KAMCHATKA, THE COMMANDER AND KURIL ISLANDS
(Incorporating our Popular ‘Birding The Russian Far East' Expedition)
The Pacific Ring of Fire manifests itself in numerous places on the rim of the Pacific Ocean - but nowhere more dramatically than in Russia's Far East. Along one of the world's most active plate boundaries, the Pacific plate subducts under the North American plate and the resulting volcanic and geothermal activity has built a unique and amazing landscape. Upwelling from the deep trenches formed by this action and currents around the many islands creates perfect conditions for seabirds and cetaceans. Consequently the area is one of the richest in the world, both in terms of the number of species, which can be seen, and their sheer abundance. For many birders, the undoubted highlight is the auks and during our voyage it is possible to see up to fourteen species including Tufted and Horned Puffins, Parakeet, Whiskered and Rhinoceros Auklets, as well as Spectacled and Pigeon Guillemots.
Other seabirds we regularly encounter include Laysan Albatross, Mottled Petrel, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, Red-faced Cormorant, Red-legged Kittiwake and Aleutian Tern. For those keen on cetaceans we can reasonably expect to see Fin, Sperm, Humpback Whales as well as Orca (Killer Whale), Baird's Beaked-Whale and Dall's Porpoise.
The region's human history is equally interesting and fascinating. The original settlers were the Ainu and Itelmen. They were displaced with the arrival of the Cossacks in the 18th century after the Explorer Vitus Bering had put the region on the map. The Soviet empire encompassed the region and at the height of the Cold War, Russia's formidable Pacific Fleet was based here. The secrecy surrounding the fleet resulted in the region being ‘closed' even to Russians who had to get special permits to travel to and within the area. It is only now, two decades since Perestroika, that people can travel relatively freely here, although there is still very little in the way of infrastructure for visitors.
The region we explore on this expedition falls into three quite distinct and unique geographical regions: the Kamchatka Peninsula; the Commander Islands (the western extremity of the Aleutian chain of islands) and the Kuril Islands. Each region is very different. Each has its own story and in many cases localised plants and birds. Join us as we go in search of those people, plants, animals and birds that make this part of the Pacific Ring of Fire so special.
A message for the keen birders and cetacean watchers reading this. Space doesn't allow us to list all species on a day-by-day basis in this itinerary. Please ask for an expedition dossier or a bird and mammal list from previous expeditions.
Pre/Post cruise transfers, all on board ship accommodation, meals and all expedition shore excursions.
All items of a personal nature, laundry, drinks, gratuities. International/domestic flights, visas and travel insurance.
Our ship - The Spirit of Enderby:
The Spirit of Enderby is a fully ice-strengthened expedition vessel, built in 1984 for polar and oceanographic research and is perfect for Expedition Travel.
She carries just 50 passengers and was refurbished in March 2013 to provide comfortable accommodation in twin share cabins approximately half of which have private facilities. All cabins have outside windows or portholes and ample storage space.
On board there is a recently updated combined bar/library lounge area and a dedicated lecture room (March 2018). The cuisine is excellent and is prepared by top NZ and Australian chefs.
The real focus and emphasis of every expedition is getting you ashore as often as possible for as long as possible with maximum safety and comfort. Our Expeditions are accompanied by some of the most experienced naturalists and guides, who have devoted a lifetime to field research in the areas that we visit. The ship is crewed by a very enthusiastic and most experienced Russian Captain and crew.
The name Spirit of Enderby honours the work and the vision of the Enderby Brothers of London. The Enderby Captains were at the forefront of Antarctic exploration for almost 40 years in the early 1800s. It also celebrates Enderby Island, arguably the greatest Subantarctic Island in the world.
Classification: Russian register KM ice class
Year built: 1984
Accommodation: 50 berths expedition
Main engines: power 2x1560 bhp (2x 1147 Kw)
Maximum speed: 12 knots (2 engines),
Cruising speed: 10 knots(one engine)
Bunker capacity: 320 tons
Day 1: Tuesday 30th May
Avacha Bay, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy
With the 30th May 2017 dawning bright and sunny, a fresh set of expeditioners had assembled in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy for the start of the Russian Far East season. Our epic voyage began amongst the stunning scenery of Avacha Bay, which some declare one of the best natural harbours in the world. It was here that Bering and Steller set sail on their somewhat ill-fated expedition to discover America in 1741, so it was a poignant moment leaving the dock and heading out into the blue waters once sailed by legends. It was with great anticipation that we set sail beneath volcano peaks, towering above the horizon and steaming lightly into the sky. Along the way the numerous keen birders on board noted highlights including Spectacled Guillemot, Ancient Murrelet, Tufted Puffin, Harlequin Duck and both Pelagic and Red-faced Cormorants.
Day 2: Wednesday 31st May
At sea toward the Commander Islands
A day at sea is always met with excitement, whether it be the excitement of catching up on sleep deprived by jet lag, or the excitement of sailing into the great blue unknown. We were exceptionally fortunate this year with some fantastic sightings to kick us off. Large whales were in positive abundance with 10+ Fin Whale and 9+ Humpback Whales seen, along with a single Sperm Whale and, surprisingly, the phenomenal total of 12+ Blue Whales, seen by everybody who wanted to see one - truly unexpected and very well received by all on board! Birds were well represented today too, with Red-legged Kittiwake becoming a firm favourite, and flocks of Long-tailed, Pomarine and Arctic Skuas capturing attention. Huge flocks of Red Phalarope were a fan favourite, as were an abundance of Tufted Puffins and a couple of Horned Puffin, as well as various stowaways including a couple of Olive-backed Pipits and a stunning male Siberian Rubythroat that spent a little time on the deck resting.
