Located off the eastern coast of Russia, the Kuril Islands are the definition of the word “untamed.” Stretching 700 nautical miles in an arc from the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Sakhalin Oblast province of Russia to Japan’s Hokkaido, this volcanic archipelago is essentially like the Galápagos Islands of the east.
With at least 100 volcanoes (40 of which are still active), the 56 Kuril Islands in the Pacific Ring of Fire are dramatic and ethereal. Expect to find snow-capped mountains, lava and wildflower-studded tundra, dense spruce and larch forests, rocky shores, and an abundance of wildlife.
Huge colonies of seabirds such as northern fulmars, murres, kittiwakes, and puffins nest in the islands’ rocky outcroppings. Curious Arctic foxes roam the remote beaches. Northern fur seals and steller sea lions come ashore to breed, while dolphins and whales swim the frigid waters of the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean. The Kamchatka Peninsula is the ideal starting point for exploring the Kuril Islands, which are accessible only by boat.
With little to no infrastructure, the mostly uninhabited islands beckon you to traverse their lands lightly, admiring their primal beauty and incredible wildlife, and exploring their secrets (including an interesting submarine base on Samushir Island).
The Kurils were originally inhabited by the indigenous Ainu people but were later settled by the Japanese, followed by the Russians. The islands ceded to Russia in 1945 as part of the Yalta agreements. The Kuril Dispute between Russia and Japan, which began at the end of WWII over some of the archipelago’s southern islands, is still ongoing. Fortunately, the political negotiation has no bearing on the visitor experience of these enchanted isles.
The winters there are long, with plenty of cold, snowy days, while the summers are cool with wet and foggy conditions. But the immense natural beauty of this relatively unknown world makes the journey all the more worthwhile. Here we’ll explore what makes the Kuril Islands a must-visit wilderness destination on Zegrahm’s new Wild Kamchatka cruise.
Located in Russia’s Far East, the 100,000 square mile Kamchatka Peninsula is included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites for its high density of active volcanoes (more than 300).
The peninsula is also home to the Valley of the Geysers, which boasts the second largest concentration of geysers in the world after Iceland. Although the geysers aren’t accessible for travelers, there are plenty of other things to do and see in this spectacular region, with nature reserves and parks that offer excellent wildlife viewing and hiking up volcanoes.
BROWN BEARS OF KAMCHATKA
The iconic brown bears of Kamchatka hunt salmon along rivers that roar through the taiga forests of the peninsula and excursions offer plenty of opportunities to spot them in their natural habitat. The peninsula was once dominated by the largest bear in Eurasia, and still remains home to the highest recorded numbers of brown bears on the planet (around 10,000).
Thanks to the area’s rich resources, male brown bears can weigh up to 1300 pounds. During salmon spawning season, these beautiful animals can be seen feeding along the rushing rivers. They can also be spotted in the coastal meadows and shores, hunting for sea otters in the months when they aren’t hibernating at higher elevations.
Sadly, the Kamchatka brown bears are facing increased threats to their existence. Poaching for their parts to satiate demand in Asia, trophy hunting, and over-development are some of the numerous causes to their decline in population. Salmon poaching and increased commercial fishing are also contributing factors. Though there is a quota for hunting for bears in the peninsula, it is rarely enforced.
Despite these threats, Kamchatka still remains one of the last places on Earth to see these giant bears in the wild.
Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the sprawling capital city of Kamchatka, is located on the picturesque shores of Avachinskaya (Avacha Bay). The area offers outdoor activities like such as skiing and climbing nearby volcanoes and snow-capped mountains.
Discovered by the Russians in 1703, Avacha Bay is named after the biggest river that flows into it. As you approach the peninsula, the natural monuments of the “Tri Brata” (Three Brothers) rocks stand as visual symbols of Kamchatka, enticing visitors to the natural wonders ahead.
According to folklore, there were three handsome Koryak brothers, indigenous to Russia’s coastal Far East, who protected the bay from a tsunami and ended up turning into stone.
Located on the southeast coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula, the deep and narrow freshwater Russkaya Bay resembles a Norwegian fjord, with craggy shores and imposing mountains.
Seabirds such as cormorants, auklets, and kittiwakes can be seeing nesting on the side of cliffs and swirling above boats. You may also spot the adorable horned and tufted puffins, small diving birds that mate for life, gathering on the islands in the spring to reunite with their lovers.
The horned puffin has milky white feathers around the face, a large flashy beak, and tiny black horns above the eyes. The tufted puffin is similar to the horned, except it has two tufts of yellow feathers atop its head. It is believed that the birds’ bills fade and brighten depending on the time of the year in order to attract their mates.
The surrounding waters attract sea otters, grey whales, humpbacks, and orcas, offering great opportunities to photograph these incredible marine animals.
Reaching up some 900 feet, the sheer cliffs of Broutona Island are dotted with millions of nesting northern fulmars, the gull-like seabirds that are remarkably abundant in the area.
This roughly circular, uninhabited island consists of a dormant stratovolcano and is located near the northern end of the Southern Kuril Islands chain. It was named after William Robert Broughton, a British American ship captain who voyaged to the Kurils during the 19th century.
The island is also home to other birds, like puffins, black-legged kittiwakes, thick-billed murres, red-faced and pelagic cormorants, and guillemots, who delight bird lovers with their black, white, and shades of grey plumage.
As your Zodiac approaches the fog-shrouded coast of Chirpoy Island, orcas (killer whales) might be spotted. Chirpoy is part of two uninhabited volcanic islands nicknamed Snow and Cherny, which are known collectively as Chyornie Bratya. They are surrounded by a number of small islets and lava rocks.
