Dear Diary ~ Kamchatka & The Commander Is.

Saturday 19 July 2008- Petropavlosk

With excitement mounting we arrived at Petropavlovsk wharf and the new expeditioners had their first full view of our home for the next two weeks, the Marina Svetaeva.

Many of us had spent the day either on a city tour or dog sled tour, also managing to fit in a bit of essential retail therapy in the wonderful city of 'PK'. For some it was our first experience of a Russian city.

In the late afternoon the Aurora crew welcomed us on board (and back on board) and we nestled into our cabins. Soon after, those joining the voyage met our EL for the voyage, Howard Whelan, and the rest of the team, while those of us who have been travelling through the Kuril Islands already know their personalities all too well!

It was then 'information overload' with lifeboat drills, zodiac briefings and helicopter operations, as our first day promises to be chock-a-block full of activity. Somewhere in between we managed to squeeze in dinner, topped off by Campbell's sublime chocolate cake. As we pulled away from the wharf we began to slip into the rhythm of shipboard life and it will not be long before we have left that 'other' world completely behind.

Sunday 20 July 2008- Zhupanova River

This morning we slid into our anchorage at the entrance to the Zhupanova River, with a small fish processing plant on the spit directly off our bow and the lush green foothills of Kamchatka winding up into the clouds.

Sergey, Howard Tatiyana and Anna caught an early Zodiac ashore to make peace with the locals and determine the plans for our helicopter ride. The initial response from Petropavlosk - "nyet".

Instead we loaded everyone into Zodys and fought the silt of low-tide to make our way upriver to a quick landing on a flatland adjacent to bear-tracked forest and another chance for contact with the helicopter company via sat phone. Once again - "nyet".

Then it was further upriver, through a landscape more like a scene from an African safari than the Kurils and south Kamchatka, to get a privileged view of a Stellar's sea eagle on her nest, two chicks bobbing up from time to time. We attempted to make it back for lunch, but a telephone call from the heli people said "da!" and 64 brave souls were shuttled to shore near the fish processing plant for a 45 minute wait, all eyes anxiously scanning the sky.

Sergey once again pulled out the well-worn Iridium for the final call, but at the last minute it was "nyet" once again. And that was it for the Zhupanova River. We pulled up the hook and set sail north, our decks the perfect viewing platform for orcas, Dall's porpoises, and some interesting seabirds including crested auklets, pomarine jaeger, red phalaropes, tufted puffins and northern fulmars.

Before Captain's drinks Howard and Sergey announced a change in our itinerary for the next two weeks - an effort to boldly go where few have gone before. Ah the spirit of adventure!

Monday 21 July 2008- Kamchatka Peninsula/Soldatskaya Bay

Billed as an expeditionary day, our explorations of the Gusarov Kluch and Bolshoy Pevevalhoy Rivers began with a zodiac cruise, with occasional larga seals bobbing their heads up to take a peek at us. A short walk from the landing site across a tundra meadow of delicate wildflowers, many of which we had not seen before, we encountered salmon spawning in the river.

Fortunately many of them were unaware that their fate would most likely be in the jaws of a hungry brown bear. Al and the kayakers ventured up the shallow river, getting close-up looks at the large salmon. Retreating from the 'man-eating' mosquitoes, we took a short zodiac cruise and discovered many sea ducks and seabirds in the bay and around the rocky headland.

Alan became quite excited to discover several long-billed murrelets, a specialty of the Kamchatka region, which are closely related to the marbled murrelets of Alaska and British Columbia. These fascinating seabirds actually nest in trees, laying a single egg on a clump of moss in the tree branches, and flying up to 30 km inland from the sea to incubate the egg and feed the chick. Truly one of nature's unexplained wonders.

Landing on the low rocky headland, we discovered many tidal pools filled with barnacles, whelks, various species of algae and small fish. Our geologists David and Franz explained the volcanic origins and weathering of these sculpted black formations.

After lunch we continued our long sail northwards and gathered in the bar to hear from Franz who gave us an informative lecture introducing us to the geology, wildlife of Kamchatka. Later it was more from the 'guru' David - who is doing his best to ensure we become knowledgeable geologists by the end of the voyage.

Tuesday 22 July 2008- Koryakskiy Preserve

As we slipped along the silent fjord of Yuzhnaya Glybokaya Bay this morning, thick fog obscured our view in an attempt to hide the secret treasures that lay beyond. We dropped anchor as far up the fjord as it was possible to go and were soon ashore, fresh bear droppings warning us to stay alert. Our attention was focused on the slowly decaying wooden ghost town of a herring-fishing village abandoned in the 1960s because the fish stocks were depleted. Bleached grey by the sun, wind and snow, the buildings were in various states of decay - in a few more decades it is likely that they will no longer exist at all, so we were very fortunate to view this slice of history at this moment in time.

