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The rugged fragility of the Kamchatka Peninsula

The wild landscape of the Kamchatka peninsula hides an ecosystem increasingly under threat

Satyajit Das
Published: Jan 28, 2017 07:39:04 AM IST
Updated: Jan 28, 2017 08:29:40 AM IST

The rugged fragility of the Kamchatka Peninsula A valley of geysers in the Kamchatka peninsula
Image:Vadim Petrakov /

Kamchatka is the original land of fire and ice. Situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire, it is home to around 160 volcanoes, 29 of them still active. The ‘ice’, of course, refers to the long cold winters and the permanent snow at higher altitudes. It is no surprise, then, that Kamchatka’s main attraction is the volcanic landscape, replete with calderas, craters, lakes, geysers and mineral springs. It is also one of the few places on the planet that actually lives up to its overused eco-tourism trope—‘wild Eden’.

This pendant-shaped peninsula, which lies in the Russian Far East between the Pacific Ocean in the east and Sea of Okhotsk in the west, is about 1,250 km long and is larger in land size than France. And despite its remoteness and extreme climate, it has a variety of micro-climates that range from sub-Arctic to temperate. This is because of a complex topography that includes river systems, proximity to productive oceans and the 10,500-metre deep Kuril–Kamchatka Trench in the northwest Pacific Ocean. The landscape consists of, in parts, tundra, muskeg (marshy bogs), forests of pine, birch, alder and willow, open woodlands and grasslands which support a variety of plant and animal life.

Given its remoteness, travel to Kamchatka is mostly by air or sea. Mark Beaman, a well-known ornithologist and owner of eco-tourism company Bird Quest, is one of our fellow travellers, and recounts how modern tourism originated in the region. He says that, in the early 1990s, the fall of the USSR created opportunities for travel in the area that was previously restricted to foreign visitors because of the presence of the USSR Pacific Fleet, which included strategic nuclear submarines. Beaman pioneered trips to areas that were rarely visited before, frequently using old, Russian ex-military helicopters.

On one such trip, his group ended up in a coastal town, where there was no accommodation. Noticing a vessel berthed at port, Beaman struck a deal with the captain of the ship to rent its cabins. The vessel turned out to be a Russian research ship grounded by the lack of funds.

The ship we are currently travelling on—the Professor Khromov, operated by New Zealand-based Heritage Expeditions as the Spirit of Enderby—is also of similar origin. Once a research vehicle, it has been converted for cruises, and is chartered to tourist operators to generate lucrative foreign currency earnings.

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It is August, when we travel southwards from Anadyr, hugging the eastern Pacific coast of Russia, to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the administrative, industrial and cultural centre of Kamchatka Krai. (A krai is one of the administrative divisions of Russia.) The first stop on our way from Anadyr is the town of Egvekinot; the primary purpose of this stop is take on potable water—the ship needs up to 12 tonnes a day.

The rugged fragility of the Kamchatka PeninsulaThe autumn colours of Kamchatka
Image: Eric Chretien / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The town was built by Gulag prisoners in 1946 as a port for inland mines. We visit the town’s museum where a guide takes us through Chukotka’s long history. The museum’s prize exhibit is a closely guarded horn from a unique hairy rhinoceros that once inhabited the region, co-existing with mammoths that were common here until 5,000 years ago. We take the opportunity to travel by road to what we have all heard of since our childhoods—the Arctic Circle. A few miles north of Egvekinot, in a heavy glaciated area dominated by wide U-shaped valleys, stands a much-photographed sign across the road, announcing ‘66.34 degrees north’.

After Egvekinot, as we head further south along the coast, the weather deteriorates. Rough conditions in the Bering Sea make our vessel roll till, at one point, it tips to a precarious 45 degrees. And although, over the next few days, we make landings at Cape Navarin, Bukhta Petra, Bukhta Pavlova and Tintikun Lagoon—travelling in zodiacs in groups of six to 10, under the guidance of the naturalists—large swells along the Koryak coast prevent us from making scheduled stops at Pika River, Meinypil’gyno, Verkhoturova and Karaginsky Island.

