Perhaps no other sea in the world has witnessed as much human suffering and misery as the Sea of Okhotsk. Between 1932 and 1953 it is estimated that over 3 million prisoners (the vast majority of them innocent) were transported across the Sea of Okhotsk to the Gulags of the Kolyma Goldfields. It is estimated that only 500,000 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, Tyuleniy 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.
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: Monday 12 June
Port of Korsakov, Sakhalin Island, and at Sea
Shortly before 10:00, the bus arrived at the harbour at Korsakov and everyone boarded the Spirit of Enderby for the beginning of the Sea of Okhotsk expedition. A little later, Expedition Leader Rodney Russ asked the group to gather in the Lecture Theatre and there was an introduction to the staff and ship.
Outside it was a glorious day with only broken clouds and the temperature was almost balmy. For those who gathered onto the outer decks, the first wildlife of the expedition was found with Largha Seals in the water and hundreds of Black-tailed and Slaty-backed Gulls loafing around the wharf whilst Pacific Swifts soared over the nearby town.
Whilst there were plenty of other vessels in the harbour, several huge LPG ships could be seen in the distance as they made their way to and from the vast processing plant which is located a few miles to the east of Korsakov.
Shortly before noon, the tug Dobrynya came alongside the Spirit of Enderby and after the crew had released the lines, we left the wharf and set off on our adventure. Almost immediately, new wildlife was spotted with a lone Steller Sea Lion quietly dozing on a concrete pillar which was sticking out of the sea.
After lunch, everyone had the opportunity to relax or join the guides looking for seabirds and other wildlife, although this was punctuated with a series of briefings and other activities including the theoretical and practical parts of the lifeboat drill, overview of the expedition and Zodiac briefing.
For those who spent time wildlife watching, a variety of species were found including Ancient Murrelet and Rhinoceros Auklet, however, for sheer numbers, by far the commonest species was the huge number of Short-tailed Shearwaters, with multiple rafts which contained thousands of individuals. The guides explained that these birds breed on Tasmania (with a smaller number nesting in South-east Australia) and that they came to the Sea of Okhotsk to moult, ie change their feathers.
After the first of what would be many delicious dinners in the restaurant, many people retired to bed with others joining the guides in the bar library for the nightly wildlife log.
Day 2: Tuesday 13 June
Tyuleniy Island and at Sea
The day began with breakfast at 07:00 and a little later Rodney and some of the Expedition Staff set off in a scout Zodiac to assess the conditions ashore on Tyuleniy Island. They were soon back aboard the Spirit of Enderby and everyone then gathered in the Lecture Theatre where Rodney explained that we would be able to land but conditions were somewhat challenging with a good sized swell breaking onto the beach.
Shortly after his briefing concluded, four Zodiacs were lowered and everyone was then shuttled ashore. The waves were indeed making the landing far from easy and stern landings were needed to ensure everyone got ashore safely.
It was, however, well worth the effort and a few wet feet, as the wildlife experience once we were on the island was phenomenal, with hundreds of Steller Sea Lions on the beaches along with good numbers of Northern Fur Seals. Looking careful, we could see a number of Steller Sea Lion pups as well as reasonable numbers of branded animals. Whilst this form of marking the animals certainly looked painful and invasive, it meant individuals could be easily identified for research purposes.
There was also a constant stream of seabirds flying between the sea and the island and everyone climbed up the short trail where we could appreciate the sheer number of Common Guillemots which bred on this very special island. The birds were literally packed in wherever they could find a space and even the roofs of the buildings were occupied by hundreds of birds.
Standing on the clifftop, we had a brilliant panorama with the sea-lions and fur seals below us along with thousands upon thousands of birds. As well as the Common Guillemots, there were good numbers of Black-legged Kittiwakes and the occasional Brunnich’s Guillemot and Tufted Puffin. A lucky few also saw two Horned Puffins with several Crested Auklets also spotted.
