In the language of its indigenous people, the Sea of Okhotsk translates as something like the 'Sea of Hunters' or 'Hunters Sea'. It's our first indication of the abundance of wildlife in the region. Despite the hunting that has gone on over the years, this sea remains one of the richest in the world - but there is so little known about it. The freshwaters of the Amur River flow into this vast, naturally-sheltered sea and it freeze's into ice-floes that make it impassable for much of the year.
Dominating the Northwest Pacific, the sea is bounded to the north and west by the Russian continent and the Kamchatka Peninsula to the east, while the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin Island guard the southern border. Its coasts were home to a number of indigenous peoples - the Nivikh, Oroki, Even and Itelmen - mostly now displaced by the advance of the modern world, though descendants can still be found practising a way of life handed down by their ancestors.
The great 17th century explorer Commander Vitus Bering launched two expeditions from the town of Okhotsk on the western shores of the sea in order to explore the coasts of the Russian Empire. The town remains to this day, seemingly frozen in time. Our expedition also visits the town of Magadan; once upon a time the gateway to the Kolyma Goldfields. Thousands of political prisoners were shipped here under Stalin's regime to work in the mines. Many never made it back from the infamous Gulags, succumbing to brutal treatment and the bitterly cold winters of the region.
And man's treatment of the region's wildlife wasn't much better. In 1854 no fewer than 160 American and British whaling ships were here, hunting the Bowhead Whale. Hunted almost to extinction, whales are now growing and it is possible to see a number of species including a rare western population of the Grey Whale, plus Bowhead Whales. The beautiful and rare Ribbon Seal may also be found on the ice, while Steller Sea Lions may be viewed shambling on craggy rocks.
On Talan Island we visit a huge colony of Crested Auklets and on the cliffs tumbling round the back of forgotten islands, we'll find thousands of seabirds. Soaring above the archipelagos is the huge and beautiful Steller's Sea Eagle. But birds compose only part of the rich wildlife tapestry of the region. We will see rivers which churn with salmon during the breeding season and spectacular taiga forests where wolves, Big Horned Sheep and Arctic Fox roam. During our excursions ashore we should catch sight of the mighty Kamchatka Brown Bear.
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Arrive into Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy the capital and administrative centre of the Kamchatka Region and transfer to the port to board the Spirit of Enderby. We will set sail through Avacha Bay, one of the greatest natural harbours in the world.
The Utashud are a small group of islands off the eastern coastline of the Kamchatka Peninsula. They are far enough offshore and small enough as to avoid disturbance from animals and activities on the mainland, they have an abundance of birds and marine life. If conditions are suitable Zodiac around the islands to view some of the regions seabirds including Tufted and Horned Puffins. There is also a good population of Sea Otters and harbour seals. This afternoon we sail around Cape Lopatka and into the Sea of Okhotsk.
Cruise north-west across the Sea of Okhotsk towards the northern tip of Sakhalin Island. The upwelling around the edge of the Deryugin Basin should be an ideal location to see cetaceans.
The north-east part of Sakhalin Island especially is a regular feeding ground for Western Grey Whales. Critically endangered, with only about 120 animals left in the wild and many questions still unanswered about their ecology. The water around northern Sakhalin Island consistently holds the biggest congregation of whales during summer months; they come every year to forage in the productive waters off the shelf.
This massive archipelago consists of 15 islands, of which there are four big ones, surrounded by numerous smaller rocks. Sea ice gets stuck in the strait for a long time before it melts, so there are only a few months of ice-free sea and ice floes can be seen as late in the season as July.
Inland, brown bears are the biggest terrestrial animals, but many other creatures can also be found. There are rivers, lakes and spectacular waterfalls to explore.
These small islands form part of the Dzhugdzhursky Nature Reserve, which is one of the wildest and least-studied reserves in Russia. The reserve epitomises the harsh Siberian climate and breathtaking landscapes of the region.
The Mal'minskie Islands are home to numerous seabirds; one of the biggest colonies of Spectacled Guillemot is to be found here, along with kittiwakes, Parakeet Auklets, puffins and many other species. There is also a good chance of Steller's Sea Eagle. On the mainland, taiga fauna is richly represented: brown bears roam free, as well as wolves, Wolverines, Red Foxes, various species of weasel, Siberian Musk Deer and Moose.
A small island in the vastness of the Sea of Okhotsk, it is completely uninhabited with only an automatic weather station and a small derelict hut of unknown origin. It is a crucial location for the endangered Steller Sea Lion population. We will cruise around the island and surrounding rocks, enjoying magnificent birding and watching numerous sea lions all around.