Despite the showery, misty weather, the autumn tundra is colourful, charged with reds, yellows and oranges, and an abundance of blueberries and lingonberries. The deep fjords are impressive, and although it is too late in the season for many birds to be around, we spot some waterfowl and wading birds around the lagoons. At the Tintikun Lagoon, which is located inside Koryaksky Nature Reserve, we get teasing glimpses of smaller birds such as the Eurasian Nutcracker, Dusky Warblers, Siberian Rubythroats, bluethroats, accentors, and pipits.

While at sea, we see an abundance of tufted and horned puffins, pigeon, common and Brunnich’s guillemots, parakeet and Least Auklets, Pelagic Cormorants, gulls, skuas and fulmars. Majestic Laysan Albatrosses, with their huge two-metre wingspans, occasionally follow the ship.

The most delightful, however, are the fork-tailed storm petrels, which fly, almost bat-like, inches above the waves. These small oceanic birds feed on planktonic crustaceans and small fish, typically while hovering. The petrels give the appearance of, literally, walking on the water.

From the decks of the Professor Khromov, we also get good viewings of sea mammals. For instance, we see colonies of Steller Sea Lions; but the rough seas make it impossible for us to venture out in the zodiacs to get closer views. Named after German naturalist Georg Steller, who first described the animals in 1741, the Steller Sea Lion is one of largest of the eared seals, next only to walruses and elephant seals. The species is classified as near threatened, the result of significant, unexplained declines in their numbers.

The rugged fragility of the Kamchatka PeninsulaA Steller Sea Eagle glides on the Zhupanova river
Image: Janelle Lugge /

We see only a few small groups of walruses at sea during the entire trip. Several known haul-outs (beaches where they leave the water to rest) are empty. One reason offered is the bad weather; other explanations—such as human interference, loss of habitat, declining food stocks—are more troubling.

But our luck runs out completely when it comes to land mammals. We don’t get to see any snow sheep or marmots. And although we spot some reindeer, and signs of brown bear— paw-prints, day beds, scat—sightings are fleeting, and at long distance.

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Spotting different species of marine mammals and birds is not simply a tourist activity. A few of us meticulously log sightings of marine mammals and seabirds, including jotting down their GPS coordinates, as these records assist researchers. Like one of the onboard naturalists Olga Belonovich, who is based in Commander Islands studying marine animal species.

A combination of factors such as remoteness, and a lack of funds and resources mean that key habitats are poorly monitored. Olga and a group of travellers from the ship visit a site near Cape Navarin, which has not been visited for more than 10 years, finding over 100 Steller Sea Lions. While the tourists are unable to make a landing at Verkhoturova Island, because of the rough seas, Olga and expedition leader Rodney Russ brave the turbulent conditions to venture out and take a count of sea lions on a rock outcrop visible from the ship; they find 38 adults.

Kamchatka is an important breeding spot for migratory birds, such as the Spoon-billed Sandpipers. This tiny wader’s most distinctive feature is its unusual spatulate bill, whose purpose is still not fully understood. The species is now critically endangered, with the wild population in 2009-2010 estimated to be only 120 to 200 pairs, a near-90 percent decline in the last decade.

Conservation efforts are focussed on two breeding programmes, centred in Chukotka around the Meinypil’gyno village—one of the remotest villages in the world—and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) reserve in England. The focus is on artificial incubation and captive rearing to increase survival rates. The programmes receive modest support from tourism and Heritage Expeditions, which helps transport field researchers. The initiatives, however, cannot address the main threats to the species’ survival: Loss of habitat on its breeding grounds and, particularly, the destruction of tidal flats along its migratory and wintering range.

