Polar Bear Land: Wildlife wonders on Russia's Wrangel Island

Journey to Russia's Far East and step back in time to the Ice Age, to uncover the last place where woolly mammoths roamed and where hidden wildlife gems still flourish...

8 mins

They called it ‘Doubtful Land’ – a place long sought, even pre-emptively marked on maps, before it was finally discovered. And as we approached, it looked doubtful indeed. Our ship, the Kapitan Khlebnikov, crunched to a halt, sea-ice blanching the water, blocking our way to the desolately beautiful shore.

The northernmost UNESCO World Heritage Site, Wrangel Island was once again playing hard to get. Fortunately, we’d already made friends with the ice – and been richly rewarded. Out on deck early that morning, meandering through the floes, a pearly panorama glistening in the Arctic sun, we had seen more than a dozen polar bears before breakfast.

Some took us in their stride, continuing their wanderings, ambling over icy islands, bounding across freezing sea-streams. Others – literally – came to meet us. Standing on the ship’s bow we saw a mother and two cubs staring up at us – an extraordinary moment of connection with the Arctic’s top predator.

With bears becoming scarcer in other parts of the North, those in this little-visited corner of the Russian Far East were, at least for the moment, still bright-eyed, curious – and plentiful. Eighty per cent of the region’s bears breed on Wrangel or its little sister, Herald Island, collectively known as the ‘Polar Bear Maternity Ward’.

Polar bear mother and her cubs (Shutterstock)

Polar bear mother and her cubs (Shutterstock)

“There is no need to bother the bears by following them,” says Nathan Russ, expedition leader and co-owner of Heritage Expeditions, which has – uniquely – been bringing visitors here for a decade, “We like to leave the wildlife as we found it. We can be relaxed. We know we can always find another one.” 

Wrangel Island sits in the Chukchi Sea at the top of the Bering Strait, which divides Russian Chukotka from American Alaska by, at its narrowest, just 82km. We had sailed 1,852km, hugging the Siberian coast of Chukotka. It is a journey taken by only a few ships a year – a huge boon for the wealth of wildlife, undisturbed sightings of which are the main draw for the few hundred annual visitors like myself. And it isn’t just bears that call Wrangel home.

Never completely glaciated, it is a biodiversity hot spot, a wildlife time-capsule that can carry you back to the Ice Age. This was the last known place on earth where the woolly mammoth roamed and their monumental white tusks are still washed up in Wrangel’s rippling rivers.

A mammoth bone on Wrangel Island (Shutterstock)

A mammoth bone on Wrangel Island (Shutterstock)

And then there’s the human history. As the Kapitan Khlebnikov steamed north up the Strait and onward to our remote Arctic destination, we’d also encountered the people who’d somehow carved out an existence in this unforgiving region.

Nineteenth-century biologist John Muir described Wrangel as “this grand wilderness in its untouched freshness” in the first writings about the island. There is no permanent human settlement on the island today. A small number of rangers protect it from the few summer visitors, and from the handful of military men confined to their newly-constructed base concealed behind a 20km exclusion zone. This is border country even Russians need permits to visit. 

Top of the world

Wrangel Island's nightscape (Shutterstock)

Wrangel Island's nightscape (Shutterstock)

Our journey started at Anadyr, Russia’s easternmost town. Still moored in the mouth of its vast river, we were treated to an eye-popping show of salmon-feasting ring seals bobbing among belugas, before setting sail and travelling east to the indigenous settlement of Lavrentiya.  

Created by collectivisation of the region’s native people – mainly Chukchi, Eskimo and Yupik this community made up of a few mud streets and peeling apartment blocks, has a fragile sense of identity. I found that most Russians don’t have much respect for the Arctic people. “They wake up, drink, and go back to sleep,” one of our ship’s Russian crew shrugged dismissively.

But Russ is proud that his Heritage Expedition’s occasional visits have encouraged respect for indigenous heritage, and motivated elders to pass on traditional customs and knowledge to the younger generation. We were warmly welcomed with cloudberry jam, walrus meat and whale blubber, before a performance of dramatic traditional dance.

