1930: Across the Top of the World 05 August 2019

© M. Dalebout

Day 1: Monday 5th August
Arrival in Anadyr

Our adventure in the Russian Far East started today from Anadyr with most people arriving on flights from either Moscow or Nome, Alaska. A few had arranged to arrive early in order to spend some time in Anadyr itself before the trip. Anadyr is the administrative centre of the Chukotka region. This port town is located at the mouth of the Anadyr River which flows into the Anadyrsky Liman (liman = estuary). Anadyr Airport is quite a distance from the town, though you can see it across the estuary. Much of the estuary is too shallow for our ship, the Kapitan Khlebnikov (KK), which must therefore anchor some distance offshore. Happily, we also had a smaller ship, the Professor Khromov (PK) at our disposal, which was able to come in closer to the shore.

From the airport, a bus took us to the nearby beach. A small barge came to collect us and our luggage for transfer to the PK. Once on the PK we were able to relax and enjoy hot beverages and chocolate muffins – or catch up on some sleep – while we waited for the last flights to come in. Once everyone was aboard the PK, we set sail for the KK – and almost immediately there was wildlife. The white backs of Belugas were visible at a distance near Anadyr Pier where they congregate to feed on salmon at this time of year. A lucky few also saw a Polar Bear which swam across our stern!  

About an hour later, we arrived alongside the KK – our home for the next two weeks. An efficient transfer between the two vessels, and then straight into dinner while the staff and crew organised getting all the luggage to the cabins. No briefings tonight. First, some well-earned sleep rocked gently by the soft swells of the North Pacific as we head north. What a day and what a start to the trip!

Day 2: Tuesday 6th August
Morning at sea with briefings. Afternoon Zodiac cruise at Preobrazhnaya Bay.

A relaxed morning today with late breakfast to allow us all to sleep in a bit as the KK continues northwards. Then the briefings began. First up, Welcome Onboard and Introduction to the Expedition Team, and our Lifeboat Briefing. Then while waiting for the actual Lifeboat Drill, we enjoyed the fine, warm, sunny conditions out on deck. Look! Whale blows! Lots of them! Suddenly we were surrounded by Gray Whales, at least 30 with at least one mother-calf pair. These whales dive down to the shallow bottom here to scoop up mouthfuls of sediment from which they filter out small crustaceans with their baleen. Quite different from the feeding habits of other baleen whales like Humpbacks. How wonderful to see so many of these whales which were once hunted almost to extinction. They are now making a real comeback!

When we finally lost sight of the whales, we did the Lifeboat Drill. Having looked inside one of those little orange lifeboat capsules, I don’t think anyone would relish the idea of having to spend any time in one, especially packed in like sardines. No abandon ship emergencies please!

Late morning and we had our Zodiac briefing before collecting our sea boots and Zodiac lifejackets. A quick lunch and then it was time to get out there.

The KK was now anchored in Preobrazhnaya Bay with a magic landscape of wild, rugged sea cliffs and glacier-scoured hills all around. An exciting first Zodiac outing as the wind and waves had picked up a bit since the calm conditions of the morning, but it was a lot more sheltered once we got close to the base of the cliffs. So many birds! On the cliffs, in the air, and on the water too. Horned and Tufted Puffins, Pigeon Guillemots with their bright red legs, Brunnich’s and Common Guillemots clustered on narrow ledges like sentinels, Black-legged Kittiwakes on their little nests, and more. (See the wildlife list for information on all the species that were seen today and every day). And what incredible geology. Massive cliffs of cracked and weathered granite with some spectacular intrusive dikes. There was even a beautiful waterfall. A fabulous first excursion!

