Sea of Okhotsk
Seals, Seabirds & A Legacy of Sorrow
Aboard Spirit of Enderby
- 12 days 9-20 June 2016
Little known outside of Russia and seldom visited by westerners, Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk dominates the Northwest Pacific. Bounded to the north and west by the Russian continent and the Kamchatka Peninsula to the east, with the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin Island guarding the southern border, it is almost landlocked. Its coasts were once home to a number of groups of indigenous people: the Nivkhi, Oroki, Even and Itelmen. Their name for this sea simply translates as something like the ‘Sea of Hunters’ or ‘Hunters Sea’ perhaps a clue to the abundance of wildlife found here.
In 1725 and again in 1733 the Russian explorer Vitus Bering launched two expeditions from the town of Okhotsk on the western shores of this sea in order to explore the eastern coasts of the Russian Empire and for a long time this town was the gateway to Kamchatka and beyond. The modern town of Okhotsk is built near the site of the old town and little has changed over the centuries. Inhabitants now have an air service, but their lives are still dominated by the sea and that will never change.
Perhaps no other sea in the world has witnessed as much human suffering and misery as the Sea Okhotsk. Between 1932 and 1953 it is estimated that over 3 million prisoners (the vast majority of them innocent) were transported across the Sea Okhotsk to the Gulags of the Kolyma Goldfields. It is estimated that only five hundred thousand of those prisoners survived to make the journey home. The town and port of Magadan were built to process these prisoners. Today there is little evidence of the town’s sordid past, but the Mask of Sorrow, a large monument on a hill overlooking the town, is a poignant reminder of the town’s origins.
The upper regions of the Sea of Okhotsk remain frozen for much of the year and winter storms make it an inhospitable place. However the lure of a rich fishery and more recently oil and gas discoveries means this sea is still being exploited, so nothing has changed there. In 1854 no fewer than 160 American and British whaling ships were there, hunting whales. Despite this seemingly relentless exploitation the wildlife thrives, albeit probably not in the numbers it used to, but still in numbers that boggle the mind. The beautifully marked and rare Ribbon Seals are abundant here. On the small island of Iony, and on the Yamskie and Tyulenly Islands, hundreds of Steller Sea Lions haul out each year to breed. Tyulenly Island is also home to one of the largest breeding colonies of Northern Fur Seals in the Russian Far East.
Seabird numbers in the Sea of Okhotsk can only be described as spectacular. We are talking numbers rarely seen anywhere else in the world, such as an estimated 7 million on Matykil Island in the Yamskiye Archipelago. Then there are islands like Talan where the sky darkens when the Crested Auklets start massing offshore before returning each evening. Birds there include various species of guillemots, puffins, auklets and fulmars, but the richness of birdlife is not restricted to pelagic species. The Sea of Okhotsk has one of the highest concentrations of the majestic Steller’s Sea Eagle of anywhere in the Russian Far East. Waterfowl are common as are many migratory species. Harder to see, but not uncommon on this expedition, are the magnificent Kamchatka Brown Bear and other mammals like the Snow Sheep and the Marmot.
This is a truly unique journey (expedition) in that it travels through a little known sea. It is a region with a history that up until recently has been suppressed and not spoken about and the magnitude of the tragedy of Stalin’s Gulag system is only now becoming apparent. It is also an area with very significant and important wildlife values, both terrestrial and marine. There are still discoveries to be made and so for the inquisitive, adventurous and open-minded traveller, this is a ‘must do’ expedition.
Sakhalin Island, Port of Korsakov
This morning we board a coach for transfer to the Port of Korsakov some 40 minutes south of the city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk where we will board 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. There will be briefings and introductions to the ship, staff and crew after we sail towards the Sea of Okhotsk.
We visit little known Tyuleniy Island off the south east coast of Sakhalin Island. This small island is a strong hold for Northern Fur Seals and Steller Sea Lions. Fur seal numbers have increased since an International Covention signed in 1911 banned seal hunting here. 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 for an opportunity to photograph the seals and sea lions.
Piltun Bay, Sakhalin Island
It was the discovery of oil and gas in this region which put Sakhalin Island on many people’s maps. Piltun Bay is an important habitat for the small population of western Gray Whales. Researchers monitor the population during the summer months. 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.
Iony Island lies in the middle of the Sea of Okhotsk, it is really just a rock, but what it lacks in physical size it more than makes up for wildlife. 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 the few rocky beaches, making any landing impossible.
