen grasses and lichens, but the amount of ice that they ingested along with the food affected the bacteria in their stomachs and prevented digestion. The deer would actually starve with their stomachs full. Thousands of Reindeer were lost and the herd is only now slowly recovering.
Photo: © M.Kelly
Photo: © M.Kelly
Day 8: Saturday, 16 August
Morning dawned cold, windy and foggy, with the thermometer reading a chilly 5 degrees C. The ship had reached Herald Island during the night and we were anchored offshore trying for a little protection from the strong easterly wind. Right after breakfast we had a briefing from Rodney about Herald Island and our morning's plan: Zodiac cruising along the shore with a possible landing on one of the tiny beaches.
Captain Kellett discovered the island in 1849 and named it after his ship the Herald. There is a vivid account of one expedition with a Herald Island connection by Jennifer Niven in her book ‘The Ice Master’. The ship Karluk was crushed in the ice and sank 50 miles north of Herald a hundred years ago on 11 January 1914. Four of the crew decided to leave the ship and came to Herald, thinking that it was Wrangel Island and were never seen alive again. Twenty years later a vessel found the remains of a camp on a small beach on Herald Island and a newspaper article reported their findings. The campsite artifacts included bones, pemmican, snow goggles and a belt buckle. There was also ammunition and a 30-30 Winchester rifle with the initials ‘BM’ carved in the wood.
The other story related to us with a Herald Island connection (and much more positive outcome) was Nikita's narrative of his time spent on Wrangel with his wife Irina, studying Polar Bears in the early 1990s. Herald Island is what remains of the western wall of ancient Herald Canyon that ran along the eastern side of Wrangel and Herald islands. Polar Bears hunt on the surrounding ice and females come to the island to den. During their stays on Herald Island, Nikita and Irina recorded the greatest concentration of Polar Bear dens ever found in the world at 12 dens per square kilometre. The island is ideal for maternity dens with its steep cliffs and terraced top with good snow accumulation — perfect places to bed down for the winter. Presently however, due to the warming climate and shrinking ice, few females den on Herald because by autumn, when they would normally come ashore, the ice has retreated too far from land for them to conveniently reach it. Herald Island is also far enough from most shipping routes so few people ever reach it either, so we were fortunate to be among those able to do so.
The wind strength and direction would not permit a circumnavigation of Herald, but we traveled the length of its rugged western coast. Dense fog laid like a blanket over the top of the island, but the visibility at sea level and almost to the top of the rock wall was clear. The island is a sheer cliff face, a wedge of solid granite pointed into the northwest wind with a spine of rock wedges and pinnacles that make it look like the backbone of some scaly reptilian monster from an ancient epoch. One person asked if the bears were able to even access the island up its steep sides. The bears themselves answered that question as we soon saw one, and then several others, high up the seemingly inaccessible cliffs.
As we approached a headland we spotted about a dozen Walrus heads bobbing in the waves that could mean there was a rookery nearby. Taking precautions not to frighten the animals, we turned the Zodiacs out to sea and gave the gathering a wide berth. When we rounded the promontory we could see a small haul-out of Walrus on one of the tiny gravel beaches. We motored by slowly and made a brief landing on to a small beach so we could say we actually stood on Herald Island. After extensive photo documentation of our momentous landing we continued on to where the geologic formations along the shore provided footholds for nesting puffins, guillemots and gulls in various nooks and crannies, or a long ledge which ran the length of each fault. Then it was back to ship, lunch and Meryl's birthday celebration with another elegant cake by Jess.
We headed towards Dragi Bay and Cape Waring on Wrangel Island in the afternoon, but the wind and the waves never abated so we could not make a landing. To get some relief from the constant rocking, it was decided to return to Herald for some lee and a comfortable evening. We enjoyed a couple films during the afternoon, one of which was Jennifer Niven’s narration of her book ‘Ada Blackjack’ and a documentary called ‘Blackfish’ about Orcas in captivity. We were grateful for the calm in the lee of Herald Island after a rough day at sea and turned in hoping for better conditions for our return to Wrangel early the next morning.
Photo: © M.Kelly
Day 9: Sunday, 17 August
Doubtful, Wrangel Island
The Spirit of Enderby left the protective anchorage off Herald Island in the wee hours of the morning and crossed over to Wrangel to see if it was possible to land at Dragi Bay. Unfortunately the wind and weather conditions had not changed so Rodney decided the better plan was to move westward to Doubtful. There we would pick up the second group of Overlanders and drop off the Wrangel Island staff who had accompanied us on our visit to the Reserve.
During the morning the Reserve rangers Olga and Denis gave presentations on their work and research on the island. Later Irina gave an introduction to the biology and behavior of Snowy Owls, a species she has been studying over the past 30 years. There was also a short video of the nesting owls and their interactions with Arctic Foxes, Snow Geese and Eider Ducks which was very interesting. We reached Doubtful by lunchtime and people and their gear were transferred on and off the ship via a couple Zodiacs. Once the latest five Overlanders were back aboard, the ship had a full complement of passengers for the first time on our voyage. Our next destination was south across the Delong Strait and with both engines engaged, we started out for our next stop at Kolyuchin Island.
Once we had been sailing for a while Meghan announced the opportunity for some retail therapy. The Sea Shop was opened in the port side dining room and one could choose from an assortment of clothing, postcards, books, pins, maps and other items from the ship's stores as well as handicrafts from Chukotka. A History Channel documentary on the Karluk was screened in the lecture room following the shopping spree.
The social hour in the bar before dinner was very animated, with the Overlanders sharing stories of their experiences over drinks and snacks. Dinner was eventually announced and we dutifully filed down to the dining rooms for another delicious meal. The seas were calmer this evening, which made for more comfortable cruising and a good night's rest.
Day 10: Monday, 18 August
Belaka Spit and Kolyuchin Island
After breakfast Oksana presented her research comparing the towns of Lorino and Sireniki with respect to their histories, ethnic composition, language use, celebrated events, hunting organizations and other cultural aspects. The population of Lorino is about 1,300 people, mostly Reindeer and Maritime Chukchi. The settlement of Sireniki is one of the oldest in the region, having been occupied for an estimated 2,000 years. Today the population numbers about 500 Yupik, Reindeer Chuckchi and ethnic Russians.
Oksana conducted her research with interviews, questionnaires, literature reviews and her own observations to discover why there were such marked differences between the communities. Lorino for example, celebrated many events including ‘Whale Day’, a ‘Nadezhda’ dog sled competition and a ‘Beringia’ skin boat race. There were also strong differences in the membership, organization and administration of marine mammal hunting associations, with Lorino also showing more skilled leadership in this area. Her conclusions were that the differences were due to the presence or absence of local leadership, the settlements’ cultural histories and demographic compositions, consequences of Soviet State relocations and the geography of each settlement having to do with the harbour and ice conditions.
Before lunchtime we were in Kolyuchin Inlet and headed for Kosa Belaka (Belaka Spit). Rodney briefed us on our outing: Adolf Erik Nordenskiold was here first on 28 September 1878, although the area had been known about and used by the indigenous Chukchi for centuries. The lighthouse back from the beach was erected in the 1950s, and there was also a large cross on the spit. The original marker had been established for a sailor from a 1911-1914 expedition and in 1942/43 a larger cross was erected to memorialize ships of the Northern Sea Route. A small cabin nearby was used by researchers during the summer season.
We landed on Belaka Spit and wandered off in small groups for a relaxing afternoon just enjoying the landscape, exploring the lake edge, examining the tiny plants at our feet and bird watching. A large flock of Black-legged Kittiwakes was bathing in the lake and three species of divers (also know as ‘loons’) — Black-throated, Pacific and a White-billed with a chick — were cruising off to one side. Standing and preening on shore we saw a pair of White-fronted Geese. Along the beach we came across numerous large and small Wolverine tracks which indicated there was probably a family group in the area. The prints were very fresh. The beach sand around each track was damp, but the imprints themselves were dry because the sand had been disturbed. The animals had probably been there several hours prior to our landing so we hoped to be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one. After trekking across the spit for a couple of hours we gathered at the landing site to shuttle back to the ship for a late lunch, unfortunately without a Wolverine sighting. The ship came about and we headed off towards Kolyuchin Island.
Later in the day when we reached Kolyuchin Island, Nikita and Laurie were dropped ashore to check out the abandoned buildings on the top of the island and make sure there were no Polar Bears sleeping inside. We received the all clear message and boarded the Zodiacs for a quick shuttle to shore and a short climb up the slope to the site of an abandoned meteorological station that was closed in 1992. The birding and photographic opportunities were exceptional from up top, as one could look down and across at the guillemots, cormorants, gulls and puffins perched up and down the rocky ledges. We spent a couple hours exploring the site and enjoying the views of the distant coasts and mountains under a layer of clouds through which the sun would occasionally gleam far off on the horizon.
While we explored up top, Rodney and Kostya reconnoitered the shoreline to check for Walrus. They found a large group of animals piled on a narrow beach and called everyone to the landing where we boarded the Zodiacs so we could approach and observe them from the sea. We had to keep our distance from the haul-out, but could still see them clearly from the boats. We estimated there to be about 800 animals in the larger rookery and a smaller group nearby. When added to the numbers in the water we decided there could be as many as one-thousand individuals in total.
We observed the Walrus for a long time, but when the fog began moving in and the temperature started dropping we slowly and carefully withdrew from the group and made our way back towards the ship which had disappeared in the fog. She was finally sighted and we aimed for her dark hull in the grey mist. After a late dinner we were off to our cabins with the welcome news that we could enjoy an extra hour of sleep with breakfast scheduled for 8:30am the following morning.
Day 11: Tuesday, 19 August
Overnight we continued southwards towards the small Arctic town of Uelen where we anchored early in the morning. We watched the first of a two-part film called ‘Inuit Odyssey’ provided by Oksana about the Inuit people, their history, migrations and culture. Before, during and after the presentation we had magnificent views of an estimated 20 Humpback and about 10 Gray Whales that were spouting and diving all around the ship. The Gray Whales were feeding close to the shore with the Humpbacks farther out. After two or three breaths a ‘Humpy’ would arch its back, showing the characteristic dorsal fin and then raise its tail flukes high as it dived down towards the sea floor. At times two individuals who were close to one another on the surface would dive together, which may have been by coincidence, or perhaps by mutual agreement.
Rodney and Julia ran into shore to complete the formalities for our visit with the local border guards. The town of Uelen was spread out along a long spit with brightly coloured buildings lining the one main street. With permission granted for the group to come ashore, we filled the Zodiacs and arrived at the beach to a welcome by a few of the local children and adults. A larger concentration of people however, was gathered further down the beach around the carcass of a small whale.
The young Gray Whale had been killed as part of a quota that each settlement is allocated for local consumption and had been dragged onto the sand by a tractor. The skin and fat were being flensed from the carcass and the meat divided among the people who carried away their shares in five-gallon buckets. Thick pads of blubber were being tossed into the sea and we asked why this was being thrown away. Oksana explained that the choicest part of the whale was the skin with a thin layer of fat attached. The excess was cut from the skin and thrown away because it took a lot of time and fuel to melt and process the fat and people no longer had much use for whale oil.
We divided into two groups and took turns visiting the Walrus ivory carving museum and workshop and the local school. Later we gathered on the shore for a performance by the local traditional dance group. It was great to see all age groups participating, from kids to grandmothers and some of our group even joined in at the conclusion of the performances. The performance included a welcome dance and stories of seal hunting, Arctic Ground Squirrels and telephone calls. Chef Lindsay provided an encore with a traditional New Zealand Maori dance. Even with Oksana prefacing Lindsay’s performance with an explanation, the startled looks on the children’s faces showed they had not been prepared for such an exuberant recital!
Back on board and up in the bar we enjoyed sharing our impressions and thoughts about the events of the day over drinks. Oksana was on hand to answer the many questions we had about the town, the dances and the whale hunt. It was soon time for dinner that concluded with yet another scrumptious dessert, this time Panna Cotta with passionflower sauce. We had been resolved to skip a dessert every once in while, but once again the temptation was too great and our good intentions were left for the next meal.
Photo: © M.Kelly
Photo: © M.Kelly
Day 12: Wednesday, 20 August
Provideniya and Southward
For the Overlanders who may have missed Jennifer Niven’s recorded presentation of ‘The Story of Ada Blackjack’, it was shown again in the lecture room. It was interesting hearing her tell the tale of this remarkable woman who survived alone on Wrangel Island in the early 1920s. Laurie’s lecture entitled ‘Arctic Plant Adaptations’ followed the film and we learned how Arctic plant species managed to survive the harsh environmental conditions of low temperature, light and rainfall, a short growing season and strong winds. Arctic plants have to be adapted to survive not only long, cold winters, but they also have to have ‘freezing resistance’ that allows them to withstand periodic extreme weather conditions during times of the year when they are actively growing. The lack of this ability has prevented about 75% of the world’s 400,000 or so vascular plant species from being able to survive in the Arctic. Some interesting plant adaptations we learned about included the ‘cushion’ growth form that could be several degrees warmer than the surrounding air, large tap roots where up to 95% of a plant’s biomass might be stored safely underground and hairs covering leaves, stems and even flowers and fruit that served to trap air, insulate the plant’s tissues and increase its temperature to speed growth.
After a short break, Nikita presented his talk on Walrus. The Latin name for the species is Odobenus rosmarus, which translates as ‘tooth-walking sea horse’. From a 1990 census, there were an estimated 225,000 Walrus in the world, divided into three subspecies: the Atlantic, Laptev and Pacific Walruses. The Pacific Walrus comprise about 90% of the world’s Walrus population, with the percentages of the Atlantic and Laptev subspecies comprising 8% and 2% respectively. There is very pronounced sexual dimorphism in the species, with males about 50% heavier than females and weighing up to two tons. Walrus are mainly bottom feeders, but they do not use their tusks to dig in the sea floor as previously thought. They feed on mollusks in waters from 2 to 70 m deep by scooping up mounds of mud with their front flippers and then finding the animals with their whiskers and sucking it out of its shell with their strong thick lips. They are also known to prey on seals. Walrus prefer to stay in small groups on the ice which reduces social pressures and also distributes them more evenly among their food resources. Most only haul-out on land when the ice has disappeared, but Atlantic Walrus, having not been hunted for a long time, haul-out on land even when ice is still accessible to them. On land Walrus are more exposed to predation by Polar Bears and more susceptible to disturbance by humans. We are careful around rookeries because they can spontaneously panic for little or no reason, but once settled on land, the animals usually become less nervous and stampeding them (which can crush and kill individuals) is less likely.
Just before lunch we paused briefly in beautiful Provideniya Bay to disembark our guide Oksana, who lives in the town of Provideniya and two passengers who were returning to Nome from the city. Provideniya Bay is bordered by dramatic mountainscapes making it very picturesque with the city itself nestled in a small area between two of the peaks. With thanks and good wishes to Oksana and our two travelling companions we bade farewell and continued south.
After lunch the second part of the documentary about Inuit history and culture entitled ‘Code Breakers’ was screened in the lecture room. The rest of the afternoon was spent catching up on sleep, reading, writing up notes, or enjoying the mild weather and sea conditions on deck as we continued south.
Photo: © M.Kelly
Day 13: Thursday, 21 August
Most of us were only half awake when we heard Meghan’s morning announcement which made us look at our watches and realize it was only 5:45am. Then we remembered Rodney had mentioned a pre-breakfast Zodiac cruise the evening before. After a quick cup of coffee and a croissant, we were down the gangway, into the boats and off to the bird cliffs.
The tops of the cliffs of Preobrazheniya Bay are jagged with sculpted crags and spires, some tall enough to pierce the low layer of grey fog hanging just above the summit. Large, long swells rolled under the boats and into the vertical walls or stacked boulders at the cliff base. We saw three species of guillemots, as well as many recently fledged chicks out for their first swim. The Black-legged Kittiwake and the Glaucous Gulls had nearly full-grown young and we also saw at least two species of auklet, the Parakeet and Crested. The Crested Auklets gathered in large flocks that soared and wheeled synchronously in the sky, putting on quite a show and also congregating on the water. We also ticked off two new species for the trip, on this our last outing. Meghan spotted a small group of Harlequin Ducks and Laurie’s group saw a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers in a lagoon behind a boat landing they explored onshore. After the cruise along the bird cliffs we returned to the ship and flocked to the dining rooms for a most welcome hot breakfast. Most of the morning was spent wrapping up some items of business, returning gumboots and lifejackets, settling accounts and packing.
In the late afternoon we were called to a disembarkation briefing in the lecture room. Rodney outlined the plan for the following day which, although fairly involved, looked like it should work in getting us and our luggage to where we needed to be at the right time for our flights to Moscow and Nome. He then extended his heartfelt thanks to all for their curiosity, enthusiasm and sense of adventure that made the expedition possible. Rodney also thanked the ship's captain, officers and crew for their patience and flexibility.
Special thanks were also extended to Meghan and Evgeniya, chefs Lindsay and Jess and guides Yulia, Laurie, Nikita (and Oksana, in absentia) for all their hard work during the voyage. Dr Leo was also heartily thanked by passengers and staff for his kindness and care to all during our voyage. Meghan then presented a lovely compilation of photos of people and places and wildlife as a visual record of our voyage that was made available to everyone.
Formalities completed, it was time for drinks in the bar and the farewell dinner. Jess, Lindsay and the staff had gone all out to make our last dinner aboard special. They had laid out an impressive spread for us to devour including delicious seafood, salads, side dishes, roasts, fresh salmon, cold cuts and all kinds of relishes. Dessert was a mouth watering ‘pavlova’. We all ate too much, but with such enticements it was difficult to pass up a bite of this or another small portion of that. Conversations with our companions and new-found friends continued well after dinner at the tables and up in the lounge until sleep, or the necessity to finish packing for tomorrow's departure, forced a retreat to our cabins.
Day 14: Friday, 22 August
We arose to an early call to finish any last minute luggage preparations and fortify ourselves at the breakfast buffet for what would be a long travel day for most of us. Our pilot had come onboard at 5am so we needed to keep clear of the bridge, but from the deck we could observe the morning’s activities and the wildlife in Anadyrskiy Bay.
With our bags outside our cabins for collection, we waited for the barges that would take us to the shore at our designated departure times. It was a little sad knowing our expedition was at an end, but our photos, experiences and memories would always be with us as reminders of our time on Wrangel Island and in this unique area of the Arctic, perhaps encouraging us to visit again.
Photo: © M.Kelly
Photo: © M.Kelly
Photo: © M.Kelly
Day 1: Friday, 25 July
Most of us arrived in one of two main groups, one flying in from Moscow and the other coming from Nome, Alaska, to the city of Anadyr in the Russian Far East. The airport is located away from the town, across Anadyrskiy Bay, so a barge took us and our luggage to town and the ship, respectively. We had a few hours before boarding the ship and used the time to explore Anadyr, looking into shops, the museum, cafes and admiring the beautiful wooden church above the bay. In the late afternoon the barge again collected us and we motored out to our home base for the next two weeks' explorations and discoveries: the ‘Professor Khromov’, operating as ‘The Spirit of Enderby’, which lay at anchor some distance offshore and awaited our arrival.
Once everyone was finally aboard, we gathered in the ship's lecture room for greetings and staff introductions. Our Expedition Leader, Rodney Russ, first introduced the chefs Bruce and Lindsay, then guides Laurie, Yulia and Nikita, our Assistant Expedition Leader Evgeniya, Cruise Director Meghan, and Samuel and Agnes, the guides accompanying a group from France. Rodney then gave us a brief introduction to the ship and its operation and afterwards we went up two decks to the lounge for drinks and to meet our traveling companions before going to the Dining Room for a late dinner. It had been a long day and most of us retired early, leaving much of the unpacking and cabin-organizing for later as the ship moved out of the bay and headed north through the waters of the Russian Far East.
Day 2: Saturday, 26 July
We woke to gently rolling seas this morning and Meghan's greeting on the intercom as the ship approached Preobrazheniya Bay, close to the settlement of Nunilan, about 200nm from Anadyr. Breakfast was scheduled for 8:30am, allowing us a little extra sleep after our previous long travel day. Before lunch Rodney presented an overview of the expedition in the lecture room, and explained what we could expect, which, as an expedition, included the unexpected. The latest information received indicated that Wrangel Island was surrounded in ice except for the southern shore, which presently had open water. The ice conditions were changing rapidly however and conditions could improve by the time of our anticipated arrival.
We anchored in the shelter of Preobrazheniya Bay after lunch and gathered in the lecture room for the mandatory safety and Zodiac briefing. Rodney went over the lifeboat drill that was to be held a bit later in the afternoon and covered the basics of Zodiac etiquette, how to board and exit safely under different conditions. Later, at the scheduled time for the lifeboat drill and at the sound of the ship's horn, we all donned lifejackets and proceeded to our assigned muster stations to climb into the lifeboats to get a feel for the whole procedure. It was a good exercise for all of us to be prepared for any emergency.
Photo credit: A.Breniere
Day 3: Sunday, 27 July
Yttygran Island and Gilmymyl Hot Springs
After an early breakfast buffet at 7:30 am, we met in the lecture room where Rodney briefed us on our planned itinerary for the day. Pea soup-thick fog would limit whale-watching opportunities, but it was smooth sailing all the way to Yttygran Island to explore. We suited up for the short Zodiac ride to shore and were soon exploring the site.
‘Whale Bone Alley’ on Yttygran Island is an ancient ceremonial and hunting site that was given its nickname from the rows of paired whale jaw bones that form a kind of alley way back from the shore. Most of the tall jaw bones have fallen down but a few were still standing, anchored in the permafrost and wedged in with stones, giving an idea of what it must have looked like formerly. There were also a number of whale skull bones lined up at the top of the beach crest and behind two of these, as well as elsewhere around the site, was a stone-lined pit partially filled with soil and hidden by tall grasses. In one corner of the pit if you carefully bend the grasses aside the precisely stacked stones that still form a solid wall are revealed. One archaeological investigation of the area discovered whale DNA in the pits and it is thought that they were used to store meat.
Tucked in among the lush grasses that blanketed the area behind the beach were Bluebells and Monks' Hood flowers, both in beautiful rich shades of blue. Rising up from the grassy area was a long, smooth expanse of tundra reaching up to a saddle between two low peaks. Part of the lower area was a jumble of rocks and boulders that served as great habitat for shy Pikas (rabbit relatives) that could best be seen by patient observers willing to sit quietly in one spot for a time. We found bear scat on the beach, leaving no doubt that bears had been in the area, and a dead Walrus that was missing just its head, an indication that the animal had been killed for its ivory tusks and not hunted for food.
In the afternoon we visited the nearby area of Gilmymyl. At the landing site we met Ivan, a local Chukchi who spends his summers catching and drying salmon. He graciously showed us to his house where we were able to photograph his pet Arctic Ground Squirrel that scampered and scurried about under our feet. Ivan told us that a Red Fox had a den and some kits under one of the out-buildings, so some people went off to see if they could spot them. We first heard and then saw several Sandhill Cranes winging their way across the tundra and a pair landed in a lagoon near the beach. A Peregrine Falcon was also spotted hunting along the river.
One group explored the tundra flora, excited by the wide variety of plants including Dwarf Birches and willows and a broad patch of Cloudberries that were not yet quite ripe. Another group headed off through the tundra and along the river, intent on some hot-tubbing opportunities. Gilmymyl features an area of hot springs where a rustic wooden soaking tub has been built to collect the warm waters.
In the bar that evening Samuel went over the wildlife and birds we had seen that day, and Laurie provided some information on the tundra vegetation. Rodney briefly outlined the plan for Cape Dezhnev the following day, 119 nm away, then it was off to dinner and bed for most.
Day 4: Monday, 28 July
Cape Dezhnev and Uelen Village
An early breakfast was scheduled as we arrived at Cape Dezhnev. It had been smooth sailing all through the night and we woke to a foggy morning. After fortifying ourselves from the breakfast buffet, we met in the lecture room where Rodney provided an introduction to the former village of Naukan located on the Cape. The site had been occupied for at least 2,000 years when in 1957, the residents of Naukan were relocated to other settlements by the Soviet government.
From the easternmost shore on the Eurasian continent where we landed, it was a steep climb to the start of the trail that ran alongside a rocky stream and up to the former settlement. At the top were the scattered stone foundations of numerous dwellings. The more modern ones had collapsed wooden roof beams and the older foundations still had huge whalebone rafters spanning the width of the roofs. It looked as if people had left in a hurry as many rusting tubs, pots and kettles remained scattered over the site. The modern wooden buildings there that had been formerly used by government officials were in every state of collapse, some barely clinging to the edge of the cliff.
Whale jaw bones still stood upright in a few places along the cliff edge. Old photos of the site showed skin boats upturned over the pillars to keep them off the ground. From the sea, the tall whale bones would also have served as markers for landing spots. The whole place did not seem to be the most convenient location for a settlement; perched high on a cliff; boats likely had to be pulled up some distance because they could not have been stored safely on the narrow beach. Moreover, the dwellings must have been fully exposed to the elements. The exposure however, gave the inhabitants a 180 degree + view of the Bering Strait, so for a community dependent upon whale hunting for subsistence, the location was ideal.
There was a monument to Dezhnev at the site and some graves farther up a slope. An Arctic Ground Squirrel posed on some rocks in the ravine running through the middle of the area and several of us got at least some long-distance photos. We also spotted large flocks of Eider Ducks flying south, which we were told portended an early autumn.
