The Bering and Chukchi Seas—located between Alaska and Russia—are two of the planet’s most intense aquatic environments, and the people and wildlife that have made their homes here are nothing short of resilient.
Polar bear maternity ward: Located above the Arctic Circle at the edge of the Chukchi Sea, Russia’s Wrangel Island is a haven for all sorts of wildlife, from arctic foxes and snowy owls to reindeer, walruses, and shaggy musk oxen. The conditions here seem especially hospitable to mama polar bears. The island holds the world’s highest density of polar bear dens—which is why it’s known as the “polar bear maternity ward.”
Wild and wooly: Wrangel Island was also the last known refuge of the extinct wooly mammoth—a hairy, large-tusked relative of the elephant. Tusks, teeth, and skulls unearthed from the island show that mammoths lived here for more than 5,000 years after the species disappeared from the mainland.
A trip down Whale Bone Alley: On Russia’s remote Yttygran Island, massive whale ribs, jawbones, and vertebrae are believed to mark the spot where indigenous people gathered for ceremonial whale butchering. The bones, arranged two by two and sticking straight up from the tundra, form an eerie walkway that stretches more than a quarter of a mile along the shoreline.
Drawing a line in the ice: Separated by the international date line, the islands of Little and Big Diomede are only 2.4 miles apart, but still a continent away from one another. In the winter, when the mercury drops low enough, you could technically walk across an ice bridge between the American isle of Little Diomede and Russia’s Big Diomede—and you would gain nearly a full day in the process. It would be illegal, but we doubt you’d encounter much of a border patrol.
Hollywood of the far north: Since 2005, the Discovery Channel has been airing Deadliest Catch, a television series that documents the Bering Sea commercial crab fishing fleet operating out of Dutch Harbor on the Aleutian isle of Unalaska. The long-running show has made celebrities out of these daring fishermen, and if the time of year is right, you’re likely to spot a few stars at one of the local watering holes.
Beware the bald eagle: Bald eagles, typically associated with American patriotism, have a less than majestic reputation in Dutch Harbor. The residents here regard our national bird as urbanites view pigeons—only much more menacing. Hundreds of eagles nest and scavenge on Unalaska Island, especially during fishing season, and they’ve been known to use their sharp talons for snatching snacks right from residents’ hands—sometimes sending them to the local medical clinic for hand and scalp stitches!
Land of the Rising Sun: The Aleutian isles of Kiska and Attu are two of just four U.S. islands that were occupied by Japanese forces during World War II. Remnants of the occupation, including rusted-out war relics and shipwrecks, can still be seen around these uninhabited isles, now ruled by large seabird colonies.
Continental drift: For American birders, some of the most exciting sightings in the Bering Sea are of rare Asian vagrants—Asiatic bird species that have drifted to North American isles. Sightings on the Aleutians include marsh sandpipers, the grey-capped or Oriental greenfinch, and common rosefinches.
Galápagos of the North: The Pribilof Islands, a small group of volcanic isles due north of the Aleutians, have been called the “Galápagos of the North,” owing to their massive seal and seabird colonies. Here, the northern fur seals number more than half a million strong, and avian species include horned and tufted puffins, red-legged kittiwakes, and crested auklets.
A whale of a discovery: In June 2014, the remains of a beaked whale were found on a beach in the Pribilof Islands. When locally based researchers examined the specimen, they were unable to identify it. The black cetacean, which has yet to be named, is believed to be a previously unclassified species that Japanese fishermen have long called karasu, meaning raven.
Explore the islands of the Bering and Chukchi Seas on an expedition cruise with National Geographic.