Photo credit: L. Gwynn
Day 3: Thursday 1st June
Bering Island, North-west Cape and Arij Karmen Island
Our arrival to the fabled Commander Islands, the last rocks in the Aleutian chain, were marked by blazing sunshine and glorious warmth (relatively speaking), a surprise for most on board. It didn’t take us long to cut through the anticipation and excitement and get from the ship to shore where we split into a couple of groups and some went for a wander on their own. The highlight for many was a visit to the local museum and a local artist’s gallery where two complete Steller’s Sea Cow skeletons can be found, along with a good overview of the islands’ history, both natural and human. The birders and naturalists enjoyed a long foray into the surrounding area where they found, among others, a shore littered with Rock Sandpipers, Dunlin, Harlequin and Mongolian Plovers, and an open area filled with responsive Lapland Bunting and Pechora Pipit.
Next up on the agenda for today was a visit to North-west Cape where we enjoyed a spectacular show by the Northern Fur Seal and Steller’s Sea Lion colony, which was well tended by Arctic Foxes and featured clouds of Horned Puffin and constant fly-bys of Glaucous-winged Gull and Pelagic and Red-faced Cormorants. The viewing platforms here really allowed prolonged study of the amazing interactions of the giant mammals, which included a simultaneous charge to the ocean by a large group of fur seals, seemingly spooked by something in the distance.
The highlight for the birders, and many others, this afternoon was a late visit to Arij Karmen, a small rocky island off of Bering Island that hosts thousands upon thousands upon thousands of breeding seabirds of many species. We spent a couple of hours cruising the edge of the island, seeing, watching and photographing birds including Red-legged Kittiwake, Ancient Murrelet, Crested and Parakeet Auklets, three species of guillemot and a surprise in the form of two Wandering Tattlers. The sight and smell of giant Steller’s Sea Lions saw us off into the sunset.
Photo credit: O. Belonovich
Day 4: Friday 2nd June
Medny Island (Peschannaya Bay) and Lisinskaya Bay
We awoke this morning to a much lumpier and bumpier day than the previous, which made our ride into Peschannaya Bay a little more exciting, though at least we arrived into the beautiful bay dry. We had several hours to explore this breathtaking natural bowl of a valley, with many splitting up and the birders remaining mostly together. Highlights were many and for some included hikes up the valley sides among thick green grass to visit the breeding colonies of Tufted and Horned Puffins, affording spectacular panoramic views along the way. A beautiful couple of Arctic Foxes (of the Medny Island subspecies) patrolled the valley giving excellent encounters to many, whilst a stunning Common Rosefinch, a very responsive Pacific Wren and a surprise Yellow-breasted Bunting that formed a small migrant posse with Grey-streaked Flycatcher and Siberian Rubythroat were highlights for the birders. Off the shore we found many Harlequin, Pacific Eider, Eurasian Teal, Pigeon Guillemots and thousands of Pacific Fulmar before returning to the ship ahead of our afternoon excursions.
The transit to our afternoon point of exploration, Lisinskaya Bay, produced hundreds of Crested Auklets and the much-desired Whiskered Auklet. Our excursion in the afternoon was a well-placed Zodiac cruise along the coast specifically in search of otters, and find otters we most certainly did. Along the coast we drifted, floated and motored, exploring every nook and cranny we could squeeze ourselves into, and in amongst the vast kelp beds we found several hundred Pacific Sea Otter which frolicked, hunted, relaxed on the surface and generally entertained us for a couple of hours. During our pleasant and relaxed cruise, other highlights included dozens and dozens of Harlequin and several Arctic Fox exploring the beaches. The harlequins in particular gave fantastic photographic opportunities, often approaching closely and giving rapid fly-bys showing off their unique and stunning plumage.
Day 5: Saturday 3rd June
Our morning at sea approaching the coast of mainland Kamchatka was taken as a period of rest for many onboard, either editing photos from previous days, relaxing in the library and reading, or on the bridge or on deck looking for pelagic wildlife. On the wildlife front it was somewhat uneventful until shortly before lunch time when, under the looming horizon dominated by towering volcanoes, a trio of Blue Whales were spotted and gave fantastic views. It is not often one encounters these ocean leviathans, and even less often that they appear beneath such a spectacular horizon. In the distance we could see some of the most perfectly-conical volcanoes, complete with black and white snow veining and marbling and steaming calderas.
This afternoon we launched all of our Zodiacs and cruised the Zhupanova River for several hours, entering the mouth of the river which was flanked by Black-headed and Kamchatka Gulls, and making our way up seeing Aleutian Tern and a few of the mighty Steller’s Sea Eagles along the way. The river itself is vast, long, winding and very wide which allows us free roam of the waterways, giving us room to explore each bank and the land that lays beyond. The pinnacle of our journey was seeing several Steller’s Sea Eagle nests, one of which featured a visit by a bird carrying nesting material and the appearance of its chick as it approached. It is not often we get to see the chicks of the eagles and to time our visit so perfectly with the arrival of an adult and the changeover of nest attendance is remarkable. This is always a special experience, and this one in particular is one never to be forgotten. Elsewhere along the river we also found dozens of Red-throated Divers which formed a constant stream of gangly-necked fly-overs, Goosander, Goldeneye, Common Tern of the distinctive longipennis subspecies, and a couple of Muskrat which proved elusive, as well as a surprise couple of Brown Bear which performed well for several Zodiacs before disappearing into the forest - a highlight for everyone!
