1926: Chukotka - Where Russia's Day Begins 8 July 2019

© S. Blanc
Day 1: Monday 8 July
Nome to Anadyr

The start of an epic journey, today we flew from Nome to Anadyr, boarded a local ferry and cruised our way up the Anadyr River to reach Kapitan Khlebnikov (KK). The beautifully clear day allowed for a great view across the Bering Strait as we bid farewell to Alaska and had our first sighting of the unique coastline we would spend the next two weeks exploring.

After an interesting bus ride which included a break (down) for lunch and a spot of bird watching we were able to board our ferry ride to KK. As we cruised along we were treated to a scene of Beluga Whales, Spotted Seals and myriad of seabirds travelling along the river. The splendid sunshine and little wind made for an easy transfer onto KK and we were soon settling in to life on board with fresh scones and tea. A second arrival of passengers at dinner brought our diverse group together, journeying from 17 different countries overall. We all sat down to the first of many delicious three course meals, and after, retired to our cabins to have a relaxing evening ready for the continued adventure in the morning.

© H. Ahern
Day 2: Tuesday 9 July
Preobrazhnaya Bay

Our day kicked off with safety drills and briefings to get us accustomed to all the quirks of life on board and receive our very important waterproof boots and life jackets. Meanwhile the calm conditions proved great for seabird and marine mammal viewing from the deck with several tubenoses, gulls and auks making fantastic appearances.

Following our smooth ride across the Bay of Anadyr, we launched into our first Zodiac cruise alongside the bird cliffs of Preobrazhnaya Bay. A multitude of species were nesting and resting on the cliffs and surface of the water, while others were circling above. The call of the Black-legged Kittiwakes echoed through the towering granite cliffs and the sheer number of birds proved a spectacular sight. The sharp eyes among us were able to locate the blue eggs beneath guillemots and Horned and Tufted Puffins peeping out of rock crevices or nesting high up on the cliffs. Flocks of crested auklets were admired dancing above the Zodiacs and pelagic cormorant’s black feathers were shimmering with green and purple iridescence. Other bird species enjoyed included, Common, Brünnich's and Pigeon Guillemonts, Glaucous and Vega Gulls, Parakeet Auklets, Northern Fulmars, White Wagtails, Short-tailed Shearwaters and Red-throated Pipit.

A fishing camp was located at a nearby river mouth which gets used by a local settlement to catch some of their main food source, sockeye and humpback salmon. Isolated settlements of the area have to rely heavily on hunted food sources as the supply vessel visits once a year, and when it does, bad weather can still prevent it from unloading supplies ashore.

To top the whole day off, many of us enjoyed a brilliant encounter with resident orcas as they meandered their way along the coastline.

© S. Blanc
Day 3: Wednesday 10 July
Lavrentiya and Cape Dezhnev

Calm seas provided a relaxing journey overnight from Preobrazhnaya Bay and we were welcomed to Lavrentiya (the Chukchi regions administration center) with a smooth first landing and friendly faces of the local people. Once onshore we were split into groups and sent off to explore Lavrentiya with a local guide. The first point of interest was a viewpoint encapsulating the bay, ship and surrounding landscape and looking back on the town centre. Locals had constructed the viewing platform and wooden whale carvings provided a beautiful backdrop. Further exploration through the town centre included a good luck Pelikan statue, and a museum and library tour that provided us with a great insight into the history and traditions of Chukchi people, and wildlife of this region. A large buffet of traditional food was also on offer, from berries to dried whale, and we all enjoyed tasting the various delicacies. We completed our visit with a delightful Chukchi performance on the outdoor stage with all generations getting involved to dance to stories depicting everyday life and wildlife of the area.

As we moved up the coast into the Bering Strait, a couple of Gray Whales and many more seabirds including 50 King Eiders were observed off the bow. Meanwhile, Elena gave a brilliant presentation about the Chukchi people – where they came from and their way of life.

