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
#1908 4th to 18th August 2019
Anadyr to Anadyr
#1908 5th to 19th August 2019
Akademik Shokalskiy is the sister ship to the Spirit of Enderby (Professor Khromov), they were both built in 1984 for polar and oceanographic research and being fully ice-strengthened they are perfect for Expedition Travel.
She carries just 50 passengers and provides comfortable accommodation in twin share cabins approximately half of which have private facilities. All cabins have outside windows or portholes and ample storage space.
On board there is a combined bar/library lounge area and a dedicated lecture room. The cuisine is excellent and is prepared by top NZ and Australian chefs.
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 and guides, who have devoted a lifetime to field research in the areas that we visit. The ship is crewed by a very enthusiastic and most experienced Russian Captain and crew.
MV Spirit of Enderby/Professor Khromov
Many of us spent a night in the small but very colorful town of Anadyr, capital of the Chukotka region, whilst the remainder of the group joined us via flights with Bering Air from Nome, Alaska. We boarded the Spirit of Enderby which was to be our home for the next couple of weeks. On the ferry to the ship we spotted our first marine mammals – Beluga Whales and Larga Seals. By 6:30pm everyone was aboard and invited to attend a welcome briefing. Expedition Leader, Rodney Russ, introduced the ship and Expedition Team to the group and talked about plans for the trip. Being quite hungry and eager for a glass of wine to celebrate the beginning of the cruise, we headed to the dining rooms, where a delicious dinner prepared by our chefs Bruce and Jeremy awaited us.
We heaved anchor and left the Anadyr Estuary in a beautiful pink sunset. Later in the evening some tireless explorers enjoyed incredible views from the bridge and open decks while others retired to their cabins to rest. Our adventures begin!
Early this morning we experienced our first “rock’n’rolling” so breakfast was not well attended as some needed more time to find their sea legs. As we approached Preobrazheniya Bay however, the sea calmed and we dropped anchor to get ready for our first landing. After lunch Rodney gave us a Zodiac briefing which was followed by the safety drill. Soon after these were completed we were able to put our newly acquired Zodiac knowledge to the test. We boarded five craft and headed to the coast in Preobrazheniya Bay to have a closer look at the sheer cliffs occupied by thousands of birds including Pigeon, Common and Brünnick’s Guillemots. Some Horned and Tufted Puffins were spotted as well as a flock of Crested Auklets spinning on the water as we cruised from one cove to another.
We made a short landing on a rocky beach to stretch our legs before returning to the ship. Back aboard we gathered in the bar to share our impressions of our first Zodiac foray. Mark, the expedition ornithologist from Canada, gave a recap of the birds and marine mammals that we saw today. This was to be a routine followed throughout the expedition.
Glazenapa and Gilmymyl Bays
Weather conditions forced a change in our plans this morning and we had to bypass Whale Bone Alley, an ancient aboriginal site. We stopped instead in Glazenapa Bay where Heritage Expeditions had not landed before. Having reached the coast, we divided into small groups according to specific interests and each group headed for their chosen destination. On the tundra hills the animal lovers got their cameras ready for Pikas and ground squirrels. The most patient ones are rewarded with a sneak peek at those little creatures. Further west from the landing point, we discovered the remains of ancient dwellings that appeared to be used as a hunting camp. The geography of the place with the beach, a strait and hills made us think that it could have been used as a watch point and gave reason to think that it was an Eskimo whale hunting camp. Several hours flew by and it seemed not time before we met again on the stony shoreline of Glazenapa Bay.
The Spirit of Enderby then departed for Gilmymyl Bay, where we hoped to catch up with an old friend of Heritage, Chukchi man Ivan, who lives there in tundra. We boarded the Zodiacs and made our way ashore despite some impressive waves which made for a somewhat wild ride. Fortunately the hot springs of Gilmymyl Bay were not far away so we were able to warm up after being doused with the sea water on the way in. On the cliff across the river from the hot springs we had fantastic views of a family of Rough Legged Hawks. It was interesting to visit the Chukchi family that was staying at Ivan’s house and despite most of us not speaking Russian, we felt we learnt something of their lives. After a warming dip in the hot springs we saw a Peregrine Falcon diving on a flock of Pectoral Sandpipers as we made our way back to the Zodiacs. We departed the bay feeling very satisfied with our excursion.
