KAMCHATKA, THE COMMANDER AND KURIL ISLANDS
(Incorporating our Popular ‘Birding The Russian Far East' Expedition)
The Pacific Ring of Fire manifests itself in numerous places on the rim of the Pacific Ocean - but nowhere more dramatically than in Russia's Far East. Along one of the world's most active plate boundaries, the Pacific plate subducts under the North American plate and the resulting volcanic and geothermal activity has built a unique and amazing landscape. Upwelling from the deep trenches formed by this action and currents around the many islands creates perfect conditions for seabirds and cetaceans. Consequently the area is one of the richest in the world, both in terms of the number of species, which can be seen, and their sheer abundance. For many birders, the undoubted highlight is the auks and during our voyage it is possible to see up to fourteen species including Tufted and Horned Puffins, Parakeet, Whiskered and Rhinoceros Auklets, as well as Spectacled and Pigeon Guillemots.
Other seabirds we regularly encounter include Laysan Albatross, Mottled Petrel, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, Red-faced Cormorant, Red-legged Kittiwake and Aleutian Tern. For those keen on cetaceans we can reasonably expect to see Fin, Sperm, Humpback Whales as well as Orca (Killer Whale), Baird's Beaked-Whale and Dall's Porpoise.
The region's human history is equally interesting and fascinating. The original settlers were the Ainu and Itelmen. They were displaced with the arrival of the Cossacks in the 18th century after the Explorer Vitus Bering had put the region on the map. The Soviet empire encompassed the region and at the height of the Cold War, Russia's formidable Pacific Fleet was based here. The secrecy surrounding the fleet resulted in the region being ‘closed' even to Russians who had to get special permits to travel to and within the area. It is only now, two decades since Perestroika, that people can travel relatively freely here, although there is still very little in the way of infrastructure for visitors.
The region we explore on this expedition falls into three quite distinct and unique geographical regions: the Kamchatka Peninsula; the Commander Islands (the western extremity of the Aleutian chain of islands) and the Kuril Islands. Each region is very different. Each has its own story and in many cases localised plants and birds. Join us as we go in search of those people, plants, animals and birds that make this part of the Pacific Ring of Fire so special.
A message for the keen birders and cetacean watchers reading this. Space doesn't allow us to list all species on a day-by-day basis in this itinerary. Please ask for an expedition dossier or a bird and mammal list from previous expeditions.
Pre/Post cruise transfers, all on board ship accommodation, meals and all expedition shore excursions.
All items of a personal nature, laundry, drinks, gratuities. International/domestic flights, visas and travel insurance.
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 recently updated combined bar/library lounge area and a dedicated lecture room (March 2018). 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.
Classification: Russian register KM ice class
Year built: 1984
Accommodation: 50 berths expedition
Main engines: power 2x1560 bhp (2x 1147 Kw)
Maximum speed: 12 knots (2 engines),
Cruising speed: 10 knots(one engine)
Bunker capacity: 320 tons
Day 1: 26th May 2016
Meeting bright and early at a central Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy hotel, it was with excited anticipation that 20 keen birders set out into the wilds of fabled Kamchatka this morning. All fresh off of flights from all corners of the globe, we aimed our sights high and set off into the nearby birch woods in search of a certain far east specialty, the near-mythical Black-billed Capercaillie. Arriving at our chosen site, one which has produced the bird in the past, we were initially met with no sign of our target, however our foray around the area produced some great distractions in the form of displaying Olive-backed Pipits, singing Rustic Buntings, superb views of a Spotted Nutcracker and several obliging Eyebrowed Thrushes. We also had our first views of the highly distinctive local form of Willow Tit which, as all the palearctic birders agreed, appears almost nothing like ‘our’ European Willow Tits. We thus dubbed it ‘Kamchatka’ Willow Tit for the remainder of the day, which produced many good looks at this rather nice bird. Another local form seen was several ‘Kamchatka’ Magpies, a rumoured split in the making. Of course, these birds weren’t our key targets, but some ultra-fresh scat found on the track betrayed the presence of our quary. A brief view of a Taiga Flycatcher aside, and some spectacular looks at a freshly dead almost white albidus Northern Goshawk, we decided to move on after several hours of trying without luck. Of course, as luck and fate would typically dictate, it was as we left the site that the first bus screeched to a halt and two female Black-billed Capercaillie burst from the undergrowth beside the road! The bus behind suffered a tense few seconds that felt like forever before every single member of our party was having good, wholly-tickable views of one of the iconic birds of the Russian Far East – success!
