10 Aug 2019

An Incredible First Day at Wrangel Island

Wrangel Island: Across the Top of the World

For our first morning at Wrangel Island we set out on a walk across the dwarfed meadow of tundra splashed with reds, yellows and whites from the many seed-heads, flowers and fungi and accompanied by beautiful birdsong from small groups of Snow Buntings flitting around us. At our feet a Collared Lemming scurried through the vegetation like a tiny clockwork toy, while an Arctic Fox trotted by on the look-out for lunch, only to be dive bombed by a Long-tailed Skua, trying to make sure its chicks didn't become that meal. Several times, evocative calls from above drew our eyes skyward to formations of Snow Geese, part of the million or so that migrate to Wrangle Island each summer to breed. The remote island was certainly living up to its reputation as one of the most ecologically diverse places in the entire Arctic.

We walked a ridge line, with fine views on one side along the coast, on the other to the low mountains inland. As we approached a herd of Musk Oxen, one of the adult females walked passed only 50 metres away, allowing us a great view and detailed photos of one of these shaggy, prehistoric-looking creatures.

During our walk we were relieved that the eight Polar Bears we'd earlier spotted from the ship kept their distance, allowing us to roam freely over the tundra, with the rangers from the island. Later in the day we were rewarded with closer encounters. Our afternoon Zodiac cruise took us to see three large Polar Bears resting on the pebble beach at Cape Blossom, with the bonus of Gray Whales surfacing all around us.

However, our best Polar Bear experience was in the evening when we encountered pack ice with bears, including a female and two cubs. We drifted with the family as they travelled over the ice, leaping or swimming from floe to floe, the cubs closely following their mother's actions while a low sun provided beautiful light for photography.

For about an hour the bears ignored us, behaving entirely naturally. Then, suddenly, they became intensely curious and walked right up to the ship. They raised their eyes and looked straight up at us, just a few metres away. Our minds buzzed with the thrill of such a close encounter with a family of wild Polar Bears. Ten minutes later, curiosity satisfied, they ambled off across the jumbled ice. At that moment the sun hit the horizon and, with a final blaze of glory, sunk into an icy, orange sea.

Image (c) S.Blanc

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