Dear diary ~ Kuril Islands to Kamchatka

Sunday 6 July 2008- Kushiro

With excitement mounting we arrived at Kushiro wharf and had our first full view of our trusty ship, Marina Svetaeva. The Aurora crew welcomed us aboard and we were shown to our cabins - which we will call home for the next two weeks.

After clearing Japanese immigration, we gathered in the bar, where we met our 'EL' for this voyage, Howard Whelan and the rest of the team. Howard explained a little about what to expect over the coming days and also the political sensitivities of the Kuril Islands area that we are about to sail into.

Then we were treated to a delightful display of Japanese drumming and a special presentation from the mayor of Kushiro to our Kapitan Sergey and a warm farewell from the lovely townspeople, before we slipped gently away from the wharf, into the fog and the start of our adventure.

Next we became more acquainted with one another in the bar and received our mandatory lifeboat and safety briefing. Many of us have travelled with Aurora before, and know the drill well. Not long afterwards, we found ourselves out on the deck, looking a little like Michelin men in our bulky orange life vests.

As we headed out to sea we slipped into the rhythm of shipboard life; leaving that 'other' world further and further behind.

Monday 7 July 2008- Kunashir Islands

Today we experienced a taste of the bureaucracy that often epitomizes Russia. We spent the day at anchor while Russian Immigration officials meticulously copied out details of our passports.

While the officials did their thing, Alan and Franz gave us an introduction to the geography and wildlife of the Kuril Islands, and whetted our appetites for the days ahead.

The ship was shrouded in a ghostly fog most of the day, so there was not much choice but to spend the day waiting, waiting, signing forms, resting, reading, chatting and more waiting. It was definitely a Tim Tam kind of afternoon. Fortunately, Captain's Welcome drinks topped off the day – an appropriate celebration as we were now officially in the Russian Federation. Also celebrating, a male orca was sighted from the bridge, a reminder to keep an eye out whenever possible.

 

Tuesday 8 July 2008- Iturup Island

We awoke to the sight of Cape Stolbchatiy in all its verdant glory. The conditions could not have been better; the omnipresent fog that has surrounded us for most of our journey had finally lifted to reveal lush tundra-covered hillsides and volcanoes rising before us.

We were keen to get off the ship for our first landing on Russian soil. Champing at the bit, we were held back for a short time by more of the bureaucracy we'd experienced the previous day, but it wasn't too long before permission was granted, and we were away, zooming towards the shore in our Zodiacs.

Al took a group of kayakers while the rest of us walked to the hot springs and, following Alina's lead, some of us took a dip. Alex learned first hand (foot) what Franz meant when he said some of the springs were boiling hot. We sighted foxes, and many bird species including a white-tailed eagle and nesting white-rumped swifts in the cliffs.

In the afternoon our geologist, David, introduced us to the geology of Kamchatka, starting with plate tectonics and the serendipity of scientific discovery. In the late afternoon we made our second landing at Ptichi Waterfall. What a gorgeous place! Oliver took a dip while some of us climbed to the top for wonderful views over the bay. Then a quick zodiac cruise yielded the highlight of the day - our first Kamchatka brown bear foraging on the beach! We also saw our first marine mammals today: minke whales; harbour seals; and huge pods of more than 100 Dall's porpoises. What a spectacular start all on our first day!

Wednesday 9 July 2008- Urup Island

After an early morning call by Howard, into the Lion's Mouth Bay caldera we went, gliding silently past the mist-shrouded remnants of this ancient shield volcano and the 'sphinx' that guards its entrance. Blasted into existence 10 million years ago, this high-rimmed inland-sea is alive with Dall's porpoise.

After breakfast, we landed on a beach awash with fishing floats and other detritus, then made our way over the rise, to be surprised by a Russian seasonal fishing village. It was a veritable shipyard, with new boats being hewn from timber against a backdrop of tracked military vehicles, huts, the odd cat, horse and dog. Our welcome was warm and special thanks to Alex for his translation skills.

After leaving the beach, the clouds began to lift and Astonupuri volcano was revealed in all its splendour. We are feeling exceptionally lucky that the weather gods have blessed us with sunshine, balmy temperatures and a gin-clear millpond sea. We cruised along the coast and under bridges of black lava frozen in geologic time. Spectacled guillemots gave us a fine performance as they skimmed the surface of the water and flitted around the rock faces. Some of us were lucky enough to spot a female bear with two cubs.

