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Northeast Passage: Observing walrus up close

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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

“A piece of tundra and the sea is all I need.” – Fedor Tymnetagin, Umky Patrol Member

We arrive at the village of Vankarem at midday. This is a traditional Chukchi settlement of about 200 people and is reminiscent of the Alaskan villages I have visited. A cluster of neat one story homes sit together near the shore with boats pulled up on the tundra and fishing nets stretched in the water.

Just as we set out in the zodiac, we notice a man rowing out to us in a very small dinghy. It is Fedor Tymnetagin, one of the Umky Patrol leaders in Vankarem. We rendezvous on the beach with two more of the patrol members, Alexander and Anatoly, and make introductions. As has become customary, we are first invited for tea!

The village is in stark contrast to the last places we have visited. Most of the past towns had a significant Russian government or military presence in the 1950s and had a legacy of large concrete buildings and a lot of unused, decaying structures. Vankarem looked brand new and was very tidy. This was in part due to the donation of new homes by the well-known Russian, Roman Aboramovich. Though the homes were a onetime gift, the residents have continued to clean up old structures and make Vankarem an attractive place to live.

Walrus are not new to Cape Vankarem, though they have grown in numbers during years of record ice retreat like 2007. That same year, Vankarem counted 200 polar bears in and around town, so the patrol had a very busy season! Along with supporting the patrol work, WWF helped the village of Vankarem establish the Cape as an official nature reserve to protect the haul out. We also provide support to move walrus carcasses away from town so as not to attract any additional bears. The people here depend on the sea for survival and have a deep connection to the surrounding landscape and wildlife. It is a very peaceful place.

Walrus on the cape. Photo: WWF / Umky PatrolWalrus on the cape. Photo: WWF / Umky Patrol

Fydor and the others offer to guide us out to the Cape to observe walrus up close. Unlike Ryrkaipiy, the walrus here do not spook as easily and can be approached from above without disturbance. It is a beautiful tundra-covered point with steep rocky beaches. Thousands of walrus are hauled out on the north and south sides and we soon here the familiar sounds competition for beach space. We sit for several hours watching the walrus, taking in the views, and visiting with the guys about life in Vankarem.

In February 2010, we plan to bring Fydor and two other Umky Patrol leaders to Alaska. The idea is to facilitate conversations among northern communities facing some of the same issues as a result of the changing climate. We hope that the examples from the work of the Chukchi people can be a model for grass roots conservation efforts in Alaska and elsewhere. The community meetings will be a good first step.

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