With the sun shining and only a gentle breeze, it was an amazing couple of hours but by late morning it was time to head back to the ship and continue our journey northwards up the eastern side of Sakhalin Island.
With the afternoon at sea, a couple of lectures were offered, with Olga providing the first presentation which was about Steller Sea Lions and Northern Fur Seals. She described the breeding cycle of the two species and covered various other topics such as the recent marked decline in the numbers of Steller Sea Lions. Olga explained that it was not fully understood what was causing this (given that the population on Tyuleniy, for example, had increased) but the suspicion was that it was due to bycatch involving fishing vessels.
Later in the afternoon, Lisle spoke about the rich variety of seabirds we could expect to see on the expedition. His talk included photos of many species of auks (the alcid family) and he told us that more than a dozen species were possible on our voyage, making this one of the richest areas for this family of birds in the world.
Following the bar hour, dinner and wildlife log, many people headed onto the outer decks to enjoy a fantastic sunset with the sky turning a rich orange as the sun slowly set over a mirror-like sea.
Photo credit: S. Gutowsky
Day 3: Wednesday 14 June
At Sea and Pil'tun Bay
After the glorious conditions of the previous day, it was a little surprising when we awoke to thick fog, however, with the morning at sea it was an opportunity to relax and enjoy a morning lecture by Olga about the cetaceans of the Sea of Okhotsk. She described the dozen or so species we could potentially encounter on our journey including several which are extremely rare, namely the western population of Gray Whale, the North Pacific Right Whale and Bowhead Whale.
At 11:00 Rodney gave a briefing about the plans for the afternoon explaining that amongst his goals was to look for the Western Gray Whales which Olga had spoken about earlier. He added that with the benign conditions we were experiencing, he was hopeful that we might be able to cross the bar at the river entrance and make a landing, although this would entirely depend on the conditions we encountered when we arrived.
With lunch following the end of the briefing, four Zodiacs were in the water by noon and we then set off on our quest to find the whales. Cruising slowly south, we saw several Aleutian Terns and several Long-tailed Ducks but there had been no whales by the time we reached the river mouth. As a result, Rodney proposed that we continue southward for a little longer and almost simultaneously a Gray Whale and Orca were spotted.
The Orca was an adult male with a huge triangular dorsal fin and he was clearly travelling faster than the Zodiacs, so we soon gave up hoping for closer views and concentrated on the Gray Whale. Whilst this was seen several times, it was difficult to get a close view so after a while we turned for the river and heading into the entrance.
There were dozens of terns flying around, many of which were Aleutians, as well as a large group of Largha Seals which were dozing quietly on the sandy shore. Passing these, we were able to get some nice views before continuing further upstream. Although we had seen a distant Steller’s Sea Eagle at the entrance, we soon found seven birds close to the bank and many of those with cameras were able to get some photos of this majestic bird.
With the tide dropping and large mudflats being rapidly exposed, it was impossible to get ashore near the lighthouse, so we turned downstream and made a half hour landing close to the river mouth. This gave everyone the opportunity to explore the surrounding area and a number of birds were spotted including Dusky Warbler and Siberian Rubythroat.
By 14:30 everyone was back in the Zodiacs and we headed back to sea to continue our quest to find a more obliging Gray Whale and this was soon achieved with some decent looks at one feeding a little to the north of the river mouth.
It was a fantastic excursion made even more enjoyable by the sunny skies and almost balmy conditions and it was with some reluctance that we returned to the Spirit of Enderby but we needed to leave if we wanted to arrive on schedule at our next destination, the remote island of Iony.
With three hours before dinner, another lecture was offered with Sarah describing the auk species which could be found in the Sea of Okhotsk and some interesting information about their lives.
Outside the conditions remained very pleasant, with some interesting wildlife being recorded. Amongst the highlights were two more Orca, a Northern Minke Whale, at least five Long-billed Murrelets, and several Spectacled Guillemots.
