This unique expedition crosses the Arctic Circle and includes the isolated and pristine Wrangel and Herald Islands and a significant section of the wild North Eastern Siberian coastline. It is a journey only made possible in recent years by the thawing in the politics of the region and the retreat of summer pack ice in the Chukchi Sea. The very small distance between Russia and the USA along this border area was known as the Ice Curtain, behind which then and now lies one of the last great undiscovered wilderness areas in the world.
The voyage journeys through the narrow Bering Strait, which separates Russia from the United States of America, and then travels west along the Chukotka coastline before crossing the De Long Strait to Wrangel Island. There we will spend four to five days under the guidance of local rangers on the nature reserve. Untouched by glaciers during the last ice age, this island is a treasure trove of Arctic biodiversity and is perhaps best known for the multitude of Polar Bears that breed here. We hope to catch many glimpses of this beautiful animal. The island also boasts the world's largest population of Pacific Walrus and lies near major feeding grounds for the Gray Whales that migrate thousands of kilometres north from their breeding grounds in Baja, Mexico. Reindeer, Musk Ox and Snow Geese can normally be seen further inland. A visit to massive bird cliffs on nearby Herald Island is also planned. The ‘mammoth steppe' vegetation complex, a rich and diverse relic from the Pleistocene epoch nurtures over 400 plant species and never fails to astound visitors with its sublime beauty. The number and type of endemic plant species, the diversity within plant communities, the presence of relatively recent mammoth tusks and skulls, a range of terrain types and geological formations in the small geographical space are all visible evidence of Wrangel's rich natural history and its unique evolutionary status within the Arctic.
The human history of Wrangel Island is fascinating in its own right. Highlights include a 3,400 year old Paleo-Eskimo camp in Krassin Bay, controversy over discovery and ownership of the island, the amazing story of the survivors of the Karluk, Ada Blackjack the heroine of the island, the Soviet occupation and militarisation and, more recently, the establishment of this world class nature reserve. A host of similarly enthralling stories hail from several optional landings along the northern coasts of Chukotka. Our expert expedition team will take you on guided walks, Zodiac cruises and provide lectures to help you better understand and appreciate this unique High Arctic landscape.
Exclusive Overland Experience - explore the interior of Wrangel Island by six-wheel Tundra vehicle, exclusive to Heritage Expeditions. The High Arctic environment that few people experience is now accessible on this 3 day- 2 night extension. You will travel by special tundra buggy, camp in field huts and enjoy wildlife encounters and photographic opportunities that professionals dream about. Read more here.
Pre/Post cruise transfers, all on board ship accommodation, meals and all expedition shore excursions.
All items of a personal nature, laundry, drinks, gratuities. International/domestic flights, visas and travel insurance.
Private charter flight Nome to Anadyr to Nome $2,000 pp
Overland Traverse $1,450pp
Nome to Nome
#2009 2nd to 16th August 2020
Anadyr to Anadyr
#2009 3rd to 17th August 2020
Our Ship: Kapitan Khlebnikov
The latest addition to Heritage Expeditions' fleet, legendary Russian icebreaker and former research vessel Kapitan Khlebnikov holds the passenger ship record for the most crossings of the Northwest Passage and has famously circumnavigated Antarctica - twice.
Built in 1981 by Finland's Wärtsilä Company and one of four Kapitan Sorokin-class icebreakers, Kapitan Khlebnikov wraps comfortable surrounds in a formidable, ice-reinforced vessel powered by 24,000 horsepower diesel-electric engines and is capable of breaking ice as thick as two metres.
Recently refurbished, Kapitan Khlebnikov comfortably accommodates up to 110 guests in well-appointed and spacious cabins and suites all featuring large windows that can be opened and en suite facilities. Common areas include large open decks, two dining rooms, a digitally equipped theatre-style lecture room, heated indoor pool, sauna, gymnasium, fully-stocked library, bar, lounge and four-person elevator.
The real focus and emphasis of every expedition is getting you ashore as often as possible for as long as possible with maximum safety and comfort. Our Expeditions are accompanied by some of the most experienced naturalists, botanists, historians and guides, who have devoted a lifetime to field research in the areas that we visit. The ship is crewed by an enthusiastic and experienced Russian Captain and crew.
Expedition Staff & Crew: 70
Guests: up to 110
Gross Tonnage: 12,288gt
Engine: 24,000 horsepower
Ice Class: LL3
Cruising speed: 12/14 knots
Heritage Suites: Large lounge area, separate bedroom with double bed and a single bed in the lounge, writing desk, wardrobe and drawers. Private bathroom with shower, toilet and washbasin. Large forward and side facing windows allow great views.
Mini Suites: Separate bedroom with a double bed and a single bed or sofa in the lounge, writing desk, wardrobe and drawers. Private bathroom with shower, toilet and washbasin. A large window offers great views.
Superior Plus cabins: Two lower berths, writing desk, wardrobe and drawers. Private bathroom with shower, toilet and washbasin. A large window offers great views.
Superior Plus Triple: One bunk (one upper and one lower berth) and one additional lower berth, writing desk, wardrobe and drawers. Private bathroom with shower, toilet and washbasin. A large window offers great views.