We left Cape Dezhnev later that morning for our next stop, the village of Uelen that lay farther along the coast. Some whales were spotted en route and while we waited offshore Uelen for clearance from the Border Guards, a Humpback Whale surfaced near one of the waiting Zodiacs then lazily submerged. It surfaced and blew a few more times while we waited.
When permission was granted, the Zodiacs dropped us all ashore and we divided into groups to visit the museum and school. Later we all gathered at the beach and with our ship and a couple of Gray Whales surfacing in the background, the local traditional dance group performed for us. It was great to see all age groups participating, from kids to grandmothers, and we even joined in at the conclusion of the performance.
Back aboard and after dinner, the final event of the day was our crossing of the Arctic Circle at 9:10 pm, 66 degrees 33 minutes north latitude. Now we really were in the Arctic.
Day 5: Tuesday, 29 July
A bright sun glared off the sea to starboard this morning as the Spirit of Enderby made a slow approach to Kolyuchin Island. The blue skies were a great start to what promised to be an interesting day. After breakfast and an introduction to the island, Rodney and Nikita went ashore to make sure there were no Polar Bears about and also to check inside the old buildings scattered around the top of the island. Apparently on warm sunny days such as today, the bears can often be found keeping cool indoors.
We received the all clear message and boarded the Zodiacs for a quick shuttle to shore and a short climb up to the site of an abandoned meteorological station which was closed down in the 1992. The birding and photographic opportunities were outstanding from up top, as one could look down and across at the guillemots, cormorants, gulls, and puffins perched up and down the rocky ledges. We spent a couple of hours exploring the site and enjoying the expansive views of the distant shores and then headed back to the ship for lunch. While on the island a few locals arrived from Nutepelmen village on the mainland and joined our group for lunch. We had spotted a group of walrus hauled out on the island earlier and the plan for the afternoon was to approach and observe them from the beach with some advice from our visitors.
Rodney explained the walrus watching guidelines right after lunch and we shuttled to shore and remained in a quiet group to approach them slowly. There were an estimated two hundred or so individuals sunbathing on the rocky beach, with another dozen swimming offshore trying to find an opening in the mass of piled pink bodies to climb aboard too. To keep cool in the warm air, walrus increase the blood supply to their skin, giving them a pink tinge. They lay on their backs or sides with tusks jutting out in every direction, occasionally waving a floppy tail flipper or jabbing at a neighbor who disturbed them.
On the beach there were large clumps of a silver-haired, yellow-flowered daisy scattered everywhere, with the occasional low spreading oyster plant complete with lovely blue-grey leaves and tiny blue flowers interspersed among bright green clumps of scurvy grass. Hopping about the rocks and shore of the small lagoons were a few white wagtails. It was a bit surprising to find a campsite there with a large cabin and a smaller building, but we found out that these are used by locals when out fishing or hunting, as well as by some scientists who study walrus on the island.
Later in the afternoon Megan announced the opportunity for some retail therapy and opened the Sea Shop in the port side dining room where one could pick from a nice assortment of clothing, postcards, books etc.
Another great dinner created by Lindsay and Bruce featured rack of lamb and other delicacies. Most of us headed off to our bunks shortly after dessert, as the ship continued further north, across the Delong Strait to Wrangel Island.
Day 6: Wednesday 30 July
We continued to enjoy fairly calm seas as we crossed the strait during the night and it stayed that way throughout the day. Following a late breakfast, Nikita's presentation, ‘An Introduction to Wrangel Island’, served to increase our anticipation of visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Wrangel Island has been a strictly controlled nature reserve since 1976. In 1997 a 12nm wide protected marine area was added around the island and in 1999 a further 24nm wide buffer zone was attached. Altogether, the 36nm wide marine area and the terrestrial reserve encompass 57,000 square kilometres of land and sea, connecting ecologically important zones to preserve an intact ecosystem. The island is very diverse, having rivers, mountains, lagoons, tundra, coasts plus all the other Arctic landscape elements with the exception of glacial features.
Many things make Wrangel Island unique, among which is the fact that species have been present and evolving uninterrupted for millions of years because the area was never glaciated. A dwarf mammoth was living there as recently as 3,500 years ago and there are 417 species of vascular plants, over twice as many as in other comparable Arctic areas. That number includes 23 endemic species or plants that occur on Wrangel and nowhere else in the world. Wrangel is no less unique for wildlife. The island boasts, albeit sadly, the only surviving snow goose nesting colony in Asia with an estimated 60,000 nests. Wrangel Island is also an important nesting area for Snowy Owls.
Nikita's lecture was followed by Samuel's talk on ‘Vitus Bering and the Exploration of the North Pacific’. Bering's second Kamchatka or ‘Great Northern Expedition’ was the largest and most ambitious expedition to sail in the 18th and 19th centuries. Ten thousand people were on the expedition that had cost an estimated 34 billion euros at the actual exchange rate of that time.
After lunch we made good time towards Wrangel until mid-afternoon when we started moving into broken floes of multi-year ice that slowed our speed. Watching from the bow and bridge, people spotted several small groups of walrus huddled on ice floes and four polar bears including a female with a cub.
For two hours we wound our way around and through the ice until finally the distant mountain peaks of Wrangel Island were just visible in the distance. The going was slow and got even slower as the ice that had been on the southeastern side of Wrangel had moved west along the southern coast and now blocked our path to Doubtful Bay. After receiving ice updates late in the afternoon, the decision was made to back out and try another route westward where we hoped to find open water.
The outside temperature was dropping but people still remained on deck watching for walrus, seals, birds or polar bears until the call for dinner provided an honorable retreat from the cold. We moved inside to the warmth of the dining room and the enticing smells of the hot meal Bruce and Lindsay had prepared for us – crispy pork loin or a delicious blue cod with capers and garlic on rice.
After dinner a late briefing was held to update everyone on our plans. A series of ice charts over the last several days clearly showed the ice movement. This revealed that our best bet would be to continue west along the southern shore of Wrangel and hopefully find a path to shore near Mt. Thomas on the southwestern side of the island. Outside a sinking sun sparkling off the ice made for some great photographic opportunities. This was soon to be repeated however as it rose after only 29 minutes of ‘night’. We truly were in the far north!
Day 7: Thursday, 31 July
Cape Thomas and Cape Blossom
Morning found us off Cape Thomas with the ice just visible on the horizon to the south. We repositioned before breakfast in preparation for a Zodiac cruise along the ice edge a little later and a bit closer to Cape Blossom, the westernmost point on Wrangel Island. The rangers who work at the reserve were to meet us at our planned first stop at Doubtful and were now driving to rendezvous at our new position.
After breakfast all five Zodiacs were filled with eager expeditioners and we motored off in a group to cruise along the ice edge looking for wildlife. The sun was bright in the sky and we were not disappointed with our discoveries. Some people went on a brief walkabout to explore one solid expanse of ice on foot. In one area we spotted a Gray Whale that took a few breaths at the surface before diving and was never seen again. Then close by a single Bearded Seal popped its head up out of the water, looked at us once, snorted and disappeared.
Almost everyone had a close look at a number of Red Phalaropes that paddled about in the openings between the ice and farther along we came upon a group of about a dozen walrus resting on a small island of ice. We approached cautiously from several angles, trying to keep the wind in our faces and were able to watch them as they jostled for a better position or shifted around when another shoved a large rear flipper in their faces. Among the group was a young walrus with tiny tusks that was snuggled up to another that we assumed was its mother. Somehow an individual at the bottom of the heap managed to get a flipper free and reached around to lazily scratch itself, or perhaps a lucky neighbor.
From the walrus ice floe we cruised a bit more along the ice before turning about and heading along the shore in the direction of the ship. Flying in the opposite direction, a Yellow-billed Loon gave us only a quick glimpse, but ahead along the beach Rodney radioed that he had spotted a Polar Bear “just behind the spouting Gray Whale” and we motored in its direction. The bear walked a little way down the beach but then went in the water and began swimming. Nikita thought it might be trying to reach the ice and after observing for a while, we left him to go in the direction of his choice and headed for the ship and lunch. According to our latest information there had been no reports of Polar Bears on Wrangel so far this season so this bear was likely the first to come ashore.
A mandatory safety briefing for visiting the reserve was held in the lecture room after lunch and we learned how to conduct ourselves to be respectful of wildlife, keeping both them and us safe. Then it was back in the Zodiacs for a landing at Cape Thomas. The tundra was beautiful with Mount Thomas rising over 500m from the northern coast and flowers in bloom everywhere: poppies, buttercups, cinquefoils, daisies, saxifrages, polygalas and pinks were everywhere!
We were soon joined by the Wrangel Island rangers who had driven over from Doubtful Village in the ‘Trekol’, a six-wheeled tundra vehicle, and we headed off with them into the tundra to approach a lone Musk Ox. Solitary individuals are bachelor males. Our shaggy boy watched us watch him, but eventually trotted off with his long coat flowing out behind him. We then divided into two groups for hiking. One group made a long loop through the tundra back to beach, while the other took the more direct route for flower photography. The long hikers spotted a Dunlin and chick, as well as an Arctic Fox. The short hikers had more time to inspect a densely-haired species of willow and observe the bright yellow poppies tracking the afternoon sun. The flowers' shape and dark-colored centres make the flowers a warm, inviting place for insects to rest and hopefully pollinate the plant.
Before dinner many gathered in the bar to share their photos of the day, socialize, look up information in the library's reference books, or have a drink with some new found friends. As if the first bear of the year, a Musk Ox, Gray Whales, walrus and the beautiful, sunny tundra flora were not enough for one day, a cruise along the bird cliffs at Ptichy Bazaar was planned for 9pm. With the beautiful light of the sun low in the west, we slowly motored along the cliff edge under thousands of wheeling, calling kittiwakes, Brunnich's and Black Guillemots and Glaucous Gulls. It was like being in the centre of a giant beehive. Behind the cliffs high up on the scree slope in the far distance, a mother Polar Bear and one cub of the year were just visible as white forms against the dark grey stones. And dark grey was also the color the distant clouds were turning so we headed to the ship at the end of a long but exciting adventure filled day.
Day 8: Friday, 1 August
A foggy, icy ocean greeted us this morning at Dreamhead, the farthest eastward we reached, but the conditions were such that Rodney decided the best option to move ahead was to retreat and go back around to open water in order to make headway. Breakfast was later than usual, allowing a short sleep-in and shortly thereafter we gathered in the lecture room for a talk by Ivan, one of the Wrangel Island rangers traveling with us.
Ivan, with Julia translating, explained the work they do on Wrangel Island. The rangers regularly patrol the reserve and make observations of wildlife abundance and presence, maintain, repair and construct buildings. They also resupply the field cabins that are located throughout the reserve and assist in scientific studies that include banding Snow Geese and capturing and relocating young Musk Ox to the mainland to establish herds where the species was extirpated. With tourism increasing, they accompany groups visiting the reserve and also work with a number of film crews. It was interesting to hear about the variety of work and Ivan, who has now been on the island for a year, said he loved his work there.
Later in the day Laurie presented her talk on the tundra, describing its characteristics and ecology and how the plant community might fare in a warming world. Following her talk, Samuel gave an interesting presentation on ice which explained the various kinds of ice, the feature's global environmental role and what is happening to it with climate change. Wildlife watchers spotted two Ringed Seals from the bridge and we were treated to a beautiful sunset in the evening. Smooth seas assured good sleeping conditions after dinner as we continued our voyage north.
Day 9: Saturday, 2 August
Morning dawned cold and calm, with the thermometer reading a chilly 4C. We got right down to business after breakfast with a briefing from Rodney about Herald Island.
Captain Kellet on the ship ‘Herald’ discovered the island in 1849 and named it after his vessel. There is a great account of one expedition with a Herald Island connection by Jennifer Niven in her book, ‘The Ice Master’. One hundred years ago on 11 January 1914, the ‘Karluk’ was crushed in the ice and sank 50 miles north of Herald. Four of the crew decided to leave the ship and came to Herald Island, thinking that it was Wrangel Island, and were never seen alive again. Twenty years later a vessel found the remains of a camp on a small beach on Herald and a newspaper article reported their findings. The campsite artifacts included bones, pemmican, a sledge and a tent under the snow. There was also ammunition and a 30-30 Winchester rifle with the initials "BM" carved in the wood. Under the tent canvas they discovered the remains of men who looked as if they had died in their sleep and because there was still food and ammunition at the site, it was thought that the men of the ‘Karluk’ had succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning.
The other story with a Herald Island connection and a much more positive outcome was Nikita's narrative of his time spent on Wrangel with his wife, Irina, studying Polar Bears in the early 1990’s. Herald Island is the remains of the western wall of the ancient Herald Canyon that ran along the eastern side of Wrangel and Herald islands. Polar Bears hunt on the surrounding ice and females come to the island to den. During their stays on Herald Island, Nikita and Irina recorded the greatest concentration of Polar Bear dens ever found in the world: 12 dens per square kilometre. The island is ideal for maternity dens with its steep cliffs and terraced top with good snow accumulation. These conditions offer the perfect places for mothers to bed down for the winter and give birth. These days however, due to the warming climate and shrinking ice, few females den on Herald because by autumn, when they would normally come ashore, the ice has retreated too far from land for them to conveniently reach it. Herald Island is also far enough from most ships' routes that few people ever reach it either, so we were fortunate to be among those who were able to do so.
The plan was to circumnavigate the island by Zodiac. A GPS heading was necessary to navigate through the fog and with Kostya leading the way, the foreboding sheer cliffs of Herald soon appeared out of the mist in front of us. We cruised beneath the cliff faces that were packed shoulder-to-shoulder by nesting seabirds and some ravens were spotted at the very top of one sheer wall. Two Spectacled Eiders were also seen by some boats and added to the bird list for the day. In some of the snow banks that still clung to the side of the island, bear dens and resting beds had been carved out of the ice. No Polar Bears were seen but a few boats came upon a lone, young walrus resting on a tiny patch of flat shore. It was a lost cub of the year.
Part way through our circumnavigation we drove the Zodiacs onto a long, narrow strip of rocky beach and were able to get out and walk about 50m in either direction. This may very well have been the campsite of the four unfortunate seamen who left the ‘Karluk’ and reached Herald, only to perish there. Now there were only scattered chunks of lichen-covered rocks on the beach and pieces of tundra dislodged from above. We took some photos to memorialize our presence and remembered those explorers of 100 years ago.
As we continued around the island, our drivers guided the Zodiacs through archways in the rocks carved out by the sea, around ice floes and in and out of sunlight that we were grateful to see now and then as it relieved the intense cold of the morning. We rounded the rock and gravel spit that formed the north end of the island and a number of Polar Bear day beds could be seen scooped out in the loose soil and gravel slope which rose gradually up from the shore. As we drove along, the occasional guillemot or puffin would scuttle ahead of us on the surface of the water before plunging out of sight as the boat got close.
In the afternoon hot chocolate was served on the bow where we were gathered to watch for Polar Bears as the ship made its way through the ice. Meghan spotted the first bear, a large male, and soon afterwards we had some good views of a female with two cubs. We eventually tallied a total of eight bears before dinner, the last of which was seen napping behind a mound of ice. The ship came to a halt to keep an eye on the bear while everyone had their supper, and then the captain slowly turned the ship in a tight "U" to get a better look behind the mound. The young male bear slept through most of our observations, but once in a while would raise his head, yawn disinterestedly, adjust his position, and put his head back down on the ice. Eventually curiosity got the better of him and he got up and approached the ship to within a dozen or so metres, inspecting us as we took his photo. Finally something alarmed him and he hurried away. The hour was late and we had watched him a long time. The spectacular photos in the late evening light and getting to spend some time in his company made it worth the long wait.
Day 10: Sunday, 3 August
Dragi Bay and Cape Waring
We were in Dragi Bay today, resting among the loose ice and had an early start with breakfast at 7am to make the most of our time. This is the site where Capt. Bartlett and his crew arrived from the crushed ‘Karluk’ north of Herald Island. Their camp had been right on the beach, just down from where we would land with the Zodiacs. Rodney briefed us down in the lecture room. The plan was for three different walks: a good long hike to cover as much ground as possible in our six-hour outing, a second group that would go slower but be out the same amount of time, and a third group that would be out only a few hours and take their time exploring the area. A show of hands indicated who would go with which group, and we were off to our cabins to prepare for our day.
The weather got better and better as the day progressed and no group was disappointed in their discoveries. With Rodney leading the way, the long walk covered 20 miles in a wide loop that headed north and then curved back towards the south. The route included some hill climbs for good views of the Tundra of the Academy of Sciences, and then on past the new house and down the rocky river to Dragi Bay. A number of adult and fledgling Snowy Owls were seen, as well as a Polar Bear. The second group covered slightly less ground in the same amount of time, but reached the southern coast of Cape Waring just before some fog moved in and impeded the view of the bird cliffs. They also spotted a Red Knot and a group of about ten Musk Oxen which included three calves. The short walkers took their time exploring and photographing the abundant tundra flowers: poppies bloomed everywhere, patches of shining white cotton grass trembled in the breeze and mountain avens had both flowers and seed heads. They also spent some time watching and photographing the Snowy Owls at a couple nests along a ridge. Some of the group returned to the ship for lunch while others stayed and climbed down and up to the new building where some rangers were protecting the underside with metal plates.
Day 11: Monday, 4 August
South to Kolyuchin Bay
We were called to a very early breakfast again today to take advantage of any early morning opportunities that presented themselves. The dense fog however confined us to the ship for a time. There was still a bustle of activity aboard as preparations were made for the group of five that would be staying on for the special Wrangel High Arctic Expedition. When all was ready and onshore personnel were in place, the expedition team left with supplies and their luggage for a week stay on the island. We said good bye and wished them a good time, as we would not see them again. They would be re-joining the ship to return to Anadyr with the next Wrangel voyage.
At 9:30am Nikita presented his lecture on ‘The future of Polar Bears’ by prefacing it with the some background on the species' innate intelligence and inherent adaptability. Bears survive extreme environmental changes regularly in their lives by changing feeding and social behaviors with the seasons. The species has evolved over tens of thousands of years of past climatic events, including warm periods, and survived. The present warming trends, however, confront them with the additional pressures of human impacts such as pollution, hunting and increased contact in shrinking areas of habitat in which the bear is usually the loser. From over 300 maternity dens on Wrangel and Herald islands in the past, only 30 dens were recorded recently. Fewer and fewer cubs survive and adults regularly appear in underfed, stressed conditions. If sustained and serious protection measures are not implemented, the Polar Bear will likely disappear within 20 to 25 years – that is just one bear generation.
Following Nikita's talk, a Polar Plunge was organized and a total of 11 intrepid divers showed up on the starboard side to take turns jumping into the freezing waters off Dragi Bay. For anyone who had remained undecided about taking The Plunge until that time, the expressions on the emerging divers' faces was sufficient to discourage any further consideration of participation! It was then off to hot showers or the sauna for the divers, then hot soup at another scrumptious lunch by our no-less-intrepid chefs.
Meghan and Yevgeniya organized and opened the Sea Shop for the second time this voyage and people had one last chance to stock up on a few more postcards, future Christmas presents and souvenirs.
During the evening Rodney presented Polar Plunge certificates to the divers before a recap of the day was held in the lounge. He had brought a few books with him to show us and encouraged everyone to take advantage of our time to continue learning about the area and its history, both natural and cultural. Nikita spoke a little about the Snowy Owls we had seen the day before. Each of the two nests we saw had two chicks, which was very few for a bird that in good lemming years, could fledge as many as ten young. Unfortunately, this year's lemming population on Wrangel was not very high. The cries of the adults that we heard were alarm calls to alert the young of a nearby threat.
The conclusion of the recap coincided with Megan's announcement that dinner was served and we filed down to another great meal prepared by Bruce and Lindsay and served by our hard-working waitresses. Priyatnava apetita!
Day 12: Tuesday, 5 August
Kolyuchin Inlet and Belyaka Spit
Megan announced breakfast this morning for 8:30am. The gentle swells from the previous evening continued most of night, but the seas had calmed considerably by morning. The outside temperature was twice what it had been the day before with the thermometer reading a balmy 12C. Right after breakfast a documentary film on the ‘Karluk’ expedition was presented in the lecture room as the ship continued on through Kolyuchin Inlet with Kosa Belyaka (Belyaka Spit) on our port side and a bright sun shining all around and sparkling off the surface of the sea.
Rodney briefed us on our outing before lunch. Adolf Erik Nordenskiold was here first on 28 September 1878, although the area was known and used by the indigenous Chukchi for centuries. The lighthouse back from the beach was erected in the 1950’s and also on the spit is a large cross. The original had been established for a sailor from a 1911-1914 expedition. In 1942/43 a larger cross was erected to memorialize ships of the Northern Sea Route.
After lunch four Zodiacs were launched, loaded with eager expeditioners and landed on Belyaka Spit. Resident researcher Aleksey was on the beach to greet us and a group went off with him to look for birdlife. Aleksey had studied waterfowl on the spit for many years and is the summer resident of the small house there. Others followed Samuel or Agnes out around one of the inland lakes where some explored the vast flat spit on their own while the plant lovers traipsed along with Laurie to sort out the vegetation. Sightings by the various groups included an Arctic Fox, Arctic Ground Squirrel, three species of loon or diver (Arctic, Yellow-billed and Pacific), Emperor Geese, a Red Knot, Long-tailed Skua, various waders, four species of willow, lichens that crunched underfoot in the drier areas and the best sighting of the day – a Wolverine! After three hours everyone was finally back at the beach and the last Zodiac pushed off from shore as we waved good-bye to Aleksey, wishing him the best of luck with his studies. Belyaka Spit, despite its seemingly monotonous landscape turned out to be an amazingly diverse and interesting place.
People spent a quiet afternoon as we continued south and awaited the call for dinner; all that exploring had worked up a good appetite. Some used the time to catch up on their reading, writing, or sleep, and later compared notes and exchanged photos in the bar before dinner. Rodney mentioned that we hoped to be able to do a Zodiac cruise the next day at Ratmanov (or Big Diomede) Island but all our plans depended on the Border Guards stationed there at the border between Russia and the USA.
Day 13: Wednesday, 6 August
Ratmanov and Kruzenstern Islands
(Big and Little Diomede Islands)
Having sailed about five degrees of latitude farther south than our location yesterday, we now had five hours of actual night whereas the previous night had lasted only an hour. Being so well rested, we were up on the bridge right after breakfast to take advantage of the clear weather and quiet seas for wildlife spotting.
While we awaited clearance from the Russian Border Guards to go Zodiac cruising along Ratmanov Island, there was the unique photo opportunity of framing Prince William Cape, Little Diomede Island and Ratmanov Island in the same shot. The sun was bright and the air clear, so we could see Alaska on the US mainland and opposite that the easternmost point on mainland Russia, Cape Dezhnev, with the islands between the two continents. Such distant views are rare here. Even rarer was the ability to look back at the previous day from the present time, which phenomenon was possible because the International Date Line ran between the islands. Conversely, it was presumed that any people on Little Diomede who were looking westward were looking into the future!
Meghan directed the loading of five Zodiacs and off we went, keeping the boats more or less in a group to explore Ratmanov Island. The steep sides of the island were lush with tundra grasses and flowers and it seemed that there was more soil here than on other bird cliffs we had seen, which would explain the verdant slopes. As we passed below the Border Guard post no one was visible although we thought that they were likely observing us. Only a couple dogs came out to investigate more closely; visitors by sea were probably not something they saw everyday. Being careful not to point cameras in the direction of the installations, we moved along the cliff faces that seemed to have more puffins than any other species; both Horned and Tufted Puffins were everywhere. Farther down the island coast however, we saw other birds including many Pigeon Guillemots and three species of auklet: Parakeet, Crested and Least. Also seen was a small flock of Harlequin ducks riding up and down in the choppy water at the base of the rock wall.
The sun stayed out throughout our Zodiac cruise and the rest of the day for that matter. We returned to the ship in time for lunch and after a bit of a break following the meal, Laurie gave a talk on Arctic plant adaptations. The adaptive value of characteristics such as a perennial growth habit, dense hairs and the cushion shape of several species were explained in terms of their survival value. Laurie's lecture was followed a talk entitled ‘The Forgotten Expedition of the Karluk between Siberia and Alaska’ which Samuel delivered in French. This was well-illustrated by a number of black and white photos taken at the time.
Up on the bridge that afternoon we enjoyed flat calm water and clear skies, perfect for whale watching but the whales must have been elsewhere. Nikita commented it might be a little early for their southerly migration, but not to see at least a few was very unusual.
The lounge was especially lively this evening and the festive atmosphere carried on into the dining room and later for some. Our voyage was nearing its end and perhaps this knowledge animated what we knew was one of our last evenings together.
Day 14: Thursday, 7 August
Onward to Anadyr
The calm seas of yesterday were replaced by rockier seas today as we headed south to make our appointment with the harbor pilot in Anadyr for tomorrow morning. Today would be a travel and business day as we settled our accounts, got our last bit of laundry back and began the process of sorting and packing for departure.
After breakfast Nikita gave an illustrated presentation on Polar Bear safety. He is trying to change the way most of the Arctic regards and reacts to perceived threats from Polar Bears, especially on Svalbard where guns are the ‘safety plan’ of choice. One very telling statistic was that on Wrangel, where there are the most Polar Bear v human encounters in the Arctic, no-one carries a gun, no Polar Bear has been killed and no human has died. Conversely in Svalbard everyone carries a gun, many Polar Bears have been killed and several people have died. Nikita's behavioral observations of Polar Bears have revealed that they are very predictable and easily managed by following simple rules to protect both bears and people.
