Flying high: Aerial surveys of polar bears
This story is based on the diaries of those in the first scientific-experimental program of aerial surveys to evaluate the Russian Arctic’s polar bear populations.
Flying high: Aerial surveys of polar bears
This story is based on the diaries of those in the first scientific-experimental program of aerial surveys to evaluate the Russian Arctic's polar bear populations.
Flying high: Aerial surveys of polar bears
This story is based on the diaries of those in the first scientific-experimental program of aerial surveys to evaluate the Russian Arctic's polar bear populations.
I feel like singing Vakhtang Kikabidze's song:

"Thirty minutes to takeoff,
Thirty minutes to takeoff,
And we have almost reached the runway …"
Samara, 5:00 am. We have topped the fuel tanks, the crew is ready to take off anytime, and we are mentally prepared for the Arctic.

We’ve done a lot to prepare for the expedition. The routes have been charted, and all the equipment has been checked and rechecked. The airfield has been bustling with activity for almost two months. Our La-8 seaplane was fully upgraded and is stuffed with various modules, strap-on systems, tools and instruments, they have replaced portholes with blisters, and a special window for video cameras has been fabricated. The plane’s tail section has received a hatch with monitoring equipment, including cameras and a thermal imaging system. This will help us observe polar bears, the masters of the Arctic, in a practical setting.

The plane was upgraded under close supervision by Chief Designer Dmitry Suslakov, the guy with the blue T-shirt. The pilots love the blue skies. It’s great to watch how these guys work.
White nights and Amderma fog
4:56 pm. The La-8's landing gear softly touches the ground. We have reached Amderma without any trouble or delay after refueling twice, in Kazan and Syktyvkar. Other expedition members, the organizers, scientists and the film crew, hitched a ride on another plane and a helicopter; they changed to a plane in Vorkuta.

Amderma’s strict but hospitable border guards welcome us, check our documents and measured body temperatures. This town once had a population of about 2,000, plus service personnel from a national Air Defense Force unit.
Today, only about 200−300 people and 25 dogs live in Amderma. By the way, there are no stray dogs here, which does the locals credit
Some of the town’s buildings look like they were hit by an air strike. They’re mostly two-story residential buildings, covered with iron. The town has a school, a kindergarten, and they have been trying to build a sports facility for almost ten years. Two years ago, the town had its own hospital that has now been replaced by a paramedic’s office and a pharmacy with little to offer. Plus a bank, a post office and four stores where prices are several times higher than in Moscow thanks to the sea or air delivery process.
© Master of the Arctic expedition
We unpacked all day long at the anchor base and decided to take a walk along the coast in the evening to admire the amazing sights of the southern Kara Sea coast. We regretted this because there was no stopping videographers Vladimir Filippov and Ruslan Kuliyev, and the famous White Nights season made shooting easier.

The fog and wind the next morning dissuaded us from taking off. So, we stayed on the ground, and the crew inspected the plane after the long haul. They filled the tanks and prepared the plane for takeoff. The cameramen and the scientists checked their equipment, and the organizers talked to people; they collected facts for news reports and a documentary.
© Master of the Arctic expedition
We found out that polar bears were just round the corner, and that their shoreline trail passed near Amderma. The locals were happy to talk about their encounters with "the masters of the Arctic."
"They arrive in late August. They’re curious but calm. One of them came along and smelled some fried fish. He peered in through an open window. The guy in the house swung a frying pan at the bear who was scared and ran off toward the sea …"
We were happy to learn that someone was removing the piles of rusty scrap metal cluttering the sea coast, although only two times a year. They also told us that the swamps and marshes were overgrown with cloud-berries, but that there were not enough fish this year. But we were lucky: Alexei, a store owner, gave us a freshly-caught grayling fish. We called him Hemingway because of his resemblance to the writer. "They told me you wanted to try it," he added with a smile.