Day 1: Monday 21 August
The expeditioners from Nome arrived at the wharf first, where Assistant Expedition Leader Tania met us with packed lunches, then shepherded us the short walk to the ferry for Anadyr. For a few hours we explored the museum and the streets of this Chukotka regional administrative town, before catching the ferry back to board Spirit of Enderby.
While we were away, the expeditioners from Moscow flew in, were met by Alexey at the airport and brought to the ship. Soon the Nome contingent was on board and there was time to photograph amazing scenes of Beluga Whales and calves swimming close to the ship against the strong current of the Anadyr River. Dozens of Largha Seals fished for salmon around them, sometime surfacing with a flapping fish in their jaws. It truly is one of the best places in the world to see Beluga Whales, and our trip had yet to begin.
Howard, our Expedition Leader invited us to the lecture room to meet expedition staff, learn about the workings of the ship and our plans for the next 24 hours. Soon after, we pulled away from the wharf and while dinner was being served, eased into the Gulf of Anadyr. Already there’s a great feeling of camaraderie amongst the expeditioners, who hail from 11 countries.
Day 2: Tuesday 22 August
We woke to a startlingly warm, calm and sunny day, with an outside temperature above 10 degrees Celsius. Kittiwakes, fulmars and Short-tailed Shearwaters soared around the ship as we filled the morning with mandatory briefings, including lifeboat drill and how to get on and off the inflatable Zodiacs. We dropped anchor in Preobrazheniya Bay just before lunch and by 1.30pm were about to launch Zodiacs for a cruise to visit the nearby bird cliffs.
But first there was activity in the waters near the ship as two aluminium boats with local hunters began taking walrus, using both rifles and harpoons. We put our operations on hold while Howard and Liya went across to one of the hunters’ boats to find out their intentions and to ensure safe passage to the cliffs for our own boats. Soon we were making our way across through a rising wind and chop to the soaring granite bird cliffs.
We saw kittiwakes and chicks, Thick-billed and Common Murres, Horned and Tufted Puffins, Least Auklets, Glaucous Gulls and Pigeon Guillemots holding court on the ledges, ferrying fish to and from nests, or floating on the sea below. We heard the cries of chicks begging for food, and watched Harlequin Ducks bobbing along the surf-line under the cliffs. It was like a busy high-rise packed with life; Horned Puffins tucked into niches, murres and kittiwakes dominating ledges, Glaucous Gulls taking the promontories ready to snatch any unfortunate chick that fell, and Tufted Puffins, their burrows turning the mountainside brown, flying to and to fro to fish. The wings of puffins and guillemots are small compared to their body size so that they can ‘fly’ under water chasing fish. Such small wings mean they have to flap hard to stay airborne, and when they take off from their burrows above the cliffs, they first plummet on a steep downwards at a steep angle before levelling off into flight. Not all the birds level out in time, some simply crashing into the water.
We continued beyond the bird cliffs to the inside of the bay and landed the Zodiacs on a gravel beach for our first experience of the tundra: it was simply beautiful; a sequence of ankle-high plants stretching out across vast plains, richly textured and chiefly in tones of red, orange and gold. Some of us set off towards a rocky outcrop, stopping from time to time to pick crowberries and blueberries. In 20 minutes we reached the top of the promontory, where a terrific vista suddenly opened up, deep into a tundra valley along the shore of the of the inlet and defined by high, rocky mountainsides; and out across a gracefully arcing gravel spit perhaps 2 kilometres long, dividing the mirrored sea from the inlet. Late afternoon light dappled the distant slopes and lit the sea cliffs a glowing silver.
Returning to the beach, we encountered the remains of a brown bear that had died some time ago, and the prints of a healthy sub-adult. Just above the place we landed, a small camp had been made near the skull and jawbone of a Bowhead Whale. It looked like a wonderful place to spend a night under the stars.
Photo credit: H. Ahern
Day 3: Wednesday 23 August
The plan was to wake up at 5.30am for a pre-breakfast whale cruise should there be any whales to see. So while we slept, Captain directed the ship from Preobrazheniya Bay to the north coast of Yttygran Island, then into the waters along the island’s west coast. Howard was up early searching for tell-tale blows. At first in the early morning light, it seemed that there were no whales at all. Then there was one blow, then two, three, five, 10! We loaded into the boats and began motoring toward the whales. Or rather, to a spot near the whales, where we began to drift. Soon there were humpback blows, sounding like de-tuned trombones, competing with the sound of kittiwakes and shearwaters quarrelling over food, and all around whale exhalations creating puff-balls of mist into the cool morning air.
We had landed ourselves the mother-lode of whale watching. It mattered not which Zodiac you were in; each boat was having its own 360-degree, head-spinning experience. Sunlight glinted off sea-glazed tail flukes and arched backs, indicating that a whale was about to dive again. Some whales twinned up for synchronised dives. Others just swam lazily by, sometimes on both sides of us at once. A couple of Gray Whales took the stage, their beautifully mottled backs a contrast to that of the latex-black humpbacks. The sheer number of whales around us made it hard to know where to look next. There was no direction we could focus on without seeing at least 10 blows. Some of us were hugging each other with delight.