After a stop in town to stock up on supplies for what promises to be a superb and lengthy expedition, we made our way out to the Blue Lagoon, a natural hot spring site that just so happens to also be a great birding location. Eurasian Tree Sparrow along the way was welcome, but when we arrived it was an obliging and gorgeous Rustic Bunting as well as a pale Eurasian Sparrowhawk and two stunning, and I mean stunning, Red-necked Grebes that took our fancy. A walk around the lake was well worthwhile and produced more Eyebrowed Thrushes, several White Wagtails of the forms lugens and ocularis, ‘Grey-bellied’ Bullfinch, Great Spotted Woodpecker and the distinctive local race of Eurasian Nuthatch, again dubbed ‘Kamchatka’ Nuthatch by the group, who agreed it was nothing like ‘our’ nuthatches. Very pallid with a stonking great bill and orange undertail coverts with white ‘scalloping’, this is a distinctive bird! Of course, continuing the theme of distinctive races, we also admired some rather dapper longipennis Common Terns, which may well have one of the best latin trinomials in the world of birding.
With time no longer on our side, many good birds under the belt, and jet lag setting in for everyone, it was time to call it a day. But not without one last stop. Pulling over on the roadside on the way back to town, and in the shadow of some of the most spectacular and typically conical snow-capped volcanoes on the planet, those of us from Europe enjoyed a taste of home with Eurasian Skylark, Common Reed Bunting, Northern Pintail, Black-headed Gull and Carrion Crow, also a rumoured future split as Oriental Crow. A little different though were the rather nice Slaty-backed Gulls drifting to and from the lake we were ‘scoping. With our first day a roaring success, most of the group returned to the hotel to sleep off the jet lag and dream of yet more birding in this little-appreciated and overlooked part of the globe.
Day 2: 27th May 2016
Today once again dawned bright and not too hideously early, for the sun barely sets in this sub-Arctic realm. The group assembled at a central hotel and put luggage aside to be taken to the ship, ready for embarkation and the beginning of our expedition in earnest this afternoon.
Setting off from town into the surrounding birch woodlands we once again sought the much desired Black-billed Capercaillie as a local contact had given us details of a location where several males had been seen recently. Unfortunately we failed to locate any dapper males, but we did find more than a few birds of note. Just as yesterday, Eyebrowed Thrush and Rustic Bunting were the stalwarts of the day being seen regularly, whilst Taiga Flycatcher once again put in an appearance, this time long enough and in numbers enough to ensure that most people had good looks at this rather attractive little flycatcher. A couple of Great-spotted Woodpeckers were nice to see and familiar to those from Europe, whilst many displaying Olive-backed Pipits were gratefully received. Perhaps bird of the morning though went to a probable Black Woodpecker that unfortunately disappeared as rapidly as it arrived, leaving us a little shocked and frustrated.
Moving on, we made our way to the mouth-area of fabled Avacha Bay in search of more water-dependent species. We didn’t fail to find something interesting, with Slaty-backed and Glaucous-winged Gulls in good numbers, Pelagic and Red-faced Cormorants, a few fly-by Tufted Puffins looking stunning, and quite spectacularly several hundred Ancient Murrelet! All to a backdrop of a giant statue of Lenin. Welcome to Russia! Further along the coast we found a secluded and sun-baked bay where more Ancient Murrelet gave good views, longipennis Common Terns gave a superb show and a couple of Kamchatka Gulls stole the show. This incredibly distinctive form of Mew or Common Gull is a near future split without doubt, looking extremely different to the other subspecies, and as such it was much desired by the group. The award for best looking bird was a difficult decision, though several Red-necked Grebes marginally lost out to a group of Harlequin Ducks that milled around the shore.
Further along toward the mouth of the huge natural harbor we made our way down to an area of water to find Greater Scaup, Tufted Duck, Common Goldeneye, Eurasian Reed Bunting, Eastern Yellow Wagtail and Oriental Greenfinch to name a few highlights, whilst on the mammal front we found concerningly-fresh Kamchatka Bear prints and an absolutely mind-blowingly tame Red Fox, complete with subarctic shaggy coat. Easily the best looking Red Fox I have ever seen, and incredible views to go with it.
After returning to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, we made our way finally to the wonderful Spirit of Enderby, our home for the next couple of weeks, and settled for crew and staff introductions, drinks and muffins at the bar, and eventually a sumptuous steak or salmon dinner cooked to perfection. This was topped off not only by home-made Apple Crumble, but with a spectacular departure from Avacha Bay as we followed in the footsteps of Steller and Bering. This is the exact same place that their ill-fated expedition some near 300 years prior began, in which they would ‘discover’ America and countless new species to science. Our new species, to our lists rather than science, included Pigeon Guillemot, Siberian (Stejneger’s White-winged) Scoter, Common Guillemot, and much better views of Tufted Puffin. With light fading, and an already behind schedule departure thanks to Russian bureaucracy it was time for bed for most on board, satisfied with the day’s haul and excited for our first day of expeditioning tomorrow.
Day 3: 28th May 2016
En-route to the Commander Islands
Today was an exciting day for the wildlife lovers among us, as any day spent travelling into the great blue unknown is. The beauty of sea days is not only that they afford time to rest, settle into cabins and recover from jet lag, but they often offer some exciting bird and mammal encounters. This day was no different.
The early risers arose around 4:30am and were on deck shortly after, being rewarded by the first two of several dozen majestic Laysan Albatrosses to be seen throughout the day, accompanied by Red-faced Cormorants and the first of several large flocks of Crested Auklet. The real highlight of the early morning session though came in the form of a particularly obliging Sperm Whale and a more fleeting Fin Whale.