The sea became rougher during the night, so many of us found it difficult to get a good night’s sleep due to the swell. Around 7:30am we crossed the Polar circle and those who wanted to mark this occasion gathered on the bridge to share their emotions. During the day Katya gave two lectures. The first was an overview of the indigenous people of Chukotka which was timely after our visit with the Chukchi family yesterday. Later she gave an introduction to Wrangel Island which we are all are so excited to reach. Unfortunately, weather conditions did not permit us to make a landing on Cape Dezhnev or at Uelen Village but we will try to do that on our way back.
This morning we approach Herald Island, a small but stunning island northeast of Wrangel. After lunch we were close enough to go for a cruise in the Zodiacs and actually land on this rarely visited island. The last people to live there were Nikita and his wife Irina, also a biologist working on Wrangel Island, and they left in 1993. We cruised along the coastline watching the bird colonies that inhabit Herald’s steep cliffs. We saw lots of Puffins, Kittiwakes and Guillemots and even a pair of Phalaropes. Ice drifted beside our Zodiacs and it was very cold as the icy water splashed around us. We really felt as though we had reached the Top of the World! We returned to the ship as the fog rolled in and the excitement about reaching Wrangel Island began to grow.
Wrangel Island, Doubtful Bay
In the morning the Captain carefully negotiated the ice and we were able to land at Doubtful Bay which fortunately did not live up to its name, and we were safely delivered ashore for our first taste of Wrangel Island. The Wrangel Island Reserve rangers and scientists were there to welcome us. We met Olga, an ornithologist who studies Snow Geese, and rangers Igor and Vladimir who came aboard to accompany us for our time here. For a good couple of hours we wandered around exploring the almost deserted village and learning about life on the island. We imagined how it would be in winter with Polar Bears visiting and Arctic Foxes passing by. Now however is the Arctic summer, so we had our lunch on the beach in the open air which sharpens the appetite!
The first group of ‘Overlanders’ soon headed back to the ship so as not to miss the first lecture on Polar Bear behavior and global warming which Nikita is presenting tonight. The ice had closed in by the time the last Zodiacs made their way back and the captain had to break a trail in the ice so they could escape its advance. As this exercise was being carried out a Polar Bear mother and cub were spotted from the bridge and some were lucky enough to get some nice photos of the pair. So ended our first day on Wrangel Island.
Second Day on Wrangel
Heavy ice conditions forced us northeast. The Captain slowly negotiated the ice and although this was tiresome for him, it was interesting for us to watch huge ice field part as we went through. Everyone spent a lot of time on the bridge and open decks drinking in this unusual experience and taking photos. We even spotted Minkie Whales passing by. We sailed throughout the day and after dinner went for a Zodiac cruise. As the Zodiacs approach the island, we saw a Polar Bear sitting on the shore. As we approached ever closer the bear kept watching us curiously, probably wondering what to make of these unusual intruders. We got very close and held our breaths as he stared at us, the only sound being the gentle swish of oars and the whirring and clicking of cameras. After a time the bear lost interest and ambled away from the beach. Soon afterwards we spotted another bear in the next cove, but this one was less curious and sauntered away into the hills.
Later we landed at the place used as base camp for the survivors of the wreck of the Karluk. Whilst there we were confronted by a massive Musk Ox which appeared over the hill and to our surprise started to approach us. He got so close we could hear him sniffing so we decided to retreat to the safety of the Zodiacs. According to Nikita and the rangers accompanying us, Musk Oxen can be more dangerous to people than skittish Polar Bears so we were right to leave when we did. We returned to the ship at twilight with the lights on board guiding us back. Later we had wine and cheese in the bar to celebrate our exhilarating wildlife experiences.