This made us really happy because unlicensed fishing is prohibited here. Fishermen need permits from the territorial division of the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources (Rospotrebnadzor), but we had no such plans.
© Master of the Arctic expedition
The crew ate the grayling fish through the next day, sitting at the airfield, waiting for the weather to improve. The sky didn't clear up, and dense fog descended on the town. Although the weather got better after dinner, we were unable to take off due to technical problems; they tried to repair the plane until night set in.
© Master of the Arctic expedition
Reindeer Day and Vaigach
August 3. The Arctic felt sorry for us and allowed the La-8 to take off that afternoon after drenching everyone with three downpours punctuated by brief rainbows. Part of the expeditionary group headed for Vaigach Island. The plane covered about 600 km in three and a half hours. No bears were sighted, but expedition members saw a group of about 35 beluga whales, and some welcomed the newcomers by waving their tails.

The second part of the group took the local’s advice and headed for Reindeer Day celebrations in the tundra. We asked Vasily, who owned an all-terrain vehicle, to give us a lift.
Many people drive modified trucks with huge wheels or tracks that look like hybrid four-track tractors
We raced through tundra swamps and marshes, rivers, hills and rocky shores in what turned out to be an extreme journey. The 25-km trip lasted about three hours one way, including time to repair a broken chain. It took us four hours to get back because the four-track tipped over after crossing a river. The driver also stopped briefly near tundra lakes. "I'll just cast my fishing rod a couple of times," he muttered, catching a grayling or an Arctic char with each throw.

The Arctic natives welcomed us with national games and good food. This was an interesting and enjoyable experience, but we were unable to talk frankly about life in the tundra, nomadic traditions and their interaction with modern life because there were too many guests and because we didn’t have enough time. They say you need to spend time in the tundra so the locals can learn to trust you.
The first results
August 4. We flew over to Baidaratskaya Isthmus and cruised over the western coast. The route was really beautiful. The pilots noticed a bright rainbow on the port side, but the rest of us were busy searching for white mammals with our camera viewfinders through the blisters.

There were no bears in sight, but we saw about 15 beluga whales, each about three to four meters long, and some had children. Judging by their chaotic movements, the whales were out hunting.
© Master of the Arctic expedition
Surprisingly, someone pitched a couple of tents on the shore near the town. Their owners turned out to be boating enthusiasts. They took a train from the Vladimir Region to Vorkuta, hitched a truck ride to the Kara River and sailed into the Kara Sea via the river and the Kara Isthmus. They said they hadn’t seen any polar bears. In 2018, however, they encountered several of them in the same area. One bear was swimming in the sea, which they said this was pretty amusing. Meanwhile three predators were looking for food ashore.
After exchanging our impressions, we wished each other luck. We wished the campers a safe water trip without polar bears, and we also wished ourselves a successful flight with plenty of bears
The next day, we planned a 900-km flight over the eastern section of the Pechora Sea, over the Dolgy and Matveyev islands, with a refueling stop in Sabetta. This time, we saw over ten individual beluga whales, rather than groups. We landed on Matveyev Island where a walrus breeding ground is located and conducted a joint research project with our colleagues from the Nenets Reserve and counted the walruses on the ground and from the air.
© Stanislav Zakharov, Master of the Arctic expedition
A close call
Over the next seven days we did nothing but count our fingers. A storm hit the area, with gale-force winds grounding our plane. It was even hard to walk.

August 13. The wind abated to ten meters per second, and the clouds dispersed. Our La-8 circled the airfield and the town once, and we set out again.

Two pilots, three scientists and a cameraman were aboard. The flight plan included two islands, Vaigach and Novaya Zemlya. We covered 900 km in five hours.
The result exceeded all expectations. We counted 15 bears on the southern tip of Novaya Zemlya
All of them were roaming the hilly terrain, that is, in drier tundra sections with many creeks and rivers. Apparently, these Arctic predators fish here. We saw groups of reasonably well-fed adult bears and also lone specimens. However, the shoreline remained empty.

The bears looked toward our plane but didn’t seem to care.

