Into the unknown Sea of Okhotsk


The Bering Sea, 1999. A wave-dashed shore ahead; leaden skies above. The way the rough sea was lifting and pitching and rolling our ship was not promising. I could just make out a bleak and deserted beach backed by lush knee-high vegetation, with a low, steep bank beyond. Somewhere there, 250 years ago, my naturalist hero Georg Wilhelm Steller weathered an awful icy winter, while around him shipwrecked shipmates died of scurvy — among them his commander, Vitus Bering.

I had joined that 1999 expedition around the Bering Sea with one personal goal in mind — to realize my dream of landing there on Bering Island and paying my respects at the great Dane’s grave. It was not to be; the seas were too dangerous, with 2-meter waves crashing in monstrous surf making any attempt to land plain foolhardy.

To the west, hidden beneath storm clouds, lay the Kamchatkan Peninsula, and far beyond that, the Sea of Okhotsk from which Bering set out on his ill-fated expedition across the Pacific (see accompanying story). Still off-limits to foreigners in 1999, thanks to the military legacy of the Cold War, it beckoned as only somewhere so remote, unknown and historically fascinating could.

The Sea of Okhotsk: I knew no one who had ever been there. In summer 1983, I had paid my first visit to the northernmost tip of Hokkaido near Wakkanai, and on a brilliant June day had seen, across the La Prouse Strait, the low profile of the Russian island of Sakhalin; so close, but it too was closed to outsiders then.

Repeatedly, over the years, I had visited Hokkaido’s Sea of Okhotsk coast, watched as sea ice drifted in from the north and locked against the land, and wondered what that island-ringed sea was like, and who the peoples were who lived along its other shores.

Life has a happy knack of throwing out surprises, and no one could have been more elated than me when, 19 years after first sighting Sakhalin, and three years after failing to pay homage to Bering’s remains, I heard the magic words: “How would you like to go to Okhotsk?”

Okhotsk is no Tokyo, Paris or London; it’s no beach resort, no golf mecca, and no holiday destination beckoning idle tourists. It is a tiny town in the Russian Far East whose only major connections to anywhere are by sea. After becoming known to some in the early 1700s as the embarkation point for Bering’s expeditions, it has since languished, grown a little, decayed a little. From Europe or America it is about as remote as is imaginable, but for me that spelled adventure — and it was another link in the chain of retracing Bering and Steller’s fascinating voyage of exploration.

The Russian Far East — that portion of Russia that was easier to reach by ship the long way around, passing Africa and Asia, than overland round the Urals and across Siberia — was my dream destination. So now, as an ornithologist and naturalist, I was to join the Clipper Odyssey in a team accompanying the first eco-tourists to be allowed north. I could hardly imagine a more enticing offer.

Slipping into the darkness

After alighting from the train at Hokkaido’s Otaru Station, my taxi driver meandered around the docks for some time before, with a huge sense of relief, I spotted the gleaming Clipper Odyssey berthed between two rust-bucket Russian fishing vessels. A smiling face at the rail was familiar: expedition leader Allan White, a native of the Falkland Islands and someone for whom I have tremendous respect. Come what may, this was going to be a great trip.

Rishiri Fuji, the stunning 1,719-meter peak rising from the sea just west of Wakkanai, was our last sight of Hokkaido as we slipped into the darkness on our crossing to Sakhalin and our first venture into the Sea of Okhotsk. The capital of Yuzhno Sakhalinskiy in southern Sakhalin is the administrative center for the oil and gas fields that dominate the local economy — but for most of the locals, daily life is unrelentingly tough in a region with no more than a five-month growing season.

Sakhalin was once the home of three indigenous peoples: the Ainu in the south, the reindeer-herding Evenki in the north, and the Nivkhi in between. The Ainu are gone now, long since eliminated or “repatriated” to Hokkaido, but at our remote beach-landing site at Nobilskiy Bay in east Sakhalin, we were met by a group of Nivkhi dancers. “How far have you come, and where are you from?” one dancer asked me through our interpreter. She took scant interest in North Americans (so many in the gas and oil business I suppose), but her face lit up when she heard that some of us were from England, France and New Zealand. Clearly, our perspectives of what counts for remote were reversed!

