Siberian Coast & Polar Bears of Wrangel Island 2013 Logbook

By Joe Van Os on Aug 21, 2013

Siberian Coast & Polar Bears of Wrangel Island
Aboard the Spirit of Enderby
July 24–August 6, 2013

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NOTE: You can download a PDF version of this logbook by clicking on the image to the right.

Tuesday/Wednesday July 23/July 24—Anadyr, Russia Arrival

Over several days, North American trip participants slowly began to arrive in Nome, Alaska for our charter flights to Anadyr, Russia. Participants from other parts of the world made their way to Anadyr through Moscow. Altogether, passengers included passport holders from 11 countries. Many people had flown into Nome several days early, rented cars, and driven the local roads in search of accessible musk oxen in the meadows near town, Pacific and red-throated loons in small tundra ponds, and gulls, ducks and shorebirds along the coast.

On July 23, most of our group consolidated their luggage in our Nome hotel lobby and had it loaded on a truck to be taken to our charter airline hangar, while we followed in a bus with our camera gear. Thick fog was drifting along the coast and, when we reached the hanger, we were informed the Nome Airport was closed to inbound air traffic. That posed no real problem for us because our small airplanes were already at the hangar in Nome, on stand-by and readily available, and, since the fog was intermittent, it seemed certain we would have almost no problem departing to Russia. A breakfast buffet was arranged in the hangar and we were regaled by local Nome personality Richard Beneville—who also organized our land-based transportation—with his tales of moving to Nome following his life as a theater actor in New York City and anecdotes of his decades-long life in hardscrabble Nome.

All was going well. Then Joe Van Os received the phone call—four of our participants who had waited until the last minute to fly into Nome from Anchorage had a big problem! Early that morning they were on an Alaska Airlines flight from Anchorage to Nome with an intermediate stop in Kotzebue. The plane landed in Kotzebue but, with the Nome airport closed, their plane had returned—with them still on it—to Anchorage. Our groups had to depart Nome by late afternoon and, after crossing the International Date Line, arrive in Russia before the Anadyr Airport closed on the Russian side at
6 PM local time on July 24. There was no way to fly to Nome on any scheduled commercial flight in time to join our charter flights.

Amazingly, the four participants organized a charter flight from Anchorage—at a cost of $10,600 (split four ways). They arrived with minutes to spare and joined our third flight over to Anadyr. And, two hours later, the Nome airport was closed due to fog—again! That third plane, when later returning to Nome from Russia, was diverted to Anchorage. Wow, what a nerve-wracking day! What more powerful lesson could be learned about arriving at the trip destination a day or two early—especially for a cruise on a ship you cannot catch up with later!

With all passengers accounted for, we entered Russia after clearing Customs—where we learned Russian border guards rarely smile! We signed the forms, received the appropriate passport stamps, and spent some time in the airport lobby waiting for our appointed time to ferry to our ship—the Spirit of Enderby a.k.a. Professor Khromov. With our luggage in a beat-up truck and passengers in vans, we were transferred to the dock—which was also a coal shipping operation for moving coal from more southerly ports to Anadyr to be burned in their electric power plant. The scene was semi-surreal: rusted and dilapidated coal conveyor belts, heaps of coal, and ferries that resembled WWII landing craft. Once loaded on the ferry we motored to the Spirit of Enderby—a welcome sight after the many hours of travel most of us endured to finally reach the Russian Far East—and were introduced to the ship that would be our home for this Arctic odyssey for the next two weeks. As we were setting sail from our anchorage in the Anadyr River some of us were lucky enough to spot beluga whales, largha (spotted) seals and a few, newly-named Vega gulls (recently split as a new species from herring gulls).

Thursday July 25—Across Anadyrskiy Bay to Cape Achen

Thanks to relatively calm seas, most of us enjoyed a comfortable night, although we were all up early due to the time change. The big challenge at that hour was where to find the coffee (although we had no problem discovering the chocolate cookies!). After a leisurely breakfast, we had our first gathering in the lecture room to officially meet the Heritage staff of Nathan, Katya, Meghan, Nikita, Dr. Selva, and the chefs, Bruce and Jeremy. We also had the mandatory safety lecture. Shortly after we were dismissed the ship’s horn sounded for the lifeboat drill. Donning the giant orange life vests, we climbed into the lifeboats, sitting shoulder to shoulder and butt to butt. While it’s good to know we have lifeboats, heaven forbid we ever have to use them.

