Litlle Diomede is an island located in the middle of the Bering Strait that currently has approximately 100 inhabitants, 36 of them children enrolled in the school there. The general population fluctuates between 80 and 140 inhabitants. The People here are Inupiak, an eskimo tribe, who are feeling the effects of global warming. Upon our arrival in late August, over half of the bird population had already left for winter – this is the first time this has happened so early, generally the birds begin to migrate in mid-september.

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Photo: Annie-Claude Roberge

It has been 3-4 years since they have been unable to construct an airplane runway on the ice in the winter – the ice is now too thin, thus their travel can be by boat for a few months in the summer and they rely on helicopter shipments year round for supplies. Most adults I met on Little Diomede have lost one or more children – many in drownings during all seasons, but often due to falling through the ice  – summer surface temperature the water is 3-4˚C whereas winter temperature is  1˚C or colder. With only a few exceptions, these islanders do not know how to swim, though much of their sustenance comes from the sea – in the form of hunting seals and walrus.

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Photo: Annie-Claude Roberge

When we arrived on the island the children were there to greet us first. All of them curious and asking many questions; our connection to them was immediate and the bonds deepened throughout our stay. When we trained in the sea, they were on shore following us, forever curious, asking questions about what we were doing and our equipment. They joined us while hiking on the island, talkative all the way! We visited their classrooms and presented the o5 project to them, allowing them to handle the swim buoy, wetsuit, drysuit, and the magnetic anti-shark wrist band. Most importantly we spoke about dreams and collected their dreams for our swim buoy; they were poignant, admirable, and often reflective of their way of life. I thoroughly enjoyed how communicative, friendly and outgoing these children are!!!

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Photo: Annie-Claude Roberge

While we visited Little Diomede we participated in a beach clean-up. The garbage situation on the island is twofold: more education is needed for inhabitants as they have a recycling program available and have an incinerator on the island. Much of the garbage also washes ashore from the sea and finds a new home among the rocks along the shore. We teamed up with the island’s Environmental Coordinator Opik Ahkinga and her staff, and collected 15 bags of garbage and one recycling. It was a wonderful collective to contribute to this isolated community.

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Photo: Annie-Claude Roberge

On Saturday September 3rd, we were out on the water for the swim crossing. As Normand was swimming we began to see signs of whales in the distance – solo and duo sprays from breath holes rising into the sky. When approximately 2/3 of the crossing was done Sylvain spotted a whale just ahead. While orcas would be a concern, the gentle giants of the grey and humpback whales were not. Less than 100m away a humpback (newer to the region) came up for air a few times and then dove deep out of sight! We were all ecstatic as Normand continued to swim – having no knowledge of the 30 foot whale’s presence.

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Photo: Annie-Claude Roberge

As the day continued, so did the appearance of the whales. In the evening their were multiple pods of whales visible for many hours. While the inhabitants of Little Diomede see whales regularly, the sighting of so many at once was extremely uncommon. One middle-aged villager said to me that he had never witnessed this – how fortunate we were to enjoy this beautiful natural event! We made memorable connections with this community in contributing to their wellbeing and by appreciating their beautiful habitat alongside them.

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Anastasia Polito – Coach o5Swim@Annie-Claude Roberge-0027