After two hours it was time to return to the ship for breakfast, when Sarah radioed that a whale was breaching to the south. As drivers began heading in that direction, the whale began coming toward us. Closer and closer it came, breaching as it went, then laying on its back and flapping its elegantly long pectoral fins as if attempting a back stroke. And then it would breach again, and again: perhaps 40 or 50 times in all, the very embodiment of exuberance! We finally could no longer put off returning to the ship, and even as we turned north, another whale began breaching and tail slapping, then another. In the end our naturalists estimated more than 55 whales, all humpbacks except for two Gray Whales.
After breakfast we went ashore at Whale Bone Alley, an ancient marine-mammal hunting site. We landed amidst the remains of an incredible avenue of standing 4 metre high jawbones of Bowhead Whales. Their exact age and meaning are unclear, with explanations ranging from some kind of sacred site, to practical markers for meat caches in the winter snows, or simply the framework of drying racks for walrus-skin boats. Some followed Chris on a leg-stretching walk up to the saddle then up to the top of the hill for pika and squirrel watching and breath-taking views up and down the strait. There were a number of old graves near the summit, marked with rocks or slabs of weathered timber from goodness knows where. Others joined Sarah in search of the elusive Northern Pika amongst the bouldery scree-slopes, listening for their high-pitched ‘peeping’, then sitting still until they came into view, sometimes with their mouths and cheeks stuffed with summer plants, ferrying them to their winter nests under the rocks. The rest of us ambled along the shoreline, discovering the massive skulls of Bowhead Whales, including one that was used as the roof of a rock-walled meat cache.
After lunch we took the Zodiacs into a shallow lagoon at Gil’mimyl, where we were greeted by Ivan, a former reindeer herder and his son Alexander. To our delight, they invited us to their summer camp for tea and traditional food. We tried walrus meat, whale meat and skin, delicious locally-smoked salmon, salmon caviar on fresh bread, flat bread, battered salmon and a salad made from local tundra herbs. Ivan gave a quick lesson on how to shave the hairs off a reindeer skin with a long draw knife to prepare it for other uses. Afterwards many of us made a beeline (stopped only by crow, blue and cloud berries) to the hot springs up the valley. We hopped in, blissfully relaxing, gazing at cloud-wreathed summits, the sound of the nearby salmon-filled stream beckoning us for a cooling dip. What a day!
Photo credit: H. Whelan
Day 4: Thursday 24 August
As a north wind and swell picked up, we followed in the wake of great explorers like Timothy Perevalov, James Cook, Sarychev and Billings and made our way across Lavrentiya Bay to visit the Chukchi Region’s administrative centre of Lavrentiya. Once on shore, Tania led us to a small plaza dominated by a tall, monkey-like stone sculpture, and a circle of painted timbers. The sculpture, Tania explained, was a mythical figure called “Belikan”, shared by cultures on both sides of the Bering Strait, but called “Pelikan” in Chukotka. Pelikan celebrates what is good in people and is said to have special powers. If you rub its round belly and make a wish, it might just be granted. Nearby was a circle of painted timbers, a Chukchi calendar, one plank per month, each one conceived and produced by a children’s group run by local artist, Valerie. To honour the importance of reindeer to Chukchi life, each month focusses on an aspect of the animal’s management or breeding cycle.
Just beyond a (surprising) statue of Lenin’s bust, we split into two groups; one setting off for the museum, the other enjoying a feast of local foods prepared by the villagers. Gray Whale steak, pickled blubber, whale sausage, dried salmon, donut-like fried bread with a berry syrup, and a rainbow of tundra berries, from crow, blue, cloud and more was on offer. Nobody was shy about filling their plates, much to the delight of the locals. Nearby in the local hall, artist and architect Sasha displayed some of his lovely work, from landscapes to street and harbour scenes.
In the museum, Elizaveta, who grew up in the now abandoned village of Naukan on Cape Dezhnev, gave a fascinating account of Yupik Eskimo and Chukchi culture (well-translated by Tania), from the importance of reindeer, walrus and whales, to the practical aspects of life in such an extreme environment. One of the many highlights on display was an ultra-lightweight, translucent and waterproof anorak made from walrus intestines, stretched out, cured and then tightly sewn together in horizontal bands. These were used in the light kayaks that were once paddled across Bering Strait in all conditions.
We finished our visit with a lovely performance of Chukchi song and dance in the school hall, courtesy of the local dance group, White Sail. The dancers ranged in age from about two to 70, but the standard was consistently delightful. The performance finished with ‘free dance’, when the locals invited us visitors up on stage to dance with them. What a great morning.
After lunch, Sarah gave a fascinating talk about seabird identification techniques, focussing on those we are most likely to see. After a short break, Chris gave an evocative talk about the ghost village of Naukan and the history of Cape Dezhnev. He’d not long finished when we approached the Cape. Although strong winds and a sweeping swell meant no landing was possible, Captain took the ship in very close so we could see just off the port side, the things Chris had just been speaking about. On the starboard side and just ahead, a mesmerising parade of auklets, murres and shearwaters entertained as we completed our passage through Bering Strait.
