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 on its own. 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.
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
Nome to Nome
#1928 7th to 21st July 2019
Anadyr to Anadyr
#1928 8th to 22nd July 2019
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 7 August
From 11 nations we gathered, half flying in from Nome to the east, half from Moscow to the west. Alexander greeted us at Anadyr airport, shepherding us through visa checks, as we gathered our bags and boarded local transport to where Spirit of Enderby was moored on the banks of the Anadyr River. We passed by ground squirrels near the gangway to be warmly welcomed aboard by expedition staff. After settling into our cabins, we set off to explore our home for the next two weeks. Fresh scones and hot tea beckoned from the bar, but even these delights were upstaged by the Largha Seal and Beluga Whale hunting salmon just off the port side.
At first the close sightings of the buttery-white female Belugas and their grey calves took our breath away. But as they rose and blew, surrounded by sleek-headed seals, it gradually became apparent just what we were looking at. Grisha and Sarah, our naturalists, estimated some 100 whales were close to the ship, but as the eye was drawn further and further out, an estimated 800 to 900 whales peppered the surface of the river and bay. Not to be outdone, hundreds of seals took turns rising to show off the salmon they were busy catching and consuming, while a handful of Ringed Seals made guest appearances.
Arctic Terns, Glaucous and Vega Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Long-tailed Jaegers and Red-throated Loons were just some of birds that flew by. At about 1600, a light rain squall swept through as our pilot boat arrived to guide us off the wharf and on our way. Down in the lecture room, we met our expedition staff and Helen introduced us to life on board an ice-strengthened ship. By dinner time, there was a sense of calm as we all relaxed into our new life. And so our Across the Top of the World expedition begins.
Photo credit: Heritage Expeditions
Day 2: Tuesday 8 August
After a lumpy overnight ride across the Bay of Anadyr, we anchored pre-breakfast in Preobrazheniya Bay. Morning passed quickly with mandatory Zodiac and abandon ship drills, including hopping into the lifeboats in a practical exercise. Outside, Gray Whales could be seen blowing in the distance. After lunch, Sarah and Grisha held an impromptu wildlife briefing in the bar while some rain squalls passed through. Soon enough it was time to load Zodiacs and set off to explore the extraordinary bird cliffs; towering granitic ramparts guarding the north side of the bay. Although a stout swell kept the viewing lively, we were transported into an extraordinary world of seabirds, including Common and Thick-billed Murres, Pigeon Guillemots, Black-legged Kittiwakes; Parakeet, Least and Crested Auklets; Glaucous Gulls with very large chicks, northern pelagic cormorants with multi-sized chicks; Vega Gulls, Arctic Terns and a Sabine Gull. And of course puffins, both horned and tufted, the latter in numbers so great at one location that a vast stretch of cliffside grasses had turned a muddy brown from their comings and goings to their burrows. And close to shore, slyly slipping through the white water were Harlequin Ducks, sporadically seen until we rounded a corner to see some 70 or so parents and chicks moving smoothly across a calm stretch of water. There were Northern Fulmars, ravens and in the distance, Sandhill Cranes. Perhaps most interesting was the number of Short-tailed Shearwaters swimming, seemingly unconcerned as we passed by. By Sarah’s reckoning, they may have flown up from breeding grounds in Tasmania (as you do) and were going through a ‘catastrophic’ moult, which disallows flying. All this bird action was taking place against a backdrop of breathtakingly, soaring granite spires, ridgelines and rock faces infused with perfectly-cleaved dolerite dykes. “Like Scotland on steroids” someone was heard to declare. Less inspiring was the mystery of the four headless walrus carcasses punctuating the shore. All-in-all, an amazing first day on our voyage.