After lunch a few more bits of housekeeping needed to be done: collecting our passports and opening credit card accounts. Shortly after that, we once again met in the lecture room for the Zodiac briefing.
The ship had cleared all Russian formalities in Anadyr before we boarded, which now gave us time for a Zodiac cruise along the bird cliffs at Cape Achen. The seas, which looked fairly benign from a vantage point onboard the ship, proved to be quite a bit rougher when one was out in a Zodiac. We bounced around quite a bit and most of us got wet. Luckily almost everyone had remembered to put camera gear into waterproof bags. While photography was difficult under the circumstances—just keeping a subject framed in the viewfinder was almost impossible—we did see quite a few species of birds. The list included tufted and horned puffins, black-legged kittiwakes, glaucous gulls, parakeet auklets, common and thick-billed murres, pigeon guillemots and a few harlequin ducks. Just about the time we had decided to return to the ship, a radio call alerted all the boats to an unusual sighting: a small brown bear was stranded at the bottom of a steeply-walled little cove. The bear was obviously ill and weak.

Returning to the ship meant running into the wind and waves, and consequently a wet ride for all the Zodiacs. After shedding our wet jackets and boots, we met in the bar for drinks and a recap of the day’s activities. Dinner was served shortly afterwards and, for most, it was then off to clean gear, plug camera batteries into chargers and, finally, off to sleep.

Friday July 26—Yttygran Island & at Sea

At 7 AM we were anchored off the green tundra slopes of Yttygran Island. A dense fog hung over the water but the winds were calm and the outside temperature was a pleasant 47°F (8.5°C). By the time we finished breakfast the fog had burned away and we were treated to our first bright sunny day in the Russian Arctic. We were soon in the Zodiacs and headed to shore where we could see the bones of bowhead whales standing upright in the earth, creating a promenade of ribs and skulls several hundred yards long with the tundra hills as a backdrop. We had arrived at “Whalebone Alley,” once an important religious shrine for the sea-hunting aboriginal peoples of the region. Anthropologists, who only discovered the site in 1976, believe the bones may have been a processional route used by shamans for rituals and ceremonies as early as the 14th century.

Boulders on the site had been arranged to create about 150 meat storage pits for harvested walruses and bowhead whales, and were perhaps also used for ceremonial burnings. More than 50 bowhead whale skulls, each weighing over two tons, were also spread along the grassy shore in symbolic groups of twos and threes. The labor to arrange the skulls was a further indication of the importance of the site to its worshippers.

A short way up the beach from our landing site there was a flock of several dozen glaucous and vega gulls feeding on the carcasses of four walruses. The animals had probably been shot on the ice in the late spring by local Chukchi hunters and dragged to shore to be butchered. The hunters had left most of the meat and only the tusks and bacula (penis bones), which have a commercial value, had been removed.

Yttygran Island was a wonderful stop filled with photo ops and natural history wonders. First, there were the bones and their graphic silhouettes set against an azure sky. Then there were the flowers: deep purple larkspur, navy blue monkshood, yellow spotted saxifrages, creamy chickweeds and pale yellow arctic poppies. Most of the group eventually found themselves clustered along the several runs of boulders that spilled down from the mountain tops. Here we found “beating hearts”—albeit small ones but photogenic nonetheless. The boulder fields were home to a small colony of northern pikas (Ochotona hyperborea) as well as a group of arctic ground squirrels (Citellus parryi). Both the ground squirrels and the pikas were busy using the short weeks of summer to either store food for winter or to pad themselves with life-saving fat. Pikas don’t hibernate as do their neighbors, the ground squirrels, opting instead to gather and store piles of dried grasses, sedges and wildflowers in the cool crevices of the boulder fields to sustain them through the winter. Arctic ground squirrels hibernate longer than any other animal in the Arctic, sometimes for eight months in a year, leaving them just a few summer months to court, mate, raise a litter of pups and fatten for the winter.

We returned to the ship for lunch, satisfied and with memory cards filled with rewarding images. Throughout the afternoon we cruised northwards under clear skies and calm seas. We were headed towards Bering Strait, the gateway to the Chukchi Sea. Gray whales frequent shallow coastal feeding grounds along much of Russia’s northeast coast and those watching from the deck and the Bridge were treated to sightings of an estimated 25 to 30 of these whales. Great flocks of king eiders were also seen, as well as the usual ship followers: black-legged kittiwakes and northern fulmars.

Dr. Nikita Ovsyanikov, a world authority on polar bears who has worked with the famed carnivores for more than 20 years, gave an inspiring afternoon talk on “Polar Bears and Climate Change.” In his study area on Wrangel and Herald Islands he has noticed a disturbing trend. Fewer female bears are now denning and having cubs (60 to 70/winter versus 300 to 400/winter in the 1980s), fewer cubs of the year are surviving, and more bears are appearing on the islands in a poor nutritional state. He attributes these changes to the decreasing polar pack ice in summer which scientists now universally agree is a product of global warming. His sobering words were a repeated source of conversation for the remainder of the day.

