1928: Across the Top of the World 22 July 2019


© R. Rudland


Day 1: Monday 22 July

Position 1800: 64°43’N 177°37’E
Weather: Rainy, light wind.
Sea conditions: Calm
Wildlife highlight: Beluga Whales and spotted seals in Anadyr harbour

After an overnight in Moscow and a long and tiring flight across nine time zones we arrived into Anadyr.

Pronounced ‘an-ar-deer’ - and at 64ºN - this is the most easterly official ‘town’ in Russia though there are more easterly places which do not have town status. This frontier port town without a land-link to the rest of the country, is the capital of the Chukotsky Autonomous Region. One of 88 Autonomous Regions in the Russian Federation which covers an area of around 737,000 square kilometres. Travel in this region is by permit only.

Anadyr is the administrative centre and ‘capital’ of Chukotka with a population of some 14,000 people most of whom are government employees (in administration, schools and hospitals). The town was founded 1889 as a frontier post (originally named Novo-Mariinsk) and was the home of Roman Abramovich (oil oligarch, owner of Chelsea Football Club (!) and former Governor of Chukotka Autonomous Region) who has made huge difference to local people e.g. building new homes etc.

Anadyr is mostly populated 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.

The town is at the mouth of the Anadyr River on the south bank. The river empties into the Gulf of Anadyr. The airport, which is on the opposite side of the river has easy access to the town in winter when you can drive from one side to other (over the ice), but less so in the summer when you need to use the ferry (called the ‘Kamchatka’).

High above the harbour is Russia’s largest operating wooden church (next to a very modern culture hall). There is a network of roads in town but these are not connected to any other settlement by road (roads that appear to leave town merely loop round).

Construction was started in 2014 for a 1,100-mile road from Magadan to Anadyr which it is expected will take 30 years to finish.

We were greeted on the ‘air side’ by Alex from Heritage Expeditions who assisted with getting us through the arrival formalities and into the small and chaotic baggage hall. The baggage took a long time to appear, but when it did we made our way through security and out into the terminal where we were met by Helen from Heritage Expeditions.

With all bags collected, we were divided into two smaller groups and transferred - in what looked like an old yellow school bus - the short distance to the wharf where the Spirit of Enderby was docked. We were welcomed on board by Anya.

Most people were onboard by 1600, though we were awaiting a few late comers (who were coming in from Nome in Alaska). Many of us were straight out on deck with cameras and binoculars in hand to see the many Beluga Whales and spotted seals that were playing and feeding in the bay. There were also Vega and Slaty-backed Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwake, and Pelagic and Red-faced Cormorant.

Spirit of Enderby was our stopping place for a few hours - tea. coffee, a packed lunch and cold drinks were all made available to us to eat at our leisure - but it was also our ‘transport’ to get out to the Kapitan Khlebnikov, which, being a much larger vessel was unable to get into the harbour and was moored out at sea.

We set sail heading out into Anadyrskiy Bay to where the Kapitan Khlebnikov (endearingly known as ‘KK’) was moored. (approximately 10 nautical miles to the east of the harbour). Everyone was out on deck as we approached KK, there was a very moody sky and the captain skillfully drew the Spirit of Enderby alongside KK which towered above. The gangway was connected and we made our way across to the ‘mothership’. It was around 2100.

We were shown to our cabins and with everyone being exhausted after a long and tiring day, we had dinner. By the time dinner was over our bags were already in our cabins and (for most people) it was time for bed.

Starter   Caramelised Onion, Beetroot  & Goats cheese Tartlet
Main    Roasted rack of New Zealand Lamb, Shallot crushed Potatoes, Pea puree & Red Wine Jus
Seared Salmon Fillet, Wasabi Potatoes, Broccoli & Tomato Olive Salsa
Grilled Tempeh, stir fried Vegetables with steamed Rice
Dessert    Chocolate Tart with Vanilla Ice Cream

© Wildlife WW

Day 2: Tuesday 23 July
At Sea

Position 0700: 64°22.451’N 178°08.139’W
Weather: Rainy
Sea conditions: 2-3 metres swell
Lectures: An introduction to the onboard team - Nathan | The Chukchi People - Elena | Zodiac boarding and landing briefing - Nathan | Safety and lifeboat briefing - Nathan | Beluga Whales (Bar chat) – Mark

Today was a day at sea and to some extent a day of ‘formalities’ - though there were some changes to the programme during the day due to the sea conditions. We were due to have our ‘introduction to the voyage’ at 0930, but the sea swell, and the fact that it was taking people a little longer to get their sea legs meant that it was put back to 1130.

Nathan, our Expedition Leader, welcomed everyone aboard, he told us a little about Heritage Expeditions and introduced us to his expedition team – the chefs (very important!), the guides and Zodiac drivers, Cruise Director (Helen), Hotel Manager (Heidi) and Medical Advisor. Helen and Heidi then ran through a series of on-board ‘domestics’.

Nathan also introduced Chris Breen from UK-based travel company Wildlife Worldwide who had a large group onboard and a lecture and guide team that were available to everyone onboard the ship - Mark Carwardine (zoologist and photographer), Joe Cornish (landscape photographer), Katie Murray (polar historian), Rachel Ashton (video producer and director) and Emma Healey (photographer).

The rest of the day was largely free although there was a lecture mid-afternoon about the Chukchi people which was followed by boot and life-jacket collection.

The relatively high sea swell meant that a number of people were struggling to get their sea-legs!

At 1830 we all gathered in the lecture theatre for a safety briefing – important stuff as it sets the scene in respect of safety on-board and what we need to do in the event of an emergency. This was followed by the first of our ‘daily round-ups’. There were three short pieces in the round-up - Samuel gave an introduction to the region, Maxim spoke about some of the early history of the area, and Mark gave a short chat about CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora).

Nathan completed the session with a briefing on tomorrows activities.

Then, it was to the bar (which opened at 1700) and a 20-minute bar chat by Mark on Beluga Whales, and particularly the ones that we had seen the previous day in Anadyr.

A delicious dinner followed and then, for most people, another early night (it will take another day or two to get over jetlag!).

Starter   Prawn Cocktail
Mains    Roasted breast of Chicken, Rice Pilaf & Creamy Mushroom Sauce
Seared Rib-eye steak, Duck fat confit Potatoes, Broccoli & Béarnaise Sauce
        Asparagus Risotto, Parmesan & Olive Oil
Dessert    Lemon Tart with Vanilla cream & Raspberry Coulis

© M. Ilin

Day 3: Wednesday 24 July
Lavrentiya & Cape Dezhnev

Position 0650: 65°35.701’N 170°59.230’W
Weather: Foggy
Sea conditions: Calm
Lectures: Expedition Cruise Photography – Mark (with additional thoughts from Joe) | Katie - The History of Cape Dezhnev (on the bow of the ship)

After a good run overnight we dropped anchor at around 0600 with Lavrentiya behind the mist. After breakfast at 0700 we disembarked into Zodiacs at 0800 for our first excursion of the voyage to head over to the town (a wet or very wet landing depending on which part of the Zodiac you disembarked!).

Lavrentiya is a remote outpost – with an airstrip and a ‘Soviet era’ approach to non-locals landing. Elena had gone ahead to speak to the border guards about our arrival and run through the legal formalities (passport control in effect) in order to ensure our trouble-free disembarkation.