Day 3: Wednesday 9 August
After breakfast we loaded five Zodiacs and set off across a glassy sea on a whale-watching excursion from our anchorage near Whalebone Alley, Yttygran Island. After initially watching a Gray Whale only a hundred or so metres off the stern of Spirit of Enderby, we continued eastward, encountering dozens of Gray Whales, several humpbacks and even a couple of Minke Whales in the waters between Yttygran and Nuneangan Islands. Time passed quickly, as we photographed the mottled backs of Gray Whales cruising close to our Zodiacs. We continued toward the western side of Nuneangan Island, where we found several hundred walrus in the water close to shore. For nearly a half hour we drifted quietly as groups of walrus swam toward us curiously, before backing off, then coming close again. It was a wondrous time. We returned to Yttygran Island where we landed amidst the remains of an incredible avenue of vertical jawbones from Bowhead Whales. Their exact age and meaning remain a mystery, explanations ranging from what was once a Chukchi Delphi, to practical markers for meat caches in the winter snows, to drying racks for walrus-skin boats. Some followed Sarah on a leg-stretcher up to the saddle, then the western high point; others joined Chris in search of the elusive Northern Pika, while 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. What a morning!
After lunch we took Zodiacs up the shallow outlet of a small lagoon at Gil’mimyl, where we were greeted by Ivan, a reindeer herder and his son Alexander. To our delight, they invited us to their summer yaranga (a kind of portable house tent) for some tea and traditional food (while nine of their reindeer grazed on the slopes above and ground squirrels and a cat played around the yaranga). We tried some delicious locally-smoked trout and salmon, red caviar on fresh bread, flat bread, battered salmon and a salad from local tundra herbs. Meanwhile, Ivan’s wife was busy shaving the hairs off a reindeer skin with a long draw knife to prepare the skin for other uses. She explained to us how every part of the reindeer was used; from leather for rope, hides for making clothes and boots, soft antlers for blood soup and even the stomach contents for ‘green soup’. Afterwards, we split up, half the group going in search of the very vocal, but elusive Sandhill Crane, while the other half made a beeline (stopped only by crow and blueberries) to the hot springs up the valley. Many of us hopped in, blissfully relaxing, gazing at cloud-wreathed summits, to the song of the nearby salmon-filled stream beckoning us for a cooling dip. Magical.
Photo credit: Heritage Expeditions
Day 4: Thursday 10 August
Lavrentiya and Bering Strait
Despite short, choppy seas, a long swell from the NE, a lowering sky and rain, 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. The place name came from James Cook, who landed there on St. Lawrences Day in 1778. Once on shore, Grisha led us to a small plaza dominated by a tall, monkey-like stone sculpture, and a circle of painted timbers. The sculpture, Grisha explained, is a mythical figure, shared by cultures on both sides of the Bering Strait, and called “Belikan” in the east, and “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. And so many a soggy hand reached out for a rub, with hopeful eyes turned to the sky. By the time we’d walked the 10 metres or so to the circle of painted timbers, the rain had stopped. The timbers, Grisha explained, were a Chukchi calendar, one plank per month conceived and produced by a children’s group run by local artist, Valerie who had come to welcome us. To honour the importance of reindeer to Chukchi life, each month focussed on an aspect of the animal’s breeding cycle.
The weather remained dry as we visited Lenin’s bust in the town square then 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, red caviar, fresh battered salmon, donut-like fried bread with a berry syrup, and a rainbow of tundra berries, from crow, blue, cloud and more. No-one was shy about filling their plates, much to the delight of the locals. Nearby in the local hall, local architect and artist Sasha displayed some of his lovely work, from landscapes to street and harbour scenes, with a number of them snapped up by lucky expeditioners.
In the museum, Elizaveta, who grew up in the now abandoned village of Naukan on Cape Dezhnev, gave a fascinating account of Yupik and Chukchi cultures (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 was an ultra-lightweight, translucent and waterproof anorak made from walrus intestines, and a light baidara (walrus-skin boat).
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 elderly, but the standard was consistently delightful. The Walrus dance was a beauty. What a great morning.
After lunch, Grisha gave a fascinating talk about Gray Whales and the research he’s done on a very special population, once thought extinct, off Sakhalin Island. 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, shearwaters lit by the low evening light entranced us as we completed our passage through Bering Strait. We could just make out Ratmanova Island to the east; otherwise known as Big and Little Diomede Islands; Russian and American respectively, with the international dateline and rather a lot of politics dividing them.