Day 5: Friday 25 August
Expect the unexpected on an expedition cruise. This morning dawned perfectly clear, with a north-easterly breeze and swell at odds with the forecast southerly change. As we approached the eastern coast of Kolyuchin Island after breakfast, the brilliant clarity of the day made it easy to see (and photograph) massive walrus haul outs tucked beneath the soaring cliffs. Even from a distance, the mass of pink-skin and criss-cross of long tusks was a memorable sight. As were the clouds of kittiwakes, guillemots, murres and gulls that heralded the seabird cliffs on the island’s north coast. And there! Right there in the very first gully, just above the water’s edge, was our first Polar Bear, apparently searching for eggs and chicks that might have fallen from the cliffs above. As it nonchalantly began climbing up the gully, we continued on.
Conditions looked as if a landing might be possible, so we gathered in the lecture room where Chris held a briefing. But by the time we’d rounded the north-west point of Kolyuchin Island and prepared to drop anchor, Howard came on the P.A. to announce: “There’s a Polar Bear at the landing site” which sent most of us racing for cameras, and our expedition staff recalibrating the morning.
Soon we were in Zodiacs preparing for a cruise toward the Polar Bear. Clearly it was eating something, and from the blood stains on the rock around it, it was something large. But it will remain a mystery. Even before we could get close, the bear picked up and carried off the remains of its breakfast and ambled off along the rocky shoreline. It stayed just long enough for us to get photos, before slipping into the sea. That was our signal to land. The blood-stained rocks were the only evidence to indicate what the bear had just eaten – not a hair or body part remained behind.
After a short hike up the slopes to the plateau above, we wandered amongst Soviet-era meteorological station buildings, once part of a chain of weather stations set up right along Russia’s north coast to inform ships traversing the coastline of local conditions. Out on the point were the remains of an ancient Chukchi hunting camp. But for most of us, the goal was the noisy cliff-line to the north, the same cliffs we’d seen from the ship earlier in the morning. From the top, we were afforded exceptional views of Horned Puffins, kittiwakes and chicks, murres and Glaucous Gulls, brilliantly lit by the morning sun. We spent a delightful time as morning turned to afternoon and it was time to return to the ship for another Ed and Connor feast.
Helen opened the ship shop after lunch for a quick chance to buy souvenirs and clothing. We then gathered in the lecture room for Liya’s introduction to Wrangel Island and shortly after, perfectly-timed, came Sarah’s announcement that there were ‘at least a dozen’ whales around the ship. Chief Mate immediately slowed the ship down and did a sweeping turn back towards them. How fortunate that he did, for amongst the humpbacks we so admire, was our first Bowhead Whale, with another two seen spouting strongly in the distance. Another wonderful day.
Photo credit: C. Todd
Day 6: Saturday 26 August
It felt like a smooth ride overnight from Kolyuchin Island to Wrangel Island, but once we dropped anchor in Doubtful Bay, we quickly understood that we’d been riding with the wind and swell and experienced it much more strongly once anchored. After making radio contact with the Wrangel Island Reserve rangers, Howard and Kosta (chief engineer) took a scout boat on the long run to the rangers’ huts, to determine the conditions at the landing site. They returned wind-blown and wet, with the news that our morning landing had been cancelled. However, an attempt would be made to drop the northbound overlanders and their gear on the beach, returning with three Russian rangers to accompany the ship while we are visiting Wrangel Island. By all accounts it was a lively and wet operation, with staff holding the Zodiacs chest-deep in the waves to load and unload passengers. Everyone (and everything except a camera tripod) was safely transferred from ship to shore and vice versa.
While all this was taking place, Sarah gave an interesting talk about life in a polar field camp, a tale of enthusiastic young biologists, recalcitrant Polar Bears and the importance of meal times. In the early afternoon, Captain relocated the ship from the windy south side of the island to the somewhat sheltered western side. As we rounded Cape Blossom, we could see distant views of Polar Bears on the spit. As we approached our anchorage to the south of Cape Thomas, more buttery white dots could be seen on the surrounding hillsides. Once we added these to those sleeping on the far side of the lagoon near our anchorage, and another nine in a cirque above where we landed, there were some 55 bears on view.
We launched the Zodiacs into a stiff breeze and swell, and had a slow run into Neozhednaya, or Unexpected River. We landed near a monument set up to commemorate the place where sailors from the Russian ice-breaker Vaigach raised the flag and claimed Wrangel Island for Russia. We then split into walking groups to explore the tundra. One group walked to a nearby hunters’ hut and found a bone-yard of reindeer and other animals. A second group wandered up toward the cirque for a closer look at the sleeping bears, while a third group took a longer walk to the mouth of a distant valley, where they had a good view of two Musk Oxen on the slopes below them. By the time everyone had returned to the beach, the swell had caught up to us, and it was an adventurous departure and ride back to the ship.
Photo credit: H. Ahern
Photo credit: S. Gutowsky
Day 7: Sunday 27 August
The ship was anchored just off the bird cliffs of Ptichy Bazaar when the early-risers reached the bridge. Sunshine bathed the ridgeline, highlighting a mother bear and cub nestled in a carpet of tundra vegetation. On the beach below and to the right, another bear was sleeping and further along, another three. The day looked promising, except for the rising wind. It had begun at about 4am and by breakfast time whirley-whirleys and wind-blown spume indicated speeds in excess of 40 knots. We waited a bit, but the wind just got stronger, so we relocated the ship to Komsomal, hoping to land and see the lake and rangers hut. But no such luck: by now thin clouds were sweeping over the coastal mountaintops in a gossamer veil and the sea surface danced like mad furies.