Steep, jagged peaks rose on both sides, ancient nunatuks from an earlier time when montane glaciers slid down valley. A domed and well-vegetated terminal moraine blocked off the lower portion of the upper valley; a babbling brook snaking around it and giant waterfalls crashing from above. It was wonderful to walk through this otherworldly landscape of fields laden with roseroot, magenta-coloured pixie eyes and cheery purply-blue irises. Some contemplated whether the herring fishermen of days gone by thought of their surroundings as beautiful, or merely remote and harsh.

Our after-lunch excursion was to Lavrovaya Bay, a larger more extensive fjord that once supported a summer workforce at the large factories that stretched across the lowland at the mouth of the two rivers. En route we passed the shipwreck of the Kpeyt, an eerie reminder of less benign weather in this tranquil bay. Our planned landing was stopped midstream by the sight of a female bear and cubs on shore. Instead Sergey and Howard had us slowly travelling in a zodiac convoy within binocular and camera range.

A bear from central casting made an appearance, seemingly oblivious to our presence, and delighting us with its antics - scooping a fresh fish with one giant paw from the water's edge; back-scratching on a discarded barrel; and occasionally throwing us a nonchalant glance. The master bear-spotting award went to Judd who spotted ten bears. Ten!! It was a veritable 'El Dorado' of charismatic mega fauna of the Ursinus kind.

Our birders were also excited by a fistful of species: Bluethroat; Siberian Rubythroat; and Dusky Thrush; any one of which would have been a star in North America or Europe, but here are typical of the abundant avifauna that inhabits this remote fjordland coast. As we set sail for Natalia Bay, a pod of orcas surfaced - heralding a good omen for our continuing adventure.

Wednesday 23 July 2008- Natalia Bay

We woke up to Howard's earlier than usual morning call letting us know about the stunning scenery off our port side. An ethereal mist and subtle light made the whole scene unfolding before us on the coastline positively 'Tolkienesque'. If only filmmaker Peter Jackson had been as fortunate as us to visit this 'Middle Earth', for only we know where it really is.

As we took to the zodiacs we descended on a solitary walrus trying to take a nap on the shoreline. Cameras clicked frantically to capture our first sighting of this 'Jabba The Hut' style creature. Around the corner on the high cliffs and steep grassy slopes nested tufted and horned puffins, kittiwakes, common and thick-billed murres, pigeon guillemots and pelagic cormorants in their thousands creating a spectacular wedding cake out of the cliffs. The real icing on the cake was to encounter our first parakeet auklets, wearing their red lipstick. Roger spotted two young bears just above the cliff tops and as we watched they displayed amazing mountaineering skills to scale the highest crags. Who will ever forget the cliff-climbing bears of Bogoslov Island?

In the afternoon, courtesy of Sergey's diplomatic skills, we were granted permission to visit the Koryak reindeer herders. What a special experience and one that will form one of our lifelong memories. Few people on this planet will ever have the opportunity to witness the ruthless nomadic lifestyle of these indigenous tribes as we did yesterday. Some of us climbed the hill and walked to the lake, while others basked in the hospitality of Lydia, the matriarch of the avant-guard tribe at the beachside encampment, where we shared tea and pieces of dried reindeer meat.

A few decades from now it is hard to know whether the subsistence lifestyle of the Koryaks will survive. Had we arrived today, 24 hours later, the reindeer herders would have been gone. The travel gods that have been looking after us on this trip have worked overtime, delivering 'private bin' travel indeed and a cultural insight afforded to only the most adventurous world travellers. We are only the third group of Westerners these people have met in the past decade. It's hard to believe that we have had so many extraordinary experiences in just four short days.

Thursday 24 July 2008- Dezneva Bay/Anastasii Bay

Grey, grey, grey. Grey fog, grey whales, grey larga seals, Skye's grey hat, even the usual jade green water had a greyish tinge to it yesterday morning as we reached the most northerly point of our journey at Dezneva Bay (61°41.97' N/172°53.1' E). Only a few of us saw the grey whales we were searching for - perhaps they were there but just camouflaged. An abandoned salmon salting plant acted as a marker for our landing, while fresh bear tracks along the beach reminded us to stay alert and keep together. Some of us saw a bear on the other side of the river mouth, a big alpha male, but he scampered as soon as he caught a whiff of us.