The first settlement was established on this site by Russian Cossacks in 1647, making it one of the earliest towns of the Russian Far East. The famous explorer Commander Vitus Bering visited here on the way to Kamchatka on his first expedition. Okhotsk was an important port on the Far East coast, from which many expeditions departed.
A tiny island in the northern Sea of Okhotsk, it supports an unbelievable diversity of wildlife. Despite its size this island has one of the largest seabird colonies in the north of the Sea of Okhotsk. Over an estimated 1.8 million birds bring the cliffs alive and obscure the sky as they fly out to sea. Gulls, kittiwakes, Thick-billed Murres, Horned and Tufted Puffins, Crested, Whiskered and Parakeet Auklets, Ancient Murrelets and many other species form a birdwatcher's paradise. The island is also inhabited by Red Foxes.
Thirty miles off the entrance to Magadan Harbour is Zavyalov Island. Depending on sea and weather conditions we will make an expedition landing in search of wildlife encounters, wild flowers and scenery.
This peninsula south of Magadan is part of the Magadanskaya Reserve and we will likely be accompanied by a Ranger for our landings. There are numerous sheltered bays and harbours with rivers flowing in to explore the largest of which is the Zabiyaka Bay.
The huge bay in the northern part of the Sea of Okhotsk (Penzhinskiy) is covered with ice for half of the year and is famous for its irregular and very high tides. Home to four seal species: Bearded, Ringed, Ribbon and Largha, along with the Steller Sea Lion. There are also potentially many whale species that can be seen in the area: Bowhead, Northern Right, Grey, Humpback and Fin.
During the night we will have crossed to Cape Yuzhnyy. Many species of salmon swim upriver throughout the summer to spawn, attracting many predators like Steller's Sea Eagles and the Kamchatka Brown Bear.
If the weather is fine, there should be fantastic views of the many snow-covered volcanoes that dominate the southern part of the peninsula as we sail north. Bukhta Russkaya is an isolated fiord. We hope to cruise into the fiord where there is an excellent chance of seeing both Sea Otters and Largha Seals. Brown bears are often seen here in the hillsides and birding can be very rewarding here also.
During the night the Spirit of Enderby will enter Avacha Bay, after a final breakfast it will be time to disembark.
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 2012 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 combined bar/library lounge area and a dedicated lecture room. 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.
Friday 8th June - Port of Korsakov
We spent the morning exploring Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and then boarded our coach for the ride to the Port of Korsakov. Our entry to the port took some time as the Border Guards wanted to closely scrutinise all passports, so it was after 3 pm when we boarded the Spirit of Enderby. As the arrival of another vessel was imminent, the Captain gave the order for the lines to be released as soon as everyone was aboard and we set off on our adventure round the Sea of Okhotsk.
Following a late lunch, our Expedition Leader, Rodney Russ, held the first briefing of the expedition and this included an introduction to the staff and ship as well as a Zodiac briefing.
Outside the fog had cleared and the first birds of the voyage were spotted with some good views of the somewhat range restricted Rhinoceros Auklet as well as Northern Fulmar, Common and Brunnich's Guillemots and Crested Auklet. The highlight however, was large flocks 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 (i.e. change their feathers). As we cruised onwards we passed thousands of brown feathers floating on the ocean surface which had undoubtedly been shed by the shearwaters. Indeed many of the birds looked extremely tatty as they were missing so many feathers and some were barely able to take flight as the ship approached them.
After the first of what would be many delicious dinners in the restaurant, many took the opportunity to have an early night.
Saturday 9th June - Tyuliney Island
The day began with the Spirit of Enderby travelling north through some moderately thick fog and only the hardy few ventured outside in the early morning light. After breakfast, Hotel Manager Meghan organised some of the administrative matters which needed to be dealt with, such as collecting landing fees and swiping credit cards to pay on board accounts. Later in the morning Adam gave a presentation about the 'Seabirds of the Sea of Okhotsk'. During his lecture Adam outlined the species we could expect to see during this inaugural expedition.
By late morning we had arrived about a mile to the south of Tyunliney Island. However it was difficult to see it in the foggy conditions. There was a significant swell at the gangway, so Rodney decided to limit each Zodiac to eight passengers so there were two rounds of cruises.
As we got closer to the island, we could see hundreds of Common Guillemot flying to and fro with the occasional Crested Auklet and Tufted Puffin. As we got closer to the shore waves rolled onto the beach every few minutes, Rodney decided that a safe landing was not possible so we cruised close to the beach where dozens of Steller Sea Lions and Northern Fur Seals could be seen. The low cliffs immediately behind were crammed with Black-legged Kittiwakes and Common Guillemots. Space was clearly at a premium, as there were also a couple of hundred Guillemots sitting on top of one of the buildings not far from the beach. These birds were not actually nesting, but appeared to be using the roof as a resting area.
