Sea of Okhotsk 2013
n the language of its indigenous people, the Sea of Okhotsk translates as something like the ‘Sea of Hunters’ or ‘Hunters Sea’. It’s our first indication of the abundance of wildlife in the region and despite the hunting that has gone on over the years, this sea remains one of the richest in the world – but there is so little known about it. The freshwaters of the Amur River flow into this vast, naturally-sheltered sea and it freeze’s into ice-floes that make it impassable for much of the year.
Dominating the Northwest Pacific, the sea is bounded to the north and west by the Russian continent and the Kamchatka Peninsula to the east, while the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin Island guard the southern border. Its coasts were home to a number of indigenous peoples: the Nivikh, Oroki, Even and Itelmen – mostly now displaced by the advance of the modern world, though descendants can still be found practising a way of life handed down by their ancestors.
The great 17th century explorer Commander Vitus Bering launched two expeditions from the town of Okhotsk on the western shores of the sea in order to explore the coasts of the Russian Empire. The town remains to this day, seemingly frozen in time. Our expedition also visits the town of Magadan; once upon a time the gateway to the Kolyma Goldfields. Thousands of political prisoners were shipped here under Stalin’s regime to work in the mines. Many never made it back from the infamous Gulags, succumbing to brutal treatment and the bitterly cold winters of the region.
And man’s treatment of the region’s wildlife wasn’t much better: in 1854 no fewer than 160 American and British whaling ships were here, hunting the Bowhead Whale. Hunted almost to extinction, whales are now returning to the Sea of Okhotsk and it is possible to see a number of species including a rare western population of the Grey Whale, plus Bowhead Whales. The beautiful and rare Ribbon Seal may also be found, shambling on craggy rocks, as can Steller Sea Lions and Northern Fur Seals.
Our expedition will unlock many secrets of this virtually unexplored region. On Talan Island we visit a huge colony of Tufted Puffins and on the cliffs tumbling round the back of forgotten islands, we’ll find thousands of seabirds. Millions more breed on the islands scattered across the sea. Soaring above the archipelagos is the huge and beautiful Steller’s Sea Eagle. But birds compose only part of the rich wildlife tapestry of the region: we will see rivers churning with salmon as they roar through taiga forests, wild hills roamed by wolves, Big Horned Sheep, Arctic Fox and, with luck, we’ll catch sight of the mighty Kamchatka Brown Bear.
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 and head south towards Utashud Island.
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.
The Utashud are a small group of islands off the eastern coastline of the Kamchatka Peninsula. 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 morning if conditions are suitable, we will take a Zodiac excursion around the islands; this will be your first close encounter and chance to view some of the regions seabirds including Tufted and Horned Puffins and provides us with photographic opportunities. There is also a good population of Sea Otters and harbour seals. This afternoon we sail around Cape Lopatka – the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula and into the Sea of Okhotsk.
We have a day at sea as we cruise north-west across the Sea of Okhotsk towards the northern tip of Sakhalin Island. The upwelling around the edge of the Deryugin Basin should be an ideal location to see cetaceans. The Sea of Okhotsk is renowned for cetaceans; from the mid 19th century whaling ships worked these waters but since the cessation of whaling, numbers are increasing.
The ‘birding’ should also be good; look-out for Tufted Puffin, Ancient Murrelet and Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel. We are also likely to see huge flocks of Short-tailed Shearwaters as almost the entire world population of this long-distance migrant moult in these waters.
Taking time to rest and enjoy shipboard life in the bar or library, we will have the chance to learn more about the biology and history of the area and the icy Sea of Okhotsk through informal lectures with our experts.
The north-east part of Sakhalin Island especially is a regular feeding ground for Western Grey Whales. Critically endangered, with only about 120 animals left in the wild and many questions still unanswered about their ecology, they were believed to be extinct after heavy exploitation during the 19th and 20th centuries, but miraculously survived. The water around northern Sakhalin Island consistently holds the biggest congregation of whales during summer months; they come every year to forage in the productive waters off the shelf. This area has also become a place of collision between oil-drilling companies and conservation organisations because a lot of seismic work is taking place in this region.