Throughout the remainder of the day we added several new species to our list, including the magnificent Horned Puffin and the small but bizarrely wonderful Parakeet Auklet, complete with clog-like bill. Alongside us were hundreds of Pacific Fulmar throughout the day, as well as several dozen, perhaps even a hundred plus, Fork-tailed Storm Petrels which at times gave very satisfying views of this North Pacific endemic. Remaining with smaller birds, one of today’s avian highlights came in the form of several flocks of the particularly gaudy and sexy Red Phalarope. Though the Europeans call them ‘Grey’ phalarope, this is simply unacceptable once you’ve seen them in their spectacular breeding finery. On the larger bird front we scored big with all three jaegers, Arctic (Parasitic), Pomarine and several flocks of the truly elegant and much prized Long-tailed. However, despite all of this, great lectures from Chris and Katya, and a superb lamb dinner to boot, it was the mammals the stole the show today. Not only did we see our first Northern Fur Seals and some really fantastically obliging Fin Whales, but we hit the near-jackpot with FOUR Blue Whales including one individual that gave some absolutely tremendous flukes as it dove deep! Rare but possible on this trip, this was a major target to get and left all those who saw them awe-struck.
Day 4: 29th May 2016
Nikol’skoye, North-west Cape and Arij Karmen island
The day dawned early today. In fact, it dawned earlier than almost anywhere in the world, as overnight we had arrived off of Bering Island, the largest of the Commander Islands, which sit at the very western end of the Aleutian chain. Though the sun rose at around 4:45am, we were among the first to see in this glorious 29th of May.
The plan for today began at the settlement of Nikol’skoye, a border post for entering the Commander Islands. Despite being a necessary formality, there is plenty to do and see here, and several groups enjoyed different aspects of the visit. Those seeking a well-rounded experience spent time at an art gallery held by a local artist, others tasted warm local soup, some were welcomed into the homes of residents like old friends, and of course the birders went birding.
Scouring the shore, it didn’t take long to find our first main target here: Rock Sandpiper, as several birds were found feeding and resting along the shore – what a cracking looking bird! The show was almost stolen though by a particularly obliging Mongolian Plover in its best breeding finery, surely among the best shorebirds in the world. Of course, not to be outdone, the passerines fought back with dapper Eurasian Tree Sparrows and beautifully melodic Lapland Buntings, whilst offshore the mammals were well represented with Pacific Sea Otter, Harbour Seal, Northern Fur Seal and a huge surprise in the form of a thrashing and wallowing Grey Whale! This latter animal was a really unexpected highlight and was much appreciated by everyone.
Moving on through the town we eventually left civilization and began to find more breeding waders, this time in the form of Red-necked Stints, Dunlin and yet more Mongolian Plovers. Our real target out here in the grasslands though was slightly drabber, though still very attractive. With a little enticing into the open we eventually all had absolutely superb walk-away views of the extremely skulky Pechora Pipit before making our way back to town to admire several good taxidermy examples in the local museum. The stand out highlight here, however, was the full skeleton of a Steller’s Sea Cow, a long extinct marine mammal 8 meters long that became extinct just 30 years after it was first discovered thanks to hunters.
After a superb chowder and salad lunch back on board the ship we made our way to North-west Cape where we took a walk as a group to a colony containing not only dozens of Northern Fur Seal, but also some absolutely colossal Steller’s Sea Lions. Even from a fair distance these animals look seriously, disproportionately large. A bonus in the form of at least four Arctic Foxes was much appreciated, as was the Siberian Rubythroat seen by some. The bird highlight here though had to be the dozens of Red-faced and Pelagic Cormorants constantly making arms-length passes as we sat and admired some distant Harlequin on the edge of the water.
Our final activity on this long but rewarding day was a zodiac cruise around Arij Karmen Island. With the weather and sea having picked up a little, it was a little bumpy wet and windy reaching the island, but once there we enjoyed absolutely phenomenal views of the extremely local Red-legged Kittiwake as well as Common and Brunnich’s Guillemots, Parakeet Auklet, Tufted Puffin, Steller’s Sea Lion, Pacific Sea Otter amongst others. Once the photographers had had their fill of kittiwakes we made our way back to the ship, where we ate a hearty dinner before reappearing on the bridge. Travelling into dusk, we passed along the edge of the continental shelf, meaning Laysan Albatross was common throughout, however the highlights were two fly-through Horned Puffin, a VERY large bull Sperm Whale that gave the most incredible fluke, and by some extreme luck 2 pods totaling fifteen Baird’s Beaked Whales.
Day 4: 30th May 2016
Peschanaya Bay, Medney Island, & cruising west
Today began, as per usual, with a briefing from Rodney about what to expect from our time ashore today. Once this was completed we were soon zipping toward the shore in the zodiacs, picking up wildlife along the way. Harlequin were gorgeous and abundant, Pacific Eider were evident in small flocks complete with dazzlingly burnt-orange bills looking very different to ‘normal’ Common Eider, Harbour Seals came to check us out and Pigeon Guillemot were everywhere you looked.