Ptichy Bazar / Cape Florence / Komsomol
Right after breakfast we departed on the first cruise along Ptichy Bazar (‘bird colony’ in Russian) on the western side of the island. It is indeed one of the biggest bird colonies here and we were impressed by the dramatic geology. On the cliffs we could see lots of birds but surprisingly very few chicks. Birds were wheeling overhead in a very Hitchcock-like manner as we cruised along. We made a brief landing to stretch our legs and see a hut the rangers use when they are doing research here or travelling across the island.
After lunch we took the Zodiacs to Cape Florence. There we exchanged one ‘Overland’ group for another as some rare Ross’s Gulls were spotted which was very exciting for the birders. We also saw a bear sleeping on our potential landing spot so had to turn back so as not to disturb him.
Later we reached Komsomol where Rodney saw 6 or 7 bears walking on the beach, so we jumped in the Zodiacs and rushed to the coast to get a closer look. Unfortunately by the time we arrived they had made their way back up the valley. While ashore we took the opportunity to explore the area. We visited a house once owned by a Chukchi hunting family and now used as a hut for the rangers as they travel around guarding the island and observing its wildlife. The cabin has been recently renovated but still looks very modest. In the lagoon behind the cabin we saw a large flock of Long-tailed Ducks.
A Day in fog Nahodka Island
This morning the Spirit of Enderby carefully made its way through the fog to Dreamhead Mountain. Soon after breakfast we went ashore and split into groups. Mark led the birders to look for Ross’s Gulls and some cooperative Dunlin by the shore while Rodney took a group for a long walk in tundra. Rodney’s group spotted a Snowy Owl as they approached a river valley and decided to approach it one step at the time. Eventually the owl tired of the game of hide-and-seek and flew away before the group got too close. Olga, one of the rangers and an ornithologist, told the group about the Snow Geese that she studies on Wrangel. Their large colony comes here to breed and every year rangers observe Snow Geese desperately fighting against Arctic Foxes that steal their eggs and destroy nests. Some of the group saw some Siberian Lemmings but not the Collard Lemmings they were hoping to see. Lunch was waiting when everyone returned to the ship.
After lunch we listened to Nikita’s lecture on safety in the land of Polar Bears. Nikita emphasized a quite rare humanistic approach that they use to keep both people and bears safe on Wrangel Island – no rifles. We learnt how to act if we encountered a bear and watched an interesting video recorded on Wrangel showing a Polar Bear’s reaction to humans.
Later we re-launched the Zodiacs to explore Nahodka Island east of Dreamhead. The island, whose name means “a finding” in Russian, was finally found and we scouted around in the fog looking for a good landing spot. Although wildlife sightings were few, we felt ourselves true explorers as we visited a virtually unknown and uninhabited island. Mark did spot some rare and beautiful Sabine’s Gulls which added to the surreal experience.
Leaving Wrangel Island
The fog still lingered when we woke this morning so we were unable to take our early morning Zodiac cruise. We hoped the weather conditions would improve in time for us to collect our second ‘Overland’ party from Ushakovskaya later in the day. After breakfast we went ashore to visit the main base camp for the reserve which is a former Soviet village founded by Georgy Ushakov in 1926. Another Georgy, a Chukchi who has been living there for many years, welcomed us on the beach dressed in a traditional reindeer fur coat (a “kukhlyanka”). We had a tour around the once lively village and got an insight into what a life was like in those times. The former kindergarten, grocery shop and post office are now sometimes occupied by Polar Bears, which are frequent visitors to Ushakovskaya these days. We were invited to see inside one of the houses where rangers who spend the whole year on Wrangel live and were surprised to find it so cozy, warm and welcoming. Eventually it was time to say goodbye to Wrangel Island and its residents. We were sad to leave this special island and set our course southwards to Anadyr.
Koluchin Island and Belyak Spit
We woke to a bright clear morning which promised a beautiful day and crowded the bridge and decks as the ship approached Koluchin Island. Whales gave a morning performance and we enjoyed watching them breaching, splashing their flukes and occasionally showing us their gorgeous tails. Just before an early lunch Katya gave a very informative lecture about the history of Chukotka. By noon we had anchored not far from Koluchin Island only to find that our preferred landing spot was already occupied by hundreds of walrus. The Zodiacs were launched and we went to take a closer look at these impressive creatures. Our boats made a slow and careful approach so as not to disturb the animals and we cruised around for over an hour and a half watching them swimming and hauling out on the beach, apparently enjoying the lovely day as much as we were.
