Ring of Fire: Kamchatka, the Commander and Kuril Islands Dates & Rates
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. Here the Pacific plate sub ducts under the Eurasian 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 means there is an abundance of food for both birds and marine mammals, making the seas here amongst the richest in the world.
The region’s human history is as interesting and as fascinating as the geological history and it is closely connected to the oceans which surround it. The earliest people to settle in the region, the Ainu, lived from the sea. Explorer Vitus Bering, and at the height of the cold war, Russia’s formidable Pacific Fleet, were based in the region. 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 voyage takes you where very few people have been or can go.
The region falls into three quite distinct and unique geographical regions a) the Kamchatka Peninsula; b) the Commander Islands (the western extremity of the Aleutian chain of islands); and c) the Kuril Islands. Each of them is very different. They have their own story and in many cases endemic plants and birds. On this expedition we go in search of those people, plants, animals and birds that make this part of the Pacific Ring of Fire so special.
Stretching northwards for over 700 miles from Japan to the southern end of the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Kuril Islands were formed by the collision of the Pacific and Eurasian plates. This created a chain of over 30 volcanic islands and an oceanic trench which reaches depths of over 8,000 metres. The combination of deep water upwelling and the mixing of the cold waters from the Sea of Okhotsk with the warmer Pacific Ocean, creates ideal conditions for seabirds, making this one of the richest areas in the world, both in terms of the number of species and their sheer abundance. For many birders the undoubted highlights are the auks and during our voyage it is possible to see up to 14 species including Tufted and Horned Puffins, Parakeet, Whiskered and Rhinoceros Auklets, as well as Spectacled and Pigeon Guillemots.
The Commander Islands consist of two islands – Bering and Medney. They were uninhabited when Vitus Bering landed there in 1741 mistakenly believing it was Kamchatka. When his ship was wrecked he and many of his men died. Those who survived told of the wealth that could be made from otter, fox and fur seal pelts. So began the ‘Fur Rush’ to the North Pacific that changed the region forever. The islands were settled, species like the Sea Cow became extinct and the population of fur bearing animals was decimated. During the Cold War ‘Border Guards’ fiercely and patriotically protected these islands from unseen enemies. Today the islands are a Nature Reserve and only a small population still lives there. The days we spend on the Commander Islands will be as unique as the islands themselves.
The Kamchatka Peninsula which dominates the North Pacific is in turn dominated by a large number of volcanoes, dense forest and spectacular scenery very different to what we will see elsewhere on this journey. It is impossible to experience the entire peninsula in such a short time, so we have chosen several sites which will give a good overview of the region. These locations include one of the hundreds of salmon-rich rivers for which the region is renowned and around which the infamous Kamchatka Brown Bear congregates. We have also included a coastal harbour or bay renowned for cetaceans such as the Western Grey Whale. Other species such as Humpback and Sperm Whales can generally be observed here also. To experience more of Kamchatka we strongly recommend that you plan a few days enjoying some of our suggested pre or post voyage excursions from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy.
dates & prices
There are no trips scheduled for this expedition.
Day 1 Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy
Arrive into Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy the capital and administrative centre of the Kamchatka Region and transfer to the port to board the Spirit of Enderby.
After an opportunity to settle into your cabin we will set sail through Avacha Bay, one of the greatest natural harbours in the world which was home for a large portion of Russia’s Pacific fleet. This fleet included a large number of submarines, many of which are still present.
As we cross the bay, we will look for Spectacled Guillemot, an uncommon species which breeds here in small numbers. Other birds we could see include Red-faced and Pelagic Cormorants, Pigeon Guillemot, Ancient Murrelet and Tufted Puffin.
Day 2 Zhupanova River
This morning we will Zodiac cruise on 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, however, be plenty of other wildlife too potentially 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 plant as huge numbers of salmon spawn in the river. There will be an opportunity to meet the fisherman, sample the fish and see how they are processed, as well as doing some land-based exploring.
It is always with genuine reluctance that we leave this area and head back to the ship, however, we could well end our visit with some more views of Steller’s Sea Eagle and the chance of Long-billed Murrelet as we cruise away from the shore.
