Run as a co-operative venture with BirdLife International, this unique expedition follows in the footsteps of the Danish Explorer Commander Vitus Bering whose instructions from Tsar Peter the Great were to "sail north by north-east... chart the coast and collect information"
Our journey starts in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, the city which is named after two of Bering's ships, and we will also travel north by north-east, along what is still one of the remotest coastlines on earth.
Our voyage is dedicated to looking for birds and wildlife and we can expect to have some truly spectacular experiences, however, there is one bird which makes this trip very special and that is the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. This species is classified as ‘critically endangered' and it is believed there are now less than 200 pairs which make the annual migration to Northern Kamchatka and Chukotka to breed.
Very few people have had the privilege of visiting this region to see this species and we hope to repeat the success of our previous expeditions when we not only saw birds at Meinypil'gyno, the only monitored breeding site, but also made ornithological history by finding a new population further south
For dates and rates, and the full itinerary please click the tabs under the heading above.
Pre/post cruise transfers, all on board ship accommodation and meals and all expedition shore excursions.
All items of a personal nature, laundry, drinks, gratuities. International/domestic flights, visas and travel insurance.
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 plan to spend the morning Zodiac cruising on the Zhupanova River. Our main target here is the Steller’s Sea Eagle and there are usually at least three occupied nests close to the river.
The wildlife-rich Commander Islands were first discovered by the Commander Vitus Bering when his ship was wrecked here in 1741. We intend to explore the islands through a combination of landings and Zodiac cruises and our first stop will be the village of Nikolskoye, where there is an interesting museum.
Our proposed landing site is a patchwork of boggy tundra, ponds and shingle spits and an interesting range of waders can be found here including Pacific Golden Plover, Red-necked Stint and Red-necked Phalarope.
Verkhoturova Island has some huge seabird colonies and by following a short trail to the cliff top we should be able to enjoy some fantastic views of Tufted Puffins, Brunnich’s Guillemots, Pelagic Cormorants and Black-legged Kittiwakes.
Later in the day, there will be either a Zodiac cruise or landing on the Govena Peninsula. Good numbers of Brown Bears can often be found here.
Tintikun Lagoon is one of the most scenic places in the Russian Far East and the lake is surrounded by jagged mountains, glaciers and forested slopes. A shallow river allows us to drive the Zodiacs onto the lake and we intend to make several landings.
We plan to spend two days with members of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Taskforce searching remote bays looking for unknown populations of this critically endangered species. In 2011 we made ornithological history by locating three territories at a location which had not been previously surveyed. We will be assisting the Taskforce again and hope to repeat our success elsewhere.
Another beautiful fiord possessed of a dramatic allure in the low sun of the Subarctic. A walrus haul-out guards the entrance and we make a landing to explore the hinterland, surrounded by imposing mountain landscapes and verdant tundra.
Meinypil’gyno is located on a 40 kilometre long shingle spit and is the most important site in the world for breeding Spoon-billed Sandpiper, as there are about ten pairs which are monitored by members of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Recovery Taskforce.
This coastline is rich in marine mammals and one creature we will be looking for, in particular, is the walrus, as there is a known haul-out. The animals do regularly move between locations, so finding them is always very much a matter of luck, although we have had success here in the past.
As we cruise into Anadyr Bay, there is an excellent chance of seeing more Belugas and after a final breakfast on board the Spirit of Enderby, it will be time to disembark. We will provide complimentary transfers to a downtown hotel and the airport.
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 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 21st June
After a night in the appropriately named Petropavlovsk Hotel, everyone made their way to the wharf in the early afternoon where the Spirit of Enderby, our home for the next couple of weeks, awaited us. Once everyone was aboard, there was a series of briefings including an introduction to the ship and Expedition Team, a Zodiac briefing and the theoretical part of the safety drill.
A little later, Expedition Leader Rodney explained that there would be a delay in our departure as a couple of the Zodiac engines had been sent for servicing. This gave everyone time to unpack and orientate themselves around the ship, although the keen birders were outside with various birds found including Slaty-backed Gull and Black-legged Kittiwake.
As dinner concluded we sailed away from the wharf and out across Avacha Bay, finding our first Tufted Puffins of the expedition. Several small groups of Ancient Murrelets were also spotted, as well as our first Crested Auklets. The sun began to set as we left the bay and as the light faded, most headed off to bed in anticipation of the big adventure ahead.
Saturday 22nd June
For some of the group (especially the insomniacs who had not yet adjusted to the time change), the day began well before breakfast and as we cruised northwards towards the Zhupanova River enjoying views of the spectacular snow-capped mountains that guarded the coastline. It was an excellent opportunity to become familiar with some of the species we could expect to see over the coming days, with good numbers of Tufted Puffins as well as our first Laysan Albatrosses and Northern Fulmars.
By the time breakfast had concluded, the Spirit of Enderby was positioned off the mouth of the Zhupanova River and after a briefing from Rodney, we boarded five Zodiacs and set off for the river entrance to be greeted by five Steller’s Sea Eagles on the shoreline. This was a ‘must see’ bird for many and we got some good views as they flew off.
We set off up the river and soon found a flock of a hundred or so Common Terns. These were of the Pacific subspecies longipennis and with their jet black bills, quite different from the birds many were familiar with in Europe. Moving further upstream, we passed a group of Largha Seals hauled out on a sandbar and it was possible to see the distinctive patterning on this North Pacific endemic species which is also sometimes known as the Spotted Seal.
Our main goal on this particular Zodiac cruise however, was to get good looks at Steller’s Sea Eagles and as the birds near the river mouth were somewhat distant, we continued upstream to where the Expedition Team knew there were usually some occupied nests. At one of these the birds were indeed ‘at home’, and we enjoyed some phenomenal views of this majestic raptor with the birds looking down at us from their nests – a major highlight for many. After cruising along the river for several miles, the Zodiacs turned and headed back towards the fishing village at the river mouth. Whilst a few of the group went to investigate the village where they were able to sample some of the salmon, most of the birders joined Adam and Chris on a short walk to a wet grassland behind the village where they soon found a Pechora Pipit. The main target however was Long-toed Stint and after flushing a couple of individuals, we changed strategy and the group stood on the edge of one of the pools whilst Chris went around the back and gently pushed one of these beautifully patterned waders forward, so it could be admired by the assembled throng.
All too soon, it was time to return to the ship and as we cruised towards the Commander Islands, the water began to rapidly deepen and the range of seabird species changed, with more Laysan Albatrosses and our first Fork-tailed Storm-petrels. Several pods of Dall’s Porpoise were also spotted with a number of animals coming in to bow ride, giving us a fantastic opportunity to appreciate their handsome black-and-white patterning.
Sunday 23rd June
Bering Island, Commander Islands
Once again, the day began well before breakfast for the ‘early birds’ and as we closed in on Bering Island, the number of birds increased significantly with Tufted Puffin, Common Guillemot, Black-legged and Red-legged Kittiwakes, Fork-tailed Storm-petrel and Pelagic Cormorant amongst the species seen. Several Humpback Whales were also spotted.
Once breakfast had concluded, Rodney gave us a briefing about what we could expect on Bering Island and advised everyone to bring their passports as the local Border Guards sometimes wanted to inspect these. As soon as everyone was ashore, we learnt that this procedure would not be necessary – this outpost of the Cold War evidently did not operate on Sundays! Whilst Nikol’skoye can be somewhat bleak on occasions, we were extremely fortunate today and as we set off, the clouds parted and the sun came out – we were fortunate indeed!
The group could choose from several options, with some visiting the small museum in the middle of the town where there were a range of exhibits including complete skeletons of the Steller’s Sea Cow. This extraordinary looking beast had apparently been common around the Commander Islands when Vitus Bering’s expedition discovered the island in 1741, but tragically had been hunted to extinction within thirty years.
Walking along the shoreline, the birders were on the lookout for one particular bird, the somewhat localised Rock Sandpiper. After a fair bit of diligent checking of the weed covered rocks, two individuals were found. Although these would periodically disappear, they would soon climb back onto their favoured rocks, allowing everyone to get some nice scope views of this special bird. Further along there were several dozen summer plumaged Dunlins and many of the group also saw one of our other target birds for the morning, the Mongolian (or Lesser Sand) Plover. Turning inland, we played a recording of Pechora Pipit with immediate success, as a bird which had been singing high in the sky parachuted downwards and landed on a wooden pole nearby, giving us some great views of this much-wanted bird.
All too soon, it was time to turn around and head back towards the landing site, although some took the opportunity to visit the modest art gallery where there was a wide range of paintings and prints by resident artist Sergei, whilst others made a stop at the memorial statue to Vitus Bering. Although this great explorer had been the first to reach the Commander Islands when his ship had been wrecked on Bering Island in 1741, he had only survived another month before succumbing to scurvy. This was a truly tragic end for one of the most amazing (but little known) explorers of the Russian Far East. By 12:45pm everyone was back at the landing site and the Zodiacs soon began shuttling everyone back to the ship. It had been a fascinating and rewarding morning ashore.
Over lunch the Spirit of Enderby repositioned to North-West Cape where five Zodiacs were lowered and we set off for the shore. The weather had deteriorated since morning but we persevered and despite warnings that this landing might involve us getting wet feet, everyone was soon safely ashore and we set off with local Ranger, Victor, for the seal colony. There were two viewpoints on the cliffs overlooking the colony where literally hundreds of animals lay on the beach. Whilst the majority were Northern Fur Seals, there were also good numbers of Steller Sea Lions. These endangered animals were much larger than their smaller cousins and whilst the main breeding season was yet to start, we saw several of the large bulls chasing females. Rodney took the decision to end the landing somewhat earlier than had been originally intended as the wind continued to strengthen. This turned out to be a very wise decision as the ride back to the ship was rather wet and bumpy.
The adverse conditions meant that the plan to Zodiac cruise the nearby island of Arij Karmen after dinner was abandoned. Rodney announced that instead we would head along the southern coast of Bering Island to a steep shelf edge where he hoped we would find some whales. By the time dinner had concluded we were in the ‘whale zone’ and as we cruised there were regular sightings of Humpback Whales, with several dozen animals sighted over the course of the evening. More unexpected was a lone Maiko Shark which showed very well off the port side of the ship.
