National Geographic

A Picture Postcard From Wild Wrangel Island

National Geographic
 

If something seems impossibly remote, you call it Siberia. And if Siberians want to make the analogy, they could call it Wrangel Island. About 90 miles off the coast of northeastern Siberia, the 91-mile-long island has been inhabited by some humans over the years — but has been home to a superabundance of wildlife such as polar bears, Pacific walruses and musk oxen.

In the May issue of National Geographic magazine, Hampton Sides writes about the Russian federally managed nature sanctuary. And images by Russian photographer Sergey Gorshkov show what the words can't.

  • Musk oxen, more akin to goats and sheep than to oxen, were introduced to Wrangel Island in 1975 and now number about 800. In September, with mating season underway, bulls engage in frequent head-butting confrontations to establish dominance.
    Hide caption
    Musk oxen, more akin to goats and sheep than to oxen, were introduced to Wrangel Island in 1975 and now number about 800. In September, with mating season underway, bulls engage in frequent head-butting confrontations to establish dominance.
    Sergey Gorshkov/National Geographic
  • A barrier beach of marine rubble stretches toward desolate Cape Blossom, at the southwestern tip of Wrangel Island. The Siberian mainland lies 88 miles to the south.
    Hide caption
    A barrier beach of marine rubble stretches toward desolate Cape Blossom, at the southwestern tip of Wrangel Island. The Siberian mainland lies 88 miles to the south.
    Sergey Gorshkov/National Geographic
  • A feisty fox drives a snow goose from her nest, a gambit before an act of egg thievery. A colony of geese migrates to the island in May after wintering in North America.
    Hide caption
    A feisty fox drives a snow goose from her nest, a gambit before an act of egg thievery. A colony of geese migrates to the island in May after wintering in North America.
    Sergey Gorshkov/National Geographic
  • Wrangel's sprawling gravel spits are home to large haul-outs of Pacific walruses, especially since climate change has made their preferred habitat, the ice pack, ever more tenuous. A healthy adult like this big female usually holds its own in a fight with a polar bear.
    Hide caption
    Wrangel's sprawling gravel spits are home to large haul-outs of Pacific walruses, especially since climate change has made their preferred habitat, the ice pack, ever more tenuous. A healthy adult like this big female usually holds its own in a fight with a polar bear.
    Sergey Gorshkov/National Geographic
  • An arctic fox pup, just beginning to show its white winter coat, plays with a lemming carcass. Wrangel's foxes subsist largely on these snow-burrowing rodents, whose numbers fluctuate wildly from year to year.
    Hide caption
    An arctic fox pup, just beginning to show its white winter coat, plays with a lemming carcass. Wrangel's foxes subsist largely on these snow-burrowing rodents, whose numbers fluctuate wildly from year to year.
    Sergey Gorshkov/National Geographic
  • A mother polar bear and her two cubs search for prey. Wrangel Island has been called the world's polar bear maternity ward. Some years hundreds of mother bears overwinter here with their young.
    Hide caption
    A mother polar bear and her two cubs search for prey. Wrangel Island has been called the world's polar bear maternity ward. Some years hundreds of mother bears overwinter here with their young.
    Serqey Gorshkov/National Geographic

1 of 6

View slideshow i

In an interview on All Things Considered, Sides explains that Gorshkov made a fortune in the oil business before deciding to become a photographer.

"He lives in Moscow and has more money than he probably knows what to do with," Sides adds on the phone after the interview. "Some people have described him as an oligarch."

Hampton Sides poses with a wooly mammoth tusk. According to National Geographic, scientists believe the island to be the last place mammoths lived before they went extinct. i i

hide captionHampton Sides poses with a wooly mammoth tusk. According to National Geographic, scientists believe the island to be the last place mammoths lived before they went extinct.

Courtesy of Hampton Sides
Hampton Sides poses with a wooly mammoth tusk. According to National Geographic, scientists believe the island to be the last place mammoths lived before they went extinct.

Hampton Sides poses with a wooly mammoth tusk. According to National Geographic, scientists believe the island to be the last place mammoths lived before they went extinct.

Courtesy of Hampton Sides

But unless he could afford to hire a helicopter, these photos probably wouldn't be possible. Wrangel Island is prohibitively difficult to access — except by helicopter and icebreaker (not to mention all the required permits).

"This is a guy who has dedicated hundreds of thousands of dollars and so much of his time to getting these images right," says Sides.

Although Gorshkov had been to the island several times before Sides, the two traveled together for the purpose of the magazine story. For photographers and scientists, the draw to such an inhospitable place is that the island has remained unchanged in many ways for epochs. Traveling to Wrangel Island is like traveling back in time.

"You're looking at a kind of nature that has been ... largely this way since the Pleistocene time," Sides says. Plus, he describes Gorshkov as a lone wolf. "He likes to get away from humanity, and this is about as far away from humanity as you can get."

For aspiring photographers, Gorshkov's story might be inspiration. He didn't pick up a camera until his mid-40s.

"He's pretty fearless," says Sides. "Some of those images you just can't get unless you're right up there with these animals."

Like the images of musk oxen head-butting and polar bears denning. This is just a tiny selection of Gorshkov's work, but you can learn more about Wrangel Island in the National Geographic article and see more on Gorshkov's website.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: