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Seals, Seabirds and a legacy of sorrow

A most unusual expedition cruise to a beautiful, bird- and sea mammal-rich part of the world, Sea of Okhotsk explores the eastern and northern part of this dramatic region with its enormous seabird colonies, Steller's Sea Eagles, seals, cetaceans and much else besides. Not to mention a fascinating historical legacy from the era of Vitus Bering to the time of the Soviet Gulags.

Monday 12th June — Friday 23rd June 2017
(12 days)

Leaders: Chris Collins and and other Heritage Expeditions leaders

Group Size Limit: 15

Tour Category: Easy walking for the most part and comfortable accommodations

Perhaps no other sea in the world has witnessed as much human suffering and misery as the Sea Okhotsk. Between 1932 and 1953 it is estimated that over 3 million prisoners (the vast majority of them innocent) were transported across the Sea Okhotsk to the Gulags of the Kolyma Goldfields. It is estimated that only five hundred thousand of those prisoners survived to make the journey home. The town and port of Magadan were built to process these prisoners.

The upper regions of the Sea of Okhotsk remain frozen for much of the year and winter storms make it an inhospitable place. However the lure of a rich fishery and more recently oil and gas discoveries means this sea is still being exploited, so nothing has changed there. In 1854 no fewer than 160 American and British whaling ships were there, hunting whales. Despite this seemingly relentless exploitation the wildlife thrives, including the beautifully marked and rare Ribbon Seals. On three small islands within this sea hundreds of Steller Sea Lions haul out each year to breed. One of these, Tyulenly Island, also is home to one of the largest concentrations and breeding colonies of Northern Fur Seals in the Russian Far East.

Seabird numbers in the Sea of Okhotsk can only be described as spectacular. There are islands like Talan where the sky darkens when the Crested Auklets start massing offshore of an evening. Other birds include guillemots, puffins, auklets and fulmars. But the richness of birdlife is not restricted to pelagic species. The Sea of Okhotsk has one of the highest concentrations of the majestic Steller's Sea Eagle of anywhere in the Russian Far East. Waterfowl are common as are many migratory species. Harder to see but not uncommon on this expedition are the magnificent Kamchatka Brown Bear and other mammals like the Snow Sheep and the Marmot.

This is a truly unique journey in that it travels through a little known and seldom visited region. A region with a rich history and very significant and important wildlife values, both terrestrial and marine. There are still discoveries to be made and so for the inquisitive, adventurous and open minded traveller this is a ‘must do' expedition.

We shall be sailing on the Professor Khromov, a ship operated by Heritage Expeditions of New Zealand (who call her Spirit of Enderby). Ships of this class are Finnish-built vessels under Russian registry that were built in the 1980s and early 1990s under commission from the Academy of Sciences in Moscow. They were originally intended for oceanographic research, but were subsequently adapted for expedition-style cruising following the financial cutbacks that later affected all formerly Soviet research programmes. These ships are, of course, not ‘cruise ships’ in the traditional manner and will appeal most to those for whom exploring wild places and enjoying wild nature, rather than enjoying luxurious surroundings and ‘black-tie’ dinners with the officers, is the prime attraction.

Cabins are furnished with two berths and have some storage space and an outside view (many having en-suite bathroom facilities). Public facilities include restaurant, lounge/bar, lecture facilities and library. Food is plentiful, of good quality, waiter-served and prepared by European, New Zealand or Australian chefs. The ship carries a small complement of expedition staff, including a naturalist, who give informal talks on the environment, wildlife and history of the region, where required, and also guide shore excursions.

As much of the sailing as possible is done at night, thus maximizing opportunities for going ashore and enjoying the beautiful landscapes to the full. Landings are carried out by means of a fleet of zodiacs and naiads, rugged, fast-moving inflatables designed for expedition work, which allow safe landings on remote coastlines in all types of conditions. The sheer speed and efficiency with which the crew carry out these landings, coupled with the small complement of passengers, allows everyone plenty of time ashore at most locations. Further information about the cruise, including photographs and details of the ship layout, including cabin layouts, are available on the Heritage Expeditions website (www.heritage-expeditions.com).

The great advantage of taking this particular cruise, if you are especially interested in seeing the fantastic wildlife of the region, is that the itinerary and day to day schedule are strongly bird and wildlife-orientated, and Heritage Expeditions always have at least one experienced ornithologist/birder amongst their expedition leaders.

Birdquest pioneered expedition cruises to this area as far back as 1993.


Day 1: Sakhalin Island, Port of Korsakov

This morning we board a coach for transfer to the Port of Korsakov some 40 minutes south of the city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk where we will board the Spirit of Enderby. Once on board you will be shown to your cabins and there will be a chance to unpack and explore the vessel. There will be briefings and introductions to the ship, staff and crew after we sail towards the Sea of Okhotsk.

