Punuk Islands: The Graveyard of the Bering Sea

(Image: Captain Budd Christman, NOAA, public domain)

There’s something deeply unsettling about an isolated cluster of islands that’s also a natural graveyard, especially when the washed-up remains include human bones. But thanks to the strong Bering Sea currents, the Punuk Islands – also known as Pinik Islands or Poongook Islands – have become a sepulchre of the natural world and final resting place of both man and beast.

(Image: NOAA, public domain)

Located east of St Lawrence Island, the three small islets comprising the Punuk Islands were first mapped using their Yupik name in 1849, on a chart obtained by Captain M. D. Tebenkov of the Imperial Russian Navy. Their position south of Apavawook Cape ensures they take the full onslaught of the north-flowing Bering Sea currents that transport all manner of deceased natural matter to these shores.

(Images: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; National Digital Library, public domain)

This mysterious place, however, is not all about death. The Punuk Islands are a rich haven of wildlife including seabirds, walruses and native Tundra Voles, which belong to an endemic subspecies. Though the islands are uninhabited, evidence of past settlement was laid bare when explorer Otto W. Geist discovered an Okvik archaeological site in 1931. Much of their find, including fossilised walrus ivory artifacts, is preserved at the University of Alaska.

(Image: NOAA, public domain)

Returning briefly to the natural graveyard: it seems strange that two human skulls were discovered side-by-side on the shores of the Punuk Islands along with other animal remains. Were they brought together by scientists to document their presence in photographs?  Or were the fates of these two people somehow intertwined?

Bering Sea Currents

(Image: U.S. Federal Government, public domain)

Beneath the Bering Sea is the world’s largest continental shelf. About the size of California, it’s one of the most productive North American fisheries. Currents flow north from the Pacific and the Aleutian basin to the Arctic Ocean, stirring up deep sea nutrients and giving rise to a thriving seabed habitat that forms the basis of the region’s ecosystem. To put it into perspective, half of the United States’ annual seafood catch comes from the Bering Sea.

(Image: U.S. Coast Guard, public domain)

According to the National Wildlife Federation, 2.5 billion pounds of walleye pollock is turned into imitation crabmeat, fish sticks and fast-food fish fillets each year. These waters have sustained native Alaskans for thousands of years, but despite human intervention, the region remains a mysterious and inhospitable place that may never give up its secrets – a fact researchers fear is becoming increasingly likely due to the melting ice.

 
 
 

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