Tag Archives: seabirds

Bear Island

Bear Island is the first stop on the way north from Tromso to Svalbard, an archipelago well above the Arctic Circle governed by Norway. The southern end of Bear Island is a paradise for breeding birds like the Common Guillemot and the Kittiwake, a small and elegant looking gull that screeches its own name in an incessant cacophony.


On approach to Bear Island in the summer months you would hear thousands of birds screaming, “Kittiwake! Kittiwake!” in unison. When they fly off the steep cliffs of the island in great white waves, their opaque wings catch the bright sunlight and give you the impression of being trapped, in miniature, in the center of a snow globe that’s been shaken vigorously by a small child.


In addition to supporting about one million nesting seabirds, the island fools me into thinking that some higher power designed the landscape specifically for Zodiacs. It is one of the most incredible places to cruise in a small inflatable boat that I have encountered anywhere on the planet.

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With a sea cave 150 meters long and massive rock arches; the thrill of driving around this island leaves a permanent grin on my face. And not only is the stone architecture impressive, but the narrow rocky ledges are the ideal nooks and crannies for all the seabirds and the strata of the island are literally covered in birds fussing over their eggs.

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In the case of the Common Guillemot, the birds lay a single egg on a narrow shelf of bare rock. The egg is pear-shaped and will spin on a small axis in the event that it is disturbed. Evolution has ensured that it won’t crash down into the sea below. The kittiwakes however construct solid nests woven with bits of vegetation and seaweed and year after year the beehive-shaped nests grow a little higher.


In early June, the island was sprinkled with a powdered sugar layer of snow, but visiting again now in July, I see the green of the tundra taking hold and thriving in the rich guano-fed soil. I look forward to visiting again in a few weeks time when the chicks of all these hundreds of thousands of seabirds will be joining the throng.

IMG_9527 IMG_9537(Thanks to Prof. James Floyd for snapping these shots for me during our Zodiac cruise!)



The far eastern coast of Siberia is not a place I ever dreamed to find myself, but here I discovered a wild, bountiful and theatrical coast. The backdrops should be scouted for a new season of Game of Thrones.


Small Zodiacs are stunted by the spiked and rocky Yamskie Islands.

Outrageous spikey rock islands are literally crawling with nesting Black-legged Kittiwakes, Murres, Puffins and Auklets of several species.


Horned Puffins on the rocks above their burrows.

Elegant in the sea and wallowing on the shores, are Northern Fur Seals and behemoth Steller Sea Lions like blond kings and queens of their realm.



Steller’s Sea Lions plow through the water and congregate on shore.

Despite thick fog at almost every destination, we launched the Zodiacs and with the aid of GPS technology, switched to the olfactory and auditory senses to creep and crawl landward through the gray haze. Chattering seabirds, grunting pinnepeds and lapping waves were our guides into most island stops.


Common Murres by the thousands on the water around Malminskie Island

At Piltun Lagoon I witnessed a mother and calf Western Pacific Gray Whale – two of the remaining ~130 left in the world. They stayed with our boats and let us marvel at their size, giving us glimpses of their barnacle-encrusted bodies.


A critically endangered Western Pacific Gray Whale calf outside Piltun Lagoon.

Perhaps an hour after leaving the encounter, I was trying to find the entrance to the lagoon in the fog with a couple of colleagues in a Zodiac and the whales reappeared. They were travelling with us, parallel to the coast, swimming beneath the boat and shadowing our passage close enough to be touched. Astounding.


Anglers and visitors at Piltun Lagoon with the lighthouse in the distance icey haze.

Fedora Bay was new for everyone on the ship since it’s almost always iced in at the far north reaches of the Sea of Okhotsk. Our Russian guide had tried a handful of other times to access the bay, but had always previously been blocked by fast ice.


One of four Russian rangers who live year-round in Fedora Bay with their dogs and a cat as guardians of the fishery and wildlife resources here.

Somehow I was swept up in a spontaneous hike with one of the local Russian-speaking rangers to the summit of a nearby peak. Beating our way through nearly impenetrable brush, we became the first foreigners to ever reach the mountaintop and take in the views. It was an exhausting, but exhilarating accomplishment and is probably the wildest spot on the planet that I’ll ever set foot on.


Looking down over stunted pine trees at Fedora Bay and a rivermouth ship wreck from our unchartered Siberian peak.


Russian wildlife ranger/guide and his dog at the top of a mountain he claims no one has climbed since the 1960s and that no foreigner has ever climbed.

In a dramatic about-face we visited the city of Okhotsk with about 5000 people living on the coast between Siberia and the Sea of Okhotsk. Language was an issue, but despite the communication barrier I spent time with some of the local kids letting them try out my binoculars and swapping simple vocabulary words.


Local kids in the city of Okhotsk. I showed them my binoculars and they taught me some Russian vocabulary.

Seeing the indigenous people with their clothes, lifestyle and beadwork so similar to people in North America was thought provoking. Reindeer, cranberries, dog sleds, fur lined skin clothing and meals cooked fireside were all icons of the culture. The people are relatable and realistic in this remote setting.


A little girl in her traditional beaded clothes happily chewing away on an apple brought from the ship.



Works of art in progress.

Back out into the uninhabited realms we encountered Ursus arctos, the brown bear. One particularly curious bear purposefully walked the shoreline within a few meters of our small fleet of Zodiacs, at times resting pensively on the shoreline and staring out at us through the rain drops. The rest of the time it appeared preoccupied with searching for food and filling its belly with mouthfuls of fresh green grass. I never knew a bear could or would eat so much grass, chewing on it like a grazing cow.


Ursos arctos, the brown bear checking us out in our Zodiacs around Zaviyalova Island.

Far Eastern Siberia is not a target for the “1001 Places to Visit Before You Die” crowd – yet. There have been days I’ve had to pinch myself that I truly had the chance to visit this faraway borderline between Russia and the North Pacific Ocean. The mind-blowing magnitude of birds and marine life has truly amazed me.


I’m glad to know a place this rich in wildlife, wild flowers and wild places, and at the same time I am afraid for its future in light of the fact that it’s all perched on some of the richest oil and natural gas fields in the world.


Thick-billed Murres

Siberia and the Sea of Okhotsk may be one of the world’s last major proving grounds of our ability as a species to cohabit with wilderness.


Common Murres sitting on eggs while Northern Fur Seals start to haul up onto the beaches of Tuleniy Island for their breeding season.


Tiny Whiskered Auklets rest in a rocky crevise.


A Northern Fur Seal full of mating season aggression.