Day 2: Tyuleniy Island

We visit little known Tyuleniy Island off the south east coast of Sakhalin Island. This small island is a strong hold for Northern Fur Seals and Steller Sea Lions. Fur seal numbers have increased since an International Covention signed in 1911 banned seal hunting here. In the 1990s Steller Sea Lions started breeding on the island and their colony now numbers about 2,500 animals. Sea conditions permitting we plan a landing here for an opportunity to photograph the seals and sea lions.

Day 3: Piltun Bay, Sakhalin Island

It was the discovery of oil and gas in this region which put Sakhalin Island on many people’s maps. Piltun Bay is an important habitat for the small population of western Gray Whales. Researchers monitor the population during the summer months. We go in search of the Gray Whales that live here, travelling by Zodiac inshore to the shallower waters where they are known to feed.

Day 4: Iony Island

Iony Island lies in the middle of the Sea of Okhotsk, it is really just a rock, but what it lacks in physical size it more than makes up for wildlife. Birds appear to take up all available space; there are guillemots, kittiwakes and various species of auklets, with Parakeet, Whiskered and Least being the most prominent. We will Zodiac cruise around the island as Steller Sea Lions occupy the few rocky beaches, making any landing impossible.

Days 5 to 6: Shantar Archipelago

Lying in the western sector of the Sea of Okhotsk close to the continent, the islands in this archipelago are amongst the last place in the Sea of Okhotsk to become ice free each year. This late ice can sometimes restrict how far we can explore here; on the other hand ice increases our chances of seeing some of the seals including Bearded, Ringed, Largha and Ribbon Seals that breed here. If we can land there will be birding, botany and photography excursions led by our team of on board naturalists.

Day 7: Mal’minskie Islands

Here there are birds everywhere, in the air, in the water and on the land. Numerous species breed here including large numbers of Spectacled Guillemot. Other species include Ancient Murrelet, Rhinoceros Auklet, Parakeet Auklet, Horned and Tufted Puffin, Crested Auklet and both Common and Brunnichs Guillemot. There is also a good population of Steller’s Sea Eagles on the island and on the adjacent mainland. Landing on the island is restricted to a small gravel spit; however on the mainland we can stretch our legs and explore the taiga forest.

Day 8: Okhotsk Town

This town has featured in Russian Far East history since the earliest Cossack explorers came from the west. Vitus Bering travelled overland from St Petersburg to Okhotsk in 1725 and again 1733 and travelled to Kamchtka and beyond. Today Okhotsk is the centre of fishing in the region. The port exports significant quantities of salmon and other fish. We visit the town, landing by Zodiac up the river near the town centre. The local people are generous and welcoming and will provide entertainment in the town centre and a cultural display.

Day 9: Talan Island

An internationally known, but very difficult bird island to get to, Talan is infamous largely because of the hundreds of thousands of Crested Auklets that nest there. There are also an extraordinary number of kittiwakes nesting along the cliffs and not surprisingly a large population of Steller’s Sea Eagles. We plan to circumnavigate the island by Zodiac before landing and then return in the late evening to witness the huge flocks of Crested Auklets amassing at sea before coming ashore.

Day 10: Koni Peninsula

This is a mountainous region to the south-east of the town of Magadan, part of which is included in the Magadanskiy Zapovednik. This reserve protects among other animals Brown Bear and Snow Sheep. Many of our landings are expeditionary, in that although we have landed at a number of places along the coast, many will be new and unknown to us, so we are never quite sure what we will find. That is part of what makes this style of travel so interesting.

Day 11: Yamskiye Islands

These islands are claimed by some biologists to be the largest bird colony in the North Pacific. According to bird counts there are an estimated 7 million birds nesting on Matykil Island, the largest in the group. Birds include Common and Brunnichs Guillemot, Crested, Parakeet and Least Auklets, Tufted and Horned Puffins and Northern Fulmars. The most abundant of these is the Least Auklet. We Zodiac around the coast as no landings are permitted.

Day 12: Magadan

The name Magadan is synonymous with Stalin’s oppressive Gulags or prisons but there is very little evidence now of this town’s tragic past. The local museum has an excellent display about the Gulags but the most poignant reminder is the ‘Mask of Sorrow’ a large monument on a hill overlooking the town. Today Magadan is a town of about 100,000 people. Fishing is important and gold mining is experiencing a revival. The infamous Kolyma Highway or the ‘Road of Bones’ connects Magadan with Irkutsk and ultimately greater Russia. We plan to arrive here midday where our journey ends. You will be transferred to a central hotel or the airport.

Shore-based Birding Option: We can arrange accommodation and some birding for you with a local guide around Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on request. Interesting species in southern Sakhalin include Sakhalin Leaf Warbler (split from Pale-legged), and Gray’s and Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warblers, as well as Latham’s Snipe, Oriental Cuckoo, Rufous-tailed Robin, the smart Siberian Blue Robin, Northern Red-flanked Bluetail, Pallas’s Leaf and Radde’s Warblers, the superb Narcissus Flycatcher, the beautiful Long-tailed Rosefinch and Black-faced Bunting. Please contact us for cost information.

