Russia: Sea of Okhotsk and Sakhalin Island

It doesn’t matter how many words you use, one simply cannot describe the biological riches of this little-known corner of Russia. Not only does it hold the highest concentration of Steller’s Sea Eagles anywhere in the Russian Far East, but islands such as Talan and Yamskiye between them hold near to 10 million auklets of various descriptions, including the unique and tiny Least Auklet. Add to this the allure of the unique and gorgeous Ribbon Seal, the possibility of a Baja-esque encounter with Gray Whales at Pil’tun Bay, and being surrounded by thousands of barking, inquisitive and giant Steller’s Sea Lions at Tyuliny Island and this makes for a spectacular expedition.


The region also plays host to a palpable and very evident human history. Perhaps no other sea in the world has witnessed as much human suffering and misery as the Sea Okhotsk. Between 1932 and 1953 it is estimated that over 3 million prisoners (the vast majority of them innocent) were transported across the Sea Okhotsk to the Gulags of the Kolyma Goldfields. It is estimated that only five hundred thousand of those prisoners survived to make the journey home. The town and port of Magadan were built to process these prisoners. Despite this, the people we will encounter are some of the friendliest, most broadly-smiling to be found anywhere. They will share with us the history and culture that they word so hard to preserve.

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.

Day 1: Sakhalin Island, Port of Korsakov. This morning we board a coach for transfer to the Port of Korsakov some 40 minutes south of the city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk where we will board the Spirit of Enderby. Once on board you will be shown to your cabins and there will be a chance to unpack and explore the vessel. There will be briefings and introductions to the ship, staff and crew after we sail towards the Sea of Okhotsk. This afternoon and evening present a chance to become familiar with some of the more common seabirds we will encounter, as well as a few specialties like Rhinocerous Auklet and the chance of our first Spectacled Guillemots.

Spectacled Guillemot is an Okhotsk specialty
Spectacled Guillemot is an Okhotsk specialty (Lisle Gwynn)

Day 2: Tyuleniy Island. We visit little known Tyuleniy Island off the south east coast of Sakhalin Island this morning. This small island is a strong hold for Northern Fur Seals and Steller’s Sea Lions and approaching the island by Zodiac can be quite the spectacle as the animals rush to the water to curiously greet us with barks, huffs, puffs and wails. Fur seal numbers have increased since an International Covention signed in 1911 banned seal hunting here and in the 1990s Steller’s Sea Lions started breeding on the island. Their colony now numbers about 2,500 animals. Sea conditions permitting we plan a landing here for an opportunity to photograph the seals and sea lions, whilst on the bird front we are likely to see our first Glaucous Gulls and Aleutian Terns as well as thousands upon thousands of Common and Brunnich’s Guillemots.

Ribbon Seal is perhaps the ultimate prize here for marine mammal enthusiasts
Ribbon Seal is perhaps the ultimate prize here for marine mammal enthusiasts (Lisle Gwynn)

Day 3: Piltun Bay, Sakhalin Island. It was the discovery of oil and gas in this region which put Sakhalin Island on many people’s maps, and unfortunately the exploitation continues to this day. Piltun Bay is an important site for Western Gray Whales which number just a couple of hundred individuals. Here we travel by Zodiac inshore to the shallower waters where the whales feed and frolic in and around the surf. On a good day the encounters can be nothing short of phenomenal. Once we leave the bay we will be on deck on the look-out for seabirds once again. The numbers of Aleutian Terns is quite impressive here and this also presents probably our best opportunity to see the rare and difficult Long-billed Murrelet.

Day 4: Iony Island. Iony Island lies in the middle of the Sea of Okhotsk and is really just a rock, but what it lacks in physical size it more than makes up for in its frightfully abundant wildlife. Birds appear to take up all available space; there are Four species of guillemot, kittiwakes and various species of auklets, with Parakeet, Whiskered and Least being the most prominent. We will Zodiac cruise around the island as Steller’s Sea Lions occupy the few rocky beaches, making any landing impossible. Iony also appears to be a bit of a migrant trap and we can reasonably expect to see some bedraggled and lost passerines.