In the afternoon we anchored in Zolotoy Bay to cruise along the black lava cliffs to Przhevalskya Point and were greeted by dozens of harbour seals, who were just as curious about us as we were of them. Below the cliffs, we saw nesting Japanese cormorants, tufted puffins; black-legged kittiwakes; and harlequin ducks, adding to our checklist of ever-growing species sighted on this trip.

At anchor, our Russian crew quickly had their fishing lines in the water off the back of the ship, but they were outdone by the fishing tactics of the white-tailed eagles we witnessed, who swooped down on their prey, grabbing two fish at a time with their strong talons.

Thursday 10 July 2008- Urup Island

Another very early start to the day, with Howard ensuring we make the most of the exceptional weather we are experiencing. Straight after breakfast we cruised the coastline of Petroskov Island, even though dense fog reduced our visibility to a few metres, intrepidly we plunged on into the void, driving our zodiacs into the cavernous cathedrals formed by columns of cooled volcanic rock. Soon the fog lifted to reveal skies abundant with all kind of seabirds: tufted puffins, harlequin ducks, cormorants and gulls.

On landing at Petroskov Rocks we were forced into retreat by the 'man-eating' mosquitos that plagued the beach and landslip up the narrow gorge we'd planned to hike. Those that squirreled their way up through the megaherbs above the beach were rewarded with views of a carpet of orchids and lilies growing beneath. On our return to the beach, our kayakers spokeof a dead sperm whale they had seen along the beachfront, and a few zodiac loads of us went to investigate. It was rather sad to see this once powerful creature drifting along the shoreline, but it did provide a rare opportunity to get as close to a sperm whale as we ever will in our lives, and see the details of the blowhole, jaw line and body of the second largest creature on earth. Overhead, juvenile Steller's Sea Eagles soared along the cliff face.

After a quick lunch, where everyone praised the chef's delicious Thai-style vegetable soup, we hardly had time to catch our breath before we were off again to cruise the coastline and land at the Twins, a double set of islands off the north coast of Urup. We'd been expecting another bird cruise, but were delivered instead one of the most extraordinary geological extravaganzas on the planet. It was columnar joints gone mad! And geologist David was in heaven.

At the landing site some of us climbed over the rocky foreshore to the remains of a WWII Japanese garrison and reflected on those times half a century ago when this place was a site of war-time strategy, rather than the magnificent wilderness covered with tufted puffin nests that we viewed today. Some of us made it to the Soviet flag on the top of the island.

A few of us took the time to turn off the engines of the zodiacs and revel in the stunning silence that can only be found in these extremely remote and sacred places.

 

Back on board, the youngest member of our expedition, Nicholas, caught the biggest fish of the trip - and you could see the Russian fishing-masters turn green with envy. Chef Jason cooked it up and everyone got to sample the fruits of his conquest. Nicholas has now set the benchmark for the fisherman on the back deck. 'Twill be an interesting competition.

Friday 11 July 2008- Brat Chirpoev Island/Simushir Island

It was a real 'pea-souper' out there this morning, and the chilliest we have had so far; but that did not deter us from boarding our zodiacs for an early cruise to the Steller's sea lion colony on Brat Chirpoev Island. We had to weave through many thousands northern fulmars which had gathered around our ship, stopping to admire a small flock of Laysan and black-footed albatrosses. As we approached the colony, the inky black water was literally bubbling with sea lions as they plunged from the shore to protect their territory. The roar from the breeding rookery was deafening and hundreds of young pups could be seen through the mist on the rocks.

Further around the island we encountered a seabird bonanza - thousands of fulmars, thick-billed murres, black-legged kittiwakes, slaty-backed gulls and tufted puffins nesting on the steep slopes and cliffs overhead. A few horned puffins added spice to the mix. In one bay we encountered dense flocks of thousands of crested auklets - stunning in their black plumage, feather crests and orange beaks.

Strong currents saw us abandon our afternoon plans to land on Broutona Island, so instead we lifted anchor and set course for Simushir Island. Our departure was heralded by a large pod of curious orcas, who kept us entranced with tail-lobbing and displays close to the ship until more important orca business - most likely hunting Dall's Porpoise - enticed them away. As we cruised across the open strait we also encountered a few fin and sperm whales.