Our visit to Zhupanova is often accompanied by an afternoon landing beside the Salmon fishing camp. This is not only to stretch our legs but to take in the abundant and varied flora that lays in the fields beside as well as look for several species of bird. Despite much searching, we couldn’t find Long-toed Stint but many Common Snipe gave good encounters including their raucous display flights. Soon it was time to return to the ship though, but the experience wasn’t over yet, with some enjoying views of Long-billed Murrelet on the way - a bird that is particularly tough to catch up with, and even rivalled the eagles as top highlight for some.
Photo credit: M. Kelly
Photo credit: C. Collins
Day 6: Sunday 4th June
A glorious dawn broke early this morning, bathing the incredibly scenic fjord of Bukhta Russkaya in a spectacular, warm orange glow. The ride in was positively dream-like, with mirror-calm water making the passage more than comfortable and a couple of Long-billed Murrelets creating some excitement. Beyond us we looked upon thick snow-covered undulations in the valley as well as a curiously scenic ship wreck on the southern shore. On land we found a thick covering of snow that provided lots of laughs and more than a few snowball fights, whilst the birders went for an extended explore and found Brown-headed and Eyebrowed Thrushes, Japanese Grey Bunting, Rustic Bunting, plenty of stunning Siberian Rubythroats and some long overdue Oriental Greenfinch. It was truly great fun to spend time in the snow here as it marks probably the only time in this particular journey that we encounter ‘real’ snow.
The second part of today’s outing involved an extended Zodiac cruise out beyond the mouth of the fjord. Along the way we found towering and breathtaking cliffs, a wide open bay, a gurgling and roaring Steller’s Sea Lionhaul out, lots of Pigeon Guillemots, a lot of beautiful Harlequin Ducks and plenty of both Tufted and Horned Puffins to see and photograph. As is often the case here in the Russian Far East, it is the scenery that scores highest in the ‘impressive’ scale, and it is hard to put into words the experience of cruising along silky smooth sea, exploring these rugged shores, marked only by occasional waterfalls and a haunting lighthouse at the end of land.
Photo credit: L. Gwynn
Day 7: Monday 5th June
At sea off of Atlasova & Onekotan Islands
Unfortunately today was marred by some unfavourable weather so our planned landings at Atlasova and Onekotan had to be cancelled in favour of waiting in the area and seeing the weather out, in the hope of better fortune on the horizon. The sea around Atlasova saw us dragging anchor and no safe disembarkation of the ship into Zodiacs could be made so we instead spent the time moving between the islands which was productive with Crested and Whiskered Auklets seen in numbers; however the standout highlight wildlife-wise was a stonking young Short-tailed Albatross, a lifer for many on board and one of the holy grails of far east birding. Others took the opportunity to watch the scenery and omnipresent volcanoes, whilst some read or took the chance to edit photos and socialise around the ship.
Day 8: Tuesday 6th June
Onekotan & Ekarma Islands
Delaying our landing on Onekotan from yesterday afternoon and waiting out the weather proved to be a great decision as this morning we were met with a spectacular sunrise over the dual volcanoes of Onekotan. After an exciting landing we arrived on the soft sand beach at the north of the island and departed on walks across the island. All left together, scaling an intimidating yet easy meander up the steep valley side and onwards into the distance to the Black Lake, crossing areas of thick and low vegetation and stumpy dwarves Stone Pine. The scenery was magnificent and the wildlife was equally as impressive with good Pine Grosbeak and Asian Rosyfinch being the highlights, with a supporting cast of Buff-bellied Pipits, Peregrine and some out of place looking Tufted Ducks. All in all this was a fantastic chance to stretch the legs for those that wished, with longer quicker walks available as well as shorter more relaxed, but equally as scenicly-impressive walks available for those that chose. No matter where we chose to go, we were always looking up and across at the dominating volcanoes of these upper kurils.
A short transit this afternoon took us to the small outlying island of Ekarma where we took the opportunity under favourable conditions to drop the Zodiacs in anticipation of an evening cruise in search of… well… whatever we could find. This was a good decision as we cruised the grassy-valley flanked shores, towering rugged cliffs and gravel beaches, finding the reintroduced ‘Cackling Goose’ at our outset. Moving along the island we found a bounty of Kuril Guillemots and Horned Puffins to photograph, but it was a large number of Rhinocerous Auklets that really stole the show. In the distance we admired steaming and smouldering craters, fumerols and sulphaurous vents of the surrounding volcanoes as darkness descended and we had to make our way back to the ship. The final find of the evening was a lone Pacific Sea Otter.
Photo credit: M. Kelly
Day 9: Wednesday 7th June
Simushir & Yankicha Islands
Simushir is without a doubt one of the highlights of this already spectacular expedition. An old, abandoned submarine base lays within the heart of the caldera of an extinct volcano; with a collapsed wall we are able to Zodiac directly into the flooded centre of the island, landing on the shore and exploring the ruins of civilisation that appear to have been abandoned in a rush. Among them lay trucks, buildings, depots and even anti-aircraft guns. On the land we found Siberian Rubythroat by the bucketload, Black-faced and Japanese Grey Buntings, Spotted Nutcrackers, Oriental Greenfinch and a curiously dark Red Fox. Long before all of this though, our departure from the ship was met with an incredible encounter with all three North Pacific albatrosses with a young Short-tailed Albatross coming up first, followed by an adult Black-footed Albatross for those that were unexpected yet wished for, whilst Laysan Albatross floated by the dozens all around the ship and Zodiacs.
