JEWEL OF THE RUSSIAN FAR EAST
THE CHUKOTKA, KORYAK AND KAMCHATKA COASTLINE
The eastern seaboard of Russia dominates the North Pacific and yet very few people know anything about it, let alone have experienced it. This isolation has protected one of its most valuable assets - its wilderness and to some degree, its wildlife.
The area was considered an important ‘frontier zone' during the Cold War, so it was off-limits to foreigners. Even Russians had to get special permission to travel here. These limitations were changed in 1991/92 with Perestroika but that didn't make it more accessible. If anything it is probably less accessible now than it was, as there are fewer people living in the region and the state-subsidised transport system has collapsed. There is no money to replace the ageing fleets of aircraft and ships and few people can afford the prices that are charged to travel in this region today. This makes it the perfect destination for Expedition Cruising.
In the winter much of the shoreline is choked by ice. During spring and summer the region is a hive of activity. In September the thousands of birds that migrated here to take advantage of the phenomenal abundance of food will be preparing to leave. The reindeer and mountain sheep will be feeding in preparation for the harsh winter, while fat Kamchatka Brown Bears, which have fed extensively on berries in the early summer, then feasted on salmon in the rivers and creeks, will be dozing in the late summer sunshine. Late summer and early autumn is a beautiful time to discover this wilderness. The onset of autumn paints vibrant colours on the tundra cloaked hillsides making the landscape a picture perfect postcard.
On this journey from Anadyr to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy we will make numerous landings along these remote coastlines so that you can discover for yourself this untamed and beautiful landscape. We will select sites that few people visit such as river mouths, fiords, bays and islands that in our experience offer the natural history enthusiast, the photographer, the historian and travellers the most unique of opportunities. Come with us and discover the jewel that is the Russian Far East.
Pre/Post cruise transfers, all on board ship accommodation, meals and all expedition shore excursions.
All items of a personal nature, laundry, drinks, gratuities. International/domestic flights, visas and travel insurance.
Private charter flight Nome to Anadyr $1,000 pp
(All prices are per person in USD)
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.
5 September – 17 September 2014
Day 1: 5 September 2014
Forty seven passengers from all around the world gathered on the Professor Kromov (better known as the Spirit of Enderby) today to start a voyage of discovery down the Eastern coast of Siberia. There are folk from the USA, Italy, Norway and many other countries in the group. After refreshments in the bar library we adjourned to the lecture theatre to be introduced to the expedition staff and to learn the basics of life at sea with Heritage Expeditions.
The expedition is headed by Rodney Russ, owner and founder of Heritage Expeditions and the most experienced Expedition Leader in this region. His assistant in this part of the world where knowledge of Russian is essential is Evgeniya Shamsutdinova. Our catering needs were to be managed by Lindsay Thorpe and Jess Christensen, a couple of New Zealand trained chefs with an excellent reputation for producing fine food from limited resources.
Our two scientists were Nikita Ovsyanikov and Olga Belonovich. Nikita is perhaps the world's foremost authority on Polar Bears but he has extensive experience in all Arctic wildlife. Olga who hails from the Commander Islands (which we were to visit) has a Ph.D in large sea mammal sciences but is equally at home with all marine animal species.
We were also fortunate to have Peter Anderson on board as the resident artist. His talents stretched to much more however as he is a highly competent sailor and Zodiac driver and a general ‘Mr Fix It’. New Zealand general surgeon Pat Alley would look after our medical needs on his fifth trip with Heritage. Lastly and probably most importantly, was Cruise Director Meghan Kelly. A myriad of tasks fall under this role but Meghan’s blend of industry, tact and flair would ensure the smooth running of the ship.
Our chefs lived up to their reputation and produced a wonderful dinner of sirloin steak or baked salmon, after which most of the group retired for an early night.
Day 2: 6 September 2014
In Kresta Bay which leads to Egvekinot, the sea was oily calm but there was a bit of ‘rock and roll’ during the night. Fortunately the majority of our company seemed undisturbed by this. One of the reasons we were here was to replenish our water stocks. Apparently we use up to twelve tons a day! More importantly there were places of cultural interest to see and experience, so after a good breakfast we picked up a packed lunch and set off on twin adventures in the town of Egvekinot.
Our first stop was the local museum where we were guided by a local woman who, despite her protestations, spoke excellent English. She guided us through the whole story of this fascinating part of Chukotka. Settlement was as early as 4,500 years ago, but the recent history begins with Vitus Bering who founded the town in1728. This was somewhat unusual as there was no pre-existing Chukchi settlement on the site. Mammoths were common here until 5,000 years ago and there was also a unique hairy rhinoceros which unlike the mammoth, stayed firmly on the Russian side of the Bering Strait. The museum’s sole surviving horn from this animal is heavily guarded. Interesting art and craft work done by the Chukchi people was much in evidence and much of it had an animal theme. Tungsten, tin, gold and oil have all featured prominently in the town's history and recovery of these resources continues
The town's more recent history is somewhat grim. In the nineteen thirties it became one of the first gulags used by Stalin's regime. When tin was discovered north of the town the prisoners first task was to construct a road to the mine. Statistics are hard to verify but “thousands of men were involved and many died” according to our guide. Their tools and accommodation were makeshift at best and downright primitive at worst. The gulag era finished in the mid nineteen fifties but surprisingly many prisoners chose to stay on in the district. We easily forget the high level of cooperation that existed between the Americans and the Russians during World War II, but there are plenty of artifacts from that era that underline that relationship. Ekveginot was on a direct route from Fairbanks in Alaska to Uelkal in Russia and Russian pilots transited the town in large numbers on their way to deliver these aircraft.
The afternoon was devoted to a trip into the hinterland travelling up the Kyrvakyntvama Valley to the Arctic Circle. This point at 66.34 degrees north marks the most southerly latitude that experiences continual daylight in the summer or conversely continual night in the mid winter. The surrounding countryside has the hallmarks of heavy glaciation – the wide U shaped valleys are exceptional and looked beautiful in the afternoon sunlight. An added bonus was the appearance of a Red Fox. He seemed particularly unconcerned by our presence and wandered close to our bus with scarcely a glance before sauntering off up the creek bed.
Photo credit: M.Kelly
Day 3: 7 September 2014
Overnight we cruised 150 nautical miles through calm seas to arrive at Cape Navarin in the early afternoon. This cape marks the south west end of the old land bridge between Chukotka and Alaska. During the morning we received a detailed safety briefing about the use of Zodiacs and Olga provided a most useful introduction to the eared seals that live in this part of the world. As we have already learned there is considerable threat to many endemic species in the Bering Sea area and these mammals are no exception. The Steller Sea Lion has had a potentially crippling fall in its population over the last twenty years. By-catch from fishing and predation are two leading contenders for the major cause of this but frustratingly, the precise reason eludes researchers at present. The Northern Fur Seal while not in the parlous state of the Sea Lions has also had a reduction in numbers.
Gray and Humpback Whales and seals were sighted near our anchorage soon after lunch. Huge rafts of Short-tailed Shearwaters were also seen scampering madly to escape the bow wave of the ship. They all made it, but often had little room to spare.
During the afternoon we set off on a ‘shakedown’ cruise with the Zodiacs to an area adjacent to the Cape and divided into three groups. One climbed a nearby mountain and was rewarded with spectacular views over this majestic landscape. Another group took a leisurely stroll over the tundra – now becoming distinctly autumnal in colour – to an abandoned weather station. The others went off on a short Zodiac ride along the coastline. It was a profitable afternoon and perhaps the best news was that a haul-out of Steller Sea Lions was found. This site had not been visited for over ten years and Olga excitedly reported over 100 animals were found there today. Good news indeed after her remarks this morning. The mountain climbers returned with the satisfaction of having achieved their goal. The other walkers reported bear tracks and the sighting of three bears in the distance. We all hoped for closer encounters as the expedition progresses.
The swells had increased during our time ashore and the ride back was understandably slower and wetter. Measured and nimble steps ensured a safe climb up the gangway to the warm haven of the ship which soon restored us. We ended the day with a convivial session in the bar library and another fine meal from our accomplished chefs. After dinner the many keen birders on board gathered together to keep the species log up to date.
Our experiences during the day had been a wonderful appetiser to this remarkable land and its inhabitants and we were keen for the next adventure. There was a mounting sense of excitement about the days ahead.