The beauty of expedition cruising is ultimate flexibility when it comes to itineraries. Can’t land here? Let’s try somewhere else. And so we continued up the coast to just south of Dream Head, just beyond the wind gradient, where the sea was calm at last. We quickly loaded Zodiacs and went ashore, sorting ourselves into the now familiar longer, medium and shorter walking groups. The long walkers struck off across the tundra, following the rising slope until just below the rocky southern slopes of Dream Peak. Just above them, Polar Bears had excavated comfortable ledges into the warm rocky face. It was incredible to see white dots in the black landscape suddenly morph into a mother with two cubs. We counted more than a dozen bears on the slopes above us and enjoyed great (albeit distant) views. The medium walkers set off for a small Chukchi hunter’s hut, while the short walkers used their extra time to take a Zodiac cruise up the coast to enjoy closer views of a couple of bears.
While we enjoyed lunch, Expedition Leader Howard worked with the Captain to relocate the ship back towards Ptichy Bazaar. From the north, it appeared as if the intensity of the clouds had diminished, but it was not to be. We had barely reached Komsomol when the wind forced us back northwards. In the end Howard announced an ‘exploration’ cruise. Just north of Dream Head we found an oasis of calm, so late in the afternoon decided to launch Zodiacs. The shore was a long way owing to the shallow anchorage, but our trusty boats quickly covered the distance. As we got closer we could see a spit of land with a lagoon behind. And on the spit, there were now familiar white dots, which as we got closer could clearly be identified as a mother with two cubs, then another bear and another. In the end we spent more than an hour following ranger Uliana’s directions to go gently closer and closer, until we were less than 100 metres off the beach where two bears went about their business without being disturbed. There were nine bears on the spit and including the bears we could count on the mountainside, we saw some 59 bears in the afternoon. We returned to the ship chilled by the arctic breeze, but thrilled by our bear encounters and a glorious sunset.
Photo credit: S. Gutowsky
Day 8: Monday 28 August
An element of déjà vu prevailed as we returned south to Ptichy Bazaar. As the bird cliffs came in sight to the south, so too did the white caps as the wind began funnelling down the valleys toward the coast. By the time we’d reached them, wind-devils scoured the sea surface, ripping seawater up into the air. Clearly no chance for a landing, but spectacular for a ship’s cruise. Besides the kittiwakes, guillemots, puffins and murres in the maelstrom, the Polar Bears were still visible on the shore. As we returned to the north, the full density of Polar Bears on Wrangel was revealed: In just one spot where the tundra plain met the black scree of the mountain slopes, we counted 18 bears, looking as one person put it, like a scattered flock of buttery sheep on a hillside. As we continued north, our count quickly exceeded 50.
Again we stopped by Komsomol to see whether the wind had abated (it hadn’t), then continued back up past Dream Head. While we travelled, ranger Ulianna gave a wonderful talk on Musk Oxen, teaching us among many other things, how to determine male from female and juvenile from adult based on the size and configuration of their horns. After lunch we set off on another exploratory Zodiac cruise, initially heading toward the spit we’d visited the night before. Along the way, we were waylaid by Gray Whales that insisted in blowing close to our boats, one nearly popping into Helen’s Zodiac and giving everyone on board a good splash.
On the spit we saw half a dozen bears, stopped for some photos, then continued on through an opening into a vast lagoon, alive with Short-tailed Duck, King Eider, and Largha Seals. We landed on the far side beneath another bear-laden slope, with one sleepy fellow on the tundra only a short distance away. We found ourselves in a fantastic place, with bright orange lichen covered standing stones standing like drunken tombstones where they’d been heaved up by the frost, and a tundra rich in plant life. Soon we were back in the Zodiacs for an easy down-wind ride back to the ship.
After lunch, we moved south of Dream Head to exchange our south-bound overlanders for the north-bounders. It all went smoothly and from initial reports, it sounded like they had had some wonderful adventures. As we began our voyage around the top of Wrangel, Chris gave a fascinating lecture about the sinking of the Karluk (part of the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913-14) and the tragedy and heroism that unfolded from it. By early evening, we were coming around onto the north coast of the island, and to our south could see the beautiful snowy flanks of Soviet Mountain (1096 metres), the highest peak on Wrangel Island.
Day 9: Tuesday 29 August
Wrangel and Herald Islands
Herald Island lies some 35 nautical miles to the east of Wrangel Island. It’s believed to have the highest density of Polar Bear dens per square kilometre in the world, although some argue that both Wrangel and Herald have similar numbers; approximately 12 dens per square kilometre. The island itself is mostly guarded by steep cliffs, with several very narrow and confined gravel beaches. A couple of steep gullies give scrambling access for bears to the upper part of the island, a sparsely vegetated and dramatic landscape of screes, and granite cliffs.