After another delicious dinner in the restaurant, courtesy of Matt and Connor, and the nightly bird log, Moshe gave a presentation about some of the plants he had collected during our landing at Pil’tun Bay.
Day 4: Thursday 15 June
Iony Island and at Sea
It was a smooth night of sailing as the Spirit of Enderby headed northwards towards Iony Island and shortly after a 7:30am breakfast, Rodney made an announcement to advise us that the island could be seen from the bridge. He added that in five previous visits to this locality, he had never seen it like this as the island was usually shrouded in fog.
By nine o’clock, four Zodiacs were in the water and we set off towards the island. Getting closer and closer, it truly was a breath-taking sight with hundreds of thousands of birds. The commonest species were undoubtedly the Brunnich’s Guillemots and Northern Fulmars, with many of the guillemots perching on rocky ledges, whilst the fulmars wheeled around high above us.
This was also an opportunity to get some great looks at several other members of the auk family with our targets including the diminutive Least Auklet (the smallest member of the family) and Whiskered Auklet. There were good numbers of both around the island, with plenty of great opportunities for photos. Also present in good numbers were the Crested Auklets with flocks occasionally flying just passed the Zodiacs – Iony truly was an avian paradise !!!
Also present on the island were good numbers of Steller Sea Lions and as well as watching them on the beaches and rocks, we also had many swim close to the Zodiacs when one could smell their extremely smelly breath.
As the Zodiacs explored further, a lost Siberian Rubythroat was spotted on the rocky shore and a few moments later, a similarly out of place Ruddy Turnstone was found sitting quietly with some Brunnich’s Guillemots. Both birds had presumably been displaced on their northward migrations and had taken the opportunity to rest and feed here before continuing onwards.
After a couple of hours around this remote rocky outcrop, we reluctantly returned to the ship as it was time to continue our journey towards the Shantar Islands. With the afternoon at sea, two lectures were offered with Chris talking about some of the migrant bird species which visit the Russian Far East. This was followed by a presentation by Lisle who offered some advice and tips on how to improve everyone’s photography skills on expeditions.
Photo credit: L. Gwynn
Day 5: Friday 16 June
It was another tranquil night on the Spirit of Enderby and shortly after breakfast, everyone gathered in the Lecture Theatre where Rodney outlined his plans for our two days around the Shantar Islands. He explained that the principle goal was to locate the four species of seal which could be found on the sea ice around the archipelago, with Ribbon Seal being our main target.
With the briefing completed, many people headed onto the outer decks and a short while later, there was a PA announcement to inform everyone that a Bowhead Whale had been spotted behind the ship. Within moments, the Spirit of Enderby had turned and we were soon heading towards what it was quickly realised were in fact two whales. It was the fifth time the ship had been to this region and this was the first time this species had been sighted on a Sea of Okhotsk expedition.
Although initially the whales were somewhat distant, their distinctive head shape could be clearly seen and when one surfaced about 50 metres from the vessel, we were able to get some great views of one of the rarest whales on the planet. Cruising closer to the ice, a male Ribbon Seal was spotted and once again, Rodney asked the Captain to change course and we approached another poorly known and rarely seen creature. Although the seal dived into the water (from the ice flow it was resting on) when we were still several hundred metres away, it was fantastic to find this species so quickly and it was not even ten o’clock in the morning !!!
A little later, another Ribbon Seal was spotted on the same ice flow as a Steller’s Sea Eagle and both stayed until we were more than close enough for photos. It had been a truly amazing morning and start to our time around the Shantar Islands.
After lunch we entered some much more compacted ice and the vessel slowed considerably as the Captain and his officers picked a course through the ice. It was a magical experience and from time to time, we would hit a larger flow and the entire ship would shudder but this was no problem given the ice strengthening of our trusty vessel.
With several more Ribbon Seals seen, along with Bearded and Ringed Seals, it was a highly memorable afternoon but with the far edge of the ice still not visible, Rodney took the decision to turn around and we headed back out to open water in the direction we had come.
