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

48 Passengers
Northeast Passage

The Pacific Ring of Fire manifests itself in numerous places on the rim of the Pacific Ocean – but nowhere more dramatically than in Russia’s Far East. Along one of the world’s most active plate boundaries, the Pacific plate subducts under the North American plate and the resulting volcanic and geothermal activity has built a unique and amazing landscape. Upwelling from the deep trenches formed by this action and currents around the many islands creates perfect conditions for seabirds and cetaceans. Consequently, the area is one of the richest in the world, both in terms of the number of species, which can be seen, and their sheer abundance. For many birders, the undoubted highlight is the auks and during our voyage it is possible to see up to fourteen species including Tufted and Horned Puffins, Parakeet, Whiskered and Rhinoceros Auklets, as well as Spectacled and Pigeon Guillemots.

Other seabirds we regularly encounter include Laysan Albatross, Mottled Petrel, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, Red-faced Cormorant, Red-legged Kittiwake and Aleutian Tern. For those keen on cetaceans we can reasonably expect to see Fin, Sperm, Humpback Whales as well as Orca (Killer Whale), Baird’s Beaked-Whale and Dall’s Porpoise.

The region’s human history is equally interesting and fascinating. The original settlers were the Ainu and Itelmen. They were displaced with the arrival of the Cossacks in the 18th century after the Explorer Vitus Bering had put the region on the map. The Soviet empire encompassed the region and at the height of the Cold War, Russia’s formidable Pacific Fleet was based here. The secrecy surrounding the fleet resulted in the region being ‘closed’ even to Russians who had to get special permits to travel to and within the area. It is only now, two decades since Perestroika, that people can travel relatively freely here, although there is still very little in the way of infrastructure for visitors.

The region we explore on this expedition falls into three quite distinct and unique geographical regions: the Kamchatka Peninsula; the Commander Islands (the western extremity of the Aleutian chain of islands) and the Kuril Islands. Each region is very different. Each has its own story and in many cases localized plants and birds. Join us as we go in search of those people, plants, animals and birds that make this part of the Pacific Ring of Fire so special.

Brief Itinerary

Day 1 Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy
Day 2 At Sea
Days 3 & 4 Commander Islands
Day 5 Zhupanova River, Kamchatka
Day 6 Bukhta Russkaya, Kamchatka
Day 7 Ptich’i Rocks and Atlasova Island, Second Kuril Strait
Day 8 Onekotan and Ekarma Islands
Day 9 Simushir and Yankicha Islands
Day 10 Chirpoy and Urup Islands
Day 11 Iturup Island
Day 12 Kunashir Island
Day 13 Sakhalin Island

Day 1 — Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy

Our expedition begins in the historic city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy which is located on one of the greatest natural harbors in the world, Avacha Bay. Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy is the main city of the Kamchatka Peninsula and the capital and administrative centre of the region. This city and the surrounding areas offer a great amount to see and explore.

A coach will transfer you to the ship, where staff will be on hand to welcome you. You will want to be on deck as we depart Avacha Bay as some people claim that this natural harbor is amongst one of the best in the world.

Day 2 — At Sea

We have a day at sea as we cruise across the Kamchatka Trench towards the Commander Islands. These waters are renowned for cetaceans as the trench borders between two major tectonic plates creating deep canyons where these animals feed. Blue, Fin, Humpback, Sperm and Baird’s Beaked Whales have all been recorded here, as have Dall’s Porpoise and Orca, so there is real potential to start the voyage with some great cetacean sightings.

There will, of course, also be birds to watch. Look out for Red-legged Kittiwake, Tufted Puffin, Ancient Murrelet and Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel.

Days 3 & 4 — 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 that 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 a further thirty years as hunters soon arrived in the region.

During our two days in the Commander Islands we plan to visit both Bering and Medny, but our first stop will be at the village of Nikolskoye on Bering Island to check in with the Border Guards. While ashore we will have the opportunity to visit the small museum (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 to be enjoyed here.

Along the shoreline there are often hundreds of Glaucous-winged Gulls as well as smaller numbers of the far more localized Red-legged Kittiwake. We should also see both Rock Sandpiper and Mongolian Plover (or Lesser Sand Plover) here as well as both Lapland and Snow Bunting which invariably show very well. We should also have an opportunity to explore an area of tundra behind the village where the highly-prized Pechora Pipit is known to breed.

All landing sites in the Commander Islands are weather dependent, so our precise itinerary will vary depending on the prevailing conditions. Whatever sites we use you can be assured of an amazing experience.

Possible sites include 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 race to the birds in the Kuril Islands). While ashore we could encounter Rock Ptarmigan, Grey-crowned Rosy-Finch and the endemic subspecies of Arctic Fox.

We also plan to ship cruise along the southern coast of Bering Island as this is a superb area for seabirds and cetaceans. We could potentially see Short-tailed, Black-footed and Laysan Albatrosses, Mottled Petrel, Red-legged Kittiwake, Least, Parakeet and Whiskered Auklets and Horned and Tufted Puffins. This area is also renowned for cetaceans including Sperm, Humpback, Northern Minke, Baird’s Beaked-Whales and Orca.