Apart from the polar bears, we saw two reindeer on Novaya Zemlya. We also saw two walruses in Karskiye Vorota Strait, as well as a waste dump in the town of Varnek on Vaigach Island.
Tired but happy
On the 16th day of our expedition, the La-8 spent almost eight hours in midair and covered over 1,600 km. We overflew most of Yamal Peninsula along the shoreline and returned to the anchor base several minutes before dark. Tired but happy, we reviewed the day.

We saw wild reindeer herds, with two to 40 animals per herd, on the western coast of northern Yamal. We also spotted two bears. Judging by their clean white coats and well-fed looks, they are doing fine. The bears were not scared to see a plane droning 300 meters overhead. We saw a seal in the water for the first time in several days; maybe a ringed seal.
© Master of the Arctic expedition
We also managed to visit what scientists described as an ancient walrus breeding ground in 2019, on the western coast of Yamal Peninsula. This time, we saw no walruses there. Anyway, we’ll see their coastal breeding grounds on the eastern routes. Let’s keep looking.

We spotted about 20 beluga whales in Baidaratslaya Isthmus. Another lone beluga whale waved its tail in Malygin Strait.
© Master of the Arctic expedition
© Master of the Arctic expedition
Aviation Day
Before the La-8 crew started eating their cereal on Aviation Day, the expedition’s scientists and administrators sang the song Ever Higher and Higher and Higher…

After eating our fill, we set out on a record-breaking, 1,800-km, flight to Yamal Peninsula. We spent over nine hours in the air, minus another refueling stopover at Sabetta airstrip, and flew over Baidaratskaya Isthmus, Maresalskiye Koshki Spit and finally reached Cape Kharasavei.

During our trip, we checked some previously recorded walrus breeding grounds. But no trace of the Pinnipeds. We saw seven ringed seals relaxing on a spit, and we spotted a small herd of beluga whales on the western coast of Yavai Peninsula.
We saw nothing interesting on Shokalsky Island but counted 22 polar bears and several wild reindeer as we flew over the perimeter of Bely Island
We mostly saw polar bear couples. They were probably young bears or mothers with grown-up children.

One female had a bear born this past spring. This could indicate that bears use the Kara Sea islands for nurseries, scientists note. We saw another bear swimming from Bely Island toward Yamal Peninsula. This was our lucky day.

We flew along several other long routes via Sabetta before returning home.
© Master of the Arctic expedition
Observation results
September 4. The La-8 seaplane landed at Severka Field in the Moscow Region’s Kolomna District after covering 11 routes and over 10,000 km.

Svetlana Radionova, head of the Federal Service for the Supervision of Natural Resources (Rospotrebnadzor), Denis Lebedev, head of the Kolomna Municipal District, journalists and friends greeted us at the airfield.

"Our scientific-experimental program of aerial surveys for counting polar bears, marine mammals and waste dumps in the northern sector is over. There are no special comments on the flights," project manager Vasily Bogoslovsky, an honorary polar explorer and the General Director of the International Environmental Fund Clean Seas Foundation, said after climbing down the ladder.
The expedition team had some good news and some not very good news. They counted 40 bears, over 100 wild reindeer, 250 walruses at breeding grounds and in the water, as well as over 160 beluga whales including pods and individuals. However, these are all tentative estimates. The researchers will study about 30,000 photos before they can reach a credible conclusion and provide accurate statistics.

On the other hand, waste data doesn’t have to be clarified; you can see a garbage dump even without specialized equipment. Almost all of the Bear Trail, a shoreline section in Amderma where polar bears are seen most often, is covered with scrap steel and rusty equipment.
Are 40 bears a lot or is this not enough? A more detailed evaluation of the expedition’s data will help provide the answer. However, judging by research team supervisor Nikita Platonov’s bald head, these statistics are impressive. Nikita promised his young colleague Gleb Pilipenko that he would shave off his hair if more than 30 bears are sighted. The result is here for everyone to see
The Federal Service for the Supervision of Natural Resources (Rosprirodnadzor), the Arctic Initiatives Center and the International Environmental Fund Clean Seas oversee the Master of the Arctic project. Scientists from the Russian Academy of Sciences' Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution drafted the scientific monitoring program.
© Master of the Arctic expedition