Northern Ring of Fire

Published on Thursday, July 26, 2012

Wednesday, August 11, 2010 - Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Russia / Embark the Clipper Odyssey: A charter flight from Anchorage, Alaska brought passengers to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the largest city in the Russian Far East and capital of the Kamchatka state. Here they were met by staff and enjoyed a brief city tour before embarking the Clipper Odyssey. Those who continued on from the first voyage had a more in-depth tour that took in the excellent local museum with a fine collection of natural history and ethnographic artifacts; a traditional Russian Orthodox Church overlooking the bay; and a local fish and vegetable market where smoked salmon, roe, and fresh king salmon were on sale. In the afternoon, many chose to relax onboard while an intrepid group made a trip into the forested countryside to meet “Alexander the Herbalist,” an engaging farmer-musician who has put his knowledge of local herbs to good use. In the evening all groups united for cocktail hour and a briefing on the adventures to come.

Thursday, August 12 - Tikhirka Bay / Russkaya Bay: The Gorelaya Volcano glowed brightly in the distance at the head of Tikhirka Bay, lit by the early morning sunshine. Groups were ferried to shore via Zodiacs where a variety of hikes were offered. Fresh bear tracks were in evidence everywhere, perhaps due to the streams filled with spawning pink salmon.

Later we embarked on a Zodiac cruise of the adjacent Russkaya Bay and despite the increasingly choppy conditions and decreasing visibility due to fog, we were heading straight toward the day’s most thrilling experiences. Almost immediately we came upon an adult Steller’s sea eagle perched high on a cliff, overlooking its nest and a chick that seemed almost ready to fly. We also spotted Harlequin ducks with chicks, spectacled guillemots, and flocks of puffins. Further on we rounded a corner a came upon a half-dozen Steller’s sea lions hauled out on a rocky platform. These enormous golden creatures didn’t seem to be bothered at all by our presence, and photographers clicked away.

The afternoon’s activities concluded with Mark Brazil’s presentation Birds of East Asia, and then it was off to the captain’s welcome aboard cocktails and dinner.

Friday, August 13 - Shumshu Island: The early morning transit of the second Kuril Strait was shrouded in fog; a foreshadowing of the day to come. However, a “heavy drizzle” did not deter us from visiting Shumshu Island, the northernmost in the Kuril chain. Short walkers stuck mostly to the gravel shore in search of glass Japanese floats with a few founding the treasure they sought, while the long walkers trudged inland, up an overgrown road. During our return to the ship, conditions started to improve and more than 150 sea otters began surfacing around our Zodiacs, many with large pups clasped to their bellies. What an unexpected treat on an otherwise challenging morning.

Scott Pearson presented a talk on the human occupation of the Kuril Islands after lunch, and then a hardy few returned to shore in the light rain to explore an abandoned Russian military camp elsewhere on Shumshu. During their explorations of the long abandoned facility they saw various vehicles rusting away and buildings slowly collapsing from years of neglect. Both Soviet and Japanese monuments were discovered, evidence of the long conflict between the two nations over possession of this series of islands.

Saturday, August 14 - Skaly Lovushky / Matua Island: Although the weather seemed to improve somewhat this morning, the seas were still rough as we visited a set of tiny rocky islands, known as Skaly Lovushky. Dozens of northern fur seals, and even a porpoise, watched while we approached. Steller’s sea lions belched and roared loudly, clearly heard on the ship despite the noise of breaking waves. Later in the morning, John Buchanan lectured on The Living Earth: Plate Tectonics and Volcanoes.

In the afternoon we anchored off Matua Island, the summit of Sarychev Volcano. A lenticular cloud shrouded the peak, hiding the crater that violently erupted just the year before. Remnants of 2006 tsunami runup were seen at our landing site where researchers were making a camp. We walked to the top of the bluff where we observed the remains of an old Soviet border patrol camp, and further on, an abandoned military airfield. From there we broke into various groups for continued exploration, some finding a memorial under construction in the form of a miniature Russian Orthodox Church.

Sunday, August 15 - Shimushir and Yankicha Islands: This morning the ship navigated the narrow opening into Broutana Bay, the caldera of Shimushir Island, to a now deserted James Bond-like Soviet submarine base. We went on shore to explore the abandoned secret facility, investigating the command headquarters, barracks, hospital, and all the debris left behind. Unfortunately, as the captain heaved the anchor for departure, the chain broke leaving it at the bottom of Broutana Bay, a souvenir of our visit.