Monday 24th June
Medney Island, Commander Islands
During the night the Spirit of Enderby continued south-eastwards and at 5am we were off the southern tip of Medney Island. This was where the ranger we had collected the previous day at Nikol’skoye had wanted to be dropped off. Unfortunately for him thick fog and the heavy swell meant conditions were unsuitable for a safe landing, so the ship turned to the north-west and we headed up the northern coastline of Medney.
Despite the early hour and the far from ideal viewing conditions, a small band of birders was already on the bridge and pleased when a juvenile Short-tailed Albatross suddenly appeared out of the murk. The uniform chocolate brown plumage and pink bill were well seen, but unfortunately the bird disappeared as quickly as it arrived. A few minutes later, two Whiskered Auklets were spotted not far off the bows and there was little doubt that the early risers had been well rewarded for their efforts.
Once the ranger had been dropped off at a marginally more sheltered bay, we continued along the coast. After a post-breakfast briefing from Expedition Leader Rodney, everyone readied themselves for a landing at Paschanaya Bay. With a heavy swell in the bay, it took a little while to position the ship to minimise the roll at the gangway but once the captain turned the ship to the north, conditions were much improved. We were then shuttled ashore and began exploring this dramatic location.
One of our main targets was the Grey-crowned Rosy Finch, a species which is usually reasonably reliable in this bay and after a few minutes searching, we found several individuals around the abandoned buildings on the western edge of the bay. There were at least three adult birds as well as some youngsters, and everyone was able to get some fantastic views of this special species.
With the Rosy Finch secured, many of the birders set off along the rocky shore in search of Pacific Wren and at least a couple of pairs were soon located. Although these birds had been regarded as a subspecies of Eurasian Wren until only two or three years ago, they certainly looked and sounded different. Continuing along the shoreline, we enjoyed some nice views of Horned and Tufted Puffins, Pigeon Guillemots, Harlequin Ducks and a truly spectacular view of the surrounding vista.
Whilst the birders were exploring the shoreline, some of the group set off along a trail that climbed up towards a mountain plateau and found a Ptarmigan quietly feeding near the path. This seemed utterly indifferent to the presence of several admirers and those who were lucky enough to be there were able to appreciate the amazing camouflage of this handsome bird. By late morning we were all back at the landing site and as the first Zodiacs began shuttling back to the Spirit of Enderby, two Parakeet Auklets were spotted and those aboard got some close views whilst those on the shore got some reasonable views through Chris’ telescope.
With weather conditions being unsuitable for a Zodiac cruise, we headed towards Commander Bay on Bering Island and over the course of the next few hours at least a couple of hundred Whiskered Auklets were spotted. Although only a few came close, their dingy white bellies could be seen.
By the late afternoon the Zodiacs were in the water once again and we landed at Commander Bay which was where Vitus Bering and his men had been shipwrecked in November 1741. Some of the crew (including Steller whose name is now associated with the Steller’s Sea Eagle, Steller’s Sea Cow and Steller Sea Lion) survived the wreck and eventually made it back to Kamchatka. Bering and several other men died here and we made the short walk to the cemetery where their graves are located. Although the birding was very quiet here, there were plenty of colourful flowers to enjoy. Indeed, it was a fascinating and somewhat poignant place to visit with the modest graves and memorials to these explorers from a bygone age.
After an hour or so ashore, it was time to head back to the ship and as dinner concluded, we crossed the edge of the shelf where a couple of Sperm Whales were seen. Although the first of these dived whilst the ship was a mile away, the second animal proved to be more obliging. The captain turned the ship so we could enjoy some fantastic close views before it dived only 30 metres off the starboard side. It was a fantastic finale to our time in the magical Commander Islands.
Tuesday 25th June
A quiet morning with several lectures was scheduled, but right after breakfast Adam spotted several Fin Whales so we changed course to get a closer look. A group of about six huge whales was surrounded by numerous short-tailed shearwaters. It was hard to go inside for the lectures after that, but the programme looked interesting. Firstly there was a lecture from Katya about Sea Otter biology and conservation. She worked with these interesting animals on the Commander and Kuril Islands, and we learned a lot of details about their life and status in the modern world. This was followed by the opening of Meghan’s Sea Shop so people could indulge in a little retail therapy. This break was followed by a presentation from Evgeny and Elena about the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. They discussed its conservation, threats and efforts that various teams and organisations are making to save this amazing little bird. The lecture consisted of several parts and included telling us about captive breeding, head starting and winter ground programs that are working to prevent its complete extinction. It was very informative and made us even more aware how special is the target of our expedition. It was a very pleasant surprise to hear that the Swedish AviFauna Team had very generously donated $2,000 to the Sand-piper programme.
Our day was not spent entirely indoors however as another landing awaited in the afternoon. Karaginsky Island is one of the biggest islands in the Russian Far East, well visible from the satellite images and quite mountainous. We made a landing on the South-Western side of it, where the ground is rather low and flat and spread out to walk at our own pace in this very good birding habitat. The highlights for the day were Dusky Warbler, Pallas’ Reed Bunting and Red-throated Pipit with a good range of waterfowl also found including Long-tailed Duck, Scaup and Pintail.
We had a usual Bird List reading in the bar that evening before another magnificent dinner was produced by Lindsey and Dean. Most of the people had an early night in preparation of a long day ahead.
Wednesday 26th June
Verkhoturova Island and Primetniy Cape
We started at a very early hour because Rodney wanted to maximize our time ashore. It may have felt unpleasant at first but most agreed it was well worth it. Verkhoturova Island where we landed this morning boasted a spectacular bird cliff and also housed a good number of Red Foxes. We started with the Zodiac cruise along the coast, because thousands of Crested and Parakeet Auklets nest there, and dawn is the best time to see them. We marveled at clouds of tiny Crested Auklets flying around the boats and rafting on the water. Parakeet Auklets were not as abundant, but everyone got some great looks and photos. We were even lucky enough to encounter a very friendly Humpback Whale which surfaced right next to one of the boats. Unfortunately, it did not reappear again.
When we landed we climbed a small but quite steep slope. Everyone managed it and enjoyed the amazing views of Tufted Puffins, Common and Brunnich’s Guillemots as well as Black-legged Kittiwakes tucked on small bird cliffs, which we could observe from the top. Because we landed early we had plenty of time to enjoy the day, taking photos and observing the life of the colony. Some went further along, or up the hill into the crowberry tundra area, and Lindsey and Dean decided to climb the highest hill. One of the highlights was an encounter with the litter of foxes that lived on one of the points. Not everyone got to see them, but those who did declared it one of the best ever fox encounters. As we were packing up to go back and putting on our lifejackets, a fox trotted along the beach, so we sat quietly and he approached incredibly close to the group so we all got great views and some amazing photos of him on the hillside. As we hardly dared to breathe he became even more relaxed and got very close to some people, obviously checking out what we were doing in his territory. As we left the shore he was rolling on the beach just a few meters away from the boat.
The next point of interest was Cape Primetny, in a reserve situated on Goveno Peninsula, and nicknamed Bear Gully by the expedition team, as they had always seen bears here. Fortunately this day was no exception. As soon as we set out for the Zodiac cruise, Chris spotted four bears on the beach, but first we visited the wrecked fishing boat that has been here for many years. It now has a new life as the Slaty-backed Gulls’ mansion and is covered with many nests. As we approached the coast, Katya spotted more bears on the slope. The first to be seen clearly was a female with a tiny cub. Next we spotted a beautiful female with three round and shiny cubs which had already grown quite large. They firstly made their way up the hill and then, seeing that cliffs blocked their way, went down to the beach and disappeared into the gully. As the bears here are notoriously skittish it was unusual to get so near to this little family, so we felt very privileged to have such a close encounter.
Despite the number of bears in the vicinity we decided to land for a short walk into the gully and sat on the hillside admiring the beautiful rolling landscape and birds in the bushes. The Stone Pines surrounding us produced a wonderful smell, the sun was shining, there were no mosquitoes and it was the most perfect evening in this incredibly wild country. We did not get to see any more bears, but it was still a splendid landing, and everyone came back on-board quite happy. The final tally was eventually seventeen bears – not a bad result for the day.
Thursday 27th June
The day began under overcast skies and we were once again in bear country on the wild Koryak coast. Tintikun Lagoon is an old caldera breached into the ocean with a very shallow river at the entrance. The plan was to land us on the bank so we would walk, while drivers took the boats up the river, because at times it can be so shallow that they have to drag them. But even before we could land, Evgeny spotted a male Steller’s Eider amongst the flock of Harlequin Ducks. As they all took off and flew towards the sea everyone had a chance to take a look at this beautiful bird. The walk was very pleasant and Chris was leading some birding along the way. The main objective for this day was the Siberian Accentor. Just around the corner from the start of the walk there were a couple of Steller’s Sea Eagles in adult plumage on the rocks. They flew off into the gully as we passed.
The Zodiacs picked us up on the other side and we started the cruise on the glass calm water of the caldera. First stop was the hot springs, in which Andrey took a plunge, while everybody else continued their birding efforts. Then as we drove into the head of the lagoon, Meghan spotted two young bears in the bushes, so we carefully edged closer, dragged the boats to the shore and landed. The bears did not seem to notice us, so they moved away slowly, grazing on the grass. It was quite an amazing experience to watch them peacefully going about their business, completely oblivious to their human admirers. The next stop was in the other corner of the lagoon, where after half an hour of searching, birders finally got their Accentor. By this time the light wind had blown the clouds away and the glorious scenery opened before our eyes with the high peaks surrounding this secluded valley. The tundra even smelled magical and it was a morning we wished would go on forever. But unfortunately, it was time to go...