An evening Zodiac cruise was the perfect way to make the most of the glassy sea conditions at Cape Dezhnev, the north-eastern most point of the Eurasian continent and bordering both the Pacific and Arctic Oceans. The cape was named after Russian Semyon Dezhnev who sailed through the Bering Strait for the very first time in 1648. Naukan, the abandoned Yupik village sat on the hillside; a collection of ruins left behind after Yupik inhabitants were ordered to leave by authorities in 1958. Our museum guide from Lavrentiya, Elizaveta, spent her childhood in Naukan living in typical Inuit dwellings and spoke about missing this traditional way of life very much. If there is ever the opportunity, Elizaveta sends gifts to the spirits at Naukan often including sacrificial food. We were all able to land on one of the small beaches below the cape and look back towards Big Diomede Island. Some new sightings beneath the towering cliffs included a Fin Whale and a few small groups of walrus.

© H. Ahern

© H. Ahern
Day 4: Thursday 11 July
Belyaka Spit and Kolyuchin Island

Woken early by the sound of Kapitan Khlebnikov scrapping through sea ice provided a great sense of excitement, magnified by the presence of a Polar Bear for some keen passengers looking out the window at 4am. The great sightings continued into the morning with at least 20 Humpback Whales seen moving along the ice edge, in addition to an astounding number of Bowhead Whales as we cruised along. Bringing KK to a halt we were able to really appreciate a group of 15 Bowhead Whales moving between the ice – an exceptional, once in a lifetime experience.

Sunshine, fresh air and wildlife were thoroughly enjoyed at Belyaka Spit. We were joined by rangers of Beringia National Park who travelled for three hours on a small boat from a nearby settlement. Splitting off into different groups we were guided by the expedition team focusing on photography, birding, botany and culture. Several bird species were observed including White-billed and Pacific Divers (loons), Red-necked Phalarope, Long-tailed Ducks and Common Eiders. Eider Duck eggs were tucked into a feather down nest against the hut and numerous ground squirrels were springing across the tundra. The area is such a hotspot for birdlife that Alexi the local ornithologist spends half of the year living on the inlet engaging in bird banding and data collection for the exchange of information around the world.

This afternoon we joined Dan for his presentation on “Wildlife of Chukotka and Wrangel Island” to better understand this wonderfully unique region. A circumnavigation of Kolyuchin Island completed our adventuring for the day before we made way for Wrangel Island.

© S. Blanc

© E. Sabanina
Day 5: Friday 12 July
Enroute to Wrangel Island

At sea today as we travelled north-east from Kolyuchin to arrive at Wrangel Island. This morning kicked off with some great presentations by Samuel on “Polar Bear ecology and biology”, and Max on the “search of new lands – Bering to Steffanson”. One presentation in particular would prove very relevant for our afternoon at sea…

Full stomachs prompted the majority of us to go for an afternoon relax following lunch and about five minutes later the excitement started. To the starboard side a Polar Bear was sighted and Expedition Leader Aaron made the call to slow down and turn Kapitan Khlebnikov around, this resulted in the sighting of several more bears very close to the ship. Watching a mother and cub investigating what was thought to be a piece of ice, turned out to be a Bowhead Whale carcass which was in a decomposing state and was attracting numerous bears to the scene. On closer inspection a yellow rope was sitting on top of the carcass and it was thought that the whale may have been a casualty of hunting, although had succeeded in escaping the hunters themselves. Meanwhile providing a fantastic food source for Polar Bears in the area, with the stench making it very clear how these fascinating creatures honed in on the feast. As we surveyed the area, a total of nine bears were observed feeding, resting and swimming throughout the ice, the mother tearing large chunks off the carcass with her first-year cub close by. One bear spent a large amount of time with its head underwater and back legs in the air as it dove down to reach the tastiest pieces. 

© E. Sabanina

© E. Sabanina
Day 6: Saturday 13 July
Wrangel Island

Rangers, Genady and Pavel successfully made it onboard this morning to join us on our way around Wrangel Island. Six rangers stay on Wrangel for two years at a time and are joined by scientists in the summer months. The isolation and climate of the island make for very hard living conditions, but the amazing wildlife they experience year-round is a great exchange.

