Sea of Okhotsk: Seals, Seabirds and a Legacy of Sorrow

Perhaps no other sea in the world has witnessed as much human suffering and misery as the Sea of Okhotsk. Between 1932 and 1953 it is estimated that over 3 million prisoners (the vast majority of them innocent) were transported across the Sea of Okhotsk to the Gulags of the Kolyma Goldfields. It is estimated that only 500,000 of those prisoners survived to make the journey home. The town and port of Magadan were built to process these prisoners.

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, including the beautifully marked and rare Ribbon Seals. On three small islands within this sea hundreds of Steller Sea Lions haul out each year to breed. One of these, Tyuleniy Island, also is home to one of the largest concentrations and breeding colonies of Northern Fur Seals in the Russian Far East.

Seabird numbers in the Sea of Okhotsk can only be described as spectacular. There are islands like Talan where the sky darkens when the Crested Auklets start massing offshore of an evening. Other birds include 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 such as the Arctic Ground Squirrel.

This is a truly unique journey in that it travels through a little known and seldom visited region. A region with a rich history and 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.

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Day 1: Sakhalin Island, Port of Korsakov
This morning we meet 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. 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.

Day 2: Tyuleniy Island
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.

Day 3: Piltun Bay, Sakhalin Island
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 plan to go in search of the Gray Whales that live here, travelling by Zodiac inshore to the shallower waters where they are known to feed.

Day 4: Iony Island
Iony Island lies almost in the middle of the Sea of Okhotsk, about 120 nautical miles 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. 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 make any landing impossible.

Days 5 to 6: Shantar Archipelago
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 places here to become ice free each year. This late ice can sometimes restrict how far we can explore. 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 Shantar 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.

Day 7: Mal’minskie Islands
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 Guillemots, 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 Brunnich’s 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 adjacent mainland.

Day 8: Okhotsk Town
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 in 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 region’s fishing centre. The port exports significant quantities of salmon and other fish. We visit the town, landing by Zodiac up the river near its centre. The local people are generous and welcoming, and will provide some entertainment in the town centre with a cultural display. This is a chance to experience genuine Russian Far East culture and embrace their hospitality.

Day 9: Talan Island
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 Black-legged 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 before returning to the island. If the conditions are right it is one of those sights, and nights, you will never forget.

Day 10: Koni Peninsula
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.

Day 11: Yamskiye Islands
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 Brunnich’s 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 Lion 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.

Day 12: Magadan
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’ were 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, 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, also known as the ‘Road of Bones’, connects Magadan with Yakutsk and the rest of Russia. We plan to arrive in the Port of Magadan, late morning. There will be a complimentary shuttle to a central hotel in the city. 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. Note: During our voyage, circumstances may make it necessary or desirable to deviate from the proposed itinerary. This can include poor weather and/or opportunities for making unplanned excursions. Your Expedition Leader will keep you fully informed.

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