Whales, Walruses, and Polar Bears in the Russian Far East

I gulped as the polar bear sauntered down the beach towards us.P1170773

He had yet to notice me or the 20 or so potentially tasty morsels wrapped in fleece, down and Gore Tex standing close by. My heart pounded as he stopped about 40 meters away and squinted in our direction. I hurriedly took several photos, then looked around and figured I could probably outrun the short, round woman standing next to me.

Fortunately for her, and possibly for me, he made a sharp left turn and headed directly for the water. P1170785We weren’t in any real danger as long as we followed Katya’s advice (one of the Russian naturalists on board our ship); “stay together and don’t run.” I don’t remember her suggesting that we knock someone over in panic, but I kept that option in reserve just in case.

This was only one of many polar bear sightings in our 4+ days on and around Wrangel and Herald Islands on Heritage ExpeditionsAcross the Top of the World adventure cruise. Some sightings were from our ship, the Professor Khromov (I love the Russian tradition of naming ships after professors; after an academic career of almost 40 years, my greatest honor was having a sandwich named after me by the local deli where I usually ate lunch). P1170623Other sightings, while we were on land or in the Zodiacs, were several hundred yards away on the tundra or even further on distant ridges.P1170900P1180071

Better were the close up views from the Zodiacs of bears on the beach or on a snow patch on a slope just a few meters above the beach. P1180002P1180050Best of all was watching a mom and her two cubs from the boat as they explored an ice floe. P1180107Unlike our jumpy friend on the beach she seemed unfazed by our presence and sidled up to the edge of the floe as the Professor slipped slowly by. Maybe her agent had negotiated a hefty appearance fee with Heritage Expeditions.

The bears were only the third act (or fourth if you’re a birder) in an impressive wildlife production that has been running almost from Day 1 of our trip. It started with the bird cliffs (more on that shortly) on Day 1, then grey and humpback whales on Day 2,P1170137P1170129 followed by walruses on Day 3, P1170510P1170531P1170561then more walruses and our first polar bears on ice floes as we approached Wrangel Island on Day 4. The bear on the beach on Day 5 seemed to open up the ursine floodgates, which reached its peak on or near by Herald Island on Day 7 (almost 30 by most estimates).

About the birds. I’m not a birder. Picking out and naming specific breeds, species, etc., is not my thing, though I will admit a special affection for the Puffin, tufted or not. P1180061But you don’t have to be a birder to appreciate the bird cliffs we saw close by almost every day from the Zodiacs. They’re sort off like an avian Manhattan with high rise condos occupied by birds of all kinds, apparently living together in relative harmony aside from occasional bickering and outbursts of road rage (“air rage”?). At one point I just leaned back in the Zodiac and watched them dart, dive and soar above me, accompanied by a surround sound of cackles and screeches.P1180195P1170823

And there was even more. Tundra hikes in the long shadows of a never ending dusk, P1170710P1170719a stroll through Whalebone Alley, an evocative site of whale skulls, pelvises, and jawbones with some undetermined archeological significance. P1170026Or maybe the ancient Inuits were just having a bit of fun fooling around with the egos and pretensions of future scholars. Daily lectures on animals, ice, history and current issues and challenges by the crew and staff, as well as by several Russian rangers and naturalists who came on board in Wrangel, added intellectual depth to what we were seeing and experiencing.

Visits with indigenous people were another bonus, including to the very nontraditional town of Laurentiya. At first it looked like a gloomy relic from the Soviet era, with belching smoke stacks, large apartment blocks, and a statue of Lenin prominently displayed in the town square. P1170176Then I noticed the gaily-painted sides of the newer buildings, the colorfully painted, repurposed old tires in a playground, and the smiling faces of the kids waving to us from the schoolyard as we walked by.P1170195As a geezer from the US and a grandchild of Russian/Ukrainian émigrés who fled the pogroms at the end of the 19th Century, it’s intriguing to speculate on a possible alternative personal history and to view the long history of US/Russia relations from the other side. At a time when the relationship between the two super powers seems to be chilling yet again, I was warmed by the hospitality of the Russian people we met as they told us about their country and their lives.

I was especially impressed by the enthusiastic performance by the indigenous folkloric ensemble who sang and danced with smiles on their faces as wide as their vast land….P1170358 P1170338 P1170307 P1170212

…and by the sunset on our last night that warmed this remote and wild land.

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(Don’s trip was hosted by Heritage Expeditions. For more info on the ship, food, and other details, make sure to check the blog in a few days)

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