The evening of this day of the expedition is always a favourite. Relocating the short distance to Yankicha Island we boarded the Zodiacs once more, later in the evening, and entered another flooded caldera. Here we bobbed and floated as the sky went black with both evening, and birds. Several million auklets were soon flooding the caldera of this giant volcano, with hundreds of thousands of Whiskered Auklets the favourites, the millions of Crested Auklets falling not far behind. We made a landing in the mid evening enjoying very close encounters with Arctic Foxes and steaming fumerols and hot springs before returning to the water to enjoy the height of the birds’ return to the island, revelling in the clouds of auklets. This has to be one of the world’s great spectacles and can be matched by very few places on the planet - perhaps only Yamskie, on our Sea of Okhotsk expedition, can match this experience. This event is not just about birds, as many of the non-birders discovered - the spectacle in itself is worth the time for everybody as it is purely that staggering.
Photo credit: L. Gwynn
Day 10: Thursday 8th June
With an extended amount of time available to us at Urup we made a long afternoon landing, affording us an entire afternoon to wander, explore, bird and even swim in the sunshine. The bay in which we land is vast with a deep bamboo-filled valley taking the farther ground, towering cliffs and valley sides marking the outer boundaries, and a lighthouse and lookout point on the furthest points respectively. Most found viewpoints at either end of the large bay to enjoy the scenery, whilst others went birding and found Japanese Bush-Warbler, Long-tailed Rosefinch, White-tailed Eagle and Japanese Cormorant as well as Grey-bellied Bullfinch and Eastern Crowned Warbler to add to their lists. Everybody who went for a stroll, wander or hike came back with tales of amazing views, brilliant wildlife and a gloriously pleasant afternoon, whilst a couple of people even took a dip in the frigid ocean, washing away any cobwebs and coming out refreshed and with a new found appreciation for the Kuril’s subarctic climate.
Day 11: Friday 9th June
Arriving off of Iturup many were surprised at its relative size. After cruising through many smaller islands, which can be taken in over the space of a short while, Iturup is a bit of an anomaly being absolutely huge and somewhat unique in the Kurils as it is actually home to a small population of people, the first we have encountered in some time. For us, that means we can penetrate deep into the heart to this large island thanks to the infrastructure and availability of many 4x4 vehicles. Today was special as we formed a convoy to cross the island, exploring as we went. At our first stop we enjoyed a magical view from upon high, looking out over the huge volcano at the island’s north end, and the Prof. Khromov sitting in the serene bay with a full vista and panorama of the northern end of the island. The birders also walked away astounded as their main targets - Japanese Accentor and Japanese Robin - both performed incredibly well, both sitting out in the open and singing their hearts out. At the height of our journey we walked in formation, marching toward our shared goal - a soothing and long soak in the hot pools that lay at the end of our journey, sitting neck deep in bubbling warm springs amongst spectacular scenery, relaxing, socialising, sharing tales and stories of travels. Others birded their way along the track finding lots to occupy their attention including the locally endemic subspecies of Eurasian Nuthatch though the relative heat of the day meant activity was slow; it must also be said that with all of their target birds achieved in such an early start there was very little pressure to find anything major here and they enjoyed more of a relaxed, enjoyable birding walk than anything concentrated and targeted.
Our return to the ship was winding, with a stop at a river providing a refreshing break and a Chestnut-cheeked Starling, Latham’s Snipe and Pacific Swifts for the birders, before everybody enjoyed a stop in the town where we could observe and immerse in the locals’ every day life here in the Kurils before returning to the ship for a well-earned lavish meal.
Day 12: Saturday 10th June
After a noticeable switch in climate and ecosystem over the past few days we reached the pinnacle of change at Kunashir with a somewhat subtropical climate featuring smooth sea, barmy sunshine and a summer that is truly out in force. Landing on the beach it was immediately obvious to everyone how different Kunashir in particular is to the other islands, though the predominance of tall pine and bamboo is shared with Iturup and Urup too. Several longer walks were taken whilst some chose to stay and wander along the beach. The walks produced a wonderful leg stretch, time in fresh air and sunshine, and some great wildlife along the way. River creeks, bamboo meadows and pine forest were strolled, whilst a particularly rocky and interest-laden beach was scoured for oddities and treasures. The volcano that loomed over us today is often touted as one of, if not the most beautiful in the world with its double peak, formed after a previous eruption resulted in the formation of a smaller secondary peak within the main caldera, giving it a two-tiered or ‘moated’ appearance. We also scoured the forest and meadows for wildlife, finding Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Eastern Crowned Warbler, Crested Kingfisher, Common Kingfisher, Kamchatka Leaf Warbler, Long-tailed Rosefinch and lots of both Oriental and Common Cuckoos. Offshore we saw Pacific and White-billed Divers, Japanese and Pelagic Cormorants and dozens of White-winged Scoter and Harlequin. This proved to be the perfect ending to the expedition with time for excellent new wildlife, new culture in the form of a Japanese graveyard, and time to relax and stroll at leisure in the sunshine, most even down to t-shirts by the time we re-grouped on the beach. Highlight for some on the beach was a particularly curious Red Fox that showed zero fear or trepidation of humans, approaching within inches and looking them right in the eye.
Back at sea and heading to Sakhalin and the end of this expedition, we were elated to enjoy a phenomenal pink, purple and orange sunset simultaneously with a midnight-blue, purple and lilac moonrise as a cacophony of hundreds of Rhinocerous Auklets and several hundred Ancient Murrelets gave the expedition a suitably impressive close.