Photo credit: M.Kelly
Photo credit: M.Kelly
Day 4: 8 September 2014
The sea conditions decided how our day would unfold. A pesky low pressure system was relatively stationary and close to the Aleutian Islands south-east of where were traveling. It had spawned large rolling swells which not only made our travel difficult but also denied us a landing at Meinypil’gyno. This is an estuary village which backs onto interesting country with a fine lagoon where we could have seen a variety of wildlife. However we all had to accept the fact that a sea voyage inevitably puts us at the mercy of the weather and unlike a zoo, animals do not appear on demand. Interestingly, searches for Walrus at two places where they are often found in the previous 24 hours had found no signs of life. The most likely explanation for this is that the animals sense the deteriorating weather and head out to sea. A number of sightings of Walrus in open water that day indicated this was probably the case. Gray Whales also put in an appearance and someone saw a Porpoise as well.
Nikita provided a sobering account of the plight of Polar Bears. Essentially if climate change was the only challenge they faced there would be no threat to their survival as they have managed equally demanding changes in temperature in the last few millennia. What is new is the advent of more invasive science, increased hunting with sophisticated weapons and the sadly burgeoning pelt trade. Government and international bodies seem slow to concede the looming prospect of extinction of these icons and if nothing is done then we may lose this wondrous animal for all time.
Rodney then told some of the story of the famed but extremely rare Spoon-billed Sandpiper which is endemic to the Chukotka region. Numbers have got to critically low levels, but their survival may well depend on two initiatives. One is a breeding and conservation programme in Chukotka. The other is Peter Scott's renowned bird recovery and research centre at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire, England. Heritage Expeditions have made an ongoing commitment to transport field researchers to the isolated area where these birds breed which is very much appreciated by the scientists involved.
Overnight we made our way towards Bukhta Natalia where we hoped to find shelter from the swells and better weather for a shore excursion.
Photo credit: M.Kelly
Day 5: 9 September 2014
We awoke to a mirror calm sea in Bukhta Petra where we lay snug in the shelter of a fjord bounded by high mountains. The entrance to this haven is guarded by the substantial island of Bogslova which protects it from the swells we experienced yesterday.
Bogslova was assessed for Walrus as it is one of their haunts but there were none in evidence so we divided into two groups, one of walkers and the other, sailors.
The walkers were landed at the base of a glacial valley and slowly wound their way to the top of a saddle about 400m above seal level. There we enjoyed Lindsay's cut lunch before moving down the far side to an arm of Bukhta Pavlova, an adjacent fjord. We appreciated the autumn colours of the tundra vegetation along the way. Even in a few days the reds are more vibrant and the orange and yellow of the prostrate willow are clearer. There was a profusion of autumn berries, most notable being the Blue and Lingon berries. Their striking colour cheered us even on a dull and showery day. The only wild life was a bear seen in the distance, although we all imagined that we were being scrutinised as we trudged in what is essentially the bear’s back yard.
Back aboard the ship in the mid afternoon, the wind and sea got up again so that required some delicate re-positioning of our mother ship to get everyone safely aboard. The warm haven of the ship was very much appreciated as was the endless stream of coffee and soup.
Our sailors cruised the local bay by Zodiac and enjoyed the same impressive landscape as the walkers from another perspective. However their bonus was to discover a couple of Reindeer browsing in preparation for the onset of cooler weather.
Evening found us heading south along the Koriak coast in swells were less troublesome as they were more astern.
Photo credit: M.Kelly
Photo credit: M.Kelly
Photo credit: M.Kelly
Day 6: 10 September 2014
We awoke to find ourselves surrounded by seventeen fishing boats. They were all large – at least as big as our 2,000 ton vessel – and we were told they were targeting Pollock and Herring. Given the size of this fleet and the number of fleets operating in the area it gave us food for thought about the long term consequences of such practices.
The swells were slowly easing and in anticipation of an afternoon exploring, we heard two excellent presentations.
The first was from Ogla, one of our resident scientists. She outlined the profile of Orca in the north- west Pacific and showed her own research on these animals gathered from her home in the Commander Islands. Most of us had not appreciated how family oriented these animals are and how matrilineal they are as well. Interestingly should the chief female die, this has a negative impact on the longevity of the males in the next generation, so her passing means that they lose ‘institutional knowledge’ about their family and environment.
Peter Anderson our resident artist then traversed the field of exploration art. He used examples from antiquity right up to the present day to tell us about the role of artists in the portrayal of the natural (and sometimes unnatural) world of exploration. The role of license by artists was discussed as well as the great contributions made by amateurs – people who were primarily explorers and who turned their hand to artistic representations of what they found.
After the presentations we went exploring in five Zodiacs which cautiously approached the inlet to the Tintikun Lagoon. We had a short walk to allow the boats to negotiate a shallow stretch of water and then re-boarded to cruise to the end of this very large stretch of water. We saw plenty of signs of recent bear activity along the way but today only a distant glimpse of one. The surrounding countryside is breath-taking and even another cold and somewhat showery day could not detract from that. Once returned to the cozy haven of the ship, our cold bodies were quickly restored by steaming mugs of tea, coffee or soup. Later we tucked into another five star meal from our chefs, caught up at the bird club and retired happily to bed.
Photo credit: M.Kelly
Photo credit: M.Kelly
Photo credit: M.Kelly
Day 7: 11 September 2014
The earlier than usual call at 5:45am was not unwelcome after a good night's sleep. We had calm conditions at our anchorage and all our company assembled for a five Zodiac expedition to Bukhta Ushaniya. The entrance this fjord is quite narrow but expands to about a kilometre wide at some points. Three glaciated valleys run out from the waters. All the land forms in this part of the world are dominated by plate tectonics and glaciation. Hence the mountainsides are steep and jagged and the valleys wide and U-shaped. There is more shrubbery here than we have previously seen and in the early morning light the vista was exceptionally beautiful.
Our prime hope was to see bears and indeed a mother and her cub were seen but only in the far distance and not for very long. We saw plenty of signs of their existence such as their ‘day beds’ which they make in the sand to recline and soak up the sunshine. Someone in the group commented that there was probably a bear's convention on somewhere and they had all left town! A more likely explanation is that the increasing cold weather had started the bears thinking about the coming winter. Dotted along the shore-line we saw the remnants of fish factories which closed down in the 1990’s. Low fish stocks and the absence of venture capital after the dissolution of the Soviet state both contributed to their demise. The skeletons of these buildings have been bleached grey-white so their presence on the environment is now quite minimal.
The fine weather and light breeze made an easy return the ship for a late and a very welcome breakfast. The on-board Sea Shop opened for a time so those interested in purchasing clothing and mementos could make their selections. The remainder of the morning was spent on the bridge watching for birds and mammals or in the library reading up on what is to be seen in the area. In the afternoon we had hoped to land at Verkhoturova Island to see the bird life and a Steller Sea Lion colony. Unfortunately the captain was unable to secure a safe hold for our anchor so it was decided that Rodney and Olga would make a short Zodiac trip for a quick Sea Lion count. The good news that came from this mission was that they found 38 adult Sea Lions, so there were good numbers of these threatened animals about and we were still to visit a number of potential haul-out sites.
Photo credit: M.Kelly
Photo credit: M.Kelly
Day 8: 12 September 2014
We had made good time overnight to have arrived off the coastline of Karaginsky Island. Long before most of us were awake there was much activity on the bridge of our ship. As with most of the islands in this region this one has a volcanic history. The implication for the captain is that the surrounding sea floor comprises shale rock which is unsuitable to hold an anchor. After several attempts to moor it proved too risky to set anchor so we decided to head south-east towards the Commander Islands.
A following sea, bright sunshine and a moderate breeze made for very pleasant sailing conditions. Many enjoyed being up on the bridge to see a steady parade of Storm Petrels and Fulmars, the latter being considerably darker in colour than their northern counterparts. Some lucky people saw a small pod of Dall's Dolphins riding our bow wave for a short time around midday.
Olga gave an excellent introduction to her home, the Commander Islands. She spoke of the abundance of sea mammals and other land based species in the area. Gross exploitation of seals and whales here has spurred plenty of conflict between nations close to the islands. The island also has an interesting human history being named for the Danish explorer Vitus Bering, who along with some of this crew perished on the island and whose actual grave was only recently found.
