Russia's Ring of Fire: Kamchatka, the Commander and Kuril Islands

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. Here the Pacific plate sub ducts under the Eurasian 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 means there is an abundance of food for both birds and marine mammals, making the seas here amongst the richest in the world.

The region’s human history is as interesting and as fascinating as the geological history and it is closely connected to the oceans which surround it. The earliest people to settle in the region, the Ainu, lived from the sea. Explorer Vitus Bering, and at the height of the cold war, Russia’s formidable Pacific Fleet, were based in the region. 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. This voyage takes you where very few people have been or can go.

The region falls into three quite distinct and unique geographical regions a) the Kamchatka Peninsula; b) the Commander Islands (the western extremity of the Aleutian chain of islands); and c) the Kuril Islands. Each of them is very different. They have their own story and in many cases endemic plants and birds. On this expedition we go in search of those people, plants, animals and birds that make this part of the Pacific Ring of Fire so special.

Stretching northwards for over 700 miles from Japan to the southern end of the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Kuril Islands were formed by the collision of the Pacific and Eurasian plates. This created a chain of over 30 volcanic islands and an oceanic trench which reaches depths of over 8,000 metres. The combination of deep water upwelling and the mixing of the cold waters from the Sea of Okhotsk with the warmer Pacific Ocean, creates ideal conditions for seabirds, making this one of the richest areas in the world, both in terms of the number of species and their sheer abundance. For many birders the undoubted highlights are the auks and during our voyage it is possible to see up to 14 species including Tufted and Horned Puffins, Parakeet, Whiskered and Rhinoceros Auklets, as well as Spectacled and Pigeon Guillemots.

The Commander Islands consist of two islands – Bering and Medney. They were uninhabited when Vitus Bering landed there in 1741 mistakenly believing it was Kamchatka. When his ship was wrecked he and many of his men died. Those who survived told of the wealth that could be made from otter, fox and fur seal pelts. So began the ‘Fur Rush’ to the North Pacific that changed the region forever. The islands were settled, species like the Sea Cow became extinct and the population of fur bearing animals was decimated. During the Cold War ‘Border Guards’ fiercely and patriotically protected these islands from unseen enemies. Today the islands are a Nature Reserve and only a small population still lives there. The days we spend on the Commander Islands will be as unique as the islands themselves.

The Kamchatka Peninsula which dominates the North Pacific is in turn dominated by a large number of volcanoes, dense forest and spectacular scenery very different to what we will see elsewhere on this journey. It is impossible to experience the entire peninsula in such a short time, so we have chosen several sites which will give a good overview of the region. These locations include one of the hundreds of salmon-rich rivers for which the region is renowned and around which the infamous Kamchatka Brown Bear congregates. We have also included a coastal harbour or bay renowned for cetaceans such as the Western Grey Whale. Other species such as Humpback and Sperm Whales can generally be observed here also. To experience more of Kamchatka we strongly recommend that you plan a few days enjoying some of our suggested pre or post voyage excursions from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy.

Day 1: Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy

Arrive into Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy the capital and administrative centre of the Kamchatka Region and transfer to the port to board the Spirit of Enderby.

After an opportunity to settle into your cabin we will set sail through Avacha Bay, one of the greatest natural harbours in the world which was home for a large portion of Russia’s Pacific fleet. This fleet included a large number of submarines, many of which are still present.

As we cross the bay, we will look for Spectacled Guillemot, an uncommon species which breeds here in small numbers. Other birds we could see include Red-faced and Pelagic Cormorants, Pigeon Guillemot, Ancient Murrelet and Tufted Puffin.

Day 2: Zhupanova River

This morning we will Zodiac cruise on the river for several hours looking for birds and other wildlife. The combination of smoking volcanoes and mile upon mile of untouched forest make this area very special. But, it is also home to some exceptional wildlife, including a high density of Steller’s Sea Eagles. There are several massive stick nests immediately adjacent to the riverbank and consequently we have an excellent chance of getting some exceptional views of this majestic raptor. There should, however, be plenty of other wildlife too potentially include Pacific Diver, Falcated Duck, Wood Sandpiper, Aleutian Tern, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Arctic Warbler, Willow Tit and both Yellow-breasted and Rustic Buntings.

At the river mouth there is a small fish-processing plant as huge numbers of salmon spawn in the river. There will be an opportunity to meet the fisherman, sample the fish and see how they are processed, as well as doing some land-based exploring.

It is always with genuine reluctance that we leave this area and head back to the ship, however, we could well end our visit with some more views of Steller’s Sea Eagle and the chance of Long-billed Murrelet as we cruise away from the shore.