After warming up with thick minestrone soup and chicken curry for lunch, we peeked outside again and found that in its ephemeral way, the fog had lifted somewhat and the green hillsides had once again become visible.

Our zodiac cruise at Anastasii Bay yielded a 'slobber' of walrus and we spent an exciting couple of hours observing several dense mobs as they snoozed on the shore, digesting meals of clams. Spread over several pocket beaches along the steep coastal cliffs, we encountered more than 100 of these huge seals. Mostly males of various ages some had immense tusks while the younger lads had to make do with stubby little spikes. Their blunt, bewhiskered faces were comical as they cast a leery eye over us. These highly social animals are among the most thigmotactic of all mammals - loving to lie cuddled up in huge steaming piles. Extremely well adapted for diving, they vasoconstrict in the cold water and take on a rather pallid appearance, but the group we found on lying on the rocky beach had vasodilated, shunting blood through their vessels to take on a rosy-pink hue.

Friday 25 July 2008 - Karaginsky Island

We spent most of today at sea, reading, napping and restoring our energy for the next few days ahead which are sure to be jam-packed with activity. In the morning we heard again on plate tectonics from David and after lunch those of us who had not seen it before watched the enchanting film 'Edge of Eden' featuring Charlie Russell and his work with the brown bears of Kamchatka.

In the late afternoon we heard from our Siberian Scholar, Sergey, on the life of the indigenous Koryak people and his adventures spanning five years living and learning the lost art of (walrus) skin boat building and sailing with these fascinating tribes.

We reached Kariginsky Island around dinner time and went ashore - a welcome and refreshing couple of hours at a stunning and tranquil landing spot. The paddlers cruised the lagoon before following the river back into the mountains. Bend after bend with jumping salmon all round the increasing current finally forced a slow drift back to the ocean. A short carry over the sand dunes and it was lovely paddle into the sunset (and the ship)!

Saturday 26 July 2008 - Tymlat

This morning we awoke to a glorious morning, brilliant sunshine casting a glow over waters with nary a ripple. Soon after breakfast we were ashore at the village of Tymlat, enthusiastically greeted by the Koryak welcoming committee who heralded our arrival with singing, dancing and drum-beating. We gathered together and were treated to tea, fish soup (yxa), caviar, Russian delicacies and beaming Koryak smiles.

The villagers entertained us with a variety of dances and songs portraying scenes of herding reindeer, marriage ceremonies and shamanistic practices; decked out in their traditional clothing of superb reindeer hide costumes adorned with beads, bells and amulets which tinkled as they danced. Some of us even had the chance to dress up ourselves for a once-in-a lifetime photo opportunity, while others engaged in a spot of retail therapy.

We were shown the long-practiced and efficient way of filleting salmon and Howard was invited to give it a try. An elder woman of the tribe chanted and drummed a ceremonial prayer over the salmon out of respect for receiving it and to ensure nature provided more in the future - or perhaps she was praying Howard didn't slice his fingers off with the razor sharp knife. Dr Clive was on hand just in case. Afterwards we were invited to a challenge of some local games, many of which seemed familiar from our own childhood. John Borthwick excelled in the sack race, giving a perfect impersonation of a swift kangaroo.

The dances and rituals performed for us were culturally authentic, as was the warm welcome we received. We are the only people to have visited this summer, and it will probably be quite some time before another group of foreigners stops by here again. The generosity and willingness of the Koryak to share their lives with us warmed our hearts. It was just one more of the hard-to-tear yourself away from experiences we have encountered on this journey.

We returned to the ship in high spirits - although, sorry Jason, many skipped lunch due to the abundant feast we had consumed earlier. The afternoon was spent at sea travelling to our next destination - the Commander Islands, while Franz gave us an introduction to the area in anticipation of the next adventures that await us.

Sunday 27 July 2008

Commander Islands - Bering Island

Our Sunday morning sleep-in was cut short by Howard's early morning announcement that five fin whales were accompanying us for a short distance on our journey towards Bering Island. There was a rush to the bridge, but they were soon gone, preoccupied with more important cetacean-related business elsewhere.

We spent a relaxing morning at sea, attending a talk by Sergey and Lady Heather Rossiter about Commander Vitus Bering, the Danish captain who explored and sailed in service to Russia and after whom the Commander Islands, Bering Island and Bering Strait are named. Bering's courageous expeditions are analogous with the tales of hardship ensured by the Antarctic explorers, although perhaps not as well known.