Between landings, David once again regaled us with his seemingly limitless knowledge of the geology of this area, with another inspiring lecture.

Late afternoon saw us landing on the rocky beach on Simushir. What an intriguing place! It is the site of an old whaling station abandoned in 1972. Thick alder brush has overgrown much of the station but much remained to explore. The area was thick with the rodent-burrows of chubby short-tailed voles, which we saw scurrying around.

We found a sign indicating the border between Japan and Russia amongst the derelict buildings of a former Russian military post, abandoned in 1994 when the border was moved further south. It appeared as if they had been abandoned mid-sentence. Some of us chose to exercise a bit of commando training and followed the 'chute route' up the hill. Others took the more sensible path through an enchanted forest to the sounds of waterfalls crashing from above and perfect tiny wildflowers all around.

Saturday 12 July 2008- Simushir Island/Yankicha

Reminiscent of a scene from a James Bond movie, we raced away from the ship in our zodiacs, making a beeline for the abandoned Soviet naval base on Simushir Island for our first foray off the ship yesterday. As we entered the caldera, the rectangular barren buildings characteristic of that era of Soviet architecture came into view - a surreal scene of grey concrete juxtaposed against delicate yellow and purple orchids and buttercups.

During the Cold War, it is believed this concealed harbour was a secret hiding place for fighter ships and submarines, supporting around 5,000 residents in its hey day between 1987 and 1994.

The eerie remains of the buildings were a reminder of the time when nuclear war was high on the agenda of the superpowers. It is a time we can all remember, but about which we really know very little. Our wanderings stimulated our imaginations of the activities that once must have occurred here. It was a sobering experience.

We arrived at Yankicha Island around 4 pm and planned to do a zodiac cruise around some of the northern islets, but a 30-knot wind barrelling across the isthmus in front of our ship foiled our plans. Howard made the call that such conditions were too dangerous to attempt to load, so we retired to the bar to watch the delightful and heart-rending story of Charlie Russell and his work with the brown bears of Kamchatka.

In the evening we had another extremely informative talk from Alan about seabirds of the Russian Far East.

Monday 14 July- Kharimkotan/Onekotan

What a magic Monday! Millpond seas and zero wind made our early morning landing on Kharimkotan Island one of the most enjoyable to date.

Navigating our way through the ubiquitous fog and thick kelp, we landed on a sweeping sandy black beach, and many breathed a sigh of relief that for once boulders didn't block our path. Some of us strolled down the beach toward the abandoned Japanese structures perched on the cliff top, while others forged a path through a landscape of blue irises and yellow flowers towards the dry lakebed. Whiffs of sulphur met our noses from the steam rising from the sand, while lenticular clouds moved like a ghostly arm onshore and upwards over the ridge. As we walked along the beach there was even a hint of blue sky, and the mists lifted to reveal the face of the Kharimkotan volcano.

Spirits were high as we came back on board for burritos (thanks Jason, Chris and Judd) complimented of course, by fresh pumpkin bread from Campbell's bake house.

In the afternoon we landed at Nemo Bay on Onekotan Island and entered a veritable 'Garden of Eden'. Crossing the tundra, meadows of blue, yellow, magenta, white, and pink wildflowers and bonsai pine forests carpeted the ground as we trod the long path to Black Lake.

At the landing site, David pointed out the debris-avalanche results of a tsunami as well as mysterious circles that were either a) bomb craters; b) ancient Aniu dwellings; or c) platforms for Japanese armaments form WW2.

Back on board we wished David 'Sdnem Rozhdeniya' (Happy Birthday), before settling in to hear from Franz about the exquisite wildflowers we have seen on our walks.

Tuesday 15 July- Atlasova Island/Shumshu

"This is as good as it gets," exclaimed our vulcanologist David as the jagged peaks of a recently erupted volcano loomed vertically before us on our early morning landing at Atlasova Island. The jutting platform of lava rock and lack of plant life indicated that this explosion was very recent. There was also a distinct change in the landscape compared to the more southerly Kurils we have visited. Whereas yesterday we wandered through fields of green, in stark contrast the soil here was black volcanic ash, and the scene, while striking, was much more barren.