Peter followed this with a discussion about his own outstanding art work. Much of his work has evolved after sailing with Heritage Expeditions but his vast sailing experience around the world has also leavened his work. He prefers to let is paintings talk for themselves and they certainly did that today – even as reproductions of originals.
Nikita spoke about the life of the Walrus, their place in the present ecosystem and the major threat they face from global warming that impacts on their food sources. Decline in this resource makes them particularly vulnerable to predation. Both Nikita and Olga went the extra mile for our Russian passengers by repeating their talks in Russian, whilst other speakers had a live translation from Evgeniya.
Next Rodney described the major challenges facing bird species in the ‘Far Eastern Fly way’. one of seven major routes in the world, which runs from Siberia to Australasia. Poaching by mist netting for the illegal restaurant trade and erosion of habitat by reclamation are the major threats. A solution to the problem is not readily apparent as the demands of a rapidly increasing human population are remorseless.
Finally we had a nice ‘triple act from Rodney, Meghan and Lindsay on the enormous effort that goes into the provisioning and maintenance of this ship we are living on. It is a highly complex, expensive and time consuming process to get all in order for cruises such as ours. The forward planning is similarly complicated as is the carefully monitored maintenance of the vessel.
Despite there being no landings and hence no close contact with species, it had been a highly satisfying and educational day. A beautiful moon lit our way to bed after another delicious dinner.
Photo credit: M.Kelly
Day 9: 13 September 2014
We awoke to a brilliantly fine day. No wind, no clouds, no swell and a flat calm sea. After an early breakfast and briefing we got away at 0800 for Nikolskoye village, the principal settlement on Bering Island. It is home to about 600 people and there is a brand new school to handle the children's educational needs. We were required to report to the border guards ‘face to face’ with our passports. They were quite affable and the process was completed relatively quickly so we could begin a tour of the town.
The museum is a credit to the community. There is a substantial collection of Bering memorabilia, a good section on plants and animal species and a history of the Sea Cow. This animal unfortunately became extinct in the eighteenth century as it was both slow and very tasty which goes a long way to explaining its demise as a species. The colourful local artist generously showed us around his gallery to the strains of Pink Floyd's ‘Another Brick in the Wall’. Many of us considered his art to be very good and he had also authored a book which to his delight was sold out to our group in one morning! The town also boasts a quaint orthodox church, lots of colourfully painted buildings to hide their somewhat drab design and interestingly, the remains of a Fox Farm. The waterfront yielded some good viewing of the resident Rock Sand Piper and some interesting volcanic rock formations.
After a lunch back aboard the ship we sailed a few kilometres north to the landing point for the Seal colony. After a short half hour walk we were able to gaze from an elevated point at the pristine beach filled with (mostly) Northern Fur Seals. There were about 9,000 there but sadly in its heyday there would have been at least 200,000 animals in this colony. Also present in reasonable numbers were Steller Sea Lions and Harbour Seals. Common bird species were Pelagic and Red-faced Cormorant and a few Horned and Tufted Puffins. We searched in vain for Arctic Foxes and then returned to the Zodiacs.
The remaining daylight hours were devoted to cruising in the idyllic calm around the island of Arikamen. This island was named ‘The Home of the Guillemot’ by the Alaskan Inuit. There are a good number of that species there but Red and Black-legged Gulls predominate. We also saw a group of Fur Seals patrolling the island and a few Sea Otters.
After an excellent dinner we were delighted to see our talisman moonrise once again which we hoped prophesied another great day ahead.
Photo credit: M.Kelly
Photo credit: M.Kelly
Photo credit: M.Kelly
Day 10: 14 September 2014
We had an early start today on Medny Island. After the usual high quality breakfast we boarded the Zodiacs and set off for the site of an old border post at Peschannaya Bay. It was closed down in the nineteen nineties and sadly one of the reasons for its closure was the drowning of a number of men who were blown out to sea on a raft of firewood they had been collecting. The area is well tracked and we thanked previous Inuit occupants for this. Several prominent headlands allowed excellent viewing of the bird life not to mention the wonderful vistas of mountains and wide glacial valleys. Medny translates to ‘copper’ in Russian and there was ample evidence of the oxides here. Despite it being common it was, happily for us, too isolated to mine commercially.
We took a cruise along the shoreline and were rewarded with many sightings of Sea Otters and seals and also witnessed a death struggle between two Northern Fulmars. The occasional spat is not unknown in this species but it is rare to see such a prolonged and ferocious contest. We landed at a small beach to await pick up from the ship and had the delightful bonus of an Arctic Fox display. Two of them turned up. One was shy and retiring but afforded good photos by posing on a ridge line. The other was completely unfazed by our presence and even decided to try out the taste of gumboots!
In the afternoon we visited Bering's grave at Commander Bay. It is an ideal resting place for the famed mariner with wide sea views framed by beautiful cliffs and rolling hills. Bering’s life ended when he was shipwrecked here in December of 1741. He was probably exhausted after having walked from Moscow to Chukotka and then undertaking a long sea voyage. He died along with many of his companions some two weeks after the wreck, from exhaustion, malnutrition and probably scurvy. His grave was rediscovered relatively recently and after a brief repatriation to his homeland of Denmark his remains were brought back here to be re-interred. A forensic pathologist took the opportunity to construct a likeness of him from his skull. This was helpful because previous depictions of him had relied entirely on the appearance of his relatives.
On board again we watched for elusive whales as the ship headed south-west around the bottom end of Bering Island towards Olga Bay.
Photo credit: M.Kelly
Photo credit: M.Kelly
Photo credit: M.Kelly
Day 11: 14 September 2014
Today we experienced the delights of the wonderful wildlife of the Kronotskiy Nature Reserve, one of the earliest such reserves established in Russia. The day dawned grey and calm and all were watching for sea mammals. First to appear was a Sperm Whale which was closely followed by a pod of Orca. The captain went about to try and get a better view but they eluded us.
Around midday we came to anchor at Olga Bay. Even from about a kilometre out to sea we could see that this landscape and vegetation was entirely different from what we had previously encountered. Gone were the stunted trees and vast tundra of the north. Here there were woods and considerable undergrowth which made for great bear country and also a home of the Steller Sea Eagle. The bay is notable for whales as well.
We set off after lunch to look for Gray Whales but none were seen until we had landed on shore! However some of us had the great good fortune to get up close and personal with a Sea Otter and her cub. We cautiously approached what appeared to be two dead otters lying within a couple of metres of each other. The mother suddenly ‘came to life’ and sounded, leaving her cub peacefully asleep. When the little one awoke there was a serious to-do with much mewling and crying. Mum quickly appeared on the scene and took her child away in a classic life saving grip.
On landing we were welcomed by two rangers who are part of the team working at this well known reserve. We then divided into three groups to explore. There were plenty of signs that bears were around and while we all saw the Steller Sea Eagle, one group managed some good close up encounters with this impressive bird. Another group saw a bear fairly close by but it out ran them, moving across the line of sight of the third group who had a grandstand seat. He (we presumed it to be a male) noticed our group about one hundred metres away but seemed to just acknowledge that we represented no threat. He then meandered, then broke into a lazy trot and then walked more slowly to within just twenty metres of us. He made for the river nearby and we had a clear view of him looking underwater for salmon. As far as we could tell he didn't score a live one and contented himself with some spent fish at the side of the stream.
We trekked back to the Zodiacs and while another attempt to find Gray Whales from the sea was unsuccessful, we all felt supremely satisfied with the day. To top it all off there was a glorious sunset highlighting the almost fairy tale like 3,654m cone of Mt. Kronotskiy.
Photo credit: M.Kelly
Photo credit: M.Kelly
Day 12: 16 September 2014
We were blessed with a beautiful sunrise as we cruised toward the Zhupanova River. The far distant mountain of the same name was quite active, throwing alternate clouds of steam and ash into the morning sky.
The Zodiacs carefully negotiated the river mouth which is tide critical, hence our 7am departure from the ship this morning. Almost immediately we came upon six, possibly seven Steller's Sea Eagles. They are very large and attractive birds and did not seem disturbed by our presence here. Their large size dictates a slow take-off, allowing for some good in-flight photos in the early light of day. Further up the river we found a Brown Bear and her cub. They seemed skittish and did not wait for us. Further singleton bears were seen, with one actively fishing. The river, although sandy based, is very shallow and our boatmen did a great job of keeping us from being grounded. After three hours travelling up river we turned for home, drifting with the current most of the time. We came upon another Sea Eagle but he made no move, despite being surrounded by at least fifty cameras all busily clicking.
