Expedition report by Dmitry Kokh
I had dreamed of photographing polar bears for a long time. Some time ago my hobby, wildlife photography, became a big part of my life. And when you devote so much time to an activity, your goals should be ambitious. My favorite thing to photograph is large marine animals, whether on land or underwater. Not everyone knows it, but zoologists classify polar bears as marine mammals because they spend most of their time on ice floes.
There are few places on earth where polar bears are found in large numbers. One of them is Wrangel Island in the very east of Russia. Since 1976 the island has been a nature reserve and in 2004 its landscape was declared the northernmost natural world heritage site by UNESCO and included on the list of the world cultural and natural heritage of mankind. In addition, Wrangel Island is often referred to as a maternity ward for polar bears. The place is very inaccessible and rarely visited by tourists.
Preparations for the expedition to Wrangel Island took almost two years, and last August we finally set off for the north of Chukotka on a small yacht. We sailed about 2,000 km (1,200 miles) along the coast, stopping in secluded bays and photographing gray and humpback whales. We encountered an incredible variety of birds, several brown bears, sea lions and seals. We went diving in the waters of the Chukchi Sea, which turned out to be full of life. I felt like I was in a parallel universe. Days and weeks passed. Landscapes have changed dozens of times: sunny pebble beaches, steep cliffs, mountains and tundra. Finally, after passing Cape Dezhnev and heading toward Wrangel Island, we began to encounter loose sea ice, which was unusual for the time of year. We had assumed that the pack ice limit would be much further north.
One day bad weather was expected and the captain approached the small Kolyuchin Island to seek shelter from the storm. Kolyuchin is famous for the polar weather station, which was established in Soviet times in 1943, but was closed in 1992. Even today the abandoned village stands on the island.
The blustery wind and rain and the neglected buildings on the rocky shores made everything that was happening seem surreal. Suddenly we noticed movement in the windows of the houses. Someone pulled out binoculars and we saw the heads of polar bears. Fog, a place long since deserted, polar bears — it was the perfect backdrop.
The bears walked around the houses and between barrels that were left on the island long ago. There were about 20 animals in view at one time, mostly males. The females kept closer to the coast of the island with their young. Barrels are a known problem in the Russian Arctic. At the time of the Soviet Union, fuel was delivered to the station in such barrels. The return transport of the empty containers was very expensive, however, so they were simply left lying around.
That day it was too dangerous to land on the island, so I took photos with a drone equipped with special low-noise propellers. I also used certain tricks that allowed me to photograph the animals without disturbing them much. After a while, the bears ignored the unusual buzzing.
Later I asked one of Russia’s top polar bear experts, Anatoly Kochnev, what causes the animals’ behavior — why do they like to sit indoors so much? The biologist, who worked for many years in Chukotka and on the island of Kolyuchin, told me that polar bears are very curious by nature and therefore always try to get through any unlocked window or door. And secondly, unfortunately, these animals are traditionally hunted and use these houses as a shelter from people.
But then he told me something even more interesting. It turns out that bears are very rare in such numbers on the island. No one knows why, but every nine years the loose pack ice stays near the coast during the summer. Consequently, the bears do not migrate further north with the ice as usual and settle in the abandoned polar station. We saw proof of this later when we encountered almost no bears on Wrangel Island to the north.
Although several months have passed since the expedition, I still sometimes see polar bears in dilapidated windows before my eyes when I fall asleep. And looking at the main photo in my life right now, the House of Bears, I think that sooner or later all man-made things on earth will cease to exist — buildings, cars and computers will all meet their end. These bears will continue to hunt, swim among ice floes, and explore islands even as civilization ceases to exist. But life will only last forever if we humans finally start taking care of the planet and the creatures that need our protection.
Text + images by Dmitry Kokh
Website of Dmitry Kokh