'Iony' Whiskered Auklet is a possible future split
'Iony' Whiskered Auklet is a possible future split (Lisle Gwynn)

Days 5-6: Shantar Archipelago. Lying in the western sector of the Sea of Okhotsk close to the continent, the islands in this archipelago are amongst the last place in the Sea of Okhotsk to become ice free each year. This late ice can sometimes restrict how far we can explore here, but on the other hand ice increases our chances of seeing some of the seals including Bearded, Ringed, Largha and the wholly exceptional Ribbon Seals that breed here. If we can land there will be birding, botany and photography excursions led by the team of on board naturalists, and if we can’t then we’ll cruise the ice looking for seals, Steller’s Sea Eagles, Orca and, with a large amount of luck, even one of the Bowheads that inhabit these waters. Days spent in the ice are always magical regardless of the plan that unfolds, and sunrises in the Shantars are legendarily beautiful.

Steller's Sea-Eagle is truly magnificent
Steller's Sea-Eagle is truly magnificent (Lisle Gwynn)

Day 7: Mal’minskie Islands. Here there are birds everywhere, in the air, in the water and on the land. Numerous species breed here including large numbers of Spectacled Guillemots, Ancient Murrelet, Rhinoceros Auklet, Parakeet Auklet, Horned and Tufted Puffin, Crested Auklet and both Common and Brunnich’s Guillemot. There is also a good population of Steller’s Sea Eagles on the island and on the adjacent mainland. Landing on the island is restricted to a small gravel spit however on the mainland we can stretch our legs and explore the taiga forest. Terrestrial highlights here can include Pallas’s Warbler, Siberian Rubythroat, Siberian Accentor and Siberian Chipmunk.

Day 8: Okhotsk Town. This town has featured in Russian Far East history since the earliest Cossack explorers came from the west. Vitus Bering travelled overland from St Petersburg to Okhotsk in 1725 and again in 1733 to travel to Kamchatka and beyond. Today Okhotsk is the centre of commercial fishing in the region and a bustling little town in its own right. The port exports significant quantities of salmon and other fish around the world. We visit the town, landing by Zodiac up the river near the town centre where we will find the local people are generous and welcoming and will provide entertainment in the town centre as well as a cultural display. At the river mouth itself we will pause for the thousands upon thousands of Glaucous, Kamchatka, Vega and Black-headed Gulls, admire the dozens of Steller’s Sea Eagles that often allow close approach, and sift through the thousands of terns as we try and convince ourselves that yes, there really are that many Aleutians among them!

Day 9: Talan Island. An internationally known, but very difficult bird island to get to, Talan is famous largely because of the hundreds of thousands of Crested Auklets that nest there. There are also an extraordinary number of Black-legged Kittiwakes nesting along the cliffs and not surprisingly a large population of Steller’s Sea Eagles. We plan to circumnavigate the island by Zodiac before landing and then return in the late evening to witness the huge flocks of Crested Auklets amassing at sea before coming ashore. We are sure to have fun floating among the thousands of Brunnich’s and Common Guillemots, enjoy point blank photo opportunities with Spectacled Guillemots, and search the island for Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler and perhaps even Lanceolated Warbler.

Day 10: Koni Peninsula. This is a mountainous region to the south-east of the town of Magadan, part of which is included in the Magadanskiy Zapovednik Reserve. This reserve protects among other animals brown bear and Snow Sheep. Many of our landings are expeditionary, in that although we have landed at a number of places along the coast, many will be new and unknown to us, so we are never quite sure what we will find. That is part of what makes this style of travel so interesting.

Day 11: Yamskiye Islands. These islands are claimed by some biologists to be the largest bird colony in the North Pacific. According to bird counts there are an estimated 7 million birds nesting on Matykil Island, the largest in the group. Birds include Common and Brunnich’s Guillemot, Crested, Parakeet and Least Auklets, Tufted and Horned Puffins and Northern Fulmars. The most abundant of these is the Least Auklet. We Zodiac around the coast as no landings are permitted, but this is the perfect way to marvel at the spectacle as the sky turns a sooty grey with the huge flocks of auklets arriving and the sea becomes alive with birds.

Horned Puffins are seen daily, often in large numbers
Horned Puffins are seen daily, often in large numbers (Lisle Gwynn)

Day 12: Magadan. The name Magadan is synonymous with Stalin’s oppressive Gulags or prisons but there is very little evidence now of this town’s tragic past. The local museum has an excellent display about the Gulags but the most poignant reminder is the ‘Mask of Sorrow’ a large monument on a hill overlooking the town. Today Magadan is a town of about 100,000 people. Fishing is important and gold mining is experiencing a revival. The infamous Kolyma Highway or the ‘Road of Bones’ connects Magadan with Irkutsk and ultimately greater Russia. We plan to arrive here midday where our journey ends and you will be transferred to a central hotel or the airport after we say our goodbyes.

