Siberia’s Forgotten Coast: Kamchatka, the Commanders, and Chukotka

Siberia’s eastern coastline is undoubtedly one of the most remote and least visited regions of the globe. It is home to several groups of indigenous people, including the Itelmen, Koryak, Even and Chukchi. Fur trappers and sealers plundered the regions natural resources in the name of the Tsar in the early 17th Century whilst Stalin and subsequent leaders encouraged economic development in this part of the Soviet Union. Soviet towns were built, bonuses were paid to those who would immigrate and work there and attempts were made to collectivise the traditional way of life. As the iron curtain was drawn and the Cold War escalated, this region became forbidden territory. Travel to and within the area was strictly controlled, the number of military installations increased, early radar warning stations proliferated and Russia’s Pacific fleet patrolled the coastline.


This all changed in the early 1990s with Perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Military installations were abandoned, there were mass migrations of workers back west and towns and industries were simply abandoned. As the heavily subsided economy collapsed the indigenous people were forced back to traditional ways of life but permits to travel through the area did become a little easier to obtain. Twenty five years on, travel through this region is still heavily regulated and virtually impossible for the independent traveller. There is little or no infrastructure, only a few kilometres of road, no hotels apart from in the main towns of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and Anadyr. These towns have scheduled air services, but access to the rest of the region either by air or sea even for locals is at best ‘unpredictable’.

Throughout its checkered human history its rich natural history has largely gone unnoticed and unknown by the rest of the world. It is an amazing coastline dominated by the volcanoes of Kamchatka in the south, the fjords of what was formally the Koryak region and the rich estuarine areas and tundra of Chukotka. This coastline has one of the most diverse assemblages of wildlife and habitats of anywhere of a similar latitude on the globe and virtually no people or visitors to disturb them. One of the most iconic species is the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper that is an endemic breeder to the region. For the past 5 years we have supported BirdLife International and Birds Russia research teams working on this species. Our 2017 expedition not only continues that support but it expands it to include other seabirds and waders as researchers monitor potential changes in their populations and distribution due to a variety of reasons including climate change.

The chance to see Spoon-billed Sandpipers on their breeding grounds is a huge drawcard for shorebird lovers
The chance to see Spoon-billed Sandpipers on their breeding grounds is a huge drawcard for shorebird lovers (Lisle Gwynn)

Day 1: Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Depending on shipping schedules, this morning you will be transferred to the vessel and home for the next two weeks – the Spirit of Enderby. There will be plenty of time today to settle in, unpack, and more importantly join us on deck to begin the birding. As we leave we will target birds like Ancient Murrelet, Stejneger’s Scoter, and enjoy our first looks at the dapper and clown-like Tufted Puffin among plenty of other highlights. You are also welcome on the bridge as we sail from what some people consider the best natural harbour in the world which is quite strikingly lined with perfectly-conical volcanoes. It really is breathtaking.

Day 2: Zhupanova River. We will spend several hours in the Zodiacs today, cruising on the scenic Zhupanova River where we should get great looks at Steller’s Sea Eagles as the birds often nest in the trees adjacent to the river. Other highlights could include Far Eastern Curlew, Kamchatka Gull and Aleutian Tern, as well as an absolute bounty of great birding with species both familiar and unfamiliar to many of us. The number of Red-throated Divers in the river is often spectacular and there is a very real chance of turning up something out of the ordinary. There is also a major salmon fishery on the river which we can visit for the primary purpose of scouring its land for breeding Long-toed Stint.

Steller's Sea-Eagle is the king of the sky here in Eastern Russia
Steller's Sea-Eagle is the king of the sky here in Eastern Russia (Lisle Gwynn)

Days 3-4: Commander Islands. There are two main islands in the Commander group, Bering and Medny, and during our two days we will explore several sites combining the best of the natural and cultural history. There is an excellent chance of finding Rock Sandpiper, Mongolian Plover, Pechora Pipit and Grey-crowned Rosy-Finch, as well as the endemic subspecies of Arctic Fox on Medny. Zodiac cruising can be extremely rewarding here with several species of auklets as well as Red-legged Kittiwake. The area is also extremely rich in marine mammals. Potential species include Sperm, Humpback, Northern Minke and Baird’s Beaked-Whales, as well as Orcas, Steller Sea Lions, Northern Fur Seals and Pacific Sea Otters. Off the coast of Medny and Bering we also stand one of our best chances of seeing the colossal and much sought after Short-tailed Albatross. We have also seen Black-footed Albatross here in the past. The museum in Nikol’skoye holds one of the very few examples of a full Steller’s Sea Cow skeleton in existence.