We were thrilled to step foot on Wrangel for the first time in Krasin Bay, Devil’s Creek on the south-eastern end of the island. As we wove through the broken sea ice on Zodiacs, we were on the lookout for any wildlife and a couple of Ringed Seals were seen slipping off the ice floes as we approached. Once ashore the keen hikers among us set off on a steep climb up a nearby ridge to appreciate the spectacular view from above. The remaining two groups spent time exploring a Paleo-Eskimo site which dates back to 3,200 years ago and was likely a marine mammal hunting camp, and enjoyed a nature walk up a nearby valley. A seemingly oblivious Arctic Fox scampered in front of a large group of passengers as soon as we set off, providing a great photo opportunity to begin. Not too much further, several Musk Oxen were observed cooling off in the stream, two of which were very large males. Grey Plovers and Snow Buntings were enjoyed and Long-tailed Skuas circled overhead alerting us to their broods nearby and initiating a change in direction. Lemmings were scooting across the tundra in and out of their burrows. Another highlight of the morning was the colourful flora smothering the tundra along the stream banks.

Back on board we enjoyed another delicious lunch before settling into some sightseeing off the bow for the afternoon. Numerous Polar Bears were added to the count for the expedition and some great ice breaking was enjoyed over the side. As we rounded Cape Blossom at the southern end of Wrangel, there were more sightings of walrus and Polar Bears.

Later this evening we all boarded Zodiacs again and slowly idled our way up to walruses resting on an ice floe. Undisturbed by our presence we were able to watch these magnificent animals for over half an hour as they rested on the ice. We then continued along the bird cliffs of Ptichiy Bazar, as the sun began to set we soaked up the beautiful scenery of nesting guillemots and hundreds of kittiwakes.

© S. Blanc

© D. Brown

© S. Blanc
Day 7: Sunday 14 July
Wrangel Island

First thing this morning we disembarked for some time ashore near Sovetskay River and the surrounding hills and valleys. One group cruised along the shoreline and up to check out the rangers hut, which was a cozy cabin likely needing an upgrade in the not too distant future. The long walkers followed the valley floor up the Sovetskay River before climbing the surrounding hills in search of a view across the valley. Many new plants were noted along the way and Genady spoke about uses of differing plant species and life on the island. The particular area we were walking through was only visited a couple times each season and really offered the true Arctic landscape feel.

While we made our way further north, Dan presented a lecture on photography giving many helpful tips to capturing a great image. As the fog was lifting, we made another landing at Lake Komsomol this afternoon. Guides scouted the area for Polar Bears before setting up a perimeter for us to freely wander, observing birds in the lake and checking out a hut occasionally used by scientists to count Polar Bears in the area.

Back on the ship this evening we journeyed through some more ice and enjoyed some Ringed and Bearded Seal spotting.

Day 8: Monday 15 July
Wrangel Island

Leaving the western side of Wrangel and heading for Dragi Bay, we had the morning at sea. Samuel gave an informative talk about sea ice and we joined the expedition team on deck to take in the passing wildlife. After observing numerous Polar Bears and walrus all morning, the opportunity came straight after lunch to launch Zodiacs and have a closer encounter with a Polar Bear on an ice floe and a walrus haul out. The bear appeared very relaxed while we all kept a good distant and gently made our way around the ice floe. We then turned our attention to the walrus haul out on a neighboring floe. Many spectacular photographs were taken before we left the animals to their peaceful surrounds and returned to the ship.

Rachael filled in the remaining afternoon with a lecture on “Arctic plant adaptations”, a great topic to highlight the colourful tundra life we had been seeing on Wrangel. Bar time was traded for another adventure this evening as we all set foot on Wrangel Island again for the last time. Dragi Harbour was our last destination, where the survivors of the sunken Karluk vessel ended up ashore in 1914. A monument stands in memory of the sailors. While expedition staff were scouting the landing, a mother Polar Bear and two cubs were making their way away from the landing allowing us to get ashore, and while we were enjoying short walks up the ridgeline or out to the cape, another bear was seen along the beach. The male bear continued to amble his way along the beach towards us, offering a great opportunity to really appreciate this magnificent animal. Snow Geese adults were also seen feeding in the area with their new hatchlings kept closely in the flock. We bid farewell to the Wrangel rangers and made way for Herald Island.