Photo credit: Heritage Expeditions
Day 5: Friday 11 August
Kolyuchin Island and at Sea
Sunlight splashed across the eastern cliffs of Kolyuchin Island as we approached just before breakfast in 15 knots of southerly wind. We could just make out huts of the walrus hunter camp on the southern point, and a lumpy walrus haul out tucked into a rocky cove along the coast. By the time we had eaten, Captain brought the ship around the northern end of the island, a scout boat was launched to check the landing for bears and swell, and in a short time word came back that a landing was possible. And what a landing it was. We made our way up the steep slope and through the remnants of life before the meteorological station closed down. An old track marked where coal was hoisted up from the shore, large buildings where people had once lived and worked. A crate of 16mm film reels released to the elements and a toilet with spectacular views of mainland Chukotka, some six nautical miles to the south.
But it was the bird cliffs on the north coast that captured our attention. Perfectly formed granite ledges stacked in layers, each packed with Common and Thick-billed Murres (sometimes known as Common & Brunnich’s Guillemots); delightful pedestals where Horned and Tufted Puffins showed off their fishing success; towering sea stacks where Glaucous Gulls owned the high ground, the perfect place for their chicks to grow. Kittiwakes had beautiful chicks as well, some tucked neatly beneath the clifftop, but easily visible to photograph. On sheer ridgelines, pelagic cormorants stood regally, silhouetted against the blue sea below. We had just enough time to sate the hungry memory cards, before returning to the ship at 11am and setting off for Wrangel Island.
Just before lunch we passed through a highly productive patch of ocean, where clouds of shearwaters settled on the sea and whale-blows punctuated the horizon. We all headed for the bridge or the bow for better views as Captain slowed the ship and we were surrounded by Humpback and Gray Whales, rising several times to blow and inhale before diving down for another feed. Absolutely spectacular.
After lunch, Sarah gave an amazingly informative talk on the Alcid family (puffins and friends). Hopefully we can now tell the difference between auklets, guillemots and murres, how many eggs each species lays and why some are pointed at one end (to ease the impact of the guillemot’s stall-landing technique?). After a short break, Chris and Grisha introduced us to Wrangel Island, and why it’s so unique. By the end we were all keen to get there. The only thing standing between us and a landing was a combination of northerly wind and rising swell.
Photo credit: Heritage Expeditions
Day 6: Saturday 12 August
At Sea and Wrangel Island, Doubtful Bay
After hammering into a strong and bitter NW wind all night in a pitching ship, Wrangel Island finally became visible at lunch time, a fresh dusting of snow evident beneath its cloud-capped peaks as we approached. A group of walrus swam past, while across the tundra vast swathes of Snow Geese could be seen resting, or flying past in elongated Vs. In the morning, Chris gave a fascinating lecture about the Karluk expedition, and the heroic efforts of Captain Bartlett to save his scientists and crew.
After lunch we loaded Zodiacs in a short, sharp chop and ran with the wind along the coast of Doubtful Bay to reach the ranger’s huts. We were warmly welcomed, then split into three groups depending on the distance we felt we wanted to walk on our explorations. A cold wind reminded us just how far north we’ve come, but the relatively close sighting of a beautiful Snowy Owl warmed us to the core. It was but one of five that played hide and seek across the tundra, while Snow Buntings vied for our attention from short range. Today was definitely Snow Goose day, with an almost constant stream of birds flying overhead, their calls evoking thoughts of changing seasons and long migrations. Several Arctic Foxes danced across the tundra in their brown and tan summer coats, while the keen-eyed spotted both Musk Oxen and a buttery-bean-sized Polar Bear in the distance. Arctic poppies, forget-me-nots and a host of other tundra flowers (plus some hairy caterpillars) decorated the landscape. We bid adieu to our lucky northbound Overlanders, and promised to see then in two days at the far side of the island. What a treat.