Click here for 'Species List'
Sunday 27th, May 2012
Click here for Species List
We boarded the Spirit of Enderby in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy around 2:00pm and enjoyed an excellent lunch prepared by our galley team, Bruce and Jeremy. Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy was founded by the Danish explorer Vitus Bering in 1740, as a departure port for his expedition through the North Pacific Ocean. After lunch we left the 24 km long Avacha Bay, which is named after the Avachinsky volcano. At 6:00pm we participated in the mandatory lifeboat drill, just before a group of Orca and then a Sperm Whale were spotted. We watched them against the backdrop of an incredible landscape of snowy mountains glistening in the twilight. Birders observed Tufted Puffins, Pelagic Cormorants, Slaty-backed Gulls, Ancient Murrelets and Common Guillemots as we headed north towards Bering Island.
Monday 28th, May 2012
Unusually for this area, the sailing last night was just perfect, with flat calm seas. Today we spent a full day at sea in excellent conditions for wildlife watching. Birders spent most of the day with binoculars and cameras on the outside deck. We spotted Dall's Porpoise, Humpback, Fin and Northern Minke Whales, as well as many birds including Pomarine and Long-tailed Skua, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, Terns and even the rare Red-legged Kittiwake. Sailing provides a good opportunity for lectures, and today Katya gave us a general overview of the Commander Islands. She was followed by Leonid, who gave a talk about the history of the island where he lives - Paramushir Island. Chris concluded the lectures for the day with his presentation on seabirds of the North Pacific. After dinner our Expedition Leader, Nathan, presented us with the plan for tomorrow on Bering Island.
Thursday 29th, May 2012
We awoke this morning anchored just off Nikol'skoye, the only village in the Commander Islands. One group led by Chris and Adam went bird watching along the river, while others had free time exploring the town. We enjoyed the village museum featuring Vitus Bering's expedition and the local fauna and flora. This museum is the only one in the world having a Steller Sea Cow skeleton, which was the largest member of the order Sirenia. This animal was hunted to extinction on Bering Island just 27 years after being first recorded by the German naturalist Georg Steller in 1743. While we were visiting the museum, the birders spotted Rock Sandpiper and Petchora Pipit. After lunch, as we were sailing along the west coast of Bering Island, a few Humpback Whales were spotted, some of them breaching, splashing their flukes and even spy hopping. After this spectacular display, Zodiacs were dropped into Bukhta Peresheyek and we cruised along the coast. In an impressive navigable canyon, we found breeding Common Guillemot, Black-leg Kittiwake and the rare Red-leg Kittiwake as well. Sea Otters and Harbour Seals were also observed here.
Wednesday May 30, 2012
Overnight we lifted anchor and cruised to Medny, an even more isolated and beautiful island than Bering. During the morning Adam gave an overview of the marine mammals of the Russian Far East and many people were out on deck to enjoy the abundant birdlife, including large numbers of Fulmars and Laysan Albatross.
As we rounded Cape Monati at the southern tip of Bering Island, we found a sheltered area and the sun came out. There we had the perfect conditions to launch Zodiacs and cruise the coast. Spectacular scenery and geology accompanied us during our two hour Zodiac cruise. The cliffs were covered in Red-legged and Black-legged Kittiwakes, Common and Brunnich's Guillemots, and Red-faced and Pelagic Cormorants. Sea Otters and Harbour Seals approached us warily as we cruised past. At the very southern tip of the island is a haul out for Steller Sea Lions and we enjoyed views of these, the largest of the sea lions, basking in the sun on the jagged rocks. Horned Puffins also nest in the area and it was great to make close approaches to the swimming birds with the Zodiacs.
After returning to the ship we cruised offshore through the rich marine feeding areas. The first of the whales for the season had arrived, so we were treated to excellent views of Orca and Humpbacks plus a distant Sperm Whale. Eventually it was time to set our course westwards to Kamchatka and Grigory gave us a fascinating lecture about his work with the Western Grey Whales of Sakhalin. We spent a very pleasant afternoon sailing over the 7,000 m deep Kamchatka Trench. Here we had occasional sightings of Humpback and Fin Whales, Dall's Porpoise, and some tantalising glimpses of unidentified beaked whales. Following a recap and a tasty dinner, we were treated to a spectacular sunset accompanied by the blows of about a dozen Humpbacks. It really had been a day to remember.
Thursday May 31, 2012
We awoke to a different sort of day as we sailed into a south-westerly swell with about 30 knots of wind and a grey overcast sky. Indoors we had two lectures, with Alison giving us a talk about art and Leonid giving an enthusiastic description of the history of the northern Kuril Islands. The weather improved as we neared the Kamchatka coast and by noon the wind had dropped and blue skies highlighted the spectacular Kamchatka coastline. As we came to anchor off the Zhupanova River, the Karymsky volcano belched black smoke while the Zhupanovsky volcano lay quietly capped in snow. It was a stunning sight to behold, and after lunch we boarded the Zodiacs.
Immediately upon entering the river mouth we were greeted by several impressive Steller's Sea Eagles of various ages. It was a pleasure to behold this behemoth of an eagle at close quarters, both on the mudflats and flying overhead. Proceeding into the estuary we were greeted by many Common Terns and also a handful of the much localised Aleutian Tern. Large numbers of Largha Seals, a localised species endemic to the north Pacific, were also hauled out on a sandbar. Next we entered a portion of the river where the banks were covered in riparian forests, dominated by birch trees. A couple of the larger, older trees had active Steller's Sea Eagle nests in them, although the birds were hardly visible sitting in these impressive structures. We turned off the engines and drifted down-river in the silence, enjoying the snow-capped volcanoes, a few songbirds in the riverside trees and various species of waterfowl flying overhead. When we returned to the estuary some Aleutian Terns gave fantastic views and yet more Steller's Sea Eagles were enjoyed. We made a landing at the fishing camp at the river mouth where birders were pleased to find a pair of Falcated Teal and everyone was pleased to enjoy some delicious red salmon.
