Ribbon seal hunt

Since there is some interest in looking for ribbon seals, let me list the options:

1. I’ll be in Anchorage for a conference on June 10-14 2014. The return airfare to Barrow at that time is only $300. But seals will only be possible if there is enough fast ice (ice attached to the shore) at that time, it’s strong enough to walk on, and the wind is not from the south (or the ice might detach and you might end up in Siberia a few months later). Bowhead and gray whales might be visible in the distance, and there should be bears at the whale carcass dumping site at Point Barrow (accessible only by $75 pp ATV tour if there are bears present). It might be possible to see walrus, the more common seals (spotted, ringed and bearded) and caribou on the same tour. The main reason to do this in June is that 2014 is predicted to be the mother of all lemming years in Barrow. 2013 was a lemming year, but the population didn’t crash due to mild winter. There are already snowy owls moving into the area, which has never happened so early before – a really good indicator. Considering that lemming cycles are generally becoming less dramatic all over the Arctic, it’s a chance that shouldn’t be missed. The species found in Barrow are Beringian brown lemming, Nearctic collared lemming, and Northern red-backed vole. There are also two shrew spp., but they are rare around the town because of feral cats. Short-tailed weasels sometimes live in peripheral houses, and might be viewable. Summer birding isn’t normally too exciting, but in a lemming year there would be tons of snowy owls and jaegers, and possibly gyrfalcons. There are usually a few species of eiders and yellow-billed loons around town, too. 24-hour sunlight is fun.

2. It is possible to go to Barrow in late September-early October, during the return whale migration and the second whaling season. The ice conditions will be even less predictable; there might be no ice at all, or a narrow channel near the shore. In the latter case whales and seals will be easily visible and there will be bears. But I don’t know if ribbon seals are still around at that time. Lemmings might crash by that time or not; collared lemmings might be already in their gorgeous winter fur, but if there’s too much snow they might be difficult to find. Birds would include almost-guaranteed Ross’s gulls, but their wonderful breeding plumage will be worn and the pink color barely visible, if at all.

3. A trip to Gambell in late April-early May of 2016 sounds like a good idea. The island has an endemic species/subspecies of shrew, very nicely colored, but rare. Other mammals are collared lemmings, Northern red-backed voles, tundra voles, Arctic squirrels and Arctic foxes, but all of them are virtually absent in some years. There might also be McKay’s buntings in breeding plumage, and birding in general is very interesting (lots of Asian vagrants, the only breeding dovekies in the Pacific, etc., although birders invariably visit later in season so there’s no information about April). But the airfare is over $1000 from Anchorage or Fairbanks. Also, non-natives are limited to 5-mile radius around town. The weather in spring might be abysmal.

4. A cheaper alternative, also in April-May 2016, would be Nome ($300+  from Anchorage). It would also have McKay’s buntings, plus muskoxen, Alaskan subsp. of Arctic hare, singing voles and other stuff. But the seals, if present, would likely be farther offshore, and finding them might prove expensive. Flights to Gambell require a plane change in Nome, so it’s logical to combine both destinations.

5. Finally, in early July 2016 I’ll be co-guiding a boat trip to the Pribilofs and St. Matthew, during which it might be possible to see a ribbon seal. But summer sightings of this species in the open sea are generally very rare.

My financial situation and family circumstances dictate that I can only run these trips as a guide/organizer (if there’s enough interest). The only one I’ll consider doing anyway is the trip to Barrow this June (since I’ll be already in Anchorage). Everybody is still welcome to join me – at least it will bring the costs of car rental down. Just let me know now because I have to take the air tickets within a week.



  • John Fox

    I’ve thought that April-May in Nome would be a good strategy, but how would you get offshore to see them? Plane or boat, I guess. It would be expensive.

    I’ve also thought that getting on the first ships into Nome as the sea ice breaks up might be a possibility, though how to find out about is a mystery.

    • vdinets

      Yes, that’s what I mean. Might be really expensive with no guarantee of success. A lot of people there have small private planes, but some might refuse to fly a single-engine at low altitude over the sea. But if the ice conditions are right, it might be possible to simply walk out and find them.

      The first cargo ships to Nome don’t arrive until the sea is pretty much ice-free. Also, as of 2011 they were reluctant to take passengers, although that might be relaxed by now.

  • geomalia

    Ribbon Seal is one of my most-wanted mammals. Gambell is expensive, but it seems like the best bet apart from an even more expensive boat trip in the sea of Okhotsk (I’ve gotten a quote for $10,000 for three people). If there is sea ice in the area, they are easy to see by hiring a boat. I probably won’t be able to go for a couple years, though, so it would be great if you could find a less expensive site in the meantime!