Two species of seal were easily identified with the darker and smaller Northern Fur Seals easily picked out from the much larger and browner Steller Sea Lions. The breeding season for the Steller Sea Lions was clearly underway with several massive beach-masters controlling designated sections of the shoreline with each having a couple of dozen females.
Katya from the Expedition Team was able to talk to some of the six Russian researchers who were based on the island and was told that the buildings had been constructed in the 1960s as part of a joint Russian-US project to monitor the seals. It seemed however, that this was more to assess the population to establish how many could be killed for their pelts, rather than for conservation purposes!
By early afternoon we were all back on board and the ship began heading northwards. The visibility had improved somewhat and the coastline appeared intermittently on our port side. The weather seemed to disorientate some of the migrant birds, and during the afternoon a Siberian Rubythroat landed on the ship. This was a stunning male with a gorgeous ruby-red throat and whilst somewhat flighty, it stayed on board for several hours.
At 7:15 pm Rodney invited everyone to the Bar for a recap on the day's activities and Katya provided everyone with more information about the island. She explained that the translation of the name was actually 'Seal Island' and sealing by the Americans and Japanese had started here in the 1850s. This had decimated the fur seal population but fortunately this has recovered as it is believed there are now approximately 100,000 on the island.
Katya added that the Steller Sea Lions however, were still considered to be endangered and that between 1890 and 1990 the number of animals in the Russian Far East had declined from approximately 115,000 individuals to just 15,000. It is thought this decline was due to a number of factors, most of which are human related, with hunting, overfishing and entanglement in fishing nets being the principle reasons.
Sunday 10th June - Pil'tun Bay, Sakhalin Island
The dawn fog lifted just after breakfast revealing flat seas and little wind, so conditions were nigh on perfect for wildlife viewing. Although no cetaceans were seen, a number of interesting birds were found with the highlight being two Spectacled Guillemots. Two presentations were scheduled for our morning at sea, with the first being a talk by Katya about Western Grey Whales. Whilst these animals are considered to be the same species as those which occur off the west coast of North America, the population off Russia is far smaller and has still not recovered from the whaling days. Next Alison, the on board artist, gave a presentation and explained that there would be classes on shore for anyone interested.
As the ship continued towards Pil'tun Bay we passed a couple of oil platforms and turned to port to approach the coast. Ships are banned from anchoring in water shallower than 20 metres along this length of shoreline to protect the whales, so it was a long Zodiac ride to the river mouth. Several Grey Whales were seen as we headed towards the shore, though the views were somewhat distant.
Once the Zodiacs had successfully negotiated the tricky conditions at the river mouth, the water flattened out considerably and it became much easier to look for wildlife. There were at least half a dozen Steller's Sea Eagles perched on the sandy shore and with a slow approach we got some excellent views of this majestic raptor. We were also able to get some nice looks at a good-sized haul out of Largha Seals, a species endemic to the Northern Pacific. Also known as Spotted Seals, the animals were generally grey and covered in black markings, although they did vary in colouration with some being much darker. After watching the seals and eagles, the Zodiacs continued up the river to our intended landing site near some old buildings and a lighthouse. As we continued we passed several hundred terns and somewhat against expectations, it quickly became apparent that the majority of these were Aleutian Terns. This species is comparatively localised and only found in Eastern Russia and Alaska. It was great to get some good looks at multiple birds as they hunted small fish in the river. An even bigger surprise was a lone White-winged Black Tern in one of the flocks. According to the distribution maps for this species, it should not be within 500 miles or so of Sakhalin, so it was great to see this smartly plumaged individual.
Arriving off the buildings, the tide was fairly low and the water very shallow, so all those who wanted to go ashore had to wade through water and rather sticky mud to reach the beach. Once Rodney and Katya had spoken to a somewhat bemused lighthouse keeper and his wife we were free to wander. Some explored the buildings and climbed to the view point at the top of the lighthouse, where there was a magnificent view across the bay with at least ten Grey Whales being seen. Others explored slightly further afield, with the birders walking through the Siberian Stone Pine and scrubby bushes which seemed to go for miles in every direction. The vegetation was somewhat stunted, undoubtedly due to the extreme winter weather, but despite this, some interesting birds were found including Dusky Warbler, Pine Grosbeak and Siberian Rubythroat.
All too soon it was time to return to the landing site and as we cruised back towards the river entrance, we passed more eagles, terns and the seal haul out. Reaching open water we found some more Grey Whales, these animals showed exceptionally well regularly surfacing to breathe and occasionally making deeper dives when a tail was seen.