Photo credit: Heritage Expeditions
Day 7: Sunday 13 August
The day dawned clear, cloud condensing over the weathered mountain ridges and pouring down the valleys as catabatic mist before dissipating over the plains. Snow patches remained in the higher gullies and a bracing wind swept across Cape Blossom, a reminder that Arctic summer still has bite. We loaded the Zodiacs and prepared to photograph an amazing sight. Well before breakfast we began to see the odd white dot on the landscape ahead in the distance. By the time we dropped anchor, we could clearly see Polar Bears spaced along the beach, walking on the berm, and gathering at the spit beyond the Cape’s huts. For more than two hours we endured the cold, filling gigabytes worth of memory cards of Polar Bears walking, snoozing, interacting, swimming and all. Naturalist Sarah did an estimation of at least 37 bears in the immediate vicinity of the Cape. Large flocks of kittiwakes and Vega Gulls were fishing close to the beach, a Skua (Jaeger) harassing them into throwing up their breakfasts. Snow Geese were also super-abundant, taking off in a cloud of brilliant white wings, dramatic against the dark hills, before assembling themselves into flying formation, moving and settling down elsewhere on the tundra. Although the wind-whipped seas challenged our photographers, we all agreed it was an experience beyond what we’d hoped for.
After lunch, our ranger, Uliana, gave an excellent talk on Snow Geese as the ship retraced our course to the monument marking the 180th Meridian. There we split up into groups that suited our energy levels, some stayed near the beach, others ventured partway up the slopes to find refuge in a shallow, sun-filled depression dotted with lemming burrows, while the hard core followed Uliana up the steep hillside and across a saddle that revealed stunning views into the austere and wild interior of Wrangel Island; a place of scree slopes, rivers and mountains with a colour palette of ochre and dun. Looking back down the coast we could see long gravel spits snaking around the coastline to the east, and westward towards Popov’s lagoon. The accompanying wind, head-achingly cold, swept mist over distant mountainsides and stacked up spectacular pillars of lenticular clouds. It gave us a taste of what the Overland team was seeing, and left us hungry for more. We spotted three Polar Bears in the distance and one Snowy Owl on the slope above the beach. In the evening we heard from Grisha, who said the Overland team had a close encounter with a Polar Bear, some excellent Snowy Owl and Arctic Fox sightings. It was snowing at Peak Tundra hut even as we spoke.
Photo credit: Heritage Expeditions
Day 8: Monday 14 August
Wrangel Island – West Coast
We awoke to a gently undulating, smooth grey sea disappearing into sea mist, the coast of Wrangel Island just a dark crease between sea and sky. We made our way up the west coast of Wrangel Island, anchoring just to the south of Dream Head just after breakfast. Our scout boat put rangers ashore who quickly discovered two bears near the landing area that were moving away, so gave the all clear. In short time we all joined them, landing stern-first on the beach due to the residual swell, and split up into short, medium and long walking groups. The long group set off across the tundra, a sea of puddles, ponds and tufted plants, with Gennady, aiming for the flanks of Dream Head Peak. During our 10km round trip, we encountered flocks of Snow Geese, Snowy Owls, distant views of six Musk Oxen and nine Polar Bears, and a scampering young Arctic Fox during our return leg. Toward the interior, the low clouds lifted to reveal a vast landscape of rounded valleys and more rugged peaks.
Our medium group joined ranger Uliana and made our way slowly along Nanaune Lagoon, photographing tundra flowers, mushrooms, and spying on numbers of shorebirds including Ruddy Turnstones and Phaleropes. Moving quietly en masse, we had a close encounter with a pair of Musk Oxen, much to our photographers’ delight, and reached an old Chukchi hunter’s hut, now being taken over by lovely daisies. For those who stayed close to our landing area, our search was rewarded with special discoveries including the skull and skeleton of a Polar Bear, but it was when most of the short and medium walkers had returned to the ship that ranger Igor, with Tatiana and Patrick (who decided to stay ashore) had a close encounter with a Polar Bear which ambled along the beach toward them, only turning when it caught their scent, then walked back the way it had come.
