Top of the World: Polar bears in the Siberian Arctic

While Polar Bears are the biggest drawcard, this unique cruise offers much more as well.
While Polar Bears are the biggest drawcard, this unique cruise offers much more as well. (Iain Campbell)

Imagine seeing over 70 Polar bears during the denning season when they have cubs, in the remote Siberian wilderness of northeast Russia. This is the reality of the 15 day Top of the World cruise. The expedition begins at Anadyr, the capital of Chukotka, where we board Heritage Expedition’s sublime and luxuriously-renovated Spirit of Enderby – an ice-strengthened former research vessel. As we depart, we hope for a good look at the ghostly white Beluga Whale. Our first stop is the remarkable Yttyrgran Island, where we explore Whale-bone Alley, an archaeological site of international importance. We begin to encounter some great Arctic birds including Snow Buntings and a mix of jaegers. We will sail through the Bering strait, towards our next destination: the former Polar Bear research station at Kolyuchin Island. Huge colonies of Walrus are backed up here by a fabulous set of seacliffs, where we can expect intimate encounters with the fabulous Tufted Puffin, a selection of alcids including Pigeon and Black Guilemots and Glaucous and Vega Gulls. The ice and weather conditions may force a change in tack at this juncture, but one way or another we will make it to the amazing Wrangel and Herald islands, which are the core focal spots of this tour. Within the next few days you will be inundated with Polar Bears, but there is more to Wrangel than the “ice bear” – the commanding Snowy Owl is relatively common here and we ought to see double-digit numbers of these, while we hope for the rugged Gyrfalcon to make a dramatic appearance in a scene dominated by seabirds such as Parakeet, Least and Crested Auklets. A smattering of migrants may include Buff-bellied and Red-throated Pipits, or a handful of hardy shorebirds. Although birds are not abundant at these extreme latitudes, we will hope to encounter a quartet of eiders: Common and King are given, but we need luck for the less predictable Steller’s and near-mythical Spectacled. A vision in white may yield an Ivory Gull, while the stark landscapes are brightened by delicate wildflowers forcing their way through the inhospitable ice. Wrangel, however, is a magical place for mammals, and we hope to encounter the cute Arctic Fox, powerful Musk Ox and huge herds of reindeer. We will also be hoping to encounter one of the great ‘bad-attitude’ mammals on earth, the invincible Wolverine, which is unafraid to tackle a bear 30 times its size. Other mammalian moments on this magic cruise through the rich waters could include encounters with Minke, Humpback and Gray Whales, or a chance encounter with the rarer Orca or Sei Whale. A stop at Kolyuchin Inlet, which contains vast numbers of waterbirds and shorebirds promises up some of the scarcest birds on Earth, the mighty Emperor Goose, and the endangered and enigmatic Spoon-billed Sandpiper in its roguish ‘rouge’ breeding plumage. Either of these rarities could be bird of the trip for some. Finally, before heading back south we pass ‘Tomorrow Island and Yesterday Isle’ two rocky outposts separated by the International Date Line we may encounter our final new birds of the trip including Horned Puffin, Black-legged Kittiwake and Brunnich’s Guillemot. We return to Andayr recovering from the exhilaration of the last fortnight.