Before lunch we settled our shipboard accounts with Meghan and Yevgeniya in the lounge. Despite the rolling seas, lunch was well attended and Rodney announced that the wind was shifting and the seas should calm down later in the afternoon when the departure briefing was planned.
The seas had calmed a bit when Meghan announced that it was time to gather in the lecture room for the briefing. Rodney outlined the plan for the following day which, although fairly involved, would get us and our luggage to where we needed to be at the right time for our respective flights to Moscow and Nome. He then extended his heartfelt thanks to all for their curiosity, enthusiasm and sense of adventure that made our expedition possible. He also acknowledged the ship's captain, officers and crew in making our voyage such a great success.
Special thanks were extended to Meghan and Yevgeniya, as well as the chefs and guides for all their hard work during the voyage. Meghan then presented a lovely compilation of photos from the voyage of people, places and wildlife that was made available to everyone. It was then time for drinks in the bar and the farewell dinner. Bruce, Lindsay and the team had gone all out in making our special last night dinner aboard and had laid out a lovely presentation of delicious seafoods, salads and side dishes. Dessert was a delicious passionfruit topped pavlova. We all ate too much, but with such enticements it was difficult to pass up a bite of this or another small portion of that.
Conversations with our companions and new-found friends continued well after dinner and up in the lounge until sleep, or the necessity to finish packing for tomorrow's departure, forced a retreat to our cabins. It was still a distance to Anadyrskiy Bay but it would be smooth sailing from here on.
Day 15: Friday, 8 August
Anadyrskiy Bay and Home
We arose to an early call for breakfast to finish any last minute luggage preparations and fortify ourselves at the breakfast buffet for what would be a long travel day for most. With the pilot aboard the bridge was off limits, but we had good views of the Beluga whales that frequent the bay from the decks.
With our bags outside the cabins for collection, we waited for the barges that would take us to the mainland at our departure times. It was a little sad knowing our voyage was at an end, but our photos, experiences and memories will always be with us as reminders of our time on Wrangel Island and in this unique area of the Arctic, and perhaps encourage us to visit again.
MV Spirit of Enderby/Professor Khromov
Many of us spent a night in the small but very colorful town of Anadyr, capital of the Chukotka region, whilst the remainder of the group joined us via flights with Bering Air from Nome, Alaska. We boarded the Spirit of Enderby which was to be our home for the next couple of weeks. On the ferry to the ship we spotted our first marine mammals – Beluga Whales and Larga Seals. By 6:30pm everyone was aboard and invited to attend a welcome briefing. Expedition Leader, Rodney Russ, introduced the ship and Expedition Team to the group and talked about plans for the trip. Being quite hungry and eager for a glass of wine to celebrate the beginning of the cruise, we headed to the dining rooms, where a delicious dinner prepared by our chefs Bruce and Jeremy awaited us.
We heaved anchor and left the Anadyr Estuary in a beautiful pink sunset. Later in the evening some tireless explorers enjoyed incredible views from the bridge and open decks while others retired to their cabins to rest. Our adventures begin!
Early this morning we experienced our first “rock’n’rolling” so breakfast was not well attended as some needed more time to find their sea legs. As we approached Preobrazheniya Bay however, the sea calmed and we dropped anchor to get ready for our first landing. After lunch Rodney gave us a Zodiac briefing which was followed by the safety drill. Soon after these were completed we were able to put our newly acquired Zodiac knowledge to the test. We boarded five craft and headed to the coast in Preobrazheniya Bay to have a closer look at the sheer cliffs occupied by thousands of birds including Pigeon, Common and Brünnick’s Guillemots. Some Horned and Tufted Puffins were spotted as well as a flock of Crested Auklets spinning on the water as we cruised from one cove to another.
We made a short landing on a rocky beach to stretch our legs before returning to the ship. Back aboard we gathered in the bar to share our impressions of our first Zodiac foray. Mark, the expedition ornithologist from Canada, gave a recap of the birds and marine mammals that we saw today. This was to be a routine followed throughout the expedition.
Glazenapa and Gilmymyl Bays
Weather conditions forced a change in our plans this morning and we had to bypass Whale Bone Alley, an ancient aboriginal site. We stopped instead in Glazenapa Bay where Heritage Expeditions had not landed before. Having reached the coast, we divided into small groups according to specific interests and each group headed for their chosen destination. On the tundra hills the animal lovers got their cameras ready for Pikas and ground squirrels. The most patient ones are rewarded with a sneak peek at those little creatures. Further west from the landing point, we discovered the remains of ancient dwellings that appeared to be used as a hunting camp. The geography of the place with the beach, a strait and hills made us think that it could have been used as a watch point and gave reason to think that it was an Eskimo whale hunting camp. Several hours flew by and it seemed not time before we met again on the stony shoreline of Glazenapa Bay.
The Spirit of Enderby then departed for Gilmymyl Bay, where we hoped to catch up with an old friend of Heritage, Chukchi man Ivan, who lives there in tundra. We boarded the Zodiacs and made our way ashore despite some impressive waves which made for a somewhat wild ride. Fortunately the hot springs of Gilmymyl Bay were not far away so we were able to warm up after being doused with the sea water on the way in. On the cliff across the river from the hot springs we had fantastic views of a family of Rough Legged Hawks. It was interesting to visit the Chukchi family that was staying at Ivan’s house and despite most of us not speaking Russian, we felt we learnt something of their lives. After a warming dip in the hot springs we saw a Peregrine Falcon diving on a flock of Pectoral Sandpipers as we made our way back to the Zodiacs. We departed the bay feeling very satisfied with our excursion.
The sea became rougher during the night, so many of us found it difficult to get a good night’s sleep due to the swell. Around 7:30am we crossed the Polar circle and those who wanted to mark this occasion gathered on the bridge to share their emotions. During the day Katya gave two lectures. The first was an overview of the indigenous people of Chukotka which was timely after our visit with the Chukchi family yesterday. Later she gave an introduction to Wrangel Island which we are all are so excited to reach. Unfortunately, weather conditions did not permit us to make a landing on Cape Dezhnev or at Uelen Village but we will try to do that on our way back.
This morning we approach Herald Island, a small but stunning island northeast of Wrangel. After lunch we were close enough to go for a cruise in the Zodiacs and actually land on this rarely visited island. The last people to live there were Nikita and his wife Irina, also a biologist working on Wrangel Island, and they left in 1993. We cruised along the coastline watching the bird colonies that inhabit Herald’s steep cliffs. We saw lots of Puffins, Kittiwakes and Guillemots and even a pair of Phalaropes. Ice drifted beside our Zodiacs and it was very cold as the icy water splashed around us. We really felt as though we had reached the Top of the World! We returned to the ship as the fog rolled in and the excitement about reaching Wrangel Island began to grow.
Wrangel Island, Doubtful Bay
In the morning the Captain carefully negotiated the ice and we were able to land at Doubtful Bay which fortunately did not live up to its name, and we were safely delivered ashore for our first taste of Wrangel Island. The Wrangel Island Reserve rangers and scientists were there to welcome us. We met Olga, an ornithologist who studies Snow Geese, and rangers Igor and Vladimir who came aboard to accompany us for our time here. For a good couple of hours we wandered around exploring the almost deserted village and learning about life on the island. We imagined how it would be in winter with Polar Bears visiting and Arctic Foxes passing by. Now however is the Arctic summer, so we had our lunch on the beach in the open air which sharpens the appetite!
The first group of ‘Overlanders’ soon headed back to the ship so as not to miss the first lecture on Polar Bear behavior and global warming which Nikita is presenting tonight. The ice had closed in by the time the last Zodiacs made their way back and the captain had to break a trail in the ice so they could escape its advance. As this exercise was being carried out a Polar Bear mother and cub were spotted from the bridge and some were lucky enough to get some nice photos of the pair. So ended our first day on Wrangel Island.
Second Day on Wrangel
Heavy ice conditions forced us northeast. The Captain slowly negotiated the ice and although this was tiresome for him, it was interesting for us to watch huge ice field part as we went through. Everyone spent a lot of time on the bridge and open decks drinking in this unusual experience and taking photos. We even spotted Minkie Whales passing by. We sailed throughout the day and after dinner went for a Zodiac cruise. As the Zodiacs approach the island, we saw a Polar Bear sitting on the shore. As we approached ever closer the bear kept watching us curiously, probably wondering what to make of these unusual intruders. We got very close and held our breaths as he stared at us, the only sound being the gentle swish of oars and the whirring and clicking of cameras. After a time the bear lost interest and ambled away from the beach. Soon afterwards we spotted another bear in the next cove, but this one was less curious and sauntered away into the hills.
Later we landed at the place used as base camp for the survivors of the wreck of the Karluk. Whilst there we were confronted by a massive Musk Ox which appeared over the hill and to our surprise started to approach us. He got so close we could hear him sniffing so we decided to retreat to the safety of the Zodiacs. According to Nikita and the rangers accompanying us, Musk Oxen can be more dangerous to people than skittish Polar Bears so we were right to leave when we did. We returned to the ship at twilight with the lights on board guiding us back. Later we had wine and cheese in the bar to celebrate our exhilarating wildlife experiences.
Ptichy Bazar / Cape Florence / Komsomol
Right after breakfast we departed on the first cruise along Ptichy Bazar (‘bird colony’ in Russian) on the western side of the island. It is indeed one of the biggest bird colonies here and we were impressed by the dramatic geology. On the cliffs we could see lots of birds but surprisingly very few chicks. Birds were wheeling overhead in a very Hitchcock-like manner as we cruised along. We made a brief landing to stretch our legs and see a hut the rangers use when they are doing research here or travelling across the island.
After lunch we took the Zodiacs to Cape Florence. There we exchanged one ‘Overland’ group for another as some rare Ross’s Gulls were spotted which was very exciting for the birders. We also saw a bear sleeping on our potential landing spot so had to turn back so as not to disturb him.
Later we reached Komsomol where Rodney saw 6 or 7 bears walking on the beach, so we jumped in the Zodiacs and rushed to the coast to get a closer look. Unfortunately by the time we arrived they had made their way back up the valley. While ashore we took the opportunity to explore the area. We visited a house once owned by a Chukchi hunting family and now used as a hut for the rangers as they travel around guarding the island and observing its wildlife. The cabin has been recently renovated but still looks very modest. In the lagoon behind the cabin we saw a large flock of Long-tailed Ducks.
A Day in fog Nahodka Island
This morning the Spirit of Enderby carefully made its way through the fog to Dreamhead Mountain. Soon after breakfast we went ashore and split into groups. Mark led the birders to look for Ross’s Gulls and some cooperative Dunlin by the shore while Rodney took a group for a long walk in tundra. Rodney’s group spotted a Snowy Owl as they approached a river valley and decided to approach it one step at the time. Eventually the owl tired of the game of hide-and-seek and flew away before the group got too close. Olga, one of the rangers and an ornithologist, told the group about the Snow Geese that she studies on Wrangel. Their large colony comes here to breed and every year rangers observe Snow Geese desperately fighting against Arctic Foxes that steal their eggs and destroy nests. Some of the group saw some Siberian Lemmings but not the Collard Lemmings they were hoping to see. Lunch was waiting when everyone returned to the ship.
After lunch we listened to Nikita’s lecture on safety in the land of Polar Bears. Nikita emphasized a quite rare humanistic approach that they use to keep both people and bears safe on Wrangel Island – no rifles. We learnt how to act if we encountered a bear and watched an interesting video recorded on Wrangel showing a Polar Bear’s reaction to humans.
Later we re-launched the Zodiacs to explore Nahodka Island east of Dreamhead. The island, whose name means “a finding” in Russian, was finally found and we scouted around in the fog looking for a good landing spot. Although wildlife sightings were few, we felt ourselves true explorers as we visited a virtually unknown and uninhabited island. Mark did spot some rare and beautiful Sabine’s Gulls which added to the surreal experience.
Leaving Wrangel Island
The fog still lingered when we woke this morning so we were unable to take our early morning Zodiac cruise. We hoped the weather conditions would improve in time for us to collect our second ‘Overland’ party from Ushakovskaya later in the day. After breakfast we went ashore to visit the main base camp for the reserve which is a former Soviet village founded by Georgy Ushakov in 1926. Another Georgy, a Chukchi who has been living there for many years, welcomed us on the beach dressed in a traditional reindeer fur coat (a “kukhlyanka”). We had a tour around the once lively village and got an insight into what a life was like in those times. The former kindergarten, grocery shop and post office are now sometimes occupied by Polar Bears, which are frequent visitors to Ushakovskaya these days. We were invited to see inside one of the houses where rangers who spend the whole year on Wrangel live and were surprised to find it so cozy, warm and welcoming. Eventually it was time to say goodbye to Wrangel Island and its residents. We were sad to leave this special island and set our course southwards to Anadyr.
Koluchin Island and Belyak Spit
We woke to a bright clear morning which promised a beautiful day and crowded the bridge and decks as the ship approached Koluchin Island. Whales gave a morning performance and we enjoyed watching them breaching, splashing their flukes and occasionally showing us their gorgeous tails. Just before an early lunch Katya gave a very informative lecture about the history of Chukotka. By noon we had anchored not far from Koluchin Island only to find that our preferred landing spot was already occupied by hundreds of walrus. The Zodiacs were launched and we went to take a closer look at these impressive creatures. Our boats made a slow and careful approach so as not to disturb the animals and we cruised around for over an hour and a half watching them swimming and hauling out on the beach, apparently enjoying the lovely day as much as we were.
In the evening we made a landing at Belyak Spit in Koluchin Inlet. This place is known to be home for a few quite unique bird species such as Yellow-billed Loons, Tundra Swans and Emperor Geese. Here we met Alexey, an ornithologist from St Petersburg who spends much of the year studying the birds in this area. There was a beautiful sunset as we departed – a fitting end to a lovely day.
We were happy to see that the weather remained good so we would be able to visit Uelen, a reasonably large Chukchi village on the very north-eastern border of Russia. Marine hunters have been living there for about 2,000 years and in this modern age they work hard to keep their culture and tradition alive. Katya was about to start giving a talk about marine mammals when we heard that the ship was suddenly surrounded by Humpback and Gray Whales so everyone rushed outside to watch these kings of the ocean put on a truly breathtaking show. In the background streamed vast flocks of Crested Auklets. Mark and Rodney estimated there to be about 10.56 million in a four hour period. A truly remarkable once-in-a-lifetime experience!
In the early afternoon we were welcomed to Uelen village. Excited locals greeted us on the beach as they rarely see visitors and then took us on a tour around their village. We were impressed by a tidy modern school that serves not only as an important educational institution for the region but also as the social and cultural centre for the settlement. The Uelen boarding school hosts around 50 students from other villages each year. The principal of the school and his deputy welcomed us in a very special classroom. This is where the Chukchi language is taught and is also the headquarters of the local folklore club. We were touched by their passion for the village and the work they do teaching children about their Chukchi heritage. Afterwards we headed to a local carving workshop where we learned about the ancient Chukchi tradition of ivory carving. On our return to the beach we were entertained by a folk group named “Uelen” which is well known in the region. The group, dressed in traditional Chukchi costumes, gave a very authentic performance. The men and women sang and danced and eventually persuaded some of us join them, so we all danced together. As the day drew to an end it was time to say goodbye to our new friends. There were just a few last minute English lessons for Uelen’s children, group photos and an exchange of contacts. We left the village waving to happy children as they shouted and waved from the shore.
Back on board it took some time to return to reality. A couple of Orcas swam right beside the ship just when we thought the day couldn’t get any better. Heading south, we passed Cape Dezhnev as we relaxed in the bar.
Whale Bone Alley and Yttygran Island
Fortunately weather conditions on our way back towards Anadyr were good enough to make a landing at the ancient site known as Whale Bone Alley. Immense Bowhead Whale jawbones and ribs are placed together in a stunning arch formation which stretches for nearly half a kilometre. We spent several hours hiking around the area. Some went in search of Pikas while others took walks up to top of the hills to get a stunning view over to Yttygran Island. We met back at the beach at 5pm for our last jumping-on-waves Zodiac cruise which had by now become a favourite pastime. It was now time to leave this far frontier behind and make our way back towards Anadyr. The day concluded with an informative and somewhat amusing lecture entitled Women in Russia presented by Elena. I don’t think any of us has laughed so much in a long time!
The last full day of our expedition saw many becoming emotional as our group was about to disband. After breakfast Elena gave a talk on travelling opportunities in Kamchatka and then Ksenia talked about her hometown of Veliky Novgorod, an ancient city and the birthplace of Russia. We all gathered in the lecture room in the afternoon for a final recap of all we had seen and experienced. The expedition team members thanked the crew and the passengers for making our cruise across the Top of the World such a unique and unforgettable journey. We all watched a photo presentation of the highlights of our trip and had a wonderful time reliving them. Then it was time for our last delicious dinner together and one final evening of swapping stories in the bar.
Overnight we arrived back in Anadyr and after breakfast the group disembarked the Spirit of Enderby for the last time. For most of us it was time to farewell Russia’s Far East, but some were already planning their return.
EXPEDITION LOG 1233
ACROSS THE TOP OF THE WORLD - WRANGEL AND HERALD ISLANDS, RUSSIAN FAR EAST
8 AUGUST 2012 – 22 AUGUST 2012
Click here for Species List
Wednesday 8th August
Surprisingly calm conditions welcomed our new guests from around the world to the town of Anadyr in often windswept Anadyr Bay. Perched on the edge of the Russian Far East, eight time zones from Moscow and washed by the Bering Sea, this is the gateway to a remote and exotic region more scarcely visited than Antarctica.
For crew and expedition staff this is the most industrious day of all, resupplying, cleaning and preparing the ship, dashes from seaport to airport and return, and welcoming new guests. All of this activity takes place in an environment peppered with the inevitably lengthy negotiations required to make travel as smooth as possible in Russia.
The wildlife was immediately apparent from the ferry crossing on arrival. Elegant white Beluga Whales were feeding close to shore, some mothers with growing young, and a large number of Largha (Spotted) Seals made their presence known. We saw one catch a salmon then hold it up in the air to tease hungry seagulls, and repeatedly take it underwater at the last moment. This game carried on for a few minutes to the amusement of the human audience. Early arrivals took the chance to spend a little time in the township.
The day passed relatively smoothly and soon all the expeditioners were on board. Excited faces greeted their travelling companions and explored the ship which was to be their new home for the next two weeks. A welcome dinner and an ‘Introduction to the Staff and Ship’ briefing brought the day to a close and many retired early for a deep sleep to recover from their long day of travel.
Thursday 9th August
Preobrazheniya Bay, Chukotka
The gentle rocking motion of the ship sailing on the Bering Sea accompanied by a tasty breakfast provided by chefs Monique and Noel was our introduction to the expedition proper. After breakfast, Expedition Leader Rodney Russ gave a ‘trifecta briefing bonanza’, which included a trip overview with a word on changeable ice conditions; lifeboat theory, learning about signals and muster (gathering) stations in an emergency event; and Zodiac (rubber inflatable boats used for expedition exploring) travel and procedures.
After a scrumptious lunch, the practical matter of passport collection to ease periodic checks by Border Guards on our permits was attended to. For some it was then time for a siesta while others were delighted at the sight of Humpback Whales passing the ship.
The ships horn signalling to abandon ship brought everyone quickly to the lifeboats on the 5th level outer deck for our practical lifeboat drill which was soon completed.
At 4 pm the Zodiacs were lowered for the first of many excursions. Donning lifejackets everyone made their way to the gangway and boarded the trusty craft, custom made for expedition travel. We were welcomed by a gentle swell which persisted from the south and relatively mild temperatures. These provided ideal conditions to closely observe a spectacular set of cliffs, populated on every available ledge, nook and cranny by nesting seabirds, which plunder the rich food source in this part of the Bering Sea.
Gregarious auks were the largest bird family represented on the cliffs. This group includes comical Tufted Puffins, birds full of character, which fly with legs splayed outward and ‘eyebrow’ plumes of bright yellow feathers curled up over each side of their heads. Some spluttered along the surface, wings beating frantically, to escape our gentle approach. Moulting feathers had removed their short term ability to fly effectively creating an awkward looking auk!
By contrast, the enchanting dark black Pigeon Guillemots with white wing patches and glowing red legs and feet, calmly floating up and down in rhythm with the ocean were lovely to watch.
Common Guillemots crowded narrow ledges in rows high above the water. Their eggs have evolved in shape to minimise the danger of rolling off and in individual colorations to help returning parents identify their own pale green egg. Predatory Herring Gulls had occupied prime nesting and hunting sites long before other species had arrived. Having selected the tiniest of ledges, they use grass and earth nests to avoid egg loss to the drop below. Glaucous Gulls took up other vantage points. We were also lucky enough to see a Peregrine Falcon standing watch over his kingdom below.
A seemingly endless parade of life presented itself – birds leaving the cliffs to feed and birds returning, making a thrilling and engaging spectacle. A large group of miniature Harlequin Ducks then stole the show with timid movements in formation around the waterline, showing their beautiful dark plumage with white colorations and shy, watchful ways.
The fluted rock formations provided a majestic and craggy backdrop to the seabird city. Rising high above the sea, seabed sedimentary rocks uplifted to show a myriad of different colours and occasional vital volcanic intrusions in a blaze of stark blacks and browns. Back on board we relaxed over drinks, an informal recap of the day’s highlights and a sketch plan for the morning. Then it was time for dinner and a satisfied sleep.
Friday 10th August
Calm waters greeted our arrival at anchor off Yttrgran Island. Breakfast was followed by a series of briefings in which Rodney spoke about plans for the day, Katya gave an overview of the cultural significance of our first landing and Grigory gave us information about his specialist subject, Grey Whales.
We were soon boarding the Zodiacs for the short trip ashore to begin exploring. Previous landings here had offered sightings of Wolverine and brown bear, so while our expedition team kept one eye on the surrounds, guests relaxed and enjoyed freedom to explore this mysterious setting. Our first sight was of the rib bones of multiple Bowhead Whales standing upright in the earth, creating a promenade of several hundred metres with the tundra hills as a backdrop. We had arrived at ‘Whalebone Alley’, once a central shrine for many nearby island villages. The bones were possibly used as a processional route used by shamanic sea-hunting peoples during ritual and ceremony as early as the 14th Century. Only re-discovered in 1976, this area is one of the most significant ceremonial sites in the Arctic.
Natural stones on site have been arranged to create about 150 meat storage pits for harvested walrus and whale meat, which were possibly also used for ceremonial burnings. Around 60 Bowhead Whale skulls (each two tonnes in weight) also decorated the grassy foreshore in symbolic groups of two or four. The work involved in their placement another indication of the importance of this place to its worshippers. Everyone found something to intrigue or cause reflection, including a hardy dozen that took on the challenge to climb a nearby rocky outcrop for a birds eye view.
Grey Whales frequent shallow coastal feeding grounds along much of the Russian East coast. We went in search of their characteristic heart shaped blows; five Zodiacs full of watchful eyes scanned the horizon for a sign. These creatures are legally hunted in sustainable numbers by native Chukotkan peoples who follow centuries of tradition. We came with a gentler agenda, merely wanting to catch a glimpse of these graceful sea giants in their natural world. Patience was rewarded with some fairly close views, the whales busy feeding below and surfacing for air regularly as we watched. Those close enough to smell the out breath were gifted a good sniff of their seafood diet! Delicious!
An easy cruise in midday sun brought us by island sea cliffs full of feathered activity and nesting. Perched on ledges were various species of guillemots, murres, Pelagic Cormorants, kittiwakes and gulls (on the nest and wing). At one point a whole masquerade of Harlequin Ducks paddled past. A great lunch was followed by a walk through the tundra with options to soak in deliciously relaxing natural thermal pools, enjoy summer wild flowers or simply wander at leisure and admire stark, beautiful mountain scenery, sculpted by the glacial and volcanic past.
Some of us met with a very interesting Chukchi family living in their summer dwelling beside a lagoon rich with salmon. The Grandmother genuinely enjoyed our company and our interest in her simple life. She spoke freely to our guides Katya and Grisha while kneading locally grown watercress, which stays preserved in its own juices for the winter and provides basic salad nutrients, high in Vitamin C. She explained that this was used in a variety of ways including flavouring seal meat. Her children helped with the work and the grandchildren sat watchfully on a brown bear skin rug in her reindeer skin tent while above them hung drying Red Fox and Grey Wolf skins. The tent which would be used as a nomadic shelter further south was used as a frame for drying Largha Seal skins on the outside.
It had been a really satisfying and full day at a relaxed pace and we discussed our experiences of whales, bird cliffs, an Arctic shamanistic site, thermal hot pools and meeting some locals over dinner.
Saturday 11th August
Cape Dezhnev and Uelen Village
Overcast foggy skies created an appropriate setting on our approach to Cape Dezhnev. This was once a Cold War military watch station located on the most easterly point of Eurasia. The Cape is named after Semyon Dezhnev, a Cossack and hired protector for one of the most important Arctic Expeditions ever undertaken. In 1648 the rich Russian fur trade prompted Moscow to act on rumours of untold wealth of fur bearing animals and walrus and mammoth ivory in the Anadyr region of the Russian Far East. Wealthy Moscow merchants put together a fleet of seven small sailing ships to discover a sea route across the top of Russia seeking these treasures. By the time of their arrival in Chukotka, five ships had already been wrecked when Dezhnev and a prominent merchant guided the two surviving boats through the Bering Strait and the Pacific Ocean. A further wreck left Dezhnev alone, overwintering twice inland of Anadyr, before a remarkable unscheduled rendezvous with another independent expedition that had arrived overland from Moscow. Dezhnev eventually retired in Moscow, on a pension granted in honour of his discoveries.
