Day 11 |
Jul 29, 2014

Surfing in Wales

By James Floyd, Geologist

Having cleared back into the USA the previous evening at Nome, the ship’s clock was advanced again by another two hours at midnight to get us back onto Alaska Time.

We arrived at the township of Wales, the westernmost community on the mainland of North America, shortly after breakfast and proceeded to make a wet landing by Zodiac. On this occasion it truly was a wet landing, as the beach was gently shelving sand and there were large breakers rolling in which created some surf from time to time. However, the weather was bright and sunny and everyone just ignored the occasional splashes of sea water.

The townspeople had seen the ship arrive at anchor in the bay and a large party on quad bikes had gathered on the beach to welcome us. After much handshaking and exchanges of greetings we walked a short distance into the town and gathered around what was referred to as the ‘multi’, a large modern building on stilts which clearly served as the community center.

The villagers put on an impromptu display of local dancing by the ladies accompanied by drums and singing from the men. This was very popular with our group and drew much applause.

By sheer coincidence, teams of South African and Russian swimmers were visiting the town for the purpose of swimming across the International Date Line between the nearby islands of Little and Big Diomede, the former the westernmost part of Alaska and the latter the easternmost part of Russia. However, the swimmers had set off for their epic swim before we arrived at Wales and we did not meet them at the time.

The township itself was built on an area of flat ground near sea level which is large enough to have a substantial airport able to operate jet aircraft. However, the eastern skyline is dominated by an impressive ridge of jagged granite peaks, known as the ‘Razorback’.

Notable birds seen at Wales were the Red-throated Loon and the Western Sandpiper.

After boarding the ship and having lunch out on deck, we sailed onwards to the afternoon destination of Little Diomede Island where we anchored in close proximity to the steep and rugged granite cliffs of the pyramid-shaped rock.

There is a small isolated community on Little Diomede -but Big Diomede was evacuated during the Cold War and has never been resettled. The landing was made by Zodiac into a small cove beside the village on the western side of the island and we made our way around the houses led by some local guides.

There was an impressive helicopter landing pad built on reclaimed land constructed with huge boulders of very coarse grained granite, granite gneiss and schist. Although there was a small area of flat ground with the store, Community Center and school, most of the houses are built on steeply sloping terrain and seemed to literally cling to the rock. The impressive modern school was the location for a presentation of local dances by some of the villagers, accompanied, as at Wales, by singing and drumming.

Above our heads literally hundreds of thousands of sea birds wheeled around to the loud accompaniment of their various calls. Of particular note were Crested Auklets, Parakeet Auklets and Black-legged Kittiwakes.

By chance, we also met and exchanged greetings with the South African swimming team just as they were about to leave Little Diomede to return to Wales after their swim across the International Date Line during in the morning. The equivalent team of Russian swimmers was also on the island and afterwards they gave us a demonstration of their skill in the water by undertaking a training swim near the ship, to loud cheers from all on board.