Eventually it was time to return to the ship and celebrate another memorable day. It was very lively in the bar with everyone swapping stories and photos and Par shouted champagne, such was the quality of the day! After another fine dinner, we sailed down a stunning stretch of the Kamchatka coastline with beautiful evening light illuminating the volcanic peaks.
Friday June 1, 2012
First thing this morning Heritage Expeditions recorded a rare first on their Russian Far East voyages. A Steller's Sea Eagle had landed on the ship's light mast! The regal adult spent almost an hour up there, peering down at us and spreading its wing. Thousands of pictures were taken of this huge bird before it returned to the Kamchatka coastline. What a start to the day!
Blue skies greeted us as we sailed up the stunning fiord of Bukhta Russkaya. A Brown Bear was spotted walking along a snow patch and a few birders glimpsed the rare Long-billed Murrelet. We came to anchor near the head of the fiord and boarded Zodiacs for a landing on the beach where we spent some time poking around the birch forest and small creek. The most notable find of the morning was the white subspecies albidus, of the Northern Goshawk, very different to all other populations of Northern Goshawk.
Later in the day we took the Zodiacs to the mouth of the fiord. Here the Steller Sea Lion haul out was patrolled by a pod of hungry Orca. We could see them from the ship and excitement ran high as we cruised in closer to shore. Over the next couple of hours we observed these amazing animals. It is hard to describe the experience of having a large male Orca surface beside your Zodiac - it was truly amazing. There were perhaps 12 Orca in total slowly working the area and all the while the sea lions sat on the rocks, roaring in anger or fear, not daring to enter the water. We saw some classic behaviour including spy hopping, tail slapping and some animals swimming upside down.
Eventually we returned to the ship and continued south following the coastline. In the afternoon Meghan opened the Sea Shop and Katya gave us a very enlightening lecture about Sea Otters. We drank in the magnificent views of the volcanic Kamchatka coastline. After a recap and dinner, it was another glorious sunset for those who watched from the decks.
Saturday, June 2, 2012
Ptich'i Islands and Atlasova Island.
We were greeted this morning by the most beautiful sunrise over the Northern Kurils. A Zodiac cruise around the Ptich'i Islands was scheduled before breakfast and we set out in four boats to explore these rocks which are alive with sea mammals and birds. We slowly and cautiously approached, being careful not to get too close and risk disturbing the animals in this little sanctuary. Clearly otters from all around the area were gathering there to rest. The numbers were truly remarkable - they were hauled out everywhere on the flat sandy spits around the islands and on the rocks themselves. There must have been a good four hundred creatures, creating the impression that this is the main population in the Kuril Islands. There were also a good number of Largha and Harbour Seals on the nearby beaches and the sky was busy with birds flying around their nesting colonies. We also saw Kuril Island Guillemots, Parakeet Auklets and Ancient Murrelets.
Sea and weather conditions remained spectacular as we sailed through the Second Kuril Strait, allowing us to observe birds and animals at our leisure from the bridge and decks. Before lunch Nathan gathered everyone in the bar for an introduction to our upcoming landing on Atlasova Island. He gave us some background to the features of this small island which has the highest volcano in the entire Kuril chain - Alaid. After lunch Adam led a landing on the gravelly beach between two ancient lava flows. We split into three groups - the artists, the birders and the general naturalists. The latter immediately spread out and began exploring the island, taking in the little lighthouse, Vladimir peninsula (which was created during one of the eruptions of the Alaid volcano), and kelp forests along the rocky coastline. The birders found success in the bush, finding a good number of songbirds and other interesting species. Everyone made the most of the three hours ashore and returned to the ship happy and tired after some good exercise.
Sunday, June 3, 2012
Onekotan and Ekarma Islands
A quick look out the window confirmed that it was worth getting out of bed early once again as the day was glorious with the first rays of sunshine over the Nemo volcano on Onekotan Island. After breakfast Nathan gave a briefing about the day, and Chris and Katya gave us some information on the birding and historical background of the area. As we landed on the beach we spotted a fox running up the hill and saw a raven overhead. From the hills on both sides of the sheltered valley we could see earth mounds. These are all that is left of the dwellings of the Ainu people. We split into several small groups - the birders, hikers, artists and slow/history walkers. Everyone enjoyed the morning with a number of interesting birds seen, including an unexpected Asian Rosefinch. The long walkers made it to the Black Lake on the slopes of the Nemo volcano. This volcanic cone was named along with the bay after Captain Nemo from the novel by Jules Verne. They very much enjoyed the scenery, particularly seeing some newly opened flowers along the way. Fog was drifting in and out as we walked, but it finally retreated, allowing us beautiful weather all morning. We were all back on board by 11am when the Spirit of Enderby sailed for Ekarma Island.
After a pleasantly quiet afternoon we approached Ekarma Island to see great flocks of Northern Fulmars circling around the ship and a pod of Orca in the distance. We dropped Zodiacs into the water and set out on a new excursion. The number of fulmars was astonishing as they flew in and out their colony. There were also a good number of Tufted and Horned Puffins on the water. On the way back to the ship we stopped for a few Crested Auklets and one lone Whiskered Auklet which became the star of the day with several photographers pointing big lenses at it. Back on the ship we enjoyed a recap and the regular reading of the bird list.
