The Russian Arctic

January 08, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

 

Originally submitted on Tue, 06/09/2011 - 11:20

We're back, safe and sound!

 

It is a long way over to Anadyr, the main town in Chukotka, Eastern Siberia.  Flying from Edinburgh via Heathrow (London), we arrived in Moscow on the evening of 8th August, dropped off our luggage at the hotel, and then went out to photograph Red Square by night.  The following day, we had a long wait in the airport as we hadn't wanted to find ourselves caught up in the notoriously chaotic Muscovite traffic (which another couple did, and thus missed the trip!), and then had a 7 and a half hour flight to Yakutsk where we refuelled prior to the final 4 hour flight over to Anadyr.

SUNSET OVER THE BERING STRAITSUNSET OVER THE BERING STRAIT

We finally boarded the ship and from there, we lost contact with civilization as we know it as we sailed North through Anadyr Bay into the Bering Strait, past Cape Dezhnev to the West and Big Diomede (Russia) and Little Diomede (Alaska) to our East.  As they straddle the International Dateline, the former is referred to as "Tomorrow" and the latter as "Today".  We were to get within 0.60 miles of the International Dateline on the return journey.

HUMPBACK WHALE IN THE BERING STRAITHUMPBACK WHALE IN THE BERING STRAITThose humpback whales get everywhere! We had quite a number in the water around the ship at this point.

Lots of zodiac cruises and landings allowed us to see a huge variety of birds and mammals (57 and 17 species respectively), although due to poor weather and a large swell, quite a number of landings had to be cancelled, including to the world's Eastern-most settlement of Uelen on both attempts, North and South-bound.  

WALRUS HAUL-OUT, NEAR CAPE DEZHNEVWALRUS HAUL-OUT, NEAR CAPE DEZHNEVUnlike Spitsbergen, if walruses are on land, we are not allowed to land as well; if we were already on land and they should happen to haul out, then that would have been permitted, but as they are hunted in this region, they are far more wary of Man, so even approaching by zodiac had to be undertaken with caution.

Five of us had opted to take an overland trip through Wrangel Island and in this, we were the first tourists ever to do so, so it was an enormous privilege.  It was no picnic, however, as conditions were extremely basic, but we did have the use of an enormous new 6 x 4 wheel van which, accompanied by a quad-bike and trailers, ambled along at walking pace across and through rivers galore to reach the huts in which we were to spend the two nights on the island.  

TWILIGHT, WRANGEL ISLANDTWILIGHT, WRANGEL ISLANDAfter stopping for a break, having been travelling for quite some time, we asked how much further it was to the hut and were informed that we had only travelled 18 kms out of 50! Twilight came and went and we arrived at our first hut six and a half hours after setting out... in moonlight. It didn't really get completely dark though - a bonus of being so far north.

Around us, we found dozens of snowy owls perched like sentinels on nearby rocks, shining as brilliant white beacons.  Their very endearing prey (and prey to so many), lemmings, were in abundance and scurried about, squeaking as they went.  The autumnal flowers and foliage were magnificent - so many varieties in all sorts of colours.  We spotted three Arctic foxes rummaging around on the tundra, encountered plenty of musk oxen, including three separate fights, many snow buntings, and literally thousands of snow geese.  There were no reindeer/caribou visible, although there were many shed antlers around, sometimes with skulls attached, and scattered around were the relics of woolly mammoths (mainly tusks).  Last and most definitely not least, we took our time to encounter polar bears, but once encountered, they were very good sightings, mainly to the North West of the island.  The sea ice had gone by now (at 71° North, it is quite some way further South than Spitsbergen or Greenland), and those bears who had not headed further North were now trapped until winter time; as such, there is quite a concentration of them by the coast.

LOO WITH A VIEW, WRANGEL ISLANDLOO WITH A VIEW, WRANGEL ISLANDHaving had no facilities at the previous hut, this was a positive luxury, even if it was 100 metres from the hut, in polar bear country (a mother and two cubs had been spotted on the hillside to the right on the previous evening). This was taken at 4.30am at sunrise.

Once we reached the coast, we swapped with the second group of overlanders, who were heading South to meet the ship back round, and continued with our bear-watching by zodiac and with landings on the West Coast beaches.  Some quite fabulous sightings took place, including one where the bear was ambling along the coastline from rocky shelf to water and back out again.  He was completely unconcerned by our zodiacs and swam to within 10 metres of us in quest for more ice to chew from overhangs on the shore line.  Our engines were turned off whilst we absorbed this thrilling spectacle.  In total, the guides counted 190 polar bears seen during the trip (including the time we weren't with the main group).  This is thought to be an expedition record.

SWIMMING POLAR BEAR, PTICHIY BAZAAR, WRANGEL ISLANDSWIMMING POLAR BEAR, PTICHIY BAZAAR, WRANGEL ISLANDWe had stopped the zodiac engines and the bear was completely unbothered by our presence, so it was exhilarating when he swam within 10 metres of us!

On the return South, we passed more whales (grey, humpback, orca and beluga) and walruses, and then came the encounter most hadn't dared to dream about - a wolverine!  It had been spotted feasting on a seal kill and when the main party of zodiacs returned, we again turned off the engines to allow this most shy, rare and elusive of creatures to emerge to afford us a spectacular sighting as it meandered up one gully, lay down on its back in the snow to play with a snowball, then trotted round the hillside to another gully, all within view of the zodiacs.  The only downside was that it was a little too far away to capture good photographs, especially with the swell, but the memories will last forever.

ORCA, KOLYUCHIN ISLANDORCA, KOLYUCHIN ISLANDWhilst we waited to see whether the swell would abate enough for us to land on the island (it didn't), a 5-strong pod of Orca swam past in the sunlight which sparkled across the waves.

It was a long way back to "civilization", but if it were easy, would it be so worthwhile to attempt?

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