© H. Ahern

© H. Dohn

Day 3: Wednesday 7th August
Morning landing at Lavrentiya. Afternoon at sea and late Zodiac cruise at Cape Dezhnev

Incredibly fine weather greeted us when we awoke this morning, with the ship dropping anchor in beautiful Lavrentiya Bay. A short Zodiac ride to shore and plenty of time to wander around the village of Lavrentiya, a Soviet-planned community established in the 1920s as an administrative centre to which local Chukchi and Siberian Yupik were then encouraged to move. The population is currently approx. 1,500. Group by group, we all paid a visit to the well-heated museum where we met local Yupik elder, Elizabeta whose family were moved to Lavrentiya from Naukàn village on Cape Dezhnev in the 1950s. With Elena translating, we learned about traditional life in this region, including the important exchange of resources between the sea mammal hunters and nomadic reindeer herders. Then we all congregated in the main square where there was the opportunity to try some local delicacies, including whale, walrus, and salmon. Those who dared found that much of what was on offer was surprisingly tasty. For the less adventurous, there was also a variety of home-made cakes and of course lots of hot tea. For the finale, we enjoyed a cultural performance with local dancers.

As we continued to steam north after lunch, Elena presented an interesting lecture about local Chukchi culture. Then with great views of the rugged coastal cliffs, we arrived at Cape Dezhnev. This is the easternmost point of Russia where only 82 km separates Eurasia from America. The point is marked by a monument to the Russian explorer, Semyon Dezhnev who in 1648 became the first European to sail through what is now known as Bering Strait. Unfortunately the winds were too strong for us to safely use the Zodiacs, so we admired the cape from the ship until the approaching fog swallowed all. Continuing north, across the Arctic Circle and beyond. Then late in the evening, a gorgeous sunset lit up the horizon.

© A. Breniere

© S. Blanc

© C. Rayes

Day 4: Thursday 8th August
Morning Zodiac cruise at Kolyuchin Island. Afternoon at sea.

Another glorious morning of sunshine and light winds at Kolyuchin Island with balmy temperatures (12 deg C). There is an abandoned Soviet Research Station here and it is sometimes possible to land. Today several Polar Bears could be seen wandering around the old buildings as we approached the island, so we opted for a Zodiac cruise around the bird cliffs here instead.

Fabulous weather for cruising along the stunning fractured granite cliffs, with almost every available ledge jam-packed full of birds. Geology fans were thrilled by the ‘contact metamorphism’ evident where molten rock had been forced into the cracks of the older granite many eons ago. But the birds were the real stars, filling the cliffs and the skies. The air was loud with the cacophony of their calls, especially the noisy kittiwakes. There were flotillas of birds on the water as well. Everywhere you looked, there were birds! While it is not known how many birds breed here, Kolyuchin Island is recognised as the second largest of all the bird cliffs in the Chukotka region, surpassed only by Big Diomede Island.

Then we found several Polar Bears in a small cave close to the water’s edge, a mother and two larger cubs. Great views of these bears were had by all, and the larger and more curious of the cubs seemed entertained by us in turn. Just around the corner and also close to the water, there was yet another bear – a large, old adult male in excellent condition. Continuing by Zodiac along the cliffs, we encountered several more bears, some of which took to the water. We all had good views of at least one swimming bear. They are so at home in the water. No wonder they are considered to be “marine mammals” like whales and seals.

But it wasn’t over yet. Just a little further on there were walrus in the water and also several hundred walrus hauled out on the rocky shores of a number of adjacent coves. We were sure to stay well back so as not to spook these very sensitive animals, but it was wonderful to see them. Then finally we headed back to the ship.

A relaxing afternoon on the ship after the morning’s excitement and time for a number of excellent lectures: Maxim told us about Russian history and the search for new lands, Brent spoke about sea birds of the Arctic, and Samuel gave us an introduction to Wrangel Island. Many also spent time out on deck where the incredibly calm Beaufort Zero conditions were perfect for spotting whales as we continued westwards. A number of Gray Whales were seen, as well as a few Bowheads.

© A. Breniere

© A. Russ

© E. Sabanina

Day 5: Friday 9th August
Wrangel Island – Morning landing at Devil’s Ravine. Afternoon Zodiac cruise at Blossom Point

This morning we awoke to the majesty of Wrangel Island after a night of smooth sailing. We had hoped to encounter some ice along the way, but the seas were clear. The KK anchored off the south coast of the island but not too close. The waters around Wrangel Island are quite shallow and the ship must stay out in deeper water. How unbelievable it is to be here! The landscapes of Wrangel Island are the result over 65 million years of uninterrupted exposure to the elements, without glaciation in the ice ages and without inundation due to sea level rise. As a result, the diversity of plants and animals found here is unrivalled anywhere in the Arctic, and there is an incredible density of Polar Bears too. It is because of all this that Wrangel Island was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

