Perhaps no other sea in the world has witnessed as much human suffering and misery as the Sea Okhotsk. Between 1932 and 1953 it is estimated that over 3 million prisoners (the vast majority of them innocent) were transported across the Sea Okhotsk to the Gulags of the Kolyma Goldfields. It is estimated that only five hundred thousand of those prisoners survived to make the journey home. The town and port of Magadan were built to process these prisoners.
The upper regions of the Sea of Okhotsk remain frozen for much of the year and winter storms make it an inhospitable place. However the lure of a rich fishery and more recently oil and gas discoveries means this sea is still being exploited, so nothing has changed there. In 1854 no fewer than 160 American and British whaling ships were there, hunting whales. Despite this seemingly relentless exploitation the wildlife thrives, including the beautifully marked and rare Ribbon Seals. On three small islands within this sea hundreds of Steller Sea Lions haul out each year to breed. One of these, Tyulenly Island, also is home to one of the largest concentrations and breeding colonies of Northern Fur Seals in the Russian Far East.
Seabird numbers in the Sea of Okhotsk can only be described as spectacular. There are islands like Talan where the sky darkens when the Crested Auklets start massing offshore of an evening. Other birds include guillemots, puffins, auklets and fulmars. But the richness of birdlife is not restricted to pelagic species. The Sea of Okhotsk has one of the highest concentrations of the majestic Steller's Sea Eagle of anywhere in the Russian Far East. Waterfowl are common as are many migratory species. Harder to see but not uncommon on this expedition are the magnificent Kamchatka Brown Bear and other mammals such as the Arctic Ground Squirrel.
This is a truly unique journey in that it travels through a little known and seldom visited region. A region with a rich history and very significant and important wildlife values, both terrestrial and marine. There are still discoveries to be made and so for the inquisitive, adventurous and open minded traveller this is a ‘must do' expedition.
Pre/Post cruise transfers, all on board ship accommodation, meals and all expedition shore excursions, excluding optional kayaking programme.
All items of a personal nature, laundry, drinks, gratuities. International/domestic flights, visas and travel insurance.
Kayaking Supplement: $995
(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.
Day One – 11 June 2014 – Departure and at Sea
Position at 13:00 – 46º 37 N 142º 45 E
The majority of our expedition party had spent many hours and in some cases many days journeying across the world before convening in the city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. This morning the group met up in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and bundled into a bus to journey south to the Port of Korsakov and join the ship, meeting up with Ann, Lynn and Heather who had joined the ship two weeks earlier in Petropavlosk-Kamschatskiy and were now continuing their adventure further west.
Logs awaiting their destination at the Port of Korsakov. © Alex Fergus
We were aboard shortly before 13:00 and with formalities completed our captain began repositioning our ship the Professor Khromov before beginning the steam south and out of Aniva Bay. Folks spent the early afternoon settling into their cabins, exploring the ship and watching the ever-diminishing coastline of Sakhalin Island. At 16:00 Rodney summoned us down to the Lecture Room for an introduction to the staff, the ship, a general safety briefing and the all-important introduction to the use of the Zodiacs. At 18:00 the abandon ship emergency sirens rang and folks marched to their respective life boats and piled on in. The Russian crew rumbled the engines into action and we got a glimpse of how trying lifeboat conditions might be if we ever needed to use them. Shortly afterwards, under a falling cloak of fog, the ship rounded Cape Aniva and we began our run up the east coast of Sahkalin Island. Bruce and Jimmy treated us to the first of many fantastic evening meals and a small avian-enthused complement joined Chris in the bar in the late evening for the reading of the bird log as we continued north and east towards our first destination of Tyuleniy Island.
Position at 18:00 – 45º 57 N 143º 17 E
Chris’s top three birds for the day:
Mammal of the day:
Day Two – 12 June 2014 – Tyuleniy Island
Position at 06:00 – 47º56 N 144º24 E
Overnight we continued steaming up the eastern coast of Sahkalin, staying well off the coast in order to avoid the shallow waters that surround the island. Shortly after breakfast we approached the island of Tyuleniy. Tyuleniy sits at almost the eastern extremity of Sahkalin, beyond Terpeniya Cape at the very tip of the Terpeniya Peninsula. A gusting north north-west wind had begun catching the tops of the already heavy, rolling swell, indicating that today we would not get the opportunity to get off the ship and explore the island. We approached the south west corner of the Tyuleniy and could distinguish through the mists the shape of the island, noting a low plateau to the south and west littered with Steller Sea Lions and the research station (built to monitor the Sea Lions) positioned on the higher, rocky, northern end of the island. Hundreds of common Guillemots, Pelagic Cormorants and Black-Legged Kittiwakes hovered around the ship as we turned away from the island and began our course north to Pil’tun Bay.
A cup of tea later we joined Leonid and Karina in the Lecture Room for a presentation about the indigenous people of the Russian Far East. Leonid explained the different main groups of people across the different geographic components of the region. He touched on some of their traditions and their origins, including speculating on the origin of the mysterious Ainu people who have been present in this part of the world for upward of 7000 years.
In the middle of the afternoon Chris delivered a lecture providing an introduction to the seabirds of the Okhotsk Sea. He described the geography of the region, its immense size, the variation in climate and the fact that we were heading into one of the best areas in the world for observing representatives of the Auk group with11 species of Alcid up for grabs (at least in terms of observation). Beyond the Auks, Chris covered the Albatrosses, Shearwaters and Petrels, Gulls, Skuas and Terns, and finally the Cormorants, Sea Ducks and Phalaropes.
Position at 18:00 – 49º51 N 144º17 E
Chris’s top three birds for the day:
Mammal of the day:
Steller Sea Lion
Day Three – 13 June 2014 - Pil’tun Bay
Position at 06:00 – 52º 15 N 143º 54 E
After breakfast Alex introduced the plants and the ecology of flora of the Sakhalin and Okhotsk region. He discussed the factors controlling the distribution of species in this region and some key morphological traits useful for identification before ending with a selection of some of the fantastic species we might see. Rodney then took over with a briefing about the morning’s activities which included a Zodiac cruise, a Gray Whale search off the coast of Pil’tun Bay and a potential landing in the bay itself. The Gray Whale population here Rodney explained, is a bit of mystery. It is not clear if the whales in Pil’tun Bay represent a distinct population aligned with eastern or western populations of Grey Whales.
By 11:30 the Zodiacs were in the water and we were patrolling the heavy swell for Gray Whales. A Gray surfaced just ten metres in front of Chris’s Zodiac and released its blow of air. A few more of these inshore bottom-feeders could be seen amongst the swell, but with turbid water almost matching the colour of the whales, distinguishing them was not always easy. We headed inshore, skirting sandbanks and breaking swell as we got close to the mouth of the bay. Hundreds of Harbour Seals regarded us curiously as they bobbed about in the lumpiest patches of sea, while the greatest congregation could be seen once we finally reached calmer waters in a southern arm of the bay. Good numbers of Steller’s Sea Eagles could be seen on the muddy banks and there were some fantastic opportunities to snap Aleutian Terns in action feeding in the bay. Meanwhile Judd and his kayaking crew had ventured unknowingly into the fog offshore, where they could smell the breath of Steller’s Sea Lions and Gray Whales before they could see them, making for an interesting paddle. They eventually came within and arms reach of both species!
We landed the Zodiacs and plodded across a muddy beach to the raised, vegetated plateau beyond. Some folks joined Chris in the Stone Pine (Pinus pumila) searching for the Pine Grosbeak, while others took the opportunity to climb up the belly of the lighthouse and look out over the breaking fog. After a short time we boarded the Zodiacs once more and headed back toward the mouth of the bay, where the breaking swell made for what would be our most interesting Zodiac escapade of the expedition. By 15:00, perhaps a little later than we had hoped, we were back on board the ship for a late lunch. The afternoon was whiled away downloading photos and reading before the bar opened and dinner was served. As we retired the captain pushed the ship north and west, in the direction of Iony Island, a tiny speck all alone in the middle of the Okhotsk Sea.
Late morning: Sakhalin Island, Piltun Bay. Conditions were overcast and very foggy at times with 5-10 knots of wind. Very exposed anchorage with 1-2m swell. We paddled west to the shoreline and followed it south looking for Gray Whales. There was too much swell on the bar for us to get through so we continued south before returning to the ship. One Gray Whale was seen in the distance, one Steller Sea Lion in the water very close to us. There were loads of Harbour Seals around too.
Meghan gazes longingly out to sea – from her rusting lighthouse retreat. © Alex Fergus
Position at 18:00 – 53º 22 N 143º 26 E
Chris’s top three birds for the day:
Mammal of the day:
Day Four – 14 June 2014 – Iony Island
Position at 06:00 – 55º 80 N 143º 23 E
We enjoyed a late breakfast today at 08:00 while the ship continued to punch north and eastward at 13 knots toward Iony Island. A large patch of ice had been spotted in the early hours, boding well for our ice search the following day. By 10:00 the Zodiacs were disappearing into the mists again, following a bearing from the captain towards a rocky isle a few nautical miles from the ship. Iony Island appears to be a granitic intrusion and is really just an isolated speck in the ocean as there is nothing else for 150 nautical miles in any direction. We preceded to circumnavigate the island in the Zodiacs, exploring rocky inlets, following floating rafts of Least, Crested, Parakeet and Whiskered Auklets while being in awe of the massive size of the bull Steller Sea Lions studded on rock promontories around the island.
Kosta and the Cossacks – Dwarfed by a bull Steller Sea Lion. © Alex Fergus
We were all back on board by 12:15, had lunched within the hour and were ready for an afternoon of entertaining education at the hands of Evgeny and Fabrice. Evgeny introduced us to the topic of the East Asian Flyway, one of eight key global flyways, and the massive declines in migratory birds along the flyway. Evgeny explained the issues of management of a flyway and touched on a number of bird species that have undergone horrendous population declines due to habitat loss in one or more parts of the flyway. Evgeny told us about one of the species he has been working on with the support of Heritage Expeditions. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper, a species that breeds north of here along the Chukotka Coast, currently only numbers about 100 pairs. The situation is obviously dire, but there is hope with a captive rearing programme and education programmes along the East-Asian – Australasian flyway to save this species.
In the middle of the afternoon Fabrice took over from Evgeny and moved the theme from avian to historical. Fabrice delivered the first of a two-part (cliff-hanger) presentation about Vitus Bering and his great expeditions. Fabrice nested Bering’s Great Northern Expeditions in the historical understanding of the time, both in terms of geography and life sciences. We came to know Georg Steller and the officers of the St Peter and St Paul as one tragedy followed another. At the end of Part One, Bering’s wounded ship is limping toward the Commander Islands, scurvy is rife, the outlook grim… Our own ship was now heading south and west, toward the Shantar Archipelgo, our destination for the next two days.
Position at 18:00 – 56º 00 N 141º 41 E
Chris’s top three birds for the day:
Mammal of the day:
Steller Sea Lion
Morning: Iony Island. Conditions were very foggy but no real wind. Large swell and we were dropped off adrift. We paddled about a NM to get to the island then circumnavigated it clockwise twice before returning to the ship. Dozens of Steller Sea Lions on the rocks and in the water around and under kayaks and four types of Auklet and many other birds nesting on the island. Some current running from the east.