Landing ashore, the group split into the birders, and everyone else did their own thing. The birders headed to and fro along the shore in search of our targets, eventually finding and scoring stonking views of Grey-crowned Rosy Finch, the only place in the Palearctic that this species occurs, as well as several Lapland Buntings a Taiga Flycatcher, good views of Horned Puffin and several singing Pacific Wrens, again the only place in the Palearctic that this species occurs. Overhead, Northern Ravens croaked whilst Rock Ptarmigan cackled across the valley. Others had their boots nibbled by an endemic subspecies of Arctic Fox.
After we’d had our fill, we moved out onto the water for an extended Zodiac cruise in search of a couple more targets. First target was close range views of Horned Puffin which we succeeded in almost immediately, as well as eye-level views of Brunnich’s Guillemot, Pigeon Guillemot and Pacific Fulmar right next to the Zodiac, whilst more Harlequin and Pacific Eider flew by in good photographic range. Of course, our targets here were mostly of the auk persuasion, and we soon found our first pair of Parakeet Auklet that gave superb views, as well as a single Whiskered Auklet which showed off its dazzling adornments to a crowd of eager onlookers. Mammal highlight here, despite Steller’s Sea Lion being present and impressive, was the large numbers of Sea Otter complete with pups on their bellies – cute, amazing, and superb creatures.
An afternoon and evening at sea was a great opportunity to catch up on rest, socialize and watch from the bow or bridge. Many Laysan Albatross were seen, whilst on the other end of the size spectrum we had both Common and Brunnich’s Guillemots, Parakeet, Whiskered and Crested Auklets, both Red and Red-necked Phalaropes in good numbers, and all three expected skuas for the region: Pomarine, Arctic and some fantastic Long-tailed. Bird and mammal of the afternoon though goes to several close and classic Sperm Whale, and a handful of the tricky Least Auklet.
Kayak Log: Peschanya Bay, Medny Island, Commander Islands, 7 Kayakers, 14.9km
Some swell at our anchorage made for a challenging entry into the kayaks but otherwise conditions were great for our first paddle of the trip. We paddled southwest from the ship to a small cove with a waterfall cascading into it then headed north along the cliffs passing the abandoned settlement of Preobrazhenskoye before making a landing, and having a snack, on the eastern point of a Peschanya Bay. Many birds soared overhead and sea otters (many with their pups) watched from the kelp beds as we weaved through the rocks and cliffs on our way to rendezvous with the ship north up the coastline. The fog rolled in and harbour seals popped up for a look as arrived at the pickup point and got back onboard.
Day 5: 31st May 2016
Waking early, the lure of the deep blue was too much to resist and many of the birders and marine mammal enthusiasts were on deck or on the bridge at first light, or soon after. We were crossing the shelf this morning and heading toward the coast of Kamchatka once again, and looking at the bathymetry it promised some sightings of note; we were not disappointed. Almost immediately after rising an Orca passed down the side of the ship, likely a solitary young male – what a way to start the morning! Not long after, we had the first of five, 6 large whale sightings. It started with a Sperm Whale, quickly followed by another, then two Humpback Whales in quick succession, and finally two Fin Whale, however these were somewhat dwarfed, quite amazingly, by a superb show given by at least six Dall’s Porpoises with their characteristic ‘rooster tail’ spray as they zipped back and forth toward the ship at incredible speed. Birds didn’t go unnoticed of course, and an Olive-backed Pipit on the deck of the ship set things off quite nicely. Out on and above the waves we noted many hundreds of Tufted Puffins, a handful of Horned Puffins, as well as Common, Pigeon and Brunnich’s Guillemots, Red and Red-necked Phalaropes, and Crested Auklet. Standout highlight here though were at least five Long-billed Murrelet seen as we approached the coast – a brilliant addition to our rapidly growing and towering Alcid list.
After lunch we took to the Zodiacs and entered the mouth of the Zhupanova River to undertake a several hour cruise of the river and its various braids. Inside the entrance we found some exposed mud banks that provided much entertainment in the form of many Slaty-backed and Glaucous-winged Gulls, and the fantastic dusky longipennis Common Tern which is wildly different to the Common Terns we are all used to. Here though we also found two of our main targets – a stonking adult Kamchatka Gull and at least fourteen Aleutian Terns – a species that all of us were extremely keen to see. We were fortunate enough to have the birds almost within arms-reach, and to hear their Spotted Redshank-esque call – quite educational and an experience never to be forgotten!