As we were leaving the sun shone brightly over the mountains which curved the coastline and the sense of scale was just enormous. It was breathtaking to comprehend how wild and huge this land is, without a soul for miles and miles. As we reflected on this, the ship sailed down the coast to pick up the scout team for our first Spoon-billed Sandpiper destination.
28th June 2013
Spoon-billed Sandpiper Search Day 1
We started the day at anchor and made ready to start our search for sandpipers. After breakfast and a quick scouting trip by the team we were ready to be deployed in five teams and cover the potential breeding habitats. We brought lunch with us so we could spend the whole day in the field. The sky was gloomy and it rained most of the day, at times quite heavily. This combined with a rather strong wind, made searching conditions rather challenging but we pushed on through the day. Ultimately we were unsuccessful in our quest to confirm any Spoon-billed Sandpiper in this bay and suitable habitat was generally felt to be in rather short supply. Nonetheless there were lots of waders breeding in the bay – Mongolian, Common-ringed and Pacific Golden Plover; Red-necked, Temminck’s, and Long-toed Stint and Wood Sandpiper were all considered to be breeding in the area. Other avian highlights included a total of three immature Steller’s Sea Eagle, Little Bunting and one group saw four Asian Rosy Finches.
One species we did see in great abundance today was Brown Bears. Amongst them the groups we tallied a rather remarkable 30 animals, many of which were females with cubs. Most of groups had close, but not too close, looks! As we gathered back on the ship it was time for a hot shower and a warm cup of coffee as the various groups compared notes. The ship sailed northwards during the night to our next search site.
29th June 2013
Spoon-billed Sandpiper Search Day 2
We were hoping to search two bays today and several of the expedition team went ashore very early on a scouting mission and found excellent habitat. Unfortunately due to the strong current, very shallow river entrance and falling tide we could only bring in a small team to search there. Three small groups covered the area over the next few hours and by then we were barely able to get out of the river entrance and back out to sea. Despite the very promising looking habitat again there were no Spoon-billed Sandpipers – a rather disheartening result. Good indicator species Common Ringed and Mongolian Plover were breeding in rather large numbers and other waders we observed were Red-necked and Long-toed Stint and Wood and Common Sandpiper. Other notable avian species in the area were Bluethroat, Dusky Thrush, Little Bunting and good numbers of Hoary Redpoll. We did also return with about 40 red salmon provided to us by the local fisherman in the bay.
During lunchtime we sailed northwards a short distance to our next search site, seeing our first Kittlitz’s Murrelets of the trip en route. Four teams were quickly deployed and everyone who had not been able to participate in the morning got their chance on shore. There was a relatively small area to cover this afternoon and a relatively short window to search. By this time the fog had rolled in and we reluctantly returned to the ship to again report no Spoon-billed Sandpipers. We did spot Mongolian and Common ringed Plover and Red-necked Stints and one team located a small group of Asian Rosy Finch.
With everyone back on board it was time to dry off, warm up and compare notes again as the ship sailed north into the fog. We came to anchor in the evening in ‘Gyrfalcon Bay’ but as it was getting dark and there was heavy fog about we stayed on the ship for the evening.
30th June 2013
‘Gyrfalcon Bay’ and Search Site Day 3
At first light we were greeted by very heavy ‘pea soup’ fog but by 5am it had dissipated enough to allow us to head ashore and check on a White Gyrfalcon nest the expedition team had found on a previous visit. After a quick shuttle to shore and a brisk walk we arrived at the site to find the nesting site empty, however a new nest was quickly located further down the cliff. We advanced closer and then feasted on the views of no less than four juvenile White Gyrfalcons staring back at us. The almost pure white mother (albeit with a dirty belly!) watched us warily from cliffs. We spent over an hour around the area staring on with awe at what is surely one of the best birds in the world – high fives and handshakes all round and a memory to cherish forever.
We devoured breakfast we sailed northwards to our final search site. It took the rest of the morning and seabirding en route was really spectacular. Of particular note was the concentration of several thousand Fork-tailed Storm Petrels, unprecedented numbers for us to see here. The much wanted Kittlitz’s Murrelet was common in these waters with over 60 birds recorded. Alcids in general were numerous with an excellent tally of ten species for the morning. Of note were five Ancient Murrelets and four Least Auklets. A single but sadly rather distant White-billed Diver was seen and photographed and there were numerous Pacific Divers around as well. Both Red and Red-necked Phalaropes were seen as well and numerous marine mammals. These included 13 Minke Whales, a Fin Whale, Harbour Porpoises and even a female Ribbon Seal for a lucky few. As we entered the bay many Gray Whales were present.
After lunch we headed ashore for one final search effort. Conditions were cool and overcast with some rain but generally rather pleasant through the afternoon as we fanned out in five groups to cover the rather large search area. The habitat was not particularly good for Spoon-bills and it was no great surprise that we came up empty yet again. Waders recorded included Common Ringed Plover, Long-toed, Red-necked and Temminck’s Stints, Common Sandpiper and Red-necked Phalarope. The area with its many ponds was excellent for general birding and some highlights included Greater White-fronted and Tundra Bean Goose, Falcated Teal, nesting Common Eider and lots of Sandhill Crane. One group was lucky enough to see yet another Gyrfalcon, this one a gray bird, bringing the day’s tally to six. In the riparian areas a few highlights were Oriental Cuckoo, Dusky Thrush, Brown Thrush, Little Bunting and Hoary Redpoll. Brown bears were again prominent, with the day’s tally reaching 22.
We compared notes over a late dinner and unfortunately our search for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper had ended with a sobering, but not unexpected tally of zero. As we all retired for the night the ship sailed northwards towards Spoon-billed Sandpiper HQ at Meinypil’gyno.
Monday 1st July
The next morning most people took the opportunity to sleep in and very few were out on deck when we arrived at Meinypil’gyno shortly after 7am. For those who did make the effort however, there were Gray Whales and Kittlitz’s Murrelets to see. Once breakfast had concluded, Rodney, Katya, Evgeny and Elena headed ashore to finalise arrangements for our visit with the Border Guards and the local representatives of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Recovery Team. This took a little time to organise but after an early lunch everything was in place and we boarded five Zodiacs and headed for Meinypil’gyno. A couple of Gray Whales and plenty of Largha Seals were seen as the Zodiac drivers skilfully navigated the somewhat lumpy conditions at the river mouth and we soon arrived at the village. Evgeny and Elena were waiting for us along with two members of the SBS Taskforce, Nikoli and Igor, and accompanied by them we set off up the river. To minimise our impact on any individual pair of sandpipers, we were divided into two groups and after travelling for half an hour, we arrived at the first site with the second location being a further ten minutes up the river.
Fortunately it was a relatively short walk to both nests and we were then privileged to be able to watch this iconic species both sitting on the nest and walking around on the tundra. With less than one hundred and fifty birders having ever visited Meinypil’gyno, it was a truly unique experience for our group and something that we would remember for the rest of our lives. After enjoying the sandpipers, the two groups explored the surrounding area and an excellent range of species were found with the undoubted highlight being several sightings of Emperor Goose. After the ‘Spoonies’ this was probably the most wanted bird around Meinypil’gyno for many of the group and when it was eventually time to return to the Zodiacs, the mood was one of total contentment. It had been a spectacular afternoon.
Tuesday 2nd July
At sea and Pika River
During the night, the ship remained at anchor off Meinypil’gyno with a reasonably heavy swell running in from the east. The result of this was a somewhat sleepless night for many. After breakfast, Rodney and Adam ventured out to the river mouth in a Zodiac to see if it would be possible to get ashore but they were soon back on the ship explaining that the conditions were far worse than the previous evening making it too dangerous to negotiate the river mouth. As a result the anchor was lifted and we headed towards Pika River watching more Kittlitz’s Murrelets, several White-billed Divers and more familiar species such as Horned Puffin and Parakeet Auklet along the way.
As we approached Pika Bay, we began to see walruses in the water and after lunch, the Zodiacs were launched and we set off to explore this scenic location. Although the walruses were not present on their beach haul-out (possibly due to a large storm a few days before), there were several hundred in the water. We were entertained by small groups of up to a dozen individuals coming within a matter of metres of the Zodiacs to check out these strange creatures who had entered their territory. They were so close we could smell their foul breath and appreciate their incredibly wrinkled skin. It was a truly memorable encounter for everyone, including the walruses! Besides the walruses there were a number of Gray Whales to photograph and it was with genuine reluctance that we returned to the ship in the late afternoon. It had been a very special day indeed.
Wednesday 3rd July
After cruising northwards overnight, we arrived at Keyngypilgyn Bay as breakfast was being served and by the time most had finished eating Rodney, Adam and Katya had been on a short scout trip to assess whether it would be possible to land. The news was positive, so everyone readied themselves for the final landing of the expedition and we were soon ashore on a large island near the mouth of the river.
Evgeny and Rodney had told us that this area was excellent for waterfowl and during the course of the morning an excellent range of species were found. We had some good views of several small groups of Emperor Geese, as well as White-fronted Geese, Long-tailed Duck, Wigeon, Pintail and Scaup. The big surprise however was a stunning White Gyrfalcon which was found sitting on the tundra. As we slowly approached and enjoyed the sight through telescope we were disappointed to see it chased off by a Mountain Hare! Moving forward, we found the falcon again, this time sitting on a log on the sand bar and were able to watch it for the next 20-30 minutes. Although we had enjoyed some great views of this species a few days before, everyone was delighted to see another individual. As well as the Gyrfalcon, another pleasant surprise was an Aleutian Tern which obligingly flew over us. After the disappointment with this species at Zhupanova River, it was great to now get some good looks and the distinctive white forehead and call were appreciated by all.
By late morning it was time to head back to the landing site and after lunch, it was time to settle accounts and attend an expedition recap and disembarkation briefing. It was sad to think that our expedition was almost over, but we had certainly experienced many things which would stay with us forever.
Thursday 4th July
Morning found us off the colourful little town of Anadyr. We boarded the Zodiacs to depart the Spirit of Enderby for the final time and bade farewell to all our newfound friends. We had shared many wonderful and memorable experiences together and would look back on this time with great satisfaction in the years to come.