It had been an incredible afternoon with some great sightings of rarely seen marine mammals combined with some great ice cruising which was a new experience for many.
Photo credit: L. Gwynn
Day 6: Saturday 17 June
During the night the Spirit of Enderby repositioned to a bay off the northern end of Bol’shoy Shantar (the largest island in the Shantar Archipelago) and shortly after breakfast Rodney and some of the expedition team set off to assess whether it would be possible to make a landing. With large swells breaking onto the beach and also blocking the river mouth, they reluctantly decided that it would be impossible to get ashore, so shortly before 09:00 the anchor was lifted and we set off in an anti-clockwise direction around the island.
With broken cloud and decent visibility, it was pleasant outside and some took the opportunity to photograph the Tufted and Horned Puffins which passed by. With Crested Auklet and Northern Minke Whale also spotted, there was a nice selection of wildlife to look at.
After lunch, we set off in four Zodiacs to explore a bay on the eastern side of Feklistov Island (which is west of Bol’shoy Shantar) and over the rest of the afternoon three landings were made around this extremely scenic bay.
As the Zodiacs approached the first of these landing sites, a large brown bear was spotted on the beach but this quickly disappeared. Once everyone was ashore, however, a somewhat smaller individual was found and many people were able to get photos as it ambled around a creek looking for food. Several new bird species were also seen including Dusky Warbler, Brambling and Eurasian Nutcracker.
After 50 minutes ashore, we boarded the Zodiacs and cruised northwards along the edge of the bay. A fine adult Steller’s Sea Eagle was soon found perched on a rocky knoll allowing everyone some nice looks before we landed at another spot where once again there was access into the forest.
As before, there were several different options with some heading in to explore amongst the pine trees, whilst others walked along the beach enjoying the balmy conditions. In the more open areas, there was a nice selection of flowering plants including some deep purple Kamchatka Fritillaries, as well as some extensive carpets of mosses and lichens.
Even more impressive, however, were the huge chunks of ice which lay scattered on the beach. These came in a vast range of shapes and sizes and we were able to walk around what at times resembled a gallery of modern art sculptures. One got a real sense of the power of the sea given that many of these weighed many tons each and they had seemly just been tossed onto the beach as if they weighed almost nothing.
For those who joined the bird walk, the highlight was a Siberian Accentor which sat nicely for a few moments. This species is a real speciality of the Russian Far East and as a result was a new bird for almost everyone who saw it.
On the final landing we walked along a stony beach and were able to explore the edge of the pine forest which covered Feklistov Island. It was extremely pleasant in the sunshine and as well as being able to watch a Steller’s Sea Eagle through Chris’ telescope, many saw an abandoned eagle nest. The gigantic size of this stick structure, gave us an even better appreciation of the size of this fantastic bird.
By 17:30 we were heading back to the ship and sadly our time in the Shantar Archipelago was over. We had been extremely fortunate not only with the weather but in finding some of the most poorly known marine mammals in the Russian Far East.
Photo credit: O. Belonovich
Day 7: Sunday 18 June
Mal’minskie Islands and Aldona Bay
It was the earliest start so far on our expedition (with a 05:45 wakeup call) and shortly after breakfast had concluded everyone gathered in the Lecture Theatre where Rodney outlined the plans for the morning and Chris described the birds he was hoping we could find.
By 07:15 the four Zodiacs were in the water and we set off for the Mal’minskie Archipelago. Although the weather was not as good as it had been previously with low cloud and a light mizzle, this soon stopped and as we got closer to the islands, we began to appreciate the huge number of birds which bred here.
There were huge rafts of Common Guillemots on the sea and as we began to explore, good numbers of Spectacled Guillemots were found. Although we had seen this species around the Shantar Islands, the views here were outstanding with hundreds of individuals present. Whilst some were drifting on the water, many were perched on the rocks immediately adjacent to the shore and everyone was able to get some great photos of this species which is largely restricted to the Sea of Okhotsk.
