Kuril Islands

  • overview
  • geography
  • history
  • fauna & flora
  • further reading


Explore the Kuril Islands with Heritage Expeditions

The Kuril Islands are located in the cold waters of the North-western Pacific Ocean between the Kamchatka Peninsula and Hokkaido. The chain consists of 22 main islands, most of which are volcanically active, and around 30 smaller islets. There are at least 160 volcanoes amongst the islands, 40 of which can be described as currently active. The islands which form part of the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’ provide the perfect backdrop for our Russian Far East cruises.

Abandoned Machinery

Abandoned Machinery

Artefacts recovered from recent excavations suggest that the original inhabitants may well date to the Epi-Jomon period (2250-1300 year BP). There are a significant number of artefacts attributable to the historic Ainu population which thrived on the islands from about 800 years BP till recently. The Kuril Islands were settled by both Russians and Japanese in the 18th century. In 1875 Japan ceded to Russia the nearby island of Sakhalin in exchange for full Japanese possession of the Kurils. The islands were returned to the USSR by an agreement reached by the Allied powers at the Yalta Conference during World War ll. Japan however continues to claim the Southern Kurils, calling them the Northern Territories. A number of the islands are still populated with an estimated total population in 2005 of 30,000 people. The majority of these people are on the southern most islands of Iturup, Urup and Kunashir with a few people still resident on Paramushir Island. Cruise the Kuril Islands with us to learn more about these diverse population pockets.

Experience this destination by expedition cruising with Heritage Expeditions on the following departures:


Geographical Information: 
The Kuril islands stretch for 1,250 km from the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula southwards to the Japanese island of Hokkaido, thus forming a neat boundary between the Sea of Okhotsk (on the West) and the Pacific Ocean (on the east). The chain consists of 22 main islands, most of which are volcanically active, and around 30 smaller islets.

Total area of all islands is 15,600km2

Maximum Altitude: 
Atlasova Island 2,339m

Physical Features:
Several of the islands are large Iturup (3,200km2 ),  Paramushir (2,053km2), Kunashir (1,490km2) and Urup (1,450km2) . All are highly distinctive in their narrow and elongate forms that are dotted with chains of volcanoes.  Most of the islands are mountainous, although terrain can be highly variable and include low hills, plains and valleys. Many of the islands are endowed with impressive geological features such as the Tao-Rusyr caldera on Onekotan Island.

Onekotan Island

Onekotan Island


Japan and Russia dispute the ownership of four islands in the Southern Kurils or as the Japanese refer to them the Northern Territories. The four islands include Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashiri and Etorofu.


Japan discovered and surveyed the Northern Territories before Russians arrived there, and by the early 19th century, Japan had effectively established control over the four islands. In the first half of the 19th century, Russia also recognized that its southernmost border was Uruppu Island which is north of Etorofu Island.

In 1855 with the signing of the Treaty of Shimoda, navigation and delimitation between Japan and Russia confirmed that, just as it had been established peacefully until then, the boundary between them lay between the islands of Etorofu and Uruppu.

In 1875, under the Treaty for the Exchange of Sakhalin for the Kuril Islands, Japan ceded all of Sakhalin Island to Russia in exchange for the Kuril Islands (listed in the treaty as 18 islands from Shumshu to Uruppu). In 1905, under the Portsmouth Peace Treaty, which ended in war between Japan and Russia, Japan took over the southern part of Sakhalin Island at 50ºN from Russia.


In February 1945, the leaders of the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and the United States of America signed the Yalta Agreement. This agreement stipulated that the ‘Kuril Islands shall be handed over to the Soviet Union’ and ‘the southern part of Sakhalin as well as all the islands adjacent to it shall be returned to the Soviet Union’. Japan claims that the Yalta Agreement could not determine territorial issues as it was no more than a guide by the leaders of the Allied Powers to post-war settlement. Furthermore, Japan claims that it was not a party to and therefore not bound by the agreement.

The Potsdam Declaration stated that the terms of the 1943 Cairo Declaration, which stipulated that ‘Japan will also be expelled from all other territories which she has taken by violence and greed’ should be carried out and the Japanese sovereignty should be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as the Allies determined. In violation of the Japan-Soviet Neutrality Pact of 1941, the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan on 9 August 1945. Soviet troops began aggression into the Kuril Islands on 18 August. Troops demilitarised Shumushu Island on 24 August, Matsuwa Island on 26 August, Uruppu Island on 31 August, Etorofu Island on 29 August and Kunashiri Island, Shikotan Island and Habomai Islands between 1 and 4 September. Russia continued its offensive against Japan even after Japan had accepted the Potsdam Declaration (14 August 1945).