Chirpoy is made up of several overlapping stratovolcanoes that cover the island in shaded layers of dark sediment. The shores have a large concentration of endangered Steller sea lions.
These animals, named after naturalist Georg Steller, are also called Northern sea lions. They’re much larger and lighter in color than California sea lions, coming in hues of light tan to reddish brown. Large populations of black-legged kittiwakes and thick-billed murres can also be spotted along the island’s rocky coast.
Simushir translates to “Large Island” in Ainu, and is situated near the center of the Kuril Island archipelago. Formerly known as Marikan, Simushir Island features a string of extinct volcanoes– Milne, Prevo, Urataman, and Zavaritski– encircled by lush slopes.
The northern tip features the flooded crater of Urataman. Its narrow pass opens into Brouton Bay, which was the site of a secret Russian military base named Kraternyy from 1978 to 1991. During this time, nearly 2,000 soldiers inhabited the harbor.
The flooded caldera is only eight feet deep at its entrance and 780 feet deep inside, making it a natural hiding place for Russian submarines. Visitors can spend a fascinating time wandering among the abandoned barracks and other relics of the Cold War era.
In the middle of the Kurils is a string of islands and rock formations that make up Ushishir, with two large islands–Yankicha and Ryponkicha– attracting the most attention.
The steep-walled caldera of Yankicha features hot springs and fumaroles (geothermal openings in the earth’s crust that emit steam). Walks around the caldera’s grassy slopes reveal Arctic foxes and two kinds of songbirds, the Arctic and Middendorff’s grasshopper warblers. Lucky birdwatchers may even spot the short-tailed albatross and the whiskered auklet, a rare and secretive seabird with ornate facial plumes found in the rocky crevices.
In the surrounding sea waters and flooded caldera, sea otters can often be seen swimming. When encountering foxes, be aware that these small, black and brown beauties with piercing yellow eyes aren’t afraid of humans (perhaps due to not encountering people on a regular basis). They can get close enough to sniff and even steal items. The foxes dig out their dens on mountain sides and tend to be territorial, so be wary when hiking.
The rugged islands of Srednego are teeming with wildlife, with thousands of birds nesting on the misty columnar stacks. Here you can spot the northern fulmars, black-legged kittiwakes, guillemots, and the rare whiskered auklet.
Northern fur seals can be seen on the rocky beaches, defending their harems and frolicking in the water. These flap-footed animals are known for their thick fur and brown coloration, earning them the nickname of “sea bears.” These mammals feed on small schooling fish found in the open ocean, spending half the year in the water and only coming to land to breed.
The population of these pinnipeds has been decreasing due to climate change, hunting, commercial fishing (depleting their food resources), and getting entangled in fishing gear. It’s currently estimated that there are 60,000 to 70,000 northern fur seals in the central Kuril Islands chain, with May to July being the ideal times to witness them.
The Lovyshki Islands consist of a few dozen rocks jutting out from the sea. Unlike their somewhat imposing volcanic neighbors, these are small, rocky islets that offer perfect breeding grounds for northern fur seal rookeries and those of the less common (and larger) Steller sea lions.
Bird watchers can keep a look out for the crested auklets in the rock ledges of cliffs and boulder fields. They feed on krill and a variety of small animals by diving in deep waters.
These beautiful birds are known for their colorful plumage. Crested auklets are easily identifiable from their forehead crest, orange beak, pungent citrusy scent, and a loud trumpet call used for attracting mates. The bird shares its scent with the closely-related whiskered auklet, which is found in some of the other Kuril islands.
Situated near the northern end of the Kuril Island chain, Onekotan Island boasts a striking 4,000-foot volcano named Krenitsyn, which has a deep, circular crater lake at its center. Krenitsyn erupted in the early 1950s, but has been relatively calm since then. Approaching the island, it is hard to miss the streams and waterfalls tumbling down its hillsides to the beach.
The island was once inhabited by the Ainu people, and visitors will get a chance to walk through the remains of their former humble dwellings. Onekotan gets its name from the Ainu term for “large village,” as it is the second largest island in the northern Kurils after Paramushir.
The island’s lush tundra slopes are home to ezo red foxes and dozens of different bird species. The ezo red fox is a subspecies of red fox that inhabits the Kuril archipelago and surrounding islands off the coast of Japan. It uses its keen senses of smell, hearing, and sight to hunt rodents, birds, and other small game.
The northernmost island in the Kuril chain also boasts the archipelago’s highest volcano– the 7,600-foot-tall Vulkan Alaid. The island was named after Vladimir Atlasov, a 17th-century Russian explorer who was instrumental in integrating the Kamchatka Peninsula with Russia.
Atlasova Island features black sand beaches and a tundra bursting with a patchwork of wildflowers. You may see sea otters frolicking in the First Kuril Strait, and Steller’s sea eagles and peregrine falcons soaring above. Buzzards, Eurasian wigeons and tufted ducks have also been spotted on the island.
The near-perfect shape of Vulkan Alaid led to many legends, including one in which the neighboring mountains became so jealous of its beauty that they exiled it to the sea. There’s some truth to this tale: After the last Ice Age, the ice caps melted and raised the water level, ultimately submerging the land-bridge connecting the volcano to other lands
BIO: Lavanya Sunkara is a writer, animal lover, and responsible traveler based in New York City. Her love of nature and adventure has taken her all over the globe. She cherishes sharing her experiences and being a voice for the voiceless. Follow her adventures on her blog, Nature Traveler.