Monday, June 4, 2012
Simushir and Yankicha Islands
We were certainly enjoying great weather on this voyage as once again we woke to calm seas and sunshine, this time at Simushir Island. We planned to land in the giant caldera of the extinct volcano, at the site of the abandoned Soviet submarine base Kraterniy. It was built in 1978 and operated until the mid-1990s when many military bases were abandoned due to the lack of funding. The impressive installation held 5000+ soldiers and officers and was a support base for the North Pacific fleet. After abandonment, many things remain at the same spot they were previously used, slowly falling apart and being overrun by nature. It was fascinating to learn that an Ainu settlement, a Russian-American Harvesting Company base and later a Japanese submarine base preceded the Soviet village installation on this very spot.
After breakfast Nathan informed us that another ship was in the vicinity so we landed early and made the most of our time ashore. We wandered off in all directions, birders following Chris and others scattering amongst the buildings. It was appropriate to reflect on the history of the region and the system and ideology of the Soviet regime. Some of the propaganda murals were still intact inside the buildings and we studied them with interest.
In the afternoon we made our way to Yankicha Island, arriving in plenty of time to enjoy the twilight when hundreds of thousands of auklets come back to their colony from the sea. On arrival at Yankicha we launched the Zodiacs and set out towards the caldera. It was a bit rough where the tide met the current, but we successfully made it to the tranquility inside. We immediately spotted a couple of Arctic Foxes playing on the hill. These were Blue Foxes introduced from the Commander Islands by the Japanese. The population initially boomed and then declined again to just a few hundred animals. The seabird colonies here are quite successful and the birds are present in great numbers. After enjoying some time in the caldera and taking photos of the fox and Crested Auklets we landed by the geothermal area and had half an hour ashore, while one boat stayed out so people could keep photographing more auklets. On the way out we saw the auklets starting to come back from the sea. Hundreds of thousands of dark shapes were silhouetted against the sky and created enormous rafts on the surface. Inside the caldera it was mainly Crested Auklets, but outside, Whiskered Auklets were in greater numbers. Our mood was buoyant as we discussed the events of a fabulous day over dinner a few hours after sailing from Yankicha Island.
Tuesday, 5th June, 2012
Novokuril'skaya Bay, Urup Island
After the comparatively late finish the previous evening at Yankicho, many took the opportunity to have a lie in and only a few determined sea-watchers were outside before breakfast. Early risers experience thick fog with visibility consistently less than 50 metres, only a few Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels and Tufted Puffins were to be seen. With conditions unsuitable for a landing on the exposed beach at Chirpoy Island, Nathan took the decision to continue heading south to allow more time on Urup Island. As a result two lectures were offered, with Katya discussing the adaptations of marine mammals in the Russian Far East and Adam telling us about the legacy of Georg Steller who was the naturalist on Bering's second expedition.
At 10:30am the fog suddenly cleared and the northern end of Urup Island came into view. It seemed that our luck with the weather would continue for yet another landing. Following an early lunch, the Zodiacs were launched and everyone was soon ashore in Novokuril'skoya Bay. Many people elected to explore by themselves and with almost three hours ashore, it was possible to investigate the shoreline, sand dunes and the area around an old abandoned fishing community surrounded by forested hills. With blue skies and little wind, conditions were nigh on perfect, and it was very apparent how much more advanced the spring was here compared with further north, as there was an excellent range of flowers and most of the trees were in full leaf. As the best birding was near the old village, most of the birders headed in that direction and an excellent range of birds were found with Middendorf's Grasshopper Warbler, Pacific Swift, Long-tailed Rosefinch, Japanese Bush-Warbler and Siberian Rubythroat amongst the species seen. Both Kamchatka Leaf-Warbler and Japanese Robin were heard but we were sadly thwarted in our attempts to find these despite the assistance of Chris's iPod. We would have to try and find these species further south.
Out in the bay at least a dozen Steller Sea Lions were seen, whilst those who walked along the shore saw a Red Fox. By 4:00pm everyone was back on board the Spirit of Enderby and after the anchor had been lifted, we headed south along the coast of Urup towards Iturup. Although the wind was blowing off the coast, the sky remained almost cloudless with great visibility and as we sailed onwards we saw Laysan Albatross, Orca and Dall's Porpoise. A little later in the afternoon, three Sperm Whales were also spotted and as the nightly log and dinner approached, several dozen Short-tailed Shearwaters were seen. Although we had seen a few of these previously, huge numbers moult in the south-west part of the Sea of Okhotsk and it seemed likely that these were the first of many we would see in the coming days.
Wednesday, 6th June, 2012
We arrived off the village of Kurilsk, Iturup Island, during the night and by 6:30am the Zodiacs were in the water. We landed on a beach a couple of miles to the south of the village. Yet again the weather was fantastic and people fanned out to explore while we waited for our transport to arrive. There were several fishing boats hauled up above the beach and the birders were delighted when a couple of new species for the trip were found. Whilst the first of these was the widespread Eurasian Wryneck, the other was a far more range-restricted species, the Chestnut-cheeked Starling, and with two feeding amongst the weed on the beach, we got some great looks at this very attractive bird.
A few minutes later our two specially chartered Ural trucks arrived and we boarded these for the ride up into the mountains. As the vehicles climbed upwards towards the Rubeytsky Volcano, we passed through a mixture of broadleaf woodland and more open areas where the dominant vegetation was Stone Pine.