Moving up the river we encountered many great birds, starting with a superb male Smew, at least ten Black Scoter as well as many Red-breasted Merganser, Common Goldeneye, Eurasian Wigeon, Common Teal, ‘Alaskan’ and ‘Kamchatka’ Eastern Yellow Wagtails, Rustic Bunting, Common Rosefinch, Oriental Greenfinch and hundreds of Red-throated Divers, which in itself was quite impressive. The key bird here though, and a hell of an impressive one at that, was Steller’s Sea Eagle, which appeared in the form of at least seven birds including several on nests and one eating a huge Salmon on a mud bank. We had already seen three from the ship at a huge distance, but this was something different altogether – what magnificent, majestic beasts! We also found several new mammals here, with one group seeing a Sable, others seeing Musk Rat, and all of us had superb views of both Harbour and Largha Seal which was a new species for many.
The second key stop for our afternoon activities was a sopping wet flooded field behind a Salmon processing plant. We trudged through the wet field for an hour or so in the hope that we would find a key, special and scarce breeding wader. After not too long we had seen at least three different Long-toed Stints, looking truly dapper in their breeding finery. For those of us from Europe, this is a mega rarity in our home countries, and it held a special place in many hearts and will undoubtedly go down as a trip highlight. These birds are absolute masters of illusion; landing in one spot they will, without any sort of hint of movement, move dozens of meters and appear a long way from where you are absolutely positive they landed and remain – this gave us quite the giggle and it was a fun runaround for a while. The move back to the ship saw us find several more Long-billed Murrelet but there was little time after dinner to watch as the darkness descended.
Kayak Log: Zhupanova River, Kamchatka, 7 Kayakers, 17.1km.
Conditions at anchorage were great with little wind and only a small swell running so we entered the kayaks and headed southeast to a group of rocks off Mys Yuzhnyy. After circumnavigating the rocks, and checking out the many harbour and largha seals hauled out, we headed into the coastline of Kamchatka for a stop on the southern side of Mys Yuzhnny. After skirting around the point we paddled into the Zhupanva River system and had another stop at the salmon processing plant on the western head. After a short paddle inside the river system we headed back to the ship.
Day 6: 1st June 2016
We awoke to mist, drizzle and a bitter wind this morning, though the wind quickly stopped as we entered the beautiful fjord of Bukhta Russkaya. Our spirits were the opposite of the weather as we were warmed by views of a breaching Humpback Whale, several Long-billed Murrelets and even a good handful of our main target – Kittlitz’s Murrelet – before the boat had even pulled to a halt.
Landing on the beach we went for a stomp through the snow which was amusingly deep in places, in search of avian delights, to explore the abandoned buildings and ship, and in the case of some to follow the extremely fresh trail of a Kamchatka Brown Bear. The birders found lots to look at, with highlights including singing Siberian Rubythroat, Brown-headed and Eyebrowed Thrushes, Common Redpoll, Oriental Greenfinch, Brambling, Olive-backed Pipit and a surprise Japanese Grey Bunting singing its heart out from atop a tree. Back at the shore and before boarding Zodiacs bound back to the ship, we managed views of both Taiga and Dark-sided Flycatchers as well as hearing, and very briefly seeing a Rufous-tailed Robin.
Once we’d had a short rest, and seen more Kittlitz’s Murrelets and a Kamchatka Brown Bear it was time to board the Zodiacs once more. This time we were out in search of the resident pod of Orca that call this stretch of coast home. Unfortunately the search was atypically unsuccessful, however it was punctuated with superb views and photographic opportunities for Tufted and Horned Puffins, Pigeon and ‘Kuril’ Guillemots, Steller’s Sea Lions and even Peregrine, Osprey and some absolutely majestic Steller’s Sea Eagles.
Kayak Log: Bukhta Russkaya, Kamchatka, 7 Kayakers, 21.6km.
Overcast but flat calm conditions greeted us this morning. We paddled from the ship to two rusty hulks which were grounded to provide a watering place for ships. After that we headed across to the northern side of the bay and followed the coast up and into Bukhta Tikhirka, passing many waterfalls, cliffs and stellar sea eagles on the way. After a stop we crossed the bay to the southern side and continued on to Cape Kekurnyy with a friendly stellar sea lion escort. At the cape we paddled past the colony of Stellar sea lions and saw a few sea otters before rendezvousing with the ship.
Day 7: 2nd June 2016
Atlasova and Onekotan Islands
For everybody onboard today was one of excitement, elation and a real feel of adventure. Waking off the shore of Atlasova island in the early morning we first of all made a pre-breakfast landing to grow our appetites for both adventure and delicious culinary delights. Arriving ashore, the group split with the Kayakers paddling along the coast, the birders walking with Chris and Lisle, and everybody else spreading out to visit an old lighthouse, a World War II Japanese wreck sunk by US aircraft, and a barely touched island ripe for exploring.
Making our way through the coastal strip of the island, the birders were in search of migrants as the peak of the tallest volcano in the Kuril chain that is highly active, peeked out from behind the clouds periodically. Of course, we weren’t to be disappointed and found not only the jewel-like Siberian Rubythroat in good numbers, but also great birds like Kamchatka Leaf Warbler, Dark-sided Flycatcher and the ordinarily skulky Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler which actually gave quite fantastic views. The absolute highlight for many though came in the form of a vagrant Red-billed Starling which flew in and dropped close to the lake. Normally found in east and south China, this bird was a long way lost, some 3,600km outside of its normal range.