Monday 11th June - Iony Island
The day started peacefully as we sailed sunny seas towards Iony Island, a little speck of land in the midst of the Sea of Okhotsk. In the morning we had a lecture from Katya on the cetaceans of the region, with a few hints on how to identify them and interesting information about their ecology and behaviour. We had lunch before going out to explore this little island which is a well-known Steller Sea Lion breeding rookery. We expected it to be a rugged little rock, and did not know if there was going to be an option to land. We set out in five Zodiacs finding our way by GPS in misty conditions.
At first we started seeing great numbers of birds, in particular Northern Fulmars and Brunnich's Guillemots. After a while the island appeared out of the fog and we were taken away by the spectacle that opened to us. Sea lions roared on all the rocks, as well as on the beach, guillemots and kittiwakes covered all the cliffs above them, creating a black and white pattern, all the way to the top of the cliffs. Iony is a tiny little Island with barely any vegetation, but teeming with life. There are animals and birds on every available space of land. We circumnavigated the island, followed by sea lions which played around the boats while hundreds of thousands of guillemots and kittiwakes flew around their colony. A little abandoned research hut nestled on a grassy patch at the top of the cliffs. The birding highlight of the day was the good number of various auklets seen - Parakeet, Whiskered and Least being the most prominent.
As we rounded the last point we saw a breeding beach with a good 500 sea lions. Beach masters were surrounded by their females and a few pups could be seen between the bodies. The noise, smell and the surrounding mist created a surreal and primeval atmosphere. The sight of towering cliffs and all these amazing animals made a lasting impression of nature in the raw. We returned to the ship for a quiet afternoon resting and downloading numerous photos. After a recap and a delicious dinner we all went to bed happily exhausted after the experiences of the day.
Tuesday 12th June - In the ice around Big Shantar
The ship started to encounter ice during the night and when we went to breakfast, bits were floating past in the sunshine of a beautiful morning. As the ice became denser, the ship slowed and it was announced that we would try to reach the closest embayment with a river estuary and try to land there. Before we even got to the shore the first Ribbon Seal was announced, and then they started to appear one by one in unbelievable numbers. They seemed to be everywhere - beautiful black and white painted males, brown and white striped females and silvery weaners, all lying on the ice as we crushed past. Some of them were directly ahead of the ship, so we could get stunning photos of this beautiful seal which is endemic to the North Pacific, reflected in the deep-blue water. It was the first sighting of this seal for most of us, including the expedition staff. There was a lot of excitement on the front deck as we counted more and more seals around. We also saw three other species of ice seals - Bearded, Ringed and Largha. The bird highlight of the day was to see about 50 Spectacled Guillemots which are endemic to this part of the world.
Despite the fact that we were in the ice, the day was so beautiful Rodney decided we should have lunch on the deck and to celebrate seeing such a great number of Ribbon Seals with a complimentary glass of Russian champagne. Two Zodiacs were then lowered for those who wished to take photos of the ship in the ice and some magnificent shots were taken. As we approached the coast it became clear that we could not land where we had intended, so we turned back and decided to go around the smaller island and look for gaps in the ice. On the way out we spotted a good number of various species of ice seals again. It had been a wonderful day and most agreed the absolute highlight of the trip so far.
Wednesday 13th June - Shantar Archipelago and ice edge cruising
We woke up to another glorious morning, still in the ice, though it felt really warm due to the lack of wind. It soon became obvious that we could not approach any of the islands and land as ice was blocking all the coastlines. We decided to cruise the ice edge and look for wildlife as we have still not exhausted all the opportunities of this habitat. Most people spent time keeping a lookout from the decks outside or from the bridge. A good number of ringed seals were seen popping their heads up, curious to take a look at the ship. As we sailed around the Big Shantar we saw a small congregation of Minke Whales, so we approached them to take few photos. Meanwhile Meghan opened the sea shop to provide retail therapy for those who struggled with the break from civilisation.
Later in the morning we listened to a lecture from Christian Genillard about the sea ice and history of its research. He gave it first in French and then in English. After lunch we had a presentation by 'bird man' Chris about the migrating birds of the region and we learned some fascinating facts about capacities of those species. Chris' lecture was interrupted by an announcement about Orca sighting and everyone rushed out on deck. The sea surface was as clear as glass and the air just as still. There was magical light as we farewelled the Shantar Islands and set course for the mainland and Mal'minskiye Islands.
Thursday 14th June - Mal'minskiy Islands, Mal'minskiy Bay and Cape Nurki
An early breakfast had been announced the night before - so it wasn't too big a shock when Meghan came on the PA at 6:15 am with our wake up call. Breakfast was followed at 7:15 am by a briefing on the morning activities. The simple plan was that we would cruise with five Zodiacs around the Mal'minskiy Islands. If possible we would land and walk across to an unnamed creek on the mainland. The islands and unnamed creek are part of the Dzhugdzhursky Zapovednik Nature Reserve. At the briefing Katya gave us a description of the reserve types and protection levels of each one in Russia.