To celebrate our upcoming crossing of the Arctic Circle Joe organized a cocktail party in the bar before dinner. The party was well attended and everyone seemed in high spirits.

Saturday July 27—Crossing the Arctic Circle & Kolyuchin Island Zodiac Cruise

Although we had a bar party celebrating the accomplishment last evening, we actually crossed the Arctic Circle at approximately 12:44 AM this morning. The crossing was uneventful in the calm seas—but virtually no passengers were awake at the time (unfortunately, I was awake to make note of that fact!). We had traversed the Bering Strait and passed Cape Dezhnev—the easternmost point of the Eurasian Continent. (FYI Americans: Sarah Palin’s house was not visible—I looked!)

By 7 AM, Kolyuchin Island was in sight. The various abandoned buildings of an old meteorological station vacated in the 1990s stood out on the top of the island, and along the cliff face throngs of seabirds could be seen wheeling over the ocean. On our approach at least two dozen whales were seen from a distance—mostly gray whales, a few humpbacks and one bowhead.

Our plan was to land on the island to shoot roosting birds from the cliff top. However, a strong sea swell from the north was crashing over the boulders on the only possible landing site and it was deemed too dangerous to attempt a shore landing. (FYI: in determining whether or not to land, we take into account the possibilities of serious injuries to passengers and staff, the potential for some passengers to be totally soaked during the landing, the possibility of a Zodiac swamping at the landing site by breaking waves, as well as the amount of camera gear potentially destroyed during the operation.)

The leeward side of the island was a much better bet. It was possible to carry out an extended two-hour Zodiac cruise in the calm water below the towering bird cliffs. Typical of virtually all Arctic seabird colonies, every ledge on the sheer cliffs that was inaccessible to arctic foxes was lined by nesting black-legged kittiwakes and common and thick-billed murres (common and Br√ľnnich’s guillemots in Europe). Among rocky jumbles and thick sod, tufted and horned puffins, parakeet auklets and pigeon guillemots had eggs in their respective burrow habitat. Some of the more interesting photos obtained included fighting murres and fighting kittiwakes in nasty tussles on the water below the cliffs.

Once back on board, with Zodiacs loaded, we sailed west above the north Siberian coast.

During dinner, Spirit of Enderby changed course and we turned north towards Wrangel and Herald Islands. Amazingly, we began to encounter unexpected chunks of pack ice being blown from the north—by the same strong wind that precluded us from landing on Kolyuchin Island. By 8:30 PM, those of us stationed on the Bridge sighted a relatively large ice floe in the distance. And, lo and behold, we could imagine a bear out on this isolated ice island. Sure enough, there was a mother with two small cubs who had made a seal kill! Wow, what an unexpected surprise! Although the light was good—the high winds were not! There was no way to maneuver the ship for any sort of photos—but it was a great first start. We took this surprising sighting as a good sign for things to come.

Sunday July 28—In the Pack Ice

After a relatively calm night—just a gentle rocking that induced a desire to roll over and slumber a bit more—we slowly awakened. For many, the morning began in the bar area—at that hour of the day more of an “Arctic Starbucks” than a bar—although only instant coffee was available (no latte or espresso!). Still, discussion and camaraderie filled the time before breakfast.

In midmorning Katya gave a lecture on the marine mammals of the Arctic. Along with images she played a number of recorded vocalizations, including the humpback and gray whales, and the strange knocking sound made by walrus.

While the early morning hours had been relatively clear, by 10 AM fog started to roll in and the sky turned leaden. Many eyes scanned the ice floes. While a few bears were spotted in the distance, none were accessible. We slowly cruised on, hoping to come across a close animal. Just at the moment when most of the outside adventurers were giving up and returning to their cabins, the announcement came: a polar bear with two cubs had been sighted on a large ice floe, and we were headed their way. Quite a scramble ensued, and both the bow area and the top-most deck were quickly crowded with photographers, tripods and long lenses. Ever so slowly the ship moved closer to the bears, while we waited not so patiently—all of us trying to keep the bears close by the sheer force of our collective will. And apparently it worked, as the female bear and two good-sized cubs slowly ambled into range of our longest focal length lenses. For about the next 45 minutes we had “bear photography frenzy,” as the trio offered quite a choice in photo ops: the cubs wandering on their own, tucking in with mom, standing up as tall as possible and looking around, and playing with ice. Several times one or more of the bears were near pools of water, so we had a chance to capture both the bear and its reflection in the same image. But, all too soon, they casually wandered away and out of photo range.

In midafternoon we had another chance: in the distance a bear was stretched out on some steeply-sloping ice. Would this one also stay? We once again rushed onto deck and took our positions. The ship approached slowly, but just as we managed to get into photography range the bear stood up, took a few steps away from us, and slid into the water.