Our changeover of Overlanders (Northbound swapped with Southbound) went smoothly in the afternoon, returning to the ship in the fog using GPS. Those who had travelled across the interior were flush with stories of wildlife and wonder. The trip had been much slower and more arduous than usual due to exceptionally boggy ground. Those about to depart were near bursting with excitement. And so they should be, exploring the interior of Wrangel Island is something that has been experienced by only a small number of people, and most of those have been rangers and scientists. No more than 10 people have the chance to do this on each of our three Across the Top of the World voyages each year.
We weighed anchor and headed east across the top of Wrangel, unfettered by the sea-ice which retreated northward only a week ago.
Photo credit: Heritage Expeditions
Photo credit: Heritage Expeditions
Day 9: Tuesday 15 August
Wrangel and Herald Islands
A long, smooth run in the fog took us across the top of Wrangel Island, so by morning we were anchored off the famously inhospitable Herald Island to the east. Still the thick fog persisted, so we set a waypoint for halfway down the island and followed our GPS’s into the soup. As we travelled, the wind and sea picked up. Suddenly a line of white breakers appeared, with black cliffs towering above it into the mist, heralding the island’s southern coast. A rebounding chop set the Zodiacs on a lively dance. What first appeared to be a snow patch on the cliff face, morphed into a fully grown Polar Bear, resting peacefully in a spot it seemed unlikely to have climbed to. But climb it must have. And just a short distance to the south was another bear, and another, and another. As we rounded the southwest corner of the island, we heard the eerie bellows of walrus, and came upon haul out after haul out tucked into rocky alcoves, many hundreds of walrus both on the rock and in the sea. A foggy run had suddenly turned into something extraordinary, with more bears up ahead. Through the mist we could see six bears on a tiny gravel beach. Others in the water up ahead caused us to turn around so as not to disturb them, so we stopped our count at some 25 bears spotted. We had a bumpy run back to the ship, which duly appeared from the fog at the expected moment.
After lunch, we had the pleasure of ranger Igor telling us of his first expedition to Herald Island, and his life with his family on Wrangel Island. Ranger Gennady translated and there was much laughter, as well as awe at the challenges Igor and his colleagues faced taking on some of the first Polar Bear research projects on both Herald and Wrangel Islands. And while we enjoyed the talk, our Captain and officers repositioned the ship to Dragi Bay, on the easternmost point of Wrangel.
As we approached, the ship was surrounded by feeding Gray Whales, hundreds of walrus, clouds of puffins, guillemots, kittiwakes and gulls, and even a Bearded Seal. It’s clearly an incredibly productive area for marine mammals and seabirds. At first it looked like the wind would put paid to any landings, but we didn’t mind. On the cliffs just in front of the ship we could see mother bears and cubs moving precariously up and down gulleys. The scree slopes behind were literally dotted with sleeping Polar Bears. We could see one on the beach in the bay, others on the tundra and on a small peak behind. It was all too exciting. As soon as the wind eased to within safe operating limits, three Zodiacs were launched and 23 of us faced the blast to go ashore.
Our walk with Ranger Julianna was interrupted by the arrival of a gloriously healthy Polar Bear on the tundra slopes just above us. We waited for it to climb up to a flat spot where it lay down to rest. We then moved quietly up the hill to a closer vantage point, moving closer again until we all had a wondrously close look (and photographs). More bears decorated the mountainside up toward the peak, including a mother bear nursing three cubs. Below where we were standing, another bear came along just above the beach, encouraging our driver Kosta into the Zodiac for an impromptu cruise. Once that bear had moved up the mountainside to the south, we continued our walk to the Rangers’ Hut. There we had another very large bear, very dirt-stained, come down to investigate us. When it was about 80 metres away it didn’t like what it found and scurried away in the opposite direction, huge rolls of fat swinging from its behind. When people say Herald and Wrangel have the highest densities of Polar Bear dens in the world, believe them.
The harsh beauty of Wrangel is strangely compelling; sweep after sweep of ochre tundra plains topped by black rocky mountains; lagoons and gravel spits; headland after bird-cliffed headland. Even the bitter winds create a sense of atmosphere, as cloud and fog wreath the ridges and funnel down the valleys.