    Check out this Gambell resident’s flickr page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kudamono-no-aji/14379045974/in/set-72157623824304097.

    • vdinets

      Well, I’ll check Churchill this year, and the crossing to St Matthew next year. AFAIK, ribbon seals are generally rare in the Sea of Okhotsk; the main breeding areas are far off NE Kamchatka in the Bering Sea. In the early 1990s someone tried to organize week-long March boat tours to these areas from Petropavlovsk, but couldn’t find any customers.

    • vdinets

      Have you tried to contact this guy, by the way?

      • geomalia

        Yes, I contacted the photographer from flickr. Here is what he told me:

        “I’m pretty sure that a local would take you out on a boating trip for the right price.
        Sometimes, you don’t need to go out by boat to see them. Most of the time they are anywhere from a mile out to as far as one can go out on a boat.
        Some years I hardly see any and in other years I see a lot. It depends on whether there is ice still around in the late spring. Ribbon seals migrate north on the last part of the ice that drifts by here in the Bering Sea.”

        I was also in touch with finvalAC@yandex.ru of the Finval Research Center who wrote:

        “If you have a great desire to see and photograph Ribbon Seals, can I offer you another option. It is May 2014. Eastern Kamchatka. Or Eastern Chukotka. They meet constantly at this time. We can organize a special expedition there. Will work in the rare ice on a small boat. Need about $ 10,000 for the expedition of two or three people. If more people – need more money. Very beautiful nature. Good weather at this time. Found five species of seals, walruses and sea lions. Several species of whales. The expedition will be extreme and requires good health.
        If you have a strong desire, you can look companions that there is less money per person.”

        Finally, I contacted Shiretoko Nature Cruise from Hokkaido, as I found some photos taken on one of their trips:

        “Ribbon Seals are very rare to see.

        If you are really lucky, you will see Ribbon Seals.
        But it is difficult to see them.

        Usually we can see them end of March to April.
        But we don’t have cruises on that time.

        We could see Ribbon Seals on May last year.
        But it was really unusual.
        One of reasons is drift ice stayed until May.
        Usually drift ice disappear on April.”

        That’s all I’ve found out so far. I hope you find a more accessible site to see Ribbon Seals reliably!

      • geomalia

        Also, Vladamir, have you ever been to Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in NE India? If so, any advice? Also, any general tips on searching for Red Panda?

    • kittykat23uk


      we saw red panda in longcanggou in Sichuan in November. They feed on berry bushes at that time of year so are a bit easier to spot. That said we only saw two and sadly the second one was walking along a busy mountain pass (Balang Shan) any got hit by a car while we were watching. 🙁

  • vdinets

    Organizing any serious trip to Russia would be too risky: people have been ripped off even in the best of times, and now the country has basically become a lawless rogue state obsessed with anti-Western paranoia.
    I’ll be in Barrow in June, let’s see how it goes. So far the amount of ice in the Arctic is at an all-time law for March 🙁

  • vdinets

    No, I’ve never been to NE India, it’s one of the top 5 places on my list.

  • kittykat23uk

    Vladimir, by bears do you mean polar bear? I haven’t done an Arctic trip an would love to see polar bears but I have never even heard of ribbon seal, cool looking animal! How long were you planning to stay if you were thinking of running the trip this June? What are the chances of other predators like wolves, Arctic foxes etc? Were you looking to take a guiding wage or are you just looking to share costs? I might be interested in learning more about this if on a cost sharing basis as coming from the UK I am guessing that the airfare would be signifcant.

    • vdinets

      Yes, polar bears. Arctic foxes are usually hunted out around Barrow, but some might move in following the bears, and it will hopefully be the second lemming year in a row (which is totally unheard of AFAIK), so I think they’ll be possible. There might also be some caribou, but wolves are unlikely. The plane (not all flights) makes a brief stop in a closed oil town called Prudhoe Bay where other stuff such as muskoxen and brown bears might be visible from the air (if you get a window seat and get very lucky).
      I’ll be there for 2 nights and 2 days, camping on a nice tundra hill outside town. No guiding wage for me this time – there will be a local guide who charges $75 pp per day. If we manage to procure a boat after all or decide to rent a car, having more people would bring the cost down – everything is expensive there. The airfare from Anchorage to Barrow for June is currently around $340; from the UK it might be cheaper to fly via Fairbanks.
      On the day after that I’ll go to Hatcher Pass near Anchorage which is a good place for collared pika and possibly other stuff such as wolverine.
      My email is dinets at gmail, drop me a line if interested.

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