A nice surprise awaited us at the fish factory where we were just in time for morning tea. We tucked into big slices of white bread, butter and masses of tasty salmon roe or smoked salmon with tea or coffee to wash it down. It was certainly not your average Tuesday morning tea.
Back aboard the ship, the process of winding up the expedition began with the stowing and securing of all manner of equipment we had used during the journey. Briefings gave us all the information we needed for the disembarkation process and return to our homelands. In the late afternoon Meghan, who had worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make the trip a success, produced a photo log of the journey. She showed a compilation of photos she, other staff and passengers had taken, accompanied by some good music. It is a wonderful memory of a special time together and will be treasured by all.
Reminiscences, stories and other events were traded in the pre-dinner bar session and then we repaired to the dining rooms for one of the renowned Heritage farewell buffet dinners. It is quite remarkable how two chefs can turn out a spread like this from such a small galley. It would not be out of place at a five star international restaurant and all were hugely appreciative of the effort Jess and Lindsay had made for our last dinner together.
And so came the end of our wonderful expedition when all would go their separate ways. We are, in one sense, the same people who started the trip ten days ago. We have the same names and addresses and the same likes and dislikes. But in another sense we are not exactly the same. One cannot have such an experience and remain unchanged. We have seen so much, learned so much and heard so much that we are changed in our appreciation of the natural world – a world that increasingly needs the care and respect of all humanity. Heritage Expeditions operates under that philosophy in a real and practical way. Surely now it is up to follow the lead.
Photo credit: M.Kelly
Photo credit: M.Kelly
Day 1: 4 September 2013
After long flights from all corners of the world, we our group gathered together in Anadyr, the administrative capital of Chukotka and the gateway to the Russian Far East. After exploring the town we boarded the Spirit of Enderby in the afternoon and sailed during a beautiful sunset with Beluga Whales right beside the ship, a good omen for our journey. After a brief introduction from Rodney and the chance to meet the other members of the expedition crew, we settled in for dinner and our first night at sea.
Day 2: 5 September 2013
After a night of rough seas, we arrived off Cape Navarin just before breakfast. This major projection of the Russian continent out into the Pacific is notorious for wild weather and sure enough, as soon as we rounded the cape and made our way further south, conditions improved. After lunch and a brief siesta, we arrived at Bukhta Gavrilia in the early afternoon and launched the Zodiacs for our first excursion. The back of the bay is hemmed in by steep mountains, but we found a small stream that empties out through a narrow valley and headed up the creek to explore. Lots of birds were seen in the thick willow scrub including Dusky Thrushes, Wagtails and Ptarmigan. The hillsides were covered in berries which many of us enjoyed as a pre-dinner snack. We also had good looks at seals and even a Gray Whale which passed close to shore. When we arrived back at the ship for dinner, we were treated to another spectacular sunset which was a fitting finale to our first day!
Day 3: 6 September 2013
Pika River / Meinypil'gyno
We woke to an early breakfast under blue skies with a warm breeze. The ship anchored off the Pika River and even as the Zodiacs were unloaded we could see a string of whale and walrus blows in the bay which we wanted to investigate. Dozens of Gray Whales, many of them mothers with young calves, were seen feeding in the shallow sand and mud along the shoreline. They seemed oblivious to our Zodiacs, offering us a rare chance to see these gentle giants up close and personal. Along several narrow cobble beaches we also found large groups of walrus hauled out enjoying the sun. One group had certainly picked the most scenic spot around, lounging near a lovely waterfall that also seemed to be a hotspot of activity for the thousands of Kittiwakes that were hanging around on the cliffs. We also saw good numbers of Common Eiders, Pelagic Cormorants and many Northern Fulmars, which were also nesting on the cliffs. Nobody complained that the weather was more like summer than September!
We continued south and a few hours later were anchored of off Meinypil'gyno, a Chukchi village situated on a narrow lagoon between the mainland and a long narrow gravel spit. In town we were entertained by the local dance troupe who shared their songs and dances with us. Afterwards we took the opportunity to stroll through the village, visit the museum and chat with some of the friendly locals. Another beautiful sunset rounded out a truly spectacular day.
Day 4: 7 September 2013
After three straight days of blue skies, today we woke to mist and fog. Cruising into Bukhta Natalii, the seas are dead calm and the mountains shrouded by clouds. On the water around us sat thousands upon thousands of Tufted Puffins along with Kittiwakes, Murres and Auklets. Bukhta Natalii forks off into two smaller bays, Petra and Pavel, and after exploring Petra by ship, we split up into two groups. The first group led by Rodney headed off for an ambitious overland trek across the hills towards Pavel Bay, while the second group continued their exploration of Petra Bay by Zodiac. Towards afternoon the ship repositioned and welcomed the thoroughly soaked overland hikers back on board. They were in high spirits despite their outward appearance. Both groups had enjoyed good looks at Reindeer, and while the overlanders caught distant glimpses of Brown Bears, the Zodiac cruisers managed to spot a Peregrine Falcon cruising the cliffs. Both groups had once again made a good effort to put a dent in the local berry supply, but still saved room for dinner.
Day 5: 8 September 2013
We spent the morning at sea enjoying some excellent birding from the bridge which included the sighting of a rare and endangered Steller's Albatross. The Spirit of Enderby arrived at Tintikun Lagoon in the early afternoon and a more picturesque place is difficult to imagine. This hidden bay is tucked away behind towering mountains which appear to tumble into the sea. It is accessible only through a narrow and shallow channel that can only be crossed at high tide. Once within the bay, a panorama of mountains and cliffs surrounded us on all sides. We slowly cruised into the bay and landed on a narrow gravel beach to look for bears. After a quiet half hour wait (during which some chose to take a dip in a small hot spring), a bear appeared on shore a few hundred metres away. We sat quietly and waited as the bear ambled closer and closer, eventually sitting down only a few dozen metres from us. Once memory cards were full and we had had our fill of this incredible encounter, we loaded back into the boats and continued on to where a small river empties out onto a braided gravel delta. Dead salmon littered the banks and many fish still lingered in large pools near the river mouth, while along each bank was a well-trodden bear track. We stopped to explore, eating berries, taking photos and enjoying the surreal scenery. Finally, and very reluctantly, we began to make our way out, spotting no fewer than five more bears along the hills as we worked our way out of the channel and back into the ocean towards the ship.
Day 6: 9 September 2013
Koryakskiy Reserve/Verkhoturova Island
High winds today threatened our plans to explore the shores of the Koryaksi Reserve and Verkhoturova Island, but as always we remained “rigidly flexible”, ready to adapt to any situation. We found shelter in a lovely bay where we went Zodiac cruising and enjoyed looks at a whole army of gulls which had appropriated an old shipwreck before landing on a small beach near a river running down from the hills. As soon as we landed we noticed four Peregrine Falcons streaking along the beach. A breeding pair and their offspring lingered around their nesting site atop a rocky pinnacle near the summit of one of the steep hills behind the bay. These iconic birds obliged us with some excellent close views so the birders were particularly satisfied with the encounter. We headed up the river and into the tundra with another target in mind – Brown Bears. After waiting patiently (and eating the ever-present berries all around us) we spotted a mother and cub slowly making their way towards us down the river. As they came closer and closer, the only sounds were the click of camera shutters and the splashing of the water tumbling down the stream. After spending half an hour going about their business, the bears continued on their way and we too decided it was time to make our way back to the ship. There are more places to explore and sights to see.
Day 7: 10 September 2013
This morning we awoke extra early, and despite some grumbling around the coffee station there was nothing but excitement once we loaded up the Zodiacs. An early morning excursion to Karaginskiy Island proved to be the best possible start to the day. The early morning mist slowly lifted off the tundra as we set out to wander around our landing site. This large island off the coast of Kamchatka is an important breeding area for many species of waterfowl. Although their breeding season was over, many were still gathered in large flocks in the ponds and sloughs inland and on the coastline in preparation for their migration south. We enjoyed good looks at White-winged Scoters and Common Mergansers as well as several large flocks of Pacific Golden Plovers. The abundant berries were once again a distraction from birding and taking photos, but the reward for kneeling down is not just a tasty snack but a whole new perspective on the miniature forest that is the low arctic tundra. Over a dozen species of lichen grow amongst dwarf birches, dwarf willows, blueberry, lingonberry, crowberry and bearberry shrubs. Here and there we saw huge mushrooms, some ripe for the picking, others already feeding an entire army of small insects and their larvae. Once back on board we settled in for a day at sea en route to our next destination, the Commander Islands.
