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Northeast Passage: A truly exceptional day

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This summer, WWF is helping support two expeditions that will take on some of the world’s most difficult waters, to see first-hand the effects of Arctic climate change. One expedition is sailing across the top of Russia, a journey of 6000 nautical miles through the Northeast Passage, while another is attempting a west to east transit of the Northwest Passage, also by sailing boat, a journey of about 7,000 nautical miles.

Tom Arnbom of Sweden was on the ‘Explorer of Sweden’ though the Northeast Passage, as was WWF Arctic Programme Director Neil Hamilton for much of the trip, replaced near the end by WWF polar bear coordinator Geoff York. On the ‘Silent Sound’ Cameron Dueck of the Open Passage Expedition is filing regular stories from the Northwest passage. Come back for photos and stories throughout the summer, and follow the progress of the boats as they follow in the wake of some of history’s most intrepid explorers.

By Geoff York

The boat is moving so slowly and in calm waters as I take my watch with Anders. Ryrkaipiy is in sight, but it is still dark and too early to approach, so we reduce speed to a mere 2 knots and make a very gradual arrival. From a distance we begin to see the tell tale signs of a former military base- abandoned structures and debris. In the middle of this however, is what appears to be well-maintained and colourfully painted buildings.

The sunrise reveals a beautiful landscape surrounding the settlement. The Chukchi Mountains stretch out to the west, some with snow covered peaks. Rolling hills surround the town and Cape Schmidt is virtually an island connected only by a thin gravel strip. The island is rocky and dramatic compared to the relatively flat landscapes seen thus far.

A light breeze from the south has brought much warmer temperatures so I go out on the forward deck as we approach closer to shore. The light is just marginal for binoculars as I try to investigate this new area. Then I hear it, an unusual noise travelling across the water. As we draw closer and the dawn breaks, the mystery is revealed: we can see walrus!

Thousands of walrus on the shore near Ryrkaipiy. Photo: WWF / Umky PatrolThousands of walrus on the shore near Ryrkaipiy. Photo: WWF / Umky Patrol

On the shores of the rocky headlands and stretching out into the ocean we can see brown bodies jostling for beach space and heads bobbing in the sea. As we set anchor and the day is fully upon us, I see we are also surrounded by ringed seals, cormorants, seabirds, and sea ducks. A flock of geese also cruise by to the south. Compared to the seas we just left, this is truly an explosion of life.

The hundreds of walrus we saw initially were only an appetiser too as we can now see thousands including a brown carpet stretching far up the south facing hill. To top it off, we have one polar bear in sight of the boat too! It appears to be feeding on a walrus carcass, of which there are plenty, and is a quite healthy looking male. I have never seen such an abundance of wildlife in one place at one time. The sounds from the haul out grow louder as I sip my morning coffee in the sun. I should be in my bunk, but this is just too amazing to pass up and the weather is the best we have seen.

Ryrkaipiy slowly comes to life as I see the occasional person walking and many taking a good look at this strange boat sitting just offshore. Visitors here are truly rare, especially by sea. We decide to make our landing around 10 AM and make arrangements on the VHF with the local border guard to meet at the beach.

This is a special visit for me as it is the home of Vladilen Kavriy, the father and driving force behind the Umky Patrol. I met Vlad at a meeting last year in the Ukraine and hoped to one day visit him in Ryrkaipiy. He is expecting us and was actually out on patrol when we came in this morning – always watching and aware of his surroundings.

The Umky Patrol was born out of tragedy. In 2005, a young girl was killed by a polar bear in this village. In response the town decided to take actions to prevent this from happening again. In coordination and with support from WWF, the Umky Patrol now works to reduce bear human conflict in several villages across the Russian Arctic, manage attractants around towns, educate the public on safety around bears and walrus, minimise disturbance to walrus haul outs, and guard against poaching. The activities of the patrol members, especially their outreach efforts within their communities, has also led to grass roots conservation in the designation of new protected areas for recently formed and existing walrus haul outs. Something I would love to see happen more frequently in other parts of the Arctic – community-led conservation.

The paperwork check on shore is a brief formality and we are quickly making introductions to a group of locals including Vlad and two of his team: Tatiana (a local Chukchi woman) and Varvera (an intern from Moscow who luckily speaks some English). The day has been mapped out by our friends onshore. First we will visit the walrus haul out, then go for tea at Vlad’s, then it is off to visit the bear on the island, a presentation by our crew on the expedition at the town hall, followed by a dinner reception – northern hospitality at its finest!

The opportunity to sit next to a walrus haul out estimated to approach 20,000 animals is truly a unique and stunning experience. The sounds alone are really something – barking and grunting with occasional whistles. Walrus cover the beaches, hillside, and water. It must take a huge amount of prey to support this many animals. Some walrus nap while others vie for positions on the beach and it seems walrus are quite good at spooking themselves into mini-stampedes. All of this activity is just a few hundred metres from town.

Walrus had not occupied this area in recent memory and definitely not in these numbers. Nordenskjold reported seeing walrus in this area, but we have no idea in what numbers. We do know that walrus throughout the Chukchi have been abandoning the sea ice completely when it recedes out beyond the continental shelves. We know this from animals tracked by satellite tags and also from observations along both the Chukotka and Alaskan coasts of walrus appearing in large numbers and in areas they have never been seen before.

I have mentioned earlier the hazards of this strategy to walrus and people. It also puts walrus at risk of depleting their coastal food resources. Walrus rely on the drifting sea ice to distribute them randomly across large areas, so they are constantly on the move. Forced to come ashore, they are very limited in foraging and safe haul out areas. While walrus can live on shore quite well, it is widely held that this scenario will support far fewer animals than exist today.

We take afternoon tea at Vlad’s home – a great Russian tradition of sharing a light meal. We snack on homemade bread, dried fish, and pelmini (potato dumplings with sour cream). We then head off to visit the island’s current lone polar bear. Vladilen has an amazing understanding of the behaviour of polar bears, and while he respects them greatly, he does not fear them and carries only a two metre-long stick. Having worked with polar bears for the past decade, I am much more interested in watching Vlad than the bear on this occasion!

As the day turns to night, we head for the grand finale of our visit. As we enter the community centre, we are impressed with its quality and size. We are truly surprised to enter a packed auditorium filled with local community members who have come to hear our presentations on the expedition. Following a brief lecture by Ola and Victor, and some good Q&A, it was time for the town to once again impress us with their hospitality. For the next hour we were the guests of honour for a truly impressive performance of Chukchi song and dance!

We ended our visit with a very pleasant dinner hosted by the mayor and some local dignitaries including Vlad. The food was great, but the company was even better. For anyone who has travelled much in Russia, singing is a national past time and we were treated again and again to beautiful traditional songs as it grew close to our departure time.

It was a truly exceptional day, one of the extremely rare ones where your senses are flooded from the time you awake to the time you happily slip into bed. I cannot say enough about the hospitality of Ryrkaipiy, the beautiful lands that surround the village, and the wonderful people we shared time with today. Thanks as well to our teammate Victor Boyarsky for the endless translations that made it all possible!

« Northeast Passage: Nearing the Chukchi sea | Northeast Passage: Observing walrus up close »

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