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Sea of Okhotsk: Realm of the Sea Eagle
Having spent the last 30 years traveling the earth and exploring her spectacular natural wonders, I can honestly say that I've been almost everywhere. Of the few areas that I haven't visited, one in particular represents a long-unfulfilled dream for me, Russia's expansive Sea of Okhotsk. I will finally realize this dream next year when Zegrahm and Eco Expeditions launch a pioneering expedition to this once-off-limits corner of the globe. This program, departing 24 May 2002 aboard the Clipper Odyssey, will circumnavigate the Sea of Okhotsk in true expeditionary fashion; many of our landings will be first-ever visits by seafaring Western adventurers. There are few places left that you can go and know that virtually no Western eyes have beheld their vistas.
Our innovative voyage begins in late spring, just as the ice floes have started to disappear and wildflowers begin to carpet the tundra. Every day, we shall witness a stunning display as millions of birds migrate north-whiskered auklets, Siberian rubythroats, yellow-breasted buntings, Far Eastern curlews-these and many more species will be arriving to establish their nests. As an ornithologist, I can tell you that, from a birding perspective, the area is literally unexplored, presenting unmatched photographic opportunities. Iony Island is so tightly packed with cliff-dwelling murres that some must nest on a flat plain; our stop at Talan Island will bring us into proximity to the world's largest colony of tufted puffins, home to nearly one million of these birds.
The Sea of Okhotsk is also the domain of the magnificent Steller's sea eagle, the world's largest raptor. These birds, true icons of the area, are so huge, so powerful, that they have been known to carry off 40-pound baby seals. Writing in International Wildlife, Lucille Craft notes, "Placing a Steller's beak beside that of a falcon, kite, or osprey is like setting a hatchet beside a penknife." Only about 7,500 of this species of eagle remain in the world and can only be found here.
Birds compose only part of the rich wildlife tapestry. We will see rivers choked with salmon; beaches full of fur seals just arriving to pup; hills roamed by wolves, bighorn sheep, and Arctic fox; and the wildlife-rich Ptichi Islands, home to cavorting sea otters. With luck, we will catch sight of the lumbering Kamchatka brown bear, an animal equivalent in size to the famed Kodiak bear.
The ocean waters hold an amazing profusion of whale species. Once hunted nearly to extinction, the populations have recovered due to anti-whaling laws; we may see pods of orcas 200-strong. In addition, we should spot the Dall's porpoise, a marine mammal capable of traveling at speeds up to 30 miles per hour.
The landscapes are as remarkable as the animals they contain. Our itinerary includes the Kamchatka Peninsula, land of smoking volcanoes. Of the 300 volcanoes found here, 29 are active. These geological marvels are rivaled by the Kuril Islands, an archipelago nearly equal to the Hawaiian Islands in landmass. Its 56 islands boast a total of 40 active volcanoes.
For those interested in human history and anthropology, the Sea of Okhotsk is a treasure trove. Sakhalin Island, one of our first stops, was first inhabited nearly 12,000 years ago. We shall meet the indigenous Nivkh people, descendants of the island's original Neolithic settlers. Tides permitting, another ethnic group, the Oroki, may meet us at Piltun Lagoon, herding their reindeers across the tundra as they have done since prehistory. A people without a written language, the Oroki are Russia's smallest indigenous group, with only about 200 remaining today.
Sakhalin's recorded history stretches back 2,000 years. The West's first notice of the island came when Marco Polo returned to Venice, bearing with him maps clearly delineating Sakhalin, Kamchatka, and the Kurils. The Japanese explored the island in 1635, followed by the Cossacks in the 1640s, and the eventual tug-of-war between Japan and Russia that lasted into the 20th century.
Our ship also calls at Okhotsk Town, the first settlement in the region. The Danish explorer Captain Vitus Bering headquartered here in the 1720s, using the town as a base from which he launched two extraordinary expeditions. Okhotsk seems frozen in time; its modest clapboard houses surrounded by small gardens appear unchanged since Bering's era.
No matter what your interest-birding, botany, hiking, history, photography-you will revel in the Realm of the Sea Eagle's breathtaking environment. I hope you will join me on what will be one of the landmark departures of 2002.