Sea Otters and their pups make great photo subjects in the Commanders
Sea Otters and their pups make great photo subjects in the Commanders (Lisle Gwynn)

Day 5: Karaginskiy Island. Our proposed landing site is a patchwork of boggy tundra, ponds and shingle spits where an interesting range of waders can be found including Pacific Golden Plover, Red-necked Stint and Red-necked Phalarope. We also hope to see Bluethroat and Pallas’ Reed Bunting as well as Common Snipe, Arctic and Long-tailed Skua, and the beautiful Dusky Thrush. We will explore to our hearts’ content, but this is often expeditionary in nature and what we will find isn’t fully known.

Day 6: Verkhoturova Island and Govena Peninsula. Verkhoturova Island has some huge seabird colonies and by following a short trail to the cliff top we should be able to enjoy some fantastic views of Tufted Puffins, Brunnich’s Guillemots, Pelagic Cormorants and Black-legged Kittiwakes. Both Steller’s Eider and Harlequin Duck occur here too and we may also see some Steller Sea Lions, as they are often hauled out on some offshore rocks. Later in the day, there will be either a Zodiac cruise or landing on the Govena Peninsula. Good numbers of brown bears can often be found here.

Days 7-10: Koryak and Chukotka Coast. During these days of the expedition we will travel along this largely unknown part of the coast. It comprises deep forested fjords where we should see plentiful Brown Bears, Red Fox and with luck, Snow Sheep and the difficult Kamchatka Marmot. In the many lagoons and shallow bays there is a vast array of birdlife including Tundra Bean Goose, Steller’s Eider, Great Knot, Long-toed Stint, white morph Gyrfalcon, Siberian Accentor and Asian Rosy Finch. This area is also a stronghold of the Kittlitz’s Murrelet and we should see several during our journey as well as a recently discovered population of Long-billed Murrelet. In our previous expeditions we have explored much of this coastline, documenting the distribution and abundance of many species. In both 2011 and 2016 we recorded previously unknown breeding populations of Spoon-billed Sandpiper, and working alongside researchers from BirdLife International and Birds Russia who will be travelling with us we plan to revisit many of these areas to monitor changes and search for new breeding colonies. There will be unique opportunities for photography, for hiking and birding in country where literally only a few westerners have ever been and we know there is a rich diversity of species.

Kamchatka Brown Bears are amongst the largest in the world
Kamchatka Brown Bears are amongst the largest in the world (Lisle Gwynn)

Days 11-12: Meinypil’gyno. Meinypil’gyno, located on a 40km long shingle spit is the most important site in the world for breeding Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Here about fifteen pairs are monitored by members of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Recovery Taskforce. We will be guests of the Taskforce and if possible we may be guided to one of their monitored nests. The area is extremely rich in other wildlife, so we may also find Emperor Goose, Pacific Diver, White-billed Diver and Sandhill Crane. The lagoon entrance often has Largha Seal, Gray and Beluga Whales and a spectacular number of gulls.

Day 13: Cape Navarin and Keyngypilgyn Lagoon. This coastline is rich in marine mammals and one creature we will be looking for in particular, is the walrus, as there is a known haul out. The animals do regularly move between locations, so finding them is always very much a matter of luck, although we have had success here in the past. Good numbers of Gray Whales often congregate here too. To the north of Cape Navarin is Keyngypilgyn Lagoon. On previous visits we have found this an excellent location for waterfowl and waders including Emperor Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese, Brent Geese, Whooper Swan, King Eiders, Red Knots and Aleutian Terns.

Tufted Puffin offer endless photo opportunities daily
Tufted Puffin offer endless photo opportunities daily (Lisle Gwynn)

Day 14: Port of Anadyr. As we cruise into Anadyr Bay, there is an excellent chance of seeing more Beluga Whales and after a final breakfast on board the Spirit of Enderby, it will be time to disembark. We will provide complimentary transfers to a downtown hotel and the airport.

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OPTIONAL PRE-TOUR EXTENSION

Subject to shipping and flight schedules there is often time for a two-day exploration of the area surrounding Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, before we depart on our expedition. The itinerary of this extension will depend entirely on factors including the state of migration, however the key target is a bird endemic to the Far East and one of near-mythical status – the Black-billed Capercaillie. Fortunately for us these birds have been relatively well staked out in recent years, however they are by no means guaranteed. The search will undoubtedly turn up other highlights though, and birding in this part of the world is never anything short of exciting. We expect to find a bounty of Far East migrants and residents here including Rustic Bunting, Olive-backed Pipit, Taiga Flycatcher, Eyebrowed Thrush, Northern Hawk Owl, Spotted Nutcracker, Kamchatka Leaf Warbler, Dark-sided and Grey-streaked Flycatchers, and on the coast Red-faced and Pelagic Cormorants, Slaty-backed and Kamchatka Gulls, as well as the first of the alcids for the tour.

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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 13; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 14; safe drinking water at all times; Heritage Expeditions OR Tropical Birding tour leader from the afternoon of day 1 to the morning of day 14; 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.