The day had dawned beautifully clear and calm - we were blessed yet again with our third day of fine weather in a row. We started boarding at 8 am and cruised across to the group of islands which had one obvious large one in the centre, two slightly smaller ones to the east and south-east and a number of rocks. There were birds everywhere - in the air, on the island and in the waters. The excitement level rose the closer we got. This was obviously going to be a good encounter but just how good we didn't appreciate until well into the cruise. We identified Ancient Murrelet, Rhinoceros Auklet, Parakeet Auklet, Horned Puffin, Tufted Puffin, Crested Auklet both Common and Brunnich's Guillemot and Spectacled Guillemot. The Spectacled Guillemot was undoubtedly the highlight for most people as this species is restricted to the Sea of Okhotsk and the Kuril Islands, but even the expedition staff had never before seen it in such large numbers. They were everywhere and obviously breeding in the rock rubble at the bottom of the cliffs. On the largest of the islands there was a gravel spit which provided an ideal landing site. It was occupied by four Steller's Sea Eagles which flew off when the Zodiacs came into view.
After about an hour of Zodiac cruising we landed on the mainland at an unnamed river. The Zodiacs were anchored out and everybody gathered on the beach. Chris took a group of birders to see what they could find; Samuel led a 'slightly more strenuous/faster walk' for those who wanted to explore the area, while Alison and a few artists worked together. The valley floor is obviously a large lake or swamp during the winter months when the sea freezes and the river no longer drains. The lower slopes here are covered in Taiga forest. Christian took a walk into this magnificent area of forest. There were good numbers of Steller's Sea Eagles and two species of Cuckoos were calling. There was sign of bear activity, though none was fresh. At 11 am Kosta and Katya took a small group on a coastal Zodiac cruise returning at noon at which point everybody returned to the beach to be taken back to the ship.
Once everyone was back on board, the Spirit of Enderby moved north along the coast to another anchorage point off Cape Nurki while everybody had lunch - and some enjoyed an afternoon nap. We made a landing at what turned out to be an abandoned military base (possibly something to do with Radar). It was an easy landing on a gravel beach. Adam and Meghan led a long walk, while Chris took a birding group and the remainder explored the general area. The buildings were in varying states of repair and it was interesting to note gun emplacements on both sides of the Peninsula. There was also a strongly constructed and heavily fortified 'command centre'. Everybody was back on board by 6 pm and we set course for the town of Okhotsk.
Friday 15th June - Okhotsk town
We were rewarded with a later start this morning, with breakfast at 8:30 am - a luxury after the early starts we have had recently. Initially sea conditions were calm with reasonable visibility but that changed mid morning when we encountered fog and more ice. It was challenging to navigate through this and the ship proceeded with caution. Rodney gave a presentation entitled 'the Russification of Siberia' and the impact this had on the indigenous peoples. This was followed later in the morning by a lecture from Katya on 'Seals and Sea Lions'.
Lunch was served at just after midday followed by a briefing on plans for our visit to the town of Okhotsk. As the fog was thick the plan was for a local pilot to come out and guide us through the entrance and to the town wharf, but he did not arrive, so we pressed across the bar negotiating our way as the tide was very low. Once inside the entrance we simply followed up the inside of the spit. We passed commercial salmon fishermen working with nets, winches and trucks and a significant industrial area with fuel storage tanks on the wharves. There was a surprising number of boats and barges, some of them at considerable tonnage for the shallow entrance. With the very low tide (and no pilot) we found a few shallow places but made it to the town wharf where we were met by a welcoming party. An afternoon programme had been organised but before it could proceed, we had to get clearance from the local Border Guard. He was extremely helpful and processed the papers very quickly. From the wharf area we walked to the town square to enjoy a concert especially for us. We were entertained for about an hour by a group of four guys and four girls demonstrating traditional Russian dances in the shadow of a statue of Lenin. Other entertainers included two soloists and a group of three young girls. Each item was introduced by the former editor of the local paper who spoke very good English. Nearly all of the songs were about love, so it was interesting that the concert attracted a large number of local young mothers with babies - there certainly seems to be a lot of love in this town!
When the concert finished we were invited to participate in a 'bread and salt' ceremony, which is a traditional Russian welcome. This was followed by caribou soup with lentils. There were a number of locals dressed in traditional Evenk dress and Evenk souvenirs for sale. Adjacent to the square was a public hall where we viewed a display of children's art. Sadly the museum was closed for renovation, but one of the expedition team was invited to a quick inspection of the items in storage where he said the bird collection was very extensive.
