Komandorskiye Ostrova — the Commander Islands in English — are about as bleak and remote as anywhere imaginable for human habitation. Indeed, the two islands in the group, named Bering and Medny, support only one hardy community of fewer than 1,000 souls in a settlement called Nikolskoye on Bering Island.
The last, most westernly outliers of the Aleutian chain stretching between Alaska and Kamchatka, these two rocky outcrops from the icy depths of the North Pacific are now the only ones ruled from Moscow. That is thanks to then-U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward, who — on March 30, 1867 — snapped up for Washington the rest of the Aleutians and Alaska for just $7.2 million paid into the needy coffers of Czarist Russia.
Regimes may have changed, but, to this day, everything about the Commander Islands still feels indisputedly Russian in the stereotypical grim subarctic sense. Yet, though a good summer’s day seems to consist of low cloud or rain (and what must winter be like?), wild sounds carry far.
Below me, on the beach at Severo Zapadny at the northwest end of Bering Island, hundreds of northern fur seals have hauled out, the bulls battling for space and future rights to harems. Meanwhile, the first Steller’s sea lions of the season have just arrived, harbour seals loll on the rocks that low tide has exposed and, beyond them, 30 or 40 sea otters are drifting raftlike together. Then an arctic fox barks from the hills overlooking the beaches and below three more are scavenging through the waste of the seal rookery.
This gloomy place is a wildlife paradise!
The damp swirling clouds, the wildflowers pearled with water droplets, the sounds of seals, foxes and seabirds, transport me back to the early 1700s when these same islands became the last resting place of the renowned Danish explorer Vitus Jonassen Bering (1681-1741), leader of a Russian expedition sent to determine if eastern Russia was connected to America.
The main island here bears his name, the island group his rank, but I am most reminded of the astonishing work of the expedition’s German naturalist and physician, Georg Wilhelm Steller (1709-1746), whose knowledge of plants and their health-giving properties was to help save some of the shipwrecked crew from scurvy. In addition, his observations became the cornerstone of fur seal and sea otter biology for centuries, while his knowledge of the sea cow that bears his name was never surpassed — it was hunted to extinction soon after its discovery — though the tiny museum in Nikolskoye has a near-complete skeleton of this massive relative of the manatee.
Similarly, the discovery of large populations of fur seals and sea otters around the islands, and the high value of their pelts, led to overexploitation of both wildlife and people.
The Steller’s sea cow became extinct in 1769, a mere 27 years after its discovery. Russian fur traders forcibly relocated Aleut people here from further east to harvest the marine mammals, and while at first trade and movement between the Commander Islands and the Pribilof Islands to the east continued, despite the sale of Alaska, the advent of the Soviet regime after 1917 led to those Aleuts’ complete isolation from their brethren. Today they are a powerless minority dominated by Russians; a hunting people not allowed to hunt, in a land now more important as a border outpost and for military surveillance.
Next stop east — 350km away across the international border and date line — lie the U.S. Aleutian islands of Attu, then Kiska; next stop west is the dagger blade of the Kamchatka Peninsula about 200 km away.
Life here is more isolated than most of us could ever imagine, so the offer of a paid position on a voyage heading to the Commander Islands via the Kuril Islands and the Kamchatka Peninsula was something I couldn’t resist.
My journey began not in Alaska, the Aleutians or even Kamchatka — but in of all places, Hong Kong.
I left home in Hokkaido amid late-falling snow on April 7 and flew via Seoul to Hong Kong. Before joining my expedition cruise ship, I set off to reacquaint myself with a place I’d last visited before Britain returned it to China in 1997.
The new buildings in the New Territories seemed to me, after a 15-year absence, like the overnight sprouting of immense mushrooms; veritable cliffs now extending many kilometers on both the Hong Kong and Shenzhen sides of the “border,” where there had once been farms, fields and low hills. Downtown, meanwhile, the high-rise buildings of Hong Kong and Kowloon seemed so much taller than I recalled, so much glitzier. The late-evening laser-light battle show across the harbor seemed to encapsulate what this place has become — not just one of the most densely peopled places on Earth, but also one of the most vibrant.