Day 5 — Zhupanova River, Kamchatka

We anchor off the mouth of the Zhupanova River where we will Zodiac cruise up 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 be plenty of other wildlife too. Species we have seen on previous occasions 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 factory as huge numbers of salmon spawn in the river. Normally there is an opportunity to meet the fishermen, sample the fish and see how it is processed, as well as doing some land-based exploring/birding. Both Long-toed Stint and Far Eastern Curlew are possible here and nearby there is usually a flock of scavenging gulls attracted by the processing plant. We should see several species including the localized Kamchatka Gull, which is now regarded by some as distinct from Common or Mew Gull.

Day 6 — Bukhta Russkaya, Kamchatka

If the weather is fine, fantastic views of the many snow-covered volcanoes that dominate the southern part of the peninsula greet us as we sail up this fjord.

Bukhta Russkaya is an isolated fjord roughly 150 miles north of the southern tip of Kamchatka. Near the entrance there have been sightings of both the Long-billed Murrelet and the endangered Kittlitz’s Murrelet.

We plan to make a landing at the head of the fjord where the birding can be very rewarding here, with many species singing and Lanceolated Warbler, Brambling, Common Rosefinch, Oriental Greenfinch and Rustic Bunting among the possibilities. We will need to exercise care as brown bears are not uncommon here.

We also plan to Zodiac cruise at the entrance to the fjord where there is an excellent chance of observing Sea Otters, Largha Seals, Steller Sea Lions and Orcas.

Day 7 — Ptich’i Rocks and Atlasova Island, Second Kuril Strait

Early this morning we will arrive at the wildlife rich Ptich’i or Bird Rocks. The plan is to Zodiac cruise these fascinating formations where an abundance of birds, seals and Sea Otters reside. Sea Otters were hunted to almost extinction in Russia, but now number back to almost two-thirds of their historical range. Harbor and Largha Seals are often seen here as well as a healthy population of Tufted Puffins.

We then plan to sail through the Second Kuril Strait between Shumshu and Paramushir Islands on route to Altasova Island where Alaid, the tallest volcano in the archipelago with an elevation of 7,700 ft (2,340 m), can be found. On the shore near our landing site are the remains of a Gulag and some small marshy ponds where it might be possible to see Long-toed Stint and other waders. On some nearby low cliffs there is a colony of Red-faced Cormorants and, out in the bay, there is a chance of finding Harlequin Ducks, Black and White-winged Scoters, Greater Scaup, Eurasian Wigeon and Falcated Ducks as well as Pacific Sea Otters. With no brown bears inhabiting the island, you are free to explore as long as time permits.

Day 8 — Onekotan and Ekarma Islands

This morning we plan to make a landing at the northern end of Onekotan Island from where it is a relatively easy walk to Black Lake. Our walk will take us through stunted areas of Siberian Stone Pine, Dwarf Birch and Polar Willow. At the time of our visit conditions should be spring-like and, as we make our way to and from the lake, there should be plenty of wild flowers in bloom including the possibility of some stunning orchids. On the lake a selection of wildfowl can usually be found including Greater Scaup and Goosander, while in the scrub we will be looking out for Buff-bellied Pipit, Brown-headed Thrush, Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler, Siberian Rubythroat and Pine Grosbeak.

On the beach where we land, and throughout the walk, there is extensive evidence of fortifications built by the Japanese during World War II. The Russians defeated the Japanese in the closing days of the war and although the islands have been considered Russian territory ever since, Japan still disputes Russian ownership of some of the Southern Kuril Islands.

This afternoon we expect to be off Ekarma Island which, like so many of the islands in the Kuril chain, is an active volcano. The island is home to hundreds of thousands of breeding Northern Fulmars and we plan to Zodiac cruise along the coast enjoying the multitude of birds. Other species that breed here include both Tufted and Horned Puffins, we may even see some of the island’s resident Peregrines hunting alcids.

Day 9 — Simushir and Yankicha Islands

After an early breakfast we plan to board the Zodiacs and cruise into a vast  flooded caldera at the northern end of Simushir Island. Only a quarter of a century ago this was the location of a top secret Soviet submarine station where hundreds of mariners were based. This haunting reminder of the Cold War has now been completely abandoned and we can wander around what remains of the base, which is steadily being reclaimed by nature.

Within the stunning setting of this huge caldera, we can expect to find a good range of species with one of the most common birds likely to be the spectacular Siberian Rubythroat which can often be seen singing from the tops of scrubby bushes. Eurasian Nutcrackers also breed on the island and other species we have a good chance of encountering Arctic Warbler, Brown-headed Thrush, Pine Grosbeak and Japanese Grey Bunting.