When we anchored off Herald Island just before breakfast, expectations of seeing Polar Bears were high. The island was in full view, with the sun valiantly trying to break through high clouds. Best of all, the wind and swell had eased. We quickly loaded into Zodiacs and headed for the island. Even from a distance we could see perhaps 40 Polar Bears scattered across the high screes above the cliffs. We arrived to find that the cliffs were alive with kittiwakes and their chicks, Horned and Tufted Puffins, murres and guillemots. As we cruised south, we saw walrus in the water and soon had excellent views of three haul outs tucked into deep coves at the base of the cliffs. Some 300 walrus were snuggled in, an impressive display of criss-crossed tusks, pink and brown skin.
Not much farther along we found a tiny beach that might have been the place where four men from the Karluk met their mysterious end. While it would have been nice to land there to poke about in the cave we could see from the beach, it was already occupied by seven Polar Bears, enjoying its proximity to the walrus haul out. As we continued along the coast, the slopes above were festooned with bears. There were individuals, mothers with cubs, some lazing, others walking about. By the time we reached the bird-cliffs at the southern end of the island, packed with raucous kittiwakes, we were speechless: In a two hour period we’d seen more than 65 bears, half of them near the water; the rest clearly visible on the scree slopes above. And that was only the small portion of Herald Island we could see from our Zodiacs.
By mid-afternoon we were approaching Dragi Bay next to Cape Waring, the easternmost point of Wrangel Island. The trip across from Herald was smooth, with a remnant swell lifting the surface of a glassy sea. As we approached land, we encountered several walrus adults and young juveniles, and in the bay itself, three Gray Whales blowing. To the south, the birdlife was very lively along the extraordinary cliffs. The plan was for a short Zodiac cruise followed by a landing at Dragi Bay and possibly to walk up in the tundra to the rangers’ hut, bears allowing.
We motored south along the cliffs, enjoying close views of Horned Puffins and guillemots in the water. It was a pleasant, albeit bumpy cruise and we’d worked our way around several rocky points when ranger Uliana spotted a Polar Bear up ahead. A bit further another slept on the beach, and above it one more. Howard decided that he’d just like to have a look around one more headland before heading for the beach, so we set off to the south. Where we found a walrus haul out, then another.
According to the rangers, there had been walrus haul outs in the past, but none in the past year or so. This year was a different story: as we rounded the point, we saw three haul outs on small beaches along the Cape, each with several hundred walrus adults, juveniles and some pups. As we continued, a curious group of several hundred walruses already in the water swam out toward the Zodiacs, then from our seaward side, groups of juveniles appeared. We slowly moved south until the cliff-line turned west into a large embayment, which held further groups of walrus. The sun came out from behind a cloud and lit up an incredible scene: for the next 20 minutes or so perhaps a thousand walruses rose and fell on the large swells around or boats; snorting, blowing and diving as far as the eye could see. It was mesmerising.
With consciousness and memory cards saturated, we eventually returned along the cliff-line, passing several Bearded Seals on the beach, more Polar Bears and bird-cliffs. We’d almost reached Dragi Bay when a passenger spotted an Arctic Fox, then another, in a steep gully under some bird cliffs. We watched as one of the foxes raced down, snatched a guillemot in flight and scurried back up the gully with it to some vegetation. The other fox followed, but when it got too close, was quickly sent on its way. The first fox might have stashed the bird to eat later, because both foxes were soon photographed prancing around together on the high slopes.
Two thirds of our expeditioners decided to return to the ship, while the rest joined the rangers on shore for a walk up to the huts. A mother bear and two cubs walked across the rocky slope above the huts, with four other bears on the surrounding slopes, and two more on the tundra further up the beach. Everyone appeared at dinner with smiles on their faces and a story to tell. There’s only one word to describe the day – bliss!
Photo credit: Heritage Expeditions
Photo credit: C. Todd
Photo credit: C. Todd
Day 10: Wednesday 30 August
Doubtful Bay turned it on for us again second time around: As we anchored, sunlight reflected off a glassy sea, while clouds released sunlit flurries of snow onto the distant mountain range. Conditions were perfect for the long run up the bay to Pavlov’s Grave, a memorial to the son of Ushekov, one of the first settlers on Wrangel. Pavlov spent his life living in Chukchi-style as a trapper, and the remains of his hut (and traps) can still be seen. Nearby is an orthodox memorial cross and his upturned boat (Pavlov was eaten by a bear and her cubs, but it is unclear whether he was killed or he died and they simply ate his remains). Also awaiting us on the beach were our southbound overlanders, on their final excursion in the 6-wheeled Trekol, heading out to the end of the long, wraparound spit that protects the eastern reaches of Doubtful Bay.
After a short visit, we boarded Zodiacs once again for a run back to the rangers’ huts, where Genady, Artem and Uliana showed us around in the tundra via short, medium and long walks respectively. For a few fascinating hours we were given a glimpse of life on Wrangel Island, from how the banya (sauna) works, to sleeping accommodation; to a project to clean up half a century of rusty drums; wooden crates to ship small Musk Oxen calves to the mainland for a breeding program there, an open air ‘museum’ featuring not just the bones and skulls of contemporary animals, but the tusks and molars of woolly mammoths as well.