Day 8: 11 September 2013
We arrived at the Commander Islands early in the morning and anchored off the small village of Nikolskoye. After cruising to shore and checking in with the border guards, we were free to roam around the town. We split up into small groups which all managed to visit the museum, a small gallery run by an eccentric artist, the beautiful wooden church and other attractions in town. A few of us wandered off into the large expanse of dunes on the other side of the river in search of birds and were rewarded with good looks at Lapland Longspurs and Pipits. After lunch back on board the ship we cruised slowly past the spectacular seabird colonies on Ari Kamen Island as we worked our way towards the northwest cape. After landing in a protected cove we hiked through a valley of shoulder high beach grass to a fabulous lookout high on the cliff overlooking a large rookery of Fur Seals. From here we also enjoyed amazing looks at Steller Sea Lions, Sea Otters, Harbour Seals and even an inquisitive fox that scavenged along the beach amongst the seals. The group spent a very pleasant few hours sitting in the sun with a warm breeze blowing, taking in the amazing spectacle below. It was a truly beautiful day in a remarkable place.
Day 9: 12 September 2013
This morning we geared up for an excursion to Medniy Island after an early breakfast. Brilliant sunshine, blue skies and warm temperatures made it feel like summer as we cruised up into narrow Peschanaya Bay, which is surrounded by towering cliffs accommodating thousands of nesting Puffins and Fulmars. While a number of us headed off with Rodney for a long walk into the hills, the rest of the group was content to explore the tidepools, sea stacks and rocky headlands on either side of the small beach at the landing site. The remains of an old border guard station were inhabited by scores of Pipits and Snow Buntings, while the small stream running down from the grassy valley behind the beach was filled with spawning salmon. Those still hoping to see the rare Red-faced Cormorant felt that today offered their best chance yet as they watched Winter Wrens hopping around on the boulders near the shoreline. After enjoying the sun and the scenery, we headed back to the ship for lunch and the short cruise back to Bering Island. The wind which had been slowly building all day proved to be too strong for our intended landing at Commander Bay this afternoon, so we had to settle for distant but spectacular views of the last resting place of Vitus Bering and his crew. Despite the sunny afternoon, the howling winds gave us a taste of what life must have been like for those men on this remote speck of land in the middle of the Bering Sea. Sadly it was time to bid farewell to the Commander Islands and set a course for the mainland of Kamchatka again. Back at sea the wet, wild and windy conditions prevailed, offering great looks at the seemingly endless streams of Fulmars, Shearwaters, Phalaropes and other seabirds gliding around us, undaunted by the high winds and whitecaps.
Day 10: 13 September 2013
This morning the lecture programme kept some of us occupied after a leisurely breakfast, while others spent time scanning the skies from the bridge. Some fantastic birding towards lunchtime brought a crowd out onto the decks and despite a rough start to the day, conditions improved remarkably as we rounded the cape into Olga Bay. After consulting with some local rangers regarding landing conditions on the beach we boarded the Zodiacs and set off to explore the long sandy beach and dense forests surrounding the bay. We all had great views of a Brown Bear that rambled along the beach, as well as our first look at a magnificent Steller's Sea Eagle.
Day 11: 14 September 2013
As we entered into the mouth of the Zhupanova River this morning we knew we were in for a rare day. Clear skies offered views all the way to the horizon and the immense volcanoes along the coast seemed close enough to touch. Heading up river by Zodiac was a totally new experience. Instead of chop and swell and exposed coastline, we slowly worked our way through green foliage with mountain views beyond. Finally, after cruising for about an hour seeing Larga and Harbour Seals, River Otters and many bird species, we rounded a bend and came upon a juvenile Steller's Sea Eagle, our target species for this excursion. Although most of us had experienced a good look at this bird yesterday, this one allowed point-blank views and perfect photo opportunities as it perched in a riverside snag. It was yet another highlight to cap off our final day along the Kamchatka coast.
Day 12: 15 September 2013
When we arrived in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, some of the group disembarked and headed for their homes around the world while others remained on board for another night, spending the day exploring this spectacular volcanic region. The late summer sun had set on our voyage down this remarkable coastline, but the memories, friendships and images linger on.
Day 1: 9 September
The first group arrived in Anadyr from Nome just before lunch and were ferried across to the ship by three staff members: Expedition Leader Rodney Russ; Lecturer and Guide Aleks Terauds; and Chief Engineer Costa. It was a beautiful morning in Anadyr, with clear blue skies and calm seas in the harbour - perfect weather for watching the Beluga Whales as they slowly surfaced around the harbour. Most of the people that were staying on for the next trip took the opportunity look around Anadyr for a few hours.
The second group arrived in Anadyr later in the afternoon and by early evening they were also aboard and getting to know what would be their home for the next few weeks. The Captain raised the anchor and we headed out of the Anadyr estuary, sailing northwards for Egvekinout. Pre-dinner drinks started soon after and many people headed up to the bar to get to know their fellow passengers and to relax after a busy day of travelling. After dinner, Rodney held a briefing where he introduced the staff, including our Hotel Manager Julia, lecturers/guides Justine, Aleks and Katya, chefs Nicki and Brad and special guest lecturer Nikita from Wrangel Island. After the briefing most people called it a night, weary from the day’s travelling.
Day 2: 10 September
We started heading up the Egvekinout estuary in the early hours of the morning and by breakfast were tied up to the wharf. On the way up we had calm seas that reflected the stark grey hills that ring the town, speckled with autumnal colours of red and yellow. We were treated to a presentation by photographer Jenny Ross, who gave us a beautifully illustrated talk on the Biology of Polar Bears. Later in the afternoon, and continuing the Polar Bear theme, Nikita our special guest lecturer from Wrangel Island, gave us another interesting presentation on the Fate of Polar Bears in a Greenhouse World. He had some different perspectives on Polar Bears to Jenny and it was great to see the two viewpoints from such experienced people.
After the lectures we held special pre-dinner drinks, with cocktails on the house and everybody got into the spirit of things after a day on-board the ship. After another fantastic dinner by Nicki and Brad most people wandered downstairs for the movie feature – Grizzly Man - to finish off the day.
Day 3: 11 September
Spending the night at sea we awoke to a grey day with a reasonable swell running. Most people spent the day relaxing, bird watching or sleeping. There were good numbers of shearwaters spotted heading south on their migration back to their breeding grounds in the southern hemisphere. Vega, Slaty-backed and Glaucous-winged Gulls followed the ship on and off for most of the day and Black-legged Kittiwakes were always in attendance.
Day 4: 12 September
After another night at sea, we arrived at Bukhta Gavriila in the early morning. While we ate breakfast Rodney, Aleks, Katya and Nikita took a Zodiac to shore on a scouting mission. The proposed landing site was too rough so Rodney asked the Captain to move the ship to the south while he explored some alternative landing. There was much more lee from the headland on the southern beaches of the bay so the decision was made to land there and soon everybody was ashore.
We walked up the creek for a little while and then split up into three groups: the first heading off on a longer, faster walk with Rodney, the second on a medium distance walk with Aleks and the third group stayed fairly locally with Justine.
During the morning the sun came out occasionally and the autumn colours of the tundra were spectacular; there were many species of bird to be seen both on the coastal side and the lagoon side of the bay. It is thought that the huge Orianla Lagoon provides great habitat for many species of birds at certain times of the year and today we saw Harlequin Ducks, Greater Scaups, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Eiders and at least three species of gull. The medium walkers also saw a Red Fox and a big Northern Raven flying overhead. The botanists weren’t disappointed either with a range of fascinating vascular plants, lichens, moss and fungi to photograph and identify. There were also many seals in the bay, most identified as Largha Seals.
The longer walkers went all the way out to an abandoned weather station on a spit to the south where they found a sign proclaiming it to be the oldest weather station in Chukotka. They were the last to return to the landing site and by early afternoon we were all back onboard for lunch when we set off south again, sailing for Bukhta Natalia.
