1920: Russia's Ring of Fire 28 May 2019


© D. Brown
Day 1: Tuesday 28 May

Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky was bathed in sunshine as passengers arrived from all corners of the globe for the first voyage of Heritage Expeditions 2019 Russian season the ‘Russia’s Ring of Fire’. These expeditions really attract an international field with clients from Russia, Switzerland, Sweden, France, UK, Netherlands, Germany, Israel, Canada, Australia, Denmark and the USA all keen to experience what the Russian Far East has to offer.

Once onboard and settled in our Expedition Leader, Nathan Russ, briefed us on our plans and safety around the vessel before we cast off lines and started our expedition. The first Tufted Puffin was seen not metres from the wharf which we all took as a great omen for our adventure out to the Commander Islands, Kamchatka and the Kuril Islands. Red-throated Divers and 3 species of guillemots were spotted as we headed out of Avacha Bay leaving Koryaksky and Avacha volcanos standing watch over the town.

Unfortunately a fog bank was just offshore, but with little to no swell or wind predicted for our crossing to the Commander Islands, and Dall’s Porpoises in our wake, it was a full contingent at dinner as Professor Khromov (Spirit of Enderby) set a ENE course towards the western end of the Aleutian Islands Arc – a grandiose submarine volcanic ridge which boarders the Bering Sea from the south with its peaks being the islands of the chain.

Day 2: Wednesday 29 May
At Sea to Commander Islands

After a smooth nights sailing we woke to fog still hanging around, but that didn’t stop the birders getting some nice views of Laysan Albatross and Forked-tailed Storm-Petrels before breakfast was called. With a day at sea cruising across the Kamchatka Trench, it was all about preparation for our landings, briefings and lectures on what we will see on our expedition.

After breakfast our morning was filled with gumboot exchange and general housekeeping matters before we received the call to head up to the lifeboats for the practical component of our abandoned ship protocols. Into the polar class lifeboats we went, only to realise that these are designed to fit as many people as possible as a lifesaving device – with comfort coming a distant second!

The fog continued, as did the smooth seas while we gathered for lunch, the famous Heritage Expedition hamburgers were on the menu today. A quick afternoon siesta was on the cards for some before the lecture program went into full swing. Chris’s lecture on the ‘Seabirds of the Russian Far East’ was lavishly illustrated with all his own photos collected in over 12 years of working in this region. Dan was up next with his lecture on ‘Getting to know your Whales and Dolphins: An introduction to Cetaceans’. Armed with our newfound knowledge we headed outside to test what we had learned before, then once again headed down to the lecture room for Nathan’s talk on an ‘Introduction to the Commander Islands’. This covered the history and natural history of the islands plus an outline of our plans tomorrow at Nikolskoye on Bering Island.

Just before dinner the fog lifted and we had our first whale sighting of the trip – a Fin Whale. After a delicious dinner the call came from the bridge that a Humpback Whale was just in front of the ship. Our captain expertly manoeuvred the ship, and for the next 30 mins our humpback friend happily fed around us as the sunset lite up the mountains on Bering Island on the horizon.
© D. Brown
Day 3: Thursday 30 May
Bering Island and Arii Kamen

We woke up this morning to a day that the Commander Islands rarely sees. It was flat calm and sunny! Precipitation falls on these islands around 270 days a year but not today. Just before breakfast, on our final approach to this morning’s anchorage in front of Nikolskoye the first sea otter was spotted lounging around in a bed of kelp.

Once formalities were finalised with the relevant authorities we loaded Zodiacs and headed in for our morning ashore at the only settlement on this Federal Nature Reserve. The Commander Islands and the 30 mile Marine Zone around them were declared a zapovednik (Federal Nature Reserve) in 1993. They are also included in the World Network of Biosphere Reserves by UNESCO and have been nominated as a World Heritage Site.

The birders headed off and found Rock and Terek Sandpipers, Mongolian Plovers and Wandering Tattlers, while others spent time visiting the local museum, national park visitor centre and other sites around the village. Most returned to the Zodiacs in T-shirts as we headed back to our ship for a quick lunch. The weather was still stunning as we boarded Zodiacs again, this time for a cruise around Arii Kamen. This rock holds an amazing amount of birdlife with fulmars, 2 species of guillemots and Tufted Puffins the highlights. A few groups of Steller Sea Lions added to the sights, sounds and smells of this special place.