1 kayaker, 10.7km
Day Five – 15 June 2014 – the Shantar Archipelago
Position at 06:00 – 55º12 N 139º10 E
We awoke to overcast weather, poor visibility, wind gusting onto the shore, no birds and no seals; a despairing start to a day that could only improve. A swell out of the north east determined that the bay we had hoped to explore on the northern coast of Bol’shoy Island, the largest island in the Shantar Archipelago, was out of the question, so we headed south along the west coast of the Island following the straight between Bol’shoy and Feklistova Islands. After breakfast we joined Rodney in the Lecture Room for a briefing about the day’s activities and the Shantar Archipelago in general. Our current weather stymy he explained was the result of a high pressure system north of us, between Magadan and Kamchatka, pinning down a low pressure system in the south west corner of the Sea of Okhotsk. Moving north should alleviate this, but currently his intention was to explore the archipelago which was new territory for Heritage Expeditions. In the past pack ice had remained around the archipelago until early July, so Heritage had been unable to move as far south in previous years to truly explore these islands.
The weather began to ease by mid morning and to the south the two islands of the Utichy group could be seen, while to the east we could make out the conifer dominated coast of Bol’shoy Island. We rounded the southern peninsula of the western ark of Yakshina Guba, a protected gulf on the south of the island. On the hillsides above us a strongly defined ecotone (boundary between two vegetation classes or habitats) separating meadow from forest was easily seen. This ecological phenomenon is most likely driven by temperature and in this case the likely cause was extreme winds coming up off the ocean onto the southern edge of the coast.
In the early afternoon we took five Zodiacs across the calm waters of Yakshina Guba. Once ashore we split into four groups. Chris’s birding team followed the track along the ecotone between the delta and the forest, and then headed deeper in to the forest and followed a stream towards the interior of the island. The Russian team headed to the river, crossed tundra and then returned along the shore. Likewise the French team aimed for the river, in search of a pair of nesting Steller’s Sea Eagles. The final group with Alex were officially the botanists, but would perhaps be better described as seekers of the most varied natural history experience. They headed up into the forest where they followed a bear track along the edge of the coastal cliffs, through the most beautiful Larch and Spruce forest that continuously opened in dips and troughs into colour flushes of purple Oxytropes and Beach Peas, flashes of white Lapland Cornel, yellow and red crowns of Roseroot stonecrops (Rhodiola). They returned along the coastal cliffs and followed another bear path along the delta – forest boundary, until finding a small hut and the remnants of what appeared to be some sort of hay-cutting setup. The walk continued further along the wetland edge until they reached an open swathe of grassland, where eagles could be seen nesting in the distance, while frogs and mounds of ants’ nest surrounded the feet.
The seekers of the most varied natural history experience at the Larch-forest edge overlooking Yakshina Gulf. © Alex Fergus
The Okhotsk Clematis (Atragene ochotensis) - a fantastic purple-flowered climber seen sprawling, in flower, over the mixed Larch and Spruce forest floor of Bol’Shoy Shantar.
After dinner Rodney announced that ice had been found on the radar and small pieces could now be seen in the water around the ship. As we were now in heavy fog, with only a few metres of visibility, this was not a tenable position for the ship for the evening. The Captain began to move the Spirit of Enderby north a few miles, where we would drift overnight and return to the ice boundary at 05:00.
Position at 18:00 – 54º35 N 137º39 E
Chris’s top three birds for the day:
Mammal of the day:
Alex’s plant of the day:
Atragene ochotensis – Okhotsk Clematis.
Day Six – 16 June 2014 – Seal Passage (Proliy Lindgorma)
Position at 06:00 – 54º18 N 138º10 E
When we woke that morning there was ice around the ship and early risers were rewarded with the first sighting at 07:00 of a Ribbon Seal on ice around the ship. Within fifteen minutes more animals were seen both to port and starboard. Captain Alexander continued to push the ship south into the ice until 09:30 when we reached our southernmost limit in Akademii Bay.
The Professor Khromov amid ice. © Alex Fergus
The Captain turned the ship and we followed a different route out of the bay and the archipelago. Rodney had suggested to the Captain to exit via the passage (Proliy Lindgorma) between Seneka Point (a peninsula off the mainland) and two islands to the north, Malyy Shantar and Belichky. Soon after lunchtime Ribbon Seals had once again appeared around the ship and as we wound through the ice over the next three hours, hundreds more were seen. Best estimates by our various counters place the afternoons tally at 350+ Ribbon Seals, 350+ Largha Seals, 40+ Bearded Seals and 30+ Ringed Seals!
One of the 350 or so Ribbon Seals we encountered on our afternoon in Seal Passage. © Alex Fergus
A truly phenomenal afternoon was spent spotting the four ice seal species on the ice floes around the ship, with 57 individuals seen on a single floe. Shortly after 16:00 we broke clear of the ice and continued north to Feklistova Island, where a small exploratory party landed in the early evening. By 20:45 the ships anchors were up and we were heading toward the Mal’minskiye Islands to our north.
Position at 18:00 – 54º43 N 137º03 E
Chris’s top three birds for the day:
Mammal of the day:
Ribbon and Bearded Seals (first equal).
Day Seven – 17 June 2014 – Mal’minskiye Islands
Position at 06:00 – 56º13 N 138º06 E
Overnight we had moved from sea ice and heavy fog to a calm, clear, balmy (8.5ºC) morning as we followed the undulating coast of the mainland north. Shortly after breakfast we met with Rodney in the Lecture Room for an outline of the day ahead in the Mal’minskiye Island group. This small group of offshore islands lies between L’gotnyy Point in the south and Nurki Point in the north of the mainland. Rodney introduced us to the island group while Evgeny expanded on the level of protection these islands have as part of the Dzhugdzhursky Zapovednik Federal Reserve and the generalities of reserve systems in Russia. Around 09:00 all five Zodiacs were in the water and we were heading towards the masses of rock that make up the eastern most of the islands. Good numbers of Tufted Puffins, Spectacled Guillemots and Parakeet Auklets were seen at sea before we surveyed the jagged coasts of the small rocky islets.
One of the rocky islets making up the Mal’minskiye Island group. © Alex Fergus
Tufted Puffin near the largest of the Mal’minskiye Islands. © Alex Fergus
We went ashore on a gravel spit to the west of the largest of the Mal’minskiye Islands to explore a small patch of coastline and to observe the Tufted Puffins nesting atop columnar rock slabs above the beach edge. A small patch of birch forest held together a steep slope on the south-west of the island, while another spit of gravel extended westward into the sea. Judd and his kayak squad pulled ashore for a quick cricket match, before we all returned to the ship.
At 12:30 two engines roared into action and we were away north toward Okhotsk. In the afternoon Meghan opened the sea shop before Fabrice delivered Part Two of his story on the adventures of Bering in the late afternoon. In this final espisode Bering immediately perished, Steller came into his own finally having the opportunity to discover and describe new species and the remnants of the expedition finally returned to Petropavlosk-Kamschatskiy.
Morning: Malminskie Islands. Conditions were calm and sunny, with a very large swell at a very exposed anchorage. One knot current from the south. We paddled to the islands and circumnavigated them anti-clockwise. We had a stop on one of them that had a sandy spit and returned to the ship. Large numbers of Tufted Puffins, Speckled Gullimonts and some Horned Puffins. Some Harbour Seals in the water and onshore.
3 kayakers, 8.5km
Chris’s top three birds for the day:
Mammal of the day:
Position at 18:00 – 57º23 N 139º51 E
Day Eight – 18 June 2014 – Okhotsk
Position at 06:00 – 59º11 N 143º06 E
An early breakfast saw us all in the Lecture Room by 07:15 where Rodney held a briefing about the unashamedly history-focused day ahead in the seaside town of Okhotsk. Within half an hour we were in the Zodiacs heading towards the mouth of the estuary that leads to Okhotsk town. After negotiating the bar with some local assistance we landed to find a small crowd amassed to welcome us. Our visit began with dancing from a local troupe followed by a breaking of bread of sorts, before we made our way to the museum via a number of local monuments.
Our welcome in Okhotsk. © Alex Fergus
We crossed Lenin Square and met Viktor Morokov, the director of the museum who took us on a tour of the natural and human-history based exhibits which included information about the indigenous people, Bering and the more recent history of the region. We then headed back into town to the cultural centre of Okhotsk. There we were warmly greeted with more baked goods before being invited to tie a ceremonial ribbon around a larch in the hope of our wishes coming true.
The Larch-wish ceremony. © Alex Fergus
One of the fantastic local dance troupes. © Alex Fergus
We visited the cultural museum where we were treated to a local dish similar to crepes before settling in for a wonderful cultural performance. This featured multiple local dance troupes and singers, who showed off their great talents and showed their joy in performing for us. From indigenous themes such as fox-chases to Cossack classics, we were treated to a huge variety of song and dance encouraging many of our complement to join in. We returned to the ship, via a quick herring bag grab courtesy of Leonid and Evgeny, abuzz with cultural richness. A minor blip in the afternoon saw a lecture replaced with essential Zodiac repairs as we changed track and began heading east for Talin Island.
Position at 18:00 – 59º13 N 144º46 E
Chris’s top three birds for the day:
Mammal of the day:
Day Nine – 19 June 2014 – Talin Island
Position at 06:00 – 59º19 N 149º02 E
Mercifully, the pea-soup fog surrounding the ship at 04:00 dictated that the majority of us would remain happily asleep until 05:00, by which time the clag hanging over the island had abated. By 05:30 those who had emerged from their cabins were aboard the Zodiacs and making a line for Talin Island, the home of hundreds of thousands of Crested Auklets. Across the dawn skies flurries of Crested Auklets flickered directionally like snow, while a pack of eight Steller’s Sea Eagles proceeded to harangue the resident population of Black-Footed Kittwakes. We circumnavigated the island before landing near the researchers hut and taking some time to get a more personal feeling for the island, be it from ferny slopes amid Horned Puffin nests or from the coastal rocky beaches watching the fans of puffins and auklets sway between land and sea.
Back on the ship we set sail for the Koni Peninsula and mid-afternoon in the Lecture Room Chris introduced us to the Migratory Birds of the Far East. He ran through the migratory seabirds, shorebirds and landbirds in this part of the world, explaining the reason why each species migrates, be it for food, to moult or to breed, and where many of them come from or go to. Later in the afternoon Rodney took over the Lecture Room and relayed one of the saddest chapters in the history of the Okhotsk region, the time of the Gulag system. Rodney provided us with a background to the Gulags, the evolving groups targeted as political prisoners and the system and its purpose as it was established in this area. It was hugely valuable to have this background to the legacy of sorrow that dominates recent history in the Okhotsk region. The melancholy of this sombre presentation was lifted however by the opening of the bar before dinner. At 18:36 Chris’s voice resounded with glee across the ship’s PA system as an immature Short-Tailed Albatross was spotted near the bow, 1770 nautical miles from its home of Torishima Island to the south. The highlight of the evening was the appearance of a celebrity chef in the form of Leonid, who delivered on the haul of (someone else’s) herring acquired the previous day.
Early Morning: Talan Island. Five knots of wind and overcast. There was some current between the island and the coast running south on the outgoing tide. We circumnavigated Talon Island anti-clockwise. Heaps of Horned and Tufted Puffins and Crested Auklets in the air and on the water. Nice cliffs.