The day was partly cloudy with a bit of wind and fog hanging low over the mountains. The conditions were good for a morning landing at Devil’s Ravine. A long Zodiac ride brought us into the beach where the Wrangel Island Rangers were waiting. Nearby, there is a Paleo-Eskimo site which was discovered in 1975. There is little to be seen here today except the shallow excavation pit and a memorial plaque. Nonetheless, the fact that a few families of Paleo-Eskimos lived here for some time around 1700 BC is fascinating.

Splitting up into three groups led by rangers and the expedition team, we enjoyed the option of a longer hike over the hills, a medium hike, or a shorter exploration of the local environment near the beach. Among the highlights were sightings of Arctic Foxes, Long-tailed Skuas with a chick, Snow Buntings, a multitude of wildflowers, skeins of Snow Geese flying high overhead, lovely views of the coast, and a close encounter with a Musk Ox – or for those not on the long hike, at least some signs of Musk Oxen (e.g. tracks, soft qiviut hair, droppings, and several old weathered skulls). Then we said farewell to our five northbound Wrangel Island overlanders and set off on the long Zodiac ride back to the ship, taking some of the island’s rangers with us. The conditions on the Zodiacs were perhaps a little wilder and wetter than earlier but this is what an expedition cruise is all about!

A late lunch and after a short lecture by Merel about Musk Ox. Then we arrived at Blossom Point, having crossed the 180° Meridian along the way. Into the Zodiacs to see several Polar Bears relaxing on the long shingle spit marked by an old Soviet navigation tower. There were also several Gray Whales around. That evening as the KK continued around the west coast of Wrangel, we finally found some sea ice and that ice had animals on it. A number of Polar Bears were seen, including a mother with two one-year old cubs which were quite unphased by the presence of our vessel. One of the cubs even came closer to get a better look. We all enjoyed excellent views of these bears in the late evening sunshine. Just magic!

© S. Blanc

© L. Thorpe

© M. Agame

Day 6: Saturday 10th August
Wrangel Island – Expedition morning in the ice. Afternoon landing at Ptichy Bazaar

This morning we continued our exploration of the sea ice off the west coast of Wrangel Island and saw a number of Polar Bears in sunny but windy conditions. There were also some brief views of walrus. Having an icebreaker as our expedition ship, we were able to push right into the ice for some excellent close approaches to the bears. During such times, it is of course critical that everyone keep as quiet as possible. Finally, Samuel spotted a bear in the water swimming towards the ship. The bear came closer and closer, and finally climbed up onto an ice floe right next to the KK. Curious about the ship with its noises and smells and the strange mammals moving around on the decks, he came to within a few meters of the stern and spent about 20 minutes checking us out. It looked like he was almost considering climbing up onto the boat to join us! Everyone got some amazing close-up photographs. Finally, with his curiosity at least partly satisfied, the bear jumped back into the water and swam off. Wow! This type of close approach and sustained encounter happens so very rarely, and we were extremely lucky!

All through the morning we could see that the nearby coast of Wrangel Island was being scoured by strong katabatic winds coming down off the mountains. But by early afternoon, those winds had eased off and we decided to try for a landing on the beach near the cliffs of Ptichy Bazaar. (Ptichy means ‘bird’ in Russian). A starkly beautiful area, this part of the island gets a lot of strong winds and the winter snow does not usually stick. As a result the landscape is very barren and dominated by ‘feldmark’ – broken shale rocks with small sparse patches of vegetation. Only the very toughest of plants can survive here. Again we split up into three groups for a long hike, medium hike, and a shorter walk. Most of us made it at least partway up the slope of the bird cliffs for views over the coast. The long walkers got right to the top and were treated to the sight of a Gray Whale feeding in the waters below the cliffs. Other highlights were the mountains with a dense cap of clouds pouring off the highest peaks, a Musk Ox at distance, rocks sliced into thin sections like the pages of a book due to ‘freeze-thaw fracturing’, lemmings, and some beautiful flowers. Finally, we wandered back to the Zodiacs and cruised back to the ship in glorious calm conditions.