At our landing spot we split into three groups – one headed for the museum and the other two to the centre of town, the newly built lookout platform, and then back to the town square again where some of the residents had prepared local delicacies for us to try. These included Grey Whale skin, Grey Whale meat, walrus intestines and other meat products, as well as home-made doughnuts, locally picked berries, home-made tea, cakes and others.

We were also offered the opportunity to buy locally made carvings and other souvenirs, though as they were mostly made from CITIES 1 species (and therefore they can’t be exported from Russia) there was very little purchased. We also visited the museum and were entertained by the local curator (Elizabeta) whose wise words were ably translated by Elena. Elizabeta originates from Naukan – the village at the narrowest point on the Bering Strait and which we visited a couple of hours later.

Our guide in the museum was Elizabeta who – many years ago as a young girl – was displaced from the community at Cape Dezhnev and, together with her family and all of the others out at the Cape, rehoused in government housing at Lavrentiya.

The Chukchi are one of the few communities that are entitled to ‘harvest’ Grey Whales (as well as seals, walruses and other marine mammals). This permission comes from The International Whaling Commission (IWC) and they can harvest 140 per year and, whilst this is impossible to condone in western society, in a location as remote as this it seems less contentious and less of an issue especially as the local people have done so since ‘time began’. In the town of Lavrentiya they are allowed to harvest three Grey Whales per year.

With the possible exception of the border guards, the people here seemed warm and welcoming and delighted that we had taken the trouble to spend some of our time in their town.

Although the Chukchi people arrived here 6,000 years or ago more, the town itself was only built in the 1920s. It is at best an ‘outpost’ – with a population of around 1100 people - in many ways a remote Russian ‘border control post’ that mostly fell into wrack and ruin in the post-Soviet era.

Our visit to Lavrentiya concluded with a dance presentation by some of the local Chukchi in their community hall on the village square. The dancing was performed by both children and adults and was 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 and gathering birds eggs from the cliffs (amongst others).

All the dancers were beautifully dressed in traditional costume and they were in full voice!

Back on board we just about had time to turn our tags and get changed before heading into lunch.

At 1430ish Mark and Joe invited everyone to the lecture room to hear their presentation about Expedition Cruise Photography.

Much of the remainder of the afternoon was at leisure until we approached Cape Dezhnev late afternoon, Nathan announced that we were unable to land because of the thick fog and sea swell. We did get some mysterious views of the Cape and of the memorial emerging briefly from the foggy air as Katie was presenting a piece about Vitus Bering and Semyon Dezhnev from the bow of the ship, it was a fitting and somewhat dramatic location for a history lesson!

Cape Dezhnev is an historic landmark – the north-easternmost point of the Eurasian continent and is named after a Siberian Cossack, Semyon Dezhnev. It is also the site of a former Eskimo village named Naukan which, in its heyday, would have been a beautiful (and traditional) village in a magnificent location with spectacular views – and of course with plenty of food for the residents to hunt.

At Cape Dezhnev there is a monument commemorating the little-known explorer – Semyon Dezhnev, a Russian Cossack who joined an expedition to explore uncharted regions in Siberia, leaving from the Kolyma River in 1648. Ninety men set out in seven boats; all the boats were destroyed at various points on route, and only 17 men ultimately survived the journey. Dezhnev’s vessel was shipwrecked just south of the Anadyr River, but not before he had sailed through the waterway we now know as the Bering Strait, and past the headland that now bears his name. Dezhnev’s journey proved that the Eurasian and American continents were separate – an issue that was to obsess geographers for centuries. Not realising the significance of this discovery, however, there was little interest in his voyage, the records of which languished in obscure archives. Later explorers, including Vitus Bering, after whom the strait was eventually named, met their deaths trying to answer a question Dezhnev had already answered.

The Eskimo village of Naukan had been occupied by subsistence marine mammal hunters for thousands of years. Its location on a relatively protected terrace overlooking the narrowest point of the Bering Strait made it perfect for hunting. In its heyday the village had a population of about 400 people living in 83 traditional roundhouses covered in skins (or yarangas) and wooden huts. 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.

After we passed Cape Dezhnev we had a short recap with Mark presenting a piece on Aboriginal whale hunting.

A delicious dinner followed - we are getting used to this now! – and then bed….

Starter    Forest Mushroom Risotto with Parmesan & Truffle Oil
Mains    Seared Blue Cod with baked Potato, Asparagus & Lemon Beurre Blanc
Roasted Pork Fillet with Prunes, Walnuts & Apple Jus
Tempura of spring Vegetables with Quinoa Salad & Coriander dressing
Dessert    Bread & Butter pudding with Salted Caramel & Anglaise

© Wildlife WW

Day 4: Thursday 25 July
Kolyuchin Island

Position 0835: 67°29.113’N 174°37.852’W
Weather: Foggy & rainy
Sea conditions: Calm
Lectures: In Search of New Lands, Bering to Stefansson - Maxim

Today we had an early start – we were up, dressed and out on the Zodiacs by around 0630. We were anchored off the north-western side of Kolyuchin Island and we needed to get exploring!

This small island (only 5 kilometres by 1.5 kilometres) was once an important Russian Polar Research Station, one of a number that were dotted across the Arctic. Sadly, with the collapse of the USSR there was no money to maintain them and they were abandoned in 1992.

From the ship we could see some of the buildings – all derelict now – but the wildlife of the island is very much present. Near the abandoned research station at the north-western end of the island are some of the most spectacular bird cliffs in the Arctic so Nathan ordered the Zodiacs into the water so we could cruise the coastline. Tufted Puffins, Common, Brunnich’s and Pigeon Guillemots and Black-legged Kittiwakes in vast numbers were viewed from remarkably close quarters – Glaucous and Vega Gulls watching for eggs to steal.

“PB” came the call over the radio, “PB” … it wasn’t a rocket scientist to work out that someone had seen a Polar Bear and that we needed to get to it as quickly as possible! Seeing it turned out to be no problem at all as it was asleep at the bottom of a deeply cut ravine, fairly close to the water’s edge. But it was just sleeping, and showed little sign of wanting to interact with any other species – least of all humans! It did however, lift its head, have a quick look, and then settle back down to sleep… curled up like a large, overgrown, Labrador.

We were back on-board KK by 1230 and planned to spend some time cruising the area slowly looking out for whales. This is one of the best places to observe Bowhead Whales (the water is relatively shallow and it is a known feeding ground) and the area is also known to be good for Greys and Humpbacks… and we saw two out of three which isn’t too bad (we missed Grey Whale)!

It was pre lunch, and we were heading north (towards Wrangel) and someone shouted “walrus”, and sure enough there were three or four haul outs on the ice – all off which looked interesting. As we got closer we realised there was also a Polar Bear on the ice – a closer look revealed a second bear, but they were still quite distant.

Then, there was a call of “Bowheads” in the distance. So, in the big ship, we manoeuvred towards where they were and sat and watched as eight Bowheads and a couple of Humpbacks played and fed amongst about a million Short-tailed Shearwaters. It really was a spectacular sight… but made all the more complete by one of the Bowhead Whales cruising under the ship and appearing from under the bow of the ship and slowly cruising past.