This massive archipelago consists of 15 islands, of which there are four big ones, surrounded by numerous smaller rocks. It covers a vast area in the west of the Sea of Okhotsk and the climate is somewhat harsh. Sea ice gets stuck in the strait for a long time before it melts, so there are only a few months of ice-free sea and ice floes can be seen as late in the season as July. The islands are covered with larch and pine forests and present a wonderful habitat for about 200 bird species. The most spectacular, without doubt, is Steller’s Sea Eagle, the true king of Far East birding and on average the heaviest eagle species in the world. These amazing birds nest on the Shantar Islands and we will look for them as we explore on hikes or Zodiac cruises. Numerous seabirds nest on the cliffs and offshore rocks; we have a chance to see Horned and Tufted Puffins, murres, auklets and many Spectacled Guillemots.
Further inland, Brown Bears are the biggest terrestrial animals, but many other creatures can also be found. There are rivers, lakes and spectacular waterfalls to explore, and it’s all uninhabited apart from the staff at weather stations.
Seals and whales also favour this area; there is a large stock of Beluga Whales that migrate to the Archipelago and other regions during the spring/summer season. They form big pods and are easily spotted due to their shining white colour. As we Zodiac cruise around the coastline we have a fair chance of seeing these magnificent whales, sometimes called ‘sea canaries’ for their impressive underwater vocalisations. Killer Whales also roam these waters in search of prey and Bowhead Whales are occasionally seen in the area. Various seals live in this region too including Bearded, Spotted, Ringed and, the most sought-after, the beautiful Ribbon Seals, can be spotted depending on the ice dynamics.
This is an incredible and wild area on the west coast of the Sea of Okhotsk. These small islands form part of the Dzhugdzhursky Nature Reserve, which is one of the wildest and least-studied reserves in Russia. It covers a huge territory of eight thousand hectares and consists of three parts, with a big marine area attached. The reserve epitomises the harsh Siberian climate and breathtaking landscapes of the region.
The Mal’minskie Islands are home to numerous seabirds; the biggest colony of Spectacled Guillemot is to be found here, along with kittiwakes, Parakeet Auklets, puffins and many other species. There is also a good chance of Steller’s Sea Eagle as we make excursions.
On the mainland, taiga fauna is richly represented: Brown Bears roam free, as well as wolves, Wolverines, Red Foxes, various species of weasel, Siberian Musk Deer and Moose.
Of course there are also marine mammals to be spotted. Four species of seal live in the Sea of Okhotsk along with several whale species, amongst which are the local population of Bowhead Whales and (the most desirable sighting for keen whale-watchers) Northern Right Whales.
These areas are very attractive with their wilderness and inaccessibility, little is known about the region and few people venture to set foot on the islands. Our activities will depend on the ice conditions, but there are endless opportunities to explore.
A small island in the vastness of the Sea of Okhotsk, it is over 200 kilometres away from the mainland. Completely uninhabited with only an automatic weather station and a small hut of unknown origin, it is a crucial location for the endangered Steller Sea Lion population. There are only a few reproductive sites for the Steller Sea Lion in the region and Iony Island is one of them – it is covered with sea lions on almost every rock. We have a wonderful opportunity to observe these sea lions in huge groups as they haul-out on rocks, or swim around, driven by curiosity.
As well as mammals, the island is home to huge colonies of seabirds: auklets including the attractive Whiskered Auklet, puffins, guillemots and gulls nest in their hundreds of thousands on the cliffs. The sky becomes dark with birds when they fly out to sea in search of food; it is a regional Natural Heritage site and for good reason.
We will cruise around the island and surrounding rocks, enjoying magnificent birding and watching numerous sea lions all around.
The first settlement was established on this site by Russian Cossacks in 1647, making it one of the earliest towns of the Russian Far East. After the famous explorer Commander Vitus Bering visited here on the way to Kamchatka on his first expedition, he proposed founding a navigation school for young sailors. Since then, and for almost a century, Okhotsk was an important port on the Far East coast, from which many expeditions departed.
At the beginning of the 19th century, it fell into decline as nearby Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy became the more widely-used sea port, but during the Soviet period it revived with a thriving fish processing factory and the town regained its former status. However, as the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the industry in town. Now it is only a shadow of its former self and much smaller, but it remains very typical of the tenacious and proud nature of Russian province towns – some houses still look unchanged from the 19th century. There is also a small museum of local history, culture and wildlife which is tended with special care, as you only find in small, remote towns.