That evening after dinner, with the weather still beautifully calm, many of us headed out again in the Zodiacs to see Ptichy Bazaar from the water as the sun slowly set. The air was alive with birds returning to their nests and ledges after foraging out in the open ocean. Many birds were also sitting on the ice floes near the cliffs; the guillemots looking very much like little penguins. So wonderful to see and hear – and what a sound! - this dense abundance of birds at close range, while the sun sank gently into the ocean, painting the water and sky with a rich palette of purples and oranges.

© A. Russ

© S. Blanc

© S. Blanc

© A. Breniere

Day 7: Sunday 11th August
Wrangel Island – Attempt to land at Dream Head but too foggy!

We woke up this morning to clear skies and calm seas so all looked good for a landing at Wrangel Island’s Dream Head. But just as we finished breakfast, the fog rolled in. Thick as pea soup with less than 100 metres of visibility. Definitely not good conditions for a landing with the high density of Polar Bears in this area. We waited while the expedition team sent out a Zodiac scouting party, but they soon returned after finding that the fog was even thicker on the beach and a bear was right there waiting for them. So instead we enjoyed a quiet ‘expedition day’ in the fog hoping it would lift and allow us to land or Zodiac cruise somewhere. First we headed south looking for clear skies but no luck. Then we headed north again. At this time we picked up the five northbound overlanders and dropped off the five southbound overlanders. Still very thick fog!

Time for some informative lectures. Moshe taught us about the incredible floral diversity of Wrangel Island, and we learned about Polar Bear biology from Samuel. After lunch with the fog still very dense all around, the ship headed along the north coast of Wrangel Island looking for more sea ice. We were treated to a showing of the documentary “The Big Melt” about the summer transformation of the Arctic. This is part of the BBC series “Nature’s Great Events” produced by Karen Bass, one of our guest lecturers on this trip.

Almost as soon as the movie ended, the fog lifted revealing a blue sea studded with slabs of sea ice. In the ice, we encountered several small groups of walrus, which are always skittish and quick to disappear into the water, but most people got some good views. Then towards the end of the afternoon, the fog descended again shrouding the ship in a thick blanket of white. We all have our fingers crossed for better conditions tomorrow!

Day 8: Monday 12th August
Wrangel Island – Pre-breakfast Zodiac cruise at Herald Island. Late morning Zodiac cruise at Cape Waring. Afternoon landing at Dragi Bay.

Overnight, the ship had sailed east to nearby Herald Island which forms part of the Wrangel Island Nature Reserve. We awoke to find that the fog had followed us. Herald Island was lost in the mists somewhere on our port side, but it was still incredibly calm. Undaunted, Aaron gave us an extra early wake-up call (we’d been warned about this the night before). After a slight delay when a Polar Bear was spotted swimming towards the vessel, we piled into the Zodiacs for a pre-breakfast cruise along Herald Island’s dramatic seacliffs. Again we were treated to an incredible richness of birdlife, with guillemots, kittwakes, and puffins nesting on the rocky ledges. Dense fog veiled the very tops of the cliffs, but now and then it rolled back to reveal tall pinnacles and spires of rock. The water at the base of the cliffs was also very clear and looked almost turquoise in colour. Then we found a group of walrus in the water. There were more walrus crowded onto a small beach in a rocky overhang nearby (approx. 100 animals at a rough guess). Again we were careful not to approach too close so as not to frighten them. We also saw a few Polar Bears at distance.

Further along from the walrus there was an open beach area. This narrow strip of stony shingle at the base of the forbidding cliffs is likely where four men from the ship Karluk perished in early 1914. After their ship was crushed by the ice, they set out over the sea ice to break a trail to Wrangel Island for the rest of the crew. They were never seen again. Their remains were discovered 10 years later. In those days, the island was usually locked in ice even at the height of summer and very hard to approach by ship.