1 Kayaker, 11.1km
Crested Auklets at Talin Island. © Alex Fergus
Fabrice and his Tufted Puffin. © Alex Fergus
Position at 18:00 – 58º47 N 151º34 E
Chris’s top three birds for the day:
Mammal of the day:
Day Ten – 20 June 2014 – Harlankina River and Yamskiye Islands
Position at 06:00 – 59º11 N 154º49 E
On the heels of breakfast came the briefing for our very action-packed day. We would begin with a landing at Harlankina River before continuing on to the Yamskiye Islands. On our clearest, crispest, most summery morning yet, we headed towards the beach at the mouth of the Harlankina River. In three groups we wandered in the direction of bird life, photographic wonders, or upwards in search of views. While Fabrice and Chris’s groups wandered along the true right of the river, Alex’s team followed a bear track across multiple habitat types and advanced to an open summit looking down onto the bay below.
Team faster, longer, higher. © Alex Fergus
As they attained the targeted summit news came via radio that the teams below had spotted bears and within a few minutes Meghan had one on her heels as she beat a track to the beach. Helena breathlessly relayed this news to us but we were helpless to give assistance being some 300 vertical metres above her, watching the procession. Fortunately everything ended well. We wandered back down hill, spying Pika amongst the rocks as we walked, as well as some incredible plant life. Everyone was back aboard for lunch as the ship steamed towards the Yamskiye Islands.
Pika at Harlankina River. © Alex Fergus
Exotic Bleeding Heart – Dicentra peregrina – a very rare Far Eastern species limited to open disturbed habitat (Harlankina River). © Alex Fergus
We arrived at the Yamskiye Island group by mid afternoon and began exploring the coast of the largest of the Yamskiye Islands by Zodiac and kayak. Angular volcanic towers, buttresses and arches created a fantastic craggy coastline to explore as we made our way to the Steller Sea Lion colony where something incredible happened. We maintained our distance from the colony in order not to disturb the animals, but within minutes the water around our craft began to murmur as Sea Lions advanced upon the Zodiacs in a frenzied, frothing armada. For the next few hours we watched in awe as time and time again great groups rose in the water around us, barking with curiosity, often porpoising beside us. We finally managed to tear ourselves away and explore a little more of the coast before coming to the joint decision that we would briefly return to the ship before spending the evening around the islands. Before 19:00 we had returned to the largest of Yamskiye Islands and begun a circumnavigation from the east. As the light began to fade, ever increasing flotillas of Crested and Least Auklets began amassing on the calm coastal waters around the island. As the sun began to set, the air around us was alive with twisting flocks toing and froing above the islands rock spires and open grassy swathes. We returned to the ship for a late night feast and a mental rest, a chance to start to digest the natural history phenomena provided by both the bird and mammal life on the Yamskiye Islands.
Steller Sea Lions a froth with play around the Yamskiye Iskands. © Alex Fergus
Position at 18:00 – 59º19 N 155º51 E
Afternoon: Yamskiye Islands and Matykil Island. Conditions were flat calm with 4 to 5 knots of current running to the east along Matykil Island. We ferry glided from the ship adrift to an eddy behind a large rock, then headed around the eastern side of the island out of the current. We paddled into a large cave then around to the Steller Sea Lion haul out. Had a mad experience with Sea Lions all around and under the kayaks. Eddy hopped back to the ship.
3 Kayakers, 9.6km
Chris’s top three birds for the day:
Mammals of the day (from the kayak crew):
Stellers Sea Lions, and in second place, because they’re so damn cute, Northern Pika.
Alex’s plant of the day:
Dicentra peregrina - Exotic Bleeding Heart
Day Eleven – 21 June 2014 – Astronomicheskaya Bay, Koni Peninsula
Position at 06:00 – 59º03 N 153º31 E
An early start to a wonderfully calm and sunny Saturday morning. We dropped anchor outside Astronomicheskaya Bay at 06:30 and two hours later we were cruising the shores of the bay in search of Brown Bear on our last landing for the voyage. In the distance two cubs could be seen skiddooing over patches of snow while mama bear looked on. We edged our way around the rocks towards a small cove where we landed and split into our four groups. Chris and Fabrice headed towards the forest, while Meghan and Alex led a group to a rocky outcrop. A completely different landscape greeted us today. This ranged from tundra with many different species to open Larch forest which provides good nesting habitat for both the Steller’s Sea Eagle, (documented on the nest here) and a very pale Rough-Legged Buzzard some short distance away. Back on board the ship the afternoon comprised of lunch, the settling of accounts and the packing of bags. In the late afternoon Rodney called us all down to the Lecture Room for a disembarkation briefing and an expedition recap. Meghan had assembled a magnificent slideshow of staff photographs which served to remind us how fortunate we had all been to share in the natural and cultural history of this very remote part of the world. Bruce and Jimmy had prepared an enormous buffet feast for our last meal, which was capped on either end with bow-riding Dall’s Porpoise (the time of the meal, not the meal itself!). The reading of the final bird list and another slideshow complements of Nikolay ended another great day on the Sea of Okhotsk.
Morning: Koni Peninsula, Astronomicheskiy. Conditions were sunny with a little cloud coming through and up to 10 knots of wind by the end of the paddle. We paddled from the anchorage to the rocky coast NE of the entrance of the lagoon to see a bear and her three cubs. We then headed back past the entrance and had a stop on a beach. We then headed along the coast out to the far point and returned to the ship. One Bearded Seal on the rocks and two Steller’s Sea Eagles seen.
1 Kayaker, 12.2km
Total of 6 paddles for 63.5km
Pinguicula macroceros – Large-Spur Butterwort, an insect-eater found in wetter habitat types. © Alex Fergus
Larch forest at Astronomicheskaya Bay. © Alex Fergus
Position at 18:00 – 58º48 N 152º10 E
Chris’s top three birds for the day:
Alex’s plant of the day:
Pinguicula macroceros – Large-Spur Butterwort (an insectivorous delight).
Day Twelve – 22 June 2014 – Magadan, Disembarkation
With bags packed, we met for our final breakfast. At 08:00 the pilot boarded the ship and we entered the port of Magadan. Busses began to arrive shortly after breakfast and within an hour our company had disbanded and everyone headed off to their respective corners of the globe. Thanks to all for the camaraderie, the willingness to explore remote corners of the world and the passionate love of wild things in wild places.
Words and photos © Alex Fergus.
Sea of Okhostk Expedition Log 1324
5 - 21 June 2013
MV Spirit of Enderby/Professor Khromov
Click here to see the Species List for this voyage.
5 June 2013
Forty expeditioners from around the world converged in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and in the afternoon we headed from the main city in Sakhalin to the port of Korsakov where the Spirit of Enderby/Professor Kromov was waiting for us. We boarded the ship in eager anticipation for Heritage Expeditions second only expedition through the Sea of Okhostk, surely one of the world’s most rarely visited areas. Our vessel set sail shortly after we boarded and all were out on deck as the port of Korsakov faded into the distance. It was not long before we picked up our faithful following of Slaty-backed Gulls, Northern Fulmars and Black-legged Kittiwakes – birds that would escort us throughout our journey.
Shortly after we sailed, we were called to the Lecture Room by our Expedition Leader, Nathan Russ, where we received a ship orientation briefing and an introduction to the staff. This was followed by a safety briefing, Zodiac briefing and finally a lifeboat drill. Shortly afterwards we sat down to enjoy the first of many great dinners prepared by our chefs Lindsay and Dean. After a stroll around the decks it was time to turn in as we sailed northwards in very pleasant conditions.
Calm and clear conditions greeted us as we awoke in a sea of many thousands of moulting Short-tailed Shearwaters sitting on the surface with the snow capped hills of the east coast of Sakhalin Island in the background. Adam gave an introduction to the seabirds of the region and then we headed out on deck to practice our identification. The fog rolled in as we approached Tyuleniy Island, and it was difficult to see anything through the thick blanket of sea mist. We boarded the Zodiacs and set off in the direction of the islands, guided by our trusty GPS. Huge numbers of Common Murres indicated there must be land around somewhere and then it appeared out of the fog. As we approached a little closer we could see impressive numbers of Northern Fur Seals on the beach and even larger numbers of the massive Steller Sea Lions – the world’s largest sea lion. Common Murres and Black-legged Kittiwakes were perched on every available ledge, even the buildings.
Two seal researchers walked out on to the beach for a chat as we made our landing on this wonderful island just as the fog began to burn off – perfect! After spending a considerable amount of time on the beach soaking in the sight, smell and sound of so many birds and seals we were guided to numerous fenced viewing points which protected us from the fur seals. These provided perfect vantage points to revel in the unbelievable concentration of wildlife that occurs here. The commotion from the thousands of fur seals and sea lions was almost overwhelming. The place was teeming with life and every square inch of rock seemed to have either a Murre or Kittiwake sitting on it. We happily spent a couple of hours on this tiny island and had to drag ourselves away to the ship where a very late lunch awaited.
By now the fog had burned off enough that the ship was clearly visible and it was a very pleasant Zodiac ride back to the ship. Once back on-board, fed and watered, we resumed our northward course and Leonid gave a talk on the history of the region. Conditions remained excellent through the evening when it was time for a drink in the bar followed by a hearty dinner.
Excellent conditions continued as we continued northwards and we noticed some distant sea ice to the east as the snow capped mountains of Sakhalin lay to the west. The birding was excellent with good numbers of Aleutian Terns amongst the much more numerous Common Tern and also several of the very rare Long-billed Murrelet. Ancient Murrelets were particularly common and large numbers of Arctic Loon were also noted, often running along the water as the ship approached, but unable to fly. In the late morning we began to notice some of the oil platforms that controversially operate in this rich wildlife feeding area. After lunch we made our approach to Pil’tun Bay and came to anchor well off the coast in clear and calm conditions.
We had a long Zodiac run in to the shore as the waters off Pil’tun are very shallow. We noticed some Gray Whale blows in the distance, but decided to head for the shallow entrance to the lagoon and before long we were into the deeper waters of Pil’tun Lagoon. The first Steller’s Sea Eagle of the trip greeted us from the banks and there were many ducks inside the lagoon including Greater Scaup, Red-breasted Merganser, Black Scoter, Stejneger’s Scoter and Mallard. We landed in the area of the lighthouse which required a fairly long walk across muddy ground. Once on dry land we could spread out and climb up to the lighthouse which gave commanding views of the surrounding countryside. We also had a pleasant stroll around the scrubby Siberian Stone Pine and Alder vegetation that carpets the region. Pine Grosbeaks were plentiful and tame and the bright red males were lovely to watch. A couple Siberian Rubythroats were also noted.
On our return to the ship we were quite surprised to locate a small pod of Beluga Whales as we approached the river mouth. There were several adults and at least three dark gray calves and they allowed a reasonably close approach, on a couple of occasions lifting their heads out of the water to have a look at us. Leaving the Beluga in peace, we headed out to the area where four Gray Whales were feeding and had repeated excellent views of these spectacular animals. Pil’tun is probably the last remaining place on earth where one can expect to see the Western Gray Whale, so we counted ourselves extremely fortunate to have had such a great encounter with four of them.
We returned to the ship very content with a great afternoon and had a very enjoyable dinner as we journeyed towards the northern tip of Sakhalin.
Pack ice north of Sakhalin
The plan was to make an expedition landing in northern Sakhalin, but heavy bumps in the night (which started around 3 am) indicated we had entered some pack ice. The 5am sunrise was a glorious pink with the snow covered mountains of Sakhalin to the south and heavy pack ice extending around us in all directions. We enjoyed our first sightings of ice seals – numerous Largha Seals and a few Ringed Seals, along with a couple of Minke Whales. We had not anticipated such heavy pack ice in this region, so the decision was made to abandon another landing in Sakhalin and head north instead for Iony Island.