Our own Expedition Leader, Rodney, had prepared us for potentially tricky conditions (thankfully less so than Dezhnev faced), letting us know the Cape’s open position was exposed to swells from all directions. In a pre-landing briefing, Katya deepened our understanding of the significance of the old stone dwellings used for at least 2,000 years by native Chukotkan peoples. She showed a short slideshow of older photos taken here and shared her own personal experiences and understanding of this atmospheric place. She explained how marine mammal dependant peoples lived here overlooking the migration routes of their quarry from cliff-top housing made from stone bases with whale bone frameworks clad with skins.
The surf was friendly and conditions satisfactory to attempt a landing in this notoriously challenging area. As we prepared for disembarkation, the call went out that a pod of Killer Whales were close to the ship and most of the group enjoyed great views of a group of five whales including one mature male with a huge dorsal fin. What an exciting start to the day!
Guided by Least Auklets the Zodiacs approached the site through the mist. In addition to the Eskimo village, there lay a small huddle of dishevelled abandoned patrol buildings decaying on a fast eroding shoreline amidst monuments honouring fallen Russian sailors, Dezhnev and neighbouring (across the Bering Strait) Inuit Eskimo peoples. We explored the sad remains of the village which inhabitants were forced to abandon in the late 1950’s due to Cold War anxieties in Moscow over fraternisation with Americans across the strait. In remembrance, I saw someone reach down, touch a whale-bone and say “to the spirit of the whales.” I was not surprised when later that same person had a Grey Whale surface right next to their Zodiac during the return to the ship.
Soon after lunch we transferred to the village of Uelen, a tiny Chukchi outpost of scattered buildings, the most remote settlement in north-east Russia and home to 800 people. The village, which has survived with a marine mammal harvesting culture for at least 2,000 years, welcomed us with many children on shore plainly delighted at our visit. We were lucky to have arrived on a festival day, which was happening right on the stony landing beach. Families, the elderly, children and foreign Ukraine builders all joined in the festivities. Games included lifting a 25 kilo weight one-handed above ones head as many times as possible and a Tug-of-War. We were invited to join in and put forward a team of men and a team of women.
It was all great fun and though we faced some serious opposition of both nuggetty male villagers (accustomed to hauling marine mammals about) and equally tough women (accustomed to hauling their men about?) we emerged triumphant on both counts. The Spirit of Enderby women won 3rd place and the men were placed 5th. Some evocative dancing then gave way to a wrestling contest and our hero ‘Grisha the Great’ would soon add ‘champion wrestler’ to his staff biography!
Men were asked to fight topless, and Grisha complied, women visibly bracing as he revealed his muscular torso. After making light work of the local ‘whale haulers’, he met his nemesis in the final, a Ukraine contractor about twice his size. But it’s the size of the fight in the man, not the size of the man in the fight and Grisha valiantly held his own, finally achieving a 2nd placing only due to the Ukrainian’s obvious edge in experience.
We tore ourselves away from the festivities to visit the local museum and the ivory workshop. A breathtaking display of finely carved ivory was on show and a few pieces were snapped up by the willing. We were treated to a spirited send-off and moving scenes on shore as the children waved farewell. It had been a wonderful day mingling with the colourful villagers as we moved ever closer to Wrangel Island.
Sunday 12th August
During the night the Spirit of Enderby moved through occasional ice on course to Kolyuchin Island and before breakfast the unusual movement woke many. Some bleary eyed but excited early risers appeared on deck to photograph the scene as the ship slowed to navigate the icy maze. Views of Ringed and Bearded Seals were the reward to those willing to brave the hour and the chill outside.
After breakfast we arrived within a few kilometres of Kolyuchin Island, but our approach was foiled by impenetrable fog and very heavy ice conditions. With no choice but to sit tight and wait for the weather to clear, some of the group sat and peered into the mist on the lookout for Polar Bears which thrive in these conditions. Others caught up with sorting photos, or fired off emails to jealous family and friends, while others took the opportunity to simply relax with a good book and a cup of tea.
The conditions did not relent around Kolyuchin, so it was time to move on. If all goes well we may have a further opportunity to visit on the return leg. After lunch Katya gave an ‘Introduction to Wrangel Island’ giving us an excellent and personal detailed introduction to the wonderful world of Wrangel Island. Rodney then followed with ‘The Russification of Siberia’ illuminating the chequered conquering of Russia’s remote east, in a broad tapestry from Ivan ‘the Terrible’ to fur traders to the assimilation of peaceful native cultures.
It had been a good day to recharge and prepare for all the activity that lay ahead.
Monday 13th August
We awoke this morning to very heavy ice conditions. The Captain had had a fairly sleepless night keeping personal watch on the Bridge, taking responsibility to find best passage and safely make the best speed. Many of us stayed away from the Bridge to give the crew space to communicate and concentrate, so we checked out the view from the front deck.
Breakfast was later than usual at 8.15am and it had been nice to have a sleep-in. Our onboard botanical expert Alex turned up the tempo with his lecture on ‘Surviving Climactic Extremes – Arctic Adaptations in Plants’. His presentation of rapturous photos drew a full house as he whetted our appetites for the botanising to come on Wrangel Island.
Steve then prepared us for close encounters with the Arctic’s lovable, moustached, toothy marine mammal with a presentation entitled ‘Walrus – Tooth Walker’. A lazy late lunch was shortened with a call on the P.A. system that two Polar Bears had been sighted off the starboard bow, and everyone rushed out on deck leaving the dinner plates for our return. We were treated to the wonderful sight of a mother Polar Bear shepherding her cub behind ice ridges, following her instincts to protect her young from the strange looking blue and white ‘iceberg’ the Spirit of Enderby. It was a very exciting first sighting of Polar Bears on the trip!
After the buzz had settled, Katya offered us her poignant presentation on ‘the future of Polar Bears in a changing world’. This was a far reaching and insightful look at many aspects of the Polar Bears world, from the personal viewpoint of growing up with her father as Russia’s eminent Polar Bear expert. No amount of research can replace her personal experiences in telling such a great story.
We finally cleared the most challenging ice fields, enabling faster movement toward our destination and an E.T.A of 3 or 4am off the coast of Wrangel. This gave the ‘Overlanders’ a chance to get excited and meet to make plans for tomorrow. These hardy folks had pre-booked to join Wrangel Rangers on a cross-country 4WD foray into the heart of the island, beyond the mountains that fringe the coast.
The second heaviest ice conditions in the 40 years records have been kept, meant there was little chance to sail around the island for a rendezvous on the Northern side, so plans were adjusted to provide a circular route of the interior, returning the group to the original drop-off point. Everyone was still enthusiastic about such a rare opportunity to visit the untouched centre of this beautiful place. They would overnight in a field study hut near the largest Snow Goose population six hours away from the coast. They would be accompanied by Wrangel Rangers and Katya.
Social time in the bar was upbeat with relief of arriving through so much ice and in expectancy of our visits to this mysterious island. After another delicious dinner served up by Monique and Noel in the galley we relaxed in the bar before dispersing to our cabins.
Tuesday 14th August
Early risers woke to the first clear sight of Wrangel Island. Shallow depths kept us anchored well off shore and as fog moved in at out, different views unfolded of both shoreline buildings and inland hills, carpeted in rusty coloured tundra. Although we had successfully navigated the ice belts between here and Siberia, the last barrier to landing had still to be crossed, and a low pressure system had built up, sending stiff easterly winds and swells our way.
After breakfast, we were all keen to step ashore after the days at sea required to reach this Arctic outpost. The Zodiac transfer to shore was fairly wet, once safely ashore we split into groups according to interest. Alex took his troupe to the flower hot spots and Grisha led a long walk towards the hills. Both groups enjoyed exploring the various signs of wildlife until a sleeping female Polar Bear awoke in the tundra just 50 metres from the group. The group was delighted when another female also appeared briefly before shuffling off to escape the sight of our brightly coloured group of interlopers. A third group spent a more relaxing time exploring the various buildings and skeletons brought in from surrounding tundra. They commented on the surprisingly heavy walrus skulls and the even more robust Musk Ox skulls with their heavy-duty battle horned adornments. It was also very special to see the Mammoth tusks lying exposed on the river beds.
Meanwhile ‘Overlanders’ equipped with gear and food for two days away, said their goodbyes and took off with the rangers for far-flung places. They had stopped en route to check out the Polar Bears with us.
Back on board we sailed north into clearer conditions. In the early evening we encountered some of the most magnificent scenery we had seen on the voyage so far. The soft blue water sprinkled with ice was offset by all the shades of brown colouring the foreshore. A backdrop of mountains loomed high overhead while processions of seabirds commuted in and out of cliff-edge nests. Then a Polar Bear appeared centre stage traversing the tundra to complete the picture.
Rodney, never hesitating to seize the moment, announced from the Bridge that we would drop Zodiacs, and take a sunset cruise which was met with much excitement by all. These breaks in the weather must be grasped at every opportunity when travelling in the Arctic and Antarctic.
After enjoying guillemots, gulls, cormorants and puffins, some of us switched motors off at the base of the cliffs to take in the full splendour of this wild place and hear the uninterrupted bird sounds. Amazing! We watched the citrus orange sunset splashing the ocean with its golden glow as we returned replete to the ship where dessert and a satisfied sleep awaited us.
Wednesday 15th August
We awoke to peaceful conditions as the low pressure system and ice forced us south again. After breakfast, we were privileged to see the self-made documentary of Nikita Ovsyanikov, Russia’s foremost Polar Bear expert, who had been based on Wrangel Island. Personal, informative and surprisingly intimate experiences of close encounters with Polar Bears kept all eyes keenly focussed on his observations of natures Arctic King. We were fascinated by his insightful commentary on their behaviour, hard won by extreme exposure to elements, danger and isolation.
Cape Blossom was our next landing site. It was good to stretch the legs again and take a look around what is quite an iconic location for Wrangel Island research. This is the site of Nikita’s hut which we had seen featured in the documentary. Thick fog made us wary of venturing too far inland as the ever present danger of Polar Bears needs careful consideration in such poor visibility. Once ashore however, the fog lifted enough for Wrangel scientist Irina, Grisha and Alex to take groups out into the tundra while others chose to stroll the shoreline and observe a flock of Snow Geese.
After a refreshing session ashore the weather cooled and the fog returned indicating it was time to return to the ship for lunch. Twice in 12 hours we had been lucky with a favourable weather window.
Following lunch, there was a meeting of the second ‘Overland’ group, who would take the places of those returning with the first group tonight. As the afternoon wore on we were again enveloped in fog and the ship slowed to navigate safely. We were grateful to have such an experienced Captain and crew in these tricky icy waters. The mesmerising maze and distinctive raw sound of year old ice making way for the ship kept many entertained. The fog was interspersed with occasional sunny spells when we caught tantalising glimpses of Wrangel Island.
Evening arrived and the rendezvous planned to welcome back the first group of ‘Overlanders’ went smoothly. The accompanying Rangers were delighted to accept an invitation to join us for dinner before escorting the second group of ‘Overlanders’ off for their own adventure. All returning travellers looked fresh and excited from sights and experiences inland.
After dinner the fog bank lifted and we saw the raw and wild scene of rustic tundra, ramshackle buildings and stripes of blue and pink lighting up the sky in the last gasp of sunset. It had been another day of new experiences in the true spirit of expedition and exploratory travel in the Arctic.
Thursday 16th August
Today it was Rodney, not Marieke who made the wake-up call. While the Cruise Director was still sleeping, Rodney was one step ahead, sighting a Polar Bear off the bow of the ship. Most of us leapt out of bed, grabbed something warm, binoculars, cameras, and made for the nearest exit. A dozen or so made it to the bridge. A beautiful big male bear looked up at us, sniffed the air to see exactly what we were, stood upright to get a better view of us, and then slowly walked away, giving us a clear side-on view. What a great start to our day!
During breakfast more bears were sighted, with a count of nine before lunch. The last one was also a large male. He looked very healthy and was pacing about confidently on his solitary icefloe surrounded by water. He sniffed the air and considered retreating to the safety of the water before deciding to stand his ground and give us fantastic close range photo opportunities.
After lunch, we traced the east coast of Wrangel to the north on the lookout for walrus and more Polar Bears. Occasional sightings of bears and sensational wild east coast scenery captured our attention along the way until we anchored in the bay where the saga of the Karluk disaster took place. This intriguing drama was played out as a result of a Canadian High Arctic expedition led by the infamous Vilhjalmur Stefansson.
Stefansson naively (or manipulatively) claimed the Arctic a wonderland of plenty, seeing Inuit cultures thrive there he sold an Arctic Expedition as an uncomplicated venture. Captain Bartlett of North Pole expedition experience (and perhaps the finest available at that time) however had serious doubts about the ship and the organisation of the expedition. By September a motley mix of sailors, scientists and Inuit hunters were stuck fast in the ice. Stefansson announced he was walking to shore to hunt Caribou and disappeared with personnel and the best dogs. He was not seen again by the crew.
The ship was carried a while by the icefloes, but finally sank with Captain Bartlett the last to abandon ship – Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’ playing on his gramophone as it disappeared from view. From here parties were sent out to Herald and Wrangel Islands, reaching Wrangel on 12th March 1914 after a gruelling 20 day trek. With spring fast approaching, they headed south and after 45 days of picking their way across the worst ice Bartlett had ever encountered, they had travelled 320 kilometres to make it to the Siberian Coast.
With replenished supplies, they travelled another 650 kilometres overland to the shore of the Bering Sea and found a ship bound for Alaska. To keep a short story long, pocket knife gangrene surgery, hacksaw blade amputations, murder and starvation beset the survivors left on Wrangel Island. Captain Bartlett finally met the few remaining survivors, who had been picked up by a Russian trading vessel.
Stefansson discovered some Canadian Arctic islands during the Karluk survivor’s hardships, and the First World War provided a convenient distraction from his part in the disastrous affair. He lived out his days in reasonable celebrity but only today is the truth being told – that Bartlett was the real hero.
After a Zodiac cruise through caves and along the shoreline, we took a short walk to explore the site of a survivor’s camp, and then returned to enjoy the comfort of our sturdy ship.
Friday 17th August
We woke early today for one of Rodney’s optional ‘this is a place I’ve always wanted to take a closer look at’ specials. And special it was. The discovery of the unknown is what drives us to go expedition voyaging! Intrepid adventurers wanting to make the most of each opportunity came ashore in calm seas to Clark Creek to explore with us. Alex took off with the budding botanists, Grisha with the fitter crowd and the rest relaxed near the ice draped sea cliffs.
Common Eider females, various reindeer antlers and larger bones were seen around the shallow river mouth. Wrangel Island Rangers accompanied Grisha along the dry side of the exposed riverbed looking for revealed mammoth tusk, which they find almost every day on Wrangel.
Everyone enjoyed the subtle colours and textures of the tundra fabric, and when the clouds lifted distant views of the interior mountain ranges, shadowed in assorted washes of greens and browns were revealed. Rounding the river bend we came upon the arresting sight of a couple of hundred Snow Geese with young amongst them relaxing in soft morning light. These birds were fattening up on tundra blooms in preparation for the migration south. Some of them took to the air giving us amazing photos of white geese silhouetted against the rusty tundra hillsides.
Back on board a very welcome hot breakfast was devoured by all as the anchor was lifted and we set sail for Rogers Bay, a shamble of what was once a small village complete with school, shop and a ‘main street’. Alex led a group of ‘plant people’ to discover the botanical treasures of the area while Grisha and Irina walked with the rest to take a look at the life and history of a place inhabited by man for less than 100 years. Village windows had boards that could be slid into their frames with huge 10 centimetres nails pointing outwards to discourage curious bears from wanting to join dinner parties inside. We noted a new weather station, some memorials and the scattered bones of Mammoth, walrus, reindeer, Musk Ox, Polar Bears and whales resting by a Ranger’s house. A storage shed housed many of the village’s proudest possessions including a new Zodiac, snowmobiles (though many of them were more vintage than modern) and an old ‘bulletproof’ Snow/Cross country 4WD that must be stored for sentimentality rather than any practical use.
Later in the afternoon, we slipped through ice fields to Blossom Bay where we picked up the second group of very happy ‘Overlanders’ who had arrived on a stony spit to shorten the longish Zodiac ride in shallow waters. It was great to see the weary but smiling faces and have the whole team back together on board.
During the evening a study of the latest ice maps sent through from New Zealand, showed that a southerly route towards the Siberian mainland would be best option in what may be a tricky journey back to the Bering Sea.
Saturday 18th August
Today we enjoyed a welcome sleep-in, which was particularly appreciated by the ‘Overlanders’. Following a leisurely breakfast we enjoyed a series of lectures presented on a wide variety of themes by our expedition team.
Alex kicked things off in his engaging, informative, easy-going style, with ‘Botany 101 – An Introduction to Arctic flora’ which gave a colourful overview of the plants and flowers we had seen on this voyage. After a morning tea ‘Grisha the Great’ (the Chukotkan reserve wrestling champ) showed he had brains to go with the brawn, and delivered a scientific lecture on Grey Whales, enlightening the audience with his in-depth knowledge.
Steve’s ‘Great Adaptations – Arctic Survivors’, an eye-opening romp through the surprisingly unique ways creatures great and small manage life in this northern extreme was the subject after lunch.
We arrived at Kolyuchin Island earlier than expected, as the Captain and crew found the going much easier on the southbound journey than anticipated. A staff scout boat went ashore to assess safety regarding Polar Bears, and once they had given the OK, guests were transferred by Zodiac to a gravelly beach in close reach of cliffs of nesting auks (Brunnich’s Guillemots and Horned Puffins), Pelagic Cormorants and various gulls. Here abandoned research station buildings littered a grassy plateau. We all thoroughly enjoyed the excursion in cool conditions, especially being so close to these nesting birds, privy to their view of the world from the cliff tops.
Back on board it was time for social hour in the bar, then yet another great dinner and more socialising afterwards – a good night was had by all.
Sunday 19th August
We made an early start today for Kolyuchin Inlet, where the fresh breeze whipped up the sea and ice washed lazily against the shore. Despite the brisk conditions most of us grabbed another chance to go ashore and explore. This site was littered with the remains of tidal debris and the signs of human settlement – weathered posts, fuel drums and a monument to those who came and never returned home. Nature-wise, particularly endearing Loon chicks brightened our morning.
We lunched back on board while heading south, hoping to visit the Diomedes, sometimes referred to as ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ islands, with Big Diomede and Little Diomede lying either side of the International Date Line. The afternoon entertainment began with a documentary on Polar Bears, featuring hidden camera footage of day to day life over the seasons. It was an intriguing, informative and fun look at the antics of bears in the wild, unaware of our ‘eye’ on them.
Later in the afternoon Katya presented a fascinating lecture on the ‘Indigenous Peoples of Chukotka’, including period photographs, origins of different cultures and the effects of modern assimilation on the original peoples. Meanwhile those on the Bridge spotted two Minke Whales, which appeared in a short cameo in the distance.
Social hour in the bar included a recap of the past few days and a preview of what was to come including the likelihood of seeing walrus (which drew cheers from the crowd) and 30 knot winds expected at sea tomorrow (which drew sighs all round). Most retired early to recharge before the ‘motion on the ocean’ which would invariably greet us as we journeyed south into the Bering Strait.
Monday 20th August
A healthy swell rocked some of us awake and then asleep again as we gently slipped south on rendezvous to Big Diomede. Those staying awake witnessed fair sized waves in the Bering Strait as we slowed to see ‘today’ and ‘tomorrow’ islands, peering through the ‘mists of time’, as it were.
More than half of our party joined Expedition Leader Rodney on the bridge at 5.30am to see this incongruous time warp – standing in Russia looking over to America and backward 20 hours. Rodney asked the officers to steer the ship closer so we could make out the Border Guard buildings on the Russian (Eastern) Island and reminded us that only two miles separated Russia and the U.S.A. at this point.
Early birds also watched squadrons of auks patrolling the ocean surface, occasional Short-tailed Shearwaters, Horned Puffins and Pelagic Cormorants also winging their way past our bridge observation window. Then it was time to head south toward Yttygran Island, where we hoped to find some more walrus and take a late afternoon tundra excursion.
A viewing of an Arctic documentary on Siberia and some of its indigenous descendants and their modern day triumphs and challenges was well received by the group after a late breakfast. Grisha followed up his Grey Whale lecture with ‘Marine Mammals and Sound’, in which he elaborated on different communication and receiving abilities and behaviour – we listened, learned and enjoyed.
Lunch was followed by our resident botanist Alex demonstrating his extensive knowledge in ‘A Longitudinal Transect of Russian Vegetation’ where he gave an overview of the wide diversity of habitats for plants in the region.
We arrived at a known walrus haul out but had no luck finding any this time, but did see some Grey Whales as we moved on south to Yttrgran to take a last nostalgic ‘tiptoe through the tundra’. We would push dinner back a bit to allow plenty of time ashore.
Beautiful last light streamed across the nameless bay on Yttrgran Island. A few Grey Whales quietly feeding in the shallows, their heart shaped blows announcing their presence. On shore we listened to the comic sound of tweeting Pikas (imagine a cross between a rabbit and a mouse) as they communicated our presence to each other from the safety of their burrows. The sensational Woolly Bear Caterpillars (the world’s oldest!) were out in force, feasting on the Arctic willow leaves that would see them through another one of their 13 winter seasons of frozen dormancy.
Alex introduced people to the botanical delights of this area and had them prostrated on the ground taking photographs of the delicate tiny plants which survive against all odds in this harsh climate. We all admired the luscious rusty brown palette of this peaceful bay, inhabited by just a few curious spotted Largha Seals which popped up to see what we were. All too soon it was time to depart this lovely place and we reluctantly made our departure.
Heading south with anchor uplifted we dined contentedly, these last days giving us time to reflect on what we had done, seen and experienced, the new friends made and our eyes opened to the truly magical world that lies beyond the Arctic circle. We were nearing the end of our expedition.
Tuesday 21st August
Calm seas greeted our last day on board together as Katya presented a comparison of Arctic and Antarctic in her ‘World of Contrasts’ lecture this morning. She highlighted the differences and similarities between the Polar Regions, illustrated with sparkling images to enjoy.
Before lunch Rodney presented ‘Saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper’, an often moving and informative account of Heritage Expeditions’ involvement in a project designed to help preserve the last remaining of these lovable birds, which are in such a vulnerable state of existence. At the last lunch engagement for us all, Noel and Monique turned the taste temptations up another notch in appreciation of the excellent feedback they were receiving from grateful guests.
Afternoon provided the chance to tie up final accounts and pre-order drinks for our final night together before we all assembled to enjoy a slideshow of the voyage which captured many of the fun and special moments we had shared along the way. It was a fitting and poignant walk down memory lane for everyone.
After the viewing our Expedition Leader Rodney addressed the group and invited expedition team members to do the same. Many expressed genuine gratitude to the participants for being such a gregarious, fun, warm and participatory group of guests for the shared journey over the past two weeks. A briefing of departure procedures was followed by a final banquet dinner.
Wednesday 22nd August
We arrived here in Russia’s Far East with enquiring minds, seeking uncommon experiences where creatures and landscapes are the stuff of legends.
White whales, seals with teeth a metre long, white ‘ice’ bears, mammoth tusks and flying penguins really do have to be seen to be believed. Paint them on a movie set backdrop of Salvador Dali rustic contours and frozen icescapes that shape this northern world and it is immediately apparent that there is no other place like this on earth.
Into this picture bring the descendants of people who have eked out a meagre existence for thousands of years in tune with nature. Humans who survive in abodes and craft of bone and skin, who dance before you with the spirit that has sustained them through the ages.
Somehow our journey to this place had crossed over from the ‘real’ life at home to a world previously known only in our imagination. It was now time to cross back, but we would do it with full hearts and so many stories to tell.
25 JULY - 8 AUGUST 2012
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Wednesday 25th July
A fresh breeze and mild conditions accompanied the first day of our expedition as participants arrived from all corners of the world.
Those arriving into Anadyr from Nome, Alaska, were on schedule and were met by expedition team member Katya with picnic lunches and a briefing on the afternoon activities. We were whisked off to the local ferry, where we had great views of Beluga Whales. These beautiful white adults and grey calves were enjoying inshore currents in the protective shallow waters. Spotted Seals, always curious of any surface action, popped their heads up to check us out.
Behind Anadyr's pastel coloured renovated and newer buildings lies the hidden and intriguing story of Chukotka. The story begins with ancient indigenous coastal people surviving various political agendas aimed at cultural suppression, socialism and mineral exploitation. Later come tales of revolution, the breakup of the U.S.S.R. and then the more recent benevolent influence of a Russian billionaire who became the local Governor. We had a brief chance to explore the city including a visit to the museum and the surprisingly fashion conscious street style of this relatively wealthy administrative capital.
Meanwhile the second wave of expeditioners had arrived from Moscow. So far all had gone to plan. As the day became afternoon, the wind picked up and strong tidal currents created messy sea conditions in Anadyr Bay. The local harbourmaster then suspended all water traffic, so passengers accompanied by Katya and Alex from the expedition team were denied the use of the ferry to board the Spirit of Enderby. Meanwhile, Expedition Leader Rodney and Captain Alexander liaised with the harbourmaster for several hours during the frustrating delay ashore. Close to 10pm the party was allowed to transfer to the ship and a late dinner was served. After a glass of wine and a few warm showers, the setback was behind us and we looked ahead to our great adventure together.