In the early evening we walked back to the town wharf where we said farewell to our new found friends and headed back to the ship - some 4 miles away - in the Zodiacs. The Border Guard was on duty to ensure none of us stayed on. The tide had risen considerably and as we sailed out, the fog which had blanketed the area lifted, and we had great views of the town. One could not help but reflect on Vitus Bering and his expeditions. In his day Okhotsk was the 'gateway to Kamchatka' and he walked overland from St Petersburg to Okhotsk where he built a boat to sail to Kamchatka. Amazingly he didn't just do it the once, but came back on a second expedition. Okhotsk has always been a place of mystery and very much a part of the history of the Russian Far East. It felt good to have visited and seen the place first hand to feel this connection with the past.
Once the party was back on board the Captain lifted the anchor and we set sail for Magadan region.
Saturday 16th June - afternoon at Talan Island
The morning was taken up with lectures, art classes, downloading and editing photos, reading, birding and generally relaxing. Our destination today was Talan Island which lies about 50 miles west of Magadan and has long been known as a 'birding hotspot'. There has also been a reasonable amount of research undertaken on the island, well known for its large numbers of Crested Auklets. We dropped anchor about 3:30 pm when sea conditions were calm and the island shrouded in mist. Five Zodiacs were launched and we headed away for a coastal cruise. Our route took us south around the island. The western end is a low flat area but it rises steeply to the east. We never saw the tops of the impressively high cliffs at the eastern end of the island as they were always covered in mist. There are an extraordinary number of Kittiwakes nesting here. We were impressed that there would have been at least 50 pairs of Steller's Sea Eagles nesting, roosting and hunting along the cliffs.
After we had circumnavigated the island we landed for approximately an hour on the low flat at the western end. Here there were a number of huts - some of them in better repair than the others. There was also evidence of tracks and what appeared to be numbered burrows. The debate continues on who used these huts, but they appear to have been used by researchers at some stage. However there were too many huts for just researchers and the age of the huts dated from very old to quite recent, which led us to wonder if they were used by people gathering Auklets. We pondered this question for some time and still have no idea if this is done or not.
We returned to the ship for dinner and went back to the island at 9 pm to watch the Auklets coming ashore. Most of us sat on the grass banks on the south east corner of the island and watched as the birds came and went. Numbers would build up and then a large percentage would fly off, circle and land again elsewhere. This activity went on for a long time. At one point the fog rolled back and the sun shone through, making a magical light show. By 11:30 pm the birds still hadn't come ashore but the activity increased with enormous flocks circling. At one stage a large flock came directly overhead and the noise of the wing beats of thousands of Auklets has to be heard to be appreciated. It was simply amazing. The last Zodiacs came back to the ship shortly after midnight and we departed for Magadan. Talan Island had certainly lived up to its reputation as 'hotspot'.
Sunday 17th June - Magadan and Zav'yalov Island
Just after breakfast the Spirit of Enderby entered Nagayev Bay where the town of Magadan, capital of the Magadan region, is located. At 9:30 am we disembarked and boarded buses which would take us on a city tour. We visited the cultural museum which told the history of the city, the geological museum with its impressive collection of rocks, meteorite, gold, silver and remains of mammals such as the mammoth. We also visited the Mask of Sorrow which was built in 1996 to honour all the prisoners who died in the region from the 1930s. The city of Magadan was in fact built by prisoners, 800,000 of whom were sent from there to different camps in the region, where they were put to work extracting gold and silver. About 130,000 of them died, including 11,000 who were shot. The main road to the north has been named the 'Bones Highway' because of the number of prisoner's bones which lie beneath this road.
After this historical and cultural morning in Magadan, we sailed around 53 kilometres south, towards Zav'Yalova Island where we took a late afternoon Zodiac cruise along the coast, looking for wildlife. During the cruise we saw three Steller's Sea Eagles, some Harlequin Ducks and a large group of Goosander flying overhead. In a small bay we spotted our first Brown Bear of the voyage and then a further five wandering in the grass and eating the vegetation.
Monday 18thJune - Koni Peninsula and Astronomicheskaya Bay
During the night we sailed around the west coast of the Koni Peninsula and this morning made a landing on a rocky beach around 8:30 am. A group led by Chris went in the forest, while Christian took a group to walk along the coast and up to a plateau to enjoy the view. It was very exciting to see an adult Brown Bear walking and running on the edge of the plateau. The cameras worked overtime taking pictures of him. Around 11 am we made our way back to the Zodiacs to make our departure before a strong incoming tide.