Click here for Species List
Sunday 24th June
At the Hotel.
Monday 25th June
Expedition participants met over dinner last night. After breakfast there were a couple of optional excursions led by Katya and Chris from the expedition team. Katya took those who were interested on a guided tour of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy which included a number of the visitor attractions of this icon town. Amongst the places visited was Lenin Square where there was a huge statue of the first leader during the Communist era.
The other option was a birding walk and this explored an area near the hotel where a range of good birds were found including Middendorf's Grasshopper Warbler, Taiga Flycatcher, Rustic Bunting and Kamchatka Leaf-Warbler. For many, however, the highlight was a particularly obliging Lanceolated Warbler which responded extremely well to a recording and then sat in the open for a couple of minutes.
By 2 pm everyone was aboard the Spirit of Enderby in time for a late lunch followed by a series of briefings. An introduction to the ship and expedition team was followed by a Zodiac briefing and the theoretical part of the safety drill. A little later, Expedition Leader Rodney explained that there would be a delay in our departure due to weather. This gave everyone time to unpack and orientate themselves around the ship. The keen birders went outside and noted various birds including Slaty-backed Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes and several Tufted Puffins.
Shortly after dinner had concluded, we sailed away from the wharf and across Avacha Bay, which is considered to be one of the largest natural harbours in the world. With the sun having set, the light was rapidly fading but the street lights around the bay gave us a sense of the size of this spectacular location and many then headed for bed in expectation of the days ahead.
Tuesday 26th June
The day began with blue skies, flat seas and little wind as we cruised northward towards the Zhupanova River. A range of birds was found including good numbers of Tufted Puffins and one which is not that common along this stretch of coastline, the Ancient Murrelet. By the time breakfast had concluded, the Spirit of Enderby was anchored off the mouth of the Zhupanova River and after a briefing from Rodney, we boarded five Zodiacs and set off for the river entrance. When we were part way there, a radio message came through from Adam that a Long-billed Murrelet had been spotted and all the Zodiac drivers quickly made a 'bee line' towards the indicated area. Entering the river mouth, there were good numbers of gulls loafing on the sand and whilst most of these were Slaty-backed Gulls, a lone Red-legged Kittiwake was spotted amongst them. Whilst we were expecting to see this species once we reached the Commander Islands, it was interesting to find one here with a dozen Long-billed Curlews also feeding nearby.
Once Rodney and Katya had spoken to the locals to confirm there were no restrictions on our activities, we set off up the river and some saw a single Aleutian Tern amongst the large numbers of Common Terns. Further upstream, a male Yellow-breasted Bunting was seen. The drivers carefully positioned the Zodiacs so that everyone could see this amidst the high vegetation close to the river bank. It was however, a reasonably obliging bird and after disappearing for a few moments, returned to the same perch after Chris played a recording of its song. Moving along the river we passed a group of Largha Seals hauled out on a sandbar and it was possible to see the distinctive spotting on this North Pacific endemic species which is also sometimes known as Spotted Seal.
Our main goal on this particular Zodiac cruise was to get some good looks at Steller's Sea Eagle. We had seen two in the distance when entering the river mouth, but the expedition team took us to two nests where we enjoyed some phenomenal views of this majestic raptor.
After cruising several miles upstream, the Zodiacs headed back towards the fishing village and most of those who had missed the earlier Aleutian Tern got lucky when another was found perched on a piece of wood. It seemed utterly oblivious to several Zodiacs making increasing close passes and some excellent photos of this tricky species were taken.
Landing at the river mouth, some went to investigate the village where we were invited to sample some of the salmon which had been caught, whilst others went for a short walk to the wet grassland behind the village where we soon found two Long-toed Stints. All too soon, it was time to return to the ship and as we cruised out to sea and towards the Commander Islands, the range of seabirds changed with good numbers of Laysan Albatrosses and Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels seen. Five species of cetacean were also spotted: Fin, Humpback, Sperm, Baird's Beaked Whale and Dall's Porpoise.
For those seeking alternative activities, two lectures were provided during the afternoon with 'Resident Artist' Alison providing an introduction to art and Katya telling us about the Commander Islands.
Wednesday 27th June
Bering Island, Commander Islands
For the 'early birds' the day began well before breakfast with some great cetacean sightings including a Humpback Whale tail slapping and at least one Sperm Whale. As we closed in on Bering Island, the number of birds increased significantly with huge numbers of Tufted Puffins, as well as Common Guillemots, Black-legged and Red-legged Kittiwakes and several Pelagic Cormorants. The undoubted highlight, however, was a juvenile Short-tailed Albatross which made a close pass in front of the bow. It chose to fly past the ship in the middle of breakfast and whilst Adam quickly announced it on the PA system, some were unable to get outside fast enough.
After a short briefing, Rodney set off with Katya, Natalia and the Captain on a Zodiac to meet the local Border Guard who confirmed we could land provided everyone presented their passports to him. With this procedure quickly completed, we were free to explore. We were told that Nikol'skoye weather can be unpredictable, but we were lucky today as the clouds parted and the sun came out. Some of the group joined Katya on a visit to the small museum in the middle of the town where there was a range of exhibits. These included the skeleton of a Steller's Sea Cow which had become extinct within thirty years of the archipelago being discovered on the second of Bering's expeditions which had landed on the Commander Islands in 1741.
The birders walked along the shoreline and saw a good range of species including Glaucous-winged Gull, Red-legged Kittiwake and Lapland and Snow Buntings. Further along there were several summer plumaged Dunlin and then one of our target birds, a Mongolian Plover. Heading inshore we soon came to a large area of tundra where the speciality was Pechora Pipit. Initially this proved hard to find but we persevered and many were rewarded with some great views of this much wanted bird.
Some took the opportunity to visit the modest art gallery where there were a wide range of paintings and prints for sale by resident artist Sergei. Another optional stop was at the memorial statue to Vitus Bering. Although this great explorer had been the first to reach the Commander Islands, his ship was wrecked here in 1741. He survived the wreck but a month later succumbed to scurvy. By 1 pm everyone was back at the landing site although some were lucky enough to see a Rock Sandpiper which was found just as the final Zodiacs were arriving to collect their passengers. It had been a fantastic morning ashore and whilst an unfortunate few missed the Sandpiper, nevertheless we had enjoyed a great experience irrespective of interests.
Over lunch the Spirit of Enderby repositioned to North West Cape and at 3:30 pm five Zodiacs were lowered and we set off for the shore. The weather was still very pleasant with flat seas, however the low tide meant it was somewhat challenging to get the boats to the beach. Eventually everyone was ashore once again and we set off with local Ranger, Victor, for the seal colony. There were two viewpoints on the cliffs overlooking the colony and there were literally hundreds of animals. Whilst the majority were Northern Fur Seals, there were also good numbers of Harbour Seals and a few Steller Sea Lions. It was difficult to know where to look with mothers feeding tiny pups, bulls arguing with each other and the coming and going of others between the sea and sandy beach.
At one point, two Arctic Foxes were spotted on the beach and several of the seals took exception to these predators being to close as they made their way along the shore. A few moments later, what may have been one of the two animals we had seen appeared a matter of metres away from us, allowing us some amazing views and photographic opportunities!
Further along, Victor took some to another lookout point where there was the chance to see some Horned Puffins. North West Cape had really turned on a great show of wildlife for us! All too soon it was time to head back to the ship but Rodney had plans for the evening, so as soon as dinner had concluded, the Zodiacs were lowered for the third time and we set off for Arij Karmen. This island which is no more than a few hundred metres long was absolutely crammed with breeding seabirds. Once again it was difficult to know where to look with Tufted Puffins, Pigeon Guillemots, Red-legged and Black-legged Kittiwakes, Pelagic and Red-faced Cormorants amongst the species seen.
Heading a few hundred metres offshore, there was another suite of birds to see as two of the smaller species of auks, Parakeet Auklet and Crested Auklet were rafting up prior to coming ashore after dark. By 9:30 pm big numbers were gathering and there was a single flock of 'Parakeets' which contained at least one thousand birds - a truly spectacular sight! At 10 pm it was becoming increasingly gloomy so we returned to the ship, tired butextremely happy. Whilst it had been a long day, we had enjoyed some amazing wildlife experiences around Bering Island.
Thursday 28th June
Peschayna Bay, Zodiac cruising and Commander Bay
We woke up to another beautiful morning, anchored off a Nature Reserve of great interest to scientists from all over Russia at the north eastern end of Medny Island. Medny has always been famous for captivating scenery and abundant wildlife. We sensed it straight away with a huge flock of Northern Fulmars surrounding the ship. A Humpback and a Minke Whale were seen before we even got the Zodiacs in the water. It was a good start and we set out with great anticipation.
We landed next to the abandoned Border Guard station and village at Peschanaya Bay. The group spent a few hours wandering around exploring the base or birding on the hillsides. Many were reluctant to leave the peace of this magical place. Back on the ship a good number of cetaceans including Sperm Whales were seen as we cruised around the headland. During a Zodiac cruise later in the afternoon we saw Sea Otters and a large number of Harbour Seals in the kelp beds around the rocks. There were also many Horned Puffins nesting on the cliffs and Grey-crowned Rosy Finches feeding close to the waterfront.
We then bid farewell to Medny and set a course for Bering Island again. On the way we had an escort from a few Humpback Whales and Laysan Albatross which we watched from the decks. Our last landing on these beautiful islands was in Commander Bay, where Bering's expedition landed, wrecked and was forced to overwinter, suffering many hardships before re building their ship and sailing back to Kamchatka. They lost 31 crew and officers, including Bering himself, and some of them were buried on the island. There are several memorials to the expedition and those who died on the island in the winter of 1741. It is now a peaceful place with beautiful wild flowers, lovely scenery and a sense of space. We spent some time here reflecting on the history and destinies of Bering's crew.
To the great delight of all on board we spotted a couple of Minke Whales breaching continuously as we left the anchorage, with some getting good photographs. We crossed the zone of the shelf drop off at twilight when there was much marine activity with albatross, fulmars, puffins and porpoises spotted around the ship.