But then on April 12, after a day spent watching birds in the New Territories, I joined my colleagues from Seattle-based Zegrahm Expeditions at Ocean Park Terminal as one of a lecture team on board the comfortable, 110-passenger Clipper Odyssey along with our complement of guests from Europe, North and South America. Displacing just over 5,000 tons, and 103 meters long, the ship is equipped with a small fleet of rubber Zodiac boats with outboard motors that are ideal for exploring wilder coastlines.
Our voyage began with a dramatic sunset as we left Victoria Harbour bound first for the Taiwan Strait, then Taiwan and the Seto Inland Sea of Japan. It was the start of a journey that would take me more than 10,000 km on an erratic course, but ultimately to Russian isolation.
April 13 lived up to superstitions about that number. The calm start to our voyage turned into a battering as we headed straight into a force 7 gale, and it became a trial just to stand at the lectern to give lectures.
We had expected to spend just one sea day en route to Keelung, Taiwan, but the conditions slowed us significantly. Then, in the early hours of the 14th, disaster struck. Freak waves not only crashed right into the bridge, but then smashed out first one then two of its windows. Amazingly, the officer on the bridge at the time dodged flying glass to escape injury — but our radars were destroyed.
When we finally limped into Keelung on April 16, we were a day and a night behind schedule, and we had no idea how long it would take to mend the damage or what lay ahead for us as repairs were promised then retimetabled again and again.
But this cloud had a silver lining, as I had forgotten just how much I’d enjoyed Taiwan when I first explored the island in the 1980s. But as our enforced stay extended from one to two, then to three days, myself and my band of ardent naturalists had plenty of opportunity to enjoy the coasts, mountains and national parks of the northern third of this friendly and fascinating island. We found beautiful endemic birds such as the Taiwan blue magpie, and even saw endemic Formosan squirrels, chipmunks and macaques.
Then, with no end in sight to the repairs, we were forced to abandon that expedition cruise in Keelung and regroup its guests instead for flights from Taipei to Okinawa. There, the naturalists among us continued our encounters with endemic wildlife, this time in the hills of northern Okinawa, known as Yambaru, where we encountered the endangered Pryer’s woodpecker, while others sought out the sights and culture of Naha.
From there, we flew to Hiroshima to visit the overpowering museum dedicated to memorializing the American “Little Boy” bomb dropped over the city on Aug. 6, 1945. Our subsequent visit to Miyajima and the peaceful Itsukushima Shrine World Heritage Site were, fortunately, somewhat restorative after that experience.
Then the good news came through that first-round repairs on the Odyssey had mostly been done and the ship was on its way to Japan. My role was to change, too — to that of expedition leader, with responsibility for all the team on the following Japanese voyage. So it was that I shepherded our group onto a morning shinkansen to Kyoto, where they left for home and I welcomed new voyagers launching their visits to Japan and went on with them to board the Odyssey now fully repaired and docked in Kobe.
We set sail once more. This two-week trip, and the next, provided as in-depth an experience of Japanese history, culture and customs as most travelers could imagine. Accompanied by a range of Japanologists, we visited iconic cultural centers linked by the common thread of learning all we could about enigmatic Japan.
Our journeys took us through the Seto Inland Sea to Koraku-en in Okayama and to nearby historical Kurashiki, back from there to Hiroshima and Miyajima and on to rural Hagi in Yamaguchi Prefecture with its delightful potteries and temples and — my favorite — the lovely garden of the Kikuya merchant’s house. From there, with a brief stop at Tsushima Island, it was on to South Korea to visit Gyeongju, capital of the ancient Shilla Dynasty.
A side visit to South Korea may seem an anomaly during a voyage around Japan, but it was forced on us because foreign-flagged vessels may not start and end a voyage entirely in Japan.
So from Gyeongju it was back to visit Matsue and Kanazawa in Shimane and Ishikawa prefectures, respectively. Blooming azaleas and delicately weeping cherry blossoms then greeted us in Kanazawa’s marvelous Kenroku-en, my favourite of all Japan’s major formal gardens. From there, we sailed to Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture, where mountain cherries brought splashes of pink to the lush green forests we drove through as we learned about the reintroduction of the Japanese crested ibis and visited the Sado Kinzan gold mine. For that tour group, our next and nearby port of call at Niigata was journey’s end.