Back to the KK for a well-earned breakfast and a very interesting lecture from the Wrangel Island Rangers about their work and lives on the island while the ship headed west once more. Around noon we jumped in the Zodiacs for a cruise along the stunning seacliffs of Cape Waring, Wrangel Island. It was still very foggy, but it was also still very calm. We followed the line of cliffs north towards Dragi Bay and marvelled at the dark densely-layered rocks, so different from what we had seen elsewhere. Those rocks later gave way to fractured granite and this is where most of the birds were concentrated. There were several magnificent rock arches here – big enough to drive the Zodiacs through. We also saw Polar Bears in the water and disappearing rapidly into the fog on land. Our best views were of a young bear standing in a small cave just his size at the edge of the sea. And of course thousands of birds, including many Black-legged Kittiwakes with chicks in the nest.

A late lunch and then, with the fog having lifted a bit, we went out again to visit Dragi Bay for tundra walks and a visit to the ranger-built tourist cabin nearby. This is one of the locations where visitors can stay for the night. Very cosy! At the cabin, there was an interesting collection of bones. A small Mammoth tusk (3,000 years old!), a Gray Whale skull, the huge ‘arm’ bone of a Bowhead Whale, and several Polar Bear skulls. There was also a set of Reindeer antlers with tooth marks where the bears had been chewing on them. (Note that Reindeer and Caribou are two names for the same animal). One of the highlights of this landing was seeing two lone male Musk Oxen. And of course there were many interesting plants and flowers too. Moshe was in his element! Then the fog rolled back in and for safety we retreated back to the beach. Trying to spot white Polar Bears in white fog against a backdrop of pale white rocky hills is almost impossible!

On our way back to the ship, we stopped at the Karluk memorial, a little way further down Dragi Bay. This is where the main party of Stefansson’s  Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913 – 1914 camped for 6 months after their ship was crushed by the ice. Captain Bob Bartlett and one of the Alaskan Inuit hunters, Kataktovick, travelled over the ice to the Siberian mainland by dogsled and then east to the settlements on the Bering Strait, a journey of over 1,000 km, to raise the alarm and organise a rescue. Note that Ada Blackjack and the men of Stefansson’s 1921 – 1923 Wrangel Island Expedition camped a few miles east of this site. There is no memorial to this latter group but perhaps one day there might be.

© S. Blanc

© S. Blanc

Day 9: Tuesday 13th August
Wrangel Island – Morning landing at Doubtful Bay. Afternoon at sea heading back to towards Chukotka

Our last morning at Wrangel Island and a visit to Doubtful Bay on the south coast where the main Ranger Station is located. Shortly before breakfast, the fog ebbed away to expose a majestic landscape of tundra and mountains. Again, the ship was anchored quite a distance from the coast due to the shallow waters in this area. That meant a long Zodiac ride to the beach but happily the conditions were calm. Doubtful Bay is partly sheltered by an extensive gravel spit with a small lighthouse structure on it. This spit is a favoured hangout for Polar Bears, and several were sighted from the bridge before we set off in the Zodiacs.

Once on shore, the options were either to roam freely around the general area of the Ranger Station and associated huts or to join Gennadiy the head ranger and expedition staff for a long walk. Those who took the first option had the chance to see two species of lemmings – the Wrangel Island Lemming and the Siberian Lemming. Those who went on the long walk were lucky enough to see a Snowy Owl with a large grey chick at distance. We also all enjoyed the Snow Geese passing overhead in V-formations (“skeins”), calling encouragement to each other as they flew. Autumn has come and these birds are starting to head south to warmer climes after breeding on Wrangel Island. And in the river, Pink (Humpback) Salmon were heading upstream to spawn.  

There is a lot of historical debris on the beach here at Doubtful Bay, including pieces of old rusted machinery, many fuel drums, and even the remains of a large crane. This is the legacy of the small settlement and military camp that was here for over 50 years. This was before Wrangel Island was declared a Nature Reserve and World Heritage Site. It is now slowly being cleaned up. By the Ranger Station, there is a collection of bones including several large Mammoth tusks that were found buried in the permafrost. It is amazing to think of that these large woolly elephants roamed this island only a few thousand years ago, long after they had died out everywhere else.

