Chukotka Autonomous Okrug

Whale bones on Itygran Island

The famous Whale Alley — Chukotka's unique archaeological site

06.09.2022//Itygran Island has been unaware of its glory for a very long time. Situated far from the 'big world,' it has for centuries been a home and staging post for sea hunters. That all changed in the second third of the 20th century when Soviet scientists accidentally discovered a cult archaeological complex made entirely of whale bones. Today people no longer live on Itygran Island, but many know about it and yearn to see the famous Whale Alley at least once in their lives.

The island in the Senyavin Strait of the Bering Sea, within the Providensky district, is located north of Cape Chukotsky, at the southeastern tip of the Chukotka Peninsula, 1.5 km from the mainland coast and 3.8 km from Arakamchechen Island. It covers an area of 55 sq km.

The name of the island means 'wolf's den' in Chukchi; its Eskimo name is Sikluk ('meat pit'). Another version links the toponym to the Chukchi word 'yetgyran', 'halfway house.' It has to do with the fact that hunters, travelling by dog or kayak from Chaplino to Yanrakynnot, always stopped to rest on this island, where they hunted sea animals and stocked up on meat.

There are two small lakes on the island, Sredneye and Kamalikakh. On the rocky promontories along the perimeter of the Itygran, you can see colonies of seabirds, up to 10,000 pairs in total, nesting in the colonies of pelagic cormorants, large white-headed gulls, kittiwakes, guillemots, pigeon guillemots, horned puffins and tufted puffins. The island's highest point is Mount Itygran, 545 m high. Feeding grey whales can be seen around the island, with beluga whales and bowhead whales frequenting the area.

But it's not the lakes and mountains that make the place so attractive; it's also home to the world-famous Whale Alley, an ancient Eskimo structure of partly-buried bowhead whale skulls and jaws, discovered by an archaeological expedition in 1977.

The Whale Alley consists of 50–60 skulls, 30 jaws and hundreds of purposefully laid stones. The bizarre structure is dated about 14th–16th centuries A.D. Striking are both the size of the Alley that stretches along the northern shore for about 500 m and its intricate structure.

The row nearest to the shore is made up of whale skulls, up to 2 m wide and rising 1.5 m above the ground. Parallel to that is the second row, formed by posts made out of jawbones. The posts are almost 5 m tall and about 0.5 m in diameter.
The Whale Alley complex was discovered by accident. In 1976, an expedition from the Institute of Ethnography of the USSR Academy of Sciences, led by M. A. Chlenov, passed along the coast of Chukotka on a research vessel. The morning fog suddenly cleared the breeze, and the scientists saw an island with many whale bones vertically embedded in the ground.

According to researchers, Whale Alley was the central sanctuary of a large intercommunal association that existed on the shores of the Senyavin Strait and adjacent territories. Residents of the surrounding villages would come to Itygran for festivities and rituals.

Itygran Island is often included in tours of Chukotka's 'far away.' However, to see the unforgettable Whale Alley complex, you'll have to put up with the hardships of camping life and unpredictable weather. Travellers are usually warned that there may be adjustments to the programme—a delayed flight, a sudden storm or a stranded rover can seriously alter plans. On the other hand, going through these challenges can give you a real sense of pioneering spirit. The most comfortable way to travel, on the other hand, is by sea.

You can also get to Whale Alley on your own. Since the sanctuary is on an island, the easiest way to reach it is by whale boat from Yanrakynnot settlement. In winter, you can walk to Itygran and Whale Alley directly on the ice, but it is better to bring an experienced guide.

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