Lunch was next, but there was then a call of “Humpbacks” so we rushed out to see what we could see – it was only about 25 or 30 Humpback Whales feeding all around the vessel.

Polar Bear count for the day: 3
Polar Bear count for the trip: 3

Starter    Pork Dumplings with Soy & Ginger
Mains    Roasted Monk Fish, Chorizo & spiced Beans with buttered Peas
Braised Venison casserole with Puff Pastry & roasted Root Vegetables
Spinach & Ricotta Ravioli, Lentil casserole & red Pepper coulis
Dessert    Pannacotta with Chilli Pineapple Salsa

© M. Ilin

© C. Rayes

© M. Carwadine

Day 5: Friday 26 July
180 meridian & Cape Blossom

Position 0740: 70°22.615’N 179°18.425’W
Weather: Sunny, cool
Sea conditions: Flat calm
Lectures: Samuel – The Life and Times of Polar Bears | Joe – Perspectives on Composition in Landscape Photography

What a morning! With breakfast due to start at 0700 it was somewhat surprising to get an in-cabin announcement at 0500 - but it is always for a reason. The weather was beautiful, the sea was calm and we were in amongst sea ice - and that can only mean one thing… we need to be on the look out for Polar Bears.

Most people were out on deck when the first bear was spotted, although there were some seen from the bridge before the wake-up call – the super early birds got those! It was off on the starboard side. Shortly after, and while everyone was still photographing it, there was another call of Polar Bear on the port side – this time rather closer.

The light was perfect and with the sea ice as a backdrop it would have been difficult not to get at least some good shots. Next up was a mum and two cubs – how can Polar Bear viewing possibly get any better?

Port side again, this time another single bear (with a very dirty coat) was inquisitive about the ship and came closer and closer, to about 10 metres from the ship. And then there was a second mum and two cubs a little further away. The ship was almost stationary but Nathan decided that it was worth moving the ship in order to get a much better view of one of the mum and cubs sets. As were turning there were three more bears, another mum and her two cubs. These bears were very curious about the ship (maybe they had smelled breakfast?) and they began walking towards the ship. We stopped and waited and they gave us a fabulous display of Polar Bear behavior, jumping from one ice floe to another, rolling in the ice, and lying completely flat with as much of their bellies on the ice as possible.

What a display – 12 Polar Bears in the space of an hour, and all before breakfast. Incredible.

The buzz at breakfast was, not surprisingly, deafening – but that wasn’t it. As we approached Wrangel Island over the course of the next couple of hours we saw another 3 (???). This must be the best place on earth for Polar Bears… and we are only on day 5!

After some time to relax – or of course be out on deck looking for wildlife! – Joe presented in the lecture theatre on landscape photography composition. Joe’s images were quite outstanding and his passion for the subject, and philosophical – almost meditative – approach to his photography was utterly captivating and compelling. And, it was clear that iPhone photography can in many ways be just as good as using a digital camera.

Lunch followed. The light was exceptional and many people were out on deck looking at birds, photographing the scenery and simply enjoying the fresh air and atmosphere of the Arctic.

Another bear in the distance gave us a brief view before swimming off, and then on the starboard side there was a cracker of a bear – well fed, clean fur and interested in the unusual size and shape of the ship. She was in beautiful light and stayed with the ship for 20 minutes or more.

There was exciting stuff going on at the back of the ship too with a group of Pomerine Skuas (without their pompoms!) mobbing Black-legged Kittiwakes. OMG – and then there was another one, these bears are relentless.

Quite late in the day Nathan announced that we would make a landing at Cape Blossom – our first opportunity to put our feet on Wrangel Island. Cape Blossom, which is perched on the very south-western corner of the island has two ramshackle huts that are used by walrus and Polar Bear researchers occasionally though it looks as though they haven’t been here for some time now.

Wrangel is starkly beautiful – a vast tawny tundra plain once inhabited by woolly mammoths – framed by low mountain ranges inland.

In March 1914 Captain Robert Bartlett and the Yupik hunter Kataktovik began a journey to Siberia to fetch help for the crew of the Karluk, marooned on Wrangel Island. Leaving from Rodger’s Harbour (on the south-east coast), they found their way onto the ice blocked by a mass of ice hummocks and pressure ridges over which it was impossible to drag their sledge. These were a formidable obstacle. As Agnes told us in her lecture about sea ice, hummocks are created when ice floes collide and overlap each other due to wind, tide or current. They can be up to 17 metres high.

Bartlett and Kataktovik travelled westwards along the coastline, trying to find a way onto the ice. After three days and nights of hard sledging they reached Cape Blossom where they finally found a gap and were able to begin their journey south. When we visited the site we were fortunate enough to see an example of an ice hummock, that had grounded just off-shore.

The first landing on Wrangel Island in recorded history (there is evidence that prehistoric peoples used the island) was made in 1881 by the crew of US revenue steamer Corwin. They landed on a beach near the mouth of Clark River, and describe finding vast quantities of driftwood and a largely intact whale skeleton. The well-known naturalist John Muir was on board, and christened Wrangel Island the ‘Land of the White Bear.’

Muir “There are plenty of white bears… we found them everywhere in abundance along the edge of the ice, and they appear to be very fat and prosperous, and very much at home, as if the country had belonged to them always. They are the unrivalled masters of this ice-bound solitude.”

Katie’s recommended reading:
John Muir ‘The Cruise of the Corwin: Journal of the Arctic Expedition of 1881’

There was a distant Polar Bear at the foot of the hills, and some even more distant Musk Oxen on the hillside. We were on land for a couple of hours, and then made our way back to the ship for a late briefing given by one of the Wrangel Island rangers, and then dinner.

All-in-all an excellent day!

Polar Bear count for the day: 18
Polar Bear count for the trip: 21

Starter    Crispy Arancini, Asparagus, Tomato salsa & Blue Cheese crumble
Mains    Seared John Dory fillet with Israeli Couscous, Caponata & Broccoli
Roasted Lamb shoulder with Carrots, Potatoes, Red Onions & Jus
Pumpkin Gnocchi with grilled Haloumi, Pea puree & Parmesan crisps
Dessert    Tiramisu

© R. Rudland

© R. Rudland

© Wildlife WW

Day 6: Saturday 27 July
Cape Thomas, Ptichiy Bazar, Wrangel Island

Position 0800: 70°56.340’N 178°39.885’E
Weather: Patchy fog, warm
Sea conditions: Flat, patchy, but extensive, sea ice

The first Zodiacs to Cape Thomas this morning were at around 0845. It was a calm morning, it wasn’t cold and there was an air of anticipation about what wildlife the day might bring. The advanced party to the beach (of staff and guides) made sure that the Polar Bear which had been on shore was out of the way for the landing – but somehow it was a good omen. As the various Zodiacs arrived at the beach there was a Grey Whale feeding close to shore – possibly one that some of the passengers on this voyage have been lucky enough to see in their feeding lagoons in Baja California, Mexico.

Once everyone was on the beach we split into three groups – a long walk (heading up to the foothills in the distance), a medium walk at a much slower pace but generally heading in that direction, and a short walk that was pottering around the beach (well why not, there was a Grey Whale nearby!).