We soon found that the ice to the north was impenetrable, but did encounter our first male Ribbon Seal which caused great excitement. It allowed a wonderfully close approach and we were well pleased to have had such a good look at this, the most striking of seals, found only in the Sea of Okhotsk. Adam gave a presentation on the marine mammals we are likely to encounter and Leonid gave us a lecture on the exploration of the region, while the bridge team was kept busy throughout the day navigating through the ice. We slowly worked our way eastwards and southwards and although we did not get off the ship, it was still a wonderful day with the ever changing scenery of ice. It was exhilarating to feel the ship push its way through heavy floes, and we had some great wildlife sightings include several more Ribbon Seals. Just as we sat down to enjoy dinner we felt the telltale swell which told us we were back in open water and setting a course for Iony Island.
Early morning saw us in fog and swell and boarding Zodiacs to ride in towards Iony, again guided by our GPS. The fog was so heavy we could not see the land until we were within 100 meters of it, but conditions gradually improved over the two hours that we circumnavigated the island. This tiny speck of land in the middle of the Sea of Okhotsk is a haven for wildlife and has one of the densest concentrations of birds and seals of any where in the world. Steller Sea Lions were the most prominent component of the fauna. Females with their pups and the beach master bulls covered any rocky beach big enough to provide a haulout and even the sharp rocky pinnacles had big bulls perched on them. They roared and bellowed and followed us in the Zodiacs with a mix of curiosity and wariness. Kittiwakes and Thick-billed Murres covered the ledges and thousands of Fulmars circled above and around us, creating a blizzard-like effect. For the birders it was the presence of all four species of Auklet that made this place so unique – Crested, Least, Parakeet and Whiskered. The Whiskered Auklet is the rarest and most localised of the four, but on Iony it is very common and we saw hundreds of them, flying around, swimming on the water and clinging on to rocks low down where we could approach quite closely.
Sadly the time came to leave this assault to the senses and we reluctantly left the overpowering sights, sounds and smells of this magical island to find the ship again in the fog. Once back on-board we set a course for the Shantar Islands, which lay beyond the pack ice.
By lunchtime we had left the fog behind and entered a world of bright sunshine and heavy pack ice once again. We launched the Zodiacs for a couple hours of exploration amongst the loose pack. Hundreds of Fulmars and Kittiwakes swam around the boats and towards the end of the jaunt we located a very cute baby Ribbon Seal which allowed a close approach. Everyone enjoyed the novelty of feeling warm sunshine whilst surrounded by pack ice in the middle of the Sea of Okhotsk. We spent the rest of the day cruising along the ice edge and saw another male Ribbon Seal close by. We launched the Zodiacs and made a cautious approach, rowing the boats very close to this stunning seal and were rewarded with unbelievable views and photographs in the evening light. As we returned to the ship and set a course westwards we were treated to a spectacular sunset.
Breakfast time found us a couple hours out from the Malminskie Islands in clear water and bright sunshine, with the mountains fringing the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk stretched away to the north and south. Near to the islands two Steller’s Sea Eagles sat regally atop their high ice flows amongst the pack ice and we got some great photos from the Zodiacs. We then spent some time cruising around the islands in terrific light. This is another island packed with birdlife and here it is the huge concentration of hundreds of Spectacled Guillemots that is particularly noteworthy. Large numbers of Thick-billed Murre and Horned and Tufted Puffin were also seen before we headed across to the mainland for a landing in the bright sunshine. We had a couple of hours to stretch our legs and explore a small river valley and just the tiniest fraction of the endless Taiga forest (the largest forest in the world) that covers so much of Russia. Wildlife is shy in the Taiga, but we did see several more Steller’s Sea Eagles and even located a nest. A few people also saw Willow Ptarmigan and bear tracks along the beach. After enjoying the walk and the views we returned to the ship and sailed for some more pack ice.
We quickly encountered more Ribbon Seals which allowed a remarkably close approach by the ship, so more excellent photographs were obtained. We also located our first Bearded Seal which permitted us to sail right up to it for some excellent views and photographs. When it became apparent that there were in fact hundreds of seals around us on the ice of all four species found in this region – Ribbon, Bearded, Ringed and Largha – we turned off the engines and drifted under the blue skies to enjoy the experience. Over dinner we left the ice and returned to Malminskie for an evening Zodiac cruise. This was a chance to sample the evening shift of the birdlife and while many of the species present earlier in the day were not in evidence, there were perhaps a thousand Ancient Murrelets gathered on the water and chirping loudly. It was a rare opportunity to get such great views and photographs of this shy species of Alcid. We continued our cruise around the island and enjoyed the wheeling birds and the terrific lighting as the sun slowly dipped below the western mountains, returning to the ship well after sunset.
Our good fortune with the weather held and bright blue skies again illuminated the mountains as we came to anchor in Fedora Bay. After a quick scout trip by the expedition staff we were heading towards shore in the Zodiacs where three Brown Bears were feeding intently on the shoreline. With an offshore breeze blowing we were able to make a relatively close approach. While the large blond bear was quite wary, the two smaller dark brown bears allowed some excellent observations and photography options while they fed and rummaged around in the rocks and ice along the shoreline. Eventually they became wary and one of the bears stood up on its haunches before the two animals ran with ease up the steep scree slope and disappeared into the cover of the Larch forest.
We carried on and made a landing where we could enjoy a walk around a still iced-over lake and explore the Taiga forest and the long gravel beach. Several species of ducks congregated around the open patches of the lake, including Common Merganser, Common Goldeneye and a Peregrine Falcon made a failed attempt at catching a Goldeneye. Steller’s Sea Eagles were also in attendance with two active nests. The walking was easy, the air warm and the scenery breathtaking, so it was a very pleasant morning ashore. In the afternoon we sailed northwards under clear skies, and continued to enjoy calm seas and stunning scenery along the way. Fulmars, Kittiwakes and Murres were regularly sighted but no marine mammals were noted. After dinner we saw several pods of Dall’s Porpoise, a couple of Minke Whales and a truly spectacular sunset over the mountain ranges to the west.
The seemingly endless good weather continued yet another day as our wake up call found us sitting off the mouth of the Okhotsk River in bright blue skies and calm waters. It was a long run in the Zodiacs over the very shallow ground that extends miles out to sea and then we picked our way through the ice and into the river mouth. There we were met with an extremely strong current so we slowly made our way up river and eventually arrived at the small wharf of Okhotsk town where we were greeted by the locals in traditional cossack dress. We were escorted to the cultural centre where there were displays and samples of Evenk culture. From there we went on to the theatre in the town centre where we enjoyed a Russian cultural performance. It was interesting to experience the curious mix of Russian and Evenk culture that is to be found in this part of the world. After a hearty lunch and a wander around town it was time to return to the Zodiacs. Going with the current made it a much speedier trip back to the ship. At the river mouth we saw nine Steller’s Sea Eagles, many Bearded and Largha Seals and Aleutian Terns all feeding on the fish that were moving up the river.
The afternoon presented yet another opportunity to enjoy tremendous views of the spectacular coastline and watch for wildlife. A sighting of two male Orca or Killer Whales was the highlight of the afternoon. Leonid also gave us a presentation on the Russian gulag system, one of the great tragedies of humanity. Following a drink in the bar and dinner, those who still had the energy to stay awake enjoyed yet another unforgettable sunset.
As we entered Magadan Bay we were rather surprised to encounter heavy sea ice. This delayed our arrival into Magadan somewhat, but no one was complaining as it gave us another couple of hours pushing through sea ice. Everyone was out on deck enjoying the glorious conditions and photographing good numbers of all four species of ice seal, including yet again good numbers of Ribbon Seals. There were also several Steller’s Sea Eagles perched out on the taller ice hummocks, but surprisingly few other birds. Eventually we came alongside (a tedious process due to the amount of ice packed against the wharf) and once through the various security and customs protocols were off on a tour of the town.
The most poignant stop on the route was undoubtedly the ‘Mask of Sorrow’, the great memorial to 130,000 people who were sent to the gulags from Magadan, the majority of them innocent of any crime. Other stops included visiting both the geological and the regional museums and also the brand new cathedral – the largest in eastern Russia. Having seen the sights, it was time to return to the ship and head back out through the ice and all those seals as we enjoyed a beer on the front deck. After dinner, most of us in turned in promptly with the announcement that we had a 0445 wake up call ahead of us.
Talan Island, Koni Peninsula
The promised 0445 wake up call came as a bit of a shock to the system, but looking out at the glowing orange sky above Talan Island it looked to be a more rewarding alternative to sleeping in! We quickly boarded Zodiacs and headed out for a memorable circumnavigation of the island in the early morning light as the birds departed their nesting sites for foraging sites out to sea. Most prominent were the tens of thousands of Crested Auklets whirling around in tight flocks that looked like smoke over the water. Equally impressive were the many thousands of Puffins, both Horned and Tufted, on the wing high overhead. In smaller numbers, but of no less interest were the hundreds of Parakeet Auklets, Spectacled Guillemots and Ancient Murrelets sitting out on the sea. On most islands the sheer cliffs present the spectacle of thousands of Kittiwakes, but unlike most islands, here large numbers of Steller’s Sea Eagles sent the Kittiwakes into a great panic as they swooped through the flocks trying to grab an unsuspecting individual. The sheer number of birds, the towering cliffs and beautiful early morning light made for an experience that will never be forgotten. We then made a short landing which allowed us an opportunity to see, smell, and hear the Puffins and Auklets as they went about their business on the rocky scree slopes. Breakfast was devoured in great quantities when we returned to the ship and we hoisted the anchor and sailed for the Koni peninsula.
Samuel gave a presentation on the Kolyma and gulags in French and we aired the BBC Russian series while the Spirit of Enderby sailed along in calm seas though now overcast conditions. As we neared the Koni Peninsula the weather deteriorated and rain set in along with an easterly chop. As we neared the anchorage the dark gray lenticular clouds over the landscape created a rather ominous looking scene and we were pleased to observe no less than nine brown bears along the beach at the mouth of the Burgauli River, our intended landing spot for the afternoon. Amongst the various bears were a couple of huge males and a sow with two cubs. By the time we had launched the Zodiacs and were heading in to shore, only four bears still remained in sight, the remainder having taken cover in the Stone Pine on the hillside. Two bears allowed a surprisingly close approach and we watched them for some time as they sniffed their way along the shoreline in search of some food – clearly the salmon were not running here yet. As the bears had cleared out of the landing area we decided to go ahead and have a walk ashore. It was pleasant to stretch the legs, enjoy the dark scenery (the rain had stopped by now) and a nice profusion of wildflowers on the grassy areas. Several bears were still in view, but more distant than before and mostly moving away. Eventually we headed back to the ship to warm up and have dinner while the ship continued sail along the southern part of the Koni peninsula.
Astronomy Bay and the Yamskie Islands
After the rain and dark skies of yesterday we were happy to be greeted by yet another glorious sunny and warm day. After breakfast we all eagerly headed ashore for a landing in Astronomy Bay. A few waterfowl, including Common Eider were noted in the bay and as it was low tide, the drivers had to make a slow careful approach to avoid rocks in the shallows. Once ashore we divided into groups and spread out to explore the Tundra and Larch forests in the warm weather. The profusion of Rhododendrons, Anemones, Louseworts and many other wildflowers made a beautiful display. Birdlife was rather quiet but Dusky Warblers sang heartily and there were also Rubythroats, Willow Tits and a couple Willow Ptarmigan to observe. A pair of Rough-legged Buzzards had a nest in the area and gave great views, while the ever present Steller’s Sea Eagle dominated the air. After an enjoyable walk it was time for a ride back to the ship, now with a higher tide in the bay. Back on-board it was time for a brave few to take the great Sea of Okhotsk polar plunge. Although there were only four takers they provided great entertainment for the rest of the group. Then we heaved anchor and set sail for the Yamskie Islands.
