Stretching northwards for over 700 miles from Japan to the southern end of the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Kuril Islands were formed by the collision of the Pacific and Eurasian plates creating a chain of over 30 volcanic islands and an oceanic trench which reaches depths of over 8,000m.
The combination of deep water upwellings and the mixing of the cold waters from the Sea of Okhotsk with the warmer Pacific Ocean creates ideal conditions for seabirds and the area is one of the richest in the world, both in terms of the number of species which can be seen and their sheer abundance. For many birders, the undoubted highlight are the Auks and during our voyage it is possible to see up to fourteen species including Tufted and Horned Puffins, Parakeet, Whiskered and Rhinoceros Auklets, as well as Spectacled and Pigeon Guillemots.
Other seabirds we regularly encounter include Laysan Albatross, Mottled Petrel, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, Red-faced Cormorant, Red-legged Kittiwake and Aleutian Tern, making this a truly “must do” trip for keen seabirders.
The seas are also extremely rich in cetaceans and on recent expeditions we have seen Blue, Fin, Sperm, Humpback and Grey Whales as well as Orca (Killer Whale), Baird’s Beaked-Whale and Dall’s Porpoise.
As we head north up the Kuril chain and then explore Kamchatka and the Commander Islands, the scenery and vegetation change markedly, giving us the opportunity to look for an exciting range of land birds. For many, the highlight is the truly stunning Steller’s Sea-Eagle which breeds at a number of locations we plan to visit, although there are plenty of other special species including Rock Sandpiper, Mongolian Plover, Pechora Pipit, Japanese Robin, Siberian Rubythroat, Red-flanked Bluetail, Long-tailed Rosefinch and Black-faced Bunting.
The birds, cetaceans, wild flowers and dramatic scenery make this territory truly unique and by joining this expedition you will have the opportunity to visit a region few have had the privilege to experience.
$500.00 USD pp
Birding the Russian Far East itinerary:
Day 1: Arrival
Fly to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy and stay overnight at a centrally located hotel. If you want to arrive a few days earlier we can make exclusive arrangements for you, including visiting the famed Valley of the Geysers or explore one of a number of volcanoes for which the region is famous. During the evening, members of the Expedition Team will be at the hotel to meet you and answer any questions.
Day 2: Petropavlovsk – Kamchatskiy
In the morning you can take the opportunity to explore the city; there is an excellent museum and a number of monuments that let you discover its history. In the afternoon you will board the Spirit of Enderby in preparation for the departure of the expedition this evening as we will leave Avacha Bay which is one of the greatest natural harbours in the world toward the Commander Islands. After departing there will be a number of introductions and briefings (eg compulsory ship safety lecture), however, we always aim to keep these as short as possible to allow you ample time to settle into your cabin and to get out on deck to look for seabirds.
Day 3: At sea
We have a day at sea as we cruise towards 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 seen here on previous expeditions, as have Dall’s Porpoise and Orca, so there is real potential to start the voyage with some great cetacean sightings. During the crossing there will be our first opportunity to see birds such as Red-legged Kittiwake, Tufted Puffin, Ancient Murrelet and Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel.
Day 4 & 5: 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 which 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 Medney 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 (which is one of the few places in the world to have a skeleton of the Sea Cow) and meet some of the local people and 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 Redlegged 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 however, we have visited the islands on multiple occasions and irrespective of the weather we can expect to have an amazing time. One possibility, for example, is to visit a colony of over 2,000 Northern Fur Seals where we should also see Steller’s 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, Greycrowned Rosy-Finch and the endemic subspecies of Arctic Fox. At some stage during our time in the Commander Islands we also plan to cruise along the southern coast of Bering Island in the Spirit of Enderby as this is a superb area for seabirds and cetaceans.
The list of species we have seen here is truly mouth-watering and includes Short-tailed, Black-footed and Laysan Albatrosses, Mottled Petrel, Red-legged Kittiwake, Least, Parakeet and Whiskered Auklets and Horned and Tufted Puffins. The cetaceans can also be exceptional: good numbers of Sperm, Humpback, Northern Minke, Baird’s Beaked-Whales and Orca have all previously been seen. The estimated day count for Humpback Whales on 2010’s voyage was an extraordinary 150 animals.
Day 6: Zhupanova River
By midday we should be approaching the mouth of the Zhupanova River and after an early lunch we will Zodiac cruise on 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, however, 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 plant as huge numbers of salmon spawn in the river. There will be an opportunity to meet the villagers, sample the fish and see how it is processed, as well as doing some land-based exploring.
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.
It is always with genuine reluctance that we leave this area and head back to the ship, however, we could well end our visit with some more views of Steller’s Sea-Eagle and the chance of Long-billed Murrelet as we cruise away from the shore.