After dinner we dropped five Zodiacs in the water to explore Astronomicheskaya Bay which is about 5 kilometres long and 3 kilometres wide. Just at the northern entrance of the bay we had an excellent view from the Zodiacs of a young Brown Bear wandering on the beach and then climbing a steep snow patch. After he left the shore we entered the bay and were welcomed by hundreds of Harlequin Ducks flying around us. Later we observed an Osprey flying with a fish in its beak, Tufted Duck, Common Eider and Red-breasted Merganser. We later saw another bear walking along the coastline before he disappeared in the Taiga forest. We made a landing and wandered around the unique habitat which is a mix between forest and peat bog. We saw some amazing flowers and enjoyed a relaxing time before we headed back to the ship around 10 pm.
Tuesday 19thJune - afternoon at Ostrov Matekil, Yamskiye Archipelago
We had hoped to make a landing some 55 kilometres east of Astronomicheskaya, but fog and ice conditions determined that our time would be better spent at the Yamskie Islands which are known for their huge concentration of seabirds.
Around 2 pm we left the vessel to cruise along the northern coast of Matykil' Island on the Yamskiye Archipelago. This coast has an impressive geology with abundant (between 6 and 10 million) seabirds. We saw Spectacled Guillemot, Kittiwake, Crested, Parakeet and Least Auklets. We then explored the east coast and approached a Steller Sea Lions breeding site. Unusually these birds seemed quite curious, and came closer to investigate the Zodiacs. After spending half an hour observing and photographing these majestic birds we headed north again to rejoin the Spirit of Enderby. The wind increased as we made our way back, resulting in some wet jackets, but everyone had big smiles on their faces, still high after the close encounter. After dinner the Captain moved the ship close to the coast again so we could observe the millions of seabirds, mainly auklets, returning to their roosts. It was a truly spectacular evening on the outside deck or on the bridge, watching the sun dip below the horizon.
Wednesday 20th June - Cape Yuzhnizy and the west coast of Kamchatka
Wind and a southerly swell increased overnight as we crossed Shelekhova Bay. We came in under the lee of Cape Yuzhniy, a prominent cape off the western coast of Kamchatka. With 30 knots of wind and heavy fog, getting off the ship was not an option this morning, so instead we stayed anchored in this comfortable location. During the morning we watched the BBC Russia series Part 3 and Meghan opened the sea shop for those in need of retail therapy. Just before lunch we gathered in the lecture hall to discuss our options and the decision was made to head back out into the Sea of Okhotstk and begin the long journey southwards down the coast.
After lunch Katya gave a well attended lecture on the future of Polar Bears in a changing climate. This was followed by Alison giving a lecture on environmental education through art. Conditions improved somewhat during the afternoon. After a few drinks in the bar we tucked into another delicious dinner served up by head chef Bruce.
Thursday 21st June - Down the west coast of Kamchatka
The wind had dropped significantly overnight but the residual swell from the storm continued to rock us as we travelled down the west coast of Kamchatka. We watched the final part of the BBC's Russia and Katya gave a talk on one of her favourite subjects, Sea Otters.
During the afternoon we saw Harbour Seals, Dall's Porpoise and Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels. Katya gave a talk on the Commander Islands including their history and wildlife. After dinner we gathered in the bar to celebrate Midsummer's Day with champagne, cheese and chocolate.
Friday 22nd June - Opala River, Second Strait
After breakfast we boarded the Zodiacs and headed ashore, crossing the river mouth of the Opala River. Pink Salmon could be seen breaking the surface every so often and a throng of seals, gulls and terns avidly followed their movements. A landing on the spit offered the chance for a welcome stretch of the legs after a couple days on the ship. We then passed a fishing camp and made another landing on the opposite side of the river, although we did not linger in this area as it was a Common Tern breeding colony and many nests with eggs and small chicks were on the ground. After some more exploration of the river we made our way back to ship and continued south.
Conditions continued to improve as we headed south and the outline of the hills of southern Kamchatka could be clearly seen. The volcanoes of the northern Kuril Islands also came into view, including the impressive Alaid Volcano of Atlasova Island. Two Humpback Whales provided passing entertainment, but the best wildlife spectacle was provided by the throngs of Short-tailed Shearwaters which covered the water in their hundreds of thousands, truly an impressive sight.
As we approached the Second Strait which separates the islands of Shumshu and Paramushir we began to encounter strong winds and also the first of many Sea Otters. While most of the Sea Otters were distant, a few mothers carrying their pups were observed really close to the ship. As we neared the settlement of Severo-Kurilsk in very strong winds, Rodney and Katya headed off for an adventurous ride to pick up Leonid, a volcanologist and historian. Once on board, Leonid gave us a fascinating lecture on the history of the Kuril Islands and stayed on for dinner while we watched a few more otters offshore. After dropping Leonid back home we resumed our journey and headed for the east coast of Kamchatka.
