Chukotka Autonomous Okrug

Big Ice Island in the North Sea Route

How Polar Bears, Birds, and Walruses Took Over a Soviet Weather Station

1 August 2022 // The Kolyuchin Island hardly ever notices people. For thousands of years, it was washed by the Chukchi Sea; walruses crowded its beaches, and seabird calls resounded over it. Local hunters would occasionally drop by here, never to stay long. Then, other people came. Those were scientists and servicemen who built houses and a weather station. They spent almost 60 years here, before leaving again. Today, the island is part of the Beringia Nature Reserve, and again, any person is a rare guest here, only coming to revel in the pristine splendour of Northern nature.

The island is located in the north of the Iultinskiy District, near the village of Nutepelmen. It is a rocky residual hill with a maximum height of 188 m. Kolyuchin Island was first listed on the map drawn by the Chukchi Nikolay Daurkin back in 1769. In Inuit, 'qulusiq' means 'big ice floe,' and 'quvluchi' means 'circle.'

Like the Arctic islands of Wrangel and Herald, Kolyuchin is a haven for polar bears. It is also enjoyed by Northern birds as a place to rest after long flights. Every summer, it turns into a lively bird colony. The pebbly and sandy beaches of Kolyuchin attract are a hot spot for walrus haulouts. This allows Chukchi hunters from the nearby villages of Nutepelmen and Vankarem to live their ancient lifestyle: walruses are their source of food, clothing, as well as materials for making household items, hunting tools, jewelry and gifts.

Kolyuchin lies on the North Sea Route. Its steep rocky shores remember Semyon Dezhnev's koch sailboats, the ships of James Cook's expedition, Ferdinand Wrangell's vessels and also the Taymyr and Vaygach military icebreakers, whose journey marked the beginning of the consistent, systematic development of the North Sea Route. In the 20th century, Soviet polar explorers lived and worked on Kolyuchin Island.

People left Kolyuchin in the 1990s, and it turned back into the realm of polar bears, walruses and birds.

Koluchinskaya Bay

It is the second largest bay of the Chukchi Sea, deeply wedged into the Chukotka Peninsula's northern coast. Being this vast, it is clearly visible in satellite images. The original name given to it in 1793, Count Bezborodko Bay (in honour of the statesman Prince Aleksandr Bezborodko) did not catch on; the bay got its current name from the nearby Kolyuchin Island. These parts are remarkably wild, desolate, yet stunning. Gray whales feeding just a few metres from the coastline can often be seen here. The bay is 100 km long, separated from the sea by the Belaya spit. It is only 2.8 km wide at the entrance, with a top width of about 37 km. It is rich in salmonid species, including pink salmon, chinook salmon and char, as well as least cisco and rainbow smelt. The coasts of the southern Kolyuchinskaya Bay are home to mass breeding grounds of the tundra swan, as well as several diving duck and wader species. Emperor and black brant geese come here to molt.

The easiest way to get to Kolyuchin is by cruise ship. Travel companies offer tours here on comfortable vessels. You can enjoy the natural beauty and take photos while standing boardside, or even sail a boat close to the island. Landing at will is prohibited, however; these places are protected, being part of the Beringia National Park.

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