We bade farewell to the Commander Islands and set the course for Karaginsky Island.
Friday 29th June
We woke up to another splendid morning en route to Karaginsky Island. Even though it was very tempting to stay out on deck, we had a busy lecture programme in the morning so we could achieve more during our scheduled landing this afternoon.
First up was Katya's lecture about Sea Otters. She talked about various aspects of their biology and population dynamics, as well as about the most recent research, including the survey that Heritage Expeditions organised and funded just a month ago.
Later Evgeny and Elena presented their very informative talk about biology and conservation of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. They have been working with the species for over ten years and their knowledge is extensive. It was a very interesting, but also in many ways disturbing account of the species history, showing the rapid decline in numbers that only a huge conservation effort can remedy. They also showed video of breeding sandpipers and described a few points that we have to keep in mind while making our small contribution to the project during the voyage. There is a great level of interest amongst the group and the talk was well attended.
Immediately after lunch we set out for the landing on Karaginsky Island where we spent three hours ashore in glorious sunny weather. Birding highlights included a Red-spotted Bluethroat, Dusky Warbler, Red-throated and Pechora Pipits and a particular treat, Pallas's Reed Bunting, which happened to be a new tick for Adam. We also noted a good number of Long-tailed Skuas which were patrolling the tundra in search of prey. Overall it was a very successful birding day.
We came back to the ship tired and happy, but the programme had not yet finished for the day. After dinner we had a lecture from our guest speaker Dr Debbie Pain, who gave an excellent talk about the Spoon-billed Sandpiper captive breeding and head starting programs, run by the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust in Slimbridge, UK. We learned about the research behind it, and the methods and logistical challenges the various teams had to manage. She showed a touching six minute film which followed the first year of the captive breeding operation, when the eggs and recently hatched chicks were transported to Anadyr on the Spirit of Enderby in 2011. It brought back some wonderful memories for those who were present on that trip and gave us the inspiration to carry on with the great effort required to help this amazing species.
Saturday 30th June
Verkhoturova Island and Govena Peninsula
We had an early morning start with a landing on Verkhoturova Island, which is famous not only for its bird colonies but also for their accessibility. After landing on the gravely beach we climbed a steep grassy slope and were blown away by the spectacle that opened to us. Puffins were just a few metres away, with kittiwakes and guillemots tightly packed on the cliffs just below us, while hundreds of Slaty-backed Gulls nested amongst the grass beside the track.
We carefully approached the colony, making sure not to disturb or damage any birds or nests. Everyone found a spot to just sit and enjoy time with the birds. It was very rewarding to be so close to so many birds and have the time to sit and enjoy them. Amongst the activity we also saw a few Common Eiders and Steller's Sea Eagles while a Red Fox checked us out from the beach. Some people were energetic enough to climb almost to the top of the hill, but most just sat and drank in the scene. Great flocks of Crested and Parakeet Auklets flew overhead as we reluctantly made our way back to the ship.
During lunch the ship steamed towards the Govena Peninsula and Cape Primetniy (Conspicuous), which the expedition team have nicknamed 'bear gully'. The area lived up to this name as even before we launched the Zodiacs, four bears were spotted on the shore. On the way to the coast we explored an old shipwreck, which now hosts a Slaty-backed Gull colony and took some good photos of the chicks before heading for the shore. As we drew near to land the scheduled bear appeared and obligingly posed for photographs very close to the Zodiacs. After everyone had made the most of this wonderful photo opportunity it strolled back inland. We spotted a second bear before heading back to the ship. Later the Spirit of Enderby was boarded by some of the reserve staff and border control officers. They were pretty friendly and after all the formalities were over, left us to enjoy our dinner.
Sunday 1st July
We awoke to another cloudless day with no wind. Tintikun Lagoon is a unique place, where the magic of the wild Koryak coast can really be felt. The lagoon has a narrow and shallow entrance so our landing involved a walk for about twenty minutes while the Zodiac drivers took the boats up the creek. After watching bears watching us on the hillside across the river, we landed at various stops where the elusive Siberian Accentor led us a merry dance. Also new for the trip were two wary Dusky Thrushes. The air was filled with the songs of Arctic and Dusky Warblers, whilst the lagoon afforded decent views of sea duck such as White-winged Scoter (deglandi).
On the way back we were fortunate enough to see another bear on the slopes racing across the hillside. As we made our way back some of the group accepted an invitation from the rangers to visit one of their huts. We were sorry to leave this beautiful place but eventually made our way back to the ship. Meghan opened the Sea Shop during our afternoon at sea whilst the birders notched up 25 Kittlitz's Murrelets! The splendid day was capped off by yet another delicious meal created by Bruce and Monique.
Monday 2nd July
This was a big day in our search for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. With Russian Ornithologists Evgeny and Elena on board, the really serious searching could now begin. We were divided into six teams and the ship was anchored off Tigil Lagoon all day to allow a comprehensive search of the area to cover as much ground as possible in search of this rare and elusive bird.
The day began very early when at 5.30 am a scout boat was dispatched into the early morning mist to prospect the search areas. The teams were each allocated an area to search, but landings were postponed until 11.30 am due to weather conditions. Despite this being what is considered ideal habitat, to our disappointment no 'Spoonies' were found. Some other birds were seen by the various groups including a Willow Grouse and a Pallas'sReed Bunting. Group number six had a productive day of creativity with Alison the resident artist and her able assistant Ken.
Tuesday 3rd July
Bukhtas Petra, Pavla and Natalia
Early in the morning we approached the fiord of Pavla Bay, one of the most beautiful locations along the Koryak coast. This voyage was truly blessed, as the sun was shining once again and there was just a slight breeze. A landscape of mountain ranges, peaks and gullies provided a majestic backdrop for our photographs. Many people went out on deck or to the bridge just to enjoy the scenery before breakfast and afterwards we prepared to make a landing. Three different options were available with Rodney leading a walk up from Pavla to Petra Bay, Evgeny and Elena leading our search group for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper in Bukhta Natalia and Steve looking after a group exploring the ruined huts of the fish processing factory and the Border Guard post.
The walkers enjoyed a very scenic hike amongst the mountains and fiords, culminating in distant views of the very rare and elusive Snow Sheep. A couple of Asian Rosy Finches were also seen by a lucky few. Everyone was a little tired upon their return, but didn't have long to relax as they set off for a landing at Buktha Natalia right after lunch and thoroughly enjoyed their afternoon exploring the tundra.
The Spoon-billed Sandpiper group worked as hard as ever, but again with no success, despite passing through more suitable habitat. Their spirits were raised however by the sighting of a nest of three young white Gyrfalcons. Even some from the walkers group 'twitched' these birds after returning to the boat and another group had a close encounter with a bear. Dusky Thrushes continued to elude, Red-flanked Bluetails entertained and Little Buntings performed for the wandering birders.
It was an incredible day which left many lasting impressions and even more photographs and we were all pretty tired when we returned to the ship.
Wednesday 4th July
Opuka Lagoon and Maliuvieem Lagoon
By morning we were anchored off the mouth of the Opuka Lagoon. Hopes were high as we were in ideal Spoon-billed Sandpiper habitat today and Grey Whales spouted off the entrance to the lagoon. Three teams were deployed to spend a long day walking the crowberry spits and moraine hills of this vast area, while the ship shifted to deploy a fourth team at Maliuvieem Lagoon, another spot considered ideal for the elusive 'Spoonies'. Conditions remained great throughout the day and many, many miles were covered. Those who did not wish to search for sandpipers spent some time Zodiac cruising and encountered a pod of Grey Whales which adopted the boats for a time, providing some exciting moments for those on board. The group then wandered around the remains of a Soviet era radar base.
At the end of the day, four groups of tired searchers gathered on the ship to compare notes. Disappointingly, no Spoon-billed Sandpipers were found, not a good sign with so much prime habitat covered. However, each group did come back with their own highlight. Evgeny and Derek's group had seen many thousands of sea ducks including a King Eider. Adam and Katya's group had seen a Terek Sandpiper and enjoyed several close bear encounters including the bear that Katya awoke from a nap in one of the abandoned buildings! Elena's group had seen three Emperor Geese and Chris' group had a seen a Great Knot. It had been a long and busy day out on the tundra and sleep was a high priority after dinner.
Thursday 5th July
Day break found us making our final approach to Meinypil'gyno village. Yet again weather conditions were near perfect as we watched a Crested Auklet buzzing the ship for several minutes before it finally decided to land. After breakfast Rodney went ashore to begin lengthy negotiations with Border Guards, the village, and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper team. While we waited we were entertained by Grey Whales spouting at the river mouth and Beluga Whales cruising along the shoreline while those with binoculars kept them trained on the vast expanse of crowberry spits and moraine hills that make up the last stronghold of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper.
Finally everything was in place and after an early lunch we headed in to shore. We split into two groups. Katya, Kosta, Steve and Igor led a group to the north where one bird was watched sitting quietly on its nest. The other group headed south with Rodney, Adam, Nikolai and Nastya and after a 12 kilometre round trip walk were able to visit two nesting territories and observe three different birds. As we returned to the village via Zodiac we could reflect on how fortunate we were to have seen this incredibly rare and special bird at its nesting site and also to appreciate the vastness of this country where it breeds.
On return to the village we were greeted by the local Chukchi people who put on a display of traditional dancing and showed us inside their uranga huts. It was a genuine performance and much appreciated by the group. All too soon the sun was dipping below the horizon and it was time to return to the ship, making a slight detour so as not to disturb a bear that came down to the beach to feed on another dead bear. Following dinner, those who still had the energy to head out on deck were rewarded with a glorious Arctic sunset and a full moon illuminating the mountains of this legendary region.
Friday 6th July
Meinypil'gyno and Pika Bay
The day began with yet another glorious sunrise continuing the pattern of beautiful weather since the journey began from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy. To the delight of early rising photographers, a Crested Auklet selected the bow for some morning sunbathing. Soon after the breakfast call was made we were thrilled to learn that four Spoon-billed Sandpiper chicks had hatched overnight in the rearing programme at Meinipil'gyno. It was decided that this was a good omen for the day that awaited us.