Beneath the stony stare of a bust of Lenin, a diminutive local woman with  a weather-beaten face told us her polar bear earrings reflected her clan. Indigenous families, she explained, are genealogically linked to the Arctic wildlife that for millennia sustained them. This respectful dependence was palpable at uninhabited Yttygran Island, 129km south of Lavrentiya.

Whale Bone Alley (Mark Carwardine)

Whale Bone Alley (Mark Carwardine)

Here, through atmospheric drizzle, we explored perhaps the most intriguing archaeological site in the Arctic, Whale Bone Alley, constructed by Eskimos some 600 years ago. Amid lush green vegetation and vibrant purple fireweed, giant skulls lurked altar-like along the shoreline, backed by an evocative half-kilometre ceremonial avenue of creamy-white archways created from the giant jawbones of the bowhead whale.

This indigenous whaling base is a hotspot for cetaceans. We rode a Zodiac amid fountainous blows, huge grey heads and elegant flukes, and as we dithered over which way to turn, a great grey whale glided alongside us, its gnarled, barnacled back almost touchable. We even smelled its cabbagey breath – the only time I’ve ever welcomed the stink of school dinners.

The whiff was different at our next stop at Gilmymil, northeast of Yttygran: damp air with  a tinge of sulphur. As we stomped across the tundra, I picked blueberries and cloudberries, before – somewhat counter-intuitively – stripping off my many layers to step gingerly into a square wooden tub in the middle of nowhere.

Built by a Chukchi man who used to spend his summers here, it was filled through a makeshift pipe from the river’s yellow-flecked hotspring. We basked in the warmth, gazing up at snow-tinted hillsides silhouetted against the rain-haze, a pair of cranes trumpeting overhead. 

We continued our drift north towards Wrangel. At the nominally challenged but picturesque Unnamed Bay, the weather was the polar opposite. Sun streamed down as we stood around a large rocky burrow from which Arctic ground squirrels popped up almost beneath our feet.

They stood sentry meerkat-style, chased, played and posed like pros.  We examined a hut striped with the claw marks of a bear and watched salmon leap from the river, as the sunset threw a yellow ribbon across the landscape. I walked as slowly as I dared towards the last Zodiac back to the Kapitan Khlebnikov.

The bowhead whale draws a crowd (Mark Carwardine)

The bowhead whale draws a crowd (Mark Carwardine)

We floated awhile with rafting short-tailed sheerwaters, patterned like pixels across the together with a musical rustle of wings on water, criss-crossing in balletic formations, before settling a few metres away in the wake of a pair of humpback whales swimming serenely in unison. Nearing Wrangel, we settled into the lecture room for a talk about the island’s history. Our historian had barely uttered a word when the tannoy crackled: “more whales.” We were surrounded by humpbacks: blow, fluke, curving back, on and on as we snapped, ‘ooh’ed and ‘aah’ed. “Bowhead!” came an excited call.

We had to lean right over the deck-rail to see as a majestic 15m body slid smoothly across our bows. Even the ship’s cetacean expert Mark Carwardine was awed and he has seen more whales than I’ve had hot dinners. He estimated this bowhead was 200 years old – a survivor of the heyday of Arctic whaling whose visit made Whale Bone Alley seem all  the more evocative.

It was almost as if the wildlife was making a point. It became a ship’s joke that every time there was mention of human history, unmissable natural sightings hove instantly into view. “Walruses,” came the next cry. And there they were: bundles of blubbery brown, overflowing the edges of their floating ice islands. They fidgeted, scratched and nudged one another with their shiny ivory tusks, before collectively belly flopping into the bubbling sea.

Land of the white bear

Herald Island (Mark Carwardine)

Herald Island (Mark Carwardine)

Our doubtful arrival at Wrangel was thankfully a brief hiatus; the island didn’t freeze us out for long. A little further round the coast, we took a Zodiac in and steered around an ice hummock, crouched like an Arctic dragon.

The desolate-looking shore turned out to be a meadow of tiny delicate tundra vegetation. Snow buntings flitted around us as the ship’s botanist bent low pointing out some of the islands 417 plant species, 330 mosses and 310 lichens that cover flat faces of rock with intricate patterns in near-fluorescent shades of orange, red and yellow.