Lady Rossiter spoke about the 'ghosts' of Bering and his wife Anna, as well as the namesake of our ship, poet Marina Tsvetaeva. Heather believes that Marina's ghost is travelling with us, and if this is so, she is ensuring that her name is associated with pleasure rather than the pain she felt during her short, sad life.

In the afternoon the soaring emerald cliffs of Bering Island's Peregrebnaya Bay loomed before us, and our afternoon landing took us in search of Red-legged Kittiwakes nesting precariously on the narrow rock ledges. Life as a kittiwake chick is definitely life on the edge! This species, a close relative of the widespread Black-legged Kittiwake (which also nests here), is a specialty of the Bering Sea, found on only three island groups. A few birders were also lucky enough to sight a Snowy Owl far inland - one of the classic species of the arctic.

During dinner the ship was repositioned to the small inlet of Commander Bay, whose dimensions belie its historical significance. It was on this island that Bering's ship the St Peter was wrecked in 1741 during the Second Kamchatka Expedition. Many, including Bering, died of scurvy and the site creates a haunting reminder of a much harsher period in maritime history. A pilgrimage to any great explorer's grave is a special experience, and we stood solemnly in the fading light in front of the cross and monument that marks Bering's final resting spot.

Monday 28 July

Commander Islands - Medny Island

The weather gods again pointed their fickle finger at us early this morning, and we were met with lumpy seas and blustering winds, but the sight of northern fur seals frolicking around the ship was irresistible, so the intrepid souls amongst us took to the zodiacs for a closer look at them. And did they perform! Twirling, flipper-raising, diving, heads popping out of the water playfully, preening and posing for the cameras - then the Steller's sea lions joined the act - it was a picture perfect pinniped performance.

This was to be the kind of day we have come to associate with an Aurora voyage - with Howard pushing for three variety-packed landings in one day. Some of us may have been feeling a little tired, but we were still unable to resist participating in them all - after all we can sleep when we get home. Lunch on board provided us with a breather, and time to gather our energies for the second landing ashore at Gladkovskay Bay on Medny Island. It was quite bizarre to find ourselves so far from civilization, yet amongst huts on the shore with such picturesque locations that they could easily have been mistaken for summer holiday cabins back home.

Our arrival at Preobrazhenskay Bay in the afternoon resulted in one of the most prolific marine mammal spectaculars to date on our journey. A minke whale breached twice fully out of the water while a pod of orcas cruised in the distance. As we cruised in zodiacs, sea otters languished with babies on their bellies, and the birders were also enchanted by spectacular cliffs teeming with ptarmigans, kittawakes, and nesting glaucous-winged gulls and chicks. On shore the green tinge of the rocks indicated the presence of vast amounts of chlorites. To add to the mix, this place was also the site of a former Soviet listening post and the edge of the 'impenetrable' Russian border according to the sign located here. This was definitely a day that produced something for everyone: naturalists, historians, geologists, 'twitchers' and those who are just interested in nature's spectacle in all her glory.

The grand finale was to celebrate in great Aussie tradition - a 'barbie' on the top deck with singing and dance moves that could not be performed anywhere else but in the Russian Far East!

Tuesday 29 July

Commander Islands: Bering Island

Fog surrounded us this morning - not only the ship, but there were a few foggy heads as well from the previous night's celebrations. Still, the ocean was like a millpond, so we took to the zodiacs for an exhilarating head-clearing landing at Severo Zapadnyi Cape. Clambering over the rocks we encountered thousands of fur seals on the shoreline with the 'beach masters' defending their territory and lactating females feeding their pups. A small colony of Steller's sea lions was also on shore; along with six sailors, which in one of those strange cosmic coincidences, three of whom had sailed to Australia. It's is hard to believe that we are so far away and yet meet people who are familiar with the homeland of many of us on board. The birders also left 'no stone unturned' with sightings of Ruddy Turnstones, Mongolian Plovers, and Rock Sandpipers.

Our afternoon was spent at the fascinating town of Nikol'skoye with its crumbling remnants of buildings from the Soviet era. Still following the 'ghost' of Bering, we saw three more monuments to the explorer. The excellent museum was also a treasure trove of information, as well as another opportunity to indulge in some retail therapy. The statue of Lenin was an absorbing photo opportunity and another reminder of bygone days. Nikol'skoye is home to the last remaining Aleut culture in Russia, and we were honored with an enchanting performance of singing and dancing by the local community. In these times of mass global tourism, it is a delight to find that pockets of authentic indigenous society still remain in the some of the remotest parts of our planet. It was a special experience that in a decade from now may no longer exist. No fancy stage, lighting effects or major production - just a genuinely warm and honest performance in the local high school. Many of us also bought books from local artist and character, Sergey Pasenyk, a wonderful souvenir of our expedition to the Commander Islands. Many of his stories are recounted in line drawings with exquisite detail, whether of the face of an old Aleut or a scene from one of his sailing trips.