It took the whole afternoon to sail along the bottom of the Koni Peninsula; it was another afternoon for the memory bank with endless beautiful vistas of the towering mountains in bright sunlight, glass calm seas and a final push through sea ice. For the fifth time on the expedition we were able to observe all four species of ice seals and in fact today provided our highest tally of Ribbon Seals which seemed to be on every ice floe! We rounded the bottom of the Koni peninsula and headed for Mantakil Island in the Yamskie group as the wind picked up and large numbers of seabirds surrounded the ship. Conditions improved as we ate a rather hurried dinner and then set out for a never to be forgotten evening Zodiac cruise.
It was a crystal clear, warm, calm evening at Yamskie as millions of birds returned to the island. We started out by cruising around the flocks of Auklets (Crested, Least, and Parakeet) that were slowly starting to mass on the water. We then investigated the cliff faces that were covered in Kittiwakes, Murres, and Fulmars. Rounding the corner we encountered the large Steller Sea Lion colony that dominates the beach. We did not want to disturb the colony, so kept a respectable distance, but some inquisitive Sea Lions swam over to play with us. The best part was still to come however as we returned back to the north coast of the island in flat calm waters with a slowly sinking sun. Earlier in the evening there had been many birds, but now the numbers had reached truly epic proportions. There were millions upon millions of birds massing on the water and flying high in the air. On the water itself, the majority of the birds were Crested Auklets swirling around in blizzards and seeming to glow orange in the evening light. Overhead, enormous numbers of Northern Fulmars wheeled through the air. Higher still, out of view to the unaided eye but clearly visible with binoculars, a black wall of birds covered the sky. These were the Least Auklets returning to their mountaintop colonies. Through the birds swooped the predators – Slaty Backed Gulls and Steller’s and White-tailed Eagles hoping to catch a meal. As the sun gradually set the western sky on fire the Auklets began to land on the boulder covered shoreline. The evening was true sensory overload and it is hard to imagine anywhere else in the world you could see so much life packed into such a small area. It was nearly midnight by the time we were back on-board and the evening had been so intense it took quite a while for most of us to wind down and fall asleep.
Yet another blue sky morning found us in the lee of Cape Skedny off the southern coast of the Koni peninsula. After a substantial breakfast we headed ashore to land at the mouth of the Harlankina River. At least a couple of Brown Bears were sighted in the distance as the group split into two walking options. The more energetic amongst us headed up a scree slope and had a fair climb to a peak. This afforded superb views of the surrounding countryside – the low mountains extending off into the north and the sea fog slowly rolling in from the south. The slower walkers meandered along the Harlankina Lagoon. The lagoon itself had a nice assortment of waterfowl including Common Goldeneye, Greater Scaup, Red-breasted Merganser, Eurasian Wigeon and Harlequin Duck. We found a nest of Buff-bellied Pipit and a Common Ringed Plover gave us his broken-wing display, indicating that he too had a nest nearby. The profusion of wildflowers was dominated by the beautiful Kamchatka Rhododendron. A spectacular ice cave cut through the permafrost could be explored and rocky jumbles held shy but vocal Northern Pikas. We found that patient observation resulted in good views. A lucky few had a very close encounter with a curious young Brown Bear that was woken from a deep sleep under the birch scrub.
By the time we returned to the ship for lunch the wind had picked up considerably and the sea fog had nearly enveloped the ship. It was now time to leave the Koni Peninsula and head for the west coast of Kamchatka. We sailed all afternoon through thick fog and it was a chance to catch up on sleep, edit photos, write logs or watch videos. We viewed the Across Russia series, a French video on the gulag system, and a video on the wildlife of Kamchatka. Following dinner a very obliging pod of Dall’s Porpoise playfully rode the bow for some time allowing close observation of this speedy little marine mammal.
Along the west coast of Kamchatka
The staff were up at daybreak as we were anchored off the Ptichy rocks. Due to the very heavy fog we decided not to proceed with an early morning Zodiac cruise and instead heaved anchor and sailed southwards. After a lie in and breakfast we had a morning of presentations. Guest lecturer Tommy spoke on cultural diversity around the world and Leonid gave a presentation on the fascinating Kuril Islands. We continued southwards throughout the afternoon and eventually sailed out of the fog so we could now see the low lying west Kamchatka coast. There were several sightings of Dall’s Porpoise and also a couple of Northern Fur Seals. During the afternoon Grigory gave a lecture on volcanism in the Kuril Islands. This was followed by a chance to do some retail therapy in the sea shop and the second to last episode of Across Russia. After devouring another delicious dinner created by Lindsay and Dean, many of us headed out on deck to soak up the late evening light. All in all it had been a relaxing day, a good chance to catch up on photographs and notes and process some of the amazing experiences of the past several days.
We were back in the fog as we continued to sail along the west coast of Kamchatka. Another guest lecturer, Alexey, showed his incredible photographs and shared stories of his time at Kuril Lakes. This was followed by Peter giving us a talk on some of his amazing artwork. As we poked our heads outside after the morning’s art presentations it was pleasant to see that we had left the fog behind us again. After lunch we came to anchor and boarded Zodiacs to head up the Opala River. The salmon had just begun to run so there were good numbers of Largha Seal waiting for them at the mouth of the river. As we cruised up the long, shallow river we passed a colony of Larids, with Black-headed and Common Gull and Common and Aleutian Tern flying at the Zodiacs to scold us for our intrusion. It was particularly great to see so many Aleutian Terns. We made a landing on the bank just past the salmon fishing camp that was starting to spring into action. We explored the area around a disused fishing camp and enjoyed the wildflowers including the orchid Dactylorhiza and numerous songbirds including Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler and Siberian Rubythroat. There were even more Largha Seals feeding in the current at the river mouth as we returned to the ship. After dinner we had spectacular views of some of the volcanoes along the southern coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula as well as the dominating Alaid Volcano of Atlasova. Through the night we journeyed towards Atlasov.
Shelikov Bay, Second Strait and Ptichy Rocks - Paramushir Island
We had intended to land at Atlasova but a large swell was rolling through from the Pacific so early in the morning we heaved anchor and sailed southwards to Shelikov Bay. Conditions were quite windy but as we came to anchor within the bay we had a good lee and enjoyed an easy landing at a derelict fishing camp. The landscape was lovely with the mountains of Paramushir coming in and out of the fog and clear views of Alaid volcano. A good variety of birdlife was seen including numerous Brown-headed Thrushes, a couple Rough-legged Buzzards and the recently described Kamchatka Leaf Warbler. A Brown Bear seen in the distance slowly approached and a furtive Red Fox was seen trying to steal eggs from a Raven’s nest.
We returned to the ship and just before the lunch call went out a cetacean was seen in the distance slapping its tail. The staff on the bridge recognized it as the tail of a Right Whale but could not believe they were seeing this mythical beast. As the ship cautiously approached it repeatedly lobtailed and the expedition team dared to hope that it was in fact a Right Whale. Finally the animal surfaced in profile and was indeed confirmed to be a North Pacific Right Whale, the rarest whale in the world and the first ever sighting in our many years of Heritage Expedition voyages to the Russian Far East. But the best was yet to come, as we went dead in the water and this behemoth of a whale approached within a few meters allowing prolonged observation and hundreds of quality images to be taken. We stayed with the whale for about an hour before moving on, an experience even the hardened expedition professionals will remember forever.
After our delayed lunch we approached Second Strait where a massive feeding flock of over one hundred thousand Short-tailed Shearwaters greeted us. As we sailed through the strait surrounded by Tufted Puffins and Northern Fulmars we passed Severo-Kurilsk, Leonid’s home town. We also saw our first few Sea Otters which increased in numbers as we headed towards the Ptichy Rocks. There was a fair swell running as we approached the rocks so we had little trouble launching Zodiacs and heading ashore where we were quickly surrounded by birds and marine mammals. These rocks have incredible numbers of Sea Otters and it was great to watch them running around on the rocks and swimming around our Zodiacs. We also encountered good numbers of Harbour Seals for the first time on the voyage, and there were also many Largha Seals on the sandy beach. As we headed for the most distant of the three rocks, the fog enveloped us and screened the distant volcanoes creating a truly ethereal experience. Hundreds of Pelagic Cormorants and thousands of Slaty-backed Gulls blanketed the rocks that loomed out of the mist and we recorded our first Pigeon Guillemots. As suddenly as it had appeared, the fog evaporated and we were left with the most amazing evening light which allowed excellent photograhic opportunities of Tufted Puffins, Sea Otters, and Harbour Seals. Once again the mist rolled in so we returned to the ship, but by the time we were on-board it was clear again. These ever changing conditions and the effect they had on the scenery were a treat to experience, so we decided it was high time to visit the bar to celebrate this remarkably successful day.
We sailed northwards along the east coast of Kamchatka through heavy fog. A handful of graceful Laysan Albatross were spotted flying close to the ship before we all headed down for the expedition recap led by Nathan. We had accomplished and seen so much it was a good chance to start to process it. Leaving behind the Pacific swell we entered into the sheltered fiord of Bukhta Russkaya. After lunch we were all ashore for a walk along the coastline. Water levels were very high this year with heavy snow melt still going on – clearly spring had come late here. A few salmon were seen just starting to run and evidence of bear was everywhere although we did not actually see any. It felt good to stretch the legs and contemplate the stands of Birch just coming into leaf so late in the season on the hillsides. The Zodiac ride back to the ship along the coast allowed us to view some lovely waterfalls and good numbers of birds including Tufted Puffins and Pigeon Guillemots before spending a quiet evening at anchor. It was a final chance to gather in the bar for a drink and enjoy Lindsay and Dean’s final dinner. Late in the evening we heaved anchor and set sail for Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy.
Many of us were out early as we sailed up the stunning Avacha Bay and came alongside our wharf in PK. It was time to depart the ship and go our separate ways. We had seen and accomplished much during our time together, creating memories and friendships that will last a very long time.
Click here for Species List
Friday 8th June - Port of Korsakov
We spent the morning exploring Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and then boarded our coach for the ride to the Port of Korsakov. Our entry to the port took some time as the Border Guards wanted to closely scrutinise all passports, so it was after 3 pm when we boarded the Spirit of Enderby. As the arrival of another vessel was imminent, the Captain gave the order for the lines to be released as soon as everyone was aboard and we set off on our adventure round the Sea of Okhotsk.
Following a late lunch, our Expedition Leader, Rodney Russ, held the first briefing of the expedition and this included an introduction to the staff and ship as well as a Zodiac briefing.
Outside the fog had cleared and the first birds of the voyage were spotted with some good views of the somewhat range restricted Rhinoceros Auklet as well as Northern Fulmar, Common and Brunnich's Guillemots and Crested Auklet. The highlight however, was large flocks of Short-tailed Shearwaters. These long distance migrants breed south of Australia and almost the entire population comes to the Sea of Okhotsk to moult (i.e. change their feathers). As we cruised onwards we passed thousands of brown feathers floating on the ocean surface which had undoubtedly been shed by the shearwaters. Indeed many of the birds looked extremely tatty as they were missing so many feathers and some were barely able to take flight as the ship approached them.