Accommodation & Road Transport: For details of the ship, see the introductory section. Road transport is minimal and is by coach.

Walking: The walking effort is mostly easy, but there are one or two optional moderate hikes.

Climate: Rather variable. Conditions will range from warm to distinctly cold and dry and sunny periods will be interspersed with overcast weather. Sea fog is quite usual at this season and there may be some rain.

Bird/Sea Mammal Photography: Opportunities are good.

Important: Please bear in mind that circumstances may be encountered during the voyage which will make it necessary or desirable to deviate from the planned itinerary. These circumstances include poor weather conditions and unexpected opportunities for making additional zodiac excursions. The ship’s expedition leader will keep us fully informed throughout.

Tour Price: For Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk/Magadan cruise-only arrangements:

£4630 or $6700 (€6090) in a Main Deck triple-berth cabin with shared bathroom facilities

£5380 or $7800 (€7090) in a Main Deck twin-berth cabin with shared bathroom facilities

£5730 or $8300 (€7550) in a Superior Cabin with private bathroom

£6210 or $9000 (€8180) in a Superior Plus Cabin with private bathroom

£6480 or $9400 (€8550) in a Mini Suite with private bathroom

£7110 or $10300 (€9370) in an Heritage Suite with private bathroom.

Kindly note that this tour is priced in Pounds and US Dollars. Please note that prices in Pounds are fixed and will not vary if the exchange rate between the Pound and the US Dollar changes.

Prices in Euros are only indicative and based on the exchange rate prevailing at the time of calculation: €1 = US$ 1.10. If you are paying in Euros your deposit and final balance payment due will be calculated according to the exchange rate prevailing at the time.

Price includes all transportation, all accommodations, all meals, some soft drinks, all excursions, all entrance fees, leader services.

Gratuities for the expedition staff and crew, a charge of $500 (payable in cash on board) to cover the landing fees levied by the local governments and any fuel surcharge that may be imposed by the ship operator, are not included in the tour price. Gratuities are entirely at your discretion. The staff work very long hours to make such cruises a success, including a great deal of night sailing, and we have been told that most passengers give gratuities of around US$120-180 for such a 12 days cruise.

Important: Owing to the possibility, however small, of a severe airline delay, we would recommend that all participants have two nights in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk prior to the cruise. Kindly note that in the event you do not arrive in time, the ship will not wait and neither the cruise operator nor ourselves can make a refund in such circumstances. Arriving early also has the advantage that your luggage could still catch up with you, should it go astray. We can make hotel bookings for you on request.

Single Cabin Supplement: (provisional): Single occupancy of most twin-berth cabins can be obtained in return for an 80% supplement on top of the cruise-only price (but suites require a 100% supplement). Please note that if you are willing to share but no cabin-mate is available you will not have to pay the single occupancy supplement.

Deposit: 25% of the tour price (including any single supplement).

If you are paying the deposit in Pounds Sterling or Euros rather than in US Dollars, please contact us before sending payment so that we can provide you with the appropriate figure based on the current exchange rate.

Kindly note that the balance due will be invoiced around 5 months before departure for payment not later than 120 days before departure.

Cancellation Charges: For cancellations made 180 days or more before departure, the cancellation charge is US$850 per person or equivalent. For cancellations made 91-179 days before departure, the cancellation charge is 100% of the deposit paid. For cancellations made 1-90 days before departure, or on the day of departure or later, the cancellation charge is 100% of the tour price.

Air Travel To & From The Tour: Our in-house IATA ticket agency can arrange your air travel in connection with the tour from a departure point anywhere in the world, or you may arrange your own air travel if you prefer. We can tailor-make your itinerary to your personal requirements, so if you would like to travel in advance of the tour (and spend a night in an hotel so you will feel fresh when the tour starts), or return later than the end of the tour, or make a side trip to some other destination, or travel business class rather than economy, we will be happy to assist. Please contact us about your air travel requirements.

Many of the flights and flight-inclusive holidays on this website are financially protected by the ATOL scheme. But ATOL protection does not apply to all holiday and travel services listed on this website. Please ask us to confirm what protection may apply to your booking. If you do not receive an ATOL Certificate then the booking will not be ATOL protected. If you do receive an ATOL Certificate but all the parts of your trip are not listed on it, those parts will not be ATOL protected. Please see our booking conditions for information, or for more for more information about financial protection and the ATOL Certificate go to: www.atol.org.uk/ATOL Certificate

Birdquest Ltd is Registered in England, Company No. 01568270. The address of our registered office is Two Jays, Kemple End, Stonyhurst, Clitheroe, Lancashire BB7 9QY

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