We spent five days circumnavigating Wrangel, landing once or twice a day, mostly in glorious sunshine. The island has almost every habitat the Arctic can offer and we wandered stark grey beaches and snaking shingle spits, foothills of lowering mountains and cliffs marble-cake layered in creams, greys and pinks.

We stalked a snowy owl perched on a hillside like a fluffy snowman; sat still and silent in wait for lemmings and cute little pika; and crept up on a herd of primeval-looking musk ox. On verdant green tundra dotted with wispy-white cotton grass, we observed a feeding flock of white snow geese – some of the record one million estimated to have resided on Wrangel this summer.

There were millions of other birds too. The ptichy bazaar is appropriately named; these seabird cliffs were crammed with noisy, busy birds attending chick-filled nests like competing stalls, perched precariously on precipitous ledges. Kittiwakes, cormorants, glaucous gulls and all sorts of guillemots, were joined by plump bright-faced puffins, horned and tufted.

Mist rose and fell, drifting along valleys creating cloud-roads across the landscape. “It’s like the edge of Mordor,” someone commented as we were  told to stay together. You couldn’t see polar bears because of the weather, but wherever we were on Wrangel there was always a creamy presence lolloping, observing or lazing somewhere in the vicinity.

This is still the ‘land of the white bear’ that John Muir had described nearly 150 years earlier. So too is Herald Island. As we approached Wrangel’s smaller, even more remote and rocky neighbour, the mist lifted to reveal a sleek white bear parading along the island’s ridge. Muir landed here in 1881 and somehow scrambled up its steep sloped side to build a cairn and hide a copy of the New York Herald.

It’s a very odd thought – that little bit of human ephemera once tucked away in the least human terrain. We didn’t land – it was too windy – but circumnavigated the island, only later finding out that the north coast is literally uncharted. Around us drifted ice-bits like paper sailing boats and floating meringues, while constantly shifting light on sea, sky and striated rock, created an ever-changing gallery of natural art.

Uncover the 'invisible land'

Rusty oil drums on Wrangel Island (Shutterstock)

Rusty oil drums on Wrangel Island (Shutterstock)

With one day left at Wrangel, we arrived back at Doubtful Bay. The pack-ice was looser but today the island was living up to its Chukchi name – ‘Invisible Land.’ We could see nothing but fog. Layered like the Michelin Man, I found myself huddled at the head of a snake of semi-visible Zodiacs speeding between ice sheets into an all-encompassing silvery grey.

Rust-brown hulks of old machinery and hundreds of matching oil drums emerged through the mist as we landed. There are 300,000 of them on Wrangel,” explained our rangers. “Nothing brought here  was ever taken away – until last year.” The drums are now being cleared - 10,000 per season. It’s going to take a very long time. 

Picking my way through the red-brown skeletons of human ‘civilisation’, I couldn’t help reflecting on what humanity is bringing to this extraordinary island now – without even setting foot on it. The warming climate means there is less sea-ice each year – a direct threat to wildlife, especially polar bears – and more open water, making northern sea-routes increasingly attractive to commercial shipping and larger cruise ships. 

However, as the Kapitan Khlebnikov sailed away from Wrangel Island, the mist cleared. The sun was warm, the sea calm and everything was in sharp focus. This desolately beautiful place had filled our minds and cameras with unforgettable images of Muir’s ‘grand wilderness’ and wildlife in its element.

The future of the island and its inhabitant may look uncertain, but this is the place to come –  now, responsibly – to see the Arctic before it disappears. Wrangel may be known as the ‘invisible land’, but this once reclusive island  and its wildlife gems are waiting to be uncovered. There is no doubt about that.

The trip

Wrangel Island's native flower (Shutterstock)

Wrangel Island's native flower (Shutterstock)

The author travelled with New Zealand-based expedition cruise company Heritage Expeditions (+64 (0)3 365 3500) which offers the 14-night, 3,700km cruise Across the Top of the World.

The trip costs from US$9,000 (£7,363) including full board but excluding flights. UK operator Wildlife Worldwide (01962 302086) offers an 18-day photography tour package out of Heathrow including all flights, Moscow stopover and the cruise, for £13,395.

The author flew with British Airways direct to Moscow (0344 4930787).

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