WRANGEL ISLAND, Russia – The announcement came over the ship’s PA system at 3:35am: “There’s a polar bear dead ahead of us.”
Within minutes passengers appeared up on deck, some still in their PJs, looking at the polar bear swimming near the ship just off Wrangel Island, in the eastern Russian Arctic.
It was a bright, sunny day (the sun had risen at 1:44am), and this was our first polar bear sighting of several to come. We were 500km north of the Arctic Circle and the ocean was unusually calm; we could see the bear’s head reflected in the water as he turned to look at us.
What an experience – and only one of so many during this 16-day cruise on board Hapag-Lloyd’s Hanseatic, the first non-Russian ship to be allowed to visit Wrangel Island. Indeed, we saw no other tourists during the entire trip.
This was truly an expedition adventure once we had donned parkas and rubber boots and left the ship in the rubber Zodiacs. Guided by a team of specialists, we were off to navigate through the sea ice on a sightseeing excursion, or to go ashore to discover abundant flowers and wildlife in the bleak landscape.
But back on board the 180-passenger “world’s only five-star expedition cruise ship” (according to Berlitz, the global education company of language training fame) we lived in luxury, in comfortable staterooms with gourmet meals served on Rosenthal china – including 27 varieties of bread and rolls baked freshly every day for breakfast
Antarctica receives much of the travel publicity these days. But while the Arctic has no penguins, it certainly has a wealth of other life as we discovered – from the 48 bird varieties (some in flocks numbering in the hundreds of thousands) and 18 land and sea mammals to the Eskimos and other Russians.
It was fascinating enough to explore the Arctic tundra most of us had hitherto only read about in school. But we could add to that the experience of being with the people who live far north of Siberia, with their Russian/post-Soviet or Eskimo heritage.
So please come along to sample some of the highlights on what turned out to be a most unusual and interesting cruise adventure.
TUESDAY: After a Miami Air charter flight from Vancouver we joined the ship in the remote Alaskan town of Nome, a port during its brief ice-free summer. While most of the passengers were from German-speaking countries, this was considered an international cruise so all communication was bilingual.
WEDNESDAY: We paused offshore in the Bering Sea to look at a deserted settlement site on King Island, where Inupiat Eskimos had lived for thousands of years. The last villagers moved to Nome in 1970, leaving behind houses built on stilts on impossibly steep slopes The abandoned wooden structures were now collapsing, and stared eerily back at us with eye sockets where windows used to be.
FRIDAY: We lost Thursday as we crossed the dateline. Provideniya, a former Soviet military port and our first contact with Russia, lay ahead.
We’d heard Russia was angry with Europe, North America and Australia over international sanctions, and could have cancelled its permission for us – a German ship – to travel in Russian waters. But all went well and we were allowed ashore to explore this bleak outpost. Many of the buildings had been abandoned, some had been painted in bright colours but the town still had a dreary appearance.
“We get about three days of sunshine a year,” said one resident. With mists hanging low over the town, this wasn’t one of them.
We saw a folklore show - Russian dancers in traditional costumes gliding on to the stage or kick-dancing with arms crossed, and also Eskimo story-telling dances.
Then we cruised 8km to Bukhta Slawyanka (Plover Cove) for our first exploration of the tundra. This was also the first of many wet landings, so we were wearing the boots and parkas lent to all passengers as the Zodiacs ran up on the beach and we jumped out at the water’s edge.
This time the mists wreathing the hills and sitting low over the ocean, the patches of blue (but poisonous) monkshood flowers on land, the abandoned boats and buildings – all created a scene of wonder and beauty.
SATURDAY: We visited Lorino where traditionally costumed local Eskimo dancers sang and danced the stories of their Chukchi ancestors for us. We sampled local food: a delicious fish soup made from Arctic char, gray whale and walrus muktuk (blubber and skin), reindeer meat. The temperature was an unusually warm 20 degrees, the ocean completely flat.
SUNDAY: The small village of Neshkan welcomed us with another folklore show; dogs tore at the remains of a recently slaughtered gray whale on the beach.
“The village was created by the Soviet government in the 1950s as a collective farm, to bring together the reindeer herders of the area,” Sylvia Stevens, one of our expert guides and lecturers, told us. The village of 700 still had six reindeer herds and supplemented its economy with fishing.
It was so remote only pensioners were paid in cash, while others used barter or coupons. The district centre of Lavrentiya was a weekly 250km flight away, or four to five days of off-road travel.
MONDAY: Today brought a birder’s delight as we cruised along the cliffs of Kolyuchin Island, home to hundreds of thousands of guillemots, kittiwakes, cormorants and puffins.
“The guillemots lay a single egg on the narrow ledges,” said Stevens. “At two weeks, the chick has to jump down to the sea where its father takes care of it until it can fly, often paddling as much as 40km in a day until it is independent.”
TUESDAY-FRIDAY: Wrangel Island came into view and thankfully the sea ice had broken up enough for us to pick up the two rangers and a biologist who would stay with us during our visit to one of Russia’s most restricted nature reserves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve.
And what a surprisingly fascinating place it was – given its location astride longitude 180 degrees in such a remote and inhospitable part of the planet.
“Wrangel and nearby Herald Islands were untouched by glaciers of the last ice age,” Stevens said, “so they look much as they did in the Pleistocene era when wolly mammoths roamed the land until they became extinct around 2000 BC. Wrangel is best known today as having the greatest concentration of polar bear dens in the world.”
Wrangel was also the home of 417 plant species - at least 23 of which grew nowhere else. Considering that the summer temperature hovered just above zero, we were amazed to see so many plants and flowers like the forget-me-nots when we went ashore on Komsomol Beach. On the other hand, as one of the largest walrus “haul out” sites in the world, Cape Blossom had far more walrus bones than blossoms.
A couple of teenage boys decided it was time for a quick dip – a very quick dip as they rushed and staggered back out of the zero-degree ocean far more quickly than they had gone in.
But the little brown woolly bear caterpillar which Stevens spotted didn’t mind the cold. These creatures live for 14 years (normal caterpillar life is three weeks), completely freezing every winter and thawing out every short summer until they spin a cocoon and turn into Isabella tiger moths. Arctic ground squirrels were busily collecting food for the long winter, pausing every so often to sit up in a meerkat-like pose.
Now it was polar bear time. We spotted them swimming and walking on ice floes, including a mother with cub – but were glad not to see them when we went ashore, guarded by one of the guides armed with a rifle.
SATURDAY-WEDNESDAY (including two Tuesdays as we crossed the dateline again): Winds whipped up five-metre waves in the Chukchi Sea, our only patch of stormy weather.
Later, we watched seven orca (killer) whales following an injured gray whale in Bering Strait. Then we spotted about 100 walrus males hauled out on the beach of Big Diomede Island and swimming nearby, and went out in the Zodiacs for a closer look at these tusked creatures which can weigh up to 2,000kg.
On Yittigran Island we walked in the long grass of Whalebone Alley, named for its carefully arranged whale skulls and other bones, especially ribs, and stones.
And so back to Nome we sailed, grateful for the mostly good weather and lack of mosquitoes, treasuring our memories of the eastern Russian Arctic tundra in summer with its amazingly varied wildlife and vegetation, its inhabitants and their history. And that 3:35am wakeup call: “There’s a polar bear dead ahead of us.”