While we did see quite a few bears at a distance—the unofficial count was a total of 13 bears seen at a great distance this day—our luck had apparently run out. No bears, less light. It was time to download the day’s shoot, stop by the bar, and relax before dinner.

Monday July 29—Herald Island & in the Ice off Cape Waring

The 7 AM wake-up announcement from the Bridge informed us that we were adrift off the southeast tip of Herald Island, approximately 40 miles (64 kilometers) northeast of Wrangel Island. Herald is a mountainous, uninhabited fortress of granite and gneiss with sheer cliffs towering up to 800 feet (250 meters) high that face the choppy waters of the Chukchi Sea on all sides. Herald and Wrangel Islands are the last landfalls for migrating birds flying north past Beringia in search of summer breeding grounds. Herald Island formerly boasted one of the highest densities of denning polar bears but recent climate changes have reduced the population substantially.

At 9 AM, after a hearty breakfast to fuel us for the outside cold, we headed out on Zodiacs to explore the shoreline of the island. Since early morning the sea had been blanketed in a thin fog and, as we approached the island, scattered windows of sunlight broke through the veil of mist revealing seductive glimpses of the rocky cliffs along the shoreline. On the inbound trip, periodic gusty winds sent showers of spray over the bow of the Zodiacs, so we had to temporarily forego any photography or risk dousing our camera gear. Once we were in the protected lee of the cliffs, however, we could drift and enjoy graphic patterns in the wind- and wave-sculpted rocks, the continual chatter of kittiwakes and murres, and the comic flights of scarlet-footed black guillemots.

After two hours of cruising the water’s edge around Herald it was time to head back to the ship. The conditions were still foggy so, to avoid a Zodiac getting accidentally disoriented once we left the shoreline, we travelled back to the ship in a convoy. The only problem was that in the hours since our departure from the Spirit of Enderby the ship had changed its position and was now nowhere in sight. A quick radio check, and the ship was soon steaming to our position and, in no time all, passengers were safely back on board. To no one’s surprise the bar was soon crowded with caffeine-depleted cookie munchers.

Throughout midday we steamed west towards Wrangel Island weaving our way through loose multi-year pack ice. A staff member was always on watch on the Bridge searching for possible polar bears, walruses and bearded seals, but the ice was not ideal for them and none were seen. Even so, the multitude of ice forms and reflections made the passage a scenically beautiful one. At 3 PM we were entertained again with another lecture by Nikita, this time on “Safety in Polar Bear Country.” He emphasized that in his experience all conflict encounters between bears and humans were provoked by humans and that human safety in bear country was the responsibility of the humans, not the responsibility of the bears. At the conclusion of the talk someone asked what we, the passengers, should do when we go ashore on Wrangel. His answer was simple: stay together and listen to your guide, which in our case would be Nikita.

By the time the bar opened for evening cocktails the ship was anchored off Drago Bay and Cape Waring on the eastern edge of Wrangel Island. From the Bridge a few eagle-eyed shipmates spotted a solitary adult polar bear wandering across the shoreline tundra as well as a single snowy owl perched on a mound. Joe decided a trip to shore would be a good idea, so a plan was made to launch the Zodiacs after dinner and make our first landing on Wrangel. That was the good news. The bad news was that there was a 4-knot current running along this side of the island and it slowly pushed greater amounts of pack ice up against the beach. Any Zodiacs that made it to the land might get trapped ashore. In this case, caution was a wiser option than courage and we pulled anchored and set sail. Soon, our decision was rewarded with the sighting of a polar bear swimming between the ice floes. It swam for 300 feet or so before hauling itself onto a slab of pack ice to get a better look at us. After a few curious glimpses and sniffs it turned its back on the ship, re-entered the water and swam away into shallow water where the ship couldn’t follow. It was the perfect way to end an Arctic day—retreating views of a polar icon paddling confidently toward its future.

Tuesday July 30—In the Ice & Landing at Khishchnikov River Estuary

We spent much of the night drifting outside of the pack ice at Cape Waring on the extreme eastern tip of Wrangel Island. By 7 AM the ship was moving again and we soon found our first polar bear of the day swimming at a distance between the ice pans. Realizing it was not going to be a cooperative photo opportunity, and to avoid harassing a swimming bear, we sailed on. From the Bridge three species of jaegers were observed, as well as small groups of red phalaropes (grey phalaropes in Europe) could be seen fleeing from the bow of the ship. Since they were molting from breeding plumage, some were red and some were grey, so there was no point in debating the correctness of the different names at that moment!