Photo credit: Heritage Expeditions
Day 10: Wednesday 16 August
Wrangel Island and North Siberia Coast
And so the wind and sea that makes Wrangel Island such an isolated outpost in the High Arctic, challenged us to the end. The forecast strong north-west winds had backed just enough to the west to make landings at Doubtful Bay just that. In fact, ‘most unlikely’ would be more appropriate. We stayed at anchor for several hours to see if a change would give us the outside chance we needed (as it had yesterday at Dragi Bay), but it was not to be. Even picking up our southbound Overlanders required a careful repositioning of the ship and an extended drive along the spit to the east of the rangers’ huts. We watched as two Zodiacs carrying our wonderful rangers Igor, Julianna and Gennady, steered a circuitous route through steep swell and wind-whipped chop to reach the shore. Those on land had a dramatic departure from Wrangel, were warmly welcomed back on board and were soon regaling the rest of the passengers with their adventures.
Our afternoon passed quickly as we sailed back to Chukotka’s north coast, this crossing thankfully blessed by a following sea. Helen put on an excellent documentary about the survivors of the Karluk expedition, with poignant reminders of what a desolate place Herald Island could be, something we can now relate to. After well-earned naps, memory card downloading, light rooming and shared conversation, we gathered in the bar for a recap of our voyage so far, hosted by Chris, Sarah, Grisha and Howard, with wonderful contributions from many of our expeditioners. So many experiences we’ve had since boarding in Anadyr. Whether it was bird-photographing, whale-watching, walrus-admiring or even salmon-catching (by hand!), there will be as much memory space captured in our brains as all the hard drives on the ship. And the adventure isn’t over yet!
Day 11: Thursday 17 August
At Sea and Kolyuchin Inlet
Our overnight run south from Wrangel Island continued to be kind, with the wind and seas pushing us nicely along. It wasn’t until we passed near Kolyuchin Island to the east that we realised how lucky we were on our way north, when we had just enough lee to make a landing. Today there was no hope, as the swell crashed into the western point, sending plumes of spray higher than the grassy slopes where we had been sitting in sunshine photographing Horned Puffins and kittiwake chicks.
After breakfast, we reached the north coast of Chukotka, and Captain took our ship into Kolyuchin Inlet, where we anchored for our planned landing on Belyaka Spit. The gangway was lively once again, and after our Wrangel adventures everyone moved smoothly like old hands. We soon landed near the high wooden Russian Orthodox cross, a memorial to those who died on the icebreaker Vaigatch during the first Russian traverse of the Northeast Passage. We were greeted on the beach by Alexei Doudua, a keen Russian ornithologist who spends several months each year living in a small hut near the lighthouse. He was excited to hear that we had Ranger Igor on board, a long-time friend and colleague from Wrangel Island days. It was a delight to see them reunited when Igor came ashore.
Belyaka Spit might better be called Belyaka Sponge, because at an average elevation of between one and two metres, and a high water table, it’s absolutely riddled with ponds, lakes and lagoons. Fortunately the paleo-dune systems provided some dry pathways across the Spit, giving us the chance to enjoy a perfect habitat for shorebirds. In the middle of our first lake, half a dozen Emperor Loons swam back and forth, showing off their patterned plumage. Pacific Loons flew overhead, filling the air with their distinctive call. We watched Arctic Skuas chase gulls, and small flocks of Golden Plovers landing in the grass just long enough for some of us to get photos of their art-deco plumage. There were sneaky views of Dunlin raising their heads, and Red-necked Phalaropes spinning to and fro on the ponds, creating vortices to stir up food.
As we walked, Sarah explained why these wetland areas are so important for the loons, which are so perfectly adapted to deep-diving, their legs so far back on their bodies, that they are not capable of walking on land. They must build their nests either on floating islands of vegetation, or along the shores of bodies of lakes and ponds, using the waterways to give them take-off and landing access to their nests. As we walked, we passed occasional Chukchi burial sites (scattered bones with artefacts for the afterlife – a rusted rifle, a reindeer prod, or a teapot) and higher dunes with the remains of ancient summer marine-mammal hunting camps. It’s amazing how such an apparently featureless tract of coast can contain such a diversity of nature and human history.