Day 3: Bukhta Kamenistaya and Chazma River

We sail across Olga Bay en route to our next landing – this is an area known for the Western Grey Whale, normally good numbers of whales can be seen. It is believed that the Western Grey Whale is a distinct population that live in the western Pacific and do not mix with the more abundant Eastern Grey Whale seen along the Californian coast. Close to extinction the Western Grey Whale is considered to be one of the rarest in the world and it is thought they journey here to feed in the cold nutrient-rich waters.

Our landing along the Chazma River will be one of the best opportunities for seeing the Kamchatka Brown Bear for which Kamchatka is well known as they venture here to the salmon streams. We will be surrounded by numerous extinct and active volcanoes that create a crater landscape and make it easy to appreciate how this region is frequently described as a Land of Fire and Ice. The coastal tundra is composed of thickets of grasses and dwarf birch scrub, near the shoreline there are geothermal hot springs – here there is an opportunity for us to indulge as we soak in the magma heated groundwater. We plan to spend the day here to enjoy what really encapsulates Kamchatka – Brown Bears, whales, stunning scenery, forest and thermal hot springs.

Days 4-5: Commander Islands

The Commander Islands form the western extremity of the Aleutian Islands and are the only islands in the chain that belong to Russia. They are named after the legendary Danish explorer Commander Vitus Bering who discovered the islands when he became the first European to sail between Asia and North America. Unfortunately Bering’s ship was wrecked and he died here along with many of his crew, though little evidence of their time on the island remains except for a simple tombstone which marks Bering’s grave. Some of the crew did survive and eventually made it back to Kamchatka; including Georg Steller, the expedition’s naturalist. Although Steller also died before getting back to Western Europe, his journals survived and these provided details of the wildlife of the region including the Sea Cow which Bering and the crew had found on the Commander Islands. This extraordinary creature and the Sea Eagle were subsequently named after Steller but the Sea Cow only survived for a further 30 years as hunters soon arrived in the region.

During our two days in the Commander Islands we plan to visit both Bering and Medney.

While ashore we will have the opportunity to visit the small museum (which is one of the few places in the world to have a skeleton of the Sea Cow) and meet some of the local people. There is also some excellent birding in the area.

All landing sites in the Commander Islands are weather dependent so our precise itinerary will vary depending on the prevailing conditions. One possibility, for example, is to visit a colony of over 2,000 Northern Fur Seals where we should also see Steller Sea Lions and as many as 200 Pacific Sea Otters. There are also several sites where Zodiac cruising can be highly productive and it is possible to get close views of Red-legged Kittiwake, Parakeet Auklet, Horned Puffin and Pigeon Guillemot (a very different-looking species to the birds in the Kuril Islands); while ashore we could encounter Rock Ptarmigan, and the endemic subspecies of Arctic Fox. At some stage during our time in the Commander Islands we also plan to cruise along the southern coast of Bering Island in the Spirit of Enderby as this is a superb area for seabirds and cetaceans.

Day 6: At Sea

We enjoy a day at sea as we cruise south from the Commander Islands towards the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Kuril Islands. For the keen birders today the list of possible species is truly mouth-watering and includes: Short-tailed, Black-footed and Laysan Albatrosses and Mottled Petrel. The cetaceans can also be exceptional; good numbers of Sperm, Humpback, Northern Minke, Baird’s Beaked Whales and Orca have all previously been seen.

There will be a series of lectures and recaps today both on what we have seen and what we might see in the next few days – it is also a good chance to catch up on downloading photos and log books.

Day 7: Bukhta Russkaya

We will spend the day exploring the south-eastern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula. If the weather is fine, there should be fantastic views of the many snow-covered volcanoes that dominate the southern part of the peninsula. We could see at least half a dozen species of auks during the morning including Tufted Puffin, Brunnich’s Guillemot and Parakeet Auklet. We will also keep a lookout for Long-billed Murrelets and the critically endangered Kittlitz’s Murrelet which have been seen here.

Weather and permits permitting we plan to visit Bukhta (Fiord) Russkaya and there is an excellent chance of seeing both Sea Otters and Largha Seals as there are good populations of both. Checking the shoreline and hillsides can also be rewarding as Brown Bears are often seen here. If there is sufficient time, we may make a short landing at the head of the fiord.

Day 8: Kurikdky Strait and Atlasova Island

At first light we will enter the strait between Shumshu and Paramushir where we have recorded some of the highest populations of Sea Otters – there will be a chance to observe these amazing animals which were once in great demand because of their pelts. Today even though they are totally protected, poaching is a threat. The small village of Severo-Kurilsk is nearby – this was destroyed in 1952 by a tsunami with a loss of over 2000 lives. The village has now been rebuilt higher up the hill.