The rugged fragility of the Kamchatka PeninsulaA Kamchatka brown bear with a cub
Vladimir Wrangel /
In June-July, the birds nest in coastal areas in north-eastern Russia, preferring the tundra, amid grass close to freshwater pools. After breeding, the birds undertake a lengthy migration along the Pacific coast, through Japan, North Korea, South Korea and China, to its wintering grounds in South and South-East Asia. During this arduous journey, it needs to stop and replenish energy reserves in traditional wetland transit stops. Most of these important staging points are now lost or are under threat from human encroachment.

This means that despite well-intentioned efforts, the expensive programmes are probably futile.

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The difficult weather and sea conditions on the coast encourage us to sail for the Commander Islands earlier than scheduled. The latter half of our journey is in near-perfect conditions; calm seas, sunny and clear days, and relatively mild temperatures.

The rugged fragility of the Kamchatka Peninsula

The Commander Islands are at the western end of the Aleutian chain of islands—a chain of volcanic islands, large and small—and are part of the ancient land bridge between Eurasia and North America. They were discovered in 1741 by Commander Vitus Bering, a Danish cartographer who led two Russian expeditions in the country’s Far East. Subsequent settlers developed the islands as a centre of the seal fur trade and whaling. Today, as a biosphere reserve, it is both ecologically and historically significant.

Our entry point to these islands is the village of Nikolskoe on Bering Island, where we spend a morning. The bird watchers find Rock Sandpipers and a lone Mongolian Plover. From our landing spot, we get excellent views of sea otters, including mothers with their young. The otters feed on the sea floor, mostly on marine invertebrates such as sea urchins, molluscs and crustaceans, frequently using rocks to open shells and dislodge their prey.

The animals are almost entirely pelagic—living, breeding, giving birth, nurturing their young, and even sleeping at sea. Unlike other sea mammals, which use blubber as insulation, otters have an exceptionally thick fur coat, the densest in the animal kingdom.

And it is for this coat of fur that around 3 lakh otters were slaughtered between 1741 and 1911, reducing the world population to less than 2,000. An international ban on hunting in 1911 has led to a recovery in numbers but the animal remains endangered.  

North of Nikolskoe, we find a colony of about 8,000 northern fur seals; the beach also has Steller Sea Lions, harbour seals and cormorants, both pelagic and red-faced.

In the late afternoon, we cruise around the island of Ari Kamen. The major attraction here is a very localised sub-Arctic Pacific species of sea gull—the Red-legged Kittiwake. Other than the colour of its legs, it is almost identical to its more common cousin, the Black-legged Kittiwake. With birders being birders, they travel to the Bering Sea and the Commander Islands just so that they can tick off another name on their list of birds to spot.

The ship visits Medny Island, home to sea otters, seals and various birds, including the Gray-crowned Rosy Finch, a pretty songbird found in extreme environments. The highlight is the Arctic fox, with the Commander Islands being home to two distinct, endemic subspecies. Overly habituated to humans, thanks to the researchers, one fox provides much sought-after close-ups and even nips an over-eager photographer.

Although the waters surrounding the Commander Islands are an important habitat for many species of whales, our schedule does not give us sufficient time for an extensive search. We get a decent view of a sperm whale, with its obliquely angled spout and crinkly brown skin visible. But our hopes of spotting a Baird’s Beaked Whale are not satisfied. Known for their elongated beaks, these toothed whales are among the deepest diving cetaceans.
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Our final two stops—Olga Bay and the Zhupanova river—on the southern Kamchatka coastline, en route to our disembarking point of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky—prove a suitable climax.

Olga Bay is part of the Kronotsky Reserve, and is famous for its volcanoes and the Valley of the Geysers, which some of our fellow travellers plan to visit by helicopter from Petropavlovsk.

Zhupanova is a riverine system, one of more than 1,800 on the Kamchatka peninsula. Many of these rivers are important for salmon spawning. Kamchatka contains a great diversity of salmonid fish, including all six species of anadromous Pacific salmon (chinook, chum, coho, seema, pink, and sockeye). Biologists estimate that a fifth of all Pacific salmon originates in Kamchatka.