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OPTIONAL PRE-TOUR EXTENSION

Depending on shipping schedules and timings there may be an opportunity for those arriving early to join passengers departing from the Russia’s Ring of Fire expedition on a day of birding in Sakhalin. Exact itinerary is subject to change depending on local conditions, so the following must be used as an example only.

First up we plan to locate Black-browed Reed Warbler, followed by a targeted assault on a local forest to try and secure good views of the endemic Sakhalin Leaf Warbler. Hopefully we can also tease a Sakhalin Grasshopper Warbler out of hiding here. Time-permitting we will then visit a local park where Narcissus Flycatcher, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Japanese Tit, Eastern Crowned Warbler, Pallas’s Warbler and Russet Sparrow are possible. Our main target here though is Rufous-tailed Robin, a bird that can be exceptionally difficult to get good views of and will undoubtedly give us a good-humored run-around.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Breakfast will typically be taken between 6:00-7:00 am to maximize birding opportunities. Earlier breakfasts may be required on some days. There is very little driving in land vehicles on this tour; almost all transport is by inflatable boats known as Zodiacs. At times these can be uncomfortable in rougher weather, but they are essential for our expedition activities. All Zodiacs are driven by competent drivers who will keep you as dry and comfortable as possible, however it should be noted that GOOD waterproofs are essential for this tour. All nights during the expedition itself will be spent on the Professor Khromov, also known as the Spirit of Enderby. This is a well-equipped, comfortable and stable 50 passenger Russian icebreaker ship, meaning after each day you come back to your ‘home base’ which won’t change for the entire tour.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. Nowhere on this tour is particularly challenging and so it is suitable for anybody with a good general level of fitness. Most of the land-based birding will be on flat or slightly inclined tracks and you can expect to walk around 2 miles (3.2 km) per day on average. As this is not solely a birding expedition there are often opportunities to join other groups if desired, which could include longer and more strenuous walks, however this is always laid out in detail prior to leaving the ship. Most of our birding will be at or very close to sea level, with no significant altitude encountered anywhere on the tour.

CLIMATE: As this tour runs in early summer and the climate is for the most part sub-Arctic, temperatures can be on the cooler side, especially in the morning and at night. Generally temperatures range between 50°-54°F (10°-12°C). Even though this is quite mild, you must factor in wind chill with rapid Zodiac travel and time spent at sea feeling significantly cooler. Better is to dress warmly and in layers, and to prepare for temperatures between 41°-44°F (5°-7°C). Full waterproof coverings are essential, since although only light drizzle and rain is expected on land, the Zodiac rides can be subject to splashing and wave spray at times.

ACCOMMODATION: All nights during the main expedition will be spent onboard (though depending on flight schedules, you may require additional nights in hotels). There are several levels of accommodation on the ship, please contact us for details. Some cabins have private, en-suite bathrooms, whilst all have full-time hot water and 24h electricity. Meals are exceptional and of an international standard. All but one or two lunches will be taken onboard.

PHOTOGRAPHY: Superb opportunities. Birds and other wildlife are often at close range from the Zodiacs. Many of the guides on the Spirit of Enderby, and particularly Tropical Birding guides, are keen photographers and know how and where to get you in a position to get good shots. Alcid photography is particularly rewarding on this tour.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently required for most nationalities. The process of obtaining a Russian visa is fairly straightforward, though it may need to be submitted in person. Nationalities not requiring a visa include many South and Central American countries, Thailand, and ex-Soviet states. Heritage Expeditions and Tropical Birding work with a ground agent in the Far East that assists and aids the visa process for passengers. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: (This applies to the expedition cruise only, please contact us for info about the extension) Accommodation onboard the Spirit of Enderby from the night of day 1 to the night day 11; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 12; safe drinking water at all times; Heritage Expeditions OR Tropical Birding tour leader from the afternoon of day 1 to the morning of day 12; ground transport for certain landing sites.

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader, crew, and expedition staff; flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras on the ship such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, internet usage, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.