Over lunch we plan to cruise back to Yankicha Island, the summit of a submerged volcano. Invariably this is one of the high points of the entire voyage as the number of alcids breeding here is truly incredible. 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 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. While inside the caldera we will pass the breeding colonies of Crested and Whiskered Auklets and are likely to also find Harlequin Ducks. We also stand an excellent chance of seeing Arctic Foxes that can be pretty inquisitive as they patrol the auk colonies looking for their next meal.

As we return to the ship in the late evening many of the alcids will be returning to their colonies. Being surrounded by clouds of birds darkening the sky is an experience you will never forget.

Day 10 — Chirpoy and Urup Islands

This morning we plan to anchor off Chirpoy Island where there are some dramatic headlands covered in breeding seabirds and, depending on the sea conditions, we expect to either land or enjoy a Zodiac cruise. Black-legged Kittiwakes and Brunnich’s Guillemots are among the more numerous species that we are likely to find here.

As we continue south towards Urup there is an excellent chance of observing Sperm Whale and Orca from the ship. Laysan Albatross, Ancient and Long-billed Murrelets, Brunnich’s Guillemot, Crested and Rhinoceros Auklets and Tufted Puffins are often seen in good numbers on this crossing.

On an extended walk on Urup Island we can expect to see White-tailed Eagle, Harlequin Duck, Grey-tailed Tattler, Japanese Cormorants and Black-backed Wagtails along the shoreline. Inland in the scrubby woodland which, is dominated by birch and alders, birds can include Latham’s Snipe, Oriental Cuckoo, Brown-headed Thrush, Arctic Warbler, Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler, Japanese Bush Warbler, Eurasian Nutcracker, Grey-bellied Bullfinch, Oriental Greenfinch, Japanese Grey Bunting and Robin. Beachcombing and walking can be very rewarding here as there is the possibility of seeing both Largha and Harbor Seals as well as Pacific Sea Otters.

Day 11 — Iturup Island

If conditions are suitable we will enjoy an early morning Zodiac cruise looking for the Spectacled Guillemot and the Long-billed Murrelet. After breakfast we plan to board the Zodiacs once again for the short ride to the community of Kurilsk where local buses will take us into the volcanic highlands of Iturup. Passing through some spectacular scenery as we steadily climb up towards the Baranskiy volcano there may be an opportunity to soak in some thermal pools.

The higher altitude and different vegetation gives us an opportunity to look for a range of new birds including Eastern Buzzard, Japanese Robin, Grey-bellied Bullfinch, Siberian Accentor, Pine Grosbeak and Kamchatka Leaf-warbler. Species we may have already seen that also occur here include Pacific Swift, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker and Japanese Bush-Warbler.

On our return to Kurilsk there should be an opportunity to either explore the village or do some further birding. Both Russet Sparrow and Chestnut-cheeked Starling are known to occur here and, depending on the tide, we may also find a good selection of gulls; there is often a good-sized roost here that can include Black-tailed, Slaty-backed, Glaucous-winged, Glaucous and Black-headed Gulls.

Day 12 — Kunashir Island

Today we have an early morning beach landing planned at Kunashir Island, the largest in the Kuril chain, to explore Kurilsky Reserve alongside local rangers. The reserve covers the northern and southern portions of the island with 70 per cent of it forested. Species we could encounter here include Latham’s Snipe, Oriental Turtle-Dove, Oriental Cuckoo, Japanese Bush-Warbler, Eastern Crowned Warbler, Narcissus and Brown Flycatchers, Siberian Stonechat and Long-tailed Rosefinch.

Overhead and along a nearby river, we should find good numbers of White-tailed Eagle. We will also be on the lookout for two special species that occur in the reserve, namely Blakiston’s Fish-Owl and Crested Kingfisher.

We expect to depart about midday for Sakhalin Island. If the weather is favorable we should get great looks at Tyatya volcano, which at almost 6,000 ft (1,820 m) dominates the landscape.

This afternoon at sea the birding can be good, but we will also need to wrap up the expedition. There will be recaps and formalities to attend to and this evening there will be a farewell dinner.

Day 13 — Sakhalin Island

We arrive at the Port of Korsakov mid-morning; there will be a complimentary coach transfer to the nearby town of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and a central hotel or to the airport.

Note: During our voyage, circumstances may make it necessary or desirable to deviate from the proposed itinerary. This can include poor weather and/or opportunities for making unplanned excursions. Your expedition leader will keep you fully informed.

* Itinerary may be subject to change

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Large lounge area, separate bedroom with double bed and a sofa in the lounge, writing desk, wardrobe and drawers. Private bathroom with shower, toilet and washbasin. Large forward and side facing windows allow great views.
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Separate bedroom with a double bed and a sofa in the lounge, writing desk, wardrobe and drawers. Private bathroom with shower, toilet and washbasin. Mini Suites have windows.
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Two lower berths, writing desk, wardrobe and drawers. Private bathroom with shower, toilet and washbasin. These cabins have windows.
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One bunk (one upper and one lower berth) and one additional lower berth, writing desk, wardrobe and drawers. Private washbasin. Nearby shower and toilet facilities are shared with other Main Deck cabins. These cabins have a porthole.