Had you been on the bridge of National Geographic Orion early this morning as we approached the north tip of Kolyuchin Island, as the first bear was sighted—the first polar bear of the trip—you might’ve heard a loud whooshing sound. That sound was expedition leader Jimmy’s sigh of relief. We had found a bear; we would undoubtedly find more; any anxiousness on that score was soon dispelled.
In fact, during the course of the day we found a ton more bears: on our Zodiac cruise in the morning, on our second one in the afternoon from a different location, and from the ship while cruising by bird cliffs and walrus haul-outs. At the end of the day, no one could really remember how many—but there were a lot. Plus hundreds of walrus and uncountable numbers of seabirds, including, yes, puffins. We had both tufted and horned, charmingly perched on their front-porch ledges up on the cliffs.
So, today we checked a number of things off our collective list, to Jimmy’s relief. But the experience didn’t feel so much like checking a list as it did like passing through a gateway. Kolyuchin Island is, in a way, our portal to the Arctic and its surprising and spectacular abundance of wildlife. North of the island stretches an empty ocean, and beyond it, the vast polar ice pack and Wrangel Island. We sail there now.