In the afternoon, we continued our journey east and slightly south. Helen had a busy time assisting those who came to our ‘pop-up’ ship shop in the port-side dining room, then later in the afternoon Chris gave a talk on the edible plants of Chukotka, a fascinating insight into the richness of the indigenous diet, showing that it was not purely made up of protein rich meats and oil from marine mammals. Chris, assisted in translation by Tania, delivered a lively, very funny talk. Then just before dinner, Steffan shared the story of a winter snowmobile expedition he did into the interior of Chukotka to visit reindeer herders. An amazing presentation of both slides and video.
Day 12: Friday 18 August
Waves crashing against the beach near Uelen Village didn’t bode well for our morning at Cape Dezhnev, nor did the swell sweeping along the coast as we turned south into Bering Strait. But as the Cape appeared through mist and rain, the seas began to calm and hopes began to rise. Just before breakfast, a scout boat checked conditions on the beach and returned with a positive report – not only was a landing possible, the odd patch of blue appeared in the sky. By the time we landed on the north-easternmost point of Eurasia, we had stretches of glorious sunshine. The unruly weather was no surprise, for here the Pacific and Arctic Oceans meet, a mix of warm and cool currents.
While some of us joined Sarah’s boat for a fascinating bird and marine mammal cruise beneath the dramatic cliffs of the southern cape, the rest of us made our way up to the ruins of the former settlement of Naukan. It’s amazing to think that within some of our lifetimes, Inuit people lived in the huts made out of stones and whale bones, and lined with turf for insulation. They were renowned for their hunting prowess and seamanship skills. At one time they would make regular visits to their American neighbours in Alaska just 89 kilometres across Bering Strait. In 1958, all the people of Naukan were relocated to various towns along the Chukotka coast, the village displaced by a (now crumbling) Border Guard post.
We wandered from the abandoned stone buildings of Naukan up to the lighthouse, a wooden memorial cross in honour of the sailors who accompanied Semyon Dezhnev more than 350 years ago when he became the first European to sail from the Arctic to Pacific Ocean. There is also a sculpture of an Inuit baidara, symbolizing the connection between Asia and America. On the clifftop below the lighthouse, the remains of the old Border Guard buildings are slowly being recalled by gravity and the slippery slopes below. And throughout the cape, ground squirrels delighted us with their antics, while feeding, sunning and playing in rich vegetation near their burrows.
Those of us who landed had our chance for a great Zodiac cruise to the south before returning to the ship. After lunch, Sarah gave a fascinating lecture on Life in an Arctic Field Camp; and a short time later, Grisha wowed us with his talk about how whales (and seals) use sound to communicate, socialise, and hunt. Incredible to think that some cetaceans might be able to use their sonar skills to detect whether females are pregnant. Or that Fin Whales in America can communicate with Fin Whales in Spain, a distance of 5000 kilometres and at a depth of 1000 metres. Amazing.
Photo credit: Heritage Expeditions
Day 13: Saturday 19 August
We awoke to calm seas, sunlight breaking through the clouds, the hillsides surrounding Penkengay Fjord more reminiscent of Kamchatka to the south, than here in Chukotka. Thanks to an unusual microclimate, the tundra gives way to stands of tall shrub willow, good cover for brown bears. And spotting brown bears was our goal today. But by the time we finished breakfast and loaded the Zodiacs, a north-westerly wind was already whipping up the bay and bringing rain across the surrounding peaks. Grisha valiantly led the search for bears as rain began to pelt us, then settled in for a steady drench. We saw shearwaters, kittiwakes and even the odd puffin. There was a fisherman’s camp and most excitingly, distant views of a Gyre Falcon winging its way across a river-course. A Minke Whale made a brief appearance at the end (by which time it was most appreciated). E also saw Sandhill Cranes and Eider Ducklings, but in the end the wind and rain encouraged us (bear-less) back to the ship.
