Saturday, August 23, 2014

Conduit to the New World

Greetings All,
We were treated to smooth seas on our way back south along the Chukotka Coast.  We made a landing on Kolyuchin Island now part of Beringia National Park formed by the Russian Government last year.  The island is a treasure trove of wildlife.  On the northern tip are cliffs teeming with bird life.  We climbed to the top of the island, crossed over to the cliffs and finally got great views of Horned Puffins.  They look like tiny clowns with their bulbous beaks, outlandish eyebrows and big red feet.

Horned Puffin

The Murres or Guillimots as they are also called lined up along narrow cliffs in their smart tuxedos.  Here they are the "Penguins of the Arctic".

Murres or Guillemots

A closer look revealed that there are two species.  Brunnich's Guillemot (Thick-billed Murre) with a white stipe on the bill and the white on their breast culminating in a "V" under their chins.  Common Murres of Guillemots lack the white stripe on the bill and the white on their breasts does not end in a pronounced "V".

Common and Thick-billed Murres

There was also a second species of Puffin here.  Tufted Puffins have creamy tassels on the side of their heads and lack the white breast of the Horned Puffins.

Tufted & horned Puffins

Black-legged Kittiwakes were still rearing chicks on the narrow, over-crowded cliffs.

Black-legged Kittiwakes

Evening was approaching and we boarded the Zodiacs to travel to the southern end of the Island to see a large Walrus haulout.  The Zodiac was bobbing, the light was low and the Walrus were about 100 yards away but Marc managed to get some good photos.

Walrus Haulout

There were about 800-1000 Pacific Walrus resting on the rocky beach.  It was not the largest haulout by any means, 60,000 animals once hauled out on Cape Blossom on Wrangel Island, but still very impressive.  It was getting dark and we headed back to the ship.

The next day we arrived at the Chukchi village of Uelen, the sun was shining, the seas were calm and the Gray Whales were spouting all around us.

Gray Whale

They would come to the surface exhaling a puff of water vapor about six times before diving with a flick of their massive tails to feed.

Gray Whale Fluke

Unlike similar sized whales, Gray Whales don't have a dorsal fin.  In the summer they come to the rich Arctic waters to feed before returning to Baja, Mexico in the winter to give births to their calves.

When we arrived on the beach in Uelen, the village hunters had just killed a Gray Whale and were in the process of dragging it ashore to process it.

Gray Whale Hunt

It was sad to see after watching many live whales feeding happily in the harbor.  The International Whaling Commission has granted the following catch limit for aboriginal subsistence whaling: Eastern North Pacific gray whales (taken by native people of Chukotka and Washington State) - A total catch of 620 whales is allowed for the years 2008 - 2012 with a maximum of 140 in any one year.  People here have been hunting whales for millennia and today the tradition lives on. (Note: no mention of quotas after 2012 was found on the IWC website)

We visited the school which at this time of year is not in session.  We did visit a classroom where the Chukchi language is taught from grades 2-9.  The language is dying out and there are efforts underway to revive it.  Before the Russians arrived in Chukotka, the Chukchi language was only spoken.  Now it has been written with the Russian alphabet plus two new letters.  I asked the Chukchi teacher in attendance if she could speak her native tongue for us so we could hear how it sounds. Here is a short video clip of the Chukchi language so you can hear for yourselves.

Next stop was the museum.  On the way we passed the local "delivery tank" that had just brought up a supply of apples and oranges from the south.

Delivery Tank

A few baidaras minus the walrus skin were stored on top of shipping containers, not Bowhead jawbones like the old days.

Stored Baidara frames

The people of Uelen are famous for carving walrus ivory.  Intricate figures are carved from the tusks of walrus using special tools although today dentist drills are more commonly used.

Walrus Tusk Carvings

Stories are carved into whole tusks then colored with special pencils.  There were a few trinkets for sale but we all refrained.  Even though there is no ban on walrus ivory like there is for elephant ivory, there is a Marine Mammal Protection Act which prohibits the import of walrus ivory into the US.

We gathered at the Community Center to watch a native dance performance.  The young girls were dressed in their kamleikas or traditional cotton dress in preparation for the dance.

Chukchi Girls

The weather was so nice their performance was moved to the beach where the Bering Sea provided a beautiful backdrop.  Five men, 3 of which beat seal skin drums, and 11 women and girls danced and sang for us.  Many dances were performed including the "welcome dance", the "walrus dance" and the comical "squirrel dance".  Here is a short clip so you can enjoy the performance as well.

Watching the performance I couldn't help thinking "this is where it all began".  People from present-day Chukotka made their way to North America to begin life on a new continent. It was widely held that humans crossed the Bering Land Bridge after the last glacial period approximately 13,000 years ago the so-called Clovis Theory.  New evidence suggests that they sailed their boats south along the coast crossing the present day Gulf of Alaska to the shore of what is now Washington State before the last ice age ended around 14,000 years ago!  Whatever theory you believe Chukotka has served as a conduit for humans, animals and plants to enter the New World!

We'd like to thank the staff and crew of Heritage Expeditions for an extraordinary expedition.  This voyage opened a whole new world for me, the amazing Arctic.  Global warming is causing profound changes to this fragile environment.  As the ice melts ships can venture further and further north.  It's great for us but it also opens the area to oil and gas exploration.  The animals and plants will learn to adapt to the changing climate or move into new areas but humans ultimately hold their fate.  I hope that we will choose to preserve rather than exploit the cultural, anthropological and natural history of this wondrous place, the high Arctic!

We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc

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