The dancers wanted to know all about us, but as a swan researcher I wanted to know from them more about the tens of thousands of swans that migrate across Sakhalin each spring and autumn. Did the Nivkhi know about them? It was a naive question. They know them like the Ainu of Hokkaido know the red-crowned crane. There, by a crackling driftwood fire, beside the windswept Sea of Okhotsk, on a day when fog shrouded the surrounding swamps and taiga forest, the Nivkhi performed for us an evocative, moving swan dance. I could almost hear wild swans calling in flight, their pinions thrumming as they flew hundreds of kilometers north along Sakhalin Island to their summer breeding grounds.

Alas, I saw no swans on that magical voyage. Piltun Lagoon along the coast of northeastern Sakhalin, where thousands of swans gather on migration, was barred to us — no longer by politics, not even by bureaucracy (which, in the RFE seems based on local bigwigs’ wish to show a little muscle and their independence from the distant authorities in Moscow) — but by ice, sea ice. I associate this frigid drifting white mass with the freezing months of January and February in Hokkaido, but this summer, deep ice pack still stretched up the eastern coast of Sakhalin, west around the island’s northern tip and all the way west to the Shantar Islands, blocking off the Tatar Strait and access to the still iced-over mouth of the Amur River.

Beach battlegrounds

This was May! Our way to northern Sakhalin was blocked. Expeditions by sea are like that. Our plans were all in place, but meteorological reality was also preventing us meeting the reindeer-herding Evenki or exploring the Amur River mouth with its numerous rare plants.

But the alternatives proved stunning. On our way north up the eastern coast of Sakhalin we had visited the tiny “uninhabited” island of Tyuleni. Its beaches were a battleground; noisy, smelly places where Steller’s sea lions fought over waterfront real estate and built up their harems. Northern fur seals were there in their hundreds too, but they were less demonstrative than the bullying sea lions, and so were forced to occupy a less desirable section of beach, suffering what amounted to pinniped apartheid.

Meanwhile, the bare rock central plateau of Tyuleni was carpeted with hundreds of thousands of common murres, a puffinlike species of swimming and diving shorebird now virtually extinct in Hokkaido. Tyuleni is a snapshot image of how a number of islands around northern Japan must have been in centuries past; wild, free and lacking the festoons of nets now ringing the shores. But Tyuleni was to be just the seabird appetizer for a voyage strong on adventure and unpredictability.

After Tyuleni, sea ice forced us out from the Sakhalin coast; we felt our way by radar, dodging dangerous floes that pushed us further and further east and further north out into the Sea of Okhotsk. Along the way a trio of tall-finned orca suddenly and briefly surfaced by the bow; they and the huge numbers of seabirds were perhaps benefiting from the bounty of food around and beneath the unseasonable ice.

Eventually, after another short northern night at sea, there, rising ahead of us to the north, was an isolated cone of rock — the most isolated island in the entire Sea of Okhotsk: Iony, or St. Iona’s Isle.

Though only a few hectares in area, Iony’s significance to the mammals and birds of the Sea of Okhotsk is staggering. Its ledges were crammed with birds. Dapper, boldly pied thick-billed murres were here in uncountable hordes. Puffins, fulmars, and kittiwakes filled the air around the island as densely as tropical fish teem in a city aquarium. Take-offs and landings were occurring by the hundred each second. It was uncanny seeing skeins, flocks, lines and mobs of birds all careering to and fro overhead, some setting off for feeding grounds, others returning to their nesting ledges or burrows — and all without any air-traffic control.

On the lowest rock ledges, Steller’s sea lions were battling ferociously. We watched two bulls gouging and battering each other bloody like no-holds-barred sumo wrestlers vying for females as the winner’s prize. Nearby on a sloping slab of rock several of the harem, seeming oblivious to the carnage over them, were nursing their newborn black-furred pups. Lonely Iony is the most crowded piece of real estate imaginable.

Leaving Iony on June 2, we next felt our way back to the southwest, keeping just north of the ice as we headed toward the Shantar Islands. Again, though, sea ice blocked our way, forcing us to turn north once more, then east as the air temperature barely topped 5 degrees even at midday.