Katya started her morning lecture with an introduction to Wrangel Island but by 10 AM the Bridge watchers sighted walruses in the water. Soon thereafter we discovered several walruses hauled out on an ice floe. It was decided to put Zodiacs in the water to shoot walruses from the Zodiacs and the lecture’s end was postponed.

With all of us in the five rubber boats, we headed out in the direction of the walruses. But it didn’t take long to discover a couple of fat polar bears who were just finishing up the last of their seal kill on the ice. From a distance we watched the largest and dirtier of the two defend the carcass remains from the smaller one. Judging from their fat bellies, it seemed as though both bears had a chance to feast on the dead seal.

As we approached in the Zodiacs, the bears became increasingly nervous and finally ran the opposite direction, disappearing from view. This was our first real taste of how skittish most of the bears that we would encounter around Wrangel would be. Eminent polar bear biologist Nikita, attributes the shyness of the bears to native subsistence hunting, rampant wildlife poaching, and the frightening helicopter bear tagging operations of bear research biologists on the American side of the International Date Line.

With the bears gone we turned our attention to the walruses. Using our outboard motors to get as close as possible without disturbing them, we then paddled the Zodiacs for the last half mile in silence to get the close-up photographs we were able to obtain over the next hour or so.

Following lunch it was decided we would have our first Wrangel Island landing at the Khishchnikov River Estuary. Khishchnikov means “predator” in Russian—it was named as a reminder of what some nasty thing Canadians did to wildlife there in the 1800s. To this day I lament landing there since it yielded very little in the way of photography, but it was thought a landing would be good for all of those craving to get off of the ship and stretch their legs for a while. Yes, there were lots of tiny artic flowers. Yes, you could see a snowy owl from a mile away. But for the most part it was endless square miles of seemingly empty tundra—until we found THE lemming!

And what a fine lemming it was! The Wrangel Island collared lemming, Dicrostonyx vinogradovi, in all its glory! We got so excited about finding a live animal to shoot you might have thought we discovered a living mammoth! With 20 people lined up with more than $200,000 worth of photo gear blasting away at this cooperative animal—about the size of a hamster—you can be sure the definitive photo of that species was created that afternoon!

Later the fog rolled in as we anchored off Doubtful village for the night.

Wednesday July 31—Doubtful

Last night we went to sleep as extremely thick fog—a true “pea souper”—enveloped everything. We were hopeful that the weather would lift a bit overnight, and indeed it did. We had scheduled an early breakfast on just this chance, so by 7:45 AM five Zodiacs were in the water. We were headed to Doubtful, a small settlement that is used by the researchers and rangers of the Wrangel reserve. Since the water was quite shallow—far too shallow for the ship to get close to shore—our Zodiac ride to the landing was roughly five miles.

It seems as if every remote location has a place named Doubtful, Doubtful Bay or Doubtful Sound; certainly an indication of the conditions that faced the early explorers. This particular Doubtful is partially a relic of the Cold War days, when the Soviet Union had a military presence in this part of the Arctic and soldiers stationed there maintained a long gravel airstrip. Today, Doubtful is a collection of small buildings, some long abandoned and in total decay, some still basically functional but it dire need of repair. As in many Arctic locations, piles of old fuel drums (sometimes not-so-reverentially referred to as “tundra poppies”) were plentiful. For a photography group, however, old tumbling down buildings and piles of debris are a treasure.

The gravel bar near the spot our Zodiacs landed was covered with bright clumps of wooly lousewort, mixed with poppies and many saxifrages. We quickly discovered two expansive areas of fluffy white-headed cottongrass. One building had musk ox and walrus skulls arranged on a bench. Perhaps 50 yards away, one musk ox skull (identified as a male’s from the heavy boss) was positioned in the middle of colorful arctic flowers. Within minutes it was ringed by photographers. We all took turns photographing with short lenses, to place the skull in the tundra context.

Later we did the same thing with a mammoth tusk that was in the river. By taking turns to photograph from the best vantage point (almost kneeling in the river) we could show the tusk with river, tundra and distant hills. I’m happy to report that no one fell over into the water, although there were quite a few close calls, especially when one was trying to stand up (not so easy for many of us any more).

But for quite a few photographers, the highlight of Doubtful was the Great Russian Lemming Shoot. One little furry critter (a collared lemming, Dicrostonyx vinogradovi) was the star of the shoot as it ran from hole to hole, snacking on the vegetation. Roughly 25 photographers surrounded it in a semicircle, recording its every movement, its every pose. And pose it did: front view, side view, coy over-the-shoulder view, standing view, with flowers, without flowers, etc. A real ham, if such a word can be applied to a lemming.