Following breakfast we split into two groups. The first team went exploring the tundra to see if they could find a male 'Spoonie' that had been sighted near here just four days ago. They marched optimistically under blue skies towards the mountains in the hope of possibly finding one of the rarest birds in the world. The team was successful in finding a marked Red-necked Stint, a Red-necked Phalarope and some other wonderful birds but sadly no Spoon-billed Sandpipers. The group was disappointed that they could not return to the ship with a new sighting and photographs.
At the same time, the second team enjoyed the company of Grey Whales, many seals, marine birds and a group of gulls struggling to pull ashore a large salmon. After a couple of hours of whale watching, we visited the Meinipil'gyno settlement.
Once ashore, we were greeted with the usual warm friendship of the local Chukchi community and were guided around the town with a memorable visit to the local museum. The impressive collection there was a labour of love and founded by the late Salikh Zyabarov, who over several decades, had collected many artefacts of the Chukchi reindeer and fishing peoples of the area. Our informative guide, Ruzana Zyabarova, was the widow of the founder who proved to be equally dedicated. She is continuing his tradition and is also demonstrating her deep passion for the people of the region and the land on which they live.
We also learned of the overland 'caterpillar' vehicle recovered from the river some 18 years ago by Roman Belogorodcev, who completely refurbished and equipped it in order to move throughout this rugged countryside searching for 'Spoonies'. He also brought vital supplies to this community of 700 people all the way from Anadyr. His wife, Sveltana Belogroroceva, is the administrative head of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Centre at Meinipil'gyno that hosts scientists and volunteers trying to save this beautiful bird from the brink of extinction. Dr Debbie Pain of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust in the UK was able to inform the locals that four more chicks had hatched in Slimbridge and the excitement of this event was shared by all.
Once everyone was back on board the ship we enjoyed a stunning cruise along the Chukotka coast to Pika Bay. During the afternoon the 'Artist in Residence' Alison presented the first ever art exhibition held on the Spirit of Enderby to celebrate all that we have seen through the medium of watercolour, pastels and pen and ink drawings. This was interrupted by the call of "whales and walrus" which prompted everyone to make for the deck, including Alison. Rodney quickly organised the launch of the Zodiacs and we were soon away for one of the most memorable Zodiac cruises of a lifetime.
All eyes, binoculars and photographic lenses were focused on the thousands of walrus hauled out on the beach beneath towering sunlit cliffs of this rugged coastline. As we cautiously approached this pink hued, tightly packed community, many of these magnificently tusked creatures came to greet us swimming, diving and performing around the boats in the brilliant evening sunshine. We all sat entranced by the squeals, grunts and welcome calls of the cavorting walrus - a remarkable sight few will ever forget.
In the midst of all this excitement the call came that a Black Guillemot had been spotted and off we went in search of this new bird. Was it really a 'Pigeon Guillemot' that was primarily black or a new sighting of the 'Black Guillemot'? Was it perhaps a hybrid? Obviously, for those with a passion for guillemots they will have to return to settle this controversy!
On the way back to the Spirit of Enderby we were treated to a series of breaching Grey Whales signalling their own unique 'goodbye' to the Zodiacs. Back on board everyone returned to the art exhibition in a celebratory mood. Where else could you see Spoon-billed Sandpiper, walrus by the thousands, seals, breaching whales along with a professional nature art exhibition all within one day? Unsurprisingly the bar was a popular venue as excited groups compared notes on the marvellous day.
Dinner was served as the setting sun painted the cliffs in glorious oranges, reds and yellows. After dinner the waning gibbous moon was reflected on the silken sea as everyone slowly made their way to their cabins to dream of pink tinged walrus.
Saturday 7th July
The day began with brilliant sunshine, but the clouds came in for the first time in about a week as we sailed towards Anadyr. It provided a good opportunity to pack bags, settle accounts and enjoy lectures on walrus and the Bering Sea without the distraction of spectacular scenery.
We also enjoyed a recap of what we have learned is one of the most remarkable voyages in 'The Footsteps of Bering' history. Dr Evgeny Syroechkovskhy and Dr Elena Lappo told us of the tremendous contribution that Heritage Expedition has been making to save the remarkable and elusive Spoon-billed Sandpiper. They had found it extremely valuable to have sampled regions never before explored for this species, though the fact that no new birds were found this season confirmed the need for radical conservation efforts.
On an extremely positive note, Dr Debbie Pain showed a video of the four hatching chicks at Meinypil'gyno which drew 'oohs' and 'aahs' from the audience. She reported on the successful transport of 19 eggs to Slimbridge, in the United Kingdom where four eggs hatched on arrival and all are doing well. Hopefully with the passage of time this programme will lead to an increase in the numbers of this species through the captive breeding programme and the subsequent release of fledged chicks back into the wild. This two pronged approach of rearing and releasing chicks in Meinypil'gyno, together with the programme at Slimbridge, may save this species. It is hoped the fledging rate will be successfully increased above the current 0.5 per nest.
Following this optimistic report, everyone returned to their packing until the call came that the bar was open. This was followed by a farewell dinner ably produced by chef Bruce and his assistant, Monique replete with shrimp, roast beef and more delicacies than one can imagine. Fully wined and dined, we continued to sail into the foggy night. As the evening progressed we realised that we were coming to the end of a truly remarkable voyage but also the beginning of many new and wonderful friendships. Indeed, the adventure seemed to become all the more poignant as the Spirit of Enderby struck an ice pack where a Bearded Seal awaited us along with three Jaegars. The ice had conspired with us to slow down the inevitable end of the journey, providing time for just a few more tales to be told and dreams to be shared by this impressive group of conservationists and world travellers.
Sunday 8th July
During the night the Spirit of Enderby slipped into Anadyr Bay and before breakfast we had reached our anchorage off the little town of Anadyr. Our incredible journey of over 1,500 nautical miles was over, but the experiences, sights and sounds would remain forever.
We rose late to a grey morning. Later this afternoon we would meet with our ship, The Spirit of Enderby, but first our tour guide Adam made an excursion into the port town of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy. We saw the local market, famous for its fish and then drove on to the Orthodox church and square by the sea with its impressive statue of Lenin. Nearby was a statue of St. Peter and St. Paul – the patron Saints of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, who lend their names to the town.
At lunchtime we made our way to the ship to be greeted by the crew and expedition team. After a delicious lunch there was a briefing by our Expedition Leader, Rodney, who introduced the ship and explained some safety information. Then we were all invited to the top deck to watch our departure from the wharf, as we set sail on our adventure.
Quite a few people remained on deck as we sailed through the beautiful Avacha Harbor, surrounded by hills and cliffs; it is considered one of the best natural harbours in the world because it is so sheltered and has such a beautiful coastline. There were many bird species seen, including Spectacled Guillemots, Ancient Murrelets and many Tufted Puffins.
We had our first bar hour before the dinner, and the very first reading of the bird list; due to the rolling sea conditions, dinner did not have a great attendance and everyone was so tired that shortly afterwards most called it a day, full of expectation for the following morning.
Waking early, the weather looked promising with good visibility and very little wind. After a quick but delicious breakfast we had a briefing with Rodney about Zodiac safety and the upcoming landing. Five boats departed for a cruise along the river and landed at the fishing camp, where we dropped off a few people who wanted to stay behind and enjoy a walk. The rest set out to look for the Steller’s Sea Eagle and various waterfowl. On the lagoon to one side of the river we were immediately attacked by numerous, but harmless midges and spotted our first Sea Eagle – a young bird, sitting in the grass. Also, about a hundred Largha seals were hauled out on the sandy banks in the stream and we got some very good views of them.
Travelling upriver, we found three eagle’s nests one after another, the first one being uninhabited. However, at the other two we managed to observe the occupants quite close, drifting past them with our engines switched off and without disturbing the birds. There were also a few other adult birds in the vicinity and we enjoyed some very good looks at these magnificent animals. The Steller’s Sea Eagle is the largest eagle in the world and it is endemic to the Russian Far East. On the way back we were surprised to see many more young birds sitting along the banks – about twenty eagles in total made for an incredibly successful day!
We landed in the fishing camp and went for a stroll around the beautiful wetlands, starting just behind the camp. Many of our group managed to see Long-toed Stint and a Musk Rat. With so many eagles and seals all around, this morning may count as one of the best Zhupanova experiences seen. And as we returned to the ship, the weather improved and we witnessed volcanoes appearing out of the fog.
In the afternoon Katya gave a lecture entitled “Introduction to the Commander Islands” in which she outlined the major events in the human and natural history of the place. By the end of the day, everyone was pretty exhausted so most of us went to bed soon after dinner. It was going to be a long day at the Commanders.
We woke to find ourselves steaming towards Bering Island of the Commander Island group. The morning promised to be good with a very slight breeze and glassy calm seas with just a slight swell.
Right after breakfast we entered an area known for its high concentration of cetaceans – a whale hotspot in the region. Here, a deep oceanic trench comes close to the coast of Bering Island, creating a gradient from over a thousand meters deep to less than a hundred. It creates an upwelling of nutrients and makes the area highly productive. As soon as we approached, we started seeing groups of Humpbacks and Baird’s Beaked whales. The numbers were not striking, but visibility and lighting made the encounter really special, with several whales blowing just a few dozen metres from the ship. As we turned from Bering Island and set course for Medny, we sighted a couple of Orcas and a Laysan Albatross.
The afternoon began with a Zodiac cruise to Cape Matvey – a beautiful rocky point, crowded with wildlife. Before even reaching the coast we spotted a Minke whale, but it didn’t cooperate for us! As we sailed further inshore, we were surrounded by Horned Puffins sitting on the water, Cormorants on the rocks and Harbour Seals in the water. We also had some good sightings of Sea Otters, including some females with pups. On the rocks nested many Horned Puffins and Pigeon Guillemots, and some of our party managed to get good looks at the Rock Sandpiper.