During lunch the Captain began repositioning the ship to an anchorage near our planned landing on the south side of Yttegran Island. But in truth, there was little enthusiasm for another dose of arctic rain. And then something extraordinary happened. Or rather something ordinary for the place, extraordinary that we were there at the time. As we approached the west side of Yttegran, whale blows could be seen ahead. One, two, three we counted, then three more. Then we saw the unmistakeable fin of a male orca, and his accompanying pod. Captain eased back the throttle, then put us into drift. We raced to the bow, the flying bridge and the stern as Humpback Whales began to feed around the ship. Grisha was in his element as he watched the interaction between the orcas and humpbacks. At first he thought the orcas might be preying on the humpback mother or calf. But after watching a bit longer, he believed the orcas were schooling fish, swimming round in a carousel fashion. He thought the humpback mother detected the school of fish and moved in with the calf to feed. We could definitely see some action between the two species as the humpback slapped its tail to move the orcas on. Grisha saw this happen three times before the orcas left the area. A number of humpbacks dived and swam directly under the ship’s bow, their pale undersides visible as a bright whitish-green underwater before they surfaced and blew dramatically right next to the ship.
After nearly an hour, it seemed like the only way that we could improve on the experience would be to see it from water level. Howard made the call to quickly grab a hot drink, download pictures and be prepared to load into Zodiacs. We planned to be out for an hour, but as soon as we were in the Zodiacs, it was clear that something extraordinary was happening. All around us we could hear the sonorous exhalation of whales blowing. Kosta was onto the situation immediately, taking his boat to a spot that seemed to draw them in. Several whales took a liking to his Zodiac, swimming right alongside, slapping the water, fluking and even spy-hopping to everyone’s delight.
In time every boat had its own personal whale experience, with more spy-hopping, whales gliding like pale ghosts under the hulls, close, close encounters. Just when it seemed the late afternoon couldn’t get better, the sun broke through to bath the scene with golden light. One hour became two, then nearly three before the sun disappeared behind a mountain and it was time to return to the ship. By Grisha’s estimate, we had shared the bay with some 40 humpbacks, 12 orcas, 8 grays and 4 minkes. You could tell by the smiles, and the pre-dinner buzz in the bar, that this was an experience that none of us will ever forget.
Photo credit: Heritage Expeditions
Day 14: Sunday 20 August
We woke to a perfect morning as we sailed across Anadyr Bay. Glorious sunshine, warm temperatures, almost no wind. Most of us were drawn to the outer decks to sunbake, search for more whales, and enjoy the kittiwakes, Short-tailed Shearwaters and Northern Fulmars around the ship. Inside we enjoyed a film in the lecture room and sharing photos with fellow expeditioners. After our disembarkation briefing Grisha presented a wonderful slide show of the trip through the lenses of staff. It was amazing to see just how many experiences we’ve had over the past two weeks. In the evening the Globe Bar was the place to be, as we enjoyed an impromptu concert of singing and guitar playing by Boris. Just after midnight, the pilot came on board and thus be began our final approach to Anadyr.
Day 15: Monday 21 August
Back at the dock on the mouth of the Anadyr River, Beluga Whales and Largha Seals chased salmon right alongside the ship. Over the course of the morning, we disembarked to begin our journeys either home or on to our next adventure. It was a heartfelt adieu being expressed at the bottom of the gangway as luggage was pointed out and we loaded into our assigned buses. Tania and Alexey did a sterling job shepherding us through the formalities at the airport and soon we were winging our way either to Nome or Moscow, grey clouds closing over the coast of Chukotka beneath us, its beauty and wonder now but a memory.
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" Dear Rodney and the team of Heritage Expedition and the crew of Spirit of Endebry, thank to all of you for the incredible experience and unforgettable sightseeing of the Whalebone Alley and Naukan; for almost impossible dry landing at Cape Dezhnev and exciting moments to step at the easternmost cape of Eurasia!
Many thanks for the opportunity to spend some time at one of my dreamland - Wrangel Island and all its wildlife with polar bear, musk ox, cute arctic foxes, snow owls and lemmings as well as cooking experience!
I met wonderful people on board from Australia, England, USA, New Zealand and Russia!
thank you thank you thank you thank you!