Thursday 26th July
Anadyrskiy Bay and Cape Aachen
We were lured to the dining room by the smell of fresh coffee and a hot cooked breakfast at the leisurely hour of 8.30am to begin the new day as we sailed north-east from the Gulf of Anadyr towards Provedeniya. Our first full day on board gave us a chance to unpack, learn more about the ship and formally meet the staff who would be guiding us 'Across the Top of the World'. We gathered in the Lecture Theatre mid morning for an orientation talk where Rodney introduced himself and other members of the team including the creators of the delicious treats from the galley, chefs Noel and Monique. Doctor Stephen made good use of his introduction to stress safety and in particular the 'one hand for the ship at all times' philosophy. Cruise Director Marieke provided information on subjects varying from email accounts to on board shopping and meal times. The Lifeboat briefing was extensive and we all felt ready for anything.
After this intensive information intake it was time to top up energy reserves at lunch and then suitably weakened from good food, surrender landing fees and passports, which would streamline probable Border Guard meetings along the way. Rodney later prepared us for Zodiac travel and whetted our appetites for the range of exciting possibilities that lay ahead in his 'Overview of the Expedition'.
The ship's whistle cranked up the volume for the practical lifeboat drill, and adorned in orange foam we proceeded in an orderly fashion to the orange life boats. During the exercise we wondered about lifeboat bathroom etiquette and decided to let it remain a mystery!
As afternoon eased into evening, our first invitation to venture out in the Zodiacs arrived. A half moon hung above soft sunlit fog as we approached the cliffs of Cape Aachen to the arresting sights and sounds of thousands of nesting auks and gulls. The geology of fluted granites, rising in layers of columns and clefts, was quite beautiful in itself, but the myriad bird species stole the show. Murres, kittiwakes, guillemots and lovable Tufted Puffins were nesting precariously on ledges in endless rows where they could enjoy the bounty of the rich Russian coast. Each species has its own niche, higher or lower on the cliffs to nest, deeper or shallower divers for ocean prey, allowing each to co-exist and live well in safe lofty nesting sites, free from the nimble approach of Arctic Fox. Predatory gulls keep natures balance. We saw a gull steal a murres egg, drop it accidentally, then swoop down and catch it just before it met sea surface.
The auk family are unique in their ability to dive deeply like heavier southern penguins, yet remain light enough to fly well too. They are a treat to watch, with back legs splayed out in flight, looking awkward but endearing and giving pause to ponder that penguins once looked like this before specialising further. Flocks moved across the vista in unison, but from time to time solitary Pigeon Guillemots still stole our attention, their restful black and white plumage set off by astonishingly red feet.
It was a great first experience to sit quietly for a moment and take in the scene of thousands of birds commuting from nest to sea and return, silhouetted against the soft blue sky.
We shared experiences over a pre dinner drink back on board, followed by a delicious dinner. Most then retired early to catch up on much needed sleep and dream of more adventures to come.
Friday 27th July
Brilliant sunshine at 2.30 am greeted early risers as we anchored in calm waters off Yttrgran Island.
After a healthy breakfast, Rodney began the day with what was to become our regular morning briefing on the activities planned for the day. This was followed by an overview of the cultural significance of our first landing by Katya, and Grigory's Grey Whale talk.
We were soon out in the Zodiacs for a quick trip to shore where we began exploring. Previous landings here offered sightings of Wolverine and brown bear, so while staff kept one eye on the surrounds, guests relaxed and enjoyed the freedom to explore this mysterious setting. Our first sight was of multiple rib bones of Bowhead Whales standing upright in the earth, creating a promenade of several hundred metres with tundra hills for a backdrop. We had arrived at 'Whalebone Alley', once a central shrine to many nearby island villages. It is thought that the bones may have been a processional route used by these shamanic sea-hunting peoples for rituals and ceremonies as early as the 14th Century. Only recently re-discovered in 1976, it is one of the most significant ceremonial sites in the Arctic.
Natural stones on the site have been arranged to create about 150 meat storage pits for harvested walrus and whale meat, and perhaps also used for ceremonial burnings. Around 60 Bowhead Whale skulls (two tonnes each in weight) also littered the grassy foreshore in symbolic groups of two or four. The work involved in arranging them another indication of the importance of this place to its worshippers. Everyone found something to intrigue or cause reflection, including a hardy dozen of the 'flower power crowd' who took on the challenge to climb a nearby rocky outcrop for a higher view with our botanist Alex. One of our number really got into the natural spirit of things and took a dip in the icy waters.
Grey Whales frequent shallow coastal feeding grounds along much of the Russia's northeast coast, so off we went in search of their characteristic heart shaped blows. Five Zodiacs full of eyes scanning the horizon for a sign of these creatures which are still legally hunted by native Chukotkan peoples in sustainable numbers, respecting centuries old traditions. We came with a gentler agenda, to catch a glimpse of these graceful animals, to capture an image and delight in being witness to these sea giants in their natural world. Patience was finally rewarded with some fairly close views of the whales busy feeding below and surfacing for air regularly as we watched. Those close enough to smell the whales' outbreath were gifted with a good sniff of their seafood diet - a delightful aroma!
An easy cruise in midday sun brought us alongside island sea cliffs teeming with feathered activity. Perched on ledges were various species of guillemots, murres, Pelagic Cormorants, kittiwakes and gulls, both on the nest and on the wing. A pair of Harlequin Ducks paraded past and a Crested Auklet (the bird world version of Elvis) strutted his stuff. Lunch was followed by a tundra walk with options to soak in natural thermal pools, enjoy summer wild flowers or simply wander at leisure and admire the stark yet beautiful mountain scenery, reminiscent of a Salvador Dali painting. Another great dinner along with a birthday celebration was trumped by vivid pink sunset hues over the edge of Siberia.
Saturday 28th July
It was an early start for an interesting day ahead. Overcast and foggy skies created an appropriate atmosphere for our approach to Cape Dezhnev. This was once a Cold War military watch station and the most easterly point of Eurasia. A pair of timid walrus appeared and disappeared as fast as breakfast.
The cape is named after Semyon Dezhnev, a Cossack and hired protector for one of the most important Arctic expeditions ever undertaken. In 1648 the rich Russian fur trade prompted Moscow to act on rumours of untold wealth of fur bearing animals, walrus and mammoth ivory in the Anadyr region of the Russian Far East. Wealthy Moscow merchants put together a fleet of seven small sailing ships to discover a sea route across the top of Russia seeking these treasures.
On arrival in Chukotka after five ships had already been wrecked, Dezhnev and a prominent merchant guided the two surviving boats through the Bering Strait and the Pacific Ocean. A further wreck left Dezhnev alone, and he was forced to overwinter twice inland of Anadyr before a remarkable unscheduled rendezvous with another independent expedition that had arrived overland from Moscow. Dezhnev eventually retired in Moscow on a pension granted in honour of his discoveries.
Our own Expedition Leader Rodney had prepared us for potentially tricky conditions (thankfully less so than Dezhnev faced), letting us know the cape's open position was exposed to swells from all directions. We were hoping for calm seas so we could access the coast.
Unfortunately conditions were not kind enough to allow us to land here and so we bid farewell to the small huddle of abandoned patrol buildings decaying on a fast eroding shoreline amid monuments honouring fallen Russian sailors, Dezhnev and neighbouring Inuit Eskimo peoples. One of the oldest Eskimo villages in the area lies deserted inland from here.
We were enthralled by two great lectures during the morning. Firstly Grigory gave us a detailed understanding of wonderful Grey Whales and then Rodney spoke about the 'Russification of Siberia'. In this talk he illuminated the chequered attempts at conquering Russia's remote east, in a broad tapestry from Ivan 'the Terrible', to fur traders, to assimilation of peaceful native cultures.
Soon after lunch we transferred to Uelen village, a tiny Chukchi outpost of scattered buildings, the farthest settlement in north-east Russia and home to 800 people. The village has had a marine mammal harvesting culture for at least 2,000 years and welcomed us with many children on shore plainly delighted at our visit. We sat in a school classroom and were informed by the teacher about the importance placed on teaching indigenous Chukchi culture to village children. We were shown galleries of local photographs, cultural items and a breathtaking display of finely carved ivory, a few for sale which were snapped up by some of the group. A lively performance of dances evoking daily Chukchi life was presented in the village hall and at the end of a memorable visit we were farewelled by the village children waving goodbye on the shore. Small numbers of walrus, Humpback Whales and Largha Seals were spotted out at sea delighting those on the outer decks.
Social drinks, a recap of highlights and dinner, followed by a gathering of wildlife connoisseurs to recount the day's sightings led us one sleep closer to Wrangel Island.
Sunday 29th July
Today's excitement began around 2am when the unusual movement of the Spirit of Enderby navigating an ice maze woke many. Bleary eyed they appeared on deck to photograph the sunrise and enjoy the view as we made our way towards Kolyuchin Island. The early risers who braved the chill were rewarded with views of Humpback and Bowhead whales and even a few walrus.
A staff scout boat went ashore at Kolyuchin Island after breakfast to assess safety regarding Polar Bears. Once the all clear was given, guests were transferred to a gravelly beach in close reach of cliffs of nesting auks (mostly Brünnich's Guillemots and Horned Puffins), Pelagic Cormorants and various gulls. Abandoned research station buildings littered a grassy plateau and we noted Polar Bear paw prints on one of the windows! While ice made the approach to the island tricky, everyone enjoyed the excursion in relatively mild and occasionally sunny conditions.
Back on board we steadily picked our way towards Wrangel Island through what was an unusually large amount of ice for the time of year. Ice conditions dictated our clearest approach to the island was to make our way slightly west, then turn north during the night to avoid even thicker sea-ice. A variety of whales and seals were spotted from the Bridge and outer decks including Northern Minke, Bowheads, walrus and Largha Seals.
After a scrumptious lunch, Steve offered us a presentation on adaptations of Arctic wildlife and Katya deepened our understanding of the many differences between Antarctica and the Arctic in her lecture 'A World of Contrasts', providing education and entertainment to pass the afternoon.
During social hour in the bar, Rodney explained progress and plans based on regular ice map data arriving from the 'outside world', Grigory talked about myths of Bowhead Whales and Katya shared her knowledge on Polar Bear behaviour and awareness.
Monday 30th July
After much discussion last night regarding Polar Bears, we all awoke this morning full of expectation of the chance to spot Polar Bears in their prime hunting habitat of sea ice. This was a definite upside of the ice conditions and to her credit, our sturdy Spirit of Enderby pressed on steadily through heavy ice as we all enjoyed photographing walrus and Ringed Seals and searched intently for the first distant Polar Bears. We were all excited by the true expedition conditions of our journey, the ice well and truly cleaning any hitch-hiking barnacles off the hull as we ground our way through the sea-ice.
Soon after breakfast, attention diverted from the outdoors for Alex's informative lecture on the flora of Russia, an eye-opening account of the incredible variety of micro-habitats supporting a huge variety of plants in this unique region.
After a quick hour on the decks and a cup of tea, Grigory described the communication signals and singing of marine mammals in the lecture theatre. Learning about how whales, dolphins and seals send, receive and use sound, gave us a greater appreciation of these creatures, whose secret lives remain so hidden from view. During this lecture the Bridge notified us of a Polar Bear nearby, so there was a spontaneous intermission while we all raced out to see a bear disappear into the water.
A yummy three course lunch satisfied our bear-like appetites and then our wilderness expedition turned urban as Marieke opened the 'Ship Shop' for the shopaholics in need of a little retail therapy. Who would have thought you could find fridge magnets, tee shirts and possum socks at such reasonable prices, so close to the North Pole!
Late afternoon saw the third in a hat-trick of lectures designed to fully prepare us for the wonderful experiences ahead at Wrangel Island when Katya filled us in on island history and gave us a taste of what was to come. Another Polar Bear was sighted moving across the ice and the upper decks and bridge filled with the excited hum of humans admiring this majestic creature. Good views of walrus pairs and triplets appeared occasionally as we made our way north, finally sighting land before dinner to the delight of all. After dinner the beautiful soft light drew many to outer decks to take in remote stillness.
During the evening Rodney and Katya went ashore to co-ordinate the Overland Traverse excursions which get underway early tomorrow. We slept well knowing we had arrived through a record ice year - the most summer sea ice since the 1970's - and were grateful for the Expedition Leaders' commitment to holding fast to a belief we'd make it through.
Tuesday 31st July
Marieke treated us to an early wake-up call this morning for our first day anchored off Wrangel Island. We gathered on deck and enjoyed watching seals and walrus, then went ashore escorted by a lone Grey Whale that cruised the shallow waters.
Overlanders - those hardy few who had opted to take a rangers guided 4WD tour across the island - prepared themselves with a briefing and familiarised themselves with camping equipment that would come in handy for their journey. The purpose built ranger's vehicle was loaded, food and equipment tied down, and the lucky five expeditioners climbed aboard for a unique opportunity to experience the heart of the island. Away they went with Grigory in tow, to help translate and show off his extensive culinary skills.
Those of us left in their wake were determined not to be left out and created our own mini overland excursion (albeit in gumboots) and check out some of the many old buildings in the vicinity. Katya took some more energetic members of the party for a longer walk in the direction of some Musk Oxen we could see keeping their distance from us on the horizon. Alex took flower lovers for a botanical stroll to investigate the summer blooms of the rare and exotic tundra species. Like the Pied Piper, his following seemed to grow with each outing. The rest of us stayed closer to the landing site, finding much to interest us including a Musk Ox skull and skeleton, lemming tracks and their foraging remains revealed after the snow melt, and various tundra birds winging by.
We were told that in 2010 an extreme sea-ice retreat left many Polar Bears on Wrangel in a state of starvation and found evidence of excavations bears had made to find scurrying Lemmings, which they would normally never bother to eat - a sign of desperate times. Irina, a scientist who lives much of her time on Wrangel, kindly showed those interested the inside of one of the science huts.
Afternoon sailing included cameo appearances of Polar Bears, many walrus, several Ringed Seals and a Minke Whale. Polar Bears sharing a seal meal were a big drawcard keeping everyone on the upper decks so late that Monique and Noel kindly put dinner on hold until all had their hunger for wildlife viewing satiated. A Russian Beer, fine food and good company rounded out a varied and special day.
Wednesday 1st August
How many days can you wake up and watch four Polar Bears eating breakfast before you do? We did just that, and were privy to the social interaction between hungry competitors for seal meat. Despite the competition we had to admire their willingness to co-operate and allow occasional shared meals which ultimately may prove essential to their survival.
Unlike the bears, our breakfast consisted of croissants and coffee, muesli, bacon and eggs. Like them we also fed shoulder to shoulder, but without quite so much growling or clawing. Then, dropping the Zodiacs into the icy sea, we slipped quietly towards them for a closer look. The two bears still feeding were shy and retreated to the water as we approached, but not before most of us had taken some excellent photos. We re-boarded the ship and made our way to Blossom Bay where we dropped anchor. Here we visited a hut surrounded by walrus skulls and whalebones where Nikita Ovsyanikov studied Polar Bears and made a documentary of this work.
Rodney led the 'calorie burner - take no prisoners' march in search of spontaneous points of interest, Katya a separate walk with other perspectives in a different direction and Alex with his buoyant band of botanisers, crawled about on hands and knees, looking more like a group of prostrating pilgrims, than expeditioners. The heavy ice conditions offshore meant bears were more likely to be hunting seals away from land, but the expedition team still maintained a watchful eye on the surrounds.
As we enjoyed lunch back on board, the ship travelled west, attempting to find a way through sea ice to a rendezvous with the Overlanders. However nature eventually dictated that we must return to the original drop-off point while enjoying views of Ringed and Bearded Seals and numerous walrus females with young enjoying their summer migration.
In the late afternoon we were privileged to see the documentary filmed by Nikita Ovsyanikov, Russia's foremost Polar Bear expert, whose hut we had visited earlier. Personal, informative and surprisingly intimate experiences of close encounters with Polar Bears kept all eyes keenly focussed on this gentleman's observations of nature's Arctic King. The footage was enhanced by his insightful commentary on their behaviour driven by extreme exposure to the elements, danger and isolation.
After the movie, boats sped off over glassy seas towards Cape Doubtful to pick up returning Overlanders and transfer five new explorers to replace them. Returning Overlanders were full of stories about their wonderful experiences of Musk Oxen, Snowy Owls, Arctic Foxes, blooming wild flowers and a deeper awareness of what treasures lay hidden behind the low coastal hills on this magical island.
In the evening recap of day, Rodney, Katya and Alex expanded on various themes and talked about the challenges of itinerary planning in such harsh ice conditions. This was a good reminder to us all of how expedition voyaging is an unpredictable beast which needs constant monitoring.
Thursday 2nd August
Overnight we continued to sail along the south coast of Wrangel Island, this time towards the east, with a 'to be determined' meeting place in mind for our second platoon of intrepid overlanders. Thick fog set in during the early hours and due to the icy and in the interests of safety, we slowed down to drift for a while, waking this morning to a wonderful mosaic of aqua coloured ice floes, kissing the hull on all sides.
After a lovely hot breakfast complemented by fresh fruit, we were briefed on the outline for the day, and soon arrived at Rodgers Bay, a shamble of what was once a small village, complete with school, shop and a 'main street'. Alex took the 'plant people' to the left, while Katya and Irina walked with the rest of us to the right, offering an intimate view of life and history in a place inhabited by man for less than 100 years. Village windows had boards that could be slid into their frames with huge 10 cm nails pointing outwards to discourage curious bears from joining the dinner parties inside. We visited a new weather station and saw the scattered bones of mammoth, walrus, reindeer, Musk Ox, Polar Bears and whales. A storage shed housed many of the village's proudest possessions - a new Zodiac, snowmobiles (though many were more vintage than reliable high powered transport) and an old 'bulletproof' 4WD that must have been stored more for sentimentality than any practical use.
After lunch we watched another Polar Bear from the ship and then Anatoly (a ranger on board to oversee travel within the Wrangel protected zone) gave a very enlightening talk on 'Life on Wrangel Island'. It was interesting to hear about his personal wildlife experiences, and hear about the hardship of long, cold, dark winters from someone living semi-permanently in the Arctic.
Katya and Irina led a walk in the tundra to see Snowy Owls, Common Eiders and their chicks and the strange and interesting polygonal patterns made by permafrost freeze and thaw, while Alex took the chance to do some more exploring with photosynthetic friends. Later in the afternoon Irina, a scientist specialising in behavioural ecology, gave an excellent presentation illustrated with her own spectacular photos. She gave a deep and thorough analysis of both of her chosen specialty species, the Arctic Fox and Snowy Owl. Those present felt privileged to look through the window she opened into the lives of these Arctic creatures and the relationship between them.
After dinner it was time to relax and welcome back Grigory and our second bunch of Overlanders. We retired to our cabins hoping that the ice would be kind for our journey south and were rocked gently to sleep by the quiet hum of the engines.
Friday 3rd August
Crystal clear conditions created beautiful reflections of ice in the blue ocean as we moved with the currents through a challenging but workable passage south toward the North Siberian coastline. Another delicious breakfast was followed by a very close encounter with a Polar Bear which even followed the ship for a few minutes as we slid through the ice maze. It's always a special day when bears turn up out of what appears to be an endless horizon of ice. This encounter had everyone abuzz and talking about how incredibly at home they are in this rich, yet seemingly foreign landscape for a once land mammal.
Steve got the day's education underway with his presentation on walrus the 'Tooth-walker'. We had seen many around Wrangel Island and were hoping to see more hauled out on the Chukotka coast on our return journey. After morning tea, Alex brightened up our day with an excellent lecture on the Adaptation of Arctic plants - a colourful screening of the amazing variety of conditions met and overcome by a surprising array of plants and flowers.
In between lectures everyone made the most of the views from the Bridge and decks, snapping photos of several Ringed Seals, at times close enough to see the whole body beneath the water surface and sometimes just spy-hopping to take a look at us. Many Bearded Seals were also sighted, often hauled out on the ice, and we were thinking it was only a matter of time before we would see their main predator. Sure enough more Polar Bears came into view as the day unfolded.
After lunch Katya took centre stage to present us with a comprehensive presentation entitled 'What is the future for Polar Bears?' Katya tackled big questions including climate, evolution and behaviour of these intriguing and beautiful animals, providing much food for thought.
Most of the group spent the afternoon on deck, while others grabbed forty winks or sorted through photos in the library. Later in the day Part One of a new documentary on Russia was screened, before the daily social gathering in the bar provided a chance to snap up items the Wrangel Island Rangers had provided for sale to raise funds to support their World Heritage site.
Rodney outlined the plan for a landing tomorrow at Kolyuchin Inlet and possibly another as yet unexplored site. Grigory gave a detailed account of the experiences of both groups of Wrangel 'Overlanders' and Katya gave a warm and timely farewell to Wrangel Island. John, one of the expedition guests, unexpectedly stepped forward and presented Rodney with a signed copy of Stefansson's original 'Journey to Wrangel Island' which was very gratefully received.
During the evening we watched the Russian icebreaker Yamal slip past at a distance - a good sign that the Spirit of Enderby was mixing it with the best in this ice! An orange sunset over sea ice signalled that is was time to reflect and recharge for more great natural encounters come the morning light.
Saturday 4th August
The beautiful blaze of colour last night had been a good omen and we awoke to Marieke's dulcet tones, gently letting us know that a brilliant sunny day lay just the other side of our sleepy eyelids. After breakfast we donned our lighter expedition clothing and ventured ashore at Onman Point seeking Brown Bears. An early riser among us had spotted one on shore at 6 am. There were tracks of a female and cub, and tracks of Arctic Fox and Wolverine along the shoreline, but alas no bears. We did see some Red-necked Stint picking through tidal pools in water runoffs and Alex and the Photo-synthesisers (no, not a new Arctic rock group) wandered and discovered three new species for their trip. Some of the group climbed through the boggy, lush Tundra to view a shipwreck rusting on shore while others lay like basking seals on the beach.
After lunch it was time to catch the second episode of our 'Russia' documentary, an interesting modern look at many aspects of life, people and country in this great land. Then it was time to launch the Zodiacs and go exploring in Kolyuchin Inlet, on a search of waterfowl, migratory waders and hopefully the elegant Emperor Goose. The sunshine persisted through light wispy clouds so people reached for sunhats for their afternoon soiree. Still waters made for easy spotting of a Grey Whale upon departure followed by a pleasant cruise to the shore where we explored the wetlands finding all manner of marine mammal bones scattered about. We noted a fox den, active Arctic Ground Squirrel burrows, cool mosaic tundra flora, the jawbone of an ermine (weasel, Stoat), varied old signs of habitation and plenty of fresh brown bear tracks.
On the way back to the ship some curious Spotted Seals popped up to check us out and a Minke Whale surfaced to say hello. It was time for some social chit chat in the bar, dinner to top off an excellent spot of summer weather and a warm welcome to the Russian mainland.
Sunday 5th August
A welcome sleep-in and later than usual breakfast was our reward for the recent active full days. With our second crack at Cape Dezhnev due at 11 am (the weather had been too unfriendly on the way north to Wrangel), we squeezed in the 3rd instalment of the 'Russia' documentary after breakfast.
This time the weather was kind, with the swell abating for us to go ashore at the cape and most people chose to join the adventure. A stern (reverse) landing made it more comfortable to disembark, though not for Rodney and Alex who were up to their shoulders in freezing water to steady incoming Zodiacs. A fresh breeze blew through the Bering Strait and the sun shone brightly through misty sea conditions to add atmosphere and great light to this mysteriously intriguing place.
The isolated, deserted cluster of houses including memorials to explorer heroes and international 'co-operation' was once a Cold War outpost and had all the atmosphere of such a place. Yet, looking deeper, one could sense the ancient origins of Eskimo peoples who once lived their lives in a village just inland from this spot. Depressions in the ground showed the outlines of Eskimo dwellings, with scattered rock wall fragments stimulating the imagination further. Crested Auklets on the wing observed the shuttling Zodiacs.
Back on board, a few relaxed, read more in a favourite book, meditatively continued complex embroidery or relaxed with a hot cup of tea and enjoyed doing nothing save reflect on the journey and delight in the seabirds about the ship. Departing Cape Dezhnev we travelled a short distance to Big Diomede Island, just one nautical mile from yesterday. Yes, trying to understand how it works wasn't easy, but of course the International Date Line lay just a few metres to the east and here we truly sat in tomorrow, looking back at yesterday through misty glasses.
With some friendly negotiation we managed to secure a rare acceptance on the part of the Russian Border Guards to Zodiac along the coast of their island. Someone imagined they'd seen a Polar Bear, but of course it was highly unlikely for an 'ice bear' to be this far south. However it did turn out to be a Polar Bear! Left behind by the retreating ice, it was going to be a very tough summer for an animal that normally needs an icy platform from which to hunt seals, its main prey. The bear sighted us and quickly took to hiding among large boulders at the base of steep cliffs. Our attention turned to the cliffs which were alive with seabirds of every description. Lovable Horned Puffins flew precariously with splayed legs toward feeding grounds. Others spluttered helplessly across the water surface, their moulting process making it difficult to get airborne. Stylish Tufted Puffins were also about, guillemots in countershaded rows packed the ledges and ravens swooped from lofty perches to seek weaker prey. Gulls relaxed in suitable nooks, Pigeon Guillemots, black, white and red sat silently enjoying their own company. A family of Harlequin Ducks hushed along the secluded shoreline and Parakeet and Least Auklets littered the passage back to ship.