Days 5 to 6:
Lying in the western sector of the Sea of Okhotsk close to the continent, the islands in this archipelago are amongst the last place in the Sea of Okhotsk to become ice free each year. This late ice can sometimes restrict how far we can explore here; on the other hand ice increases our chances of seeing some of the seals including Bearded, Ringed, Largha and Ribbon Seals that breed here. If we can land there will be birding, botany and photography excursions led by our team of on board naturalists.
Here there are birds everywhere, in the air, in the water and on the land. Numerous species breed here including large numbers of Spectacled Guillemot. Other species include Ancient Murrelet, Rhinoceros Auklet, Parakeet Auklet, Horned and Tufted Puffin, Crested Auklet and both Common and Brunnichs Guillemot. There is also 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; 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. Vitus Bering travelled overland from St Petersburg to Okhotsk in 1725 and again 1733 and travelled to Kamchtka and beyond. 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 entertainment in the town centre and a cultural display.
An internationally known, but very difficult bird island to get to, Talan is infamous largely because of the hundreds of thousands of Crested Auklets that nest there. There are also an extraordinary number of kittiwakes nesting along the cliffs and not surprisingly a large population of Steller’s Sea Eagles. We plan to circumnavigate the island by Zodiac before landing and then return in the late evening to witness the huge flocks of Crested Auklets amassing at sea before coming ashore.
This is a mountainous region to the south-east of the town of Magadan, part of which is included in the Magadanskiy Zapovednik. This reserve protects among other animals Brown Bear and Snow Sheep. 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 what we will find. That is part of what makes this style of travel so interesting.
These islands 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. We Zodiac around the coast as no landings are permitted.
The name Magadan is synonymous with Stalin’s oppressive Gulags or prisons but there is very little evidence now of this town’s tragic past. The local museum has an excellent display about the Gulags but the most poignant reminder is the ‘Mask of Sorrow’ a large monument on a hill overlooking the town. Today Magadan is a town of about 100,000 people. Fishing is important and gold mining is experiencing a revival. The infamous Kolyma Highway or the ‘Road of Bones’ connects Magadan with Irkutsk and ultimately greater Russia. We plan to arrive here midday where our journey ends. You will be transferred to a central hotel or the airport.
Dates and Cost
- Spirit of Enderby – 12 days 9-20 June 2016
|shared facilities||private facilities|
|Main Deck Triple||Main Deck Twin||Superior||Superior Plus||Mini Suite||Heritage Suite|
|Additional Charges – Landing Fees:|
(Applies to all passengers)
|Kayaking Supplement – Limited space:||US$995|
Sole occupancy: 1.8 times the published cost on all cabin types except suite cabins which will be charged at 2 times the published cost.
- Pre/post cruise transfers, all on board ship accommodation and meals and all expedition shore excursions.
- All shore excursions as outlined in itinerary.
- All accommodation and meals while onboard the vessel.
- Services of Expeditions leaders.
We are able to organise pre and post excursions and accommodation as required. Please contact us for further details.
What’s not included
- Airfares and any airport taxes.
- Travel and cancellation insurances.
- All items of a personal nature, laundry, drinks, gratuities.
- International/domestic flights, visas and travel insurance.
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|Deposit required:||25% of Total cruise price in US$|
|180 days prior to departure:||A further 25% of cruise price in US$|
|90 days prior to depature:||Full balance due in US$|
|If booking within 89 days of departure:||Full payment must be made in US$|
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Spirit of Enderby
Vessel, the Spirit of Enderby, is perfect for Expedition Travel. The real focus and emphasis of every expedition is getting you ashore as often as possible for as long as possible with maximum safety and comfort. It carries just 48 passengers in very comfortable accommodation (refurbished in New Zealand Nov ’04). The cuisine is excellent and is prepared by top NZ and Australian chefs. Our Expeditions are accompanied by some of the most experienced naturalists and guides, who have devoted a lifetime to field research in the areas that we visit. The ship is crewed by a very enthusiastic and most experienced Russian Capitan and crew.
The Spirit of Enderby measures 72 metres in length and is fully ice-strengthened. Powered by two 1,560 horse power diesel engines. It is capable of speeds of up to 12 knots. What makes this Expedition Vessel absolutely unique is the equipment we carry including: a) our fleet of RIB’s, (rigid inflatable boats) sometimes referred to as zodiacs. These extremely safe and stable craft will land you at some of the most amazing places. b) Our specially designed and built Hovercraft (2) give us unprecedented over ice capability in Antarctica allowing us to land in places that are inaccessible to other ships.
The name Spirit of Enderby honours the work and the vision of the Enderby Brothers of London. The Enderby Captains were at the forefront of Antarctic exploration for almost 40 years in the early 1800’s. It also celebrates Enderby Island, arguably the greatest Subantarctic Island in the world.