“What is the difference between a pit bull and a blubber slug?” Conrad asks, in a rather matter-of-fact manner, as he begins his address to the crowd of camera-happy tourists gathered around the viewing platform. Conrad Field is an excellent naturalist and he has a wonderful way of teaching.
“Pit bulls are the jaw-snapping sea lions and fur seals of the world,” he continues. “When on land, they can ‘walk’ around by turning their hind flippers forward and using their front flippers to keep themselves upright. They also have conspicuous earflaps and are often referred to as the ‘eared seals’ in the family Otariidae.
The blubber slugs, on the other hand, are the socalled ‘earless’ or ‘true seals’ in the family Phocidae. They cannot turn their hind flippers forward and they’re only able to crawl around by undulating their bodies like a worm.”
The MV Clipper Odyssey cruise ship has arrived at the seal kingdom of Tyuleniy Island, far eastern Russia. It is summer and the thick fog sits still and ghostly over our morning. During the next month of this truly extraordinary journey across the ocean to the far reaches of the Bering Sea, we shall come to know these blankets of fog well – as we will the intriguing treasures, both natural and historical, that lie hidden behind them.
Russia is a cold and largely remote land – especially its outer islands and coastline that run up into the Arctic, where cold and wild wet winds blow and angry swells pound against primordial volcanic cliffs. Monstrous mountains tower out of the ocean shrouded in mist, their edges dripping with lush green carpets of vegetation, whilst waterfalls plunge into the sea and tufted puffins fly past with their day’s catch glinting in their bright red bills.
Here one really can enjoy the most remarkable of wildlife experiences. Seabirds don’t fly around in flocks of 10 or 20, but in their hundreds and thousands. Countless Steller’s sea lions and northern fur seals haul out onto beaches to fight one another as they defend their harems and territories. Watching a scene like this on Tyuleniy Island, with hundreds of thousands of common murres and crested auklets squawking from every direction, made us realise we were witnessing a spectacle the likes of which one might encounter on the plains of east Africa. This was wildlife! Just don’t step on an egg, keep away from the cantankerous fur seals and don’t look up with your mouth open!
Late one evening further into our journey we lay speechless in our RIBs as we watched the skies darken with clouds of near on a million whiskered auklets coming in to roost on the cliffs. We could hardly believe our eyes as they swarmed en masse, making swirling patterns like smoke from a cigarette, as they tried to avoid capture by ruthless predatory gulls. Not all were successful.
TEEMING MARINE LIFE
As the expedition made its way along the Kuril Island chain, we became acquainted with the striking beauty of the coastal landscapes and the sheer abundance of marine life. A pod of over 30 orcas greeted us one morning, adults and calves feeding together, some spy-hopping and tail-lobbing right next to our ship. We watched their long black dorsal fins slice though a perfect silver sea as, in the far distance, a snow-encrusted volcano sent puffs of smoke up into the heavens.
Being summer, the tundra was also in celebration. Tundra is the name given to the stunted vegetation that grows in extreme, cold climates such as the Arctic and Antarctic. It is a case of, “Honey … I shrunk the forest!”, as short summers and frozen winters limit the amount of growth plants can achieve and, consequently, they only attain a miniature form. When the icy ground melts with the warming of the summer sun, the tundra becomes soggy and small streams and lakes begin to form, creating the perfect breeding grounds for insects. Following this, many species of migrating birds flock here to feed during these abundant times. Walking through the lush, green and boggy fields of blooming rhododendron shrubs, sedges, grasses, mosses and giant edible herbs was a highlight as we took in this beautiful, pristine and foreign world.
One does not travel to this remote part of the planet without being awed by far eastern Russia’s geological history, where, at every turn, mighty volcanoes rise up out of an icy ocean like the gods of Greek mythology. Russia’s outer islands form part of the notorious Pacific Ring of Fire; a horseshoe-shaped arc of concentrated seismic activity stretching from New Zealand in the south, all the way up to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, along to Alaska and down the west coast of the Americas. It marks the borderline between the earth’s Pacific plate and other major crustal plates.
The Ring of Fire is home to over 70 per cent of the world’s dormant and active volcanoes and Russia lays claim to over 300 of them, many currently active. A large, camouflaged military helicopter transported our excited group to the Uzon Caldera in eastern Kamchatka, a 10km wide geothermal field bubbling and steaming with interesting activity. Just the flight alone was worth every penny as we flew over the steaming, smoking peaks of giant volcanoes, some holding impossibly turquoise acid lakes in their bellies.
GHOSTS OF THE PAST
The wild and wind-swept shores of our many expedition stops were often peppered with old war relics, abandoned navy bases and the rusting remains of old whaling days. It was not uncommon to find bowhead and grey whale bones strewn about the beaches, but a favourite find was the highly-prized, rather rare, antique glass-ball fishing floats. Many of them were hand-made by Japanese glass-blowers and used in the deep-sea fishing industry during the last century. As soon as the tourist troops hit the shores, many would ditch the offer of interpretive walks and take off on their own, hoping to be the first to find one or more of these priceless treasures.