Day 7: Bukhta Russkaya
We will spend the day exploring the Eastern coast of Kamchatka and, assuming the weather is fine, there should be fantastic views of the many snow-covered volcanoes that dominate the southern part of the peninsula. We could see at least half a dozen species of Auks during the morning including Tufted Puffin, Brunnich’s Guillemot and Parakeet Auklet, however, we can also expect to get good views of Fork-tailed Storm- Petrel and Laysan Albatross. There is also a decent chance we may find some new species for the voyage as Aleutian Tern has been seen here previously, also Red-necked and Grey Phalaropes. In the morning we hope to be off the entrance to Bukhta Russkaya, an isolated fiord roughly 150 miles north of the southern tip of Kamchatka. Near the entrance we have previously had good looks at Long-billed Murrelet, however we will need to scrutinise all small dark Alcids as on the 2009 expedition we discovered several pairs of the critically endangered Kittlitz’s Murrelet here. This species is not known to breed in Southern Kamchatka, although the area is so remote and unexplored it seems likely that the birds were doing precisely this. There is also at least one active nest of the majestic Steller’s Sea- Eagle near the entrance to the fiord and if the conditions are good we may be able to see the adult birds either sitting on this or perched on the nearby cliffs. We hope to cruise in the fiord and there is an excellent chance of seeing both Sea Otters and Largha Seals as there are good populations of both. Checking the shoreline and hillsides can also be rewarding as Brown Bears are often seen here. If there is sufficient time, we may make a short landing at the far end of the fiord, though this is one of the few locations on the expedition where mosquitoes can be annoying. Nevertheless, the birding can be very rewarding, with many species singing and Lanceolated Warbler, Brambling, Common Rosefinch, Oriental Greenfinch.
Day 8: AtIasova and Onekotan Island
Our first landing in the Kurils will be on Atlasova Island where the tallest volcano in the archipelago can be found (Alaid: 2,340m). Atlasova was the first island to be sighted by Cossack explorers when they reached this region in the 1690s, however, like most other islands in this region its only inhabitants now are birds and wild animals. Near our landing site there are some small marshy ponds and we will explore the edge of these looking for Long-toed Stint; several individuals have been seen here previously. 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.
We plan to make an afternoon landing at the northern end of Onekotan Island from where it is a relatively easy walk to Black Lake. A selection of wildfowl can usually be found here including Greater Scaup and Goosander, however, there is always the chance of something unexpected such as Falcated Duck. Due to the extreme winter conditions in this region many of the trees are stunted and we can expect to see species such as Siberian Stone Pine, Dwarf Birch and Polar Willow, all of which typically grow no more than a few feet above the ground. By the time of our visit, however, conditions should be spring-like and as we make our way to and from the lake, there should also be plenty of wildflowers in bloom including the possibility of some stunning orchids. Birds that can be found here include Buff-bellied Pipit, Brown-headed Thrush, Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler, Siberian Rubythroat and Pine Grosbeak.
Day 9: Ekarma and Toporkovy Island
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. For some reason, this area also seems to be favoured by Short-tailed Albatross. On one occasion we had a young bird sitting on the sea only a matter of metres from the Spirit of Enderby among a flock of over 5,000 Northern Fulmars. This breathtaking sighting is unlikely to be forgotten soon by those who were lucky enough to be onboard.
After our Zodiac at Ekarma and a short ships cruise too 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 which 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 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. Returning to the ship we will cruise on towards Yankincha Island for the next morning adventures. Assuming the conditions are favourable, there should also be some cetaceans and on previous expeditions we have seen Orca, Northern Minke Whale, Sperm Whale and Dall’s Porpoise on this transit.
Day 10: Yankicha and Simushir Island
Overnight we will continue southwards with our next destination being Yankicha Island: the summit of a submerged volcano. Invariably this is one of the highpoints of the entire voyage as the numbers of Alcids which breed here are 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 snowi race of Pigeon Guillemot which has much less white in the wing compared with the birds we will see further north; it has been seriously suggested that these birds should be treated as a separate, highly localised, species. 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 which can be pretty inquisitive as they patrol the auk colonies looking for their next meal.
After lunch 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 by the Russian military 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
Day 11: Chirpoy and Urup Island
We will make an early morning activity to Chirpoy Island where there are some dramatic headlands covered in breeding seabirds and, depending on the conditions, we will either land or have a Zodiac cruise. While Black-legged Kittiwakes and Brunnich’s Guillemots are among the more numerous species, we may also find our first Redfaced Cormorants of the voyage, as well as the more widespread Pelagic Cormorant.
Returning to the ship for lunch we will sail south with an excellent chance of Sperm Whale and Orca as we head towards Urup Island. Laysan Albatross can be numerous here and on previous occasions we have also seen Ancient and Long-billed Murrelets, Brunnich’s Guillemot, Crested and Rhinoceros Auklets and Tufted Puffin so there should be plenty to see.
During the afternoon we will arrive off Urup Island where we can expect to see White-tailed Eagle, Harlequin Duck, Grey-tailed Tattler, Japanese Cormorants and Black-backed Wagtails along the shoreline. On previous voyages we have also seen Largha and Harbour Seals along the shore as well as Pacific Sea Otters.