We stopped at a look-out point above a small crater lake where there were some magnificent views over the forest, across to some distant volcanoes and down to the shore with the blue skies giving us great visibility.
The birders were keen to sight one special species they hoped to see here - the Japanese Accentor. Adam and Chris led those who were interested towards an area which looked promising. The first attempt proved unsuccessful with no response to playback but as we approached a second patch of Stone Pine, Chris spotted an Accentor singing from a perch in the pines. Most saw it before the bird disappeared from view. Fortunately the bird reappeared on a couple of occasions allowing everyone to see it.
Further along another short stop was made and an incredibly obliging Japanese Robin sang happily for the group. Usually this species is very elusive and creeps around in the bamboo but this individual had clearly 'not read the right books'. It sat still for several minutes allowing many to even watch it through the telescope. Our morning had barely started and the two main target birds had already been found!
On arrival at the thermal pools, some of the group went for a swim in the hot, mineral rich waters, whilst others set off on another bird walk led by Chris and Adam. Again this was highly successful, with highlights including a Kamchatka Leaf-Warbler, Red-flanked Bluetail, Japanese Robin and Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker. It had been an amazingly successful morning with the weather undoubtedly helping considerably. Our two trucks reappeared and we climbed aboard and were soon back at the landing site. As soon as the last of the Zodiacs was safely stowed, the ship set off southward along the coast of Iturup. Sailing onward, we passed several pods of Dall's Porpoises, at least forty Orca and the first Rhinoceros Auklets of the expedition. By 6:00pm we had reached the southern end of Iturup and the ship turned to port to enter the flooded caldera of Zaliv L'vinaya Past Bay. Over the next couple of hours we cruised around this spectacular location with the mist obscuring just the tops of the ancient crater rim. We achieved the main objective of visiting this location and saw at least eight Brown Bears, ending another great day.
Thursday, 7th June, 2012
The day began with another early breakfast, but it looked like our luck with the weather had finally ended, as there was thick fog and steady rain. Undeterred, we went ashore at 7.30am. Initially we walked as a group to view a spectacular waterfall which flowed almost directly into the sea and then three different options were available with Adam leading a walk up a steep trail into the forest, Katya a gentle stroll along the beach and Chris a birding walk.
It was hard to see the birds with the rain still falling, although a number of more widespread species were seen, including the local species of Marsh and Coal Tit. Everyone was encouraged to stay together, as there was plenty of evidence of Brown Bears with numerous footprints on the beach. The fresh prints indicated that bears had been wandering along the beach that very morning prior to our arrival.
By 9:15am most people had returned to the landing site and as we returned to the ship, several small flocks of Rhinoceros Auklets were spotted although the inclement weather limited the few birds that were seen during the morning and most of the group were content to begin packing their bags or watch the 'Big Year' movie, which tells the story of three American birders who were all competing to see who could sight the highest number of birds in a single year.
The fog cleared after lunch and we began to pass vast numbers of Short-tailed Shearwaters. These long distance migrants breed south of Australia and almost the entire population comes to the Sea of Okhotsk to moult. As we sailed onwards towards Korsakov, every so often there were flocks of thousands of birds as well as a steady stream of birds passing the ship.
After the settlement of on board accounts, Nathan invited everyone to join him in the Lecture room for a disembarkation briefing which was followed by a slideshow of magnificent photos taken by expedition staff during the voyage. Later we had the final reading of the birdlist which was followed by a wonderful buffet dinner.
Friday, 8th June, 2012
Port of Korsakov, Sakhalin Island
During the night, the Spirit of Enderby continued her north-westerly journey towards the Port of Korsakov on Sakhalin Island. By the time everyone got up, the island was in sight and a little later the ship was tied up at the wharf. Our memorable journey was sadly over. We had travelled 1,936 nautical miles and experienced many sights, sounds and other experiences which would stay with us for a long time. It had been a truly special expedition.
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" Thanks to the great staff, Russian crew and NZ staff for making this trip so fantastic. Now that i'm home it seems like a dream. I loved seeing this part of Russia and learned so much. I enjoyed my fellow participants and camaraderie. I'll always remember this trip and look forward to another Heritage adventure! "
" I just arrived in Belgium but my heart,love and memories ar still in Russia's Far East. What an incredible trip! This truly must be one of the last wildernesses in the world. The visit to Yankicha Island was a life changing experience. More than a million Crested Aukletsn accompanied by the truly bizar Whiskered auklets. Just amazing ... We saw 15 species of alcids (incl. the rare Kittlitz's Murrelet and Japanese Murrelet), had a record breaking 14 Short-tailed Albatrosses, were confronted with catabatic winds of up to 80 knots/hour, had amazing sights of Rock Sandpiper, Grey-crowned Rosy Finch,Steller's Sea Eagle, 5 Blue Whales, 100+ Killer Whales, a suprising Grey Whale, 14 Sperm Whales, a Red-billed Starling (new for Russia?), Black-billed Capercaillie and the list of species goes on and on an on.
A huge THANK YOU to Rodney and his outstanding team. Their adventurous spirit was amazing and made it possible to go where others would not dare to. What a professional team! From zodiac drivers to lecturers, from cooks to technicians, from Captain to birdguides: an amazing team.
This was a superb trip, on a cosy vessel, to one of the most remote and wildest areas on Planet Earth with an amazing team and very enjoyable company of all the other passengers.
I can't wait to go back ...
Many, many, many thanks to the whole team of Heritage Expeditions!!!
" “As I watched the trip unfold I get the feeling I’ll never see the like again”. "