Russia’s Ring of Fire: Kamchatka, the Commanders, and the Kurils

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. Imagine cruising the coast and birding landscapes dominated by enormous perfectly conical volcanoes and vast ice-fringed Taiga forest. Upwelling from the deep trenches formed by this action and currents around the many islands also 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 alcids, and during our voyage it is possible to see up to fourteen species including Tufted and Horned Puffins, Parakeet, Whiskered and Rhinoceros Auklets, Ancient, Japanese, Long-billed and Kittlitz’s Murrelets, as well as ‘Kuril’ and Spectacled Guillemots. Other seabirds we regularly encounter include Laysan, Black-footed and the holy grail Short-tailed 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. On previous occasions we have seen the near-mythical Hubbs’ and Stejneger’s Beaked Whales.

The region’s human history is equally interesting and fascinating. The original settlers were the Ainu and Itelmen who 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. This makes the region that little more fascinating for us as seekers of all things wild though, as it presents a unique opportunity to bird an underappreciated, oft-forgotten and under-explored region where surprises are common.

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 and each has its own story. Join us as we go in search of the people, birds, animals and unforgettable landscapes that make this part of the Pacific Ring of Fire so special.

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.

Day 1: Sakhalin Island, Port of Korsakov. This morning we will transfer to the Port of Korsakov, some 40 minutes south of the city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk where staff will be on hand to welcome you at 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. We plan to get underway soon after you have embarked. There will be briefings and introductions to the ship, staff and crew after we have departed and we will also take the opportunity to conduct a number of safety briefings; however we’ll aim to keep these as short as possible to allow you ample time to settle into your cabin and get out on deck to look for seabirds.

As we cruise south-east across the Sea of Okhotsk our first seabirds could well include Tufted Puffin, Ancient Murrelet, Pelagic Cormorant, Black-tailed Gull, and Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel. We are also likely to see huge flocks of Short-tailed Shearwaters. We are also likely to encounter our first cetaceans of the voyage and these could include Dall’s Porpoise, Northern Minke Whale, and Orca (Killer Whale).

Tufted Puffin - beautiful, bizarre, or both? You decide...
Tufted Puffin - beautiful, bizarre, or both? You decide... (Lisle Gwynn)

Day 2: Kunashir Island. We expect to be at sea during the early part of the morning but there should be plenty of birds about and potential new species could include Rhinoceros Auklet, Brunnich’s Guillemot, and Slaty-backed Gull. The very rare Short-tailed Albatross has also been seen here on previous expeditions. By late morning we expect to be ashore and exploring in the Kurilsky Reserve where with the assistance of the local rangers we will enjoy some walks. The reserve covers an extensive area of woodland and the species we could encounter 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.

By late afternoon we will be back on the Spirit of Enderby and heading towards Iturup Island. As we cruise north, we may well see our first Crested Aucklets with Short-tailed Shearwater and Rhinoceros Auklet also highly likely.

Day 3: Iturup Island. If conditions are suitable we will offer an early morning Zodiac cruise to look for the Spectacled Guillemot and the Long-billed Murrelet. After breakfast we will 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. We will pass through some spectacular scenery as we steadily climb up towards the Baranskiy volcano where there will be an opportunity to soak in some thermal pools. The higher altitude and different vegetation give us an opportunity to look for a range of new birds including Eastern Buzzard, Japanese Robin, Gray-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 state of 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.

Arctic Foxes sometimes almost walk on your feet!
Arctic Foxes sometimes almost walk on your feet! (Lisle Gwynn)

Day 4: Urup and Chirpoy Islands. We will make an early morning landing on Urup Island where on an extended walk we can expect to see White-tailed Eagle, Harlequin Duck, Gray-tailed Tattler, Japanese Cormorants, and Black-backed Wagtails along the shoreline. Inland in the scrubby woodland which is dominated by birch and alders, birds include Latham’s Snipe, Oriental Cuckoo, Brown-headed Thrush, Arctic Warbler, Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler, Japanese Bush Warbler, Eurasian Nutcracker, Gray-bellied Bullfinch, Oriental Greenfinch, Japanese Gray Bunting, and European Robin. Beachcombing and walking can be very rewarding as there is the possibility of seeing both Largha and Harbor Seals as well as Pacific Sea Otters. As we continue north towards Chirpoy Island there is an excellent chance of seeing Sperm Whale and Orca. 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.

