Insider's Choice: Wild Siberia

As travelers, we constantly seek fresh destinations and novel experiences, hoping to add another memorable country or region to our personal chronicles. When we succeed, that destination becomes a yardstick by which we compare our past and future journeys.

Antarctica is, of course, just such a place, and in 2002 I had the great fortune to participate in Zegrahm's first voyage to a region that, with its overriding abundance of wildlife and untrammeled expanses, can justifiably lay claim to being the Northern Hemisphere's counterpart to the great southern continent: Russia's Sea of Okhotsk.

I had greatly anticipated that departure, as the Sea of Okhotsk, on the eastern border of Siberia, was off-limits to Western travelers during the Soviet era and remains little explored. None of the expedition staff except Sergey, a native Russian, had ever been to the area -- astonishing when you consider that, among us, we had been nearly everywhere else on the planet.

Okhotsk's untouched forests and tundra reportedly harbored a great variety of wildlife, including many bird species, so I expected sightings to be plentiful. I was completely unprepared, however, for the sheer numbers we encountered. From the kick-off, we had flocks of birds beyond belief. In one day at Iony Island, we spotted 30 different species, including whiskered, crested, and parakeet auklets; tens of thousands of thick-billed murres; little buntings; and red-breasted flycatchers. On Malminskiye, what was supposed to be just a brief stop became a major highlight when we discovered what we estimated to the largest breeding colony of spectacled guillemots in the world. The region is also home to the Steller's sea eagle, the largest raptor on earth. One afternoon we saw a kettle of these birds nearly 50 strong; on another occasion, we found 31 of them on a rock just a few hundred feet long. To see this many sea eagles is almost unheard of, only about 1,800 of these birds remain in the wild.

The expedition was more than just rare birds. The richness of the ocean dictated all the activity around us. We encountered shoals of fish so large they literally blackened the water. Seals and Steller's sea lions were everywhere, hauled out on rocks, fighting for territory, or popping up to inspect us as we rode Zodiacs ashore. We also sighted orcas and minkes, and Dall's porpoises. As we approached a landing at Okhotsk Town, we saw around 30 harbor seals spying on us, and we were immediately surrounded by thousands of herring jumping from the water.

Our voyage had only one drawback: even with the long days, we couldn't squeeze everything in. It was so overwhelming, what with the wildlife, the scenery, and the cultural encounters each demanding our attention, that getting passengers back on the Zodiacs so we could make our next stop was like pulling teeth. As a result, for next year, we've split the itinerary into two parts to enable us to more fully explore the region. Taken in combination, our Wild Siberia expeditions, which depart 19 June, will spend nearly a month in the Sea of Okhotsk, Kamchatka, and the Kurils. I can't wait to return to see what may have been around that next corner. Please join me for an unforgettable adventure

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