Day 3 Bukhta Kamenistaya and Chazma River
We sail across Olga Bay en route to our next landing – this is an area known for the Western Grey Whale, normally good numbers of whales can be seen. It is believed that the Western Grey Whale is a distinct population that live in the western Pacific and do not mix with the more abundant Eastern Grey Whale seen along the Californian coast. Close to extinction the Western Grey Whale is considered to be one of the rarest in the world and it is thought they journey here to feed in the cold nutrient-rich waters.
Our landing along the Chazma River will be one of the best opportunities for seeing the Kamchatka Brown Bear for which Kamchatka is well known as they venture here to the salmon streams. We will be surrounded by numerous extinct and active volcanoes that create a crater landscape and make it easy to appreciate how this region is frequently described as a Land of Fire and Ice. The coastal tundra is composed of thickets of grasses and dwarf birch scrub, near the shoreline there are geothermal hot springs – here there is an opportunity for us to indulge as we soak in the magma heated groundwater. We plan to spend the day here to enjoy what really encapsulates Kamchatka – Brown Bears, whales, stunning scenery, forest and thermal hot springs.
Days 4 & 5 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 which 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 30 years as hunters soon arrived in the region.
During our two days in the Commander Islands we plan to visit both Bering and Medney.
While ashore we will have the opportunity to visit the small museum (which is 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.
All landing sites in the Commander Islands are weather dependent so our precise itinerary will vary depending on the prevailing conditions. One possibility, for example, is to visit 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 species to the birds in the Kuril Islands); while ashore we could encounter Rock Ptarmigan, and the endemic subspecies of Arctic Fox. At some stage during our time in the Commander Islands we also plan to cruise along the southern coast of Bering Island in the Spirit of Enderby as this is a superb area for seabirds and cetaceans.
Day 6 At Sea
We enjoy a day at sea as we cruise south from the Commander Islands towards the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Kuril Islands. For the keen birders today the list of possible species is truly mouth-watering and includes: Short-tailed, Black-footed and Laysan Albatrosses and Mottled Petrel. The cetaceans can also be exceptional; good numbers of Sperm, Humpback, Northern Minke, Baird’s Beaked Whales and Orca have all previously been seen.
There will be a series of lectures and recaps today both on what we have seen and what we might see in the next few days – it is also a good chance to catch up on downloading photos and log books.
Day 7 Bukhta Russkaya
We will spend the day exploring the south-eastern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula. If the weather is fine, there should be fantastic views of the many snow-covered volcanoes that dominate the southern part of the peninsula. We could see at least half a dozen species of auks during the morning including Tufted Puffin, Brunnich’s Guillemot and Parakeet Auklet. We will also keep a lookout for Long-billed Murrelets and the critically endangered Kittlitz’s Murrelet which have been seen here.
Weather and permits permitting we plan to visit Bukhta (Fiord) Russkaya and there is an excellent chance of seeing both Sea Otters and Largha Seals as there are good populations of both. Checking the shoreline and hillsides can also be rewarding as Brown Bears are often seen here. If there is sufficient time, we may make a short landing at the head of the fiord.
Day 8: Kurikdky Strait and AtIasova Island
At first light we will enter the strait between Shumshu and Paramushir where we have recorded some of the highest populations of Sea Otters – there will be a chance to observe these amazing animals which were once in great demand because of their pelts. Today even though they are totally protected, poaching is a threat. The small village of Severo-Kurilsk is nearby – this was destroyed in 1952 by a tsunami with a loss of over 2000 lives. The village has now been rebuilt higher up the hill.
Our first actual landing in the Kuril Islands will be on Atlasova Island where the tallest volcano in the archipelago can be found (Alaid: 2,340 metres). Atlasova was the first island to be sighted by Cossack explorers when they reached this region in the 1690’s, however, like most other islands in this region its only inhabitants now are birds and wild animals.
Near our landing site there are the remains of a herring processing plant, the herring fishery collapsed in the 1950’s and the island was abandoned. On nearby 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.
Day 9 Shiashkotan, Matua and Toporkovy Islands
Our landing at Shiashkotan Island focus’s firstly on the Anui people which once inhabited the Kuril Islands. Near the landing we will see remains of their rock dwellings. Secondly not far away there are extensive relics from the Japanese period of occupation and nearby there are relics of an abandoned Border Guard base which was occupied during the Cold War.
From here we cruise to 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 them 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 localised Parakeet Auklet.