After picking up our five southbound overlanders and bidding a sad farewell to our wonderful team of Wrangel Island Rangers, we returned to the ship and set sail for Chukotka. A relaxing afternoon on board with time for some informative lectures: Brent regaled us with his Polar Bear Stories and Samuel told of the Forgotten Expedition of the Karluk. With the ship bobbing along gently on the waves of the Chukchi Sea, another great day drew to a close.

© H. Dohn

© M. Dalebout

© M. Agame

© M. Agame

Day 10: Wednesday 14th August
Morning at sea. Afternoon landing at Serdtse-Kamen on the north coast of Chukotka

A quiet morning at sea with the ship enveloped by fog as we headed south to the coast of Chukotka. Time for a few lectures. Merel spoke about Ada Blackjack, the Unsung Hero of Wrangel Island, and we learned more about Sea Ice – the Eighth Continent from Agnes. After lunch, Maxim gave us a fascinating talk about Soviet exploration of the Arctic in the 1920s and 1930s entitled “Northern Dimensions of Communism”.

Late in the afternoon, we arrived on the Chukotka coast at Serdtse-Kamen. The fog had cleared leaving a cloudy sky with patches of light rain. Serdtse-Kamen is an interesting place. The low dunes behind the beach are the remains of a Paleo-Eskimo settlement and possibly a sacred site. The dunes are essentially made up of large numbers of whale skulls that have been slowly buried by sand. The tops of the dunes are covered in lush grass, but you can still see that some of the whale skulls were arranged in circles with a sunken pit in the middle. Whether these pits and the whale skulls are the remains of “havdag” semi-underground houses or meat storage pits or ceremonial sites is not clear. Next to the dunes is an old dilapidated hunters’ cabin, no longer in use. However, the people who used this cabin in the past clearly enjoyed exploring the adjacent Paleo-Eskimo site. They collected many ancient artefacts and stockpiled them in the cabin. The expedition team arranged a display of these artefacts for us. These included walrus tusks shaped into daggers and digging tools, the remains of an ancient stone “ulu” (woman’s knife), and pieces of bone and wood with holes drilled through them (purpose unknown). There were also two old rusted harpoons which were likely left by the hunters themselves. As far as we are aware there has never been a formal archaeological excavation at this site.

Later in the autumn, walrus haul out in huge numbers at Serdtse-Kamen. This is in fact the largest walrus haul out in the North Pacific. At times, the walrus panic and stampede, often crushing each other to death by mistake in the process. There were no live walrus here today, but we did see the remains of at least a dozen dead ones from the previous season, all partly mummified and with their tusks removed by locals from the small community in the next bay. Half a dozen friendly dogs from this community wandered around with us as we explored the area. Behind the beach there is a river-fed lagoon which is drained by a small stream. In late summer, you may see salmon spawning here. Wildlife sightings included a brown bear in the distance on the foothills beyond the lagoon, Arctic Ground Squirrels, Red-Necked Phalarope, and Long-tailed Ducks. And among the lush boggy vegetation up on the rise to the west of the beach, there was an abundance of red Cloudberries – not quite ripe but still tasty!  

© S. Blanc

© A. Breniere

Day 11: Thursday 15th August
Morning Zodiac cruise and landing at Bukhta Puutin. Afternoon landing at Unnamed Bay

Another night at sea as we continued south, crossing the Arctic Circle and passing Cape Dezhnev in the early hours of the morning. This area is known for its strong winds and rough seas and today was no exception. We had hoped to perhaps try again for a landing at Cape Dezhnev but that was not possible. Instead, we found calmer conditions and sunnier skies at Bukhta Puutin (bukhta = bay). After breakfast we piled into the Zodiacs for a short cruise along the bird cliffs to the north of the bay before landing. On the water we saw Crested and Parakeet Auklets, as well as Harlequin Ducks which were right in the surf zone. There was also a pair of Peregrine Falcons up on the hill overlooking the bird cliffs.

Landing near the mouth of the river that flows into Bukhta Puutin, we split up into two groups. Some of us explored the area near the landing, including the small grassy spit that extends into the bay where there is a dilapidated hunters’ cabin. The tarpaper walls of this cabin were scarred with bear claw marks. A large portion of this spit consists of an ancient Paleo-Eskimo settlement with the remains of  “havdag” dwellings supported by whale bones, now all partly covered by turf. Arctic Ground Squirrels were seen nearby.