Olga Bay provides a moment of unintended comedy. There have been grumbling among some travellers about the lack of whales. This is not true. We have seen gray, humpback, sperm and fin whales, as well as orcas and Dall’s Porpoises. But whale-watching requires long, patient hours, which are rewarded intermittently by a sighting. Passengers preferring the comfort of warm cabins or the lounge are rarely around when the whales appear.

The expedition leader makes an effort to ‘find’ the gray whales of Olga Bay, which are reputedly tolerant of boats. Today, although there are quite a few sea otters (frequent food for the whales), the whales are nowhere to be seen. Nature and wildlife are not predictable.

The desperate search for non-existent whales draws an impish observation from naturalist Nikita Ovsyanikov. He muses what the waiting rangers on the beach might make of the line of zodiacs sailing in a straight line away towards the open sea rather than towards the landing beach: “They will be worried that we have lost our way!”

We get good views of Steller Sea Eagles. Weighing up to 9 kg, with massive wingspans of up to 2.5 metres, they are among the largest birds of prey. The bold, pied coloration of the adult birds is striking. The body is black with contrasting white upper wings and underside. The eyes, the massive bill, and the feet are bright yellow. Immensely strong with powerful large talons, they feed mainly on fish and sea birds.

At Olga Bay, an adult flies over us majestically. On Zhupanova river, we come across several Steller’s Sea Eagles. Seeing us approach, they take off, the massive wings slowly propelling the large birds into the air. They are radiantly beautiful in the occasional shards of morning sun breaking through the dawn mist.

Kamchatka is known for the abundance and size of its brown bears. With a body length of up to 3 metres and weighing up to 650 kg, they are the largest in Asia and second only to those on Alaska’s Kodiak Island.

At Olga Bay, the travellers split into different groups to walk along the ocean front in different directions. On the way back, my partner Jade, walking a little way ahead of the others, spots a bear walking towards us on the beach. It is a sub-adult, perhaps three or four years old. He sees us, but does not seem alarmed, and walks past us, approaching within eight to 10 metres. We see him at a stream about 20 metres ahead, where he scavenges dead fish and then wanders off out of sight.

At Zhupanova river, we see a mother and cub from the zodiacs; a fraction of the size of the mother, the cub bounces along close behind, constantly distracted by new smells and sights. The cub is golden brown with a very pale face. The pair ford the river at a shallow point, and then they are gone into the forest.

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The rugged fragility of the Kamchatka PeninsulaGuillemots gather on a rocky outcrop at the Commander Island
Image: Maksimilian /

At Olga Bay, a sunny clear day means that several volcanoes provide a spectacular scenic backdrop to the wilderness. The 3,528-metre Kronotsky volcano, regarded by some volcanologists as one the world’s most beautiful for its near perfect cone, is clearly visible. The sight calls even the Russian crew members onto the deck with their cameras. One tells me that this is the best view he has had of the volcanoes in over 10 years of visiting the bay.

Kamchatka’s ruggedness and wildness masks it fragility. It is under mortal threat, from climate change, hunting, fur trapping and commercial exploitation of marine resources. During the trip, we wake one morning to find 17 large industrial fishing boats nearby. The reduction of fish stocks as well as the effects of bycatch are significant factors in the decline of populations of the unique creatures that inhabit Kamchatka.

It is unlikely that Kamchatka’s extraordinary wilderness can survive human pressure for much longer. As Mahatma Gandhi wrote: “The earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”

© 2016 Satyajit Das All Rights Reserved.Satyajit Das is a former banker and the author of The Age of Stagnation. His previous books include Traders Guns & Money and Extreme Money. He is also the co-author with Jade Novakovic of In Search of the Pangolin: The Accidental Eco-Tourist.

(This story appears in the 03 February, 2017 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)