At Cape Thomas we saw a memorial to the Russian icebreaker Vaigach, whose crew landed here in 1911 and erected a navigational beacon. In so doing they helped bolster the Russian claim to the island. The cape itself is named after an American whaler who was a crew member on the ship of another Thomas, Thomas de Long, who sighted Wrangel Island in 1867.

These twin facts raise interesting questions about early voyages to Wrangel Island, and the implications of these for issues of sovereignty. Ownership of Wrangel Island has been contested by three nations: the United Kingdom, the United States and Russia. The UK first staked a claim when the Royal naval Captain Kellett sighted the island in 1849. He landed on Herald Island and planted the Union Jack. A couple of decades later, however, when the crew of US revenue steamer Corwin landed on Wrangel Island and made a counter claim, the British government decided not to object, concluding that “such a thing were [not] worth anyone’s while except a Polar Bear, to trouble himself about.” Later the US also gave up any rights to the island, choosing not to protest when a group of US settlers were deported by the Russian military in 1924. Wrangel Island has been recognised as Russian ever since.

There was so much to see and photograph here including Snowy Owl, Pomerine and Long-tailed Skua, Grey and Pacific Golden Plover and Snow Bunting to name but a few. We also saw Lemming and (initially from a distance) two Polar Bears – but Musk Ox eluded us.

Back to the ship for midday and lunch and then we hauled anchor to head north, aiming for Ptichiy Bazar. Needless-to-say we were unable to travel far before seeing more Polar Bears – another couple were sighted on the shoreline on our starboard side, and as we slowly approached Ptichiy Bazar in beautiful light, there was a walrus haul out on a large piece of sea ice. Our captain slowed the ship down so we were moving at a walking pace, but the walrus abandoned their positions on the ice. Instead of disappearing though a number of them came closer to the ship – enquiring as to what we were.

It is so unusual to have a set of conditions where, with a little height, you can see walruses swimming so clearly – but we had them. Crystal clear water, crystal clear sky, beautiful light and inquisitive animals that came closer and closer to the ship. Everyone was out to see them either down on the bow or up on the bridge deck. And, they performed the most beautiful underwater ballet for us.

As the walruses disappeared we saw two Polar Bears in the water, swimming out to sea – a mum and ‘cub of the year’ – we are not sure where they were headed (the cub was very young) but for much of the time we watched, the cub was hanging on to its mum’s back as she headed out to sea.

A scan on the shore saw another bear close to the ocean and then, after Nathan’s PA message, we donned our outdoor gear and headed to Ptichiy Bazar.

We walked up to a small, shallow plateau and waited (as instructed!) for everyone to arrive – and spotted an Arctic Fox on a nearby ridge. We then split into four groups and in our respective groups, headed up to the cliff edge to photograph the seabird colonies.

Mostly kittiwakes and gulls, there were also some cormorants and, for those that trekked to the higher of the three stopping points, puffins. The best was yet to come of course as a message came across the staff radio to say that there was a whale coming towards us – it was a Grey Whale – and it did the performance of its life for us. It came very close to the shore, and in water that was probably only a couple of metres deep, it turned to its right side and began feeding, before surfacing in the most perfect light, with the most perfect backdrop, and then disappearing. It was a breathtaking experience that has probably rarely been seen at all, let alone from a clifftop so close to where the feeding whale was.

Back to the ship for a latish dinner and then it was time for a drink in the bar, or for some, an opportunity to head outside for a little more landscape photography because the light was simply exquisite.

It was a most fitting end to an almost perfect day.

Polar Bear count for the day: 7
Polar Bear count for the trip: 28

Starter  Crispy Arancini, Asparagus, Tomato salsa & Blue Cheese crumble
Mains    Baked Kingfish fillet with Prosciutto, Puy Lentils, Onion Beurre Blanc & Cauliflower
Roasted Pork loin, Apple Puree with Broccoli, Parsley Potatoes & Star Anise Jus
Tofu & Quinoa Bowl with Cucumber, Capsicum & Carrot, Tahini dressing & Toasted seeds
Dessert    Vanilla Cream & Almond Biscotti

© J. Cornish

© R. Rudland

© Wildlife WW

© E. Healey

Day 7: Sunday 28 July
Lake Komsomol, Dream Head, Wrangel Island

Position 0725: 71°16.796’N 179°08.735’E
Weather: Warm and sunny
Sea conditions: Glassy flat

Lake Komsomol is set back from the beach and separated from the ocean by the merest sliver of shingle spit. After a hearty breakfast we boarded the Zodiacs and headed for the shore – the weather was warm and the sea calm, and thankfully we were able to wear slightly fewer layers than we have been on previous excursions.

At the landing site there is an interesting researchers hut – wooden construction like the others we have seen – and in this case it was especially picturesque. A few of the staff and rangers had gone to shore to make sure there were no Polar Bears on the beach and open up the hut. It was once a trappers hut which evolved into a researchers hut when Wrangel became a national park.

As we arrived on shore we could see over one of the distant mountains that there was a beautiful, and distinctive, lenticular cloud – a feature associated with mountains and mountain scenery.

On shore the rangers set up a huge boundary that everyone was free to walk and explore in.  Mark and Joe were doing photography masterclasses in and around the rangers huts and others were exploring the beach and heading inland looking at birds and wildflowers.

We were all back onboard and heading north in time for lunch.

The weather continued to be wonderful and shortly after lunch Nathan announced that we would actually be stopping this afternoon at Dream Head as they had seen a large group of Musk Oxen from the bridge – an unexpected stop as we had thought we were heading for Herald Island. The weather was good, and we hadn’t yet seen a Musk Ox so it looked as though it was going to be a worthwhile shore visit – and we weren’t disappointed. These shaggy bovids are actually part of a herd of around 1,500 that inhabit the island. They all descend from 12 animals imported from Canada and re-introduced in 1975 to help complete the natural ecosystem. They have once again become an important part of the Wrangel landscape though their (clearly growing) numbers are limited by severe winter ice and wolf predation.

There were actually two different activities that were offered – one was a middle distance walk to the trip of the ridge (where Musk Oxen were a possibility, and the other was a yomp along the tundra parallel to the beach to the distant (though very visible) Musk Oxen. The latter option was chosen by the majority of the group – 75+!

Before setting off we counted the beach, and scanned the mountainsides and saw three Polar Bears in all – two on the scree slopes below the mountain tops, the other was very much at ‘ground’ level in the direction of the Musk Oxen.

It wasn’t necessarily going to be easy to get close to Musk Oxen with a walking safari for 75 (!), especially over rather boggy and uneven terrain. But that’s what we did, and although there were some who didn’t get as close as they would have liked, everyone got great (though distant) views of them. Walking towards the Musk Oxen there was another Polar Bear – this time tucked into the bottom of the hillside, but when she moved a couple of people commented that there was another little group of Polar Bears nearby – a mother and two cubs.

We were back to the Zodiacs by 1730 and on the ship by 6 really for dinner and a good nights’ sleep!