Next it was whale-watching time, so our captain took the ship down the SW coastline of Bering Island where the shelf edge drops away. Humpbacks, Sperm and Baird’s Beaked Whales were spotted before an early dinner was called to allow for an evening cruise to Lisinkaya Bay. Sea otters, foxes and our first Horned Puffins on cliffs were sighted as the sun set on a jam packed day on Bering Island.
© D. Brown © C. Collins
Day 4: Friday 31 May
Medny Island

Overnight the Spirit of Enderby made its way to Medny Island for our morning landing and Zodiac cruise at Peschanaya Bay. This was the sight of the old settlement on Medny Island called Prebrazhenskoe which was abandoned in the 1970s and its inhabitants moved to Nikolskoye on Bering Island. The border guard post at the site was manned until 2001, after which it was removed as well.

After breakfast and a short briefing from Nathan we headed ashore in bright sunshine for a few hours. Harbour seals watched us from the shallows, while Horned Puffins, Fulmars and Parakeet Auklets flew around the cliffs. Pechora Pipits were also out in good numbers and the first flowers, a rhododendron, of the summer season delighted.

As the Spirit of Enderby pick up anchor to meet us at the rendezvous point we boarded Zodiacs for an hour or so cruising this awesome coastline. The cliffs NW of Peschanaya Bay up to Matvey Point are one of the places for Horned Puffins on this trip and they didn’t disappoint. Surely it’s a challenge to watch a puffin doing its thing and not smile! The first good views of sea otters and Whiskered Auklet were also a highlight.

Upon return to the ship we set sail for the Zhupanova River in Kamchatka via the south coast of Bering Island. A lovely chicken curry lunch warmed us up before most people retired to their cabins for a short nap before Elena’s lecture on Kamchatka set the scene for our landings over the next few days.

Before dinner a recap was held in the bar. Chris and Dan went through some of the bird and cetaceans sightings that we have had to help us with our identification, while Judd talked about the ‘battle of the Commander Islands’ - a naval battle during WWII.

After dinner Chris and Dan went through the bird and species list that Heritage Expeditions keeps for each voyage.
© D. Brown
Day 5: Saturday 1 June
Zhupanova River and Bukta Morzhovaya

Throughout the night our trusty ship the Spirit of Enderby made great speed and we were at our anchorage in front of the Zhupanova River an hour earlier than planned. After a short briefing by Nathan we donned our wet weather gear and headed into the river system to see what we could find. Low cloud and drizzle was what we met, but that didn’t stop us finding the wildlife we set out to find. Largha Seal heads popped up regularly to watch us pass and we even found a sandbar that had about 20 individuals lounging around on it looking like overripe bananas. The main species we were on the lookout for was the Steller’s Sea Eagle, the world’s largest sea eagle. These eagles head down as far as Hokkaido in Japan for the winter but breed along the Kamchatka peninsula, often returning to the same nest sites. It wasn’t long before two were spotted perched on a tree next to the river surveying the scene below. As we headed further into the river system the birders were excited to see some Far Eastern Curlews dive bombing a raven that had got too close for their liking. As the river narrowed we came to a known nest site that had an eagle. Everyone got some amazing views and photos of this magnificent raptor and he stood sentry over what was assumed to be its nest for this summer.

The soup for lunch was well received as the temperature was a bit cold today and in stark contrast to our days at the Commander Islands. As Dan did a lecture on the ‘Wildlife of the Russian Far East’ (which covered everything from bears to butterflies) our ship moved down the Kamchatka coast to Bukta Morzhovaya. A Kamchatka Brown Bear was sighted on our approach but he then proceeded to lie down for a nap just out of view. On the Zodiac cruise that followed another two bears were sighted with one giving us reasonable views. A large group of Harlequin Ducks was also a highlight, and as the temperature dropped we headed back to our ship for another delightful cooked meal by our amazing chefs.
© D. Brown
Day 6: Sunday 2 June
Bukta Russkaya

An early wake up call from Nathan woke most from their slumbers as we reached the heads of Bukta Russkaya. This was to be our playground for this morning. After breakfast we headed to the lecture room for a briefing on the activities planned before we tumbled into the Zodiacs in search of the Long-billed Murrelet and bears. We found both! The cloud lifted and the temperature rose during the short cruise revealing the grandeur of the fjord we were in. Waterfalls cascaded down all around us and the snow topped peaks were the subject of many a photograph during our morning. We made a landing at the head of the bay which was the site of an old border post (now in ruins). The birders headed straight off and were rewarded with good views of ptarmigan and other species, and even sighting an Arctic Hare. Some people were happy to stay on the beach area, while others went for a walk inland along a large stream.

Our activities at Bukta Russkaya weren’t finished yet. After about 30 mins back onboard the Spirit of Enderby to warm up and have a cup of tea we were back out in the Zodiacs heading for a haul out, site of the Steller Sea Lion. The scenery on the way was very dramatic with large cliffs, a few Steller’s Sea Eagles and even another brown bear showing itself. As we rounded the last point and got to the haul out the sun came out, and even some of Kamchatka’s 160 volcanos were visible in the distance to the north. The sea lions vary in size quite a bit with large 1 ton males surrounding themselves with a harem of females that only top the scales at 300kg.