After exploring Toporkovy and if conditions are suitable we hope to land on the nearby island of Matua where there is an active volcano which 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 and a huge airstrip which the Japanese used for attacks on the Aleutian Islands. We can explore the remains or enjoy some birding.
Returning to the ship we will cruise south to Simushir Island. Assuming the conditions are favourable you should see some cetaceans; on previous expeditions we have seen Orca, Northern Minke and Sperm Whales along with Dall’s Porpoise on this transit.
Day 10 Simushir and Yankicha Islands
This morning we will board the Zodiacs and cruise into a vast flooded caldera at the northern end of the island. Only a quarter of a century ago this was the location of a top secret Soviet Naval Base. This haunting reminder of the Cold War has now been completely abandoned by the Russian military and we can wander around the remains which are steadily being reclaimed by nature. Within the stunning setting of this huge caldera, we can expect to find a good range of bird species with one of the most common birds likely to be the spectacular Siberian Rubythroat. Eurasian Nutcrackers also breed on the island and other species we should encounter include Arctic Warbler, Brown-headed Thrush, Pine Grosbeak and Japanese Grey Bunting. It is back on board for lunch and we cruise north to Yankicha Island.
Yankicha Island is the summit of a submerged volcano. The visit here is invariably one of the highpoints of the entire voyage as the numbers of alcids which breed here are truly incredible; there are literally hundreds of thousands. 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 (in their hundreds of thousands) 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. We also stand an excellent chance of seeing Arctic Foxes which can be pretty inquisitive as they patrol the auk colonies looking for their next meal.
Day 11 Onekotan Island
We are at sea this morning a chance to catch up on some lectures, reading and/or download and edit photos as the last few days will have been hectic.
We plan an afternoon landing at the northern end of Onekotan Island from where it is a relatively easy walk to Black Lake. A selection of wildfowl can usually be found here including Greater Scaup and Goosander. Due to the extreme winter conditions in this region many of the trees are stunted and we can expect to see species such as Siberian Stone Pine, Dwarf Birch and Polar Willow, all of which typically grow no more than a few feet above the ground. By the time of our visit, however, 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.
Day 12 Utashud Islands
Our last day of the expedition brings us to a small group of islands off the eastern coastline of the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Utashud Islands. They are far enough offshore and small enough as to avoid disturbance from animals and activities on the mainland, consequently they have an abundance of birds and marine life. This afternoon if conditions are suitable we make a Zodiac excursion around the islands, your last chance to see/photograph and enjoy Tufted and Horned Puffins. There is also a good population of Sea Otters and harbour seals. This evening we enjoy a farewell dinner and celebrate our discoveries on this expedition.
Day 13 Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy
By early morning the Spirit of Enderby will enter Avacha Bay, you will disembark the ship in the morning and there will be a complimentary coach transfer to either a hotel of your choice in the city or the airport.
To allow time for disembarkation procedures we do not recommend booking flights before 13:00hrs.
How to Prepare
How to prepare for a Russian Coast Expedition
To ensure you have an enjoyable and safe expedition we have developed some import pre-departure information to help you prepare for your voyage. We strongly recommend you download the documents below and read carefully. Our reservation staff will be happy to answer any questions you may have. Before you depart for your expedition we will send you a detailed pack including your itinerary, travel documents and any other essential information relevant to your voyage.
Is your passport valid?
Your passport will be required to have validity that will extend to six months after the date of your return.
Your visa arrangements are your responsibility. Foreigners entering Russian Federation require a valid visa. A tourist visa is issued for a period of 30 days. Please refer to appropriate Consulate in a country of your residence for details. Click here to find your closest Russian Consulate.
All passengers are required to provide travel insurance details including policy number and emergency contact number to Aurora Expeditions prior to departure. We strongly recommend insurance coverage that includes emergency medical evacuation from the vessel.
Emergency contact details
So that you can be contacted in the case of an emergency, remember to provide your family or friends with a copy of your travel documents as well as Aurora Expeditions’ and your Ship’s contact numbers.
Remember to pack any valuables or essential items such as medication in your hand luggage to avoid issues in the case of lost baggage.
How many people on the ship?
Polar Pioneer sleeps 54 passengers. We believe that small groups are the best way to experience our destinations.
Where do passengers come from?
