Herald Island Polar Bear

Herald Island Polar Bear (Photo: H Whelan)

Wrangel Island – Where Mad Max meets the polar bear

When Zarraffa’s roving editorial consultant recently led an expedition to Wrangel Island, 140 kilometres north of Chukotka in the Russian Arctic, he discovered what just might be the wildest place on Earth.

Words and Photos: Howard Whelan

“Howard, there is a polar bear just above you!”

Ulyana’s urgent radio call came as I steered my Zodiac around a rocky outcrop on the coast of Herald Island, some 60 kilometres to the east of World Heritage Listed Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean. Glancing up, I came face-to-black-tipped-nose with a magnificent, 250-kilogram female polar bear.

I instinctively lifted my camera, fired off a few frames, then grabbed the outboard throttle to ease my boatload of expeditioners a safe distance away.

Herald Island Bear Family

Herald Island Bear Family

“Unbelievable! Beautiful. Amazing!” For the next few minutes, expressions of wonder mixed with rapid-fire image capture as we raced to record our close encounter with the Queen of the Arctic.

That we’d seen a polar bear wasn’t surprising. Wrangel and Herald islands boast the highest concentration of polar bear dens in the world – about 12 per square kilometre. It’s just that none of us were prepared for how many we discovered. My journal for the morning reads:

“As we continued our cruise, the slopes above were literally festooned with bears. There were individuals, mothers and cubs, some lazy, some active. By the time we reached the bird cliffs at the southern end of the island, which in themselves were packed with birds and raucous with kittiwake cries, we were speechless.

“Over a two-hour period, we saw more than 65 bears, half of those not far above the water, the rest clearly visible above. And that was only in the small area of Herald Island that we could see from our Zodiacs. How could such a morning be surpassed?”

(I would find out later that another Heritage Expeditions ship, while traversing the North East Passage, stopped at Wrangel Island and saw some 230 bears drawn to a beached bowhead whale carcass! http://siberiantimes.com/other/others/features/lunch-arrives-on-wrangel-island-and-230-polar-bears-show-up-for-the-feast/ )

Late that afternoon, we returned to the easternmost point on Wrangel Island and piled into our Zodiacs to search nearby cliffs for seabirds. We were having a pleasant, albeit a bumpy cruise, enjoying close views of horned puffins and guillemots, and the odd polar bear on the beach. On several occasions we spied walrus adults swimming with their young.

Dragi Walrus hordes in water

Dragi Walrus hordes in water

According to the rangers from the Wrangel Island Reserve who accompanied us, walrus had once hauled out (come ashore in higgly-piggly piles to rest) in the area, but not for many years. We were about to turn back, when I decided to push just a bit further.

As we rounded the next rocky point, we saw three haulouts on small beaches along the cape, then another. Each haulout held several hundred walrus adults, juveniles and even pups. As we continued, a curious group of walrus swam out toward us. Then from our seaward side, groups of juveniles appeared.

Over the next 20 minutes, it seemed as if the groups were replicating, the late afternoon sunlight picking up their blows as hundreds became more than a thousand walrus, snorting, blowing, diving and cavorting as far as the eye could see. It was mesmerising.

We spent five days circumnavigating Wrangel Island, making landings when the weather and swell allowed. The landscape is high Arctic tundra, with wide valleys and barren mountains. Because it wasn’t glaciated during the last Ice Age, it served as a refuge for many plant and animal species. It was the last place on Earth where the wooly mammoth survived.

During our landings we saw thousands of snow geese, magnificent snowy owls, musk oxen, reindeer and lemmings. In the surrounding waters were grey and bowhead whales, seals and of course polar bears and walrus.

Applying fox traps

Applying fox traps

Although occasionally visited by Chukchi hunters over the centuries, and British, American and Russian whalers and explorers through the 1800s, Wrangel wasn’t occupied until 1926, when a small Soviet settlement was set up. During the Cold War, a military base, including an airstrip was built and used until the 1970s, when most of Wrangel and Herald islands were declared a protected nature reserve. A new base has recently been established outside the reserve area as part of Putin’s militarization of the high Arctic.

As with many remote Arctic regions I’ve visited over the years, the detritus of human habitation is stark, but especially so in Siberia. And while Canada, the United States, Denmark and Norway have made efforts to clean up the graveyards of rusting fuel drums and, abandoned excavators and other tracked vehicles, the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that Russia has been a long time coming to the party.

Gennady and bulldozer

Gennady and bulldozer

When we first arrived on Wrangel Island, we landed at Doubtful Bay on the south coast, to pick up three wildlife rangers who would accompany us during our stay. Ulyana Babiy, Gennady Fyodorov and Artem Filitov had chosen to live on the outer reaches of civilisation http://arctic.ru/analitic/20170919/676737.html . Besides scientific research and monitoring the environmental impact of the nearby military base, they assist the rare expeditions like ours by sharing their expertise and knowledge.

All spoke English. Ulyana was great at getting our photographers close to polar bears, Artem strode fast for our “long walkers”, but when Gennady came on board wearing a leather flight helmet, worn camo pants, oiled jacket and a leather pistol holder, he had me hooked. His dry humour came out while sharing anecdotes like the time in winter when his quad bike broke down seven kilometres from a field hut, out of radio reception, and had to walk back through sleeping polar bears, in the dark, alone.

On our last day on Wrangel, Gennady led some of us past fields of rusting machinery and fuel drums and explained how the government has begun what will be a long, but necessary clean up. When I commented that it looked like something out of the film Mad Max, his eyes lit up.

Herald Walrus haulout

Herald Walrus haulout

“George Miller is my hero!” he declared. “As a boy, Mad Max was my Bible. I have watched every Mad Max film at least three times. Some many more.” As we continued on past huts with metal-spikes on windows to keep polar bears at bay; mammoth tusks, whale bones and walrus skulls leaning against the walls; and fields of rusting oil drums against a backdrop of pristine, snow-speckled mountains – I realised that the bizarre beauty around me was absolutely appropriate on an island at the end of the world.