We were incredibly lucky with the conditions and the sun was shining, with not a single ripple on the water surface – the Commander Islands are very seldom blessed with such weather.
Next we landed in Paschanaya Bay at the abandoned Border Guard station (and former village) Preobrazhenskoye. While some of us explored the empty houses and desolate village, others went along the beach or up the hill to observe the plants and wildlife, which was all around us: Puffins and Fulmars nesting on the cliffs, Arctic Foxes barking all around, and Rock Ptarmigan for those who made it up the slope. Many species of flowers were in full bloom, creating a beautiful carpet.
The day was absolutely superb. Medny Island could not leave anybody indifferent to its magic, and we had - by any measure - the best of it. Returning to the ship at about 7pm we were all exhausted, but in high spirits.
The morning greeted us with a pre-breakfast Zodiac cruise to a little island called Ariy Kamen, which is a big sea bird breeding colony. Most of us were brave enough to get up early and join the cruise, even though it was rather foggy outside. We loaded four boats and departed for the island, invisible in the fog. Our expectations were exceeded with what we saw when the rock slowly loomed out of the fog: thousands of birds crowded on beautiful outcrops and hillsides, flocks of Crested Auklets and Common Guillemots flying around. We enjoyed many species, including some endemic ones, like the Red-legged Kittiwake and Red-faced Cormorant. Quite a few Parakeet Auklets were sitting on the rocks along with Pigeon Guillemots, which provided some very nice photographic opportunities. A Rock Sandpiper was a good sighting for those who didn’t get decent looks of it the day before, and even a Wren was spotted. As we headed back to the ship, a few Northern Fur Seals swam past the Zodiacs.
Back in our floating home we enjoyed a well-deserved breakfast and then readied ourselves for the next landing. Alas it wasn’t to be: the wind was blowing from the SSW, which created difficulties for landing at the north west cape of Bering Island. A scout boat was sent to see if a landing might be accessible: unfortunately, the surf together with the tide did not look safe and the decision was made to abandon our plan. So, instead of landing we enjoyed a lecture by Katya, who has lived and worked on Bering Island observing Sea Otters. She told us everything we ever wanted to know about these fascinating animals, including some inside information about current research projects and population status.
After lunch we landed at Nikolskoye village. Here there was something for everyone: an extremely interesting museum; wetlands across the bridge for the bird-watchers; and an artists’ studio for those interested in Sergey (a colourful local character), his art and some good company. Others just strolled around the village to see the sad remains of what was once a prosperous settlement. There is still some development going on but the village basically just survives.
Two and a half hours flew by and we barely noticed. Sailing away from Nikolskoye, we passed through a very rich whale-watching area, where a few Humpbacks were seen, as well as many Dall’s Porpoises and even a couple of Sperm Whales.
By the time the bar opened, most people were still enjoying themselves on the bridge or on the decks. We were sad to leave the Commander Islands but an even more exciting prospect awaited: the main mission of our trip – our search for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper was about to begin!
Enjoying the scenery over breakfast, Adam gave a lecture about Georg Steller and his legacy before Cristof Zockler gave us an introductory lecture on the endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Even those on our expedition who were not ornithologists were fascinated by the story of this unique wader, which is probably enjoying its last chance at survival. After this introduction, we were all excited to begin our search – the opportunity to participate in a scientific effort to save this unique and endangered species was indeed thrilling.
After lunch, Rodney outlined our plans for the afternoon. We were going to land on the southern part of Karaginsky Island and split into groups, led by experienced birders to look for the Sandpiper in suitable habitats. We duly landed on a sandy beach, the sun shining brightly and promising a great walk; there we split into four groups and started out into the tundra. It was an incredible afternoon for birding! We were blessed by the weather again and this area was a waterfowl paradise with small lakes, lagoons and a river nearby. We saw numerous Dunlins, Mergansers, Long-tailed Skuas, Lapland Buntings and Divers. The group that went to the river even saw some Red-necked Stints. But there was no sign of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper today.
After a couple of hours the weather had deteriorated slightly, so some people decided to go back to the ship to warm up while many stayed until the last Zodiac, enjoying various birds and tundra plants.
The bravest stayed until 7pm, and came back just in time for a great dinner from Brad and Nicki. Our Israeli friends had a little Shabat celebration, which was really nice. After dinner Adam held the daily reading of the bird list and then most of us went straight to bed, as it had been a long day.
We were woken by Marie’s sweet voice, announcing cheerfully that it was 5.30am and that another beautiful day awaited us.
First on the agenda today was Verkhoturova Island, north of Karaginsky, which is noted for its bird cliffs and a haul out of Steller’s Sea Lions.
We made a landing on a gravel beach and faced a steep climb to the top of the bird cliffs. It was a great chance to get a magazine quality shot of some of these birds. On top of that, our keen birders spotted a flock of Steller’s Eiders amongst the reefs. It was a new and exciting tick for many, including most of the guides. We spent an incredible couple of hours above the bird colony and everyone marvelled at the beauty of the unspoiled landscape. Many practiced their photography skills or went for a walk on the grassy slopes. On the way back quite a few people spotted a Red Fox of an unusual silvery variety, which was a treat even after what we had seen.
Next we set out for a Zodiac cruise along the coast towards the Sea Lion rocks. And undoubtedly they were there: about forty-five non-breeding animals were hauled out. We had a beautiful encounter, getting close enough to the animals to get some decent shots and views without disturbing them. Not a single animal was alarmed as we slowly drifted past them and then made a wide loop around to avoid them catching our smell.
Later in the afternoon, back at the ship, we prepared ourselves for the next landing. Anchored off the Koryak mainland at Cape Conspicuous (Primetny in Russian) this was meant to be our bear-watching hotspot. And it did not let our expectations down. We started with a Zodiac cruise along the coast, immediately spotting our first bear – a female with two cubs – as we approached the coast. We had some amazing views as the female took her cubs along the shoreline and up the hill. Again, it was a pleasure to see the animal relaxed and not in the least worried by our presence. We then proceeded along the coast and spotted quite a few more of these magnificent animals. As well as bears we also sighted King Eiders and Arctic Hare. Due to the number of bears in the area and especially on the beach, the decision was made to abandon our original idea of landing in the gully and to proceed instead with Zodiac cruising past a shipwreck of an old fish trawler, now inhabited by gulls. We went down the coast a few more times and spotted a couple more bears; the total number was eleven, including young.
It had been an incredible day filled with excitement and special experiences. We returned to the ship happy, but exhausted. The bar opened as soon as Marie came back and we enjoyed some drinks and excited discussion before going to dinner. Just after this we were informed that the next morning was going to be a very early start as well, so everyone went to bed as soon as possible.
Another great start to the day – almost no clouds in the sky and not the slightest breeze. Tintikun lagoon is a unique place, where the magic of the wild Koryak coast can really be felt. The lagoon has a narrow and shallow entrance so today’s Zodiac landing involved a walk for about twenty minutes, while the drivers took the boats up the creek.
After seeing some birds on the way up, we reunited with the boats and drove around the lagoon on an astonishing cruise. The scenery was beyond words with snow-clad mountains appearing from out of the clouds and beautiful slopes covered with dwarf birch and pine.
We made several short landings on the sides of the lagoon to enjoy the scenery and look for bears. Unfortunately, our ‘bear luck’ seemed to be running out and we saw only two in the distance. However, as if to compensate, the clouds suddenly lifted off the mountains above the lagoon and a rainbow appeared above the turquoise surface of the water. We could barely drag ourselves from this magnificent place, but eventually it was time to go back. Back on the Enderby we weighed anchor and steamed towards Pakhachi, where we were to pick up some Russian scientists who are working on a Spoon-billed Sandpiper recovery project.
Pakhachi used to be a large fishing village of up to 5000 people but when stocks of herring ran out the industry collapsed, and only about 400 people remain in the village. There is still a limited fishing industry, but the desolation and the level of degradation is awfully evident. The village is one of the saddest sights in Russia’s remote places, however people there seem to be content with their existence.
On the other hand it is a very special place for birding. The Slaty-backed Gull colony is considered the biggest in the world, with almost 20,000 pairs nesting there. There were also quite a few Aleutian Terns around and huge flocks of very shy Common Eiders on the sand islands. Many Largha seals also popped out of the surf to check us out.
Completed by a beautiful sunset, the day turned out to be perfect again. We were all tired and happy when we got to the ship and enjoyed a late dinner and early bedtime.
This was to be a big day in our search for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. With our Russian ornithologists Evgeny and Elena onboard, some serious searching could now begin. We were all divided into several teams; each one with its designated area for the search. The Enderby was to stay at anchor at Anana Bay all day, giving us the freedom to explore the area and look for the elusive bird.
First of all a scout boat was sent to explore the area, which has not been visited by scientists in many years; the ornithologists deemed the habitat suitable, but a little dry, so our hopes were raised for possible success. A plan was formed.
The first three groups departed at 9.45am and were to spend the whole day on the tundra. They were led by Evgeny and Elena, Christof and Chris. The entrance to the lagoon is crossed by a bar, where tidal flows meet the river; and with the wind picking from the other side we had a bit of fun crossing the bar, but once through, it was deep enough to drive at full speed.
The rest of the teams were to depart an hour later. They were given a triangular search area between two river arms.
All the groups did a great job of scanning their areas but unfortunately our efforts were not rewarded with success - the tundra was rather bare and dry (though this made it absolutely perfect for walking!). Tired, but happy with an exciting day, we returned to the ship in the evening.
We woke to a truly glorious morning. Several Gray Whales were spotted blowing in the distance, sea birds flew around and the lagoon, with its long spits covered in crowberry tundra, looked very promising.
A scout boat was again sent out to explore the area and make a plan for the day. Returning for breakfast, we could hear the excitement in their voices: the place looked like fantastic Sandpiper habitat, and even a few bears were spotted on the shore.
At the briefing we were divided into groups again to maximize our efforts in looking for our quarry. Three groups were to search the spits while the rest would enjoy a small walk in the tundra and a climb on a hill, from where we could get a stunning view of the surroundings.
