Day 1: Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy
Our expedition begins in the historic city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, which is located on one of the greatest natural harbours in the world, Avacha Bay. Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy is the main city of the Kamchatka Peninsula and the capital and administrative centre of the region. This city and the surrounding areas offer a great amount to see and explore. We encourage you to take a few extra days before the expedition departs to explore this amazing area.
A coach will transfer you to the ship, where staff will be on hand to welcome you and show you to your cabin. You will want to be on deck as we depart Avacha Bay as some people claim that this natural harbour is amongst one of the best in the world.
Once clear of the harbour there will be an introduction to the staff and ship and a series of compulsory briefings and drills, however we’ll aim to keep these as short as possible to allow you ample time to settle into your cabin and get out on deck to look for seabirds.
Day 2: At Sea
We have a day at sea as we cruise across the Kamchatka Trench towards the Commander Islands. The waters we are cruising through are renowned for cetaceans as this is the border between two major tectonic plates and there are deep canyons where these animals feed.
Blue, Fin, Humpback, Sperm and Baird’s Beaked Whales have all been recorded here, as have Dall’s Porpoise and Orca, so there is real potential to start the voyage with some great cetacean sightings.
There will of course also be birds to watch. Look out for Red-legged Kittiwake, Tufted Puffin, Ancient Murrelet and Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel.
Days 3 to 4: 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 that 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 thirty years as hunters soon arrived in the region.
During our two days in the Commander Islands we plan to visit both Bering and Medny, but our first stop will be at the village of Nikolskoye on Bering Island to check in with the Border Guards. While ashore we will have the opportunity to visit the small museum (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. Along the shoreline there are often hundreds of Glaucous-winged Gulls as well as smaller numbers of the far more localised Red-legged Kittiwake. We should also see both Rock Sandpiper and Mongolian Plover (or Lesser Sand Plover) here and both Lapland and Snow Bunting invariably show very well. We should also have an opportunity to explore an area of tundra behind the village where the highly-prized Pechora Pipit breeds.
All landing sites in the Commander Islands are weather dependent, so our precise itinerary will vary depending on the prevailing conditions. Whatever sites we use you can be assured of an amazing time.
Possible sites include 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 race to the birds in the Kuril Islands). While ashore we could encounter Rock Ptarmigan, Grey-crowned Rosy-Finch and the endemic subspecies of Arctic Fox.
We also plan to ship cruise along the southern coast of Bering Island as this is a superb area for seabirds and cetaceans. We could potentially see Short-tailed, Black-footed and Laysan Albatrosses, Mottled Petrel, Red-legged Kittiwake, Least, Parakeet and Whiskered Auklets and Horned and Tufted Puffins. This area is also renown for cetaceans including Sperm, Humpback, Northern Minke, Baird’s Beaked-Whales and Orca.
Day 5: Zhupanova River, Kamchatka
We anchor off the mouth of the Zhupanova River where we will Zodiac cruise up 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 be plenty of other wildlife too and other species we have seen on previous occasions 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 factory as huge numbers of salmon spawn in the river. Normally there is an opportunity to meet the fishermen, sample the fish and see how it is processed, as well as doing some land-based exploring/birding. Both Long-toed Stint and Far Eastern Curlew are possible here and nearby there is usually a flock of scavenging gulls attracted by the processing plant. We should see several species including the localised Kamchatka Gull, which is now regarded by some as distinct from Common or Mew Gull.
Day 6: Bukhta Russkaya, Kamchatka
If the weather is fine, fantastic views of the many snow-covered volcanoes that dominate the southern part of the peninsula greet us as we sail up this fiord.
Bukhta Russkaya is an isolated fiord roughly 150 miles north of the southern tip of Kamchatka. Near the entrance there have been sightings of both the Long-billed Murrelet and the endangered Kittlitz’s Murrelet.
We plan to make a landing at the head of the fiord. The birding can be very rewarding here, with many species singing and Lanceolated Warbler, Brambling, Common Rosefinch, Oriental Greenfinch and Rustic Bunting among the possibilities. We will need to exercise care as brown bears are not uncommon here.
We plan a Zodiac cruise at the entrance to the fiord where there is an excellent chance of seeing Sea Otters, Largha Seals, Steller Sea Lions and Orcas.
Day 7: Second Kuril Strait, Atlasova and Onekotan Islands
Early this morning we will cruise through Second Strait in the Kuril Islands. This region has one of the highest densities of Sea Otters in the Kuril Islands. Our first landing in the Kurils will be on Atlasova Island where the tallest volcano in the archipelago can be found (Alaid: 2,340m). On the shore near our landing site are the remains of a Gulag that you can explore. Beyond that you can wander as far as you can in the time allocated, as there are no brown bears on this island.
Near our landing site there are some small marshy ponds where it might be possible to see Long-toed Stint and other waders. On some nearby low 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.
This afternoon we will make a landing at the northern end of Onekotan Island from where it is a relatively easy walk to Black Lake. Our walk will take us through stunted areas of Siberian Stone Pine, Dwarf Birch and Polar Willow. By the time of our visit 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. On the lake a selection of wildfowl can usually be found including Greater Scaup and Goosander. In the scrub look out for Buff-bellied Pipit, Brown-headed Thrush, Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler, Siberian Rubythroat and Pine Grosbeak.
On the beach where we land and throughout the walk there is extensive evidence of fortifications built by the Japanese during World War II. The Russians defeated the Japanese in the closing days of the war and the Japanese withdrew. Although the islands have been considered Russian territory ever since, Japan disputes that in the case of some of the Southern Kuril Islands.