With a cyclone moving in from the south, unfortunately our planned landing at Onekotan Island was met with buffering swell and strong gusting wind making landing impossible. After such a fantastic morning though there were no complaints, especially as the slower than normal transit was peppered with more than twenty-five Orca, Sperm Whale, Steller’s Sea Lions, dozens and dozens of Fork-tailed Storm Petrels and six Leach’s Storm Petrels. Far and away the highlight of the afternoon though, and arguably the day and even trip thus-far for some was an absolutely fantastic subadult Short-tailed Albatross found in the mid-afternoon. Incredibly rare, all birders on board enjoyed great views of the bird as it drifted alongside the ship just 100 metres away! A really, truly special day once again.
Day 8: 3rd June 2016
At sea off of Shiashkotan
Today was a day for surrendering to the weather. On expeditions like this you have to roll with the punches to some degree, and on occasion the weather picks up to a point that prohibits landing on shore. Because of the cyclone that had marred our progress we were forced into the shelter of Shiashkotan island before spending the day making our way southwards with limited progress.
Despite the hardship of the weather it was a day of incredible note. The cyclone appeared to have created a huge movement of seabirds, and the decision was taken to organize some chum to try and attract birds to the ship. Lisle cut, chopped and axed fish, and Chris distributed it freely into the ocean with screams of “come and get your lunch”, much to the delight of a vibrant throng of birds. Throughout the day we sifted through flocks of auklets numbering many many thousands of Whiskered and Crested Auklets and lesser numbers of Rhinoceros Auklets. The highlight though, and especially for the photographers, was the appearance of a juvenile Short-tailed Albatross in the wake of the ship which, after some tantalizingly frustrating minutes, made its way up the wake and circled the ship repeatedly, allowing some amazing photos to be taken. We hadn’t expected such luck, as one never does with such a rare bird, but by the end of the day we had unbelievably totaled over TEN different Short-tailed Albatrosses of varying ages including at least two stunning golden-headed full adult birds. Add to this the dozens of close passing Laysan Albatrosses and a single obliging Black-footed Albatross, and we’d reached a three-albatross day – something that is rare in this part of the Pacific. It may be an understatement to say that the birders and photographers onboard were absolutely elated.
Day 9: 4th June 2016
Simushir & Yankicha
“This was one of the best days of my life” is a sentence I have heard, and said, more times than I can remember on this ship. Today really was fantastic.
Simushir is an incredible place, and our first stop for the day. With the weather still dying down an extended Zodiac cruise around the entrance to the massive flooded caldera of this volcano-turned-island was bumpy but refreshing, and we were soon steaming through the caldera itself and toward our destination – an ex-top secret Soviet submarine base.
Like something out of a James Bond film we approached the base on Zodiacs and spent the morning exploring this hidden treasure. Appearing as though the Soviets had moved out in a hurry there are countless amazing objects just laying where they were abandoned, making for quite the explorers haven. Whilst some explored the base, combed the shore or walked the surrounding hillsides, the birders ventured into the town to explore. Thankfully nature is retaking the base at a rapid rate and wildlife is everywhere you look. We encountered Oriental Greenfinch, Black-faced and Japanese Grey Buntings, Spotted Nutcracker, dozens of Siberian Rubythroat and a surprise Long-toed Stint before it was time to leave.
The wind had picked up a little but the swell had died down too, so returning to the ship was both comfortable and punctuated with excitement, mainly of a wildlife variety. First up was a Fork-tailed Storm Petrel wheeling around in the caldera, followed by two Long-tailed Skua approaching one of the Zodiacs, whilst the main excitement came from a pod of Orca which approached us closely before veering off – quite the experience! Soon it was time to push on toward Yankicha where the real spectacle was to begin.
On the transit to Yankicha we were once again treated to a seabird spectacle at sea as we passed by a Russian trawler hauling in its nets which had attracted tens of thousands of birds. The throng included Pacific Fulmar and Black-legged Kittiwake in its majority but scattered within were thousands of Short-tailed Shearwaters and dozens of Laysan Albatrosses, along with a single Black-footed Albatross and at least four Short-tailed Albatrosses.
Waiting until evening before we set off once again, we spent several hours watching various pods of Orca and tens of thousands of Crested Auklets flocking around the island. Moving in as the evening approached we entered the caldera to find what is surely one of the absolute top wildlife experiences in the world. Not only did we encounter several VERY approachable Arctic Fox, dozens of Harlequin Duck and a couple of superb Peregrine but we also made a landing and walked alongside a river of boiling water and marveled at Sulphur vents and hot thermal pools. The real event came shortly after though as dusk fell, when a steadily increasing influx of Crested Auklets and the extremely handsome Whiskered Auklet started to enter the caldera in their hundreds of thousands. We estimated at several million individual auklets around the island tonight with flocks of hundreds and thousands of auklets being extremely approachable making for absolutely incredible photo and viewing opportunities. Everybody was simply astonished.