Others took a challenging walk up onto rocky hills overlooking the bay and enjoyed some wonderful views. There are drystone cairns on some of these highpoints, often with a larger upright stone in the middle. The whistles of Pikas could be heard on the rocky slopes, but the animals themselves were very hard to spot. The richness of plants and flowers here is fascinating. This is a far more benevolent climate than up in the High Arctic at Wrangel Island.

After lunch, we were treated to a lecture by Russian scientist Dr. Vasiliy Baranyúk who has spent 35 seasons on Wrangel Island studying Snow Geese. We picked Dr. Vasiliy up from Wrangel Island as we left, and he will be with us until the end of the trip in Anadyr.

Then it was time for an afternoon landing at “Unnamed Bay” near Lavrentiya. What a beautiful spot this is! A long beach with a lagoon behind and rugged hills all around offering great views – at least that is the case in clear weather. As we arrived, the hills began to play hide and seek with the fog and we had to modify our plans somewhat. For example, rather than scaling the tallest peak in the area (now completely lost in the mist), the long walkers satisfied themselves with a few minor peaks and crossed over the low saddle to the river valley on the far side. Several Arctic Ground Squirrels were seen, and the views faded in and out with the swirling fog. Now that we are further south, we are seeing some actual bushes again (Willows) along the river beds which is quite exciting. In the north, all the plants were generally less than 5 cm high, hugging the ground for warmth and protection from the wind. Disconcertingly, there have been dead seabirds of several different species washed up on the beaches we have visited on our way south along the Chukotka coast. It is not clear what is killing them. Dr. Vasiliy has collected a few and will arrange to have them analysed in Petropavlovsk.

© S. Blanc

Day 12: Friday 16th August
Morning landing at Arakamchetchen. Gray whales feeding in Senyavina Strait. Afternoon landing in Bukhta Penkingney.

A greyish morning but it was calm for our landing on Arakamchetchen Island. The long walkers went off up a nearby hill while the rest of us were mesmerized by the Salmon spawning in the river near the landing. These Humpback/Pink Salmon are anadromous (“searun”) fish which means they begin their lives in fresh water, migrate to the sea to grow into adults, and then return to the same stream in which they were born to breed. All Pacific Salmon die after spawning in their natal streams. This provides a bonanza of food for local predators like brown bears. There were many dead salmon on the banks of the river here, and there were faint bear tracks on a sandbar. The bears themselves however were sleeping off their fishy feast somewhere out of sight.

Back on the ship, we cruised slowly through Senyavina Strait which separates Arakamchetchen from the Chukotka mainland. Whales sometimes congregate here. We were lucky and encountered several Gray Whales feeding. The conditions were very calm, so we had good views of the whales blowing on the surface. After a few breaths, they would do a “fluke up” dive to take them back down to the bottom to feed on invertebrates in the sediments. Small rafts of seabirds followed the whales, enjoying the “nibbly bits” (as Brent calls them) dropped by the whales as they feed.

After lunch, it was back into the Zodiacs for a landing in nearby Bukhta Penkingney, a long fjord cut into the coastline by glaciers. A small braided river, its gravel bed studded with Willow bushes, comes to the sea here. When we landed, the fog was again low on the hills but as the afternoon progressed it lifted to reveal fabulous views bathed in soft sunshine. Most of us enjoyed an exploration of the general area, seeing Arctic Ground Squirrels and Pikas, and Pink (Humpback) Salmon spawning in the river. There was fresh bear scat around and clearly the bears had been eating lots of berries, but we did not see the bears themselves. The long walkers meandered over the hills visiting a number of lookout points. As we continue south into warmer latitudes, the summertime thawed-out “active layer” of the permafrost is thicker/deeper, and the plants are able to grow with greater vigour. This means lots of boggy areas with tall grasses which can be challenging to walk through. Other wildlife highlights included glimpses of Willow Ptarmigan and Sandhill Cranes silhouetted on the skyline.

Returning to the ship just before dinner, we gathered on the back deck for a group photo. That evening, we were treated to a viewing of the film “Arctic Dinosaurs – Prehistoric Planet” with an introduction by Neil Nightingale, the director, and one of our guest lecturers on this trip.