Monday 6th August
The temperature rose considerably as we left the Arctic Ocean and pack ice, well to the north of us now, though yesterday's Polar Bear sighting reminded us that this may be as warm as it gets any time of year and that the ice was closer than it felt today. Marieke confirmed the days rosy prospects when she announced the ship thermometers were recording a tropical 15°! Hot bagels, fresh fruit and coffee got our engines started and we found our way into a sheltered harbour and dropped anchor. Protected from southerly winds that were whipping the sea's surface, we disembarked shore side for optional walks in untouched, remote, tundra hills with patches of late spring snow still thawing in places.
Katya and Grigory led some, including birders upstream looking for wading birds, while Rodney and Alex made an unlikely combination of burly mountain climbers and gentle flower seekers. Others ambled along the waters edge, taking it easy and enjoying the glacially scoured scenery while investigating the various treasures the sea washed up. The groups were shuttled back to the ship as they returned. The mountaineers and sprightly leotarded plant people returned, agleam with the rosy cheeks of those that had seen breathless views, had an eye to eye standoff with an Arctic Hare and scrambled to the highest point they could find.
Good food rolled out as we did for lunch - it was a chance to gather ourselves and watch a further instalment of the 'Russia' series as an afternoon matinee, while the very capable crew sailed on towards our afternoon destination. Two Minke Whales slipped quietly past our ship to the delight of those watching at the time. We were welcomed on arrival at the southern end of Yttygran Island in sheltered, still conditions by Minke Whales, slowly cruising by us on the surface. As the Minke moved on, a Grey Whale slipped through the scenery, enjoying the rich feeding grounds.
More exploring was on the agenda, so we all went ashore, with harder walking options, tundra botany and beachcombing all on the menu. The sun shone eerily orange through burnt skies, perhaps due to fires in the south or volcanic soot being swept north on prevailing winds. Varied discoveries included a fossilised walrus tusk, a Horned Puffin beak, whalebones, Sandhill Cranes and great views from the higher places.
Returning to Spirit of Enderby, a good vibe in the group told the story of a day well spent and duly celebrated with a social drink (or two) in the bar and a good night's rest. Tomorrow would be spent at sea as we travelled south towards the end of our adventure.
Tuesday 7th August
During the night back out in the exposed Bering Sea, we rolled a little, but certainly nothing like the Southern Ocean. We were rocked gently awake on an even swell and made our way to breakfast as the ship made its way past Provedeniya on the way to Anadyr. Today would give us a chance to take a breath and relive the weeks we had shared together.
Mid morning saw the final episode of the popular 'Russia' series screened, which satisfied our craving for some 'outside world' type entertainment while filling in more of the picture of the Russia we had already experienced. Rodney then responded to a request by many to talk about the work of Heritage Expeditions on behalf of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, a native of this region. Heritage is doing very important work as a 'Species Champion' to save this critically endangered bird.
Lunch was provided as usual by the dynamic duo of Noel and Monique, who throughout the voyage had offered us magnificent meals. Then it was time to start packing, tie up some loose ends, finalise accounts and attend a briefing on departure plans for the morning in Anadyr. Rodney then used a wall map to talk us through the various places we had visited and some of the expedition team took the opportunity to wish everyone well on their onward journeys.
Then, on this our final afternoon, came the chance to relax and reminisce over our voyage slideshow, a collation of photos from the expedition brilliantly put together by Katya and shown on the big screen in the Lecture Theatre with evocative musical themes. It was a great reminder of the places, characters and moments we enjoyed together and the memories we would take home with us. Afterwards most guests retired to the bar requesting a copy of the presentation, and there we all stayed for our last pre-dinner social gathering. After a delicious seafood buffet and one last recap from Alex on the buds and blooms discovered on this expedition, we watched the escort of Northern Fulmars gliding effortlessly silhouetted against a flaming sky as we slipped into Anadyr Bay.
Our great adventure was now over, but the photographs and memories would linger a lifetime.
Wednesday 8th August
The Nome bound expeditioners started early with a last breakfast on the ship, followed by a sunny walk across Anadyr's wharf with bags in tow towards a final encounter with the Anadyr River. There they boarded the 'good ferry Kamchatka' and were escorted on the crossing by the ever present Beluga Whales which frolicked in the shallow waters.
The Moscow bound expeditioners relaxed for a few extra hours aboard the Spirit of Enderby, then they too made the river journey to the airport and their homebound flight.
Our great adventure was now over, but the photographs and memories would linger a lifetime.
The flight from Nome arrived into Anadyr, Russia to what began as a nice day. From the ferry to town we saw Beluga whales and Largha seals in the river. While waiting to board our ship, the Spirit of Enderby we explored the town and visited the museum, shopping center, and photographed a large, impressive wooden church. There was a kind of ship graveyard offshore that appeared to serve as a breakwater.
The weather, unfortunately, quickly deteriorated over the course of the day and when the ship’s Zodiacs picked us up on shore later in the afternoon it was wet and windy. The flight from Moscow arrived after the Nome flights, and the weather had become so rough that the Harbor Master suspended the Zodiac shuttles. Instead, the ferry brought the last group of guests directly to the ship. Finally we were all aboard and settled into our cabins on the Spirit of Enderby, also known as the Professor Khromov, our home for the next two weeks’ during our exploration of the Russian Far East. We were advised that a hot dinner awaited us in the dining room, after which most of us were off to our beds for a good night’s sleep following the long travel day.
We had rough seas all night sailing from Anadyrsky Bay into the Bering Sea and northwards along the coast. We were given a trip briefing by our Expedition Leader, Aaron Russ. After which Marie, our Cruise Director and Hotel Manager, gave us the details of shipboard life and an explanation of how things worked on the cruise. The rest of the staff introduced themselves, including our guides, Adam and Laurie, Chefs, Brad and Simon, our physician for the voyage, Dr. Tom and our onboard photographic specialist Ewen.
Later in the morning we attended the Zodiac briefing in preparation for cruising and shore excursions. After lunch we finally came to a calm anchorage behind Cape Achchen and boarded the Zodiacs to put into practice what we had learned in the briefing.
A really rare and noteworthy wildlife sighting was credited to Dean who saw a wolverine at the top of a ridge during the walk. Several other people got a good look at it before it disappeared. We walked to the top of the ridge and other nature observations included Northern wheatears, a Dunlin, and many arctic wildflowers. We got to taste crowberries, blueberries, and cloudberries. The constant drizzle did little to dampen our excitement of our first Zodiac cruise and shore excursion, and we returned to the ship looking forward to our next adventure.
The next adventure, however -- if you could call it that -- was the mandatory lifeboat drill. Everyone executed the drill with precision and then it was off to dinner as the ship weighed anchor and set off from Cape Achchen. We were again rocked by southerly winds and swells, but it was definitely calmer than earlier in the day.
This morning we disembarked at a place called ‘Gilmimyl’ for hiking, tundra exploration, and even a dip in a hot spring. On our hikes we could hear Sandhill cranes, but they were difficult to spot. At the hot springs a number of people climbed into the rustic tub that had been constructed and soaked in the warm, steaming water. The tundra was bright with many late summer flowers including the yellow Bog saxifrage, many daisies, willowherbs, and tiny, red cranberry leaves that looked like flower petals.
On the tundra back from the shore a Chukchi fisherman, Ivan, had his summer camp. He netted and smoked salmon that he caught at the mouth of the river. He was there with his sister, Tonya, and some other people from Moscow who were hunting whales with another Chukchi. Tonya invited us into an “Uranga,” a large tent made of reindeer hides stretched over a wooden framework, and she told us it had taken her a long, long time to sew all the skins together. We sat down on bear and reindeer furs around a smokey fire stoked with dried heather, and then Ivan invited us to see the main house and how he lived.
The wooden house was very cosy with a long table and benches on either side and a bunk bed along the wall. His tomcat had run up to greet us in the tundra, and now scurried ahead into the house and up to the top bunk where he playfully grabbed at Lynn’s hand. There were family photos on the wall, and a stove with a kettle in the corner. Outside the house several ground squirrels almost ran over our feet and we thought it odd they were so unafraid until Ivan told us they fed them.
Ivan was a very gracious host and offered us bread with butter, tea, and a tart salad made of scurvy grass collected from the beach. He proudly showed us his salmon smoker and explained that the fish were split, cleaned, smoked overnight, and then air dried when the weather allowed. He gave us several of the dried fish and we pulled chunks of the delicious pink meat from the skin. We offered some to Tonya who just made a face and a slashing motion over her throat, indicating that you could get too much of a good thing.
Later in the day we anchored off Yttygran Island and “Whalebone Alley,” one, if not the most significant archaeological site in all the Arctic. The white columns of the few Bowhead Whale jaw bones still standing could be seen from the ship. On shore it was obvious that there were far fewer than shown in old photos of the site when there were enough to demarcate a kind of alleyway that gave the place its popular name. In other places such lines of jaw bones were used to store skin boats off the ground, but here it is believed the bones served purely ceremonial purposes. Just along the beach crest there was a rough line of whale skulls, but it was a mystery whether or not these had been positioned intentionally, or were just left where they ended up from the whales that were hauled in. At the far end of the site there was a rectangular pit encircled by three whale skulls and carefully walled in with flat beach stones. We could only speculate as to the purpose of the pit, obviously constructed with a lot of care.
After exploring the evidence of the human history of the site, we turned our attention to the surrounding natural history. Huge, furry bumblebees visited the deep blue Monkshood flowers, Pika’s chirped and skittered across the jumble of rocks in the center of the site, and on a long hike up to a ridge between two low hills we spotted a Gyrfalcon. Even the beach was interesting with scattered walrus bones and many intriguing marine invertebrate egg cases and remains.
Back at the ship the day concluded with recap and dinner and the continuation of our journey northward to the top of the world.
Shortly after breakfast we anchored off Cape Dezhnev, the easternmost point of the Eurasian Continent. There were some large swells coming onshore at the Cape from the southerly winds, and two Zodiacs with staff were launched to check out the landing. Closer inspection from the Zodiacs, and from the rocky beach as well, revealed there was no suitable landing spot, not even at a small section that was usually protected by a rock outcrop. The scouting group returned with the news that we would cancel the landing for now and do an hour’s Zodiac cruise along the coast instead.
It was a brilliantly sunny day. Here in the Bering Strait whales, seals, and seabirds are concentrated into a narrow water passage as they travel north or south; at its narrowest point, the Strait is only 85 kilometres, or 53 miles wide. Not only did the myriad of seabirds keep our interest, but the geology of the coastal cliffs as well. Most of what we saw were sedimentary layers that had been compacted and heated and metamorphosed into dramatic forms and colors. Cruising along we were treated to an ever-changing panoply of the rugged coastline of the edge of the world’s largest continent.
Back onboard the Spirit of Enderby Adam announced we were sailing through an area with thousands of Crested auklets and many Short-tailed shearwaters. The announcement came just a little before we went down to the lecture room to hear his talk entitled “Seabirds of the Russian Far East, Tubenoses and Alcids.”
After lunch the scouting party took a Zodiac to the beach at Uelen to see if we could land there to visit the town. The winds were now out of the north, not south, as in the morning, but the beach was too rough to land. The alternative plan was to make a landing in the Uelen Lagoon that usually offered a calm harbor behind the town. After moving the ship a short distance, Aaron and Adam took a boat to the lagoon’s mouth but the breaking waves and currents precluded a landing there as well. The Captain weighed anchor again, and because no other spot along the Chukotka coast was going to permit a landing either, we had to content ourselves with sightseeing from the ship.
It was an absolutely gorgeous day and we sailed along under a bright blue sky. Visibility was excellent and you could see far up and down the coastline of Chukotka with several high peaks on the horizon: Mount Kitulin, Nenygelen, and Irgutunkan. Although we were disappointed that the sea conditions did not permit safe landings anywhere along the coast, we would pass Uelen and Cape Dezhnev on the return voyage so there would be another opportunity for the weather and sea to cooperate with our plans.
Wildlife watching from the bridge and bow was rewarding. A total of about 50 Sabine’s gulls absolutely made Adam’s, and others’ day as this beautiful bird is not that common. There were also millions of Crested auklets on the water who were moulting just now and dived under the ship to escape because they couldn’t fly.
Ewen gave a talk on some of the finer points of photography in the lecture room. As he was finishing up, Adam announced that a number of Humpback whales were off the port bow and we went out on deck to watch them. Steamy blows and the occasional tail fluke were visible. Some of the large blows were accompanied by a smaller one which we were told was a female and calf. It was interesting to see how closely the young would stay next to its mother as the relative positions of the blows remained the same, and just a short distance apart in time and space.
In the evening we celebrated crossing the Arctic Circle at 66° 34‘N with the “mark of the polar bear.” Brad initiated everyone with a blue paw print (carved from a slice of potato) on foreheads, heads, and other body parts and we toasted the crossing with vodka and caviar. Aaron reported that it was going to be a clear night and the bridge would be on alert to awaken us if there were a chance to see the aurora borealis -- the northern lights.
This morning we anchored near Kolyuchin Island and spotted a small haul out of walrus as well as our first polar bear, even before breakfast. The seas were rough with winds at 20 knots, but a Zodiac cruise was on schedule for after breakfast. The Captain positioned the ship so we could load the Zodiacs in its lee, and with many helping hands at the gangway we all made it safely into the boats and motored off to see the walrus.
The boats stayed in a group and very slowly approached the walrus with everyone remaining very quiet. There were many animals piled together, resting on a small spot of beach and seemingly not very anxious about our presence. There were also several groups in the water that were more curious than cautious, and we got great views and photos. We also cruised along the bird cliffs of the island and saw both species of puffins, the three common species of guillemots (Common, Brunnich’s, and Pigeon), Black-legged kittiwakes, Glaucous gulls, and a few Pelagic Cormorants.
Jenny presented Part one of her polar bear lecture series, ‘Life on Thin Ice’ that covered Polar bear biology, ecology, and behavior. After Jenny’s talk, Laurie gave an introduction to the tundra plant community, but a talk on Wrangel Island would be postponed as many were under the weather and we would wait for a time when more people could attend.
At around 18:30 folks gathered in the bar for drinks before dinner, and the staff gave short recaps of some of the highlights of the day. Then it was time for dinner and to be delightfully surprised by another great meal by Brad and Simon.
We continued sailing north across the Long Strait towards Wrangel Island, a place few of us had ever expected to be able to visit.
After breakfast Alexander Grusdev, the Director of Wrangel Island, gave a presentation on this unique Arctic island and strict nature preserve that we would be exploring for the next five days. Julia graciously translated for Alexander, and it was a very interesting talk covering the discovery, natural history, and some of the wildlife of the island.
Paleoeskimos knew of Wrangel Island about 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, as evidence of their habitations revealed they were likely summer hunting camps. The hunters co-existed with the last mammoths on earth that are believed to have died out on the island about 3,000 years ago. In modern times, although never seeing nor setting foot on Wrangel, the Russian scientist Mikhail Lomonosov suspected that there must be land located there and named it “Doubtful Land.” It was not until 1867 when the island was first sighted by Captain Thomas Long that its actual existence was confirmed and some of the first information was gathered about this remote location. Captain Long, however, was never able to set foot on Wrangel either because of the pack ice. It was not until 1891 that people first reached Rodger’s Harbor and several Russian and English expeditions followed. Their explorations of the area gave rise to an international mix of place names as they recorded and named newly discovered features and water bodies on their maps.
Wrangel Island was made a nature preserve in 1976. It is about 150 km long, 80 km wide, and located at 71° N latitude, straddling both the Western and Eastern hemispheres. There are three mountain ranges, one in the north, another central range, and one in the south. The protected area includes Wrangel and Herald islands and the surrounding marine environment for a total of 19,163 sq. kilometres. In 2004 the preserve was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
About the time of Alexander’s presentation, we anchored off Doubtful Village to collect some scientists and staff from the island who would join us for our excursions: senior scientists Vasily Baranyuk and Irina Menyushina, and rangers Sergei Lantsov and Anatoly Rodionov. We left Doubtful and headed east to the former village of Ushakovskoye. A thick fog literally enveloped the ship and precluded any view of shore, but we hoped for better weather later in the afternoon.
At 11:00 Ewen gave the second presentation of his short course on photography with the intriguing title ‘Why Size Matters’. With his help we learned how size mattered with respect to camera sensors, lenses, and RAW files.
The weather had not cleared by the time we anchored off Rodger’s Inlet, and the Zodiac drivers needed a heading from the bridge to find the entrance as nothing was visible more than five Zodiac lengths from the ship! We climbed aboard and off we drove into the pea soup fog with the Spirit of Enderby literally disappearing in our wake. Ashore at Ushakovskoye however, the sky was clear and we climbed the wooden steps up from the beach to gather in the town’s center to hear firsthand from Vasily what life was like in its heyday.
The village was founded in 1926 but Vasily first moved there in 1981 at which time there were about 150 residents, including many children. There was a preschool and school, a library, post office, and a club where Vasily was in charge of organising dances and scheduling films and other community events. He showed us the former market where every family could purchase one bottle of vodka on Saturdays. We walked over to the monument to the town’s founder and mayor until 1929, Gregor Ushakov, and then divided into groups by interest and energy levels: the long birding hike with Adam, the slower paced botanical survey with Laurie, and Ewen’s photography group that alternately moved quickly, and then stood around taking photos.
The wildlife and the wildflowers did not disappoint. With Rangers Sergei and Anatoly, the botanical group was shown a Wrangel Island endemic, a species of Oxytropis in the legume or bean plant family that only grew on Wrangel Island. Other groups saw Arctic fox, flocks of Snow geese flying to the northern part of the island, three species of jaegers, and both species of Lemmings (the Siberian and the Wrangel Island Collared Lemming, another endemic species). Lemming populations had crashed early in the spring, affecting animals all down and along the food chain. Even Snow geese were affected because when lemmings are not around to snack on, Arctic fox prey more on goose eggs. The photography group made a couple of attempts to circle around and slowly approach some Snowy Owls for photos, but had better luck with the Lemmings.
Just before we all began making our way back to the Zodiacs, the northbound Overland Expeditionary Party finally finished preparations for their three-day crossing of Wrangel Island. We wished them well as they set off in the island’s ‘Trekol’, a large, six-wheeled vehicle with oversized tires. We all returned to the ship, again through a dense fog, and settled in to the evening routine of drinks, recaps, and dinner.
Herald Island was off our starboard while we enjoyed an early breakfast, and shortly afterwards we were in the Zodiacs to cruise along the impressive cliffs of this island, or rather, gigantic rock in the Chukchi Sea, even more remote and far less visited than Wrangel. Polar bear maternity den densities were even greater on Herald than Wrangel Island.
We only went a short distance to the far end of the cliffs facing the ship and saw three polar bears in various stages of repose. Two of them wandered off after getting a good look at us, but one large bear who had been sleeping on a ledge alternately sat up, stood up, and lay back down again after having satisfied itself that we were not interesting. Eventually, however, she too decided to find a more private sleeping place and ambled off. We motored in the opposite direction and marveled at the geologic formations and forces captured in the folds and layers of the cliff face. At some places along the wall there were sedimentary layers at right angles to each other, the lower ones having been shifted 90° from the ancient seabed and topped by a presumed younger layer that retained the original horizontal orientation of the seafloor.
Farther along the vertical face of the island we came upon a group of Walrus hauled out on a small area of beach, with a few scattered individuals nearby on adjoining stretches. Walrus of all sizes and ages were neatly snuggled in with one another, and ivory white tusks projected in every direction from the mass of brown bodies. When one animal shifted position, it started a short-lived chain reaction with adjoining Walrus who wriggled and shifted their bodies in turn, adjusting tusks to avoid jabbing one’s neighbor. All this was accompanied by loud protests of Walrus snorts and belches until all settled in together again. We watched them for a long while, but then continued a little farther along the coast where we soon came across a fourth Polar bear. It was a lovely, curious bear right on the beach, and we were able to approach this bear closer than the others. Farther down the coast we could see two more bears, one quite distant, but with the wonderful view we had of this last one and the increasingly cold wind, it was time to head back to the warm ship and the hot lunch that awaited us.
After lunch Sergei, one of the Wrangel Island rangers, gave a presentation entitled ‘Living Side by Side: Humans and Animals on Wrangel Island’. Sergei’s talk showed what it was like to live and work on Wrangel Island, and the challenges they faced in adapting to the wildlife that also made the island their home.
The ship anchored south of Cape Waring in mid-afternoon and a scouting party was dispatched to check out the landing. Everything looked good to go until we finally got all the Zodiacs to the landing site and discovered that the wind had increased, along with the size of the swell making landings impossible. Instead, we cruised along the coastline and spotted a beautiful Sabine’s Gull in the water, a large Polar bear far off in the tundra, and several small haul outs of walrus right at the Cape. There were also many small groups of Walrus in the water, and to cruise any farther would mean disturbing them so we came about and headed back to the ship.
At evening recap Adam introduced two other people who had come onboard in Doubtful along with the rangers and scientists. They were Aaron’s father and the founder of Heritage Expeditions, Rodney Russ, and Katya Ovsyanikova, a guide for Heritage Expeditions and a marine mammalogist who studies Sea Otters and has had many years’ experience in the region.
Rodney led off the recap by briefly talking about Jennifer Niven’s book, ‘The Ice Master’, that he recommended everyone read for a truly exciting tale about the fate of the ship Karluk that sailed and sank in these waters in the early 1900s. Laurie related the results of a study that presented evidence against the presence of an East Siberian Ice Sheet over Wrangel Island during the last glacial maximum. The evidence included isotope dating of bedrock, lack of glacial deposits in river beds, dating of mammoth bones, and the abundance of 10 m tall rock columns or ‘tors’ throughout the island’s mountains. Aaron explained some of the striking geology of Herald Island’s cliffs, and concluded with the briefing for the next day. Then it was off to dinner, and an early turn in for many.
You could not ask for a more glorious morning with wonderfully calm seas, bright blue skies, and brilliant sunshine at Cape Florence along the northern coast of Wrangel Island. The tundra and sunlight swept up the slopes of the northern mountains making the landscape look painted in broad strokes with the colors of autumn. A few Polar bears were seen long before breakfast by the dedicated wildlife watchers up on the bridge, but after breakfast the rangers ashore gave us the all clear and we landed with the Zodiacs to begin our exploration of Cape Florence.
Irina and Anatoly accompanied the photography/botanical group, and Vasily and Sergei went with the longer hikers. This part of the island had especially harsh winters as the northeast wind kept snow from accumulating. That meant little insulation of the ground or for the organisms that lived there in winter. Lemming numbers were low here, as the vegetation was patchy, but we did see some old winter lemming nests. We also found a polar bear day bed and Irina collected some hairs for DNA analysis. Anatoly also collected some soil and lichen samples for another study.
The long hikers walked up into the tundra and around the lagoon. Leaves of the creeping willow shrubs were starting to turn color, and most plants were done flowering. On the lagoon were a number of Long-tailed ducks, and a small group of Brent geese nibbled at the vegetation onshore.
At the side of the lagoon was a hut that had been originally used by hunters who had been moved off the island when it was made a preserve. Now it served as one of the many field huts used by rangers and scientists when they worked in various parts of the island.
Back onboard the ship and after lunch we awaited word of the Overland Expeditionary Party that had headed north from Ushakovskoye two days ago. It was to meet up with the ship somewhere along the north coast. Contact was finally made with the group and we arranged to meet them a little west of Dreamhead Mountain. We planned not only to exchange a new southbound party for the northern route veterans, but also to make a landing inside the lagoon at the base of the mountain for an afternoon outing.
At the appointed time and location on the coast we replaced the arriving Overland Expeditionary Party members with five new recruits who loaded up the ‘Trekol’ and headed off on the southern route. The rest of us set off in the Zodiacs to find the lagoon entrance. We surprised three Polar bears on the beach, who took to the water and quickly swam out to sea, so we motored slowly past them still looking for the lagoon mouth. Eventually rangers Anatoly and Sergei disembarked to get a look from the top of the high gravel spit along the beach and reported that apparently the lagoon mouth had closed up. With no way into the lagoon, we did a wet landing and anchored the boats offshore before heading off into the tundra.
On the steep slopes of Dreamhead we could see at least six Polar bears curled up and napping at various levels. Mosses and flowers and lichens were everywhere underfoot, and we had to step around small puddles of water that dotted the tundra, as well as the odd rock now and again tossed up by frost action. A huge flock of Snow Geese grazed in the distance and among them was one lone goose of a subspecies of the familiar Canada Goose, known as a Cackling Goose. It looked the same as a Canada Goose, only smaller. Also in among the Snow geese were a few individuals of a color variety called a Blue Goose.
We all had a good long walk on our afternoon outing and were tired by the time we made it back to the ship and sat down to dinner. Our third day on Wrangel Island was as interesting and exhilarating as the previous days and we hoped the good weather would hold for a few more days.
It looked like it was going to be another nice day as the Spirit of Enderby motored south and west along the coast of Wrangel. Around breakfast time at the Goose River a good number of Polar bears were visible from the bridge so the possibility of a landing seemed unlikely. Aaron, Irina and Vasily took a Zodiac to shore to assess the situation, and with some specific directives from the Wrangel Island staff as to our behavior for bear watching, we were given the all-clear and headed out.
At a good distance from the end of the spit where the bears were resting, we kneeled and sat for good views and photos. While we were sitting there a young, thin bear swam on shore and walked down the beach to join the others. After a time and with the bears showing no signs of anxiousness, we slowly approached in twos and threes along the water’s edge, out of sight behind the beach crest. We gathered at a closer spot and dug in behind the beach ridge. The bears were curled up or lying in day beds, raising their heads once in a while to test the wind, but altogether unconcerned about our presence. We sat for a long time and towards the end of our observations, both bears and people were contently lazing on the beach in the warm sunshine under a blue sky.