This afternoon we will anchor off Chirpoy Island where there are some dramatic headlands covered in breeding seabirds and, depending on the sea conditions, we will either land or have a Zodiac cruise. Black-legged Kittiwakes and Brunnich’s Guillemots are among the more numerous species to be found here.

Steller's Sea Eagle dwarf most other birds
Steller's Sea Eagle dwarf most other birds (Lisle Gwynn)

Day 5: Simushir and Yankicha Islands. After an early breakfast we will 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 should encounter include Arctic Warbler, Brown-headed Thrush, Pine Grosbeak, and Japanese Gray Bunting.

Over lunch we will cruise north 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 that breed here is truly incredible. Subject to weather and sea conditions, we will use the Zodiacs to explore 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 good numbers of 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 is an experience you will never forget.

Horned Puffins are seen regularly and at close quarters
Horned Puffins are seen regularly and at close quarters (Lisle Gwynn)

Day 6: Toporkovy Islands and Matua Island. Today we plan to Zodiac cruise along the shores of 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 these 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 localized Parakeet Auklet. We will also investigate the island’s cliffs as various species breed on these including Brunnich’s Guillemot and Red-faced Cormorant. We hope to land on the island of Matua where there is an active volcano that 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. This makes exploring somewhat challenging but we should still find a range of good birds with a decent chance of seeing Gray-tailed Tattler along the shore and Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler, Siberian Rubythroat, and Black-faced Bunting in the scrubby trees which are now growing back across the island. Arctic Skuas also breed on the island.

Day 7: Onekotan Island and Atlasova. This morning we will 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. By the time of our visit, 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. On the lake a selection of wildfowl can usually be found including Greater Scaup and Common Merganser. In the scrub, we’ll look 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 the Japanese withdrew. Although the islands have been considered Russian territory ever since, Japan disputes that in the case of some of the Southern Kuril Islands.

This afternoon we visit Atlasova Island where the tallest volcano in the archipelago can be found (Alaid: 2,340 m/7675 ft). On the shore near our landing site are the remains of a Gulag that you can explore. Beyond that you can wander as far as you can in the time allocated, as there are no brown bears on this island. Near our landing site there are 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 Duck, Black and White-winged Scoters as well as Pacific Sea Otters. As we continue north we will cruise through Second Strait in the Kuril Islands, this region has one of the highest densities of Sea Otters in the Kuril Islands.

Day 8: 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. 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 plan a Zodiac cruise at the entrance to the fiord where there is an excellent chance of seeing Sea Otters, Largha Seals, Steller Sea Lions, and Orcas.

Dapper, regal, comical - the Crested Auklet
Dapper, regal, comical - the Crested Auklet (Lisle Gwynn)

Day 9: Zhupanova River, Kamchatka. Today we will 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 and other species we have seen on previous occasions include Pacific Loon, 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.

This afternoon we cruise across the Kamchatka Trench towards the Commander Islands. The waters we are cruising through are renowned for cetaceans as this is the border between two major tectonic plates and there are 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 here is real potential for some great cetacean sightings.

Days 10-11: 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 for 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 in the area. 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 and both Lapland and Snow Bunting 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 breeds.

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 time. 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, Gray-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 12: At Sea. As we cruise across the Kamchatka Trench towards Petropavlovsk- Kamchatskiy we will keep a look out for the cetaceans that this area is well known for. This afternoon at sea the birding can be good, but we will also need to wrap up the expedition, so there will be recaps and formalities to attend to. This evening there will be a farewell dinner.

Day 13: Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy. During the night the Spirit of Enderby will enter Avacha Bay which is one of the greatest natural harbors in the world. On the shores of Avacha Bay is Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, the capital and administrative center of the Kamchatka Region. The town was founded in the 1700’s by Commander Vitus Bering during the Second Kamchatka Expedition. All through the Cold War it was home to a significant part of Russia’s Pacific Fleet which included a large submarine base. The city and region were ‘closed’ to all foreign visitors until 1992. After breakfast you will disembark and we will provide complimentary transfers to a downtown hotel and the airport.

____________________

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, and if the extension is available, 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 12; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 13; safe drinking water at all times; Heritage Expeditions OR Tropical Birding tour leader from the afternoon of day 1 to the morning of day 13; 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.