Another unusual find, and much more rare than the glass floats, was a very special bone – a rib, to be precise. When picked up, it was remarkably heavy. It belonged to an extinct animal known as the Steller’s sea cow, a 30ftlong herbivorous marine mammal and cousin of the dugong and manatee. First described by chief naturalist and explorer George Wilhelm Steller in 1741, it was only 27 years later that they were declared extinct, purportedly due to extreme hunting pressure for their flesh and skin. The reason their bones were so heavy was to counteract the buoyant nature of their very thick, blubbery bodies.
One momentous, historical stop was at the lonely grave of Vitus Bering (1681-1741) on Bering Island. The Dutch navigator and explorer had been employed by Russia to map the northernmost limits of Siberia and, most importantly, to determine whether Asia was, in fact, connected to North America. After a successful mission sailing through what is now known as the Bering Strait, Vitus set off on another ambitious expedition some years later to map coastlines as far away as Mexico. However, after exploring in part the Alaskan coast, bad weather forced the expedition to return to Russia and seek refuge in the Commander Islands, in the southwest Bering Sea. Vitus had, meanwhile, fallen seriously ill and subsequently died on one of these uninhabited islands, which now aptly bears his name. For such a prominent historical figure, his grave is rather sad and humble. It lies quietly on these lush, green slopes alongside other unfortunate crew members, with only a distant herd of reindeer and the eternal cold wind as company.
“If you happen to stumble upon a bear, stand your ground and open up your jacket as wide as you can to make yourself appear as large and intimidating as possible,” instructed our supremely experienced Alaskan naturalist, John Schoen. Now that we had reached the Kamchatka Peninsula we were likely to find bears foraging for food on the beaches and along the river banks. Fortunately, we did not surprise any bears whilst on foot, but we had excellent views of them on multiple occasions.
Some were very nervous and with good reason, as they are hunted in these parts and will generally run at the first sound of human presence. The same situation applies for my most-wanted marine mammal, the walrus. The walrus comprises three subspecies and is the only member of its family Odobenidae. It shares features with both the pit bulls and the blubber slugs. Adult males can weigh up to two tonnes and each overgrown canine or tusk may reach lengths of up to a metre; they’re used in displays of aggression and dominance.
Once we had located a group of roughly 100 animals, we had to be very careful not to let them see, hear or smell us. To our great fortune, conditions were just right for a perfect, sunny view from atop a nearby ridge. We watched these truly bizarre animals lazily lapping up the sun’s rays, lying in great piles on top of one another. After we had had our visual and photographic fill, we tested them out by taking a closer look in our RIBs. As soon as the sleeping animals caught our scent, around 30 males suddenly charged into the sea and came straight for us!
The thundering sound of these enormous, engorged, warty, sausagelike creatures as they crashed into the water was quite something, their fresh, clam-flavoured breath on the breeze as they huffed and puffed around our boats. This was truly one of the most thrilling experiences of the entire voyage – being eye-to-eye with a walrus is something you never forget.
The aboriginal culture of Kamchatka is intriguing and inviting; wherever we went, we were greeted with warm welcomes and entertaining cultural shows. We learnt how to prepare salmon for drying, and how to rope in a reindeer.
The native Inuits of the peninsula are beautiful, both inside and out. But the cultural experience to top them all was the one that greeted us at Lorino Village, just south of Cape Dezhnev, the easternmost point of the Asian continent. When we arrived on the shore, we were informed that the village had caught and killed a grey whale the previous day. They had waited for our arrival before pulling it out of the sea and onto the beach for flensing. Now there are some memories that stick more readily to the busy walls of my mind than others, and this was one of them.
We watched, aghast and transfixed, as the ceremony began. A tractor was used to haul the 30-tonne animal out from the ocean. Curiously, bits of chocolate, bread, flowers and even cigarettes were placed in the mouth of the dead animal as an expression of gratitude. Hunting and fishing of marine mammals has been a way of life for the Chukchi Inuits since their earliest beginnings and it underpins their survival to this day. Although it was very sad to see this great creature lying oddly on the beach, the life gone from its big, black eyes, I came to understand just how sacred this animal was to the villagers and how every last inch of the whale was to be used.
A man with a blade at the end of a long stick set out to systematically shave off thick squares of blubber and skin, whilst members of the community came with their buckets and claimed their rations of meat. One child seemed most content gnawing on some baleen – the hair-like, filter-feeding bristles the whales use to strain out their food. We were invited to taste some whale meat, both raw and cooked. It was … different – and not my cup of tea.
Within two short hours, this 14m animal had been reduced to a skeleton and a pile of giant intestines. The festivities continued throughout this surreal process and eventually, we were able to tear ourselves away from this extraordinary sight, to dance and skin together with the pretty locals under the far eastern Russian sun, the whirlwind of memories making us drunk on life, the smell of cooking whale meat keeping us anchored in the present. Truly the trip of a lifetime!