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Watching Wildlife Come to Life: Wrangel Island, Russia

Watching Wildlife Come to Life: Wrangel Island, Russia

Arctic Circle Refuge

Northwest of the Bering Strait, the arctic winters are long, and I mean loooooong. For 2 months, November 22 to January 22, the sun never rises at all. A lonely landmass in the Chuckchi Sea, Wrangel Island lies shrouded in snow until June, an icy wind moaning overhead.

And yet the sun returns every spring, and when it does, it’s miraculous. Tens of thousands of migratory birds—black-legged kittiwakes, pelagic cormorants, glaucous gulls—arrive to nest on the jagged cliffs. Ringed seals and bearded seals dip their snouts through holes in the ice, hungry for fish. Walruses lumber out onto narrow spits to give birth. Female polar bears emerge drowsily from their winter dens, newborn cubs snuffling in their wake. Arctic foxes scavenge the rocky beaches, where snowy owls swoop down on unsuspecting lemmings.

A few months later, in the summer, the tundra teems with life. Rivers, swelled with snowmelt, gush through the narrow valleys, and the last remaining Russian population of snow geese paddles around glacial lakes in the island’s interior. Brilliantly colored Arctic wildflowers mantle the slopes in shades of pink and yellow. Shaggy musk oxen browse sedges and grasses of the ancient tundra, a relic of the Ice Age. The walruses bask on ice floes and rocky spits, going through their annual breeding rituals. It’s a sight to see—but very few travelers ever get the chance.

Located 193km (120 miles) off the coast of Siberia, right on the 180-degree line that divides the Western and Eastern hemispheres, Wrangel Island became designated as a nature reserve (or zapovednik) in 1976 to protect the delicate Arctic ecosystem, in particular the snow geese and polar bear, that were being hunted to death. There are no lodgings on the island—a small research base is the only habitation—so the only way to visit is on a ship (and an icebreaker at that), with smaller craft for shore visits. Wrangel is typically one stop on a Bering Strait voyage that also includes the Kuril Islands and Kamchatka. On your way through the strait, you’ll also have a good chance of sighting minke, gray, and even beluga whales. These are long, expensive, summer-only expeditions, and few companies run them—if you see one offered (there were two in July–Aug 2009), jump on it.
and TOUR: Polar Cruises ( 888/484-2244 in the U.S., or 541/330-2454; www.polarcruises.com).

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