Abandoned Military Base

Abandoned Military Base, Simushir Island

Under the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951, Japan renounced all right, title and claim to the Kuril Islands and to the southern part of Sakhalin Island, which it had acquired by the Portsmouth Peace Treaty in 1905. However, Japan claims that the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai are not part of the Kuril Islands.


In October 1956, the Japanese Prime Minister, Ichiro Hatoyama, visited the Soviet Union. The two countries signed the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956. This declaration officially ended the state of war and restored diplomatic relations between the two countries.


April 1991: Soviet leader, President Mikhail Gorbachev, visited Japan. He and Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu signed the Japan-Soviet Joint Communiqué. In this communiqué, the Soviet leader acknowledged that the four islands, Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai, were the subject of territorial issue.

October 1993: The Tokyo Declaration, signed by Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa and President Boris Yeltsin clearly defined the territorial issue regarding to which country the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai belong. The declaration clearly set out that Japan and Russia should conclude a peace treaty by solving the territorial issue and thereby fully normalise bilateral relations.

November 1997: At Krasnoyark, the Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and President Boris Yeltsin agreed “to make the utmost efforts to conclude a peace treaty by the year 2000 on the basis of the Tokyo Declaration.”

April 1998: Japan produced the Kawana Proposal, for the resolution of the territorial issue and Russia produced the Moscow Proposal. Unable to reach an agreement, the year 2000 passed without Japan and Russian having agreed upon a peace treaty regarding the Northern Territories.

March 2001: At Irkutsk, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and President Vladimir Putin defined the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956 as the starting point of the negotiating process to conclude a peace treaty.

January 2003: Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and President Vladimir Putin adopted the Japan-Russia Action Plan. The plan provided the foundation for future peace-treaty negotiations; however the two countries remain in dispute to this day.


Flora and Vegetation: 

Most of the islands are densely vegetated where the terrain allows, in higher areas the vegetation is tundra like or absent. Flora comprises broadleaf forest, dark coniferous forests, open woodland, grasslands and the alpine tundra zone. Vegetation becomes more luxuriant and taller from north to south as the climate becomes milder, eventually allowing the growth of dense stands of bamboo on Urup Island. On all of the islands vegetation type is strongly affected by the vertical relief as well as the islands geographical position within the Kuril Chain.


Sea Otters Red and Arctic foxes were introduced to the islands to capitalize on the fur trade in the 1880s. The large islands in both the north and south have some brown bears and martens also. Some species of deer can also be found on the southerly islands.

Arctic Fox

Arctic Fox

Birding Highlights: 

The Kuril islands form a natural “flyway” for migratory species moving north and south, it is not surprising then that the order Passeriformes  is very well represented with  some 68 species being recorded as breeding on the islands.  The other well represented order is Charadriiformes  with some 24 species being recorded. These include the  Thin-billed and Thick-billed Murrre, the pigeon and spectacled guillemot, marbled and Ancient Murrelet, four species of Auklet including Crested, Whiskered, Least, Parakeet and Rhinoceros.  Both Horned and Tufted Puffins also breed on the islands.  The Order Anseriforme is also well represented with 15 species of waterfowl recorded breeding.  There are 9 species from the order Falconiforme breeding on these islands.


Gorshkov, G. S. Volcanism and the Upper Mantle Investigations in the Kurile Island Arc. Monographs in geoscience. New York: Plenum Press, 1970. ISBN 0-306-30407-4

Krasheninnikov, Stepan Petrovich, and James Greive. The History of Kamtschatka and the Kurilski Islands, with the Countries Adjacent. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1963.

Rees, David. The Soviet Seizure of the Kurils. New York: Praeger, 1985. ISBN 0-03-002552-4

Takahashi, Hideki, and Masahiro Ōhara. Biodiversity and Biogeography of the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin. Bulletin of the Hokkaido University Museum, no. 2-. Sapporo, Japan: Hokkaido University Museum, 2004.

Download our latest brochures Sign up for our free newsletter
Latest news & specials Kayaking available
Heritage Expeditions on youtube