© A. Breniere

© M. Dalebout

© H. Dohn

Day 13: Saturday 17th August
Morning landing at Whale Bone Alley, Yttygran Island. Afternoon landing at Bukhta Gil’mimyl with hot springs.

Another beautiful morning on the Chukotka coast. We have been so lucky with the weather! From our anchorage just off Yttygran Island, it was a short Zodiac ride to the beach at Whale Bone Alley. It seems that people from several villages gathered here seasonally to cooperate in hunting Bowhead Whales between the 14th and 16th Centuries. They used the huge skulls and lower jaw bones of these whales to construct docks for their “baidaras” (skin boats) and drying racks. Some arrangements of bones and rocks may also have served a ceremonial purpose, such as providing a special place to present food offerings to the spirits of the sea. When the whales ultimately moved to other feeding grounds, this area was abandoned and fell into disrepair. Some of the huge jaw bones which had been set upright slowly keeled over and fell to the ground. Others were sawn off at their base and carried away to be used for building houses in other villages. But there are still many jaw bones standing tall and this is a fascinating place. Furthermore, for those with patience and a dash of good luck, little Pikas could be seen in among the rocks on the hillside.

Returning to the KK, some of us disappeared below decks for engine room tours, while the rest enjoyed a bit of downtime before lunch. Before we knew it, we arrived at Bukhta Gil’mimyl for our afternoon landing. Sadly this was our last landing of the trip. The Zodiac ride into shore took us through a shallow lagoon. At the edge of the lagoon were several small huts and a “yaranga” (traditional tent) belonging to local Chukchi families who come here for the summer to fish for salmon, gather mushrooms and berries, and generally enjoy this beautiful area.
Once ashore at Gil’mimyl, some of us hiked up over a nearby hill to reach an area of hot springs just above the river. A rectangular wooden pool, fed by pipes from the springs, has been constructed here. For the more adventurous, a rickety set of wooden stairs led down to the river itself. Here, an arrangement of rocks channelled scalding water from the hot springs into a rough natural pool where it mixed with icy water from the river. When the flow was just right, it was glorious, but often you found the water temperature changing dramatically from cold to boiling hot and back again in the space of only a few seconds. The wooden hot tub was definitely the safer option! What a great place to sit and relax and reflect on the adventures we have had over these last two weeks, while looking out over a river valley ringed by a wall of ragged mountains. For those not keen on a swim, it was an afternoon of gentle exploration, enjoying the beautiful plants (and a bounty of delicious berries), the aquatic life in the river, some great birds such as Sandhill Cranes and Northern Pintail Ducks, and more. Then, finally and sadly, it was time to return to the ship.

Just before recap, Dr. Vasiliy presented another interesting lecture about his long-term research on Snow Geese at Wrangel Island. This evening we were treated to an extra-special Farewell Dinner of four courses. We continue to be amazed by our chefs and the kitchen team!

© A. Breniere

Day 14: Sunday 18th August
At Sea.

A final relaxing day at sea heading back across Gulf of Anadyr to the Anadyrskiy Liman and Anadyr itself. After breakfast, we returned our trusty rubber Muck Boots and then enjoyed a showing of the Wrangel Island documentary “Life on the Field of Bones” filmed by researcher Nikita Ovsyanikov. Just before lunch, Aaron tantalised us with ideas for future shipboard adventures with his presentation, “Heritage Expeditions – the Story So Far”. After lunch, we had our Disembarkation Briefing with details on what will happen tomorrow when we arrive at the river mouth near Anadyr and must transfer to the airport for flights back home. A mellow afternoon and then a final expedition recap with a wonderful End-of-Trip Slideshow. The slideshow was produced by Courtney and featured photos of our fabulous adventures around Wrangel Island and Chukotka taken by the expedition team. What a great way to finish!

Day 15: Monday 19th August

Arrival at Anadyr and end of trip.

Heritage Expeditions would like to thank you for travelling with us on ‘Wrangel Island: Across the Top of the World’. We hope to see you again soon somewhere between the poles. Wishing you fair winds and following seas!


© C. Rayes

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