Polar Bear count for the day: 6
Polar Bear count for the trip: 34

Starter   Potato Gnocchi, Pesto cream and Parmesan
Mains  Seared Blue Cod with Lyonnaise Potatoes, Parsley Sauce & Cauliflower
Duck Leg confit, Sweet Potato puree & Blueberry Jus
Zucchini fritter, wilted Spinach & Beans, Herb Aioli & roast Pepper Salsa
Dessert    Sticky Date Pudding Butterscotch Sauce & Cream

© A. Breniere

© J. Cornish

© R. Rudland

Day 8: Monday 29 July
Herald Island, Cape Waring (Dragi Bay)

Position 1300 / 2100: 71°22.341’N 175°41.866’W
Weather: Sunny, warm
Sea conditions:  Mostly calm with ice floes, sometimes thick, and latterly swells
Lectures: Wrangel Island Rangers - A Perspective on the Island | Mark – Never, Ever, Ever, Ever write a field guide!

Today was (another!) great Arctic day. We rose early anticipating a Zodiac cruise along the bird cliffs of Herald Island but unfortunately the sea swell and wind conditions meant that we did a ships cruise instead. Whilst it meant that we were unable to get quite so close to the cliffs, we circumnavigated the island and had some spectacular views – and were travelling in waters that are still uncharted. Herald Island proved itself to be a moody and dramatic place and the partial cloud covering only served to reconfirm this visually.

When Captain Kellett landed here in 1849 he described it as “an inaccessible rock.” A couple of decades later John Muir on the Corwin was more fulsome: “this little island, standing as it does alone out in the Polar Sea, is a fine glacial monument.” He had landed with a crew of men and scrambled to a peak on the north-eastern coast of the island, building a cairn with a note in it about their landing and a copy of the New York Herald from the day they’d left several months later.

The next known landing on Herald Island was by a group of four men from the wrecked Karluk. They had travelled across the sea ice towards the island mistaking it for the larger Wrangel Island. We don’t know why they made landfall after realising their error, or what their experience of Herald Island was once they landed, but we do know that they died there. In 1924 the crew of a US ship found debris from their camp along with skeletal remains, including four jawbones. More recently rangers have periodically stayed on the island to carry out Polar Bear research.

Although a little distant, we managed to see five Polar Bears on the island as we travelled round it – the majority of which were actually at the western end.

From Wrangel we charted a south-westerly course back to Wrangel Island and more particularly Dragi Bay where we landed. We had hoped to have an ‘up close and personal’ look at the monument to the Karluk expedition, but sea conditions wouldn’t allow it so we actually landed on a more southerly part of the beach about a kilometre or so away. Once six Zodiacs had landed Mark and Chris led the group towards a nearby rangers hut midway up the hill. En route we met the rangers who pointed out a sleeping Polar Bear at the foot of a hill to our left – a couple of hundred metres away – and a lone male Musk Ox near the river to our right.

None of us were expecting to see Polar Bear on foot, and certainly not so relaxed. We watched as it slept, and then as it awoke and sauntered the short distance from where it had been curled up to the rangers hut. At a certain point it became more conscious of us being there – we were quite a large group after all!

After a few more photos we headed back towards the beach via a highpoint on the nearby cliff.

Back on the ship we headed out into the ice and within 30 minutes or so we had seen three (more!) Polar Bears. One was a little distant, but the mum and cub were close by and beautifully positioned in the light. We were with them for half an hour or more – it was perhaps the Polar Bear encounter of the expedition.

As they finally moved away, after spending some time investigating the ship we walked to the heli-deck for drinks in one of the best bars in the world – open air, surrounded by pack ice…. and two more Polar Bears. What a magical way to round off the day!

Polar Bear count for the day: 13
Polar Bear count for the trip: 47

Starter  Garlic Prawn skewers with Coconut rice & Lime
Mains    Chinese Style Steamed Monk Fish with Spring Onion and Ginger infused Sauce Served with Jasmin rice & Broccoli
Seared Sirloin Steak, peppered Potato, Chimichurri Sauce & Beans
Sweet Potato pancake, roasted Vegetables & Capsicum Jam
Dessert    Pecan Pie with Vanilla Cream

© J. Cornish

© E. Healey

Day 9: Tuesday 30 July
Doubtful Harbour, Wrangel Island

Position 0725: 70°54.310’N 179°58.749’W
Weather: Overcast, cold, drizzly
Sea conditions: Calm
Lectures: Katie – The Voyage of the Karluk | Moshe - The Flora & Fauna of Wrangel Island

Well it was a pretty grim looking morning – freezing cold, thick fog and persistent drizzle – but we wanted to land at Doubtful Harbour as it would be our last landfall before heading south. Nathan briefed everyone on board that because of the ice we were unable to get closer to Wrangel than the seven miles or so that we were away from the island, and that as a result it was going to be a long, cold and possibly miserable journey from the ship to shore. But, whilst there were a number of people who stayed onboard, the majority came ashore. The transfer was around 45 minutes or so and with the fog being so thick Nathan instructed the Zodiac drivers to travel in a line with only 30 metres or so between boats.

After 35 minutes or so we finally saw the pebble coastline of Wrangel Island and cruised alongside until we got to our landing position just to the east of the river. With the thick fog and the large number of old rusty barrels and vehicles it felt in some ways as though we were landing on an other planet… like a scene from a MadMax movie!

Derelict buildings with rudimentary Polar Bear protection, rusting steel drums, old bricks, aircraft parts and earth-moving equipment, and a myriad of beautiful flowers. This is definitely a place of contrasts!

Most people gradually made their way to the rangers hut to look at the walrus and Musk Ox skulls, and particularly the 4,000 year old mammoth tusks which created plenty of photographic opportunities (especially when it was placed amongst the wildflowers). There can’t be many places the world where you can see and touch them right where they came out of the ground!

All too soon it was time to say goodbye to the rangers whose company we had enjoyed for the past few days, and leave the shore to head back to the ship. We left Doubtful two Zodiacs at a time because of the foggy conditions but as the third pair of Zodiacs departed the fog lifted and revealed the ship in the distance – making it rather easier for the Zodiac drivers!

We began heading south after circumnavigating Wrangel Island – proud to be amongst the few to have ever been there and even fewer to have set foot on such a magnificent place. Incredibly there are only 400 or so people who visit the island each year and it is a great privilege to be amongst them.

Back on board we enjoyed lunch and then Katie, who was due to present her postponed lecture on the Voyage of the Karluk, was postponed again as there were three Polar Bears on ice flows ahead of the ship. Bears and walruses passed, Katie got on with her lecture – in her inimitable cross-legged style! – and whilst she did, those few passengers who weren’t in the lecture enjoyed another Polar Bear… and a small group of walruses.

The Karluk expedition is one that can truly be described as ‘doomed.’

The Karluk was a ship that should never have been sent anywhere near the Arctic Sea ice. After drifting beset in the ice for five months, she sank just north of Wrangel Island in January 1914. Four men perished on Herald Island, another four were lost on the ice. The remainder of the crew eventually made landfall on Wrangel Island, where most of them were to spend the next nine months living at a camp they established at Cape Waring.

Theirs was a fraught and unhappy existence. They were bitterly divided, tensions reigned over rationing and the division of food, and they were suffering from a mystery illness, that caused weakness and swelling of the limbs. Two of the men died from this disease, while a third was shot in what was put down to a firearms accident, though some suspected murder.