We climbed through the hole blasted in the side of the mountain to see the Atlasova volcano, the highest point of the Kurils (at 2339 metres) and one of the most active. It has erupted at least ten times, most violently in 1938; and most recently a decade ago.

Further inland lay the derelict remains of a former Soviet gulag, where allegedly female political prisoners and criminals were sent. The camp was destroyed by a tsunami in the 1960s and abandoned. As we departed the mist lifted intermittently, and we were treated to tantalizing glimpses of the Kurils highest peak.

In the afternoon, we went cruising in search of sea otters and landed on the island of Shumshu. Under the direction of our Russian wildlife guides Olga and Dennis, we cautiously approached groups of sea otters lounging in the thick kelp forest. Several females had pups carried on the maternal bellies - some were fairly young and squalling loudly, others were almost as big as their mum but still being carried about. Curious single otters approached our Zodiacs giving us an intimate view of their behaviours. Several Larga (Spotted) seals which were feeding in the kelp also approached to check us out - their pale spotted heads quite different from the harbour seals we have seen since the start of the voyage.

Then we headed ashore and landed on a huge sandy beach. The skeleton of a very large long-dead whale was discovered close to our landing site. Nearby was a large but shallow river. Climbing the grassy dunes we admired the vista - the peaceful river snaking through lush grassy wetlands to a large lake. The kayakers had the best option and headed up the river to explore the lake and hike along the far shore. Meanwhile the hikers discovered many beautiful dark lady-slipper orchids and wild roses in profusion. It was a beachcomber's paradise with diverse shells and even a few glass Japanese fishing floats.

Before dinner we drifted through the second Kuril Strait. Miraculously the fog lifted to reveal panoramic view of the peaks and large fishing towns on both sides - the first hint of civilization we have seen in days.

Wednesday 16 July- Cape Kambal'nyy

Well, it seems geologist David may have been wrong. Just when we thought it 'couldn't get any better', our afternoon landing delivered erupting volcanoes; bears with cubs in tow; Peregrine and Gyr falcons nesting in the cliff tops above; sunshine and blue skies. Central casting could not have produced a better performance for our first footsteps on the Kamchatka Peninsula at Cape Kambal'nyy.

The clear skies made it possible to clearly see the volcanoes that surrounded us, snowy trails down their sides making them look like huge lemon meringue pies. In the distance, we could see puffs of smoke rising from one of them, which David declared 'officially' an eruption.

Denis and Olga reckoned this place was heavy with bears - and they were right. Angela and Elizabeth came eyeball to eyeball with a large female and her two cubs - in fact so close they almost stepped on her.

As we returned to the ship, we cruised into a gossamer curtain created by the suns' rays and all felt warm and contented.

In the evening those of us embarking on the helicopter excursion to Lake Kurilskoye received a safety briefing from Howard and Pete. Today should be a wondrous day for all, with the excitement of heli flights in Russian

MIL-8s and cruising the pristine environment of the Yuzhno-Kamchatsky reserve at Vestnik Bay.

Thursday 17 July- Vilyuchinskaya Bay

As we near the end of our journey it is appropriate to reflect on some of the extraordinary sights we have seen and experiences we have had over the past two weeks.

We are extremely fortunate to be part of the privileged few that have ventured into a land named one of the five most amazing places in the world. We have seen one of the few spots left on earth where nature is thriving - largely because it has been shielded from human impact, even though, as we learned, conquering nature is still a large part of the psyche of those who live here. We have gained an insight into the political secrecy that has characterised this region's history for decades, which paradoxically, has lead to it remaining largely a pristine wilderness.

As our voyage comes to an end we have come to realise how special and sacred this place is and the role we as travellers play in its preservation. By demonstrating that the economic benefits of carefully managed ecotourism are worth far more to the inhabitants in the long term than poaching, irrational resource development and mineral exploitation - is one way that this stunning wilderness can be saved for future generations.

Who knows what the Kuril Islands and Kamchatka Peninsula will look like 20 years from now? All we can safely say is that we were there at a time when we were able to witness it in all its raw and spectacular beauty; and the feelings it stirred in our hearts and minds will remain with us forever.

Friday 18 July- En route to Petropavlosk

For some of us it is the end of our journey - but for others it is just the beginning as we start the second leg of our voyage along the coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula and Commander Islands.