By Sherry Ott
The Spirit of Enderby heads into the Bering Straight
You’ve cruised to the Caribbean, around the Greek Islands, down the Danube River in Europe, and maybe you’ve even made it to Antarctica – what’s left for you in the cruising world? Why not head north, way north; high above the Arctic Circle lays Wrangel Island. This unknown island has been in a tug of war between the US, Russia, and other countries throughout history, with it now ultimately part of Russia’s Far East. You might have heard of Wrangel Island due to its tragic expedition history with the famed and failed last voyage of the Karluk, but presently it’s home to some of the most rare and endangered animals and landscape in the world.
The island boasts the world’s largest population of Pacific walrus and the highest density of polar bear dens. It is a major feeding ground for the grey whale migrating from Mexico and the northernmost nesting ground for 100 migratory bird species, many endangered. Currently, 417 species and subspecies of vascular plants have been identified on the island, double that of any other Arctic tundra territory of comparable size and more than any other Arctic island. Named a UNESCO World Wildlife Heritage Site in 2004, this island is a unique jewel in the High Arctic few people get to experience.
If you are going to the last place on earth to cruise, then of course don’t expect this to be your typical cruise ship! I was a passenger on Heritage Expedition’s Spirit of Enderby, a Russian Polar Expedition ship based out of New Zealand. Expedition cruising is more rugged, unplanned, and unpredictable than the typical cruise that you may be used to. Granted, you still do eat like a royalty, however the ship is small and basic. I stayed in a basic cabin with 2 bunks, a desk, and sink. There are higher end cabins with private bathrooms for those who want a bit more privacy. The ship holds 50 passengers and an expedition team. The expedition team is made up of PhD’s of botany, marine biologists, expert birders, biological scientists, as well as multi language speakers who grew up in the Chokotka region of Russia we traveled through. You will most definitely walk off the ship smarter and more informed.
The island has been referred to as the Polar Bear maternity ward in the past because it has the largest population of denning polar bears. Once the ice recedes in August the bears are forced ashore and roam freely making Wrangel Island their home for a few months. Some days we’d take the zodiac out and see more than 10 in one area. Plus, the crew is excellent at educating you about Polar Bear safety as well as the current challenges the bears face with the disappearing ice.
Oh yes – you’ll see polar bears…
Curious polar bears check out our Zodiac
This trip is a birders dream; Cormorants, Snow Geese, Kittiwakes, Puffins, Snowy Owls, Guillemots, and more. Plus, you’ll see some of most densely populated bird cliffs in the world.
A Horned Puffin enjoying his catch
Bird Cliffs – thousands of birds nest in this region!
You’ll also see whales, walrus, seals, muskoxen, reindeer, arctic foxes, and lemmings. Plus – Wrangel is the last known ‘home’ of mammoths and you’ll find rare mammoth bones scattered around the island.
Walrus come close to our zodiac to check us out.
Stop at remote villages in the Chokotka region and see how life above the Arctic Circle is accomplished. The villages are a mix of Eskimos, Chukchi’s, and Russians. These remote villages are few and far between and the Spirit of Enderby passengers are really the only exposure to tourists they will get all year, so they really know how to put on a show! My visit to Lavrentiya was full of pomp and circumstance as the locals put on a cultural dance demonstration, and laid out a feast of local food for us to try; whale and walrus meat, tundra berries, donuts, tea, and tundra salad. My day in Lavrentiya meeting and interacting with the locals was a highlight for me.
The Lavrentiya community shares their ethnic dances
The little remote village of Lavrentiya, Russia
Life happens close to the ground in the Arctic. There is a massive amount of plant life, but you have to look quickly as life on the tundra is very short! The soft, spongy arctic tundra is a fascinating landscape to see – and walk on. In August the flowers are in bloom. Nothing grows on the Artic Tundra over 2 feet, so it appears rather barren, however it’s a carpet of beautiful, colorful flowers and trees if you look closely on the ground. During the cruise we landed whenever the coast was free of polar bears, and were able to do some long tundra walks making us appreciate this harsh, but beautiful environment even further.
Hiking on Wrangel Island is about remote beauty
Treeless Wrangel Island
Fireweed growing close to the ground on the tundra
Go Where Few People Have Gone Before
This seldom visited island with UNESCO world heritage status is hard to get to. The only way to get to Wrangel Island is by an Expedition Cruise and very few permits are given to cruise companies. Only one company, family owned Heritage Expeditions, had permission to go there in 2015. No one knows what the future holds for travel permits to this region, so go now when you can!
Sherry on the tundra doing photography
Mark your calendars for next summer for the ultimate cruising location, head north…way north… on an expedition cruise to Wrangel Island.
Sherry Ott is a contributor for InsureMyTrip.