A tiny island in the northern Sea of Okhotsk, it supports an unbelievable diversity of wildlife. Despite its size this island has one of the largest seabird colonies in the north of the Sea of Okhotsk. Over 140 species of birds can be observed on the island, most of them migratory. Over 1.8 million birds bring the cliffs alive and obscure the sky as they fly out to sea. Gulls, kittiwakes, Thick-billed Murres, Horned and Tufted Puffins, Crested, Whiskered and Parakeet Auklets, Ancient Murrelets and many other species form a birdwatcher’s paradise. The island is also inhabited by Red Foxes and they are not as shy as in other places, which presents wonderful opportunities for photography.
Thirty miles off the entrance to Magadan Harbour is Zavyalov Island, we will arrive there early morning and depending on sea and weather conditions – we will make an expedition landing in search of wildlife encounters, wild flowers and scenery.
This afternoon we plan a visit the city of Magadan the administrative centre of the Magadanskaya region. We have a chance to learn about its tragic past and developing present. Founded in 1929, Magadan officially became a city only in 1939 and for many years was a hub for north-east Siberian Gulags (or labour camps). Incredible numbers of prisoners passed through this city (over 800,000) as they were distributed to different camps in the region. Over 150,000 of them died. It was a tragic price to pay the ruling regime for the development of the region. When the enterprise collapsed, Magadan remained an industrial and cultural centre and even though many people left during the 1990s, development is progressing rapidly. There are several major universities, a few institutes (industrial as well as devoted to natural sciences) and several museums. Magadan is the true cultural capital of the region.
There is a moving monument to all those who suffered their sentence here during the Soviet era and the cathedral is the biggest in the Russian Far East and one of the highest in Russia.
As we explore the city by foot there is a lot to see and learn.
This peninsula south of Magadan is part of the Magadanskaya Reserve and we will likely be accompanied by a Ranger for our landings. It is a genuine expedition day as there are numerous sheltered bays and harbours with rivers flowing in to explore the largest of which is the Zabiyaka Bay. All the landings offer opportunities for hikes, photography, natural history observations including mammals, birds and plants. We will be guided by the Rangers and the weather as to which landings we make.
The huge bay in the northern part of the Sea of Okhotsk (Penzhinskiy) is covered with ice for half of the year and is famous for its irregular and very high tides. It is home to four seal species, Bearded, Ringed, Ribbon and Largha, along with the Steller Sea Lion. There are also many whale species that can be seen in the area – Bowhead, Northern Right, Grey, Humpback and Fin.
Depending on ice conditions, we will explore some parts of the bay and visit the Yamskiye Islands which are yet another wonder of the Russian Far East. Being even more impressive than all that we saw before, the bird colony here is the biggest in the Sea of Okhotsk and one of the biggest in the whole North Pacific region – it holds over 10 million nesting birds! We will enjoy the sight of murres, guillemots and auklets (including tremendous numbers of Least Auklets nesting), kittiwakes and gulls, as well as over a million Northern Fulmars.
During the night we will have crossed to Cape Yuzhnyy on the wild west coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula and will make our way south. There are a number of potential landings – all are very weather dependent and offer great wildlife viewing opportunities. Almost all of the potential landings are river mouths. Many species of salmon swim upriver throughout the summer to spawn, which in turn attracts many predators like Steller’s Sea Eagles and, of course, the King of Kamchatka – the Brown Bear. Possible landings include the Khairuzov, Opala and Golynia Rivers. We plan as many landings as are practical and possible along this coast as we make our way south to Cape Lopatka and the First Kuril Strait.
This afternoon will be our last landing as we make our way north back along the Kamchatka coast to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy where our journey began. If the weather is fine, there should be fantastic views of the many snow-covered volcanoes that dominate the southern part of the peninsula.
By mid afternoon we hope to be off the entrance to Bukhta Russkaya, an isolated fiord roughly 150 miles north of the southern tip of Kamchatka. We hope to cruise into the fiord where 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 far end of the fiord. The birding can be very rewarding here also.
This evening we will celebrate the end of the voyage with a farewell dinner and expedition recap.
During the night the Spirit of Enderby will enter Avacha Bay, after a final breakfast it will be time to disembark. We will provide a complimentary transfer to a downtown hotel and or the airport.
To allow time for disembarkation procedures we do not recommend booking flights before 13:00hrs.
* Itinerary may be subject to change