In both cases there was an eerie silence that accompanied a low lying sea mist over the upstanding bowhead whale bones that in each case signified the importance of these leviathans to the local people. We visited one on the way north and the other on the way south.
I was aboard the Spirit of Enderby and, together with Mark Carwardine, we had spent the previous couple of years planning our expedition to Wrangel Island. We flew into Moscow and then across the vast expanse of land that is Russia to Anadyr on the far eastern side of the country. From here we went in minibuses and an old ‘landing craft’ to board the ship that was to be our home for the next 14 nights. Staffed by an excellent Russian crew with an international expedition team, ‘Spirit’ was comfortable, well appointed and above all, an excellent platform for the exceptional wildlife viewing that was to follow.
We were seen off our Anadyr mooring by beluga whales - a fitting start to the voyage and as we headed north. The following morning we awoke moored off Yttygran Island and Whalebone Alley and headed out to sea for some outstanding whale-watching as there were plenty of grey whales (and a couple of humpbacks) around. Virtually everyone on board had been to Baja California previously and were secretly hoping for a similar grey whale encounter to the ones in San Ignacio Lagoon with the ‘friendlies’ – but it wasn’t to be. Instead we were treated to blows, the occasional head and plenty of flukes.
We headed out to a significant chunk of rock offshore known as Nuneangan Island where there were more whale blows, but as we approached it was clear that we were actually going for a different reason altogether – walruses.
It was a spectacular encounter – the like of which hadn’t been seen by anybody in our group before. We approached them slowly and as cautiously as possible. They jostled for position, rising and falling in the water, checking us out to make sure we were safe to be near. Then, for no apparent reason, one of them ‘spooked’ and they all dived in a swirling, massing muddle, leaving the water calm on the surface. A minute or two later they returned to the surface, jostling for position again, rising higher and dropping lower in the water, then disappearing.
In close proximity to us there were three distinct groups of walruses with what was probably 100 plus in each – though it was difficult to tell. But, there were walruses far and wide and conservative estimates put the total in the region of 1,000.
Through the Bering Strait which marks the eastern end of the Northeast Passage we headed along the northern coast of Siberia ever closer to our goal of Wrangel Island - a mythical place known to have the highest number of denning polar bears on earth.
If you could imagine the perfect arrival to Wrangel Island it would be this….
A still day with the sun at a low level. Wispy clouds partially covering the massive range of hills making them look mysterious. Patchy chunks of sea ice that need to be broken by the ship in order to pass through and a mother polar bear with two young cubs at rest on a piece of ice about the size of a small house. That was our arrival at 0700 on the morning 29 July – it simply couldn’t have been more dramatic.
The captain skilfully manoeuvred the ship to within a few metres of the bears (putting them on our port side) without the cubs even waking up, but mother bear decided that it was time to move on and the cubs followed… but not before we had spent the best part of an hour with them photographing and watching this scene of extraordinary beauty.
There was a fourth bear on the starboard side, though not everyone saw it, which swam off and then scouring the landscape ahead of us with binoculars we could see another bear just up from the beach…. And then another and another. In fact on land there were a further seven bears dotted around the tundra making a staggering total of 11 bears before breakfast…
…. I could tell you more, I could talk about the musk ox, snowy owls, pikas, arctic foxes, bowhead whales and Kamchatka brown bears - but it would just make you envious!
Why not join Mark Carwardine and Chris Breen on an exclusive Wildlife Worldwide Wrangel Island voyage in 2019?