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Northeast Passage: A handful of bears

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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 Neil Hamilton

A polar bear in Bukhta PronchishchevoyA polar bear in Bukhta Pronchishchevoy

Well, what an utterly incredible day. Having just written a blog about why there have been no polar bear sightings today I saw five, all in a small area.

We have continued sailing south eastwards around the Taimyr peninsula, one of the largest and most remote wilderness regions on earth. This afternoon entered one of the few safe harbours in the region, called Bukhta Pronchishchevoy. It’s named after the wife of a Russian arctic explorer who travelled with him. Both died not far from here. The coast here shows signs of significant erosion due to permafrost melting, one of the symptoms of climate change. Big ice wedges and layers are visible in the erosion cliffs where the permafrost has become exposed. But there has been no sea ice here for several weeks at least.

On entering the harbour we saw walrus in the water, and then a walrus rookery on a shingle spit with perhaps 200 Laptev walrus. Three polar bears (probably a mother and two grown cubs) lay only metres from the walrus. Two more polar bears prowled the hills behind. The walrus with young were in the water, keeping safely out of reach of the bears.

Anders found a safe anchorage a couple of kilometres away next to an abandoned hydrometerological station (the only habitation of any sort for hundreds of miles). We returned to the walrus rookery in the Zodiac, keeping well off shore so not to disturb them, and watched. The large bear prowled around the walrus pack, then charged at some of the outlying walrus, trying to separate the young from their mothers. All escaped, this time. The rest of the walrus constantly bellow irrespective of threat and seemed more interested in squabbling than repelling the bear. The bear walked to the shoreline and sat, watching, sniffing, sizing us up.

A simply incredible experience. After an hour or so we left them and returned to the ship and watched the sunset (almost: it was midnight, and the sun barely goes below the horizon here). It is hard to believe that we have the privilege to experience such a place. I doubt any one has been here for ten years.

« Northeast Passage: Where are the polar bears? | Northeast Passage: Walrus 1, Bear 0 »

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