Walking inland we will come to an area of scrubby woodland which is dominated by birch and alders. Possibilities 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 and Japanese Grey Bunting. Japanese Robin is also present, although unlike its European counterpart, this species tends to sing from thick cover and getting good looks can be challenging.
Day 12: Iturup Island
The waters off Iturup can be excellent for the localised Spectacled Guillemot and we plan an early morning Zodiac cruise to search for this species. Another Alcid which can also be found here is the Longbilled Murrelet and we will hope to get good looks at both species before returning to the ship. 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, Brown Dipper, Arctic Warbler, Japanese Robin, Grey-bellied Bullfinch, Pine Grosbeak and Japanese Grey Bunting. Species we may have already seen that also occur here include Pacific Swift, Japanese PygmyWoodpecker and Japanese Bush-Warbler. During our time in the mountains we may also be fortunate enough to see a Brown Bear although sadly these are invariably very wary as they are still hunted in Russia.
On our return to Kurilsk there should be an opportunity to either explore the village or do some further birding. Prior to the Second World War Iturup (plus a number of other islands) formed the “Northern Territories” of Japan, however, when the Japanese surrendered, Soviet forces seized these islands. Although the population is very low, they are now predominantly peoples of Russian descent, further complicating the ongoing territorial dispute between the two countries.
Both Russet Sparrow and Chestnut-cheeked Starling have been seen in Kurilsk on previous expeditions 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 which can include Black-tailed, Slaty-backed, Glaucous-winged, Glaucous and Black-headed Gulls.
Day 13: Kunashir Island
By early morning we expect to be ashore and exploring the Kurilsky Reserve with the assistance of the local rangers who will act as our guides. 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 as this species can be particularly numerous here and previous expeditions have recorded up to 25 individuals.
We will also be on the lookout for two special species which occur in the reserve, namely Blakiston’s Fish-Owl and Crested Kingfisher, however, these are difficult to find and have only been seen infrequently on our previous visits to the area.
If the weather is favorable we should get great looks at the Tyatya volcano which, at almost 6,000 feet, is an impressive sight. By afternoon we will be back on the Spirit of Enderby and heading towards Sakhalin Island. As we cruise towards our final distention we will be fare welled by the amazing wildlife of the region, that we have come to know so well on the expedition. During the afternoon there will an expedition recap and farewell dinner.
Day 14: Sakhalin Island
We land at Korsakov Port and transfer to nearby hotels or to the airport for onward flight. To allow time for disembarkation procedures we do not recommend booking flights before 13:00hrs. If you require any additional post-cruise accommodation or activities please contact us as we can help you with this, for example, arrange birding excursions on Sakhalin to look for various species that you are unlikely to see on the main voyage. For those wanting to explore, the nearby Gagarin Park offers excellent birding. This is only a matter of minutes walk from the central city and species such as Sakhalin Leaf-Warbler, Rufous-tailed Robin, Redflanked Bluetail and Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker can all be found here.
Spirit of Enderby
The Spirit of Enderby is a fully ice-strengthened expedition vessel, built in 1984 for polar and oceanographic research and is perfect for Expedition Travel.
She carries just 50 passengers and was refurbished in November 2004 to provide comfortable accommodation in twin share cabins approximately half of which have private facilities. All cabins have outside windows or portholes and ample storage space.
On board there is a combined bar/library lounge area and a dedicated lecture room. The cuisine is excellent and is prepared by top NZ and Australian chefs.
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. 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 Captain and crew.
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.
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.
- Heritage Suite: Has a large lounge area, a separate bedroom with double bed, a single bed in the lounge, writing desk, wardrobe, drawers. There is a private bathroom with shower, toilet and washbasin. There are large forward and side facing windows to allow great views.
- Mini Suites: Have a separate bedroom with a double bed and a single bed or a sofa in the lounge, wardrobe, drawers, a desk and a private bathroom with shower, toilet and washbasin. The Mini Suites have windows.
- Superior Plus cabins: Have two lower berths, wardrobe, drawers, desk, a private bathroom with shower, toilet and washbasin. These cabins have windows.
- Superior cabins: Have bunks (an upper and lower berth), wardrobe, drawers, a desk, a private bathroom with shower, toilet and washbasin. These cabins have windows.
- Main deck cabins: Have two lower berths, wardrobe, drawers, a desk, washbasin and porthole. The nearby showers and toilets are shared with other Main deck cabins.
- Main deck triple: Has one bunk (one upper and one lower) and one lower berth, wardrobe, drawers, a desk and wash basin. The nearby showers and toilets are shared with other Main deck cabins.
Vessel Type: Expedition
Length: 72 meters
Beam: 13 meters
Speed (average): 10 knots
Built / refurbished: 1984 / 2004
Capacity: 48 (twin & triple cabins)