Before lunch, Marie led the newly constructed ‘Wrangel Island Swim Team’ for a dip in the East Siberian Sea, the temperature of which was about 2°C. Six hardy souls participated, five of whom were staff. The only guest who took the plunge was Jane, and our hats were off to her for having braved the cold Arctic waters for the good of the team.
The unusually good weather continued and after lunch we went to explore a bird cliff called ‘Ptichiy Bazaar’. It means ‘bird bazaar’ or ‘market’ and is also the Russian term for bird cliffs in general. There were mostly Black-legged Kittiwakes and Common Guillemots on the cliff face, with some chicks visible. Our attention, however, was diverted from the birds by a number of Polar bear sightings. One bear in particular was very close on shore and completely oblivious to us. For a Polar bear it was a hot day and he gnawed away at the patches of snow and ice still solidly frozen to the shore. After slaking his thirst he walked into the water and swam towards the Zodiacs, perhaps just to cool off. He passed very close and we got some incredible photographs. The young bear was totally unconcerned and we were delighted with having quietly shared a small part of his daily life.
Later in the afternoon Vasily Baranyuk gave a talk on ‘Snow Geese and Other Wildlife of Wrangel Island’. Vasily has been studying Snow geese on Wrangel for three decades. The main breeding colony can have up to 60,000 nests, with an average of four eggs in a nest. In good Lemming years, however, they can raise more young. He once found a nest with 12 babies of all ages in it because the female starts incubating the eggs as soon as the first one is laid. Some Snow geese have learned to nest near Snowy owls in order to benefit from greater protection from Arctic fox.
We also learned that there were about 150 bird species on Wrangel, and that 45 of them breed there. The island is also important for Walrus in the summer when they haul out after the ice disappears, and of course, it is important for Polar bears. The island is known as a Polar bear maternity ward, with up to 400 dens having been reported in the 1980s; now, however, there are many fewer.
At recap we learned that a whopping 115 polar bears had been counted onshore from the ship as we pulled anchor and motored away from Ptichiy Bazaar. The grand total was 146 for what we would called ‘A Polar Bear Day’.”
We landed at Somnitelnaya (Doubtful) Bay at the site of an old hunter’s house for whom a large wooden cross and upturned boat had been erected as a memorial. All around were the remains of many years of life on this harsh coast, including the bones and skulls of the Walrus and Reindeer that had been killed. Laurie, Anatoly, and Sergei led the plant walk out into the tundra and around the lagoon, and Adam, Vasily, and Irina headed out on a longer birding walk.
Poppy plants dotted the gravel shore and were just about done flowering, and showy swards of white cottongrass trembled in the wind among the thick grass and moss beds surrounding the lagoon. Along the water’s edge were signs of Eider ducks and Brent geese but, unfortunately, no birds. The group did see a Parasitic Jaeger that hovered above the ground in one place for a short while, perhaps having spotted a lemming. We occasionally caught glimpses of Lemmings that quickly scurried down well-worn paths from one burrow to the next before vanishing from sight.
On the way back to the ship all three Zodiacs stopped short in the water to watch a Gray whale that swam back and forth a couple times within the circle of boats, and then headed off the way we came. One boat in particular got a very close view of this impressive animal.
Around lunch time we had to say good-bye to the Wrangel Island rangers and scientists who would be returning to the island. At the same time they were dropped off on shore, the Zodiacs collected the Southern Overland Expeditionary Party members who met us there. Once everyone was back onboard, we said good-bye to this amazing Arctic island sanctuary as the ship headed back south across the Long Strait towards the Siberian mainland.
Later in the afternoon Jenny gave Part two of her Polar bear lecture series, and Marie opened the Sea Shop briefly for some souvenir shopping and retail therapy. Shortly thereafter Laurie gave her presentation on Arctic plant adaptations and then it was off to the lounge for drinks and socialising before dinner. Everyone wanted to hear about the Overland Expedition, and to compare experiences and photographs from our visit to Wrangel. It was an animated group that sat down to dinner, and the conversations continued into the night.
Breakfast was later this morning, at 0800, so we all got to sleep in a bit as the ship continued sailing south to the vicinity of Cape Onman where we hoped to make a landing or a Zodiac cruise. En route we spotted two pods of Orcas on either side of the ship.
Aaron and Adam scouted out the area of Cape Onman and returned to the ship with the exciting news that they had seen a Wolverine on shore feeding on a seal carcass. It was likely that it would be there for a while, so we loaded the boats and set off to see if we could catch a glimpse of this rare and elusive animal. Sure enough, the wolverine was still in the area and we were able to watch it for a long time until it loped up and across the slopes, and finally up a gully and out of sight. We could not believe our luck in having seen this, our second Wolverine of the trip, and the first Wolverine many of us had ever seen in the wild.
If that were not enough excitement for one morning, we also had some wonderful views of a few groups of Walrus in the water offshore. They hung around the Zodiacs and appeared more curious than concerned. Heads of all sizes, with matching sets of large or small tusks, popped up and bobbed at the water’s surface as one after another of the group checked us out. A huge flock of Common Eiders flew by while we were walrus watching, and one of the Zodiacs surprised a small group of Red phalaropes floating on the sea as we returned to the ship.
After a delicious lunch, Adam gave a talk on marine mammals of the Arctic. About an hour later we reached the mouth of Kolyuchin Inlet and planned a landing in spite of the thick fog. Although the birding was not very promising because of the fog, experiencing the tundra and Siberian coast in yet another of its many moods was captivating.
There was a large wooden orthodox cross on shore with an inscribed metal plaque commemorating something; the metal was too corroded to make out the words except that it had to do with a ship. We slogged through soggy moss beds that felt like memory foam under our feet and occasionally would find some drier solid ground upon which to walk. This site, and all along the Chukotka coast, is important feeding grounds for many shorebirds. Adam explained that Kolyuchin Inlet, especially, is important for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, whose population numbers have dropped precipitously in the last decade, mostly from hunting and habitat destruction of its coastal wintering grounds.
The only birds we managed to see were a Yellow-billed Loon (also known as the White-billed Diver) and a Northern Wheatear. Lichens, however, were more cooperative and Laurie pointed out ‘rock tripe’ that is of historical interest as the starvation food that saved nine of the original 20 members of Sir John Franklin’s 1819-1822 expedition from Hudson Bay to the north coast of Canada. We sampled the dry, leathery lichen that had little flavor until well chewed and then it tasted like a fresh mushroom.
The return trip to the ship was again through the dense fog, but eventually the Spirit of Enderby came into view and we were all back onboard to continue our voyage south.
Aaron announced that it was a balmy 5° C out this morning and we knew we were farther south. A thermometer, however, was hardly necessary if one went out on deck: the cliffs as well as up and down the entire coast, as far as you could see, was bathed in glorious sunshine. We were motoring south to the Chegitun River that emptied into the Bering Strait just at the Arctic Circle.
While waiting for the scouting report, a pod of Orca Whales swam between us and shore, their huge black dorsal fins protruding above the waves and whitecaps. On shore there were a couple small structures thought to be a hunters’ camp at the river’s mouth, and Aaron, Adam, and Julia went in to check out the river entrance and see whether or not a landing was possible. A half dozen or so people appeared from the houses and spoke with the landing party. Aaron’s assessment was that conditions were too rough and the scouting party returned to the ship. With the wind strength, direction, and resultant swell, we would not be able to land or get into the river safely so we moved on south towards Uelen and Cape Dezhnev.
Adam and other wildlife spotters were up on the bridge a lot of the day and reported an enormous flock of Crested auklets, likely numbering about two million individuals. Ten Humpback whales were also seen.
The second part of the ‘Spy on the Ice’ documentary was shown as we continued south. Laurie gave a presentation on the biology and ecology of Lichens. Aaron updated us on the weather and timings, but things did not look favorable for visiting Uelen. With winds of 100 kph as we approached the village, the decision was made to continue south, hoping for better conditions and maybe a calm anchorage in the lee of Cape Dezhnev.
We reached Cape Dezhnev before dinner and the Captain steered the Spirit of Enderby into the relative calm south of the Cape. People gathered in the bar early and it was a spirited crowd despite the frustration with the bad weather. Aaron briefed us on the plan for the following day, and then it was down to dinner to continue conversations with the many new friends we had made onboard.
Early in the morning the ship moved from the lee of Cape Dezhnev and made the short journey east across the Strait to anchor off Ratmanova, or Big Diomede Island. Shortly after breakfast we loaded the Zodiacs for a cruise along the bird cliffs. The border guard installations were nestled in a low, relatively level area behind a small hill on the north side of the island. The site offered some protection from the sea, but it looked to be a rough place to live in winter.
Along the cliff faces and out at sea were a myriad of seabirds: Tufted and Horned puffins, Pigeon guillemots, Black-legged kittiwakes, Glaucous gulls, Pelagic cormorants, and Least and Parakeet auklets. They all seemed very busy flying in to ledges and grassy knolls, and out to sea or to soar overhead.
We moved clockwise around the island and came to the north eastern side from where we got a good view of Little Diomede and the small settlement on its shores. Not only was Little Diomede in another country -- the United States -- but it was also in another day, being on the other side of the International Date Line and 24 hours behind us. Because of this, Little and Big Diomede are also known as ‘Today’ and ‘Tomorrow’ islands, respectively. Alex checked her GPS and it showed that her Zodiac was only 0.6 miles from the international border that runs between the two islands.
While we were disembarking the Zodiacs, a young Bearded Seal popped up by Adam’s boat and hung around for some photos by Ewen, Jane, and others. The youngster seemed very curious and swam back and forth, checking us out.
After lunch, which featured a delicious chocolate cookie piled high with equally rich chocolate icing, Dean and Tess showed two short documentaries they had made on Macquarie Island in the Southern Ocean where they had spent 12 months researching fur seals. They were onboard with us making another documentary on the Russian Far East for Australian television, and promised to let us know by email when it finally aired.
At 1700 we gathered in the lecture room to hear the final presentation of Jenny’s polar bear series, and then gathered early in the bar for the University of the Arctic’s final exam, administered by Marie. Each table in the bar worked as a team answering questions submitted by the staff. All topics were covered, from history to geology to shipboard hotel management. Of the six teams that competed, ‘Jahday’ won with the greatest number of points for correct answers. Aaron gave us a briefing of tomorrow’s plan and then it was off to dinner.
Shortly after we finished dinner, Aaron announced that we were being boarded -- not by pirates, but by border guards who wanted to inspect the ship. The bridge was temporarily closed and the authorities came aboard for their look-see. Satisfied that all was in order, they left the ship and at about 2245 we moved on towards Anadyr.
Because we had made good time southward, we could try to wait out the bad weather this morning around Kekilin Bay to see if maybe a little later it would be possible to visit the bird cliffs. After breakfast the waves and whitecaps still appeared daunting, and it was even snowing in the distance, but Aaron decided to wait a bit longer. Finally the conditions improved enough that we could load the Zodiacs and cruise to shore where we found it was much more sheltered.
The outing turned out to be the best bird cliff cruise of the trip and we were grateful to Aaron for having made the decision to wait. There were mainly Common guillemots and kittiwakes, but also Tufted and Horned puffins, Pigeon guillemots, Pelagic cormorants, and Glaucous and Vega gulls. What was different here was that many chicks were visible in their nests or on ledges, and that they were low enough that we were able to get a good look at the young and photograph them.
At one spot just above our heads a downy Kittiwake chick persistently pecked at its parent’s bill while the adult completely ignored it, being too distracted by our presence. On another ledge a Guillemot kept shuffling around to keep itself between us and its chick. The Cormorant nests were higher up than the other birds, but with their long necks the young were easy to spot; they looked like perfect miniatures of the adult, except for their fuzzy gray head and neck. Flying far in the distance was a huge flock of Crested auklets, visible just above the water’s surface, and even farther away great sweeps of golden tundra alternated with looming dark mountain tops ringing the bay.
Lunch awaited us when we returned to the ship, and shortly after we all gathered in the lecture room for the disembarkation briefing and voyage recap, along with farewells from the staff and passengers alike. Ewen put together a photographic recap of the voyage with photos taken by himself, Aaron, Julia, and Brad. It was a very nice presentation and recollection of the amazing things we had seen and the wonderful time we had.
Everyone was in a festive mood in the lounge enjoying the complimentary cocktails before dinner. Chefs Brad and Simon, in formal chef attire, presided over a lovely buffet of poached salmon and baked ham that was so nicely presented that people lined up to take photos.
It was a beautiful sunny day for our departure, and relatively calm inside Anadirsky Liman. The ship repositioned a couple times during the early hours of the morning, but by breakfast we were anchored in the estuary and awaiting departure. The buildings of Anadyr in the morning sun resembled a multi-colored Lego block construction, strung out along the coast.
The first group leaving for Nome had their bags ready outside their cabin doors for pick up before breakfast; people on the later Moscow flight had the choice of staying on the ship, or spending a few hours in town before their flight. We enjoyed a late breakfast and then left the ship by groups depending on our flights to Nome or Moscow. The Zodiacs shuttled us to shore and then we were off to the airport for our respective flights home with memories of all our new experiences, our new friends, and a wonder-full voyage across the top of the world.
After arriving from Nome, Alaska on various charter fights, and from the Eurasian side of the Bering Strait as well, we were taxied from the airport to a ferry and crossed the Anadyr River to the town of Anadyr. We were lucky enough to spot our first wildlife species as White beluga whales and Largha seals were seen in the river.
Just before 1700 we collected on the dock where we were met by the ship’s Zodiacs and shuttled out to our floating home for the next two weeks, the Spirit of Enderby (Professor Khromov, as she is also known). Originally a research vessel and still serving in that capacity on occasion, the Spirit of Enderby was a welcomed sight after the many hours of travel most of us endured to finally reach the Russian Far East.
The last of our expedition party did not arrive at the ship until later in the evening, at which time we were welcomed onboard by our Expedition Leader, Aaron Russ and we then enjoyed our first dinner together. Considering the long travel day most of us had had, he explained he would postpone the expedition briefing for the following day. After dinner most people went off to bed early for a good rest in preparation for the next day’s adventures.
Our first full day on the ship began with Aaron’s expedition briefing in the lecture room. He gave a short history of the ship, and began the staff introductions by introducing himself then Julia, the Assistant Expedition Leader from Travel Pacific. Marie then took the microphone and explained some of her background before joining Heritage Expeditions as Cruise Director and Hotel Manager. Adrian and Joanna -- representatives of Polar Quest -- also introduced themselves, and joining everyone onboard were former staff members Dean and Tess, who were filming for a future Australian television documentary. Last, but not least, Rodney Russ, the founder of Heritage Expeditions, gave us some of his background, and Katya told of her work and experience in the area. Rodney and Katya would only be with us until Wrangel Island where they would be staying for several weeks to work with researchers, photograph, and explore.
Later in the morning we participated in the mandatory lifeboat drill which all went smoothly, with all guests accounted for.
In Anadyr the ship had cleared Russian formalities far ahead of schedule which now gave us a little extra time for some Zodiac cruising along the bird cliffs of Cape Achchen. We saw many species including Harlequin ducks, Tufted puffins, Black-legged kittiwakes, and Pigeon, Common, and Brunnich’s guillemots.
In the early evening we gathered in the bar for drinks and a staff recap of the day’s activities. Aaron showed us a photograph of a Tufted Puffin he had found floating in the water so we could get a better idea of its actual size; to the surprise of many, it was a much larger bird than it appeared in flight.
We awoke today to calm seas, we had reached Yttygran Island overnight and anchored within view of it. This was the location of the renowned “Whalebone Alley,” possibly the foremost archaeological site in all the Arctic. The scattered white columns of Bowhead Whale jaw bones could be seen from the ship, and we eagerly anticipated going ashore after breakfast.
Onshore we separated into small groups to walk carefully around the site. At the far end was an intriguing rectangular pit, walled up with carefully stacked flat beach stones and encircled at the top by three huge whale skulls. We could only speculate as to the purpose of the pit, obviously constructed with a lot of thought and care. In the grassy area in from the beach the whale jaw bones that still stood were far fewer than shown in old photos of the site when there were enough to demarcate a kind of alleyway that gave the place its popular name. Closer inspection of the jaw bones showed that they had been sunk in ground and braced with large stones. It is thought that boats were stored off the ground on the line of bones.
Among a jumble of rocks back from the shore were many rough stone “cellars” that had been constructed and these were thought to have been used to store meat. Studies of Whalebone Alley indicated it had never been a permanent settlement, but rather a temporary summer hunting and fishing camp, possibly used by many surrounding clans or groups.
After investigating the site, one group took a long hike to the top of a saddle between two hills for a view of the tundra stretching down and away towards the distant hills. From the top we could hear Sandhill cranes, but try as we could, we could not find them on the slope.
In the afternoon it was back into the Zodiacs and into a river mouth to a grassy shoreline at a place called Gilmimyl. Morton had a spotting scope focused on a Red-necked Stint as well as some Plovers. Some people set off for a hike to the local hot springs where several took a dip in the rustic bathing “tub”; others hiked farther on and saw several pairs of Sandhill Cranes along the way, as well as a small Northern Wheatear. Laurie led a tundra crawl with a small group of people all interested in studying the tiny plants and lichens in more detail, and The Enderby Ladies’ Botanical Society was thus initiated. Although mostly concentrated on the ground, the group looked up occasionally to catch sight of some birds: an Arctic Skua stayed nearby, walking along the higher ground up from the river, and a pair of Sandhill Cranes were heard and then finally spotted on a distant hillside.
Some of us walked over to see a house near the beach and met Ivan, a Chukchi fisherman who was netting and drying salmon. He came from a village nearby, but stayed at his camp most of the summer. He made us a present of a few dried salmon and some fresh ones as well. With such delicacies as fresh salmon and wild mushrooms readily at hand, we could understand why Ivan would choose to pass the summer here.
In the misty cold morning we anchored off Cape Dezhnev. It was a splashy landing on a steep stone beach, but with all the help at the Zodiacs it was not too difficult to get onto shore. Morton led us up the beach to a path that took us up a steep slope and then across a small stream, and then up another, easier slope. On top the most amazing collection of dwellings spread out in front of us, below the monument to Simeon Dezhnev. There were a few ramshackle modern dwellings still clinging to the hillsides that were used previously by border guards but now only occupied in summer by the occasional hunter. The original stone dwellings were homes for the Eskimos who occupied the village, called “Naukan,” for about 300 years and mainly hunted whales. Most of the foundations and some walls of the dwellings were intact, and a few even retained the jaw bone roof trusses that supported a cover originally made of hides. Modern touches to the stone houses included metal stove boxes and the crumbling remains of typical Russian brick heating and cooking stoves. The Eskimos were moved out by the Soviet authorities in 1958 with sad consequences to their clan and family relationships, as well as their traditional way of life and sense of place.
There were wildflowers all over the slopes and in the boggy streams of water flowing through the grass. This was the first place we saw the Arctic Forget-me-not and its beautiful sprays of bright blue flowers. Overhead we spotted a couple of ravens that were calling to each other and wheeling in the wind blowing upslope from the sea.
Back at the ship before lunch, Morton gave an “Introduction to the Birds of Chukotka and Wrangel Island.” He showed photos of many of the birds of the region, including the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, an iconic species of Chukotka, and explained how Rodney and Heritage Expeditions were spearheading some conservation initiatives for the species.
After lunch we found ourselves moving northwards into some ice that had come out of the Chukchi Sea, north of the Bering Strait and then followed the coastline south until disappearing near Cape Dezhnev. We soon reached the town of Uelen, the Zodiacs were lowered from the ship into open spaces among the small ice flows and we loaded up and wound our way through the ice to shore. Once in Uelen we walked to the museum at one end of town where we saw some old and modern examples of walrus ivory carving and scrimshaw. We next visited a school where Katya translated for Alyesia, a teacher at the school, who explained the school system and the Chukchi language and culture classes she taught.
In front of the school some boys were kicking around a soccer ball and Simon and some others joined in the fun. Across the street there was a stage with some chairs set up and we enjoyed an enthusiastic performance of traditional dances by a group of local men and women, as well as some youngsters. It was nice to see dancers of all ages participating, from children to grandmothers. The dancers’ movements were accompanied by chanting and the rhythmic beating of an instrument consisting of a hide stretched over a large, round frame and struck with a stick. The dances depicted the traditional life of the Chukchi: hunting stories, whaling expeditions, and men trying to gain the attention of women. At the conclusion, the dancers invited us to join them and we tried our best to keep time and follow their movements, to the laughter and amusement of everyone.
The fog had moved in when it was time to return to the ship, and finding the really challenged the navigational skills of the Zodiac drivers. Not only was there ice floating everywhere, it was astounding how easy it was to hide a huge blue boat in all that fog and sleet and drizzle. Finally, however, we were all back on board after an interesting afternoon spent in town.
During our recap in the bar, Katya explained a little about the Russian and Eskimo history of Cape Dezhnev, and Adrian showed off a sling that he obtained from a man in Uelen who was using it at the landing. The man on the beach could launch a stone a good distance and with great accuracy, but Adrian admitted he had a hard time even getting a rock to stay in the sling’s pouch. Aaron then gave us the briefing for the next day, and put us on notice to expect a true expedition morning. He explained that we knew where we wanted to go, but due to the ice, weren’t sure when we would get there. We were advised to listen for announcements.
After dinner we found we were rapidly approaching the Arctic Circle at 66.33.66 degrees North latitude. Everyone was urged to come up to bar to celebrate the crossing into the Arctic, with a proper Arctic vodka toast. Nicki initiated everyone with “the mark of the polar bear” stamp she had carved from a potato, and everyone was duly imprinted with a blue paw print on their forehead.
This morning found the Spirit of Enderby north of the Arctic Circle. A narrow band of pack ice was hugging the shore, but the ship was already close to the Kolyuchin Inlet and making good time to our morning destination, Kolyuchin Island.
Kolyuchin Island soon became visible in the distance and became larger and larger as we approached. The abandoned buildings of an old meteorological station stood out on the top of the island, and farther along the cliff face flocks of birds could be seen wheeling over the ocean. Soon we were even able to make out a number of Polar Bears lying or wandering about the tundra, about ten in total, including a mother and two 2-year old cubs. The number of bears meant that we wouldn’t be landing and instead planned for a Zodiac cruise along the bird cliffs.
With Aaron, Morton, Katya, Kostya, and Marie driving, everyone got great views of Horned Puffins, Pigeon Guillemots, Brunnich’s Guillemots, and other species. We caught sight of a mother Polar Bear swimming with her two cubs, as well as a Polar Bear in a cave dug out of some of the remaining snow on the coast.
In the afternoon Rodney presented his talk on the “Russification” of the Far East, and Laurie later lectured on the ‘tundra plant community’. Katya followed up with ‘Wrangel Island History and Nature’ in preparation for our upcoming visit to the island nature reserve.
A short while after the last lecture of the afternoon we gathered in the bar for some liquid refreshments. Katya led off the recaps by expanding more on the information she had already given us about Polar Bears on Wrangel Island. She also explained that the snow cave in which we saw the Polar Bear during the morning Zodiac cruise was not a maternity den, but just a resting place a bear had carved out of the snow. A maternity den, we were told, would never have been made so close to the water. Morton followed up with news of a few whale sightings from the bridge -- two grays and a bowhead -- but explained that they were only seen for an instant. He encouraged us all to be up on the bridge to catch even a brief glimpse of these and other marine mammals. Marie continued with the enlightening observation that, while most of our focus has been on just a single phylum of organisms -- the vertebrates -- we walked by invertebrates on the beach at Cape Dezhnev from six separate phyla without so much as a glance. She showed us some of the sea creatures she had collected earlier, and left them displayed for later examination. Aaron wrapped up the talks with the briefing for our exploration of Wrangel Island, a destination many of us had only dreamed of reaching, but was now just a day’s sailing away.
Overnight we experienced rough seas during our crossing of the Long Strait between the mainland and Wrangel Island. This morning we still had a way to travel until Wrangel was in sight.
After breakfast, Katya spoke on the ‘Future of a Polar Bear in the Greenhouse World’. Considering the adaptive-ness of Polar Bears and their evolutionary history, there is hope for their future in a warming Arctic. Polar Bears can likely meet the challenges of changes in ice patterns and prey shifts, but their biggest problem is going to be the increase in human activity in the region, bringing bears and people into conflict. More protected areas, better management of poaching, and increased education of peoples living in regions with polar bears will improve the outlook for the species’ survival.
We finally reached Wrangel Island, an area renowned for its biological diversity and more than ever the Alaska-Chukchi population of Polar Bears. It was made a strict nature preserve in 1976, and is also a World Heritage Site. The marine area surrounding the island is also strictly protected.
Later in the morning we were able to make a landing at Doubtful, a small settlement that is used by researchers and rangers of the preserve. On the Zodiac drive to shore we saw a polar bear swimming, and the island staff who greeted us told us that five bears had come ashore just the day before. We walked through the settled area with Irina Menyushina, a Senior Scientist and long-time researcher who studies Snowy owls and Arctic fox. She showed us the “guest house” that is used as living quarters. We continued out onto the tundra and walked to the old military base and airstrip. Bright purple clumps of wooly Louseworts were everywhere, along with poppies, cotton grass, and many different saxifrages. Irina told us that a wolverine makes its maternity den every spring in the snow that fills one of the rusted metal hangars, and that the cubs are born in May. Three other island researchers and rangers who joined us on shore came aboard with Irina and they stayed with us for our tour of Wrangel Island.