The afternoon sea wasn’t quite as choppy as the day before so there was the opportunity to have some lectures. The first was from Aleks – the first part in a two part series on the Marine Life of the Russian Far East, and this one focussed on birds. Jenny Ross gave the second presentation of the afternoon, and with the second part of her Life on Thin Ice series we were given more insight into the lives of Polar Bears and the possible effects that a changing climate might have on the Arctic environment.
Day 5: 13 September
We arrived at Bukhta Natalia by mid-morning and everybody was glad to get some shelter from the wind and swell. Launching the Zodiacs into a still but drizzly day we spent the next couple of hours cruising and making several landings at small beaches up to the head of this major bay. These were our first landings in Kamchatka on this expedition and as the morning progressed the drizzle gradually abated until there was sunshine. By the final landing, the fog and mist had slowly dissipated to reveal a remarkable landscape: the sharp peaks, jagged ridgelines and deeply incised valleys, together with the yellow and red vegetation made for some absolutely stunning scenery and it was difficult to get people back on the Zodiacs and back to the ship for lunch.
After lunch it wasn’t long before the first of the passengers were once more disembarking the ship for the short Zodiac ride to the shores of a small subsidiary fiord, Bukhta Pavla. The plan was to walk over the large headland that separated this fiord from the adjoining one - Bukhta Petra. Rodney led the group on this beautiful 10 km hike for the remainder of the afternoon. It started off up a river that was rushing down the hillside with numerous waterfalls and rapids glinting in the afternoon sunlight and as we continued up the hill, the colours of the vegetation became ever more striking and the greens, yellows and reds even more vivid. For most of the walk we had high peaks on all sides, forming a magnificent backdrop and eventually came to a lake near the high point before continuing down a river valley to the adjacent fiord. Brad and Costa came in to pick us up and although some were a bit weary, the consensus was that it was an afternoon that would not soon be forgotten. As we settled in for pre-dinner drinks, the Captain took the ship back out of Bukhta Natalia and we continued south along the Kamchatka coast, heading for a new landing at Bukhta Lavrova.
Day 6: 14 September
The morning was spent travelling down the Koryak coastline and it was clear from the seemingly endless line of jagged peaks that we had left the flat tundra landscapes far behind. Those up early enough were treated to a pod of Killer Whales, three males and three females passing close by the boat and there were hundreds of shearwaters and gulls accompanying the ship for most of the morning. It was a beautiful day and the sun was shining so most people hung out on deck or on the bridge, though some came inside for Aleks’ lecture on Marine Mammals of the Russian Far East and later in the morning, the briefing on activities in Petropavlosk-Kamchatskiy – our destination in a few days time.
We arrived at the entrance to Bukhta Lavrova just on lunch and as we slowly came into the head of the bay there were many pairs of eager eyes scanning the surrounding hillside for bears; five were spotted on the distant shores, including a mother and cub. Finishing lunch, we boarded the Zodiacs once more and headed along the southern shores of the bay. Although we scanned the hillsides carefully no more bears were seen, however we did come across a very interesting shipwreck of a large fishing trawler. There were also huge flocks of ducks, largely Black Scoters but also Common Eiders and Red-breasted Mergansers.
A little further into the bay some signs of old settlement could be seen and we made our first landing at one of these. We spent some time wandering around the derelict building, marvelling at the conditions that people must have lived in when they were working here. Although we saw lots of recent bear sign, no animals were spotted and we made our way back to the Zodiacs and headed further inland then along the southern arm of the bay. For a while we traversed north and south, landing, exploring and walking where the landscapes opened out into beautiful hills and waterfalls, lit up in the slowly fading afternoon light. At one landing we came across an old gravesite and some also discovered beautiful late-blooming flowers, including rhododendrons and irises that were retaining their colour unusually late in the season. Our final landing was at the northern-most of the two main settlements. This one appeared bigger and Rodney speculated that it may have been a fox fur farm, with the other one possibly a fish cannery. The infrastructure that was present suggested a major industry of some kind although it had obviously been abandoned for many years. We eventually left the settlement and made our way back to the ship before setting sail south once more, toward Cape Conspicuous.
Day 7: 15 September
Cape Conspicuous, Verkhotyrova Island
We arrived early at Cape Conspicuous, the Zodiacs were launched and before breakfast everyone was ashore and keen for some bears. The morning got off to a good start when a bear was spotted on the hill at the end of the beach where we landed. After watching it move up the hill and eventually out of sight we made our way up the river valley until we reached a viewpoint that allowed us good views of both the river and the surrounding hillsides. It didn’t take long until we were rewarded with some great bear sightings. First up was a single sub-adult male ambling through the short scrub and grass along an adjacent hill, who was then followed by a mother and two cubs then a mother with three cubs. After several other single bear sightings we got up to 13 bears for the morning in what was turning out to be a bear bonanza. Eventually the first mother cub threesome moved down the hill and came closer to our group, literally just over the river from where we were waiting. It was fantastic to see the young cubs gambolling and play-fighting with each other, with mum keeping a careful eye on us and the surrounding landscape in the beautiful morning light. Stomachs rumbling, we eventually started to make our way back to the landing and then back aboard for breakfast.
During breakfast the Captain set a course for Verkhotyrova Island and as we sailed there were plenty of birds and cetaceans to keep those out on deck or on the bridge interested. There were Humpback Whales, Minke Whales and at least one Sei whale sighted, with the highlight being a Humpback mother and calf pair. As we came closer to the island, bird numbers increased with Common Guillemots, Tufted and Horned Puffins and Parakeet Auklets sighted. Once we were there the Zodiacs were launched in a reasonable swell and as we headed in towards shore it became clear that the break on the beach was going to make it impossible to land at the bird cliffs. We continued around the island at a leisurely pace, hundreds of Pelagic Cormorants circling the boats and surrounded by puffins and Ancient Murrelets in the water. We also came across a haul out of sub-adult male Steller Sea Lions hauled out on a rockstack and had some good views of these animals for the first time this trip. Late in the afternoon we made a landing at the calmer end of the island and had the opportunity to stretch our legs for a couple of hours. Some wandered up to the abandoned lighthouse, others explored the surrounding landscapes while some just beachcombed. It was such a beautiful afternoon that Rodney decided to hold the evening pre-dinner drinks on the beach. With a bit of to-ing and fro-ing some supplies were brought ashore and with a driftwood fire we had a very relaxing end to a fantastic day.
Day 8: 16 September
After another early breakfast Rodney gave us a briefing on the planned activities for the morning and we headed ashore at the southern end of Karaginsky Island. With a couple of hours to explore, everybody headed off in their own direction and in the bright morning sunshine explored the surrounds. Some went for a longer walk up onto the distant ridgeline while others beachcombed their way along kilometres of deserted coastline. There were many fox-prints on the beach but they proved elusive with only one brief sighting. There were, however, Oriental Greenfinches and Lapland Buntings in abundance for the birdwatchers and a couple of Pacific Golden Plovers were also spotted. The myriad of footprints in the dried out lakes were evidence of the thousands of waders that must use this excellent habitat in the summer months. We made our way back to the ship in the late morning and were soon heading off the coast towards the Commander Islands.
It was a beautiful afternoon for being out on deck and several people took advantage of the good weather to watch the world go by. With our impending arrival at the Commander Islands, Katya gave two presentations throughout the afternoon. The first was an Introduction the Commander Islands where she gave us some great background on the history and wildlife of the islands, and the second was on Sea Otters, whetting everybody’s appetites for some sightings of these animals in the next few days.
Day 9: September 17
After a good night at sea we awoke to sunny skies and those up early enough saw a beautiful sunrise and another bonus awaited the early risers: a Short –tailed Albatross appeared and circled the boat a couple of times. It must have been the morning for albatrosses because over the next few hours both Laysan and Black-footed were also sighted. As we came up towards Medny Island the cetaceans were also in abundance, with Sperm Whales, Minke Whales and Dall Porpoises all seen.
