This morning we will all congregate at the Mega Palace Hotel and take a coach transfer to the Port of Korsakov some 40 minutes south of the city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. After a fairly onerous and sometimes lengthy security check you and your luggage will be transferred to the Spirit of Enderby. Once on board you will be shown to your cabins and there will be a chance to unpack and explore the vessel. We plan to get underway soon after you have embarked. There will be briefings and introductions to the ship, staff and crew after we have departed and we will also take the opportunity to conduct a number of safety briefings. Today we are at sea clearing the southern tip of Sakhalin Island into the Sea of Okhotsk.
We arrive at little known Tyuleniy Island off the south east coast of Sakhalin Island. This small island is a stronghold for Northern Fur seals and since 1990 an increasing number of Steller sea lions. Up until the early 1900s Fur seals were slaughtered in their thousands on this island. The Japanese who occupied Sakhalin Island at that time took as many as they could. An international convention, signed in 1911, on the research and management of Fur seals changed these practices and the numbers have slowly been recovering, reaching a record in the 1950s of about 120,000 animals. In the 1960s a substantial field research station was constructed on the island and scientists monitored the population annually. In the 1990s Steller sea lions started breeding on the island and their colony now numbers about 2,500 animals. Sea conditions permitting we plan a landing here. This will be an opportunity to photograph the seals and sea lions as well as talk with the researchers.
It was the discovery of oil and gas in this region which put Sakhalin Island on many people's maps. The first commercial wells were built in Piltun Bay and they were not without controversy and protest. Biologists had been aware for a long time of a western population of Gray whales that were (are) thought to migrate not to California (as most Gray whales do) but possibly to somewhere in the South China Sea. Piltun Bay is an important habitat for this population so there were strict environmental practices imposed on the multinational developers. Researchers based at the disused lighthouse in Piltun Bay monitor the population during the summer months. We visit Piltun Bay today, where the oil and gas platforms are very obvious but we go in search of the Gray whales that live here, travelling by Zodiac inshore to the shallower waters where they are known to feed. If conditions are suitable we cross a river bay to explore an estuary where large numbers of Harbour seals hang out.
Iony Island lies almost in the middle of the Sea of Okhotsk, about 120nm from the closest land. It is a tiny island, really just a rock, but what it lacks in physical size it more than makes up for wildlife. It is nothing short of spectacular and very few people have seen it. Iony is a well-known breeding ground for Steller sea lions. There is a small derelict research hut on the island, a relic from a time when there was possibly more money for research than there is now. The island also teems with birdlife. Birds appear to take up all available space. There are guillemots, kittiwakes and various species of auklets, with parakeet, Whiskered and Least being the most prominent. We will Zodiac cruise around the Island as Steller sea lions occupy all the flat ground and the few rocky beaches making any landing impossible.
Day 5 - 6
There are 15 islands in this little known archipelago. Lying as they do in the western sector of the Sea of Okhotsk close to the continent, they are amongst the last place in the Sea Okhotsk to become ice free each year. This late ice can sometimes restrict how far we can explore here, on the other hand, if there is ice around; it increases our chances of seeing some of the seals including Bearded, Ringed, Largha and Ribbon seals that breed here. Potentially this area is one of the best to get observations and photographs of the beautifully patterned Ribbon seals. The seas around the Shanter Archipelago are also renowned for Bowhead whales. Our chances of seeing these depend on the ice, the majority of sightings are in fact from later in the season, but we will be looking very hard. If we can land there will be birding, botany and photography excursions led by our team of on board naturalists. We have set aside two days here to maximise our chances of getting ashore and also having the best wildlife experiences.
The sight that greets you when you approach these three small offshore islands is 'birds'. There are birds everywhere, in the air, in the water and on the land. Numerous species breed here including large numbers of Spectacled guillemot, perhaps the largest colony of these birds anywhere, as they are only found in the Sea of Okhotsk. Other birds include Ancient murrelet, Rhinoceros auklet, Parakeet auklet, Horned and Tufted puffin, Crested auklet and both Common and Brunnichs guillemot. It is little wonder with the abundance of birds that there is a good population of Steller's Sea eagles on the island and on the adjacent mainland. Landing on the island is restricted to a small gravel spit and there are limited places to walk, however on the mainland we can stretch our legs and explore the taiga forest.