After the first of what would be many delicious dinners in the restaurant, many took the opportunity to have an early night.
Saturday 9th June - Tyuliney Island
The day began with the Spirit of Enderby travelling north through some moderately thick fog and only the hardy few ventured outside in the early morning light. After breakfast, Hotel Manager Meghan organised some of the administrative matters which needed to be dealt with, such as collecting landing fees and swiping credit cards to pay on board accounts. Later in the morning Adam gave a presentation about the 'Seabirds of the Sea of Okhotsk'. During his lecture Adam outlined the species we could expect to see during this inaugural expedition.
By late morning we had arrived about a mile to the south of Tyunliney Island. However it was difficult to see it in the foggy conditions. There was a significant swell at the gangway, so Rodney decided to limit each Zodiac to eight passengers so there were two rounds of cruises.
As we got closer to the island, we could see hundreds of Common Guillemot flying to and fro with the occasional Crested Auklet and Tufted Puffin. As we got closer to the shore waves rolled onto the beach every few minutes, Rodney decided that a safe landing was not possible so we cruised close to the beach where dozens of Steller Sea Lions and Northern Fur Seals could be seen. The low cliffs immediately behind were crammed with Black-legged Kittiwakes and Common Guillemots. Space was clearly at a premium, as there were also a couple of hundred Guillemots sitting on top of one of the buildings not far from the beach. These birds were not actually nesting, but appeared to be using the roof as a resting area.
Two species of seal were easily identified with the darker and smaller Northern Fur Seals easily picked out from the much larger and browner Steller Sea Lions. The breeding season for the Steller Sea Lions was clearly underway with several massive beach-masters controlling designated sections of the shoreline with each having a couple of dozen females.
Katya from the Expedition Team was able to talk to some of the six Russian researchers who were based on the island and was told that the buildings had been constructed in the 1960s as part of a joint Russian-US project to monitor the seals. It seemed however, that this was more to assess the population to establish how many could be killed for their pelts, rather than for conservation purposes!
By early afternoon we were all back on board and the ship began heading northwards. The visibility had improved somewhat and the coastline appeared intermittently on our port side. The weather seemed to disorientate some of the migrant birds, and during the afternoon a Siberian Rubythroat landed on the ship. This was a stunning male with a gorgeous ruby-red throat and whilst somewhat flighty, it stayed on board for several hours.
At 7:15 pm Rodney invited everyone to the Bar for a recap on the day's activities and Katya provided everyone with more information about the island. She explained that the translation of the name was actually 'Seal Island' and sealing by the Americans and Japanese had started here in the 1850s. This had decimated the fur seal population but fortunately this has recovered as it is believed there are now approximately 100,000 on the island.
Katya added that the Steller Sea Lions however, were still considered to be endangered and that between 1890 and 1990 the number of animals in the Russian Far East had declined from approximately 115,000 individuals to just 15,000. It is thought this decline was due to a number of factors, most of which are human related, with hunting, overfishing and entanglement in fishing nets being the principle reasons.
Sunday 10th June - Pil'tun Bay, Sakhalin Island
The dawn fog lifted just after breakfast revealing flat seas and little wind, so conditions were nigh on perfect for wildlife viewing. Although no cetaceans were seen, a number of interesting birds were found with the highlight being two Spectacled Guillemots. Two presentations were scheduled for our morning at sea, with the first being a talk by Katya about Western Grey Whales. Whilst these animals are considered to be the same species as those which occur off the west coast of North America, the population off Russia is far smaller and has still not recovered from the whaling days. Next Alison, the on board artist, gave a presentation and explained that there would be classes on shore for anyone interested.
As the ship continued towards Pil'tun Bay we passed a couple of oil platforms and turned to port to approach the coast. Ships are banned from anchoring in water shallower than 20 metres along this length of shoreline to protect the whales, so it was a long Zodiac ride to the river mouth. Several Grey Whales were seen as we headed towards the shore, though the views were somewhat distant.
Once the Zodiacs had successfully negotiated the tricky conditions at the river mouth, the water flattened out considerably and it became much easier to look for wildlife. There were at least half a dozen Steller's Sea Eagles perched on the sandy shore and with a slow approach we got some excellent views of this majestic raptor. We were also able to get some nice looks at a good-sized haul out of Largha Seals, a species endemic to the Northern Pacific. Also known as Spotted Seals, the animals were generally grey and covered in black markings, although they did vary in colouration with some being much darker. After watching the seals and eagles, the Zodiacs continued up the river to our intended landing site near some old buildings and a lighthouse. As we continued we passed several hundred terns and somewhat against expectations, it quickly became apparent that the majority of these were Aleutian Terns. This species is comparatively localised and only found in Eastern Russia and Alaska. It was great to get some good looks at multiple birds as they hunted small fish in the river. An even bigger surprise was a lone White-winged Black Tern in one of the flocks. According to the distribution maps for this species, it should not be within 500 miles or so of Sakhalin, so it was great to see this smartly plumaged individual.
Arriving off the buildings, the tide was fairly low and the water very shallow, so all those who wanted to go ashore had to wade through water and rather sticky mud to reach the beach. Once Rodney and Katya had spoken to a somewhat bemused lighthouse keeper and his wife we were free to wander. Some explored the buildings and climbed to the view point at the top of the lighthouse, where there was a magnificent view across the bay with at least ten Grey Whales being seen. Others explored slightly further afield, with the birders walking through the Siberian Stone Pine and scrubby bushes which seemed to go for miles in every direction. The vegetation was somewhat stunted, undoubtedly due to the extreme winter weather, but despite this, some interesting birds were found including Dusky Warbler, Pine Grosbeak and Siberian Rubythroat.
All too soon it was time to return to the landing site and as we cruised back towards the river entrance, we passed more eagles, terns and the seal haul out. Reaching open water we found some more Grey Whales, these animals showed exceptionally well regularly surfacing to breathe and occasionally making deeper dives when a tail was seen.
Monday 11th June - Iony Island
The day started peacefully as we sailed sunny seas towards Iony Island, a little speck of land in the midst of the Sea of Okhotsk. In the morning we had a lecture from Katya on the cetaceans of the region, with a few hints on how to identify them and interesting information about their ecology and behaviour. We had lunch before going out to explore this little island which is a well-known Steller Sea Lion breeding rookery. We expected it to be a rugged little rock, and did not know if there was going to be an option to land. We set out in five Zodiacs finding our way by GPS in misty conditions.
At first we started seeing great numbers of birds, in particular Northern Fulmars and Brunnich's Guillemots. After a while the island appeared out of the fog and we were taken away by the spectacle that opened to us. Sea lions roared on all the rocks, as well as on the beach, guillemots and kittiwakes covered all the cliffs above them, creating a black and white pattern, all the way to the top of the cliffs. Iony is a tiny little Island with barely any vegetation, but teeming with life. There are animals and birds on every available space of land. We circumnavigated the island, followed by sea lions which played around the boats while hundreds of thousands of guillemots and kittiwakes flew around their colony. A little abandoned research hut nestled on a grassy patch at the top of the cliffs. The birding highlight of the day was the good number of various auklets seen - Parakeet, Whiskered and Least being the most prominent.
As we rounded the last point we saw a breeding beach with a good 500 sea lions. Beach masters were surrounded by their females and a few pups could be seen between the bodies. The noise, smell and the surrounding mist created a surreal and primeval atmosphere. The sight of towering cliffs and all these amazing animals made a lasting impression of nature in the raw. We returned to the ship for a quiet afternoon resting and downloading numerous photos. After a recap and a delicious dinner we all went to bed happily exhausted after the experiences of the day.
Tuesday 12th June - In the ice around Big Shantar
The ship started to encounter ice during the night and when we went to breakfast, bits were floating past in the sunshine of a beautiful morning. As the ice became denser, the ship slowed and it was announced that we would try to reach the closest embayment with a river estuary and try to land there. Before we even got to the shore the first Ribbon Seal was announced, and then they started to appear one by one in unbelievable numbers. They seemed to be everywhere - beautiful black and white painted males, brown and white striped females and silvery weaners, all lying on the ice as we crushed past. Some of them were directly ahead of the ship, so we could get stunning photos of this beautiful seal which is endemic to the North Pacific, reflected in the deep-blue water. It was the first sighting of this seal for most of us, including the expedition staff. There was a lot of excitement on the front deck as we counted more and more seals around. We also saw three other species of ice seals - Bearded, Ringed and Largha. The bird highlight of the day was to see about 50 Spectacled Guillemots which are endemic to this part of the world.
Despite the fact that we were in the ice, the day was so beautiful Rodney decided we should have lunch on the deck and to celebrate seeing such a great number of Ribbon Seals with a complimentary glass of Russian champagne. Two Zodiacs were then lowered for those who wished to take photos of the ship in the ice and some magnificent shots were taken. As we approached the coast it became clear that we could not land where we had intended, so we turned back and decided to go around the smaller island and look for gaps in the ice. On the way out we spotted a good number of various species of ice seals again. It had been a wonderful day and most agreed the absolute highlight of the trip so far.
Wednesday 13th June - Shantar Archipelago and ice edge cruising
We woke up to another glorious morning, still in the ice, though it felt really warm due to the lack of wind. It soon became obvious that we could not approach any of the islands and land as ice was blocking all the coastlines. We decided to cruise the ice edge and look for wildlife as we have still not exhausted all the opportunities of this habitat. Most people spent time keeping a lookout from the decks outside or from the bridge. A good number of ringed seals were seen popping their heads up, curious to take a look at the ship. As we sailed around the Big Shantar we saw a small congregation of Minke Whales, so we approached them to take few photos. Meanwhile Meghan opened the sea shop to provide retail therapy for those who struggled with the break from civilisation.
Later in the morning we listened to a lecture from Christian Genillard about the sea ice and history of its research. He gave it first in French and then in English. After lunch we had a presentation by 'bird man' Chris about the migrating birds of the region and we learned some fascinating facts about capacities of those species. Chris' lecture was interrupted by an announcement about Orca sighting and everyone rushed out on deck. The sea surface was as clear as glass and the air just as still. There was magical light as we farewelled the Shantar Islands and set course for the mainland and Mal'minskiye Islands.
Thursday 14th June - Mal'minskiy Islands, Mal'minskiy Bay and Cape Nurki
An early breakfast had been announced the night before - so it wasn't too big a shock when Meghan came on the PA at 6:15 am with our wake up call. Breakfast was followed at 7:15 am by a briefing on the morning activities. The simple plan was that we would cruise with five Zodiacs around the Mal'minskiy Islands. If possible we would land and walk across to an unnamed creek on the mainland. The islands and unnamed creek are part of the Dzhugdzhursky Zapovednik Nature Reserve. At the briefing Katya gave us a description of the reserve types and protection levels of each one in Russia.
The day had dawned beautifully clear and calm - we were blessed yet again with our third day of fine weather in a row. We started boarding at 8 am and cruised across to the group of islands which had one obvious large one in the centre, two slightly smaller ones to the east and south-east and a number of rocks. There were birds everywhere - in the air, on the island and in the waters. The excitement level rose the closer we got. This was obviously going to be a good encounter but just how good we didn't appreciate until well into the cruise. We identified Ancient Murrelet, Rhinoceros Auklet, Parakeet Auklet, Horned Puffin, Tufted Puffin, Crested Auklet both Common and Brunnich's Guillemot and Spectacled Guillemot. The Spectacled Guillemot was undoubtedly the highlight for most people as this species is restricted to the Sea of Okhotsk and the Kuril Islands, but even the expedition staff had never before seen it in such large numbers. They were everywhere and obviously breeding in the rock rubble at the bottom of the cliffs. On the largest of the islands there was a gravel spit which provided an ideal landing site. It was occupied by four Steller's Sea Eagles which flew off when the Zodiacs came into view.