Day 10: 5th June 2016
Chirpoy & Urup
Today was a complete Russian Far East and Ring of Fire experience – volcanic activity and stunning islands meet mind blowing wildlife. We spent this morning in the Zodiacs cruising the island of Chirpoy seeing lots of great wildlife including some absolutely incredible looks at Ancient Murrelet and Rhinoceros Auklet, unrivalled photo opportunities of Brunnich’s Guillemot and superb encounters with both ‘Kuril’ and Spectacled Guillemots, ensuring all the birders came back aboard more than satisfied. Of course it wasn’t just the birds that entertained, this morning was dedicated to volcanic activity and features and it was with absolutely ecstatic joy that some of us encountered red, glowing molten lava hitting the sea giving rise to incredible clouds of steam that could be seen for miles and miles.
Moving onwards to Urup Island we arriving in the early afternoon and spent the remainder of the day on the island exploring. Stejneger’s Scoter on the way in were appreciated by many, whilst Steller’s Sea Lions and Sea Otters entertained at the entrance. On land most split off and explored on their own, searching the abandoned buildings or making their way up the mountain or along the valley. The birders however made a concerted effort to find several important birds. The first, Japanese Bush Warbler can be very difficult to see, so it was with great surprise and excitement that one sat atop a tree singing its little heart out.
Next up was a search for a robin, but not before seeing Long-tailed Rosefinch, Oriental Turtle Dove, Oriental and Common Cuckoos, and Grey-bellied Bullfinch. Unfortunately the Japanese Robins didn’t play ball as well as the others and offered only brief glances. Birds that really performed though included EIGHT White-tailed Eagles, a Steller’s Sea Eagle and a flock of 20+ Narcissus Flycatchers that foraged on the tideline.
Kayak Log: Chirpoy Island, Kuril Islands, 7 Kayakers, 11.2km
It was flat calm and overcast this morning with 10 knots of wind coming and going. We paddled off in search of the geothermal activity that was rumoured to be going on towards the southern end of Chirpoy Island. We found it! The lava was cascading into the sea creating an awesome spectacle. After enjoying nature at its most raw we followed the volcanic coastline back to the ship passing cliffs swarming with different birds, a curious Steller’s Sea Lion and a Steller’s Sea Eagle. Wow!
Day 11: 6th June 2016
This day of the Russia’s Ring of Fire itinerary is something special and unique among the expedition. Arriving off of the active volcanic island of Iturup in the morning we were faced with giant, towering volcanoes lining the bay where we watched Temminck’s Cormorants and a summer plumaged White-billed Diver before taking to the shore in our second homes – the Zodiacs. Arriving at the beach the birders managed to find Stejneger’s Stonechat, Little Ringed Plover, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Oriental Greenfinch and Barn Swallow.
Taking to our transport for the day, huge four-wheel drive trucks, we made our way into the highlands of the island where near-perfect cone shaped volcanoes towered over us still and we all marveled at the contrasting snow scattered scenery. Now in the Southern Kurils the landscape had transformed to a much more ‘oriental’ feel, as had the bird life. Our key targets for the day proved difficult as both were heavy skulkers, but eventually we had views of Japanese Robin and heard Japanese Accentor singing nearby, but no amount of coaxing could bring it out into view. Several fly-over Grey-bellied Bullfinch, Hawfinch, Eurasian Siskin and Oriental Turtle Doves were enjoyed, whilst dozens of displaying Latham’s Snipe gave good views as they made bizarre, alien sounds across the landscape.
White-tailed Eagles were seen regularly whilst Eastern Buzzard, Black-eared Kite and Peregrine also represented the bird of prey front. Eurasian Nuthatch was found and gave great views whilst over a river some House Martin sp. gave brief views, unlike the Pacific Swifts that showed off their white rumps.
After a soak in the volcanic hot springs at the far end of our journey we made our way back to shore, but not before stopping for photos at an absolutely magnificent vista. The sheer size of the volcanoes could finally be truly appreciated as it dwarfed our ship in the bay beside – the highlight of the day for some. Back at shore we boarded the Zodiacs as Mongolian Plover, Ringed Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Grey-tailed Tattler and Red-necked Stint were seen.
Back onboard the ship the evening was spent cruising around the tip of the island as we made our way south toward the island of Kunashir. This area proved particularly productive for cetaceans with 30+ Orca, Dall’s Porpoise and two Sperm Whale were seen with one Sperm Whale being particularly close and enjoyed by almost all passengers who made the short trip up from celebrating a great day in the bar. Of bird interest, a single Spectacled Guillemot and eight Rhinoceros Auklets were seen.
Day 12: 7th June 2016
Our last day of expedition in the Russian Far East fell upon the large and positively subtropical island of Kunashir. Despite the snow-capped double-peaked volcano that is sometimes said to be the most beautiful in the world, this island has a feel much more similar to its neighbor, Japan. In fact, until 1946 it was considered Japanese territory and although it now officially belongs to Russia there is still much debate about the legitimacy of Russia’s claim.