Having enjoyed the guillemots, our attention turned to Tufted and Horned Puffins and again several individuals were found perched on the low cliffs giving us a great opportunity to enjoy both these species. There were also good numbers of Parakeet Auklets and with many people also seeing a couple of Rhinoceros Auklets, it was a fantastic morning to enjoy the alcids.
After a couple of hours out on the water and a brief landing on the main island in the group, we returned to the Spirit of Enderby which then repositioned seven miles along the coast to Aldona Bay. Once again, our landing was preceded by a short briefing and as soon as the ship was in position, the Zodiacs were back in the water and we set off for the shore.
Rodney had explained that this site was an old military base and we were able to wander around and explore. There were abandoned lookout towers, vehicles, barracks and a variety of other objects lying around and it was hard to imagine what life must have been like for the conscripts who had been sent here. Life must have been extremely tough, especially during the winter months.
With more than two hours ashore, we were able to wander around and it was interesting to see how the vegetation was steadily reclaiming areas which had once been home to the human population who had lived here. There was a nice range of flowering plants and those who joined Chris and Lisle on a bird walk saw an interesting range of species including Siberian Rubythroat, Pallas’s Warbler, Eastern Yellow Wagtail and Common Rosefinch.
By 13:15 everyone was back on the beach and after a tasty lunch of calzone pizza, many took the opportunity to relax for at least part of the afternoon, although Meghan opened the Sea Shop at 16:00 for those who wanted some retail therapy and at 17:00 Moshe gave a presentation about some of the plants he had found at Aldona Bay.
Photo credit: C. Collins
Day 8: Monday 19 June
Following breakfast and a briefing from Rodney, there was a short delay as a result of a minor confusion over time zones but by 09:30 four Zodiacs were in the water and we set off for the historic town of Okhotsk. Crossing the bar at the river mouth, we continue upstream passing a number of decaying buildings from the Soviet era. There was also an interesting selection of wildlife with several hundred Aleutian Terns and thousands of Slaty-backed Gulls as well as a number of Largha Seals.
After receiving permission from the Border Guards to leave the landing beach, we were offered a traditional welcome of bread and salt by some of the town’s dancing troupe who were dressed in brightly coloured traditional clothes.
We then headed for the town square, where there was a large statue of Lenin, before entering the ‘House of Culture’ which was where the town museum was located. This combined some interesting historical displays (some of which related to the period when Bering and his men had sailed from Okhotsk when exploring the Russian Far East), palaeontology (including a number of mammoth tusks) and a selection of bird specimens which had been collected in the area around Okhotsk.
One of the curators gave a short presentation about the exhibits and we were then free to wander around. It was clear that this modest town had a fascinating history with some very interesting birdlife living in the surrounding forests and marshes. It was, however, hard to imagine what life must have been like when Bering had been here almost 300 years ago or even earlier when mammoths had roamed the region.
It was soon time to move on to our next activity which was a display of dancing and sports by members of the local indigenous population, many of whom were wearing traditional reindeer and sealskin clothing. After the dancing had concluded, some tried the tug-of-war, others the sled jumping or the lassoing of a pole which was much more difficult than it appeared.
Moving onwards, we were then entertained by a ‘Cossack’ group who were dressed in brightly coloured traditional dress. Their presentation combined dancing and singing with some modern tunes to some traditional songs.
Once the presentations had concluded, we were able to sample some local fish soup and flatbreads, as well as some homemade beer.
All too soon, it was time to head back to the landing site and we then headed back to the Spirit of Enderby for a delicious late lunch of chicken curry prepared by Matt and Connor. With an afternoon at sea, Olga gave a presentation about Orca (Killer Whales). She explained that there were several different eco-types which were found in the Russian Far East and whilst some were mammal eaters others ate fish. Indeed, some of the latter had learnt to take fish off hooks and as a result there was conflict with fishermen.