Day 8: Ekarma and Toporkovy Islands
By early morning we expect to be off Ekarma Island, which like so many of the islands in the Kuril chain is an active volcano. The island is however, home to hundreds of thousands of breeding Northern Fulmars and we plan to Zodiac cruise along the coast enjoying the multitude of birds. Other species that breed here include both Tufted and Horned Puffins and we may even see some of the island’s resident Peregrines hunting alcids.
This afternoon we plan to Zodiac cruise along the shores of 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 these 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. We will also investigate the island’s cliffs as various species breed on these including Brunnich’s Guillemot and Red-faced Cormorant.
After exploring Toporkovy we hope to land on the nearby island of Matua where there is an active volcano that 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. This makes exploring somewhat challenging but we should still find a range of good birds with a decent chance of seeing Grey-tailed Tattler along the shore and Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler, Siberian Rubythroat and Black-faced Bunting in the scrubby trees which are now growing back across the island. Arctic Skuas also breed on the island.
Day 9: Simushir and Yankicha Islands
After an early breakfast we will board the Zodiacs and cruise into a vast flooded caldera at the northern end of Simushir Island. Only a quarter of a century ago this was the location of a top secret Soviet submarine station where hundreds of mariners were based. This haunting reminder of the Cold War has now been completely abandoned and we can wander around what remains of the base, which is steadily being reclaimed by nature. Within the stunning setting of this huge caldera, we can expect to find a good range of species with one of the most common birds likely to be the spectacular Siberian Rubythroat which can often be seen singing from the tops of scrubby bushes. 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.
Over lunch we will cruise back to Yankicha Island, the summit of a submerged volcano. Invariably this is one of the highpoints of the entire voyage as the number of alcids that breed here is truly incredible. 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 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. While inside the caldera we will pass the breeding colonies of Crested and Whiskered Auklets and are likely to also find good numbers of Harlequin Ducks. We also stand an excellent chance of seeing Arctic Foxes that can be pretty inquisitive as they patrol the auk colonies looking for their next meal.
As we return to the ship in the late evening many of the alcids will be returning to their colonies. Being surrounded by clouds of birds is an experience you will never forget.
Day 10: Chirpoy and Urup Islands
This morning we will anchor off Chirpoy Island where there are some dramatic headlands covered in breeding seabirds and, depending on the sea conditions, we will either land or have a Zodiac cruise. Black-legged Kittiwakes and Brunnich’s Guillemots are among the more numerous species to be found here.
As we continue south towards Urup there is an excellent chance of seeing Sperm Whale and Orca. Laysan Albatross, Ancient and Long-billed Murrelets, Brunnich’s Guillemot, Crested and Rhinoceros Auklets and Tufted Puffins are often seen in good numbers on this crossing.
On an extended walk on Urup Island we can expect to see White-tailed Eagle, Harlequin Duck, Grey-tailed Tattler, Japanese Cormorants and Black-backed Wagtails along the shoreline. Inland in the scrubby woodland which is dominated by birch and alders, birds include Latham’s Snipe, Oriental Cuckoo, Brown-headed Thrush, Arctic Warbler, Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler, Japanese Bush Warbler, Eurasian Nutcracker, Grey-bellied Bullfinch, Oriental Greenfinch, Japanese Grey Bunting and Robin. Beachcombing and walking can be very rewarding as there is the possibility of seeing both Largha and Harbour Seals as well as Pacific Sea Otters.
Day 11: Iturup Island
If conditions are suitable we will offer an early morning Zodiac cruise to look for the Spectacled Guillemot and the Long-billed Murrelet. After breakfast we will board the Zodiacs once again for the short ride to the community of Kurilsk where local buses will take us into the volcanic highlands of Iturup. We will pass through some spectacular scenery as we steadily climb up towards the Baranskiy volcano where there will be an opportunity to soak in some thermal pools.
The higher altitude and different vegetation give us an opportunity to look for a range of new birds including Eastern Buzzard, Japanese Robin, Grey-bellied Bullfinch, Siberian Accentor, Pine Grosbeak and Kamchatka Leaf-warbler. Species we may have already seen that also occur here include Pacific Swift, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker and Japanese Bush-Warbler.
On our return to Kurilsk there should be an opportunity to either explore the village or do some further birding. Both Russet Sparrow and Chestnut-cheeked Starling are known to occur here and, depending on the state of the tide, we may also find a good selection of gulls; there is often a good-sized roost here that can include Black-tailed, Slaty-backed, Glaucous-winged, Glaucous and Black-headed Gulls.
Day 12: Kunashir Island
Today we make an early morning landing in the Kurilsky Reserve where with the assistance of the local rangers we will enjoy some walks. The reserve covers an extensive area of woodland and the species we could encounter include Latham’s Snipe, Oriental Turtle- Dove, Oriental Cuckoo, Japanese Bush-Warbler, Eastern Crowned Warbler, Narcissus and Brown Flycatchers, Siberian Stonechat and Long-tailed Rosefinch. Overhead and along a nearby river, we should find good numbers of White-tailed Eagle. We will also be on the lookout for two special species that occur in the reserve, namely Blakiston’s Fish-Owl and Crested Kingfisher.
We depart about midday for Sakhalin Island. If the weather is favourable we should get great looks at Tyatya volcano, which at almost 6,000ft dominates the landscape. This afternoon at sea the birding can be good, but we will also need to wrap the expedition, so there will be recaps and formalities to attend to. This evening there will be a farewell dinner.
Day 13: Sakhalin Island
We arrive at the Port of Korsakov mid-morning; there will be a complimentary coach transfer to the nearby town of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and a central hotel or to the airport. To allow time for disembarkation procedures and travel from the Port of Korsakov we do not recommend booking flights departing before 15:00hrs.