Through the Fire; cruising through the Sea of Okhotsk to The Commanders
7th - 22nd June 2021
Leaders: James Eaton, Rob Hutchinson and expedition staff
Max group size: 48
This journey takes us through some of the least accessible yet wildlife-laden areas in the world. Our circuit of the Sea of Okhotsk with be packed with seabird action including some spectacular colonies filled with alcids, among them the highly-desirable Whiskered Auklet, although the sheer abundance of birdlife is a highlight in itself. Mammals can be equally entertaining on this leg with several cetaceans possible, and a special effort made to find the gorgeous Ribbon Seal. Venturing ashore where possibly will produce a limited yet exciting set of land-birds before we finish our adventure by cutting through the Kurils and Kamchatka Peninsula to the Commander Islands with Rock Sandpiper and Red-legged Kittiwake to finish in style.
We start of journey in the city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on the elongated island of Sakhalin, transferring to the port of Korsahov in the early afternoon where we board our superbly-equipped expedition vessel, the Professor Khromov, better known as the Spirit of Enderby, which provides the perfect platform for exploring the remote Russian coastline.
The first part of our voyage takes us northwards into the Sea of Okhotsk, with Sakhalin Island on our port side. Scanning from the deck on these couple of days is sure to bring a rush of interesting sea-birds, with Short-tailed Shearwaters the most abundant species, among which Laysan Albatross and the first of the areas special auks will be exciting, but there will be many more to come. Throughout our time at sea we will be on the lookout for cetaceans, with Minke Whale sightings frequent, and good chances of Fin and Humpback Whale, Dall’s Porpoise and Orca.
Our first stop will be at Pil’tun Bay, on the east side of Sakhalin Island. Exploring by zodiac we can hope to find Aleutian Terns and a variety of sea-duck including both Black and White-winged Scoter, Long-tailed Duck and resplendent Harlequin Ducks. This is also one of the most reliable sites for Long-billed Murrelet, and in addition supports a very small number of Grey Whale.
Travelling further north, entering the Sea of Okhotsk, we reach the remote Iony Island, little more than an isolated group of rocks in the middle of the Sea of Okhotsk is one of the world’s most spectacular seabird spectacles; Brunnich’s Guillemots are the commonest species, occupying almost all of the free space, but among them are a smattering of Common and Spectacled Guillemots. Of even greater interest to us are the bounty of special auklets with Least, Crested and Parakeet all on offer. The really stars though are the Whiskered Auklets, a species only realistically found, and seen well, on a cruise through these areas of Russia, and the birds here are arguably the most spectacular of the undescribed subspecies with longer and more numerous whiskers. For mammal enthusiasts the enormous, intimidating Steller’s Sea Lions lazing around on the surrounding rocks will be a highlight.
Moving westwards towards the Shantar archipelago our time will be spent exploring the edge of the sea ice. For once the numerous spectacular auklets dotting the sea may not be our primary focus, with some special mammals of offer; Largha, Ringed and Bearded Seals can be expected, and we will seek out Ribbon Seal, undoubtedly the most attractive of the pinnipeds, while cetaceans from here on could always include Bowhead Whale if we’re really lucky. Seeing the immense Steller’s Sea Eagle in this wild icy landscape is befitting of this charismatic species, while many will appreciate the chance to study the subtle Kamchatka Gull.
Another seabird spectacular awaits us on Mal’minskie Island where birds are again everywhere, on the water, and land and filling the skies. It is home to breeding Spectacled Guillemots in impressive numbers, Ancient Murrelet, Rhinoceros, Crested and Parakeet Auklet, Common and Brunnich’s Guillemot, and comical Horned and Tufted Puffins. A chance to land ashore may produce Pallas’s Warbler, Siberian Rubythroat and even Siberian Accentor, the latter a tricky bird to access of its remote breeding grounds.
Our last stop in the northern Sea of Okhotsk is the Yamiskiye island group. This will offer us yet another alcid spectacular, with literally millions of birds arriving to roost, wheeling overhead in starling-like murmurations, a spectacle that literally has to be seen to be believed as words could never do it justice. The breeding colonies of Crested and Parakeet Auklets with provided unsurpassed views, chances to study the impossibly tiny Least Auklet at close range, and smaller numbers of Ancient Murrelet.
It’s then time to make the long sea trip southwards, making landfall again on Atlasova Island, the northernmost island and highest volcano of the Kuril island chain. This is a bear-free island which allows us a welcome chance to stretch our legs with a free-reign to explore and a long-awaited opportunity to catch up on some of the regions breeding specialities, around a lake in the shadow of a small volcanic cone. Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warblers are pleasingly abundant in the rank vegetation and the delightful song of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler will draw us to this recently-recognised species which is difficult to catch up with away from these remote breeding areas. We might also find Brown-headed Thrush here and the elusive Grey Bunting is present.
If tides permit then we will also make a visit on this day to a small group of rock pinnacles which have a nice selection of breeding sea-birds, and some adorable Sea Otters to provide entertaining zodiac rides.
Having steamed up the eastern side of the Kamchatka Peninsula overnight the stunningly picturesque fjord at Bukta Russkaya greets us the next morning, with all eyes sure to be on deck since this is a key location to find Kittlitz’s Murrelets, and further chances of Long-billed Murrelet, and we will endeavor to take to zodiacs for closer views if opportunities arise. This is also the heart of Brown Bear territory and we might enjoy several during our visit here while Steller’s Sea Lions are often hauled out on rocks at the entrance to the fjord.
The next day at sea as we head for the Commander Islands provides some of the finest sea-watching opportunities of the cruise, now out on the open seas we have greater chances of the magnificent Short-tailed Albatross among the commoner Laysan Albatrosses, Fork-tailed and Leach’s Storm-Petrels, occasional Mottled Petrels, and excellent opportunities for a variety of cetaceans with Sperm, Fin and Humpback Whales all regular, and a variety of scarcer species possible including the mighty Blue Whale. As we get closer to the Commander Islands we might start to see our first Red-legged Kittiwakes which often accompany the ship, or even land onboard!
Our exploration on the Commander Islands will give us our first real human contact of the cruise as we make landing at the township of Nikolskoye on Bering Island. The island bears the name of Commander Vitus Bering whose brave exploration of the Russian Far East, culminating in the discovery of Alaska on board his ship, Saint Peter, which aground here in 1741 on the return from Alaska. He and many of his crew ultimately perished here, while the remaining crew, including Georg Steller, one of the greatest naturalist’s, survived a whole winter and summer here before managing to return to the mainland having rebuilt the Saint Peter and spending the winter living on Sea Otters and the summer on Fur Seals. It was also here that Steller observed and described the now-extinct Steller’s Sea-cow, a skeleton of which is found in the Nikolskoye museum that can be visited. Our stop here will be a far happier one though, as we soak in glorious views of breeding-plumaged Rock Sandpipers, with nearby areas hosting Pechora Pipit and song-flighting Lapland Longspurs. Weather conditions allowing we will also attempt to visit a breeding colony of Red-legged Kittiwakes, while the surrounding seas are again happy hunting grounds for a variety of sea-birds and cetaceans.
Another crossing back to over to the Kamchatka Peninsula gives us more chances to add you our impressive sea-bird and cetacean tally before we conclude the trip by entering Avacha Bay at breakfast and disembarking at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky still on a high from the once-in-a-lifetime experiences of the last few weeks.