Salvation came in early September. The ship’s Captain Robert Bartlett had reached safety and raised the alarm, and at one point five rescue ships were on their way to Wrangel Island. The one that reached Cape Waring first was the Canadian trading schooner King and Winge, which picked the survivors up off the island and sailed them to safety. On their arrival home many of the men immediately joined the war effort.

The young scientist William Laird McKinlay later compared the experiences:

“Perhaps active service would help to wipe out of the memories of an experience which I regarded as a pitiful, tragic failure… Not all the horrors of the Western Front, not the rubble of Arras, nor the hell of Ypres, nor all the mud of Flanders leading to Passchendale, could blot out the memories of that year in the Arctic. The loyalty, the comradeship, the esprit de corps of my fellow officers and of the men it was my privilege to command, enabled us to survive the horrors of the war, and I realised that this was what had been entirely missing up north: it was the lack of real comradeship that had left the scars, not the physical rigours and hazards of the ice pack, nor the deprivations on Wrangel Island.”

Katie’s recommended reading
Jennifer Niven ‘The Ice Master: The Voyage of the Karluk 1912-1914’
Robert Bartlett ‘The Last Voyage of the Karluk: Shipwreck and Rescue in the Arctic’

It seems incredible that we are seeing so many Polar Bears that only a few people are even out on deck when “Polar Bear” is called over the PA.

As the remainder of the day was ‘at sea’ it was an opportunity to catch up on photo processing and diary writing before this evening’s bar chat with Mark and Joe on the weighty, and incredibly pertinent topic of climate change.

The pre-dinner recap in the lecture theatre, led by Nathan, involved a toast to Wrangel Island and a series of iconic Wrangel images taken during the course of our circumnavigation, and the fact that we are amongst a very privileged few who visit the area each year.

Polar Bear count for the day: 5
Polar Bear count for the trip: 52

Starter  Duck Confit Salad with Julienne Vegetables & Chinese BBQ Sauce
Mains  Seared John Dory fillet, wild Rice Pilaf with Tomato & Parsley Salad
Grilled Pork cutlet, Moroccan Mash & Port Jus
Red Lentil & Coconut Curry with Chickpea Fritters & spiced Yogurt
Dessert    Chocolate Fondant & Vanilla Ice Cream

© H. Ahern

Day 10: Wednesday 31 July
At Sea – North Siberian and Chukotka Coast

Position 0740: 68°23.455’N 174°19.622’W
Weather: Patchy fog
Sea conditions: Flat calm
Lectures: A Landscape Photographer in the Polar Regions - Joe Cornish | Sea Ice - The Eighth Continent - Agnes Breniere | Northern Dimension of Communism - the 20s and 30s in the Arctic - Maxim Ilin
Movie: Life on the Field of Bones

Today was a day at sea – a day to reflect on the wonderful things that we have seen and done over the course of the past days, to look at and review photos, and to catch up with our trip diaries.

There were some fascinating lectures in the auditorium – Joe’s account of his polar travels as a landscape photographer, Agnes with the rather more technical subject of sea ice, and Maxim talking about the importance of the Arctic to the rise of communism.

The weather was warm (relatively speaking!) and the sea calm and sky clear and as we headed south we were seeing Humpback Whales blowing and fluking.

There was a possibility of a landing this afternoon but we were distracted by whale blows and fluking – mostly Humpbacks, but occasionally Bowheads and even a couple of Minke Whales (though these were only seen by a few people on the bow of the ship).

Of course, this is the Chukotka coast and it wasn’t just one or two whales, or even 15 or twenty – it was, at a reasonable estimate, maybe 200 plus. The weather was sunny and warm and everyone was out on deck enjoying the blows, fin-slapping, fluking and breaches for a good couple of hours.

Then, as we headed slowly further south, and the sunlight dipped to a rather beautiful pinkish orange twilight it was time for a drink in the bar and dinner.

Mark and Joe offered a drop-in photography clinic in the lounge after dinner (which was busy!) and there was a vintage film about Wrangel Island showing in the auditorium.

Wildlife Highlight    
200+ humpbacks off the Chukotka coast

Starter  Pelmeni (Russian Dumplings) with Soy & Ginger glaze
Mains  Thai green Chicken Curry with Basmati Rice & Asparagus
Moroccan Lamb Tagine with Prunes, Almonds, Broccoli & Israeli Couscous  
Coconut & Coriander Curry with Mango Chutney & Basmati Rice
Dessert    Citrus Cheesecake

© R. Rudland

Day 11: Thursday 1 August
Bukhta Puutin & Unnamed Bay

Position 0830: 65°51.526’N 170°29.558’W
Weather: Bright, light winds
Sea conditions: Calm
Lectures: Digital Worlkflow - Mark & Joe | The Story of Ada Blackjack - Katie

Overnight we travelled through the Bering Strait and when we woke this morning we were already anchored at Bukhta Puutin – our first landing point of the day, or so we thought. It was a bright, sunny day and with a calm sea it looked as though our run in to shore was going to be very pleasant indeed – especially as we were going to have a short Zodiac cruise along the nearby cliffs. For us, a stop at Bukhta Puutin was going to be an ‘expedition’ landing as it is not a place the onboard team has explored in the past.

But, this is expedition cruising and unfortunately as we got closer to 0830 and our disembarkation time, the wind picked up and the sea conditions changed. Nathan, Elena and Samuel took a Zodiac to shore to assess the conditions and, after a short delay, Helen made an announcement that unfortunately we were not going to be able to land. Instead, Katie’s lecture on the Arctic hero Ada Blackjack was brought forward and we all made our way to the lecture theatre, but…..

…. the wind dropped and we did manage to get out on the Zodiacs!

What a landing – short and sweet – but exceptionally interesting. We Zodiac cruised the bird cliffs on the way in… Common, Brunnich’s and Pigeon Guillemot, Parakeet, Least and Crested Auklet, Tufted and Horned Puffin, a pair of Peregrines and even some White Wagtails. And, as we entered the inlet and landed the Zodiacs there was another Peregrine and a pair of Rough-legged Buzzards.

One curious aspect of the landing was the number of dead birds (Common and Brunnich’s Guillemots particularly) that littered the shoreline, together with a dead seal and some dead fish. Has someone been using a form of poison in the area or perhaps there was an algal bloom?

The small spit of land that juts out into the sea had a number of Bowhead whalebones and a series of pits that were perhaps food stores in the past. And the lie of the land (the spit and the small lagoon that lay behind it) suggested that it may be a place where whales were corralled and then hunted in the past.

Much to Joe’s excitement, as he climbed the hill he found some mammoth tusks – it was relayed by radio to the staff team onshore and people headed up the hill to where Joe was photographing them in situ. But… after a little more examination it transpired that they were very old and decayed whale bones!

Our return to the ship was windy and wet and getting everyone on the gangway safely wasn’t easy. A few people stayed out on deck and had a sighting of a distant Kamchatka Brown Bear.

Lunch followed and then (finally!) we were treated to a ‘Katie Special’ on the fascinating tale of Ada Blackjack and her extended stay on Wrangel. The annals of polar history are full of heroes and there are far fewer heroines though Ada Blackjack is a notable exception.

