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Unlocking the Secrets of the Kurils
Stretching for some 750 miles from Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, to the toe of Russia's Kamchatka peninsula, the Kuril Islands were until 1990, closed to the outside world. Often shrouded in fog and relentlessly marauded by the forces of wind and sea, these dramatically beautiful islands are mysterious and fascinating.
The first morning out from Kushiro, Japan on our expeditionary voyage we realized that we were in a strange and magical corner of the Pacific Ocean, an area rarely explored. As we steamed along the east side of the Kurils, hundreds of seabirds followed along wheeling and banking just above the water's surface. Countless northern fulmars, Laysan albatrosses and tufted puffins welcomed us to their world. Several pods of orcas were spotted from the ship's deck. Sea lions and sea otters peered at us with great fascination as we sailed. We spotted massive sperm whales as they lolled on the surface. Our numerous Zodiac landings on islands uninhabited by humans for centuries revealed an array of fascinating sights from the remains of aboriginal Ainu villages to glimpses of brown bear and red fox.
Our naturalists pointed out wildflowers with such wonderful names as chocolate lily and alpine azalea. Many opted to hike inland across the tundra amongst the dwarf willows and stone pines while others chose to search for beach treasures such as the Japanese glass balls that had washed ashore. On land, it soon became clear that this was a bird watcher's paradise. Yellow wagtails and long-toed stints flew about the beaches and creek mouths. Siberian rubythroats seemed to sing from every bush, their neon red throats gleaming against the backdrop of snow-covered volcanoes.
These are indeed islands born of fire with steaming sulfur vents, remnants of black lava flows and volcanic peaks rising sharply from the ocean floor. Our shipboard geologists explained the powerful forces at work in the Kurils that continue to shape these ever-changing islands. We were able to see this first-hand as we sailed into a caldera on Shimushir Island's north side formed after the violent eruption of an ancient volcano. The ocean had subsequently worn down the rock walls of the crater and seawater rushed in to form a lake. But this was not any caldera: this was the site of a top-secret Russian submarine base into which no ship flying a foreign flag had ever ventured.
As the morning fog lifted to expose the entrance to this hidden harbor and our Captain deftly guided our expedition vessel, we were awestruck by the fact that we were indeed the first foreigners to venture into this secret spot. We explored the ramshackle buildings at the base that had been abandoned hurriedly after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Books and other items were strewn about the buildings as if the residents had only just left. There were identification charts of U.S. warplanes and other remnants of the Cold War. For everyone onboard, it was truly an incredible day on a voyage that we will all never forget.