Photo credit: O. Belonovich
Photo credit: O. Belonovich
Day 9: Tuesday 20 June
After several days of early starts, many welcomed a leisurely morning and after a 08:30 breakfast, the documentary ‘Blackfish’ was shown in the Lecture Theatre. This told the story of captive Orcas in the US and made sombre viewing.
With the ship having arrived at Talan Island a little earlier than expected, we had lunch at noon and after a briefing from Rodney and Chris, we set off in the Zodiacs to explore. For the first couple of hours, we cruised in the Zodiacs around the northern coast of the island and enjoyed the spectacular scenery and huge numbers of birds which breed there. The commonest species by far were the Black-legged Kittiwakes and there were vast numbers nesting on the cliffs. These had constructed nests of vegetation and seaweed on many of the cliffs and in some places, it was almost impossible to understand how these stayed in position as the spots the birds had chosen were so small.
As well as the kittiwakes, there were plenty of auks and as on Tyuleniy the commonest species was the Common Guillemot. There were vast rafts of these floating offshore and we were able to get some great views of them on the water, whilst overhead at least seven Steller’s Sea Eagles could be seen soaring around.
With some of the photographers keen to get more shots of the Tufted and Horned Puffins, we spent part of the afternoon playing ‘cat and mouse’ with these birds and most of those who persevered were rewarded with some nice looks at these amazing looking alcids.
By 15:15, we had finished our exploration of the northern coast of Talan Island and with the wind having picked up markedly since we had left the ship, cruising the southern coast was impractical so the four Zodiacs headed for the one landing site on the island. Rodney and Olga were there to meet us (as they had been unloading some freight which the ship had brought for the researchers) and we were then free to explore.
With the wind continuing to increase in strength, Chief Officer Max radioed Rodney to advise him that the ship was dragging the anchor and as a result, everyone returned to the landing site a little earlier than planned as the ship needed to reposition. Nevertheless, there had been plenty of time ashore with some climbing up the side of the island from where there was a great view across to the ‘mainland’ whilst others stayed closer to the beach. For the birders, the main target here was Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler but with the blustery conditions it was somewhat challenging to see this species well but those who joined Chris managed to get some flight views of a couple of individuals as they flew through the grass.
After an early dinner, the Zodiacs set off once again and we were relieved that the wind had dropped making the experience much more pleasant than our earlier ride back to the ship. As we approached the island, small groups of Ancient Murrelets could be seen flying by and we soon found some floating on the water. At times the birds were a little skittish but everyone got nice looks and many got good photos.
As the sun set lower in the sky, the number of Crested Auklets began to increase with rafts on the water and large numbers flying overhead. On occasions, these flocks would give extraordinary displays as they whirled around in perfect coordination high above us. With the occasional Steller’s Sea Eagles flying by and the backdrop of Talan Island, it was a memorable evening but by 22:00 we were all back aboard as the ship needed to set off for Yamskyie Island off the eastern end of the Koni Peninsula.
Photo credit: S. Gutowsky
Day 10: Wednesday 21 June
At Sea and Yamskiye Islands
After the late finish of the previous evening, it was a somewhat more leisurely morning which started after breakfast with a lecture by Sarah describing her time at a remote field camp. Sarah also referred to a discussion the expedition team had had with the researchers on Talan Island the previous evening and compared and contrasted their work with her own.
She told us that the Crested Auklet at Talan had declined markedly in recent decades and there were now thought to be about 30,000 individuals compared with 1.5 million just a few decades ago. One of the researchers on Talan also regularly had to rescue tiny Ancient Murrelet chicks which got stuck in holes on the island as they made their way down to the ocean.
Later in the morning, Rodney gave a presentation about a road trip he had undertaken along the ‘Road of Bones’. Rodney spoke about the penal system Stalin had introduced under which somewhere between 2.5-3 million people had been shipped to the Russian Far East with the vast majority dying due to the horrific conditions they had been forced to endure whilst working in the gold mines or on other projects.