Exhausted from pressing the shutter button so often, it was then back to the ship for lunch and a rest. We cruised on through the ice, and looked for subjects. In the late afternoon came the report of two bears on a kill. We grabbed our cameras and lenses, pulled on parkas and gloves, got out on deck, and watched as the bears abandoned their meal (easily seen, an almost intact seal), and ran directly away from the ship, never to be seen by us again. But in the distance, directly ahead of the ship, was a walrus. Hey, two of them…a mother and a calf. We took some long distance insurance shots, and well that we did, as they, like the bears, immediately turned, slid into the water and disappeared from sight.

Just before dinner time, another announcement: five or six walrus in the distance. We decided to have dinner as soon as possible (thus avoiding dinner at 10 PM or later). At 9 PM we launched the Zodiacs and began the process of searching for the walrus. It’s a lot harder to view your surroundings from water level than from the elevation of the Bridge, so we were not exactly sure which direction to go. After a bit of motoring back and forth, we spotted them and started our approach. Slowly, slowly we moved toward the walrus, first motoring and then paddling the last few hundred yards while holding the Zodiacs together to appear as only one object rather than five. Finally we were close enough to photograph, although the late hour demanded the use of high ISOs. First one walrus, and then another, would raise its head. When the sun broke out of the clouds lying on the horizon, the last light skimmed across and briefly lit the animals. Motor drives buzzed for a few moments…and then the moment was over.

Thursday August 1—Krasin Bay and Mammoth River

Summertime fog is a characteristic feature of the Chukchi Sea and this morning the southern coastline of Wrangel lived up to the region’s reputation. At 7:15 AM, under bright but cloudy skies, the Spirit of Enderby was adrift in Krasin Bay. In the distance a belt of smoky blue mist ran along the base of the Mammoth Mountains. After breakfast the Zodiacs were launched and we spent two hours exploring the rich tundra area that flanks the mountains between the foothills and the shoreline. Fewer than 250 visitors come to Wrangel each year and it always felt like a privilege to spend time on the island. In 2004, the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) designated Wrangel and Herald Islands as a World Heritage Site in recognition for their biological uniqueness and wealth. On this morning’s tundra trek a surprising array of wildlife sightings were made as the group spread out across the landscape. Some saw a distant herd of 11 musk oxen as well as a large flock of molting snow geese. Among the avian sightings was a red-throated loon, several long-tailed ducks, half a dozen pomarine jaegers hunting for lemmings, a dunlin with four downy chicks, and a rare short-eared owl. Many in the group continued to photograph the floral beauty of the tundra as well as a new species of lemming—the Siberian brown lemming (Lemmus sibericus), an endemic subspecies. Until now, we had only seen the endemic Wrangel collared lemming (Dicrostonyx vinogradovi). Both lemming species were charmingly photogenic and—without exaggeration—thousands of images were made of these tiny arctic fur balls.

Thirty minutes before lunch our mealtime plans were suddenly altered. Several herds of walrus were sighted drifting on distant ice floes—so food was foregone, the Zodiacs were launched, and we were soon off on another photo quest. Approaching walrus on the ice is always a delicate matter because the animals are so timid and easily frightened. After a 30-miute Zodiac ride we cut the engines and paddled the last few hundred yards to get closer without disturbing the loafing, bellowing beasts. Our target group was a herd of roughly 25 to 30 animals—a mixture of adult females, calves and yearlings. One of the delights of the encounter was a chance to listen to the continuous vocalizations made by such a group. There was no wind today so the various grunts, gurgles, barks and bellows carried well over the glassy surface of the water. Several times one or two curious walruses left the blubbery throng and swam over to closely inspect the Zodiacs. At moments like those the motor drives went into high gear and a blur of images were captured. After almost an hour of observation we quietly paddled away from the walruses, started the Zodiacs and returned to the ship for a welcome lunch of sandwiches and scones.

In the late afternoon to the early evening we retraced our route back to Doubtful slowly weaving our way through the pack ice of Krasin Bay. Two reserve wardens, Irina and Anna, had joined us on our first stop at the village and it was time to return them home. Irina was a snowy owl/arctic fox researcher and Anna was a freshwater biologist, and casual conversations with them added some interesting insight into the biological workings of the Wrangel Island Reserve.

Friday August 2—In the Pack Ice South of Wrangel Island

We awoke to thick fog as we slowly cruised through the ice and semi-open water heading east below Wrangel. Fog, fog, fog. There is nothing exciting to write about seeing nothing! By late morning, Wayne gave a relatively comprehensive layman’s lecture on the effects of climate change in the Arctic. If nothing else, participants on this trip will have realized the serious nature of climate change/global warming on polar bears and Arctic ecosystems. The apparent consequences are not pretty!