As the Zodiacs departed, the non-searching groups got ready for their trip. It was to be a long day. We stopped in the middle of the river to enjoy the beautiful crowberry tundra and then climbed a rocky hill. Reaching the top we were stunned by the view that opened before us: amazing tundra and hills all around, sea birds nesting on the cliff just below and three Gyrfalcons flying around – the birds were quite obviously nesting there too. While we sat enjoying the view (attacked by clouds of mosquitoes) we heard an exciting message on the radio – Chris’ group had found a Spoon-billed Sandpiper! After all the anxiety and uncertainty, after months of careful planning and hours of exhausting searching, we had finally succeeded! Everybody was cheering and congratulating one another! It was certainly the most exciting news not just of the day, but of the whole voyage. The walking group returned to the ship for lunch where we heard more news – our searching parties had found three more birds and a nest with three eggs in it.
While they continued searching, the rest of us set out on a Zodiac cruise to see a group of Gray Whales close by. There were some very good sightings and we spent quite some time hanging out with these magnificent animals.
When all parties had returned and were enjoying the bar, some border guards came to inspect our ship. It cast a slight shadow on the day, because the inspection lasted for three hours but nothing could possibly spoil this the best day of the expedition! It had been a huge success and great joy to find another breeding site for this incredibly endangered bird.
Tired and excited, we went to bed with the prospect of another early morning to follow: we would be heading north to look out for walruses and Snow Sheep.
Yet another glorious day. Not a cloud in the sky, sun shining and unimaginable scenery around.
We enjoyed views of a few bears as we sailed into Pavla Bay – a beautiful fiord, one of the most beautiful locations along the Koryak coast. We were meant to look out for walruses in the morning because we were passing a well-documented haul out on Bogoslov Island, but unfortunately only one animal was spotted in the water (and also one dead on the beach).
It was going to be a long day so we started it with a bit of exercise by taking a mountain walk from Pavla to Petra Bay. Because of the late season, the walk turned out to be a bit more challenging than expected, with people practicing their snow-walking techniques!
As the walking group disappeared over the horizon, the rest of our party set off for a Zodiac cruise along the coast; they were rewarded with a great encounter, a bear and some Largha seals at the head of the fiord. Zodiac safely returned, the Enderby was shifted to Petra Bay to meet the walkers on the other side - it was such an exciting experience with all that snow on top of the mountains.
After lunch we took the Zodiacs to Anastasia Bay to look around another walrus haul out and to search for a few more appropriate Spoon-billed Sandpiper habitats. It was a very long boat ride across the shallow bay but we were rewarded with beautiful tundra and riverbanks inhabited by many birds (including Steller’s Sea Eagles) and a few Largha seals at the entrance.
Dividing into two groups on both sides of the bay we searched once more for our rare bird. Though the habitat looked promising there was no sign of the Sandpiper, though there were plenty of signs of bears. As we set out for the ship, we were blessed with another breathtaking sunset: mountains in the background and rays of sunshine breaking through dramatic clouds.
The following day we were going to the village of Menypilgino to observe some Spoon-billed Sandpipers and to pick up some nests and chicks, which we were to transfer to Anadyr. Looking forward to all of this, we called it a day to get some well-deserved rest.
We enjoyed a nice lie in and woke to a serene morning at the village of Maynipilgyno: it looked so neat and pretty with its colourful little houses on the spit, against a background of mountains.
The morning was spent lazily observing some Gray Whales blowing around the ship, while our team negotiated the formalities with the border guards and our ornithologists made a plan for the day.
After an early lunch we headed out for shore, divided into two groups and aimed for some known nests of Spoon-billed Sandpiper. The first group set out early, landing at the village and walking on the tundra for about 2km to a nest. The other group loaded into four boats and set out for a long drive to the farther end of the spit, where two nests had been observed by our scientists.
Both groups got to see the bird before returning to the village, where a cultural performance was being prepared – there was a yaranga (traditional Chukchi house) and an ensemble of young girls dressed in traditional celebration clothing. The performance started as soon as we landed, and the dancing was genuine and lively. Everyone really enjoyed themselves; watching these traditional dances in the environment in which they had developed was something really special, and we all felt we learned a little about the Chukchi culture. As the dancing finished, there followed a demonstration at the yaranga in which an elderly Chukchi woman showed us how they used to make fire before the modern era. We were then invited inside to see how these people used to live.
It was a great evening. As we returned to the ship we passed numerous Largha Seals, swimming side by side with a small pod of Beluga Whales and many Gray Whales all blowing and popping their heads out of the water just outside the spit.
Before heading to bed, the expedition staff ensured that the eggs and chicks of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper collected today were made ready for transportation to Anadyr where they would be an essential part of a captive breeding program.
The day started even earlier than planned: we were woken for a briefing before breakfast. Our activities looked very promising and we were to be divided into two groups again to accommodate everyone’s desires. The first group to start were the birders who went upriver to land on another spit and look for some nests of Emperor Geese. The other group loaded into Zodiacs a bit later and went for a long cruise around the river mouth to look for Grey Whales and Largha Seals. The whales were blowing and turning and flapping their fins just a few metres away from the boat – an incredible sight! They were not in the least afraid of our presence, which made the experience even more valuable. We spent three enjoyable hours playing with them and then headed back to the ship to have some lunch.
Meanwhile our birding group had found their Emperor Geese, as well as spotting a few White-billed Divers.
And after a breathtaking morning we still had an amazing afternoon! The whale-watching group landed on the spit to continue observing, while the birders remained in the field to be picked up later.
Eventually we had to call it a day and everyone was collected: we returned to our floating home to enjoy a beautiful evening sharing stories.
But before we could go to bed one more excitement awaited: late in the evening the ship approached the mouth of the Pika River and to our amazement we observed that the whole stretch of the beaches under the cliff were crowded with walruses – thousands of them.
We couldn’t pass up such a chance – a Zodiac launch was announced. The evening was magical beyond words: Gray Whales blowing in front of the rookery, a beautiful sunset behind us and the quiet bliss of the incredible wilderness all around – no one could be left untouched by its spell.
Today was the earliest morning yet – anyone who wanted to participate in the Zodiac cruise had to wake up at 4.30am. But it was worth it! We were lucky with the weather again and for about an hour and a half we circled around the edge of the rookery, watching the animals hauling out. Quite a few walruses swam around and Grey Whales were still everywhere to be seen.
Then we approached as close as possible without disturbing the animals, anchored one boat and tied the others to it, turning the engines off, and just waited and observed. It was a moment of pure happiness when whales dived right under our boats and curious walruses approached as close as a few metres.
One can never have enough of such experiences and we would have loved to stay there for hours, but time was pressing if we were to reach Anadyr in time. It had been a fortuitous decision to stay at this anchorage last night: three hours of peaceful whale and walrus watching made for a true culmination to our journey – the best ending possible and our last magical memory.
With some free time after lunch we had an Expedition Recap and slideshow, recalling every magical day since setting sail from Petropavlovsk all those days ago. After this, Evgeny Syroechkovsky (one of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper team) explained a bit more about their project and the importance of our expedition for the conservation of the species. There were more chicks hatched onboard than there were on land – by the end of the voyage we had fifteen chicks and four eggs on our hands. Evgeny thanked Rodney and Heritage Expeditions for organising this trip and making it such a success: it was very touching and Evgeny and Christof gave Rodney a Spoon-billed Sandpiper T-shirt as a memento – he was now a member of an elite SBS Group!
After a farewell dinner we all went to pack and relax before tomorrow’s departure.
After some to-ing and fro-ing with the authorities and weather we were finally delivered ashore safely and on time. The last of our group observed the expedition crew bringing the SBS team ashore, with chicks and incubators safe and sound.
Back on solid ground again we were very sad to say farewell to the ship and our fellow voyagers. This had been an unforgettable journey, very special in so many ways and difficult to put into words: it was one of those experiences never to be forgotten.
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" As a professional bird tour leader, I was impressed by the job that the staff did on this trip, especially in attempting to balance the needs of various interest groups. Chris and Adam are exceptionally knowledgeable birders, and I really appreciated the knowledge, spirit, and skill of all of the Expeditions staff. Having Evegeny and Elena from Birds Russia aboard was a real treat as well. The birding, mammal-ling, and scenery were all fantastic. And Spoon-billed Sandpiper on the breeding grounds! "
" Better than we ever expected! Birds, bears, whales and walrus galore and the most amazing scenery. Participating in the search for the spoon billed sandpiper was a special privilege. Thanks to Rod and the team. "
" “The experience has changed my outlook on life, I am seriously considering returning”. "
" Last week, I returned home from this expedition voyage. I am writing to formally express my thanks for a wonderful trip. As I commented to Marie and Katya on the last afternoon, it was all that I had hoped and better than I had expected.
Amidst the bustle of disembarkation, it was difficult to speak to all the staff personally about this. So I would be grateful if you could convey my thanks to them all - to Nicki and Brad for their excellent food and sharp eyes for wildlife, to Adam for his wildlife spotting and general calm support, to Chris for his patient guidance and encouragement to a non-expert, to Katya for her quiet enthusiasm, scientific knowledge and smooth zodiac driving, to Marie for her enthusiasm, friendliness and all-round competence and reliability, to Roger for easing my sea-sickness and offering quiet advice on wildlife and things in general, to Christoff for his wildlife knowledge and support in the field, and of course to Rodney for his dedication to maximising the benefits of the voyage, his careful planning, and his overall leadership in the face of changeable conditions and circumstances.
Thanks are also due to the captain and his crew for transporting us so efficiently and unobtrusively, and especially to the various sailors who helped us into and out of the zodiacs with the minimum of fuss, whatever the conditions, and to those who cleaned and cooked for us. I can imagine how hard they worked, and I am most grateful for this. "
" Did Rodney tell you about the amazing Zodiac rides to see the Walrus haul-out? It was totally incredible and he seriously enhanced the experience by using his hydrophone and letting us hear it too. "