Saturday 23rd June - Vestnik Bay and Bukhta Russkaya
The day began with an early wake-up call from Rodney at 5:45 am. The ship had just arrived at Vestnik Bay where the weather was glorious and a Zodiac cruise would depart in 45 minutes. Breakfast would be available on our return. Despite the early hour almost everyone got up and we set off to explore the islands in the middle of the bay. As we approached, two Sea Otters were seen quietly dozing on a rock covered with seaweed and a young Steller's Sea Eagle quietly watched us from a rock pinnacle high above.
For sheer numbers, however, the most impressive spectacle was the number of auks, with thousands of birds rafting up on the water or flying around overhead. There were large numbers of Tufted Puffins, Common Guillemots and Brunnich's Guillemots but there were also good numbers of Horned Puffins and Pigeon Guillemots. Some of the Pigeon Guillemots were of the range restricted race, snowi, which is considered by some to be a separate species, the Kuril Guillemot.
As we slowly cruised around the islands, known as Ostrov Utashud, at least 20 Sea Otters were also seen, several of which were females carrying their cubs. Occasionally they would raise themselves vertically in the water to get a better look at us, but all too often they would dive and only resurface further away. Sadly these animals had learnt that humans are a threat to their existence. Continuing onwards around the island, we came to the rusting hulk of what looked like an old fishing boat which must have grounded many years ago. It was now covered in nesting Slaty-backed Gulls, and several Pigeon Guillemots perched on it too. A little further on there were 30 or so Largha Seals snoozing on a beach with others watching us from the water. Like the otters, they would periodically raise themselves up in the water to inspect us before diving again.
All too soon it was time to return to the Spirit of Enderby for breakfast and as we cruised north up the western coastline of Kamchatka, the weather remained fantastic with blue skies, little wind and flat seas. The late morning and early afternoon were taken up with a number of inside activities including the payment of on board accounts, a disembarkation briefing and a final expedition recap. Many still managed to get outside to enjoy the views and wildlife however as we sailed on towards our ultimate destination. The weather was also the warmest of the entire expedition with many wandering around the outside decks in tee shirts - a rare experience indeed in the Russian Far East!
During this leg of the voyage a selection of the seabirds we had seen previously were also found, including Northern Fulmar, Tufted Puffin and Parakeet Auklet - the latter being not that common along the coast of Kamchatka. There were also some Short-tailed Shearwaters; however the numbers were significantly lower than yesterday with only a few hundred birds compared with the vast flocks which we had seen before.
After the disembarkation briefing and slideshow had concluded, we emerged from the lecture room to find the ship close to Bukhta Russkaya. As soon as everyone was ready, five Zodiacs were lowered and we set off to explore. Our main target here was some good looks at the resident pod of Orca and Adam had spotted these even before the ship was in position, so we had a good idea where to go. With considerable care we approached the pod and over the next hour and a half enjoyed some phenomenal views of them. On occasions we saw tail slapping and every so often the animals would surface within ten metres of the boats - it was a truly magical experience to finish off the expedition.
By late afternoon everyone was back on board and the ship repositioned the short distance to Bukhta Russkaya. The weather was still glorious and many were outside to watch the ship sail into this fine fjord. There were hundreds of Tufted Puffins floating on the water, but the keen birders were looking for two particular species - the Long-billed and Kittlitz's Murrelets. They were delighted when both species were found.
At 7:30 pm the farewell dinner began and after this had concluded, many went outside once again to enjoy the view. Our final days together had been blessed with beautiful sunshine.
Sunday 24th June - Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy
During the night the Spirit of Enderby left Bukhta Russkaya and when most people rose, we were inside Avacha Bay. By the time breakfast had concluded we were at the wharf in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy and our amazing voyage which had covered over 1,800 nautical miles around the Sea of Okhotsk was over.
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" We have travelled to a great many countries over the past forty five years both working and laterally for pleasure. This trip was something quite different and special, a great experience from both a cultural and naturalist viewpoint. At the end of the sea voyage we were able to enjoy some of what Kamchatka has to offer including landing a few fish whilst rafting down the Bystraya River. Bears, Orcas, Seals, Stellar Sea Eagles, Stellar Sea Lions, seabirds by the thousand, all beautifully organized by the Heritage team . We are planning our next trip. "
" A trip to remember for a lifetime. To see endangered wildlife protected and gaining in numbers was a thrill. eg. ribbon seals, ring seals, Stellar's sea lions, as well as numerous birds.
" “... it was a privilege to have experienced such a special place…” "