Following lunch—and almost like magic—the fog instantly (really, instantly) cleared and we could see for miles across the broken pack ice. During the afternoon we sighted seven bears, although none were at all cooperative. Passengers were called to the deck to photograph on several occasions, but only one old fat male (with a giant mud stain on his head) let us get within wishful thinking of photographic range before he scrambled away—bah!
After dinner we stopped the ship and drifted for the night.

Saturday August 3—Bears

What do you want?

Bears!

I can’t hear you.

BEARS!

What did you say?

BEARS! BEARS! BEARS!

And today was indeed our “bear day.” Shortly after breakfast we encountered a mother with two cubs. It’s possible that this was the same mother and cubs we had photographed on our way north, as we were in the exact same location in the ice as our previous encounter, and their sizes and behaviors were quite similar. We eased the ship into position and managed to get some shots, although we were still at quite a distance from the bears. When they swam to another ice floe, the ship was able to navigate a circuitous path through the ice and make a second slow approach. This sequence was repeated three more times before the bears finally disappeared into a jumble of ice, impossible for us to follow. All in all, our “bear time” lasted a bit more than an hour.

Just after high noon another bear was sighted in the far distance dead ahead; this one sleeping on the ice. At dead slow, the ship moved toward it. But wait…wasn’t that an extra lump of fur behind it? Sure enough, we could soon see there was a cub tucked in tight behind mom. We approached closer and closer, and saw a behavior none of us had ever seen before. The female was lazily stretched out on the ice, while the cub was sleeping with its head draped over its mother’s back—this was a remarkable image of the mother/cub bond.

Everyone was on deck, the Van Os group, the Heritage staff, and even some of the Russian crew, as we drifted into position. After 15 minutes, the captain backed the ship out and pulled in even closer. Many more pixels were exposed. And for a second time, the ship backed out and—ever so slowly—eased into a closer position. Now the motor drives were really working! The bears raised their heads, yawned, looked around, and slowly returned to their initial postures. Wow! This was great! More pixels, another flash card, check the histogram, hold that shutter down. This is what we wanted.

Finally the bears stood up and slowly ambled off. Apparently not scared, not running, merely walking away. Our bear day was complete. With a final farewell to them, we turned south, and by late afternoon were no longer in the ice.

Sunday August 4—Kolychin Bay

Throughout the night we cruised south across the Chukchi Sea, rocked gently by a deep swell from the northeast. Shortly before breakfast we arrived at our morning’s destination, Kolyuchin Island. Unfortunately, the combination of gusty winds and an increasing swell guaranteed that any trip in the Zodiacs would be a very wet one. As well, the landings would be difficult and dangerous so our planned outing was cancelled. From the island we cruised 25 miles farther south to the mainland and the mouth of Kolychin Bay, where we hoped to find better sea conditions. While en route, John and Wayne conducted their Arctic Russia Fun Photo Round-up. Each of the passengers was invited to submit two photographs they had taken on the trip for anonymous critique. The session was well attended and everyone enjoyed seeing the diversity of images made by their fellow passengers and discovering the photographic principles that professionals use to transform good images into great ones.

Shortly after lunch the ship settled into the calm waters inside the mouth of Kolychin Bay. A binocular inspection of the shoreline revealed that the sea was continuing to crash on the beach and our hopeful launch of the Zodiacs was once again aborted for the sake of safety. Nathan gathered everyone in the lecture room to give us a detailed update of the voyage plan for the upcoming 24 hours. We learned that a substantial low pressure system, centered over Big Diomede Island in the center of Bering Strait, was the cause of the bad weather and that the system was stubbornly refusing to move on. The satellite weather forecast predicted that the unfavorable conditions would persist for at least the next 48 hours. With this news, Joe and Nathan jointly decided to pull up anchor and make our way south approximately 270 miles to a sheltered area along the Chukotka coast where we hoped to visit an Eskimo village. Both the Bering and Chukchi Seas are renowned for their big swells and nasty weather so we were happy for the good conditions we had enjoyed on the previous days of the trip.

Monday August 5—Nova Chaplina Village Unscheduled Cultural Stop

Part of the plans for our original itinerary included a cultural stop at the Chukchi village of Uelen. There, we would visit a small museum, see a local Chukchi dance troop perform traditional regional dances, and have a chance to see what a Siberian native village might be like. On our “scheduled day” (actually the rescheduled day since we skipped it heading north) we decided to spend another day (August 3) in the ice and it turned out to be a good decision as we had one of our best bear photo days with a snoozing mother and large cub!

One day later, we passed Cape Dezhnev heading south. Wind and waves were pounding the shore as we neared Uelen. We received a radio message from the local authorities warning us about the potential of a dangerous landing. Conditions would be the same for several days. Even though we would be a source of revenue for the village they suggested we bypass Uelen—so we did.