We soon arrived at Medny Island and, after a briefing by Rodney, got into the Zodiacs and were ferried ashore at Bukhta Peschanaya. It was a beautiful day and although we split up into all directions everybody had something interesting to report at the end of the morning. Sea otters, Harbour Seals, Arctic (Blue) Foxes, Rosyfinches and Ptarmigan were just some of the highlights, not to mention the beautiful scenery. Some also took the opportunity to have a look around the small settlement and gravesites, while others just went on a long walk to explore the landscape and stretch their legs. We made it back to the ship in time for a late-ish lunch and steamed south to a new landing in search of some Northern Fur Seals.
Mid-afternoon the Zodiacs were launched once more and we headed ashore at Bukhta Glinka. Some made the long walk up and over the island to the other side in search of a large Northern Fur Seal colony and, even though we didn’t make it to our intended lookout destination, we could still see some Fur Seals in the water and the colony could just be made out in the distance. Those who stayed on the beach had some great experiences with a number of friendly Arctic (Blue) Foxes which hung around long enough for most of the long walkers to see as well. These remarkable animals seemed very friendly and not in the least bit perturbed by our presence and many people really enjoyed seeing them close up. By evening we were back on board for lively pre-dinner drinks and dinner.
Day 10: 18 September
Bering Island, At sea en-route to Zhupanova River
We arrived at the harbour of Nikoi’skoye, capital of Bering Island in the Commander Group early morning. The Zodiac was launched in thick fog and Costa and Julia went ashore to pick up one of the island staff in order to give him a lift back to Petropavlosk-Kamchatskiy. After Vladimir was safely onboard we set sail for the south-western corner of the island, once more in search of Northern Fur Seals. Soon after we were underway we saw a pod of Killer Whales in a feeding frenzy just off the ship. The two males and four females were breaching and lunge feeding and it was great to get a close up view of these amazing predators in action.
We arrived at the entrance to the bay where we intended to land and after a briefing by Rodney, the Zodiacs were launched and we began to load. During the loading of the second group, one of the Zodiacs was punctured on the gangway and Rodney decided to abandon the landing due to the increasing swell and difficulty in getting people aboard the Zodiacs safely. Those already in the Zodiacs were ferried back to the ship and soon after we headed off again, this time departing the Commander Islands and heading back towards the Kamchatka Coast.
Just as we started to sail over the ocean shelf which surrounds the Commander Islands, several Humpback Whales passed quite close to the ship and most people made their way up on deck to get some great views of these animals. We continued on our way through the fog for the rest of the day. Rodney, Aleks and Katya spent much of the day repairing the Zodiac while Julia held the sea-shop in the afternoon for those needing some retail therapy.
Day 11: 19 September
It was a blustery morning as we made our way south-west towards the Zhupanova River. However, as we approached the entrance, the weather appeared to be abating and with the barometer on the rise we put down the anchor, had lunch then planned to make a Zodiac cruise up the river after lunch.
Sure enough, the weather continued to improve and after lunch four Zodiacs were launched as we headed into the Zhupanova River. It was a rocky ride into the entrance and the wind was still quite strong as we came past the fishing village - the village was empty since the season had just finished and all the fisherman had left only in the last few days. Just as we came through the estuary a juvenile Steller Sea Eagle swooped down past the boats, circled three times and landed on a submerged log. This was the first of many fantastic Steller Sea Eagle sightings for the day, with three adults and at least four juveniles sighted. One juvenile in particular was unperturbed by our presence and we were able to drift right underneath the tree it was roosting in, allowing everybody some great views and fantastic photo opportunities. In addition to the sea eagles, other wildlife that we saw as we headed up river included Harbour Seals, at least two species of divers, gulls and large flocks of Red-breasted Merganser.
We spent about two hours cruising up and down the river system with Rodney skilfully leading us through the sandbars and narrow channels, making one landing on a small beach to stretch our legs. Many people remarked that it was nice to see trees again as the riverbanks were thick with several species. After another rocky ride back to the ship we were all back aboard in the late afternoon. Just before pre-dinner drinks Rodney gave us a briefing on the planned activities for Petropavlosk-Kamchatskiy and there followed yet another fantastic meal from Brad and Nicky before calling it a night in anticipation of another full day tomorrow.
Day 12: 20 September
After heading down to breakfast we made a cut lunch to take with us on the various activities today; those intending to do the volcano walk and flight to the Valley of the Geysers headed off in a mini-bus, while those intending to stay more locally headed off into town at various times through the day.
Unfortunately, snow and high winds at the Valley of the Geysers meant that the flight was cancelled so some decided to do the volcano walk while others elected to go back to the ship and spend some time in the town. The walkers had a bumpy ride up to the base of the Gorely Volcano but set off in sunshine and high moving clouds. As we ascended, the views just got better and better and although it was steep and muddy in places, it was worth it for the scenery. As we passed the 1500m mark there were snow and ice crystals on the ground and a couple of members of the group decided to start descending. The others persevered and eventually made it to the crater edge at 1873 m above sea level. The fumaroles sent clouds of smoke up into the sky creating a dramatic skyscape when the sun was revealed by the passing clouds. Although there was too much mist to see the bottom of the crater, the strong smell of sulphur left little doubt as to where we were and after a group photo at the crater edge we started to slowly make our way back down to the waiting truck.
The drive back started off quietly with everybody a little weary from the day’s exercise but a bear sighting soon woke everybody up and as we progressed back down the mountain we saw another large male by himself, followed by a mother and two cubs ambling along the road. It was the perfect end to a marvellous day. By evening we were back at the ship and there was much story telling of the days activities over pre-dinner drinks. Those who had spent the day around town also had a good day with much sightseeing and even a bit of shopping to keep them occupied. We took the pilot onboard around after dinner and set sail for the Kuril Islands.
Day 13: 21 September
At sea from Petropavlosk-Kamchatskiy, Paramushir Strait
Those up early enough caught a beautiful Kamchatka sunrise, with snow-capped volcanoes lit up red by the rising sun. The volcanoes continued to dominate the landscape on the starboard side as we headed down the southern end of the Kamchatka peninsula for the rest of the morning toward the Kuril Islands. Today one of the main aims was to find Sea Otters, with Rodney having an idea that they could be found in the little-explored strait between the first two of the Kuril Islands, Paramushir and Shumshu. We arrived at the large bay marking the beginning of the strait at around midday and even on approach we started to see good numbers of Sea Otter, including some mothers with pups. We spent the next several hours doing a lap around this bay before heading into the strait itself and the Sea Otter sightings just kept getting better and better. We saw well over a 300 individuals with many mother and pup pairs. Some were quite curious of the ship as it approached, allowing us to get some great views and some good photographs.
As we passed through the strait we saw the small settlement of Severo-Kurilsk where there is a border guard station and fishing port. There were several vessels anchored in the vicinity, some looking decidedly worse for wear and hardly seaworthy. There were also several wrecks washed up on the shores; probably a legacy of the tsunami that swept through here in the 1950s. As we came out the other side of the strait, the large volcano that dominates Atlasova Island came into view. We set off, en-route to Onekotan Island.
Day 14: 22 September
Onekotan Island, Ekarma Island
We arrived at the anchorage at Onekotan just on dawn and after an early breakfast Rodney gave us a briefing on what we might expect at this landing. With everyone ashore safely we made our way up the beach and onto the overgrown road that now serves as the track to the lake. Most people made the relatively easy walk in an hour or so with the sun starting to appear. Some brave souls went for a swim while others just wandered around the water’s edge looking for birds and any other wildlife they could find. A couple of people saw one of the resident Red Foxes and there was also a pair of Peregrine Falcons spotted hunting above the cliffs near the landing. By mid-morning everybody had made their way back to the beach and we were soon all back onboard the ship. We immediately set sail to the south, heading down the west coast of Onekotan Island in the Sea of Okhotsk.
The sun was shining as we made our way through the early afternoon and there was plenty of wildlife around, with Northern Fulmars and cetacean sightings being the highlight; a large male Sperm Whale passed within 30m of the ship. As Ekarma Island loomed in the distance the number of Northern Fulmars began to increase until there were literally thousands around the vessel as we came within a few miles of the island. Even though it was a little windy with the occasional squall passing through, over half of the group elected to go on the Zodiac cruise of the bird cliffs and three Zodiacs were launched, heading to the southern end. The sun came out soon after and it was a beautiful afternoon close into the cliffs as we made our way through the kelp. We saw several Steller Sea Lions along the way, one of them a large adult bull that surfaced within metres of the Zodiacs. As we slowly headed north up the coast there were Red-faced Cormorants in full breeding plumage; at least three pairs of Peregrine Falcons; Grey and White Wagtails; Tufted and Horned Puffins and of course, thousands of Northern Fulmars. As we approached the northern headland, the clouds over the skyline resolved themselves into countless birds wheeling and calling, the sheer magnitude nearly overwhelming the senses. We sat underneath these birds for nearly an hour, our reverie only interrupted by a fierce hail storm that briefly came and went. With the light fading we eventually made our way back to the ship, which was bathed in a beautiful rainbow after the storm. Those back on board also had some great wildlife experiences, with Steller Sea Lions playing round the ship for most of the afternoon.
