The Saints of the Bering Sea
St. Lawrence. St. Matthew. St. Paul. St. George. Why so many saints in the Bering Sea? They arrived in the 1700s when the Russians named islands after them in recognition of the Russian orthodox saint days associated with their date of “discovery.” (In the case of St. George, its skipper named the island after his ship.) More accurately, these places were re-named, since all were spoken for by native peoples, many of the Yupik group, eons before the Russian explorers arrived.
We were honored to make landfall on several of these remote islands on our way across the Bering Sea from Provideniya, Russia in the expedition ship, National Geographic Orion in July.
Our approach to St. Matthew Island was tantalizing, as a draping fog slowly lifted to reveal a vivid green jewel with thousand-foot cliff faces, craggy and crowded with seabird nests. The place is pretty much smack-dab in the middle of the sea, 140 miles west of its nearest neighbor, Nunivak Island, 295 miles south of Provideniya, and 372 miles southwest of our starting point in Nome.
That afternoon I took the “long hike” option (my usual style). We climbed to the top of this uninhabited island, only to be met by the videographer’s filming drone! The terrain was lush, with soft footing through dense, low vegetation. There are no trees on the Bering Sea islands, testament to the more vicious weather of much of the year. We were serenaded by singing voles (native to Alaska and NW Canada), and enjoyed sightings of McKay’s Bunting, an attractive, rare bird; St. Matthew is one of just two places where this species breeds.
Overnight, we steamed 240 miles south-southeast to the Pribilof Islands, a group of four isolated volcanic islands in the wide open expanse of the Bering Sea. About 2,000 people live on St. Paul (mostly of Aleut descent), but it seemed a big town to us by then! There’s a school (100 students K-12), a U.S. post office, one bar, a small (but impressively comprehensive) store, and the Russian Orthodox Church. St. Paul Island (indeed, all the Pribilof Islands) were already known to the Aleut people, who called them “Amiq” long before being “discovered” by explorer Gavriil Pribylov on July 12, 1787. Sadly, the Aleut people were essentially enslaved in the 18th century to work the fur trade for the Russians in brutal and inhumane conditions.
On St. Paul, I earned my 10,000(+) steps walking to two excellent wildlife viewing opportunities: a viewing stand just above the fur seal calving rookeries, with nearby access to eye level views of the sea birds nesting on cliffs. Although the millions of fur seals of yesteryear have diminished to maybe 400,000, it was entrancing to watch the bulls, mothers, and bleating baby seals. They were coping with unseasonably warm temperatures by vigorously fanning themselves with their flipper-feet. Another high point was my first up-close encounter with the endearing puffins!
Just 43 miles southeast of St. Paul is the other large Pribilov Island, St. George. Along the way we encountered a sperm whale, fin whales, and a ninety-minute encounter with a pod of killer whales apparently teaching their young to hunt! That’s the difference between a “cruise” and this expedition: There was always time to divert from the script to investigate things of interest like this (stay tuned for an upcoming blog about the sea critters we saw along the way).
St. George was discovered by Gavriil Pribylov on June 25, 1786 (a year before nearby St. Paul!). We didn’t visit the 100 or so people living there, since our anchorage was on the opposite side of the island from the village. Instead, we zodiac-cruised among the millions of mostly-migratory seabirds. The Bering Sea was offering up a feast for them, and a couple of times we were treated to “bait balls” of upwellings of fish that the birds attacked with relish.
The remoteness of these places in the Bering Sea is challenging to relate. It was a journey to places hard to reach and seldom (if ever) visited. I was consistently impressed at the marine navigation and courage of long-ago explorers in frail vessels such as kayaks or wooden sailboats who had no idea what they’d find, or how they’d get home again. It seemed enough, to have our wonderful, experienced crew and a sea-worthy ship filled with modern technology. As we turned toward the arc of islands constituting the Aleutian chain and Alaska Peninsula, I was grateful to have had the chance to be part of this expedition.
For more about our expedition hosts, go to nationalgeographic.com/expeditions