To the north, the shoreline of the Sea of Okhotsk looked like tundra — open, bleak and treeless; behind it on the rising slopes, a boreal or taiga forest of hardy larches, birches and alders survives despite the climate. At sea, those of us shivering at the rail are lucky. An adrenaline rush follows our sighting of the telltale spout of a blowing whale. Tense with excitement we wait for it to surface again. No dorsal fin, all black, a monstrous head — as we check off its features one by one, elation sets in. This is a great rarity: a bowhead whale. Then later, as icing on our wildlife cake, we spot a brown bear foraging among seaweed on the shoreline, seemingly oblivious to the Clipper Odyssey and our binoculars trained on its every move.

Day by day we edge northeast; now entering the realm of the great eagle of the north — Steller’s eagle — which breeds on the rocky crags we pass. We become blase about seabirds in numbers that were until a few days ago staggering us all. But as we creep north there’s less and less vegetation, and my worries about biting insects disappear as in the cold they barely stir. We walk unbitten across coastal tundra showing no sign of human presence. Not even the barest hint of spring green had reached some of the coastal areas we visited.

How can people live here? Somehow they do. Okhotsk, when we finally reach it, is bleak, gray and depressing. The glowering clouds don’t help, nor the threatening rain. Disappointment sets in. Somehow I’d expected more from the starting point of Bering’s epic voyages.

From our anchorage we zoom shoreward in rubber Zodiac boats with outboard engines, our driver skillfully taking us into the river mouth past rusting hulks, dismal docks and languishing cranes to a safe landing more than a kilometer inland.

As we headed toward the river mouth I noticed the bobbing heads of dozens of seals. Never have I seen so many in one place. They were a welcome distraction from the grimness ahead.

Then, as I pondered their presence, there was an alarming lurch and we were all thrown forward. We had run aground — well, not really aground; we had run “afish.” The water around us boiled, the surface churning with the thrashing of a massive shoal of fish that looked like herring. Eventually they moved and we could lower our motor again, leaving behind a trail of fish soup and pickings that the seals and gulls were soon feasting on.

Okhotsk, where Bering built his ships, finally greeted us. For me it was the long-awaited culmination of the expedition, and at first sight it was a letdown. It emanated dour regional bureaucracy, with its hammer-and-sickle emblems, its statue of Lenin with his arm still proudly aloft over decaying concrete buildings and ramshackle wooden houses. Yet somehow this dead-end settlement with its tiny museum, its church and its cultural center won us over. Surely, for all its downsides, Okhotsk boasts the friendliest children imaginable, all eager to try out their English vocabulary, spoken in such clear and beautiful Russian accents.

I was delighted to find that, amid mammoth tusks, stuffed birds and dusty rock specimens, the museum displayed a carved wooden panel depicting Bering’s voyage. From Bering Island in summer 1999, to Okhotsk in summer 2002, I felt I had completed some kind of disjointed personal pilgrimage — not really retracing his path, but finding insights into this enormous but little-known region.

My Sea of Okhotsk journey was only half over at Okhotsk, but the elements kicked in once more and rough rolling seas denied us further landings. Zodiacs are sturdy maneuverable craft, built originally for military use, and while massively rolling waves may not have stopped us surfing ashore in them, not being Navy Seals we would then have been marooned, unable to launch them into the pounding white tops.

So it was that, with the rain-soaked west coast of Kamchatka to port, we could only steam by day after day waiting for the weather god to smile again. Only when we passed Kamchatka’s tip and reached the northernmost of the Kuril Islands did we break through the storms again. A splendid orange-tinged dawn greeted us at Paramushir and Atlasova, the conical peaks around us capped with wreaths of steam and cloud. We had reached the realm of the volcanoes stretching north up the stunningly beautiful east coast of Kamchatka ahead of us like monstrous snow-capped beacons recalling another memory of Bering — the beautifully situated Petropavlovsk Kamchatskiy. Were it more accessible to the outside world, and less architecturally impoverished, PK could boast of being the Vancouver of the RFE — and I would choose to live there.

Fire and Ice. From sea ice to volcanoes, from battling bull sea lions to carpets of birds, from indigenous peoples to Russian bureaucrats, the whole expeditionary adventure had merely been a taster of the unknown Sea of Okhotsk.

I can hardly wait to return.