Day 15: 23 September
Yankicha Caldera, Simushir Island
It was a rocky night with the swell on our beam for much of it and only a few lulls as we came around the inside of some of the islands. We awoke early to Yankicha Island looming in the distance and after breakfast Rodney gave us a briefing on what we were going to attempt to do. The Zodiacs were launched and we were soon headed towards the northern tip of the island. We saw some seals in the water on the way in and, as we approached land, we could also see that there were Northern Fur Seals on the beach. Thick kelp prevented us from getting too close and we turned around and headed south towards the entrance of the caldera.
The swell was big. As we came around the headland and climbed up some of the steep faces of the larger waves we realised that the entrance may not be possible. Nevertheless we slowly made our way around the corner and with our drivers skilfully negotiating the bigger sets we got within 50m of the entrance. While it may have been possible to get in safely, getting out would have been a completely different story and so Rodney reluctantly decided to abandon the attempt. We slowly headed back out to sea, and then were able to pick up speed and surf the swells back to the ship. The Captain had the anchor raised soon after and we continued our journey south: next stop Simushir Island.
As we made our way towards the islands, the wind and swell didn’t abate and we weren’t sure if launching the Zodiacs would be possible. Still as we approached Rodney, Aleks and the Captain carefully surveyed the waters closer inshore. Finally, as the Captain came in as close as he dared, Rodney decided that launching would be possible and three boats were put in the water soon after. We drove headlong into the wind, but as we rounded the corner and came into the caldera it was much more sheltered and we had a smooth final ride to the shores of the small settlement. Upon landing, everybody went their separate ways as there were so many things of interest to see; it had been a Cold War outpost and served as a major submarine base in its day. By early evening we started to head back to the ship and were back on board in time to have a shower and pre-dinner drinks. The swell seemed to be slowly abating and everybody was hopeful of a good night’s sleep.
Day 16: 24 September
At sea, Iturup
It was a quiet day at sea in the morning, with the activities for the day starting with a very interesting lecture by Aleks on Polar Landscapes in a Changing World. Just before lunch the island of Iturup began to become clearer and we were soon anchored, with Rodney giving us a briefing on the activities planned for the afternoon. Once ashore we all piled into the truck and headed up to the hot springs. It was a beautiful place and everybody thoroughly enjoyed soaking in the soothing hot waters or just relaxing up there for a couple of hours. One of the highlights had to be the new species of ‘sea otter’ that were spotted in the bubbling waters.
Eventually it came time to leave and we piled back into the bus and back to the beach where Aleks, Rodney and Costa were waiting for us in the Zodiacs. Back onboard for pre-dinner drinks and another delicious dinner we called it a night.
Day 17: 25 September
Most of the day was spent sorting out last minute things before the end of the trip. Justine gave us a presentation and held a workshop on plant identification and later Rodney held an Expedition Recap in the lecture room where he recounted our exploits over the last 17 days, followed by Aleks who gave us a visual recap of images taken during the trip.
In the afternoon we settled accounts and packed up our belongings before heading to our final pre-dinner drinks. Nicki and Brad put on a superb final meal in buffet-style for dinner which everybody thoroughly enjoyed.
A voyage of discovery - new sights, new sounds, and new friends. This voyage will live on in the minds of those who were aboard the Spirit of Enderby as a 'Jewel' in their memory - the Jewel of the Russian Far East
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" The Heritage Expeditions' Jewel of the Russia Far East this September 2015, was the 4th voyage I have had the pleasure to be part of in almost as many years. Previous voyages have been to Wrangel Island, In the Wake of Scott & Shackleton and an expedition to the remote Bounty & Antipodes Islands and the Chatham Islands archipelago. Each has been led by Rodney whose Passion and Professionalism, his 'down to earth' approach, his humour and paramount safety towards his passengers is world class. These wonderful skills have been carefully nurtured into his team who too, are outstanding in their hands-on knowledge of various scientific/ boating/photography/ safety/bar tending/wildlife spotting/visual presenting and lecturing and working all hours to make each voyage a success and more importantly, a truly wonderful and memorable experience for each and every passenger on board. Rodney and his team promise many zodiac landings and cruising and they deliver consistently. The supporting Russian crew keep the boat running smoothly despite some heavy seas at times. The bridge (but not the bar) is practically open 24/7. When sailing, expeditioners are encouraged to get out on the various deck levels to make the most of glorious sunsets and whale blows, drifting rafts of migrating and nesting seabirds, stupendous birding cliffs and the mirrored images of calm seas, while inhaling the mouth-watering aromas of the preparation of breakfast, lunch and dinner, drifting up from the galley. I encourage future voyagers to bring a healthy appetite with you, because as us returning voyagers know and have experienced, the food is honest and downright delicious! The cellar is generally well stocked with excellent New Zealand and (some) Australian wines, although the Wrangel Island voyagers before our follow-on trip, practically drank the cellar dry! So it was a hasty restock of whatever wines could be bought in Chukotka.
The boats sailed on these outstanding expeditions are comfortable and are ideal for the number of passengers on board. There is practically no waiting to board zodiacs, and Rodney encourages everybody to take part, no matter the age and 99% of the time, anyone with a disability.
The Jewel of the Russia Far East trip was simply gorgeous, no matter the odd drizzly day or the blinding sun rays bouncing off satin smooth seas. Autumn had arrived and the immense acres of the tundra were ablaze with tones of reds, oranges, yellows, greys, greens, purples, enhanced by the mottled hues of rocky terrains. We were treading on canopy roofs of miniature forests, in most cases no taller than our ankles, the ancient and slow growing berry plants dripping with blue berries, snow berries, cranberries, sweet feasts for bears and birds alike.
The seascapes and landscapes, the wildlife, the isolation, the abandoned vehicles and weather stations from another time, the welcoming small villages and inhabitants are a photographer's heaven. Botanists and non botanists alike are seduced by the tiniest of flowers making a one last brave show before the winter blasts. Birders can add to their lists of birds spotted. Everyone on board can enjoy the textures, the visual and emotional senses truly sated, the outstanding beauty of this truly remote and little visited area of the the planet.
Thank you Rodney and Katya and your team on board.
Now to the 'office people' the team who work so hard behind the scenes, who co-ordinate the bookings, the chartered airline tickets, the letters of invite and Russian visa challenges, the emails, the correspondence and the list goes on, a huge Thank you to you all.
Are my husband and I returning for another Heritage Expeditions voyage? The answer is a resounding YES, to the one we have been waiting and hoping for, the NE Passage 2016.
" I want to recognise the excellent experience I had during this trip, well done to the whole team on board and remote support team in NZ.
Additionally, I want to share with Rodney the fantastic support we got from the local Russian partner in PK: whilst we were waiting for 12 hours for our flight, she offered generously to stay at her apartment including nice tea and snacks.
This kind of personal initiative makes really the difference and I would appreciate if you could forward this to Rodney.
For sure I will promote your agency to whoever wants to experience this unique trip.
" Personal highlights were Walrus(es), Brown Bear encounters, a fly-by Short-tailed Albatross, meeting many new people, and two visits to Russian Orthodox churches. "
" The cruise was excellent and everyone on the ship did a great job. I'm very pleased with everything, from the food to the zodiac cruises. We all had an amazing experience and brought home memories that will last for the rest of our lives. "
" “First of all, thank you again for the trip of a lifetime! I found it all so enjoyable and really appreciated your organization and care… I would just love to travel with you again.” "
" “The wildlife we saw will stay in my memories forever”. "
" Amazing beautiful places … what more to life is there "
" We have just returned from the superb expedition on the Spirit of Enderby in Kamchatka. We cannot thank the 'on board' team enough...but hope our words have led them to realise our appreciation! "