First, though, they had to endure one final wakeup call from me. Each morning I had added a Japanese proverb to soften the blow. That day’s rousing offering was my favorite, which I’d saved for last: “I no naka no kawazu, taikai wo shirazu” (“A frog in a well does not know the great sea”) — which I always take to mean that we need to see as much as possible of the world around us to be able to understand it.
On the next leg of the voyage, with another group, we visited some of the same highlights, but also added Takamatsu in Shikoku, with its delightful Ritsurin-koen and historical Shikoku Mura, Uwajima with its pearl cultivation, Yakushima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture with its superb forests of sugi (a cryptomeria often called Japanese cedar), wild monkeys and deer, and Nagasaki with its sobering Peace Park.
As much as I enjoy travels around Japan, it is not until we can put the Zodiacs in the water regularly that I feel most satisfied — and for me that means getting into remote Russian waters.
At last, on May 23, the Japan legs of our crowded schedule were over and we were headed north for wildness, by way of Hokkaido. Hakodate, Tomakomai and Kushiro were our three ports of call there, with visits to Onuma to walk beside the lake, to Poroto-ko Kotan to learn about Ainu culture, and to Kushiro National Park to enjoy delightful views of wild red-crowned cranes.
It was in Kushiro that we waved farewell to our Japanese guides as we set a course for Russia, arriving off the gray and uninspiring port of Yuzhno Kurilsk on May 27. There, we were expecting to quickly complete the necessary paperwork, but a low-pressure system had other ideas and the rough seas it whipped up prevented the officials from coming out to our ship.
What do do? Our new expedition leader for the British-based Noble Caledonia tour I was now helping to staff, together with our Greek captain and Russian “fixer,” decided to sail over and shelter for the night in the lee of Shikotan — allowing me my first-ever glimpse of that particular one of Japan’s “occupied” so-called Northern Territories.
But this time our waiting game was to be far briefer than in Taiwan, and by mid-afternoon of the 28th we had revisited Yuzhno Kurilsk under calmer conditions, received our Russian clearance, and finally set a course northward up the Kuril Islands.
Soon, to the west, 1,822-meter Mount Tyatya, a volcano with a distinctive double cone draped in snow at the north end of Kunashiri Island, was clearly visible between layers of glowering cloud, and we really began to feel as if wildness beckoned — and as if we were winding back the calendar. Summer faded behind us while spring was still inching forward north of us.
Seabirds were much in evidence as we sailed on; hordes of rhinoceros auklets were joined by dozens of colorful tufted puffins.
I kept a look out for sea otters and was reminded of Henry James Snow, a British hunter of marine mammals, and sometime author, who significantly contributed to wiping out sea otters from eastern Hokkaido and the Kuril Islands between 1873 and 1896. The islands had barely changed, though the otters had gone.
During the night of May 28, we passed Iturup (Etorofu in Japanese) in darkness, then on the 29th we crossed a deep-water channel and soon, off Urup Island, it was “Whale ahoy!” — and everyone who could rushed onto the decks.
Three great gray shapes were lying at the surface — sperm whales! Bushy blows of misty breath slanted forward as they exhaled, then gingko-leaf-shaped flukes rose slowly, then slid from sight as the massive mammals sounded and dived. One swam right across our bows giving us fantastic views; our camera motordrives whirred. Then, as if not to be outdone, a pod of nine or 10 black-and- white orcas appeared at our bow.
It turned out to be a tremendous day for mammals, as we not only saw the cetaceans but also a red fox on Urup, more than 100 Steller’s sea lions at a rookery on Brat Chirpoy, a small island just north off Urup — and, at last, a sea otter there, too, for good measure.
For its sheer overwhelming abundance of life, though, it is Yankicha Island in the central Kurils that inspires me most. A dramatic breached caldera with a lagoon ringed by jagged peaks and a hot spring by the beach, this island is home to hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of auklets — both crested and whiskered. They fly past in incredibly huge flocks like swarms of bees across the water, gathering in ever-increasing numbers toward dusk as they head back to their burrows on the island — their numbers and appearance earning the fitting nickname “auklet haze,” while amazingly they leave a scent of citrus in the air.
The southern and central Kuril Islands are often beset with fog and rain in early summer, and remain cool. We visited the once heavily fortified, but now uninhabited, Matua Island and found leaves only just breaking on the alder trees and the first spring flowers barely emerging in the cold damp conditions. The remnants of a concrete military runway and rusting communications equipment lent a melancholic air to this abandoned island.