Rodney had undertaken his journey one September and he showed photos of some of the remote communities that existed along the road from Magadan to Yakutsk with a backdrop of beautiful autumnal colours on the trees. It was almost impossible to imagine the brutality and misery that had existed here less than seventy years ago.
After lunch and a briefing in which Rodney outlined the plans for the afternoon/evening, we continued onwards towards the Yamskiye Islands and as we got closer to our intended destination (the largest island in the archipelago) the number of auks began to increase markedly with good numbers of Crested and Least Auklets. Unfortunately, however, the fog which had been with us since daybreak showed no sign of lifting and it looked like this would somewhat frustrate our plans but as we approached the anchorage, the murk suddenly cleared and we could see the island in front of us. It was a truly incredible sight with the cloud rolling down the sides of the huge towering craggy cliffs.
Despite the best efforts of the Bridge Team, it proved impossible to anchor the ship due to the brisk wind which was blowing, so the plans to cruise before dinner were abandoned and we drifted offshore until 20:00 when four Zodiacs set off to explore.
It was still pretty windy with good sized swells but we were soon close inshore, where the waves were considerably smaller. The scenery was as impressive close up as it was from afar and the ‘show’ which Rodney and Chris had described at the briefing then began, with wave after wave of auklets flying in towards the island. There were quite literally millions of birds and they were at all elevations with some floating on the sea, whilst others were so high up above us that it took binoculars to see them. It was surely one of the most impressive avian spectacles which one could witness anywhere in the world.
As well as the birds, we also cruised round to view a Steller Sea Lion colony and a couple of dozen animals then followed the Zodiacs for 20 minutes or so giving us some great views. It almost seemed that the sea lions were as interested in us as we were in them.
By 22:00 the skies were darkening and the Zodiacs reluctantly returned to the ship. It had been an almost unbelievable evening which few other people had had the privilege to experience.
Photo credit: O. Belonovich
Day 11: Thursday 22 June
Astronomical Bay, Koni Peninsula
For many it was a relatively short night as Meghan’s morning wakeup call came at 06:45 and after the post-breakfast briefing had finished, we set off in four Zodiacs to visit Astronomical Bay.
Unfortunately, like the previous morning, the conditions were not exactly ideal with thick fog but we soon found the entrance and began cruising around the bay looking for wildlife. There were good numbers of Harlequins and Goosanders but for the keen birders, the big excitement came when a male Steller’s Eider was spotted. This species is not normally found in the Sea of Okhotsk and it was the first time it had been seen on a Heritage Expeditions trip to this area so there was both surprise and delight – it was a new species for many and a real bonus to our bird list.
Cruising onwards, a couple of Steller’s Sea Eagles were located and there were good numbers of Largha Seals in the bay, with another pleasant surprise when a lone Bearded Seal was spotted. Like the Larghas, however, this was swimming so it was difficult to get a really good look although its head popped up several times before it disappeared into the fog.
Over the next couple of hours, we alternated between exploring by Zodiac and on foot and ashore there was a great array of blooming flowers to enjoy. Although we had just passed the Summer Solstice, there were plenty of plants which were still in bud but there were also good numbers in full bloom.
It was interesting to also look at the larches which were only three or four feet high but had trunks which in some cases were more than six inches across. It was clear that the extreme winter environment meant that trees grew almost horizontally here rather than upwards.
By late morning it was time to return to the ship for lunch and the afternoon then continued with the settling of ship accounts which was followed later in the afternoon by a briefing from Rodney outlining the disembarkation arrangements and a recap of our expedition. We had been privileged to see not only some extremely rare and poorly known species but also some true wildlife spectacles. It had unquestionable been a highly successful trip around the western and northern shores of the Sea of Okhotsk.
Day 12: Friday 23 June
We arrived in Magadan this morning, after breakfast disembarkation procedures commenced and transfers to town were available concluding this Sea of Okhotsk expedition.
Click here for 'Species List'
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.
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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 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. "