Our first actual landing in the Kuril Islands will be on Atlasova Island where the tallest volcano in the archipelago can be found (Alaid: 2,340 metres). Atlasova was the first island to be sighted by Cossack explorers when they reached this region in the 1690’s, however, like most other islands in this region its only inhabitants now are birds and wild animals.

Near our landing site there are the remains of a herring processing plant, the herring fishery collapsed in the 1950’s and the island was abandoned. On nearby cliffs there is a colony of Red-faced Cormorants and out in the bay there is a chance of finding Harlequin Duck, Black and White-winged Scoters as well as Pacific Sea Otters.

Day 9: Shiashkotan, Matua and Toporkovy Islands

Our landing at Shiashkotan Island focus’s firstly on the Anui people which once inhabited the Kuril Islands. Near the landing we will see remains of their rock dwellings. Secondly not far away there are extensive relics from the Japanese period of occupation and nearby there are relics of an abandoned Border Guard base which was occupied during the Cold War.

From here we cruise to Toporkovy Island where, once again, there are spectacular colonies of breeding seabirds. The island is named after the Tufted Puffin and we can expect to see large numbers of them rafting on the sea, as well as vast flocks of Crested Auklets which can contain tens of thousands of individuals. There are usually good numbers of Whiskered Auklets here too, as well as the more localised Parakeet Auklet.

After exploring Toporkovy and if conditions are suitable we hope to land on the nearby island of Matua where there is an active volcano which last erupted in 2009. During the Second World War, Matua was heavily fortified by the Japanese and there is a labyrinth of trenches across the island and a huge airstrip which the Japanese used for attacks on the Aleutian Islands. We can explore the remains or enjoy some birding.

Returning to the ship we will cruise south to Simushir Island. Assuming the conditions are favourable you should see some cetaceans; on previous expeditions we have seen Orca, Northern Minke and Sperm Whales along with Dall’s Porpoise on this transit.

Day 10: Simushir and Yankicha Islands

This morning we will board the Zodiacs and cruise into a vast flooded caldera at the northern end of the island. Only a quarter of a century ago this was the location of a top secret Soviet Naval Base. This haunting reminder of the Cold War has now been completely abandoned by the Russian military and we can wander around the remains which are steadily being reclaimed by nature. Within the stunning setting of this huge caldera, we can expect to find a good range of bird species with one of the most common birds likely to be the spectacular Siberian Rubythroat. Eurasian Nutcrackers also breed on the island and other species we should encounter include Arctic Warbler, Brown-headed Thrush, Pine Grosbeak and Japanese Grey Bunting. It is back on board for lunch and we cruise north to Yankicha Island.

Yankicha Island is the summit of a submerged volcano. The visit here is invariably one of the highpoints of the entire voyage as the numbers of alcids which breed here are truly incredible; there are literally hundreds of thousands. Subject to weather and sea conditions, we will use the Zodiacs to circumnavigate part of the coastline and then enter the flooded caldera.

The concentrations of Crested and Whiskered Auklets here are simply spectacular (in their hundreds of thousands) and we can also expect to get great views of Brunnich’s and Common Guillemots and both Tufted and Horned Puffins. We should also see the snowy race of Pigeon Guillemot. We also stand an excellent chance of seeing Arctic Foxes which can be pretty inquisitive as they patrol the auk colonies looking for their next meal.

Day 11: Onekotan Island

We are at sea this morning a chance to catch up on some lectures, reading and/or download and edit photos as the last few days will have been hectic.

We plan an afternoon landing at the northern end of Onekotan Island from where it is a relatively easy walk to Black Lake. A selection of wildfowl can usually be found here including Greater Scaup and Goosander. Due to the extreme winter conditions in this region many of the trees are stunted and we can expect to see species such as Siberian Stone Pine, Dwarf Birch and Polar Willow, all of which typically grow no more than a few feet above the ground. By the time of our visit, however, conditions should be spring-like and as we make our way to and from the lake, there should also be plenty of wild flowers in bloom including the possibility of some stunning orchids.

Day 12: Utashud Islands

Our last day of the expedition brings us to a small group of islands off the eastern coastline of the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Utashud Islands. They are far enough offshore and small enough as to avoid disturbance from animals and activities on the mainland, consequently they have an abundance of birds and marine life. This afternoon if conditions are suitable we make a Zodiac excursion around the islands, your last chance to see/photograph and enjoy Tufted and Horned Puffins. There is also a good population of Sea Otters and harbour seals. This evening we enjoy a farewell dinner and celebrate our discoveries on this expedition.

Day 13: Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy

By early morning the Spirit of Enderby will enter Avacha Bay, you will disembark the ship in the morning and there will be a complimentary coach transfer to either a hotel of your choice in the city or the airport.

* Itinerary may be subject to change

Spirit of Enderby Deck Plan