However, as we reached the northern Kuril Islands, we noted a distinct change for the better in the weather. In evening light we admired the sunlit and snow-draped flanks of Shiashkotan Island; we sailed up the west coast of Paramushir; and, by the next morning, we were off Atlasova Island to the northwest of Paramushir. Atlasova is beautifully dominated by the dramatic cone of 2,339-meter Mount Alaid, a volcano that finally revealed itself to us off our stern as we crossed the strait to Shumshu Island.
There are two important straits in this part of the world: the first and second Kuril Straits. The first runs between the tip of Kamchatka and Shumshu, the second between Shumshu and Paramushir. Cruising through the second strait, on June 1, we sailed past Severo Kurilsk — surely the grimmest settlement in the Russian Far East.
This Soviet-style town, lying at the north end of Paramushir, actually faces north and must rarely see the sun; its backdrop was still entirely snow-covered despite the late date. I have passed it several times, and it has become symbolic of my personal concept of exile — the last place on Earth I would ever want to be marooned.
The Kuril Islands are redolent with history — of the Ainu people who lived there but left little mark on the landscape; of the Russians and Japanese who have left concrete and metal in varying degrees of decay. Yet who but a historian could now know that the low concrete dam on the shallow lagoon at Shumshu was Japanese-built to raise the water level so it could be used by military floatplanes? Wrecks litter the channels, and not all of them are from World War II. The region is beset by storms, and rusting fishing and cargo boats are scattered along the reefs.
Today, the kelp beds off Shumshu are a marvelous place to watch sea otters — which have taken more than a century to even begin to recolonize the southern Kuril Islands and Hokkaido after so many were killed by Henry James Snow and his ilk.
By early June we were exploring the coast of southern Kamchatka and were at last in brown bear habitat. On the 2nd, in fact, we encountered no fewer than 11 of them and saw three pairs of spectacular Steller’s sea eagles at their coastal crag-top nests. Under blue skies and in sunshine, there can hardly be a better place on Earth than Kamchatka. The scenery is on a grand scale, wildlife abounds, and if you choose your spot you can even see it all from a rotenburo (open-air hot spring)!
I had begun my journey in Hong Kong in early April and had voyaged via Taiwan, Okinawa, South Korea, Kyushu, Shikoku, Honshu, Hokkaido, the Kuril Islands and Kamchatka. It was early June by the time I finally reached the Commander Islands, the northernmost extent of my travels. Yet even there the journey was by no means over.
Seemingly so close to Japan, and with fabulous year-round outdoor attractions, Kamchatka has no commercial air or sea connections with Japan. Consequently, my return route home to Hokkaido was as bizarre in its brevity as my voyage by sea had been long and varied.
After breakfast on June 7, we all disembarked from the Odyssey at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy and took a transcontinental flight west to Moscow. There, I changed airports, ate lunch and boarded a flight back east to Tokyo’s Narita Airport, where I arrived in time for breakfast on my birthday, the 8th. A connecting flight then took me north to Sapporo, where my partner, Mayumi, greeted me.
After the gentle pace of change during life at sea, I was soon suffering from confusion caused by the abruptness and disjunction of transcontinental air travel. The very names of the places I had visited were redolent with history, wild with nature — and spoke to me of exploration and ocean voyages. Now all that was behind me — though in August I return north, traveling from Alaska via the Pribilof Islands and along the Aleutian chain to Kamchatka and then down the Kuril Islands to Sakhalin and thence to Hokkaido. And yes, I do realize how astonishingly lucky I am.
There was, though, an odd sequel to the adventure. Soon after my return, my office phone began ringing regularly and repeatedly. No numbers or messages were left on the answerphone, but one day I caught it in time. It was an official from the Foreign Ministry. At first cagey, he then asked to speak to Mayumi. It seems there were rumors that someone from Japan had traveled to the Kuril Islands from Kushiro — and the ministry was in pursuit. Somehow they had tracked down our number. Was it her? She could truthfully say “no.” I was grateful they didn’t ask me!
Mark Brazil is a naturalist and travel and natural history writer who organizes wildlife excursions in Japan. His “Wild Watch” column is on the Nature/Travel page in the third week of every month. He can be contacted via markbrazil@ world.email.ne.jp or www.wildwatchjapan.com