Undaunted, we searched for an alternative so that our passengers could have some form of a native cultural experience before we arrived back at Anadyr. It was noted on our landing permit that we had permission to land at the tiny Eskimo village of Nova Chaplina. Virtually no one on board had ever been there. But we did hear the village had just won the regional dance contest among numerous villages just a few days earlier. On Sunday night we radioed local authorities and received permission from the border guards to land at Nova Chaplina and also arranged with the tribal officials to have a traditional dance session at the local school. How’s that for quick organization from a tiny ship floating in the fog off of the Siberian Coast?

As I wrote this we were just hoisting the anchor after our interesting time at the village. We had arrived in a drizzling rain with a low cloud ceiling. The town is pretty depressing by many standards—rain makes it more so. Row upon row of small prefabricated houses, built in Canada, comprise most of the village. Each of them is elevated by metal jack pilings on wood pallets to isolate them from the permafrost and prevent the house from melting into the ground. On the outskirts of town are old ramshackle shacks that are still inhabited by those who “want” to live more “traditionally.” Several of these houses had drying fish hung by the doorway. There is a large and modern school building on the edge of town and, due to the rain, our dance was held inside the gymnasium.

Nova Chaplina (New Chaplina) is an Eskimo village. Although in North America, Eskimo is a somewhat derogatory word, residents here consider themselves “Eskimos.” The “new” village lies deep within a relatively narrow bay. It is reasonably protected and allowed us an easy landing despite the strong coastal wind on the open ocean. This new village was created under duress when the “Soviets” decided the old village of Chaplina—situated on the ocean in the Bering Strait—was too close (36 miles) to St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, in the United States where many of the Chaplina villagers had relatives. The Soviets feared spying and other activities could take place between these family members, and the village was moved further from the coast in order to make small boat transit between the populations more difficult. Moving the village, however, took them farther away from the marine mammals they hunted and they are now almost completely reliant on the Russian welfare system.

Inside the school we were treated to more than 20 dances that depicted the relationship between the Eskimos and various types of wildlife and landscapes they encounter in daily life. Dances were met with enthusiastic passenger applause and a donation to the school. Following the dances we were escorted by a giggling group of children who saw us off at the Zodiac landing site. It was a fun day, overall.

Tuesday August 6—Cape Achen, then Sailing toward Anadyr

This would be our final morning at sea. The staff decided to have an early breakfast, and drop the Zodiacs for one last cruise along the cliffs at Cape Achen. After all the gray and foggy days we had, the weather gods for once were kind: almost no wind, mild temperatures and mostly sunny skies. Great conditions for our final planned photo shoot. By 7:30 AM we were in the boats, headed toward the cliffs. Rafts of tufted puffins greeted us, although getting a focused shot as they ran across the waves to get airborne proved to be impossible. No problem, lots of other possibilities.

The cliffs were covered with murres and kittiwakes, with both tufted and horned puffins in the mix. Our previous stop here was in pretty rough weather, but today’s mild conditions make photography much easier. We could approach closer to the cliffs and hold the Zodiacs in position while we photographed. Without having the Zodiacs bounced around by the waves, we could actually compose an image, rather than just shooting a lot of frames, hoping we had a subject somewhere within one of them. Calm waters also meant the possibility of more sharp images.

We cruised along the cliffs for two hours. Highlights included kittiwakes on nests with chicks, puffins sitting relatively low down on the cliffs, murres and guillemots floating on the ocean, the colorful rocks themselves, and, deep in one recessed cove, a waterfall dropping the entire height of the cliff.

Two boats with men from the local village had passed by soon after we had approached the cliffs. Then we heard a number of shots (that startled many of the roosting birds). Just as we were ending our Zodiac trip and were headed back to the ship, the two boats reappeared. They had been walrus hunting and had several carcasses tied alongside their boats. The sight was a rather disconcerting way to end our time.

After returning to the ship, it was time to head for Anadyr. Immediately after lunch we paid our bar tabs (did I really have that many drinks?) and got our passports back. Later in the afternoon we started preparing for our return home, packing boots and parkas, generally just cramming items into duffle bags rather than the neat folding of clothes that marked the trip’s beginning. Packing was interrupted by one last announcement: an orca whale was sighted, which prompted most of us out to the decks for a look.

Logbook written by: Wayne Lynch, John Shaw and Joe Van Os

Expedition Leader: Nathan Russ

Assistant Expedition Leader: Katya Ovsyanikova

Hotel Manager: Meghan Kelly

Guides: Nikita Ovsyanikov, Wayne Lynch, John Shaw and Joe Van Os

Chefs: Bruce Thomason and Jeremy Trumper

Medical Advisor: Dr. Selva Dhanabalan

Ship Captain: Alexander D’yachenko