Ada Blackjack was a young Yupik woman employed as a seamstress on an expedition organised by Vilhjalmur Stefansson in 1921 to secure Canadian sovereignty of Wrangel Island. She was the only Eskimo, as well as the only woman, on board. Doubtful Harbour, where we picked up our rangers a couple of days ago was the site of the camp where Ada and four companions spent most time between 1921 and 1923. When their relief ship didn’t arrive, three of the men left to get help; the fourth died of scurvy a few months later.

Ada was left on her own. Forced to learn the skills necessary to survive, she taught herself to trap foxes, to hunt seals, and to shoot. She built a small canvas boat and a lookout platform from which to spot Polar Bears, of which she had a crippling fear. By the time rescue came in August 1923 Ada had largely mastered her environment. Stefansson thought it was highly likely she would have survived another winter. In the event she lived to the age of 85, though later in life she was reluctant to talk about her experience on Wrangel Island.

Her headstone in Anchorage, Alaska, reads, quite simply:
Katie’s recommended reading:
Jennifer Niven ‘Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic’

Whilst Ada Blackjack was the subject of discussion in the lecture theatre, Mark and Joe were talking through digital workflow with the keen photographers.

Presentations over and it was time to go ashore again, this time at Unnamed Bay – a strange name at best since by definition it has a name! A wet landing as expected and once onshore we split into four groups – one taking a long walk up and along the ridge with Samuel, a second and third going inland (one with Agnes) and not so far (one of which was a land-based photo workshop with Joe), and a fourth option to simply potter along the beach front beach-combing. The weather was spectacular – glorious sunshine and warm.

Agnes’s medium walk struck gold and saw a Kamchatka Brown Bear in the distance feeding on the salmon run – one bear turned into three. The salmon (we are not sure which species, though they were small salmon) were jumping in the river and easy to see, and no doubt mouth-watering for the bears.

Typically, the light was perfect and no one wanted to leave the landing – especially after a couple of the group had a fleeting glimpse of brown bear on a distant ridge just before boarding the Zodiacs!

Back on board we had an early dinner and then it was early to bed for most after what had been a busy but excellent day.

The Bering Strait – which we had passed through overnight – marks the eastern end of the Northeast Passage, also known as the Northern Sea Route. This waterway stretches all the way along the Russian Arctic coast and was originally envisaged by the merchants of Europe as a shortcut across the world, allowing easy access to the markets of Asia. The first expedition to try and chart the passage was sent from England in 1553, but it would be over three centuries and many failed attempts later before it was successfully traversed by the Swedish explorer Nils Adolf Erik Nordenskjöld onboard the Vega.

One disastrous effort from the 1910s was related by Valerian Albanov in the highly recommended ‘In the Land of White Death: An Epic Story of Survival in the Siberian Arctic.’ Albanov recounts how, after their ship became beset in the ice and drifted over 2,000 miles northwards, he and 11 of his crew mates embarked on a harrowing journey over the ice to try and reach land. After a cold, hungry and disorientating two months, they finally reached the archipelago of Franz Josef Land. Only Albanov and one companion however, survived long enough to be rescued. The ship and remaining crew members were never heard from again.

A few decades later, Stalin’s Soviet government was determined to open up the Northern Sea Route to commercial shipping. The Glavsevmorput, the agency in charge of this, was tasked with creating a fleet of icebreakers and building infrastructure along the passage, including on Wrangel Island. We see the dilapidated remains of some of these stations today. These efforts were largely successful and by the 1980s millions of tonnes of freight were being shipped along the route each year. This came to a halt with the end of Soviet rule. With rising temperatures and melting ice, however, the Northeast Passage is only going to become more accessible and attractive to international shipping companies; the first winter transit was carried out earlier this year. At the same time the Russian government appears to be passing measures to reduce the amount of traffic along the route. This could lead to a very interesting geopolitical conversation in the coming years— watch this space.

Amundsen had already completed the North West Passage and been first to reach the South Pole when, in 1918, he turned his sights on this other great geographical goal.   

Katie’s recommended reading
For a first-hand account of an attempt on the Northeast Passage that went seriously wrong Valerian Albanov ‘In the Land of White Death: An Epic Story of Survival in the Siberian Arctic’

Bear count for the day: 5
Total bear count for the trip: 57

Starter   Smoked Salmon Blinis with Sour Cream
Mains  Tuna Steak, Nicoise salad & Wasabi Mash
Braised Pork Belly with Thyme roasted Potatoes, Broccoli & Oriental Jus
Fettuccini, fresh Herb Napoli Sauce with Haloumi & toasted Pine nuts
Dessert    Poached spiced Pears, Crème Anglaise & Pistachio Crumb

© C. Rayes

© Wildlife WW

© H. Ahern

© H. Ahern

Day 12: Friday 2 August
Whale Bone Alley & Gil’mimyl

Position 0900: 66°39.091’N 172°32.118’W
Weather: Cool and drizzly
Sea conditions: Calm
Lectures: An Introduction to Whalebone Alley - Elena | Bowhead Whales - Mark

Today was a busy day! After a typically hearty breakfast we were up in the lecture theatre by 8 o’clock for Elena’s introduction to Whale Bone Alley. By 9 o’clock we were disembarking the ship and being shuttled across to the beach and, on arrival, were either given a tour of the bones by one of the Beringia guides or exploring at our leisure. Some of the group even headed up the mountain behind the whale bones to get some very different views of Whale Bone Alley.

On shore we were greeted by two national park guides, who helped to interpret the landscape for us.

To the left of the beach as we landed was the village of Sikluk where, until the 1950s, there had been a small settlement of six buildings. To the right of the beach was Whale Bone Alley itself, and at various points were meat pits that were used to store meat from the carcasses of the slaughtered whales.

It was only in 1976 that Russian ethnographers ‘discovered’ this 14th Century site on the north side of Yttygran Island. The specific purpose of the site is unknown although there are a number of theories that include it being a sacred site, or perhaps more practically, simply being a place where people to gather to feast or trade or solve internal conflicts.

We saw traces of what must once have been an incredibly imposing ‘monument’ – a 550-metre long stretch containing 52 pairs of Bowhead Whale jaw bones, set in parallel lines and interspersed with skulls spaced 10 to 20 metres apart – a distance that is thought to represent the length (and double the length) of a traditional umiak (a skin covered boat) – and stone-lined square pits used for keeping and preserving meat. It is thought that this site dates from the 1300s, and that it was erected by the indigenous Yuppiat Eskimo people. Beyond that nothing is known – we can only speculate as to its function.

It must have been quite distinctive when it was seen from the sea – was this so that strangers could find it? Perhaps, sitting on a major whale migration route, its function related to the annual spring and autumn whale hunts. Whatever it was, it was certainly impressive.

There are also fifteen groups of vertebrae and Whale Bone Alley is now a World Heritage Site – surely it must be the least visited on earth…. There was plenty of time to photograph and explore this amazing World Heritage Site – a breath-taking example of remote cultural history, and, in terms of the weather, a ‘moody’ day on which to visit.

Around 1045 we jumped into the Zodiacs and headed out to sea for some whale-watching as there seemed to be plenty of Grey Whales around. Those on board who had been to Baja California were secretly hoping for a similar Grey Whale encounter to the ones in San Ignacio Lagoon with the ‘friendlies’ – but it wasn’t to be. Instead we were treated to blows, the occasional head, and plenty of flukes. A very cool display!