After about an hour of Zodiac cruising we landed on the mainland at an unnamed river. The Zodiacs were anchored out and everybody gathered on the beach. Chris took a group of birders to see what they could find; Samuel led a 'slightly more strenuous/faster walk' for those who wanted to explore the area, while Alison and a few artists worked together. The valley floor is obviously a large lake or swamp during the winter months when the sea freezes and the river no longer drains. The lower slopes here are covered in Taiga forest. Christian took a walk into this magnificent area of forest. There were good numbers of Steller's Sea Eagles and two species of Cuckoos were calling. There was sign of bear activity, though none was fresh. At 11 am Kosta and Katya took a small group on a coastal Zodiac cruise returning at noon at which point everybody returned to the beach to be taken back to the ship.
Once everyone was back on board, the Spirit of Enderby moved north along the coast to another anchorage point off Cape Nurki while everybody had lunch - and some enjoyed an afternoon nap. We made a landing at what turned out to be an abandoned military base (possibly something to do with Radar). It was an easy landing on a gravel beach. Adam and Meghan led a long walk, while Chris took a birding group and the remainder explored the general area. The buildings were in varying states of repair and it was interesting to note gun emplacements on both sides of the Peninsula. There was also a strongly constructed and heavily fortified 'command centre'. Everybody was back on board by 6 pm and we set course for the town of Okhotsk.
Friday 15th June - Okhotsk town
We were rewarded with a later start this morning, with breakfast at 8:30 am - a luxury after the early starts we have had recently. Initially sea conditions were calm with reasonable visibility but that changed mid morning when we encountered fog and more ice. It was challenging to navigate through this and the ship proceeded with caution. Rodney gave a presentation entitled 'the Russification of Siberia' and the impact this had on the indigenous peoples. This was followed later in the morning by a lecture from Katya on 'Seals and Sea Lions'.
Lunch was served at just after midday followed by a briefing on plans for our visit to the town of Okhotsk. As the fog was thick the plan was for a local pilot to come out and guide us through the entrance and to the town wharf, but he did not arrive, so we pressed across the bar negotiating our way as the tide was very low. Once inside the entrance we simply followed up the inside of the spit. We passed commercial salmon fishermen working with nets, winches and trucks and a significant industrial area with fuel storage tanks on the wharves. There was a surprising number of boats and barges, some of them at considerable tonnage for the shallow entrance. With the very low tide (and no pilot) we found a few shallow places but made it to the town wharf where we were met by a welcoming party. An afternoon programme had been organised but before it could proceed, we had to get clearance from the local Border Guard. He was extremely helpful and processed the papers very quickly. From the wharf area we walked to the town square to enjoy a concert especially for us. We were entertained for about an hour by a group of four guys and four girls demonstrating traditional Russian dances in the shadow of a statue of Lenin. Other entertainers included two soloists and a group of three young girls. Each item was introduced by the former editor of the local paper who spoke very good English. Nearly all of the songs were about love, so it was interesting that the concert attracted a large number of local young mothers with babies - there certainly seems to be a lot of love in this town!
When the concert finished we were invited to participate in a 'bread and salt' ceremony, which is a traditional Russian welcome. This was followed by caribou soup with lentils. There were a number of locals dressed in traditional Evenk dress and Evenk souvenirs for sale. Adjacent to the square was a public hall where we viewed a display of children's art. Sadly the museum was closed for renovation, but one of the expedition team was invited to a quick inspection of the items in storage where he said the bird collection was very extensive.
In the early evening we walked back to the town wharf where we said farewell to our new found friends and headed back to the ship - some 4 miles away - in the Zodiacs. The Border Guard was on duty to ensure none of us stayed on. The tide had risen considerably and as we sailed out, the fog which had blanketed the area lifted, and we had great views of the town. One could not help but reflect on Vitus Bering and his expeditions. In his day Okhotsk was the 'gateway to Kamchatka' and he walked overland from St Petersburg to Okhotsk where he built a boat to sail to Kamchatka. Amazingly he didn't just do it the once, but came back on a second expedition. Okhotsk has always been a place of mystery and very much a part of the history of the Russian Far East. It felt good to have visited and seen the place first hand to feel this connection with the past.
Once the party was back on board the Captain lifted the anchor and we set sail for Magadan region.
Saturday 16th June - afternoon at Talan Island
The morning was taken up with lectures, art classes, downloading and editing photos, reading, birding and generally relaxing. Our destination today was Talan Island which lies about 50 miles west of Magadan and has long been known as a 'birding hotspot'. There has also been a reasonable amount of research undertaken on the island, well known for its large numbers of Crested Auklets. We dropped anchor about 3:30 pm when sea conditions were calm and the island shrouded in mist. Five Zodiacs were launched and we headed away for a coastal cruise. Our route took us south around the island. The western end is a low flat area but it rises steeply to the east. We never saw the tops of the impressively high cliffs at the eastern end of the island as they were always covered in mist. There are an extraordinary number of Kittiwakes nesting here. We were impressed that there would have been at least 50 pairs of Steller's Sea Eagles nesting, roosting and hunting along the cliffs.
After we had circumnavigated the island we landed for approximately an hour on the low flat at the western end. Here there were a number of huts - some of them in better repair than the others. There was also evidence of tracks and what appeared to be numbered burrows. The debate continues on who used these huts, but they appear to have been used by researchers at some stage. However there were too many huts for just researchers and the age of the huts dated from very old to quite recent, which led us to wonder if they were used by people gathering Auklets. We pondered this question for some time and still have no idea if this is done or not.
We returned to the ship for dinner and went back to the island at 9 pm to watch the Auklets coming ashore. Most of us sat on the grass banks on the south east corner of the island and watched as the birds came and went. Numbers would build up and then a large percentage would fly off, circle and land again elsewhere. This activity went on for a long time. At one point the fog rolled back and the sun shone through, making a magical light show. By 11:30 pm the birds still hadn't come ashore but the activity increased with enormous flocks circling. At one stage a large flock came directly overhead and the noise of the wing beats of thousands of Auklets has to be heard to be appreciated. It was simply amazing. The last Zodiacs came back to the ship shortly after midnight and we departed for Magadan. Talan Island had certainly lived up to its reputation as 'hotspot'.
Sunday 17th June - Magadan and Zav'yalov Island
Just after breakfast the Spirit of Enderby entered Nagayev Bay where the town of Magadan, capital of the Magadan region, is located. At 9:30 am we disembarked and boarded buses which would take us on a city tour. We visited the cultural museum which told the history of the city, the geological museum with its impressive collection of rocks, meteorite, gold, silver and remains of mammals such as the mammoth. We also visited the Mask of Sorrow which was built in 1996 to honour all the prisoners who died in the region from the 1930s. The city of Magadan was in fact built by prisoners, 800,000 of whom were sent from there to different camps in the region, where they were put to work extracting gold and silver. About 130,000 of them died, including 11,000 who were shot. The main road to the north has been named the 'Bones Highway' because of the number of prisoner's bones which lie beneath this road.
After this historical and cultural morning in Magadan, we sailed around 53 kilometres south, towards Zav'Yalova Island where we took a late afternoon Zodiac cruise along the coast, looking for wildlife. During the cruise we saw three Steller's Sea Eagles, some Harlequin Ducks and a large group of Goosander flying overhead. In a small bay we spotted our first Brown Bear of the voyage and then a further five wandering in the grass and eating the vegetation.
Monday 18th June - Koni Peninsula and Astronomicheskaya Bay
During the night we sailed around the west coast of the Koni Peninsula and this morning made a landing on a rocky beach around 8:30 am. A group led by Chris went in the forest, while Christian took a group to walk along the coast and up to a plateau to enjoy the view. It was very exciting to see an adult Brown Bear walking and running on the edge of the plateau. The cameras worked overtime taking pictures of him. Around 11 am we made our way back to the Zodiacs to make our departure before a strong incoming tide.
After dinner we dropped five Zodiacs in the water to explore Astronomicheskaya Bay which is about 5 kilometres long and 3 kilometres wide. Just at the northern entrance of the bay we had an excellent view from the Zodiacs of a young Brown Bear wandering on the beach and then climbing a steep snow patch. After he left the shore we entered the bay and were welcomed by hundreds of Harlequin Ducks flying around us. Later we observed an Osprey flying with a fish in its beak, Tufted Duck, Common Eider and Red-breasted Merganser. We later saw another bear walking along the coastline before he disappeared in the Taiga forest. We made a landing and wandered around the unique habitat which is a mix between forest and peat bog. We saw some amazing flowers and enjoyed a relaxing time before we headed back to the ship around 10 pm.
Tuesday 19th June - afternoon at Ostrov Matekil, Yamskiye Archipelago
We had hoped to make a landing some 55 kilometres east of Astronomicheskaya, but fog and ice conditions determined that our time would be better spent at the Yamskie Islands which are known for their huge concentration of seabirds.
Around 2 pm we left the vessel to cruise along the northern coast of Matykil' Island on the Yamskiye Archipelago. This coast has an impressive geology with abundant (between 6 and 10 million) seabirds. We saw Spectacled Guillemot, Kittiwake, Crested, Parakeet and Least Auklets. We then explored the east coast and approached a Steller Sea Lions breeding site. Unusually these birds seemed quite curious, and came closer to investigate the Zodiacs. After spending half an hour observing and photographing these majestic birds we headed north again to rejoin the Spirit of Enderby. The wind increased as we made our way back, resulting in some wet jackets, but everyone had big smiles on their faces, still high after the close encounter. After dinner the Captain moved the ship close to the coast again so we could observe the millions of seabirds, mainly auklets, returning to their roosts. It was a truly spectacular evening on the outside deck or on the bridge, watching the sun dip below the horizon.
Wednesday 20th June - Cape Yuzhnizy and the west coast of Kamchatka
Wind and a southerly swell increased overnight as we crossed Shelekhova Bay. We came in under the lee of Cape Yuzhniy, a prominent cape off the western coast of Kamchatka. With 30 knots of wind and heavy fog, getting off the ship was not an option this morning, so instead we stayed anchored in this comfortable location. During the morning we watched the BBC Russia series Part 3 and Meghan opened the sea shop for those in need of retail therapy. Just before lunch we gathered in the lecture hall to discuss our options and the decision was made to head back out into the Sea of Okhotstk and begin the long journey southwards down the coast.
After lunch Katya gave a well attended lecture on the future of Polar Bears in a changing climate. This was followed by Alison giving a lecture on environmental education through art. Conditions improved somewhat during the afternoon. After a few drinks in the bar we tucked into another delicious dinner served up by head chef Bruce.
Thursday 21st June - Down the west coast of Kamchatka
The wind had dropped significantly overnight but the residual swell from the storm continued to rock us as we travelled down the west coast of Kamchatka. We watched the final part of the BBC's Russia and Katya gave a talk on one of her favourite subjects, Sea Otters.
During the afternoon we saw Harbour Seals, Dall's Porpoise and Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels. Katya gave a talk on the Commander Islands including their history and wildlife. After dinner we gathered in the bar to celebrate Midsummer's Day with champagne, cheese and chocolate.