Back on the ship a late lunch was served before the Spirit of Enderby ‘ship shop’ was opened for those that were keen on some shopping. Later ‘Humpback Whale dead ahead’ was the call from the bridge and what a show it put on. Tail flukes and even breaching was observed next to the ship.

Dinner was amazing once again thanks to our hard working and creative chefs. Today was our last on the Kamchatka coast as overnight we head south down into the Kuril Islands.
© E. Sabanina © C. Collins
Day 7: Monday 3 June
Bird Rocks and Atlasova Island

Ptich’i or Bird Rocks was this morning’s destination; the plan was to have a Zodiac cruise here. These rocks hold a phenomenal amount of wildlife with birds, seals and sea otters in residence. The fog was quite thick but that didn’t stop us heading out in the Zodiacs to see what we could see. As the rocks loomed out of the fog the first sea otters were spotted and sightings continued regularly throughout the cruise. Sea otters were hunted to almost extinction but are now number back to almost 2/3 of their historical range. One thing we did notice was that the sea otters here in the Kuril Islands aren’t as scared of us as the ones in the Commander Islands, so the views today were exceptional. Harbour and Largha Seals were also sighted as were heaps of Tufted Puffins.

Back for lunch onboard while the ship moved through the 2nd straight between Shumshu and Paramushir Islands on route to Altasova Island. This is the highest volcano in the Kuril Islands at 2339m and our site for an afternoon landing.

As the anchor dropped the fog lifted revealing this magnificent volcano in bright sunshine. Ashore we were free to wonder by ourselves while Dan and Chris led those interested on a birding walk. Kamchatka Leaf-warbler and Buff-bellied Pipits were spotted, but the birding highlight was a large group of ducks that included Eurasian Wigeon, Greater Scaup and even 3 drake Falcated Ducks.

The choice between beef Wellington and crispy skin salmon for dinner was a hard one but most worked their way through it and enjoyed another lovely meal.
© D. Brown © D. Brown
Day 8: Tuesday 4 June
Onekotan and Ekarma Islands

A pink sunrise greeted those lucky enough to be awake as the Spirit of Enderby pulled into Nemo Bay on Onekotan Island. The name Onekotan is derived from the Ainu (indigenous peoples of the Kurils) language for ‘large village’. We were to have over 3 hours exploring this island that is basically two volcanoes – Krenitsyn 1324m & Nemo 1019m – connected by a relatively flat isthmus.

We split into 4 groups depending on fitness and interests once ashore and off we went. The long walkers led by Judd headed up to Black Lake at the base of Nemo volcano, general interest medium walkers led by Dan headed along the isthmus while Chris took the birders birding. Another group spent the morning around the landing site and small river that comes out there. The wind picked up during the landing making temperatures drop and with a light drizzle coming and going it was time to transfer back to our ship for a hot cuppa and a chance to dry some gear.

After lunch onboard Elena talked about the ‘Indigenous people of Kamchatka’ before some headed off for a quick siesta to recharge the batteries. As seems to be the pattern on this trip Ekarma Island loomed out of the fog only to clear to sunshine during our 2 hour Zodiac cruise. Fulmars were everywhere, on the water, in the skies and on the cliffs. Tufted Puffins and a few random auklets were also sighted, made all the more special with the backdrop of the volcano on Ekarma Island swirling with mist.

The bar was well attended this evening as is normally the case after a fantastic day on expedition. A delightful dinner then and it was time to climb into our bunks – tired yet happy.
© D. Brown
Day 9: Wednesday 5 June
Simushir and Yankicha Islands

Dawn was a grey affair but sea conditions were still favourable for our planned landing at Simushir Island. After a hearty breakfast and a briefing from Nathan, Zodiacs were launched and we headed into the caldera of Brouton Bay. This was the site of a secret Soviet era submarine base which was abandoned in a hurry in the mid 1990s. Upon landing we were free to roam around this spooky place... if only those walls could talk. The birders headed off and were rewarded with the Pine Grosbeak and Eurasian Nutcracker amongst other species.

As we boarded the Zodiacs to take us back a Steller’s Sea Eagle was sighted, and as we approached the ship a Short-tailed Albatross was spotted. Once back onboard albatross seemed to appear from everywhere. The three species we are likely to see on this trip were spotted within 10 minutes of each other (i.e. Laysan, Short-tailed and Black-footed). The wildlife kept coming as after lunch Orcas were seen from the bridge. What followed was an experience that will live with all of us forever. Over 30 Orca were sighted over the next hour all around the ship. They were in the wake, next to the ship and in front of it to the point where at times we didn’t know which way to look. A female in the pod even thought she would entertain us with some tail slapping not 20m off the starboard side of the ship.