Returning to the ship for a well-earned dinner, we repositioned to Ariy Kamen, and those of us who just can't get enough, went for our third exploration of the day in zodiacs and kayaks. The tiny island was a biological and geological bonanza with tens of thousands of murres, kittiwakes, puffins and cormorants nesting on classic columnar andesite, the core of an ancient volcano.

Tomorrow we will visit the Kronotsky Biosphere Reserve. Franz says it is one of his favourite landings, so there is still much more to savour as we wind our way back to Petropavlosk.

Wednesday 30 July

Kronotsky Biosphere Reserve

Ooh, ah, ouch, sorry, ooh, ah, ouch, sorry...yesterday many of us joined the order of thigmotactic (loving to lie cuddled up in huge steaming piles, remember?) animals with an excursion to the hot springs at Kamenistaya Bay.

Boiling hot water intermingled with chilly cold currents had us shuffling around and sliding past each other like a bunch of sea lions, simultaneously trying to avoid being burned or frozen. Many of us wondered why Sergey wasn't moving and didn't seem to be feeling the same level of discomfort until we discovered his secret - the 'sweet spot' where the waters combine at just the right temperature. Ah bliss! It could have been an advertisement in a real estate brochure: "Secluded charming beach side cabin complete with own waterfall, snow capped mountain vistas, and private hot spa pool." Brilliant sunshine and blue skies showcased it in all its glory (Ed's note: When can I move in?).

Our afternoon landing at Olga Bay provided an invigorating walk along the beachfront. Gray whales were spotted off the shoreline and on our way back to the ship a few zodiacs detoured to see if we could get closer and were treated to a 'whale soup' of six feeding whales.

For some of us this was our last landing and as we strolled serenely alongthe shoreline it was a time for reflection on some of the extraordinary sights we have seen and experiences we have had over the past two weeks. After dinner we gathered in the bar to consolidate these memories in our minds and hear the different perspectives from our fellow voyagers.

Thursday 31 July

Cape Zhupanova

After a stop-start morning, many of us finally managed to take our long-awaited helicopter ride on the MIL-8s to the Valley of the Geysers. It was a spectacular ride to one of the most geothermally active regions in the world. Afterwards the bar came alive with stories and memories from the trip. The rest of us spent the afternoon cruising for our last time around the Cape Zhupanova region, hoping for one last bear sighting.

As we sail back to Petropavlosk where our journey ends there was time to reflect and cast our minds back over our amazing time in Russia's Far East.

While each landing is a personal experience, there were some consistent outstanding memories amongst us: the bear from central casting on our first zodiac cruise, and the cliff climbing bears of Bogoslov Island; the 'flesh-devouring' mosquitoes at many landings; the rosy hues of the walruses on shore; the bird species too numerable to name here and numbering in their tens of thousands; and the raw experience of the life of the Koryak reindeer herders, and the generous hospitality we were shown by both them and the Aleut people of Nikol'skoye. Then there were the subtle reminders of the Soviet era and a time when this place was a secret both to us and the rest of the world; along with the stories of heroic exploration that rival the most adventurous in history. But let's not forget Campbell's scrumptious cakes, breads and desserts (seriously, thanks to Jason, Judd and Chris as well for feeding us so well and their patience when we stayed out late spotting whales or sea otters or some other such frivolous activity that made us late for lunch or dinner).

Many of these experiences were only possible by our willingness to 'throw the itinerary out the window' and embrace the true spirit of exploration. We are extremely fortunate to be part of the privileged few to venture as foreigners into this wild and largely unknown sector of the world. In a sublime paradox, this area has retained its wilderness values because of its lack of human interference - but its future may well lie in sustainable and well managed ecotourism. The economic benefit of our presence here far outweighs the exploitive practices of poaching, mining and irrational development - and as such we have made a significant contribution to its preservation.

Who knows what the Kamchatka Peninsula will look like 20 years from now? All we can say is that we were fortunate to be here at a time when it is still undeveloped and spectacular in its raw beauty, and the emotions that it has stirred in our hearts and minds will remain with us forever.