In the evening we made a landing at Belyak Spit in Koluchin Inlet. This place is known to be home for a few quite unique bird species such as Yellow-billed Loons, Tundra Swans and Emperor Geese. Here we met Alexey, an ornithologist from St Petersburg who spends much of the year studying the birds in this area. There was a beautiful sunset as we departed – a fitting end to a lovely day.
We were happy to see that the weather remained good so we would be able to visit Uelen, a reasonably large Chukchi village on the very north-eastern border of Russia. Marine hunters have been living there for about 2,000 years and in this modern age they work hard to keep their culture and tradition alive. Katya was about to start giving a talk about marine mammals when we heard that the ship was suddenly surrounded by Humpback and Gray Whales so everyone rushed outside to watch these kings of the ocean put on a truly breathtaking show. In the background streamed vast flocks of Crested Auklets. Mark and Rodney estimated there to be about 10.56 million in a four hour period. A truly remarkable once-in-a-lifetime experience!
In the early afternoon we were welcomed to Uelen village. Excited locals greeted us on the beach as they rarely see visitors and then took us on a tour around their village. We were impressed by a tidy modern school that serves not only as an important educational institution for the region but also as the social and cultural centre for the settlement. The Uelen boarding school hosts around 50 students from other villages each year. The principal of the school and his deputy welcomed us in a very special classroom. This is where the Chukchi language is taught and is also the headquarters of the local folklore club. We were touched by their passion for the village and the work they do teaching children about their Chukchi heritage. Afterwards we headed to a local carving workshop where we learned about the ancient Chukchi tradition of ivory carving. On our return to the beach we were entertained by a folk group named “Uelen” which is well known in the region. The group, dressed in traditional Chukchi costumes, gave a very authentic performance. The men and women sang and danced and eventually persuaded some of us join them, so we all danced together. As the day drew to an end it was time to say goodbye to our new friends. There were just a few last minute English lessons for Uelen’s children, group photos and an exchange of contacts. We left the village waving to happy children as they shouted and waved from the shore.
Back on board it took some time to return to reality. A couple of Orcas swam right beside the ship just when we thought the day couldn’t get any better. Heading south, we passed Cape Dezhnev as we relaxed in the bar.
Whale Bone Alley and Yttygran Island
Fortunately weather conditions on our way back towards Anadyr were good enough to make a landing at the ancient site known as Whale Bone Alley. Immense Bowhead Whale jawbones and ribs are placed together in a stunning arch formation which stretches for nearly half a kilometre. We spent several hours hiking around the area. Some went in search of Pikas while others took walks up to top of the hills to get a stunning view over to Yttygran Island. We met back at the beach at 5pm for our last jumping-on-waves Zodiac cruise which had by now become a favourite pastime. It was now time to leave this far frontier behind and make our way back towards Anadyr. The day concluded with an informative and somewhat amusing lecture entitled Women in Russia presented by Elena. I don’t think any of us has laughed so much in a long time!
The last full day of our expedition saw many becoming emotional as our group was about to disband. After breakfast Elena gave a talk on travelling opportunities in Kamchatka and then Ksenia talked about her hometown of Veliky Novgorod, an ancient city and the birthplace of Russia. We all gathered in the lecture room in the afternoon for a final recap of all we had seen and experienced. The expedition team members thanked the crew and the passengers for making our cruise across the Top of the World such a unique and unforgettable journey. We all watched a photo presentation of the highlights of our trip and had a wonderful time reliving them. Then it was time for our last delicious dinner together and one final evening of swapping stories in the bar.
Overnight we arrived back in Anadyr and after breakfast the group disembarked the Spirit of Enderby for the last time. For most of us it was time to farewell Russia’s Far East, but some were already planning their return.
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