This town has featured in Russian Far East history since the earliest Cossack explorers came from the west. Prior to their arrival the indigenous people undoubtedly had seasonal camps here to harvest the salmon. Vitus Bering travelled overland from St Petersburg to Okhotsk in 1725 and again 1733 and it was from this small town that both of these expeditions travelled to Kamchatka and beyond. Because of the hostility of the Koryak people in the north towards the Russian invaders, the Sea of Okhotsk was the main access route to Kamchatka. Today Okhotsk is the centre of fishing in the region. The port exports significant quantities of salmon and other fish. We visit the town, landing by Zodiac up the river near the town centre. The local people are generous and welcoming and will provide some entertainment in the town centre and a cultural display. This is a chance to experience genuine Russian Far East culture and embrace their hospitality.
An internationally known, but very difficult to get to bird island, Talan lies offshore some 50 miles west of Magadan. It is infamous largely because of the hundreds of thousands of Crested auklets that nest here. A lot of research has been done here in the past and there are a number of huts and obvious signs of human activity. There is also an extraordinary number of kittiwakes nesting along the cliffs and not surprisingly a large population of Steller's Sea eagles. If weather conditions are suitable we will circumnavigate the island by Zodiac before landing at the western end. We plan to return in the evening after dinner to witness the huge flocks of Crested auklets amassing offshore of the island before coming ashore. If the conditions are right it is one of those sights and nights you will remember forever.
This is a mountainous region to the south-east of the town of Magadan. Approximately one third of it is protected by its inclusion in the Magadanskiy Zapovednik (a Federal Nature Reserve). This reserve protects among other animals Brown bear and Snow sheep. There are numerous places to land and the climate is very much affected by the Sea of Okhotsk. Very few visitors have ever landed on or explored the Koni Peninsula. Many of our landings are expeditionary, in that although we have landed at a number of places along the coast, many will be new and unknown to us, so we are never quite sure of what we will find. That is part of what makes our style of travel so interesting. We spend the day here with at least two landings at different sites.
These islands are also included in the Magadansky Zapovednik and are claimed by some biologists to be the largest bird colony in the North Pacific. According to bird counts there are an estimated 7 million birds nesting on Matykil Island the largest in the group. Birds include Common and Brunnichs guillemot, Crested, Parakeet and Least auklets, Tufted and Horned puffins and Northern fulmars. The most abundant of these is the Least auklet. The islands are also a well-known breeding ground for the Steller sea iion and we will see large numbers both in the water and hauled on the few beaches on the island. We Zodiac around the coast as no landings are permitted, but you get a much better appreciation of the islands and the abundance of the wildlife by cruising the shoreline.
The name Magadan is synonymous with Stalin's oppressive Gulags or prisons. It is estimated that between 1932 and 1953 more than 3.5 million 'prisoners' where shipped across the Sea of Okhotsk to Magadan or Nagaevo as it was then known, to work in the Kolyma Goldfields. It is thought that only 500,000 survived the terrible conditions including the cold, the lack of food and inhuman treatment by the guards and officials. Nowadays there is very little evidence of this town's tragic past. The local museum has an excellent display about the Gulags (sadly almost all information is in Russian) but the most poignant reminder is the 'Mask of Sorrow', a large monument, dedicated to those who suffered here, on a hill overlooking the town.
Today it is a town of about 100,000 people. Fishing is important and gold mining is experiencing a revival with mechanical dredges and machinery successfully reworking the areas once worked by the prisoners with their hands. The port is kept open throughout the winter by icebreakers as it is the lifeline for those living here. The infamous Kolyma Highway or the 'Road of Bones' connects Magadan with Irkutsk and ultimately greater Russia. We plan to arrive in the Port of Magadan, late morning. There will be complimentary shuttles to a central hotel in the city or the airport. In case of unavoidable delays with either weather and/or formalities we kindly ask you not to make any onward flight reservations until the following day.