Out on the tundra between the rangers’ huts and an abandoned military base further inland, were Arctic Foxes (and even rarer this year – lemmings), Snowy Owls (keeping consistently no closer than ‘binocular’ range), and Snow Buntings. It seemed that everybody arrived back at the beach (overlanders included) with a story to tell and a greater understanding about life and nature on this World Heritage Island.
Back on board, we bid goodbye to Wrangel and steered a course south-east for the village of Vankarem. Late in the afternoon, we gathered in the bar for a recap, with many expeditioners sharing their favourite experiences of the trip so far. It made us realise just how much we’ve seen and felt since departing Anadyr.
Photo credit: H. Ahern
Day 11: Thursday 31 August
As we approached Vankarem after breakfast, it was clear that our chances of making a landing were borderline at best. Once the ship was anchored and the height of the swell sweeping through could accurately be measured, Howard announced that he would put a scout boat in the water (as we also had to disembark Danila, our last walrus researcher) and check conditions at sea level. When the boat returned, the landing was cancelled.
Instead, we continued down the coast toward Bering Strait, hoping that Kolyuchin Inlet would offer some protection from the swell. While we sailed, Wrangel Island researcher Vasily Baranyuk gave a fascinating talk on the island’s ecosystem and his studies of Snow Geese. To illustrate his talk, he had stunning photographs and footage Snow Geese and Snowy Owls on their nests, of Common Eiders and Arctic Foxes. It was encouraging to hear about the increase in Snow Goose numbers in recent years.
By the time we reached Kolyuchin Inlet, the swell had increased, making a landing at Belyaka Spit impossible, so we continued on. Liya gave a great talk on Arctic Fox, people gathered in the bar to chat, while others caught up on sleep after our full days on Wrangel Island. Tonight we will pass through Bering Strait in hopes of finding better weather and more protected waters to the south.
Day 12: Friday 1 September
At Sea and Pinkingay Fiord
The first day of autumn, and a worthy postscript for the last day of summer. Last night after dinner, a softly-spoken announcement came over the PA. “Aurora” was all that was said. Soon we began streaming up to the bridge, the flying bridge, and the outer decks to enjoy faint green curtains of light dancing across the sky. At times they picked up vibrancy, and then disappeared altogether. Some people were able to get reasonable photos of Aurora Borealis, despite the rocking of the ship. Everyone who had hoped, even dreamed of seeing an aurora on this trip went to bed (or returned to bed) satisfied.
But the night was not over. As the ship began turning south into Bering Strait, the wind and swell had us in its grip. At about 3am we experienced some particularly strong waves that tossed chairs across cabins and made a clean sweep of many a desk. Most everyone had a story at breakfast, which was well attended as we were now in the lee of Chukotka. The morning passed easily, with Chris giving a wryly entertaining talk about the edible plants of Chukotka, followed by Vasily’s wondrous photos and video on the wildlife of Wrangel Island.
After lunch we anchored in Pinkingay Fiord, a waterway surrounded by tundra in autumn colours and snow-covered mountains. As we boarded the Zodiacs, rain showers began and stayed with us for the first hour or so. We weren’t long out when we encountered four Humpback Whales feeding in the bay. As we moved closer and sat quietly, they began to swim round us, occasionally surfacing very close to share some sonorous bellows from their blow holes. We stayed with the whales for a while, before moving further south into the fiord. The wind picked up, the temperature dropped and it was feeling decidedly Arctic once again.
We picked up speed and cruised along the shoreline searching for brown bears. We’d nearly reached the head of the fjord when Sarah radioed that she thought she could see some reindeer on a distant slope. We immediately aimed for where she indicated and sure enough, hundreds of black and white dots appeared on the lower slopes of the tundra. Was it possible that we’d somehow lucked out and would be able to watch as reindeer herders brought their animals to the sea for their annual dose of sea-salt? The sea salt replenishes certain minerals in their bodies that they can’t get from the lichens and plants they eat.
As we approached, two Chukchi reindeer herders waltzed down the tundra with their dogs to greet us. Maxim and Vitaly were two of five men and five dogs looking after some 1700 reindeer. They invited us to split into two groups; one to go up on a rise and the other to remain near the coast, while they sent the dogs around to herd the reindeer toward the sea. After a chilly wait, the reindeer began moving toward the sea. There just seemed to be more and more until the wonder of 1700 animals walking past, clicking antlers and making grunting noises was overwhelming. Many of the males were in rut, the velvet on their antlers hanging in tatters. Others squared off antler-clashing fights. There was so much to see. We followed the animals down to the beach where a number began to wade into the water for their annual salt-drink. We felt very lucky to be here on this very day and there were many happy faces in the Zodiacs heading back to the ship. To show our gratitude to the reindeer herders, Howard and Chris took some supplies back to their camp while we prepared for dinner. Another very special surprise on a trip that seems to have featured nice surprises on almost a daily basis.