During our transit to Yankicha Island Dan had a talk on expedition photography, and armed with this newfound knowledge we boarded Zodiacs and set out into our second caldera of the day. Crested and Whiskered Auklets nest on this island in their millions and they return from feeding at sea in the late afternoon/early evening. Firstly we landed at an area of geothermal activity for a short exploration. Some climbed the hills behind for nice views while others were just happy to be in such a spot. The highlight of this evening was the flocks of auklets coming back from sea, with some people likening the scene to plagues of locusts. Half a dozen blue foxes were also spotted down by the waters edge.

Dinner was a later affair this evening but with the clocks going back an hour overnight all was right with the world.
© D. Brown © D. Brown © D. Brown
Day 10: Thursday 6 June
Chirpoy and Urup Islands

Chirpoy Island was this mornings spot for a pre breakfast Zodiac cruise. This island is very active and the sulfur smell coming across the ship this morning was testament to this. Zodiacs were boarded and off we went to explore. Pigeon and Kuril Guillemots, and Black-legged Kittiwakes watched us from the cliffs, and even a pair of Horned Puffins was sighted. A lone Steller Sea Lion made a brief appearance but it was the geology of this volcanic island that took centre stage as we cruised along the cliffs.

Back onboard and the weather started to turn. The swell had picked up and made our original planned landing unworkable. We continued on around Urup Island looking for a landing site, but they all proved to be out due to the waves on the beach. As we set sail from Urup to Iturup Island we did come across a Sperm Whale that was resting on the surface on the ocean, it sounded as we approached lifting its massive tail into the air, leaving us in awe of the sheer size of this special cetacean. Just before dinner Nathan presented a talk in the bar on Russian logistics which made us enjoy dinner just that little bit more.

Day 11: Friday 7 June
Iturup Island

A town visit and some geothermal sights were on the cards today on the island of Iturup. This is one of the largest islands in the Kurils being over 200km long with over 20 volcanoes on it. With packed lunches we headed ashore after our briefing to the sight of 17 4WD’s lined up ready to take us up into the hills, then to town. The birders headed off along the same route to start then ‘went bush’ sighting the Japanese Robin and Accentor. The rest made some stops along the road at viewpoints and geothermal areas before ending up at the hot springs for lunch and a swim in the warm mineral creek.

The sun was blazing down on us as we jumped back into our 4WD convoy and headed into the town of Kurilisk. Once in town we were free to wander with some people heading to the museum, while others spent their time shopping for souvenirs and looking at the local sights, or even sampling the local beers. Once we were back onboard most people headed for the outer decks to bathe in the warm sun as we picked up anchor and set course for Kunashir Island.

After another delightful meal the call from Chris was made from the bridge that a flock of thousands of Short-tailed Shearwaters were next to the ship. The nightly bird list was put on hold and most headed to a viewpoint for this final swan song of a magical day in the southern Kuril Islands.

Day 12: Saturday 8 June
Kunashir Island

Today, the final day of landings of our expedition, was at a new site on Kunashir Island. A beautiful day dawned on this southern Kuril Island and our amazing captain nearly had us anchored on the beach we were so close. Short Zodiac rides later and we were amongst the rangers in the Kurilsky Reserve. The reserve covers the northern and southern portions of Kunashir Island with 70% of the reserve forests, mostly with coniferous trees.

Groups were split on the beach into a short birding walk, medium birding walk, long walkers and beach dwellers. The long walkers headed to a lookout point about 350m above sea level for spectacular views down to the ship and surrounding mountains. Both the medium and short birding walks had great success with Mandarin Ducks, Narcissus Flycatcher, Black Woodpecker and even a Blakiston’s Fish-Owl spotted. Those that stayed around the beach were happy to ‘just be’ in such a delightful spot, especially with the sun shining as it was.

Once back onboard, and after lunch, accounts were settled before Nathan explained what will happen in the port of Korsakov, Sakhalin tomorrow. The expedition slideshow followed reminding us of the special places we have visited and sights we have seen over the past 2 weeks. Our final celebratory dinner again had us in awe of the food our chefs have created on this trip in the Russian Far East.
© D. Brown
Day 13: Sunday 9 June
Port of Korskov, Sakhalin Island

  In the early morning we arrived at the Port of Korskov on Sakhalin Island. After a last breakfast, with bags packed we prepared for our departure from the vessel and bid our farewells to the expedition staff. As the coach pulled away from the Spirit of Enderby we all reflected back on our Russia’s Ring of Fire adventure.

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