The majority of our clients come from Australia, the UK/Europe and America, however we do often have a mix of other nationalities on board, including our expedition staff.
How much room is there for luggage?
There is ample storage space in your cabin on all our ships. Your empty baggage can be stored safely elsewhere on the ship if need be.
Does the crew speak English?
The crew are all Russian. They are undoubtedly the ice-masters of the world. The Captain and most of the watch officers speak English. Whilst some of the crew speak only a little English, they do like to practice their English skills on our willing passengers.
Is the ship air-conditioned? What is the temperature?
All our ships are air-conditioned and the temperature ranges for 15°C to 25°C. You can control the temperature of your cabin by adjusting the airflow through the roof vent and turning your heater on or off.
How do we dry wet clothing?
Clothing dries very quickly inside your cabin. There are no passenger laundry facilities for you to do your own washing, but there is a laundry service on board all our vessels. Prices are listed in your cabin. All cabins have a sink.
What clothes do I take to wear on the ship?
Shipboard clothing is informal and casual. Depending on your destination; jeans, jumpers, long sleeve shirt and enclosed shoes are ideal in our polar regions. However be sure to keep your jacket close for unexpected sightings!
Some people like to take a nice outfit or something a bit special for the Captain’s welcome and farewell drinks, but formal clothing is not necessary.
What type of jacket should I take?
You can get away without a padded ski jacket or down parka, if you don’t have one; however a wind and waterproof jacket is a must!
Do you provide parkers or jackets?
We do not provide parkers or jackets on board.
What kind of footwear do I need for our shore visits?
It is most important that you bring a good pair of walking shoes. Gumboots will be provided on board in our polar destinations.
Do you provide gumboots?
Yes. All passengers will be provided with gumboots. If you have concerns regarding extra small or large sizing, or hard-to-fit feet, we recommend you bring your own pair.
How often do we get off the ship?
We aim to get off the ship as much as possible, usually two, sometimes three times a day depending on weather and itinerary. Weather permitting we spend between one to four hours at each location. We come back to the ship for meals.
What is not included in the price of the voyage?
In general items that are not included in the cost of your voyage are flights to and from your voyage, pre and post accommodation, transfers, drinks from the bar (alcohol and soft drinks), gratuities, ship-shop items, laundry costs and other items of a personal nature (unless stated in your voyage inclusions).
Some voyages do include certain pre and post arrangements, so please check your specific voyage inclusions in our brochure, website or call our Expedition Experts on + 61 2 9252 1033 .
Do I need travel insurance?
Travel insurance, including medical evacuation cover, is mandatory for all Aurora Expeditions’ voyages. We advise you have insurance for voyage cancellation to ensure you will be covered financially if you are forced to cancel your voyage due to circumstances beyond your control. It is in your best interest to read carefully the General Terms & Conditions on your booking form or on our website here. http://www.auroraexpeditions.com.au/terms-and-conditions
How much should I tip?
People often ask us what they should do about tipping. Tipping is a very personal matter, however if pressed we recommend $US10-12 per passenger, per day that you are on the ship. It is better for our Russian crew if you can give them US dollars cash. Our Russian crews work extremely hard to ensure you have the best possible experience. They are paid by the Russian ship owners and do not receive large wages. We are continually lobbying on their behalf for better pay.
Should I bring along my own walking poles?
Yes, it’s a good idea, especially if you have trouble walking over uneven ground. Some of our landings can be on slippery rocks or deep snow, and we may go for extended walks to see different parts of our landing point. We recommend the telescopic poles, with the optional snow-basket tips for polar voyages. You can purchase these poles in most outdoor stores.
Do you have facilities on board to download digital images from my camera?
No, we do not provide a computer to download your digital images. We recommended you bring a laptop computer or similar downloading device to download your images, either between landings, in the evenings or during sea crossings.
What is the electrical supply on board? Do I need a converter?
The electrical supply on board is 220 volts, 50 hertz. You will need a European round two-prong plug adapter available at duty free or electrical supply shops.
Do you cater for special meal requests?
Yes. Our talented chefs will take your requirements into their meal planning and ensure you receive tasty, healthy meals. Please ensure you list any dietary requirements on your personal details form.
What if I need to go to the toilet when ashore?