Photo credit: H. Ahern
Day 13: Saturday 2 September
At Sea and Yttygran Island
So what might the last day of our excursions deliver? We woke to a light breeze riffling the surface of Pinkingay Fiord. Clouds swept the snow-dusted peaks around us, and half a dozen Gray and Humpback Whales fed lazily around the ship. Captain ordered the anchor weighed at 6am and by breakfast time we were on our way out of the fiord and south to the waters west of Yttygran Island. Yes, we had been here before. On our trip north it was here that we had our best whale encounters. Was it possible that it could happen again?
From the bridge we saw several blows along the shoreline to the south. By the time Captain dropped anchor, it was clear that there were at least a dozen or so whales about. As the first few Zodiacs were loaded, a humpback began breaching in the distance. Over the next couple of hours, we were privy to an extraordinary display of breaching, fin slapping and tail fluke displays. In one Zodiac, one of our expeditioners Nancy, jokingly asked when the occupants were going to get wet, so close were some of the displays. As if in response, one of the livelier Humpback Whales landed a breach just metres from the bow of Nancy’s Zodiac and her wish was fulfilled.
After lunch we relocated to the south side of Yttygran Island where we all went ashore. The ‘long walkers’ accompanied Sarah on a fast-paced climb up to the summit of a rocky, 400-metre peak, then back down to the shoreline via the opposite ridge. Kosta and Howard gave Chris and his ‘medium walkers’ a ride around the south-east corner of the island to begin a one-way tundra walk back to the starting point. They passed whalebones on the beach, Sandhill Cranes and a Rough-legged Buzzard hunting on the tundra, mergansers and Tundra Swans on a lagoon, Chukchi burial sites and exquisite gold, scarlet and emerald-coloured autumn tundra vegetation. Near the original landing place, Tania and Suzi encouraged the ‘short-walkers’ to not walk at all, but simply flop down on the tundra, enjoy the serenity of the place and to gorge on the perfectly ripe crowberries that could be found everywhere. By the time we returned to the ship, it seemed that everyone had had an experience perfectly tailored to their wants. It was a lovely way to bid goodbye to this remote and wondrous corner of the planet. Who could have imagined what lay in store when we boarded the ship in Anadyr nearly two weeks ago? One thing is certain, we will never forget the incredible experiences we’ve had, the wildlife we’ve seen and the new friends we’ve made.
Day 14: Sunday 3 September
Bay of Anadyr
We cruised back across the Bay of Anadyr in glorious warm sunshine, reflecting on a fortnight exceptional in so many ways: But the wonders kept coming: ahead of the ship we began to see scores of whales blowing in all directions. The Captain slowed the ship so we could get a better look at what sort of whales they were, as some of the blows were extraordinarily narrow and vertical. They turned out to be a mixture of Humpbacks and Fin Whales, the latter responsible for the powerful blows. They were lunge-feeding on plankton and seemed oblivious to the ship. A pair of Fin Whales (at over 25 metres long, second in size only to Blue Whales) fed right up to the ship, at one stage their cavernous mouths, hairy baleen plates and capaciously expandable throats clearly visible from the front deck. We were simply amazed. That evening we had a wonderful slide-show recap of the entire trip, put together by Sarah from photos shot by staff and accompanied by music. This was followed up by a very happy hour in the bar and a superb buffet meal put together by Connor and Ed. And just when we thought it was all over, Connor came back inside from the back deck to report thousands of birds following the ship. We streamed outside to find the most astonishing sight: thousands of ghostly white kittiwakes streamed behind the ship in the low moonlight, like some kind of conjuring trick. They flew silently right past the deck, others dipping into the wake to pluck up plankton stirred up by the ship’s propeller. It seemed like a perfect finale to a very special voyage.
Photo credit: S. Gutowsky
Day 15: Monday 4 September
Alas, all things must end! We left the ship in groups; some for Nome, others for Moscow, all feeling full of all the beauties of the trip, but also nostalgic to be leaving such a beautiful place, our homely ship and many new-found friends.
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" Having had 3 previous voyages with Heritage. . Birding the Kurils, First Sea of Okhotsk and Across the top of the world, I now want to visit Maquarie Island. The voyages are just so enjoyable. "
" The voyage itself was wonderful, and I would like to make it clear how much I appreciate the efforts of the staff and the crew, who all did a really splendid job. Rodney's feelings for the area and the wildlife, and his determination that his passengers should enjoy both to the full, were very evident - indeed he went out of his way to ensure this, not least by arranging an additional landing (not in the published itinerary) on the final Monday morning. His hotel manager, guides and supporting staff were uniformly excellent in their different ways, as were the crew of the ship. All worked extremely hard and yet, in public, maintained a relaxed and friendly manner. We were also very fortunate to have the company and guidance of Nikita and Irina, the parents of Katya Ovsyanikova, whose knowledge and experience added a great deal to the experience (eg, Nikita's lectures and Irina's leadership of the "stalk" that got us to within 100 yards of a herd of musk oxen). Please convey my thanks to all concerned. "
" Again, I want to thank Rodney and his team on Voyage #1334. They worked hard and produced many memorable encounters. They even ordered up decent weather for this sort of trip. I also want to recognize Richard Benneville over in Nome. That colorful guy is a "secret weapon" for Heritage and is the perfect introduction and finale for the Russian Coast trip. Finally, the Wrangel Overland Traverse was a unique experience. "