Landing on the beach we were met by three rangers, one buggy and one Brown Bear. Of course, the bear was it some distance so as to maintain a safe and respectful presence, but the views were simply fantastic and a much desired animal for many of the expeditioners. Moving off of the beach we split into three groups. Those that remained at the beach saw three more Brown Bear, three Red Fox and dozens upon dozens of Harlequin. Those who went for a more challenging hike were led by Rodney and Lisle along the shore, through the bamboo buffer and into the forest, along a river and then returned to the beach via a pair of Japanese graves. For one Japanese participant this was an undoubted highlight and it was enlightening for the entire group to have somebody with a Japanese perspective along, and who was able to translate the graves: “This is a grave for all our ancestors”. Poignant.
Wildlife seen along the route included highlights like Brown Dipper, Bull-headed Shrike, Kamchatka Leaf Warbler, Eastern Crowned Warbler, Dusky Warbler, Latham’s Snipe, Oriental and Eurasian Cuckoo and an absolutely superb Long-tailed Rosefinch. Unfortunately we couldn’t visit the Blakiston’s Fish Owl nest box as it potentially still had chicks in – a tantalizing revelation.
Those led by Chris and Katya went on a more intense birding and less challenging walk, trailing through similar habitats to the hiking group but seeing a different set of birds which included rarities like Crested Kingfisher, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker and Narcissus Flycatcher. Once everybody was back at the beach we scanned the pond-flat sea finding tens of Pacific Diver, one White-billed Diver, several flocks of Black and Stejneger’s Scoters and several good looks at Temminck’s Cormorant.
Back on board the ship for the final time after our very final landing we spent the remainder of the day enjoying a superb quiche lunch before undertaking formalities and attending a briefing about the next day’s plans which included a wonderfully put together slideshow by Katya that included photos taken by all of the staff throughout the expedition. Many laughs were had and lots of marveling at some fantastic photos before we ascended to the bridge for one final vigil. This was a fantastic decision as throughout the afternoon we had absolutely mirror calm conditions – the perfect send off for those departing the vessel.
Harbour and Dall’s Porpoises were seen almost constantly, including the distinctive all-dark morph of Dall’s Porpoise; three large Fin Whale were seen extremely well with lots of woops and hollers going up around the ship on each surface. A couple of pods of Orca were enjoyed by all as tannoy announcements hallowed their appearance, whilst the absolute stand out highlight came in the form of a pod of three or four Stejneger’s Beaked Whales – an incredibly rarely seen cetacean that was, believe it or not, a lifer for both of the guides on deck at the time, despite one of them having spent around 10 seasons in the Russian Far East – a remarkable sighting. The birds were not to be outdone by mammals, however, and three highlights in particular come to mind: firstly, the hundreds of Rhinoceros Auklets that surrounded us near constantly; secondly the thousands upon thousands of Short-tailed Shearwaters that paraded past us on their way north; and finally, a surprise in the form of several Japanese Murrelets – a fantastic addition to the list of many though its presence here was to be reasonably expected given its close proximity – the ultra calm conditions undoubtedly helped in this respect.
So, all that was left was to have a superb banquet dinner before attending the nightly ‘Chris and Lisle Show’, a.k.a. the species log held in the bar each evening. This brought the expedition to an apt close with the final numbers being tallied and chatter about highlights fading into the night on the bridge where the light dimmed and the volcanoes faded into the distance.
Kayak Log: Kunashir Island, Kuril Islands, 7 Kayakers, 19.5km
Sunny and glassy calm conditions greeted us this morning so off we went. We paddled from shore to Vostochnyy Point and headed east along the shoreline to Mysovoy Point passing some harbour seals and white tailed eagles. A few red foxes made an appearance before we paddled back west passing a large river to Ploskogornyy Point. With Kunashir’s volcanoes totally clear of cloud and the sun on our backs we headed back to the ship with wide smiles.
Total of 5 paddles for total of 84.3km
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" We have just returned from the superb expedition on the Spirit of Enderby in Kamchatka (June/July). We cannot thank the 'on board' team enough... but hope our words have led them to realise our appreciation!
However- I'm sure there's an equally great team "back at the office" - and so I'd just like to extend our thanks to you too - and to Julia in P-K (please let her know we were so glad she was there for us!!). All the communications from you leading up to our trip were really helpful, both in explaining practicalities and in fuelling our anticipation of a great voyage!
...All our hopes were realized and your promises, fulfilled! Thank you! Chris & Roger "
" Big thank you to the team for a great trip, seeing Orcas from the Zodiacs was a highlight for me and seeing a bear. "
" "I just wanted to thank the Team again for such a wonderful RFE trip. It was splendid. I am only too conscious of how privileged we all were to be there and it was all due to you and Rodney and your hardworking team. It is one trip that I would love to do again". "
" “Many thanks again for two truly splendid trips. It is a privilege to take part on such adventures and I appreciate the hard work (and stress!) and the team effort that goes into the organisation of such challenging trips. The Kuril Island and the Kamchatka trips were very special and I'm about to relive the experience as I sort out my hundreds of photos.” "