Our expedition staff will instruct you with these types of rules on board. Generally on our polar voyages we avoid going to the bathroom ashore, however in an emergency we ask you to find a discreet location near the shoreline to relieve yourself.
How fit do I need to be?
To make the most of our voyages, you should be in good general health and able to walk reasonable distances, sometimes over uneven terrain. However, if you have problems walking on rough ground, you can enjoy the scenery closer to shore. Should you have any physical limitations please notify us well in advance of your departure, but this should not discourage you participating.
How do we pay for our bar bill at the end of the voyage?
Our hotel manager will organise this on board. We accept all major credit cards, or if you are paying cash we except US dollars.
Can I smoke on board?
There is a ‘No Smoking’ policy throughout the interior of our ships. Our expedition leader will advise you on designated smoking areas.
Are there hairdryers on board?
There are no hairdryers on board.
Will I get sea sick?
Many people ask us if they will get seasick. It is a very difficult question to answer because it depends so much on the individual. Our experience is that a small percentage of people are seasick on any trip and most of these people are fine after a day or so at sea. If you feel that you are particularly susceptible to seasickness then it is a good idea to talk to your doctor. Come with motion sickness tablets. There will be a doctor on board to assist with any bouts of sea sickness.
Will I see a polar bear in the Russian Arctic/ brown bear in the Russian Far East?
As with all wild animals, we cannot guarantee you will see polar bears. However, the time of year we visit is when bear numbers are at their peak, and our experienced leaders and crew are aware of the bear’s habitats and are well trained to spot these marvellous creatures in the wild.
Is tipping expected in Russian hotels, bars and restaurants?
Tipping is common at about 5-10% in most places. Consider about 10% in some more up-market restaurants. As far as tour guides are concerned, about US$5 to US$10 a day is suitable. Sometimes a small gift, such as chocolates or a CD, is a nice gesture.
Is bargaining acceptable?
Items that you purchase in store will usually have a fixed price. However, you may make a counter bid at markets and souvenir stalls, although Russia is not really a country for vigorous haggling.
What sort of money do I take and how much?
Australian dollars are difficult to exchange in Russia. We recommend that you exchange your Australian dollars in Australia or take US dollars for exchanging in Moscow or St Petersburg. It is better to carry US dollars for tipping and payment of bar bills on board the ship. You can also pay with all major credit cards including Visa, Mastercard and American Express.
Can I swim or snorkel in Russia?
Although you cannot swim or snorkel in Russia, some of our voyages stop at hot springs where you will have the chance to have a soak. Check your voyage itinerary for details.
Do I need a visa for Russia?
Please also note at check in to each hotel, you will be charged a visa registration fee for the hotel to register your stay. This cost may be included in the cost when booking or may be charged upon arrival to the hotel. The cost can be up to EUR8 per person, per room.
How do I get to Russia?
There are a number of airlines that can get you to Russia, however within Russia itself, the choice is limited. View a list of airlines on page #. Common airline routes (from Sydney, Australia) are listed below. Contact our reservations team if you would like flight information travelling from your nearest city.
To Sakhalin Island
Sydney- Seoul -Yuzhno
How to Book
If you are interested in an Aurora Expeditions voyage, please contact our sales team to check availability.
Either email an expert here or call our experienced consultants direct on + 61 2 9252 1033 or 1800 637 688 (Freecall within Australia).
Complete a booking form
Once availability is confirmed, please download, print and complete the booking form. Please return it to us, along with your deposit to secure your berth. Please ensure you read the Terms and Conditions of contract before sending us your signed booking form.
Terms & Conditions
Click here to view the terms and conditions.
Preparation for your voyage
On receipt of the booking form, we will contact you to confirm your booking and our reservations staff will send you a comprehensive pre-departure kit. This kit will contain all necessary pre-departure information including visa information, insurance information, a medical and personal details form, comprehensive gear list and information tailored to your voyage.
Aurora Expeditions - Your Personal Travel Agent
Aurora Expeditions is a licensed travel agent. Our experienced reservations consultants all have specialised expertise on the destinations we travel to. Each voyage has a dedicated travel expert solely working on developing dynamic itineraries for our passengers. Contact our reservations team and allow us to create a personal itinerary to compliment your voyage, including airfares, accommodation, travel insurance and pre and post voyage travel options.
We look forward to assisting you with your journey of a lifetime.
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