© S. Blanc
Day 9: Tuesday 16 July
Herald Island and At Sea

Herald Island emerged through the fog as we approached this morning and cruised past the western side of the island watching thousands of seabirds on the steep cliffs. Just as we were heading out of the sea ice and making our way south, three Polar Bears were spotted on a large ice floe. A Ringed Seal carcass and blood-stained mouths told the tale of why these bears were lying around looking sluggish. One in particular had a very dirty coat and really stood out against the bright white backdrop, while another one was not bothered at all by our approaching vessel and kept on snoozing.

Later this morning we joined Samuel for his presentation on the “Forgotten expedition of the Karluk between Alaska and Chukotka”, which told the intriguing tale of tragedy and survival in the Wrangel and Herald Island region. Christoph also presented while at sea this afternoon on “Climate change and Arctic governance”, covering issues in the Arctic region. 

Day 10: Wednesday 17 July
At Sea and Cape Serdtse-Kamen

Making our way towards Serdtse-Kamen (“rocky heart”) on the northern coast of Chukotka this morning, we were treated to two very informative presentations. Elena spoke about a Russian way of living, giving an insight to life in Russia, and Christoph shared his experience on the conservation of the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Several bird species also decided to use the ship as a resting platform overnight providing shelter from the rain, and us with some close encounters of a Great Knot, Pectoral Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher and Western Sandpiper.

Throughout the morning the chief engineer kindly took us on group tours of the engine rooms, to appreciate what it takes to run this ice breaker. Outside, those searching the horizon spotted Humpback Whales in the distance and a lucky few in the right place, witnessed a Minke Whale breaching five times right beneath the bow.  

Anchoring off Serdtse-Kamen Cape, an extremely important area to a local northern settlement due to the significant walrus haul out. They take great interest in protecting the site so walruses are not disturbed forcing them to find another haul out location. The absence of walrus this time of year meant we were permitted to go ashore to explore the surrounding hills, local hut and lagoon behind the beach. Dead walruses littered the beach, likely casualties of stampeding during haul outs, and layers of whale bones could be seen in the surrounding banks. A bunch of artifacts and interesting bones were on display beside the hut with Samuel providing interpretation. Many people enjoyed a hike up to the ridgeline spotting pika and marmot along the way and several ground squirrels were moving around unperturbed by us while feeding on the tundra. Bird species observed included Sandhill Cranes, Rough-legged Buzzard, Black Brants, Common Eider, White Wagtails and Western Sandpiper.

© E. Sabanina
Day 11: Thursday 18 July
Yttygran Island

On our way to Yttygran Island this morning the beautifully clear weather meant we could all be on the lookout for whales, with the island situated on a seasonal migration route. Feeding Gray Whales were sighted along the way, with some coming extremely close to the ship. Dirty water could be seen at the surface from them stirring up the bottom when feeding. A large raft of King Eiders was also observed moving across the water.

Onboard specialists Moshe and Elena entertained us with their knowledge on the Beringia land bridge, the region’s flora and brown bears throughout the morning.

At lunch we anchored near Sekliuk Bay on the northern side of Yttygran Island, which is part of Beringia National Park. Whale Bone Alley was only discovered in 1976 and little information on exactly what occurred there exists. The ancient Inuit site is strewn with the skulls and jawbones of Bowhead Whales, thought to be either a ceremonial area or hunting camp. Local rangers guided us through the ruins of abandoned Yupik village Siqluk, which was left after a large state-relocation project in 1950. The area is on the waiting list as a UNESCO cultural heritage area, however due to environmental impacts and proximity to shore the whale bone remains are being affected by things like ice crushing. This poses the question for those managing the area, whether they interfere and protect the remains, or leave it to the natural process. Colourful flowers and the afternoon sun attracted many different butterflies, with the high alpine Apollo Butterfly reaching sea level in these high latitudes.