This afternoon we anchored off Yankicha Island and boarded Zodiacs to enter the caldera, surfing the swells over the shallow sand bars and into a quiet lagoon. A geological spectacle consisting of boiling hot springs and smoking sulfur fumaroles captivated everyone’s attention, while a number of curious arctic foxes wandered in for a close inspection. Sergey Frolov dug out a “hot tub” in the runoff channel from the hot springs, and about a half dozen of the group joined him for a long soak.
We were just finishing dinner when the call came that one of the greatest spectacles in nature was building outside. Hundreds of thousands of whiskered auklets gathered in an “auklet haze” prior to going in to roost for the night—truly a spectacular sight!

Monday, August 16 - Urup Island and Natalia Bay: We awoke to difficult weather conditions left over from a typhoon that had passed through the area just days before. Wind gusts and powerful “williwaws” spun off the lee side of Urup Island, with the crosswind peaking at 47 meters per second (91 knots or 105 miles per hour), resulting in a distinct list of the ship to starboard for much of the morning.

However, we still we managed to approach a rocky haulout where we spied hundreds of Steller’s sea lions. This was perfect timing for Rich Pagen’s presentation Seals, Otters and Other Characters from the Kuril Islands. Later, Scott spoke about The Rise of Japanese Imperialism.

With the weather improving a little in the afternoon, a few of us made a landing at Natalia Bay for a quick exploration and beach walk. An old Russian tug had washed on shore during a storm, broken apart and rusting away in the fierce weather in this part of the world.

Tuesday, August 17 - Itarup Island: Itarup Island is infamous as it is the location from which the raid on Pearl Harbor was launched, beginning the conflict in the Pacific in World War II. En route to landing on the northwest side of the island at an active fishing village, we observed some fishermen out on their boats, working their nets. It was clear that a bountiful harvest of salmon was underway.

We broke into various groups for our morning walkabouts: long, medium, short, and birding. A now defunct fish salting warehouse was explored, still containing wicker baskets and wooden casks of salt used to preserve fish before the days of refrigeration. High on a hill overlooking the scenic bay stands a decaying Soviet border guard post.

The afternoon was spent at sea, where Bob Quaccia lectured on Pacific Salmon in the Ring of Fire Area and later John presented Significant Earthquakes and Tsunamis of the Pacific Rim.

Wednesday, August 18 - Tyuleniy Island: We arrived off Tyuleniy (Seal) Island this morning after a spectacular sunrise, not yet realizing how special this day would be. Soon after disembarking the ship, we were presented with a spectacular experience. Countless Steller’s sea lions and northern fur seals swam in the waters around the Zodiacs and barked and belched loudly at our arrival. Once ashore, we saw tens of thousands of common murres lining the hillside and the roofs of several buildings at the landing site. We climbed upward to a system of wooden fences, used by biologists as blinds in order to study this prolific pinniped and bird rookery. We were able to spy on thousands of northern fur seals, many with pups. Steaming masses of sea lions and seals lined the beach beneath us, providing a splendid opportunity to view their behaviors and interactions. Thousands upon thousands of images were captured that morning, and was clearly the highlight of the trip. Though the pictures won’t tell it, nobody will forget the cacophony of seal calls or the penetrating odors.

After lunch we continued our lecture series, first with David Stephens presenting On the Wings of a Raven and the Back of a Bear. Mark presented, Beyond Blakiston’s Line: Biogeography of Northeast Asia, describing the variation in wildlife that occurs south to north in East Asia.

Thursday, August 19 - Korsakov, Sakhalin Island / Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk: This morning we came alongside in the rusty Russian port town of Korsakov. While being cleared by Russian officials, we were entertained by a military brass band on the dock. Once the formalities were over, we boarded buses for the drive to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the capital and largest city. We visited the Cathedral of the Resurrection, a Russian Orthodox Church; the Regional Museum, with displays ranging from the wildlife of the region to a collection of articles produced or used by the indigenous peoples of the area; a local fish market; and a stop at a souvenir shop. Birders headed into the countryside for their own safari, and we all met again at a local restaurant for a delicious Russian lunch with vodka and beer. This was followed by a performance from a traditional Cossack group in colorful costumes that sang beautiful melodies accompanied with outbursts of dancing.

As we sailed out of Korsakov the lecture series continued with Jeri Lanham presenting The Fascinating World of Plant Pollination.

Friday, August 20 - At Sea / Otaru, Japan: A beautiful sunrise heralded our arrival in Japan. While waiting for Japanese clearances, Scott presented Economic Changes in China and India.

After lunch, we disembarked to explore the sunny and sultry Otaru area, a once thriving herring community. We visited an ornate villa, a sake distillery, and the Canal Zone with its many glass shops. Many in the group then broke away for some free time to explore, with some choosing to dine ashore.