Friday 22nd June - Opala River, Second Strait
After breakfast we boarded the Zodiacs and headed ashore, crossing the river mouth of the Opala River. Pink Salmon could be seen breaking the surface every so often and a throng of seals, gulls and terns avidly followed their movements. A landing on the spit offered the chance for a welcome stretch of the legs after a couple days on the ship. We then passed a fishing camp and made another landing on the opposite side of the river, although we did not linger in this area as it was a Common Tern breeding colony and many nests with eggs and small chicks were on the ground. After some more exploration of the river we made our way back to ship and continued south.
Conditions continued to improve as we headed south and the outline of the hills of southern Kamchatka could be clearly seen. The volcanoes of the northern Kuril Islands also came into view, including the impressive Alaid Volcano of Atlasova Island. Two Humpback Whales provided passing entertainment, but the best wildlife spectacle was provided by the throngs of Short-tailed Shearwaters which covered the water in their hundreds of thousands, truly an impressive sight.
As we approached the Second Strait which separates the islands of Shumshu and Paramushir we began to encounter strong winds and also the first of many Sea Otters. While most of the Sea Otters were distant, a few mothers carrying their pups were observed really close to the ship. As we neared the settlement of Severo-Kurilsk in very strong winds, Rodney and Katya headed off for an adventurous ride to pick up Leonid, a volcanologist and historian. Once on board, Leonid gave us a fascinating lecture on the history of the Kuril Islands and stayed on for dinner while we watched a few more otters offshore. After dropping Leonid back home we resumed our journey and headed for the east coast of Kamchatka.
Saturday 23rd June - Vestnik Bay and Bukhta Russkaya
The day began with an early wake-up call from Rodney at 5:45 am. The ship had just arrived at Vestnik Bay where the weather was glorious and a Zodiac cruise would depart in 45 minutes. Breakfast would be available on our return. Despite the early hour almost everyone got up and we set off to explore the islands in the middle of the bay. As we approached, two Sea Otters were seen quietly dozing on a rock covered with seaweed and a young Steller's Sea Eagle quietly watched us from a rock pinnacle high above.
For sheer numbers, however, the most impressive spectacle was the number of auks, with thousands of birds rafting up on the water or flying around overhead. There were large numbers of Tufted Puffins, Common Guillemots and Brunnich's Guillemots but there were also good numbers of Horned Puffins and Pigeon Guillemots. Some of the Pigeon Guillemots were of the range restricted race, snowi, which is considered by some to be a separate species, the Kuril Guillemot.
As we slowly cruised around the islands, known as Ostrov Utashud, at least 20 Sea Otters were also seen, several of which were females carrying their cubs. Occasionally they would raise themselves vertically in the water to get a better look at us, but all too often they would dive and only resurface further away. Sadly these animals had learnt that humans are a threat to their existence. Continuing onwards around the island, we came to the rusting hulk of what looked like an old fishing boat which must have grounded many years ago. It was now covered in nesting Slaty-backed Gulls, and several Pigeon Guillemots perched on it too. A little further on there were 30 or so Largha Seals snoozing on a beach with others watching us from the water. Like the otters, they would periodically raise themselves up in the water to inspect us before diving again.
All too soon it was time to return to the Spirit of Enderby for breakfast and as we cruised north up the western coastline of Kamchatka, the weather remained fantastic with blue skies, little wind and flat seas. The late morning and early afternoon were taken up with a number of inside activities including the payment of on board accounts, a disembarkation briefing and a final expedition recap. Many still managed to get outside to enjoy the views and wildlife however as we sailed on towards our ultimate destination. The weather was also the warmest of the entire expedition with many wandering around the outside decks in tee shirts - a rare experience indeed in the Russian Far East!
During this leg of the voyage a selection of the seabirds we had seen previously were also found, including Northern Fulmar, Tufted Puffin and Parakeet Auklet - the latter being not that common along the coast of Kamchatka. There were also some Short-tailed Shearwaters; however the numbers were significantly lower than yesterday with only a few hundred birds compared with the vast flocks which we had seen before.
After the disembarkation briefing and slideshow had concluded, we emerged from the lecture room to find the ship close to Bukhta Russkaya. As soon as everyone was ready, five Zodiacs were lowered and we set off to explore. Our main target here was some good looks at the resident pod of Orca and Adam had spotted these even before the ship was in position, so we had a good idea where to go. With considerable care we approached the pod and over the next hour and a half enjoyed some phenomenal views of them. On occasions we saw tail slapping and every so often the animals would surface within ten metres of the boats - it was a truly magical experience to finish off the expedition.
By late afternoon everyone was back on board and the ship repositioned the short distance to Bukhta Russkaya. The weather was still glorious and many were outside to watch the ship sail into this fine fjord. There were hundreds of Tufted Puffins floating on the water, but the keen birders were looking for two particular species - the Long-billed and Kittlitz's Murrelets. They were delighted when both species were found.
At 7:30 pm the farewell dinner began and after this had concluded, many went outside once again to enjoy the view. Our final days together had been blessed with beautiful sunshine.
Sunday 24th June - Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy
During the night the Spirit of Enderby left Bukhta Russkaya and when most people rose, we were inside Avacha Bay. By the time breakfast had concluded we were at the wharf in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy and our amazing voyage which had covered over 1,800 nautical miles around the Sea of Okhotsk was over.
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" Having previously traveled with Heritage Expeditions on cruises to the Sub-Antarctic and Melanesia which we thoroughly enjoyed, we were anxious to experience the Russian Far East aboard their flagship, mv Spirit of Enderby. As experienced travelers who have made six expeditionary cruises before this, we were ready for another adventure. Our cruise to the Sea of Okhost did not disappoint.
We met the ship in Yuzhno, Sakhalin Island (Russia). While not the easiest port to embark, the Heritage office and port staff were accommodating and despite having to spend an extra day awaiting the ship due to limited flights, we were enchanted by the town including its monuments, museums, people and restaurants. Once we boarded the ship, we were met by many friendly faces from previous cruises and it felt a little like homecoming. Rodney was his usual charming but thoroughly professional self, Capt. Alexander and his bridge staff extremely competent, the excellent chefs, husband and wife team of Linzy and Cath plus the rest of the expeditionary staff went out of their way to make us feel at home.
Being non-birders of the highest order, we were a little nervous about joining a cruise that seemed to cater to mainly serious bird watchers. Even for us I must admit there is something magical about cruising close to uninhabited islands in one of the remotest parts of the world. We could do it in comfort by ship and zodiac seeing thousands, in some cases tens of thousands and even more birds such as auklets cling to sheer rock faces and have them circle us perhaps more out of their own curiosity than our own wonder. May my birder friends forgive me for my limited description of the special sights we were treated to… Landing on some of these islands and seeing an amazing array of flora of all shapes, sizes and colors was a true delight. Viewing rare mammals such as ribbon seals and whales nearly extinct was an experience we did not expect. The on-board lectures were appropriate and extremely educational. To us, the highlight was visiting a village that hosts only one ship a year (Enderby) and the fantastic cultural shows and presentation of food that they prepared. Crunching through ice packs made for many memorable experiences.
Our cruise ended in Magadan, a town known primarily for its association with the infamous gulags of the Stalin era. We did not opt for some of the extensions Heritage offered due to personal time constraints but the town had more than enough to offer to justify at least one additional day. Moving sights such as the Mask of Sorrow, the Regional Museum and the city park, not to mention some excellent restaurants made us wish we had more time.
Due in large measure to Rodney’s stellar reputation, Heritage is one of the very few companies that can obtain the necessary permits to visit this corner of the globe. While expeditionary cruises are by nature a slave to Mother Nature and the bureaucracy that controls where you can visit, this cruise exceeded our expectations.
Bob & Cathy Parda
" Since I had such a wonderful experience traveling with Heritage Expeditions on their 2014 Birding Down Under-Sub Antarctic Islands trip I decided to take another adventure with them, this time to Russia's Far East, Sea Of Okhotsk (2016). In addition to all the incredible wildlife we saw (Ribbon seals, brown bears, millions of auklets and the impressive Steller's Sea Eagle), I really like they way everyone is treated like family. I appreciate the way Rodney treats his staff and crew with respect and repeatedly sings their praises, while taking no credit himself. I also appreciate the individuals Heritage selects to help passengers on shore to smoothly navigate through unfamiliar culture and customs like Yulia in Yuzhno-Sakhalin and Victoria in Magadan, both women were worth their weight in gold! Traveling on a smaller ship like the Spirit of Enderby is the only way to see wildlife more closely and to be surrounded by a group of professionals that genuinely care about the passengers as well as the rest of the crew. Well done. "
" Just returned from the 2014 Sea of Okhotsk voyage and wanted to say a big thank you to the Heritage Expeditions staff and crew onboard the Spirit of Enderby. The tour had many highlights, but the evening we spent around the Yamskyie Islands with the Least and Crested Auklets is something I will never forget - a magical wildlife moment and a privilege to see wildlife in such rich abundance. Throw in the incredible number of Ribbon seals, Steller Sea Lions, and Brown Bears we saw and you have a trip that will live long in the memory. A fantastic trip and thoroughly recommended. "
" We had a fantastic time on the Spirit of Enderby, of course!
The ship is so comfortable and our cabin (327) was ideally located in a quiet corner on Main Deck, but still so accessible to the loo and showers, dining area and lecture room.
Rodney and his staff really took a lot of care in ensuring that the passengers had a great experience – the zodiac trips were exciting, the lectures were most interesting, food was great, and champagne and chocolates were well received! It was also a very nice touch for the staff to put together a CD of photos for passengers to keep, as not all of us have Super-duper cameras!
We were able to see some very special things, such as the countless Ribbon Seals laying on sea ice at the Shantar Archipelago, the Stellar Sea Lions on Iony Island, the swarming flocks of auklets, the thousands of other sea-birds including untold numbers of Stellar Sea Eagles, puffins, guillemots, etc etc etc
I especially enjoyed the visits to Okhotsk and Magadan, where we were able to get a cultural taste of the Russian Far East.
" it is really a fantastic trip. Nathan is an excellent expedition leader,what i especially appreciate is when he find the target ,he arrange all the zodiac sail in parallel that everyone can view the target. Adam is an really expert, he can recognize all the wild animal immediately. Meghan is so considerate that make everyone feel like at home. Lindsay is always busy in satisfy everyone`s stomach. Peter is so kind and polite to help everyone and let me have an new acknowledge about the art. "
" The staff including the Russian crew were really great, personable, accommodating, competent and very interesting, and the chefs produced all sorts of terrific food with a smile despite any adverse weather. It far exceeded my expectations and I will be looking forward to learning more Russian and going on other trips in the future. "
" We would like to thank you most sincerely for making our voyage so comfortable and enjoyable. Without your thoughtful attention and hardwork this journey would not have been so memorable. "
" Thank you very much for the perfect organisation of the trip.
Please forward my thanks and greetings to Rodney and Nathan (and all others of the staff) for the excellent trip.
" We have travelled to a great many countries over the past forty five years both working and laterally for pleasure. This trip was something quite different and special, a great experience from both a cultural and naturalist viewpoint. At the end of the sea voyage we were able to enjoy some of what Kamchatka has to offer including landing a few fish whilst rafting down the Bystraya River. Bears, Orcas, Seals, Stellar Sea Eagles, Stellar Sea Lions, seabirds by the thousand, all beautifully organized by the Heritage team . We are planning our next trip. "
" A trip to remember for a lifetime. To see endangered wildlife protected and gaining in numbers was a thrill. eg. ribbon seals, ring seals, Stellar's sea lions, as well as numerous birds.