Moving back through the Senyavina Strait and into the Penkingney Fiord we cruised alongside more Gray Whales feeding and were able to really appreciate the spectacular glaciated valleys passing by.

© S. Blanc

© R. Iveson-Brown

© C. Rayes
Day 12: Friday 19 July
Penkingney Bay and Gil’mimyl

Shuttling on Zodiacs this morning we could just make out some reindeer further along the beach before heading into the landing. Sure enough fresh reindeer prints were present across the tundra and bear scat was littered among the small willow trees. Dividing into hiking, birding and plant groups, we set off in different directions to enjoy the mountainous landscape and wildlife. Wildlife spotted today included the pika, Arctic Warbler, Arctic Redpoll, Northern Wheatear, Grey-cheeked Thrush, Bluethroat, butterflies, grasshoppers, lichens, the remains of a Snowy Owl and its pellets, and of course an array of tundra flora.

The hiking group made it all the way up the rocky cliff face to a trig point and enjoyed amazing views of Kapitan Klebnikov and the surrounding mountains. Several people also enjoyed feasting on berries along the way. We all took the time to relax at the top while watching Humpback Whales move around the bay.

Gil’mimyl was our destination for this afternoon’s exploration. Many of us enjoyed guided nature walks around the lagoon area and up the river. Red-necked Stint, Ringed Plover and Arctic Redpoll were accompanied by chicks and many were delighted by the Sandhill Crane and a group of four Pacific Divers. Pink salmon were starting to run and were gathering in the pool areas, with Glaucous and Vega Gulls waiting nearby to score a meal. Another group chose to make the most of the natural hot spring and ventured up the river to dip into the constructed wooden tub, which the locals had cooled down ready for our arrival. Elena initiated a local facial by rubbing the pool slime across her face and several others followed suit. Others chose to bathe in the river where the trickling hot water met the cool river flow. 

Day 13: Saturday 20 July

We arrived in Lorino for the highly anticipated Beringian Arctic Games, where isolated coastal communities across the Bering Strait region (as far as Alaska) congregate to celebrate traditional subsistence living. The day’s events were slightly uncertain as it relied heavily on how the planning and logistics were tracking among the communities ashore. However, soon after sending Elena in to check on progress they were ready for us onshore. Colourful tents and a hive of activity were scattered across the shoreline and as we arrived numerous different groups were being announced and parading in front of the stage. A variety of food tents were positioned down one side including a cake store and more traditional food to try. In other areas handiworks and national arts were displayed and a bouncy slide was set up for the children to enjoy. Down one end representatives from the nature reserve had set up a station for children to learn more about environmental awareness and participate in a few fun activities, one of which involved rescuing marine life (soft toys) from pollution they were tangled in. Many great performances and competitions continued throughout the day, one of the main events involving traditional canoe races over ten kilometres. We were also able to wander up to the village area and explore the surrounding lagoon. All in all, it was a fantastic event to be a part of and several passengers had to be pulled away to make the last Zodiac back to the ship.

Tonight we were treated to a special farewell dinner of four courses and amazing presentation and flavours.

Day 14: Sunday 21 July
At Sea

As we set course for Anadyr, our last day of the expedition was spent relaxing at sea as we journeyed across Anadyrskiy Bay. Our disembarkation briefing was given and bags were packed ready for the following morning transfer to the airport. This evening we spent time reminiscing with staff over the fantastic slideshow Dan had pieced together of expedition highlights, before enjoying our last delicious dinner.

Day 15: Monday 22 July

Arriving in Anadyr to complete a superb expedition, we all gathered to say our last farewells before boarding our ferry ride – Professor Khromov. During the voyage we have seen a vast amount of wildlife including some extraordinary sightings of Bowhead Whales and Polar Bears feasting on a carcass. Let alone, the myriad of other species and information we have been privileged to experience.

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