We returned to the ship for lunch and a group photo on the helicopter deck and within half an hour or so of finishing, we were back out on the Zodiacs again heading for Gil’mimyl. Once a permanent Chukchi settlement, Gil’mimyl is now used by a Chukchi family as a summer residence. Situated in a spacious basin, Gil’mimyl has plentiful food resources available from sea, lagoon, river and tundra.  

Some of the Russian crew came ashore and fished, but we split up to enjoy the wonderful scenery and some of its wildlife. A number of people spent time photographing ground squirrels, Joe and others were doing some photography near the river mouth and others hiked towards the ridge. A number of people also took to the waters of the (almost boiling!) hot tub at the hot springs – which, on a clear day, must have one of the most dramatic views of any on earth.

Once everyone was back on board Mark did a half hour presentation on Bowhead Whales – which are known to live for hundreds of years – then it was time for another gourmet delight!

Starter   Seafood Chowder with Garlic Focaccia
Mains   Roasted Sirloin, baked Onions & Potato, Peas & Dijon Mustard Jus
Chicken breast, Beetroot & Orange zest, Baby Carrots & Beurre Blanc
Black eyed Pea Risotto, Asparagus, Parmesan & Truffle Oil
Dessert   Pecan Pie with Ice Cream

© H. Ahern

© H. Ahern

© Wildlife WW

© Wildlife WW

Day 13: Saturday 3 August
Penkigngey Bay

Position 0700: 64°51.343’N 172°57.235’W
Weather: Rainy and wet!
Sea conditions: Choppy

Knud Rasmussen, the anthropologist and explorer, records that, according to Chukchi custom, when the weather was too bad for hunting or travelling they would retreat indoors and tell stories. Storytelling was considered a useful tool that would help calm the wind.

Despite all the lectures we have had on board, today we woke up to strong winds, rain, hail and fog. In the early hours of the morning we’d travelled from Gil’mimyl north to Penkigngey Bay and to the only spot that gave us enough shelter to launch the Zodiacs and leave the ship. Landing on a long shingle beach, the staff set up a perimeter zone in which we could wander freely. Some people took the chance to gain some elevation by climbing a short but steep ridge, others wandered to the river mouth and went ‘tundra-combing’, photographing flowers, birds and the occasional reindeer’s jawbone. The thick undergrowth was scented and wet underfoot.

We were sodden by the time we returned to the ship. Elena quickly transitioned from wildlife guide mode to lecturer mode to gave us a hilarious guide to Russian customs and lifestyle, tearing down some stereotypes and provoking genuine (not European!) smiles.

In the afternoon it was back out into the rain for those hardy souls who chose to go on a Zodiac cruise. Meanwhile the captain lifted anchor and followed the Zodiacs out of the bay, meeting them at the entrance a couple of hours later. Those who ventured out were rewarded with Horned and Tufted Puffins, and, right at the very end, five Humpback Whales which surfaced near the Zodiacs. Those who stayed in were rewarded with Joe’s ‘Evolution and Revolution: The Life and Times of a Landscape Photographer’, a beautifully illustrated and philosophical account of his craft.

Thanks Joe and Elena for the stories – we look forward to seeing the barometer rise. At the recap we focused on the macro: skua, pika and ground squirrels (by Samuel), salmon by Courtney.

We had our farewell dinner tonight (the morning we disembark is too early to encourage celebrating on our final night!). The four-course meal was delicious and the company convivial, and by the end of evening the stewardesses were being greeted with a cheer every time they left the galley for the port side dining room. A huge thanks to Bruce, Linzy, Tom and Lance, and to Cath, Svetlana and the rest of the waiting staff for feeding us so well.

Starter  Cauliflower Risotto with Parmesan & Truffle Oil
Entree  Bruschetta with Buffalo Mozzarella & Prosciutto
Mains  Roasted Salmon with Quinoa, Zucchini, Tomato & Olive Salsa
New Zealand rack of Lamb, confit Potato, Pea Puree & Balsamic Glaze
Roasted Pumpkin & Polenta stack with Pesto and Tomato Salad
Dessert  Chocolate Trio with Raspberry Coulis

© Wildlife WW

Day 14: Sunday 4 August
At Sea

Position 1130: 64°21.908’N 178°14.207’W
Weather: Overcast
Sea conditions: Calm sea, slight swell
Grand Finale: The Trials and Tribulations of a Zoologist - Mark | Pictures We Like & Don’t Like - Mark & Joe | Disembarkation briefing - Nathan | Thanks to all on behalf of Wildlife Worldwide - Chris | Thanks to Heritage Team - Nathan | Expedition Recap - Nathan | Final Film of the Voyage - Rachel

Today was our last full day on board but it was a day at sea. We had hoped that we might get a final Zodiac cruise before breakfast at Preobrazheniya Bay but as we were coming in to the area Nathan was on the bridge with the captain and the weather was poor and the swell around three metres… so we were left to sleep in and breakfast began at 0800.

Mark entertained the troops with his tales of being a zoologist, and then together with Joe they looked at images they liked and didn’t – which gave all the photographers food for thought!

Much of the rest of the day was spent dealing with the final details of the trip – returning life jackets and boots, paying bills and packing prior to disembarkation tomorrow.

Later in the day Nathan ran through the things we need to be aware of in respect of disembarkation tomorrow and then did a blow by blow Expedition Recap – quite incredible to think that we have seen so much, so well and with such a wonderful group of people.

Nathan then asked key members of the Heritage team to come forward to say a few words and also to thank them personally as the Expedition Leader. Chris thanked the Heritage team and then Rachel, Katie, Joe and Mark before handing over to Mark who also said a few words of thanks (lots of hand overs and lots of thanks!).

The icing on the cake was the audio visual presentation that Rachel had been working on all week – 45 fabulous minutes of mind-blowing images and sound that took everyone back to the wildlife and the wilderness….

Memories to treasure for a lifetime.

Looking back over the course of the past couple of weeks it is difficult to comprehend how much we have seen and how much we have done in such a remote part of the world – everyone will return home to spread the ‘gospel of Wrangel Island’.

Starter   Pear & Gorgonzola Ravioli with Parmesan & Pinenut Beurre Noisette
Mains   Oriental Beef Noodle Soup
Cajun spiced blacked Kingfish with Potato Gnocchi, Broccoli and roasted Pepper Coulis
Black Pepper Zucchini & Egg Penne with Parmesan & Olive Oil
Dessert   Apple & Boysenberry Crumble with Crème Anglaise & Vanilla Ice Cream

Day 15: Monday 5 August

Position 0600: 64°43’N 177°37’E (Anadyr)

This morning we woke up anchored out in Anadyr Bay and ‘early doors’ transferred across to the Spirit of Enderby for the 90 minute shuttle closer in to the harbour. Then, it was 12 people at a time heading over to shore on an old barge. What an expeditionary way to end!

We disembarked the barge, boarded the bus and transferred to the airport for our homeward journeys.

Heritage Expeditions wish to acknowledge and thank Wildlife Worldwide for collating the daily expedition log text. 

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