In the afternoon the Captain repositioned the ship to Predatelskaya Bay and the Mammoth River where we took the Zodiacs in behind the spit and landed allowing us to walk through the tundra. We saw Snowy owls and were shown how their favorite perches are easily spotted from the greener vegetation beneath where they sit. We learnt that this year had not been a good one for the nesting owls because the Lemming population had crashed due to disease and many baby owls did not survive. We also saw Snow geese and Brent geese on the other side of the river, and despite the drop in their numbers, Lemming tunnels and holes were everywhere.
We returned to the ship for a late dinner, afterwards most people retired to their cabins as it had been an exciting first day on this incredible island.
Today we reached Herald Island, a remote, forbidding rock to the northeast of Wrangel. Its natural claim to fame is as a prime denning site for Polar Bears, with even higher den densities than Wrangel Island. It is also known as the last landing and ultimate resting place of four of the Karluk’s expedition members.
After breakfast, the Zodiacs were loaded and we set off to cruise the shorelines beneath the towering cliffs of Herald Island. Pigeon and Common Guillemots whirred overhead on their way out to, or in from the sea, with many Black-legged Kittiwakes circling above and the occasional pair of Horned Puffins perched on ledges. We saw a solo Polar Bear on the beach, and then another in a snow cave just above the beach that we watched for a long time. Bear and people observed each other for a quite a while, with the Bear becoming bored with the whole business and laying its huge head back on its paws to continue the nap we had disturbed. We drove off happy that our encounter had left the bear snoozing as we had found him.
After lunch Vasily gave us a lecture on ‘Snow Geese and Other Wildlife of Wrangel Island’. Wrangel Island is the main breeding area for the species in Russia and Asia. There were approximately 150,000 birds on Wrangel, and about 60,000 nests in a good year.
In the afternoon we headed off to Dragi Bay back on Wrangel Island. As we were cruising in the Zodiacs we spotted two bears resting next to each other along the top of the ridge jutting out into the bay. Then a young bear, a female it was thought, began a cautious walk down a steep path to the shore where it began to feed on a walrus skin. Another bear came down the slope and displaced the younger one at the food, and it was joined by a third adult bear. Despite some cautious supplication gestures by the younger bear, she apparently was given no encouraging sign by the larger ones and the nervous youngster decided to leave the beach and swim around the point. We got some excellent group photographs of all three bears, but then left them to their snack and motored on into the harbour and pulled up on a long beach. Some of the Wrangel Island staff got off first to check out the landing, and with the all clear sign given, we climbed up the beach and into amazing tundra, patterned with irregular polygons from the frost heaving of the soil. The centers of the various shapes were clay and mud, and the borders were packed with moss and all kinds of flowering plants. Pieces of White Worm Lichens were strewn all over the tundra, looking more like bits of bleached twigs and sticks than a living organism.
In the evening the ship headed out of Dragi Bay, around the island towards the west side where there might be pack ice with wildlife.
During the night at 0243 the ship reached the most northerly position it would on the voyage.
On the bridge our ever-vigilant wildlife spotter, Morton, reported eleven bears in the tundra and on the sea ice, as well as some walrus. Ahead of the ship the ice stretched farther out to sea. Small flocks of Snow Geese flew by, seals popped their heads out of the open water in front of the ship, and on the distant edge of the ice floes walrus were hauled out enjoying the sunshine. We anchored at Cape Florence among the floating pieces of pack ice and loaded all five Zodiacs for a stealthy approach to the estimated 300 or so walrus we had viewed from the bridge on the ice and in the water. We approached several groups and got great views and photographs of walrus interactions and could hear them snorting at one another, and probably at us. As we were leaving the walrus, we pulled up onto a large, solid ice floe for a little walkabout before heading back to the ship.
After a taco buffet lunch, Morton implored us to come to the bridge for a glorious afternoon cruising by the mountainous western coast of Wrangel. We had made our way around the island again to Cape Blossom and into Long Strait. The sun was brilliant on the sea and on the ice, with high, snow-dusted mountains in the distance, an altogether glorious sight. The pack ice that remained up against the shore precluded shore landings so Sergei offered to present a talk on what life was like on Wrangel Island, ‘Living side by side: Humans and Wildlife on Wrangel Island’. Sergei remarked that instead of noisy traffic, people on Wrangel have a continually changing National Geographic view of the world outside their windows everyday.
Eventually the ship rounded Cape Blossom where a small shelter and marker were visible back from the beach; this was the famed “field of bones”. This area got its name from the decades of accumulated walrus remains that polar bears occasionally snacked on when little else was available. Because it is a strict protected area we could not land on the Cape proper, but just a little farther down the coast we went onshore for some planned long and short walks. However, the plan changed as a group of Musk oxen were spotted and the Wrangel Island staff led the whole group on a slow, quiet approach to get as close as possible for photos and observation. We got within far telephoto range of the herd of about 15 animals, that included some young that looked like perfect miniatures of the adults. We crouched and sat for a long while with great views of them alternately grazing and standing and staring back at us. They eventually moved on and our attention switched to a young Arctic fox that was seen trotting towards us, but then changed course. In the tundra vegetation someone discovered the tip of a mammoth tusk protruding above the moss and we wondered if the rest of the mammoth was somewhere below it, still attached. Small flocks of Snow Geese appeared in the sky, on their way somewhere in a hurry. The evening light on the tundra was magnificent and our shadows grew longer and longer as the angle of the sun decreased. Soon it was time to hike back to the Zodiacs and return to the ship for a late dinner and early bedtime for most.
We headed east all night along the southern shore of Wrangel Island and morning found us anchored east of the town of Ushakovskoye at a place called Cape Hawaii. Calm seas prevailed and after breakfast we shuttled to shore to explore. Our walks took us along the edge of a river where we were not disappointed with the morning’s sightings: Snowy owls, Arctic fox, polar bear, and several lemmings, one of which sat at its burrow’s entrance under a rock ledge and posed for nearly an hour of endless photo taking by engrossed observers. A species of coltsfoot, in the daisy family with large triangular leaves was common in amongst the tundra mosses and other vegetation.
In the afternoon we came ashore at Rodgers Inlet and the town of Ushakovskoye, another former Wrangel Island community. It was obvious why it had been sited here in 1926 because the inlet provided a calm and sheltered harbor for the town. At its busiest, the town had about 200 residents, but with the break up of the Soviet Union, support and resupply of it, along with many other arctic settlements -- slowed and then stopped. Ushakovskoye persisted for a number of years on its collective stores, but eventually the residents had to leave.
On shore we were introduced to Grisha Kaurgin who has lived on the island for 50 years, since he was seven years old. He has herded reindeer, hunted marine mammals, traveled the length and breadth of the island by dog sled, writes poetry, dances, and sings. He worked for the preserve for many years, and now is employed at the meteorological station. The station was once the largest in the Arctic, and there are weather records from this location stretching back many decades.
Despite persistent rumors to the contrary, there was never a gulag, or prison labor camp, on Wrangel. In 1981, however, when Vasily first came to Ushakovskoye, he might have felt as if he had been sent to one: “... but after the first five years, it wasn’t too bad ....” he told us. He gave us a personal account of life in the town in better days. There was a school, a preschool, library, post office, and a market where every family could buy one bottle of vodka on Saturdays. There was also a “club” where films were shown, and dances and other community events were held. Ushakovskoye was now a bleak, cheerless jumble of structures in various stages of collapse, with piles of empty fuel barrels, metal scraps, and household items literally everywhere. Just outside of town, however, we were again in unspoiled tundra. Morton led a stealthy approach towards a Snowy Owl and everyone was able to get a photo of the bird.
Back in the center of the settlement there was a collection of skulls and bones and a mammoth tusk recovered from the tundra. Irina brought out a traditional reindeer garment and Grisha modeled it for us, explaining that the fur was worn on the inside in winter, and on the outside in summer. He was asked to demonstrate some of the dances we assumed he had learned as a boy, and he gave a spontaneous presentation of a couple hunting scenarios that we really enjoyed and appreciated. Grisha’s dog, Chuk, joined in at one point as well, apparently also enjoying the show.
We returned to the Zodiacs for the short ride out of Rodgers Inlet and back to the ship. A recap of the day’s activities was followed in the lounge, by Aaron sharing some interesting observations of the rocks he had found onshore. They included a piece of slate and another composed of slate and sandstone with a seam of white quartz running through it. The sedimentary layers had originally formed on the sea floor, but had been heated and pressed and tilted by geologic forces over the ages with the later intrusion of the quartz. Next followed a question-and-answer session with the Wrangel Island staff who would be leaving us the next day. Aaron then concluded with a brief “precap” of the next day’s activities, and it was off to another great meal prepared by super chefs Nicki and Simon.
Morning found the Spirit of Enderby anchored again off Doubtful Spit for a morning excursion. After breakfast we were promptly loaded into the Zodiacs and motored off only to come up short of the shore by the nearby blow of a Gray Whale. It had likely been feeding in the area, but after seeing us began to swim back and forth in front of the line of boats. Some of the boats were able to get closer, perhaps as the whale grew a little more confident we meant no harm. Adrian and Johanna later commented that it was the closest whale encounter that either of them had ever experienced.
Once on shore Vasily provided an introduction to the site, explaining that a hunter had lived there in the 1960s and 1970s before the island became a protected area. The house in which he lived had been removed, but scattered fuel drums, walrus skulls and bones, and a pile of rusting leg-hold traps told of a long occupation of the site.
With the rangers leading the way, we approached a flock of about a dozen Black Brent Geese feeding on the far side of a small lake. We got fairly close as they calmed down after each quiet advance. Finally they flew off and we divided up with a couple rangers leading each group on a short tundra walk and a longer hike down the beach and to the far side of another body of water. The tundra walkers came upon two Dunlins and two Red-necked Stints feeding in the mud of a wet patch of tundra. They poked their bills repeatedly in the mud, searching for tiny creatures to eat, and Morton explained how different species of waders with different bill lengths divided up the resources at a single feeding spot. We also saw some Ruddy Turnstones, and Laurie pointed out the striking oyster plant growing in the gravel with its dusky blue-gray leaves and long, spreading flower stalks with clusters of dark blue flowers at their ends.
As we were returning to the ship, Rodney and Katya were making final preparations for leaving it for a month’s stay on Wrangel Island. We wished them and the Wrangel Island staff, who were also getting off here at Doubtful, the best of luck.
‘Everything Walrus’ was presented by Morton in the bar as an informal talk along with a question-and-answer session. Evening drinks and a recap followed, along with the next day’s expedition briefing by Aaron. Dinner was duly announced and we moved to the dining rooms to continue sharing our experiences of the day.
The rough seas that rocked us in our bunks all night would likely continue and our planned landing after breakfast was not possible, so we continued heading south and hopefully, out of the worst of the weather. The first part of the BBC documentary, Spy on the Ice, was shown in the lecture room, after which Morton led another natural history discussion, this time about Polar Bears. The high interest level was measured by how long we sat in the bar, engrossed by the fascinating details of their life on the ice, the threats they face, and management issues. The Russian approach is to allow no rifles and insist on behavior that puts neither people nor Polar Bears in harm’s way. In Svalbard, Canada, and the United States there is a totally different mindset and rifles are standard issue. Morton is working to change what he and many other enlightened Polar Bear biologists perceive as mismanagement of Polar Bear-human interactions, but concedes that it is not an easy thing to do.
After lunch we viewed one of the BBC’s Wild Arctic series’ documentaries on Wrangel Island. Later on Laurie and the ‘Enderby Ladies’ Botanical Society’ held a plant identification workshop in the bar to research and put names to some of the different flowers that were seen and photographed during the voyage.
At recap, Adrian talked about the Swedish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiold’s exploration of this area, and Marie conducted a short course on latitude and longitude, and how to measure distances and timings from charts on the bridge. The best recap of the evening, however, was a summarisation of the day’s sailing by Erik with the traditional mariner’s saying “We joined the Navy to see the world and what did we see, we saw the sea.”
Dinner by Nicki and Simon was again a sumptuous feast, but how they ever managed to prepare such meals in a rolling galley was nothing short of miraculous.
After breakfast, the weather conditions made for a bit of a wet ride, but all five Zodiacs made it ashore at Kolyuchin Inlet where we anchored one in the sand and tied the others together just in case the wind picked up. The shoreline just up from the stoney beach was thick with a grass that looked like a stalk of wheat. Just inland, however, the landscape changed to peaty clumps of moss and grass, scattered flowers, mostly in the Compositae plant family that includes Daisies, Goldenrod, and Dandelions and relatively bare elevated areas that were colonised by Lichens, some Mushrooms, Cloudberry, Crowberry, and willows. Looking the length of the spit we could make out ribbons of vegetation in long, sweeping arches that delineated the outlines of old beach dune formations. On the far side of a more distant water body we spotted one Polar Bear and kept a watch on its movements, but he never headed in our direction. We later heard and then saw a beautiful pair of Sandhill cranes lift off from the ground and wing their way just above the tundra and out in front of the sea.
After making a large loop around the narrow peninsula on which we landed, we returned by picking our way down a muddy gully to the beach and back to the boats. The beach was littered with large pieces of kelp, small sponges that had been scraped off their moorings, and mussel shells. Once again in the Zodiacs we moved a little distance down the coast towards a navigation marker and small house, and pulled up on the beach again. Morton put the scope on a small flock of Emperor geese and we all had good views of this strikingly colored goose. A few White-billed divers were on the water, and several were seen flying in from the sea, honking softly as they flew. Some of the group decided they had walked enough for one morning and returned to the ship while the rest of the group walked farther along the shore of the lagoon. Along with a few more bird sightings we also saw two people walking out to meet us at the boats. They were Aleksey and his wife Natalia who lived in the small house we saw and have been doing walrus and other marine mammal counts in the area of the inlet and Kolyuchin Island since May. We were giving Natalia a ride to Anadyr from where she was flying to St. Petersburg. Aleksey would continue to work the whole season in the area.
After lunch Adrian gave a talk in Swedish on Nordenskiold and his ship, the Vega, and then we viewed the second part of the “Spy on the Ice” documentary. Laurie’s lichen lecture was postponed a half hour because just at that time we passed closest to the point where 130 years earlier Nordenskiold got stuck in the ice. We gathered on deck to toast the Swedish explorer and to take photos of the coast and each other. Laurie’s presentation ‘Lichen Biology and Ecology’ then began in the lecture room and we learned some fascinating facts about these composite organisms that were a symbiosis between fungi and algae.
At recap Julia introduced Natalia to the whole group and briefly summarised the work she and her husband did censusing walrus and recording bird nesting and abundance in the area. Aaron briefed us on the next day’s plan, and then it was downstairs to the dining rooms. The seas were a little calmer this evening than the night before, and maybe tonight they would gently rock us to sleep and not out of our bunks.
The ship dropped anchor off Big Diomede Island, known in Russia as Ostrov Ratmanova. The sun shone brilliantly in the sky with high clouds but a long, dense fog bank had settled in off to the east on the American side. By Janne’s estimate there were about thirty Gray whales blowing all around the ship where we anchored, this estimate was later revised to more than fifty. The steamy exhalations were visible everywhere, with an occasional sighting of a long, lumpy back and sometimes an arched tail and raised flukes signaling a deep feeding dive. The air and water were full of birds from the cliffs of Big Diomede.
There was one good walrus sighting, but an unfortunate one as it was a carcass that floated by on our port side. It still had its head and tusks, so likely died of natural causes.
The numbers of birds wheeling and darting overhead was astounding: Horned and Tufted puffins, Pigeon guillemots, Crested, Parakeet, and Least Auklets, Cormorants, and a flock of Harlequin ducks were among the more noteworthy. The cliff face of Big Diomede seemed to have more soil and vegetation than other bird cliffs we had seen, as well as evidence of seemingly recent landslides. A rusty-orange lichen coated the surface of most of the rock faces underneath the birds’ roosts, and Laurie pointed out that its abundance was likely due to its preference for sites with more nutrients.
Too soon, it seemed, we had to return to the ship to continue motoring south. On the way back, however, we had the additional pleasure of some close views of Gray whales that were feeding some distance from the ship, as well as right off the bow and gangway. We saw even more whales after lunch as the ship slowed to pass through an area where an estimated 100 Gray whales were having theirs. To the port, starboard, bow, and stern there were whale sightings, blows, long dark backs, and sometimes a pair of flukes. The tally for the day was an estimated 300 animals. Flying or floating among the diving and surfacing whales were Shearwaters, Kittiwakes, Phalaropes, and Fulmars. The water color in the area was a greenish brown, perhaps an algal bloom combined with the bottom sediments stirred up by all the feeding activity.
There was a lively crowd already in the bar in the early evening, and after everyone settled with drinks, recap followed with Aaron talking about a family label of wine, Morton speaking about Phalaropes, and Laurie with a note on permafrost and tundra CO2 losses contributing to global warming. The evening seemed shorter as indeed it was, with darkness coming earlier the farther south we traveled.
A bright blue sky and slightly rolling seas greeted us today as we motored westward, having sailed passed Provideniya during the night.
Breakfast was slightly later after which Aaron gave the expedition departure briefing in the lecture room. Nicki then presented a slide show she had put together with contributing staff members’ photographs and all set to music. It was really a nice presentation, and copies were available for purchase. One by one the staff took a minute and wished everyone onboard a safe journey home, and hoped to see us on a future voyage. Wildlife lists for the trip recorded 51 bird species, 11 species of marine mammals, and 73 polar bears!
The main activity keeping everyone busy in the afternoon seemed to be organising and packing. In the later afternoon a much needed break was offered by Dean and Tess for anyone interested in viewing a couple of short documentaries they had filmed on Macquarie Island.
At the regular social hour in the bar complimentary cocktails were served, a special drink prepared by Julia called “Border guard Knockout”. The seats were filled as everyone, it seemed, joined in around the tables for our last get-together before the voyage’s end tomorrow.
It was a bright, but overcast day for our departure. Anadirsky Liman was calm and the sun broke through the clouds every now and then and shined off the estuary’s waters, while a few belugas swam about the ship. After some last minute reorganisation of our luggage, we enjoyed an early breakfast and then left the ship in groups depending on our flights to Nome or Moscow. The Zodiacs shuttled us to shore and then we were off to the airport for our respective flights home.
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" Having had 3 previous voyages with Heritage. . Birding the Kurils, First Sea of Okhotsk and Across the top of the world, I now want to visit Maquarie Island. The voyages are just so enjoyable. "
" “Clearly and wholeheartedly I have to say that I LOVE Wrangel Island.
It was not a love at first sight, as first sight of Wrangel Island was cold, foggy, and rather deserted from wildlife. We did not just do the tour around the island with several landings, but had the pleasure to stay on the island for 10 days.
When you are ON THE ISLAND, meaning on the overland trips, which are additional building blocks Heritage Expedition offers …… the weather conditions change dramatically, the arctic is a desert, and then on land the micro climate provided for us sunny and warm days, with cool nights. And the island wildlife experience just exploded …… abundant snowy owls, jaegers, sandpipers, snow geese and other birds ( from all species always adults and chicks to see ), especially I loved the arctic foxes, we saw on each day dens, sometimes with up to 14 curious and for us photographers very cooperative and playful pups ! In addition there were a few rare reindeer to see and lots of muskoxen, plus lots of polar bears.
Including females with cubs, however I preferred to see the polar bears and walruses on sea / pack ice while circling the island on the Spirit of Enderby and on zodiac as on land they look sort off displaced from their preferred habitat and they were normally rather shy. Not to be forgotten are the lemmings, which provide the necessary food for my beloved arctic foxes and snowy owls
Next to the animal life, there was also obvious the – for arctic regions - rich and colourful plant life.
On the trip from Anadyr to Wrangel and back (10 days), plus on the two time 4 days circling Wrangel Island I took ca. 4000 images ( in combined 18 days ) and on the 10 days on Wrangel I took 12 000 images alone !
This clearly shows the beauty and power of this place.
For this reason I definitely plan to return to Wrangel in one of the next years again with Heritage Expeditions, again with a dedicated group of nature wildlife photographer friends !
It was a real pleasure to experience this magical place, I had thanked Rodney Russ, the owner of Heritage Expeditions and our mega capable expedition leader on this trip plus Alexander Gruzdev, the Wrangel Island Nature Reserve Director, several times, for working so hard together to make this trip possible for our group !
All of our group was clearly aware of the multiyear ( !!! ) efforts by Heritage Expeditions which were needed to put this trip finally in place and that we were mega mega mega fortunate to be the first group to experience this arctic gem so closely and so extensively.
I realize each day more, since I am back, how special this trip was / is !!!
One of my friends has been on trips to the high arctic 8 times and already after 1 day on Wrangel Island he said to me that this trip is his best ever. It is logic that for this region you need a long lens or a camera with good digital tele zoom. When we spotted polar bears on the ice, the ship stopped and zodiacs were within 10 minutes in the water for all passengers to have a chance to get as close as possible to the wildlife. One evening the ship manouevered itself near to a relaxed polar bear on ice and stopped there for several hours ( over dinner ). After dinner the bear actually was curious enough to come maybe close than 50 m to the ship and passengers were making full frame images of the bear in beautiful sunset colours with their smartphones !!! This is nature expedition at its best, always come prepared properly with proper gear ( as mentioned above ) and then also always a bit of luck is required for finding cooperative wildlife !
The Heritage Expedition trip itself: all logistics, food, accommodation, support on- and off-board the ship, professionalism and sympathy of the complete staff, from room service via the kitchen crew to expedition guides and leaders, not to forget the NZ based office crew, just was flawless, as usual, as experienced so many times on trips to both subantarctic / antarctic and arctic regions before, one cannot return from one Heritage Expeditions trip without immediately booking one for the coming year The latter is actually the only downside I know about Heritage Expeditions … but hey, this is an absolute deluxe problem, of which I would LOVE to have more. :-)
" Dear Rodney and the team of Heritage Expedition and the crew of Spirit of Endebry, thank to all of you for the incredible experience and unforgettable sightseeing of the Whalebone Alley and Naukan; for almost impossible dry landing at Cape Dezhnev and exciting moments to step at the easternmost cape of Eurasia!
Many thanks for the opportunity to spend some time at one of my dreamland - Wrangel Island and all its wildlife with polar bear, musk ox, cute arctic foxes, snow owls and lemmings as well as cooking experience!
I met wonderful people on board from Australia, England, USA, New Zealand and Russia!
thank you thank you thank you thank you!
" The voyage itself was wonderful, and I would like to make it clear how much I appreciate the efforts of the staff and the crew, who all did a really splendid job. Rodney's feelings for the area and the wildlife, and his determination that his passengers should enjoy both to the full, were very evident - indeed he went out of his way to ensure this, not least by arranging an additional landing (not in the published itinerary) on the final Monday morning. His hotel manager, guides and supporting staff were uniformly excellent in their different ways, as were the crew of the ship. All worked extremely hard and yet, in public, maintained a relaxed and friendly manner. We were also very fortunate to have the company and guidance of Nikita and Irina, the parents of Katya Ovsyanikova, whose knowledge and experience added a great deal to the experience (eg, Nikita's lectures and Irina's leadership of the "stalk" that got us to within 100 yards of a herd of musk oxen). Please convey my thanks to all concerned. "
" Again, I want to thank Rodney and his team on Voyage #1334. They worked hard and produced many memorable encounters. They even ordered up decent weather for this sort of trip. I also want to recognize Richard Benneville over in Nome. That colorful guy is a "secret weapon" for Heritage and is the perfect introduction and finale for the Russian Coast trip. Finally, the Wrangel Overland Traverse was a unique experience. "
" “It was a great experience to travel with Heritage to the “Top of the world” – Wrangel & Herald Island and the Chukotkan coast. Organisation was great, food on board excellent, the zodiac excursions and landings professional. I have escorted a lot of Arctic cruises and photographic trips in Svalbard/Spitsbergen and can highly recommend this seldom run itinerary to remote Wrangel Island especially for those interested in Polarbears. We did get a huge advantage due to calm weather, did all the landings and activities and got more than 50 polar bears to be seen, walrusses, foxes as well as Musk Ox at Wrangel. A total surprise was the meeting with Chukchi Reindeer herders and their approximately 2500 animals. The last night before our return to Anadyr we could as well experience the northern lights at Bering straight. Highly recommendable trip.”
" We're home... after an absolutely wonderful trip ..and an overland to top all journeys! We were under strict instructions not to divulge details unless people assured us that they didn't mind turning green with envy! Not sure who did the Blog for our voyage... but it can't ever do it justice! Now we've all the photos to sort through - but that will serve to prolong the enjoyment. "
" Leanne - thanks for all you've done - it's been super to know we could work things out through you... thanks for your patience especially - and your enthusiasm.
I'm sure we will want to recount some of our adventures on our return - in the meantime, our Best Wishes, Chris.
" A great trip with anticipation of adventure on every morning. One of the real surprises was the stunning variety of tundra plants.
" The birders were delighted with our Zodiac runs past massive cliffs, home to thousands of guillemots, Black-legged Kittiwakes and cormorants, interspersed with Horned and Tufted Puffins, Crested and Parakeet Auklets to name but a few of the 59 bird species we were able to tick off on the trip. With excitement we launched the Zodiacs and headed towards the bird cliffs, as we rounded a promontory we sighted a big Polar Bear mother with two cubs, one in the water and the other on the rocks - only 40 metres away, we continued to have three closer encounters and see many distant bears, these were memorable sightings. "
" It was a good trip and we saw lots of Polar Bears - I think the ship count was 190. The staff on the ship were wonderful and took good care of us. "
" Thank you very much for a wonderful experience. "