Sydney Morning Herald reporter, Louise Schwartzkoff, paddles with otters and cruises beneath volcanoes on a dramatic expedition in the Kuril Islands.
The guide with the big perm and salmon-pink lipstick thinks there could be an albino ostrich on the loose in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. She is a local – accustomed to daily earth tremors, occasional bear attacks and volcanic eruptions – so a rampant ostrich is no big deal.
“There is a circus from Moscow in town,” she says, “and last week this ostrich, it escaped. It can run 70 kilometres an hour. I don’t know whether it has been found or not.”
The authorities have warned the ostrich is “a very aggressive and stupid bird”. It is not the kind of wildlife promised in the travel brochures, but Russia’s far east is nothing if not unpredictable.
There are no roads into the Kamchatka Peninsula. The only way in is by boat or plane, soaring towards snow-tipped volcanoes that break like islands through a sea of cloud. The single good road links the airport to Petropavlovsk, a town of blockish apartments stripped of paint by wind and rain. Until 1990 it was a military zone, off limits to foreigners and even to Russians without special permission.
Compared with our ultimate destination, though, Petropavlovsk is a metropolis. From the town’s workaday wharves, our collection of parka-clad travellers with the Australian company Aurora Expeditions will board a research vessel-turned-cruise ship bound for the Kuril Islands.
A string of islands between Kamchatka and Hokkaido, Japan, and the subject of a territorial dispute between Russia and Japan, the Kuril Islands are studded with active volcanoes, home to a dizzying array of wildlife, riddled with abandoned bunkers and – we later discover – vulnerable to typhoons.
With its dark blue hull and stocky shipboard cranes, Aurora’s ship looks at home among Petropavlovsk’s fishing ships. This is no luxury cruiser. Built as an ice-breaking research ship in 1982, it carries 54 passengers plus crew and staff. On this voyage of 13 days, there are just 45 passengers, some spread out in private suites, others sharing cabins with bunks stacked against the walls. Space is limited so after each day’s excursions to the black, beaches and basalt cliffs, damp thermals and socks appear draped over the railings outside.
“This is an expedition voyage,” the lanky Australian in charge, Howard Whelan, says at the outset. “We’re on this ship to get off.”
For most, this means skipping from wave tip to wave tip in rubber Zodiac boats. Gumboots and weatherproof gear are a must. “You will get wet,” Whelan says when I appear in hiking boots. He is right. At speed, the Zodiacs send up glittering shards of water. On a bumpy day, after cruising between volcano-topped islands, they slam against the ship’s flank before being lashed to the gangplank by a handsome Russian sailor. Thigh deep in chilly water, he grasps our elbows as we wobble up the stepladder to the deck.
Harder work but more fun are the kayaks – slim, pumpkin-coloured pods with room for two paddlers each. “We get heaps closer to the wildlife,” says a kayaking guide, Judd Hill, who abandoned a career as a chef to paddle the world. “You’ve got no chance of getting up to a sea otter with a Zodiac motor making all that racket.”
When it is clear, the kayaks slide through glossy water. Paddles splash rhythmically – quiet enough not to disturb the black cormorants standing on every rocky island. Motionless, the birds look as though they are standing guard. In fact, as the on-board naturalist Alan Burger tells us, they are drying their not-quite-waterproof feathers.
“Birds don’t do much for me,” Hill says as we pass another guano-streaked cliff. “But Alan loves them. A couple of times on every voyage, we’ll be looking at whales and orcas and Alan will be getting all excited about a juvenile bloody seagull.”
Even Hill is impressed, though, when we paddle beneath a vast and craggy stone archway off Baklaniy Islet, teeming with black-legged kittiwakes. They swarm in their thousands, shrieking and screaming as a peregrine falcon high above searches for a meal.
Things are just as lively in the water. Ahead, someone spots a swimming sea otter. Then another and another. There are dozens of them, all floating on their backs with paws wagging at the sky. They look as though they should have beer bottles resting on their bellies but instead the mothers rest their babies. Hunters slaughtered the otters almost to extinction for their thick fur until the early 20th century and they are usually quite skittish. This clan, however, lets us come close. They pop their whiskered heads above the waves, then dive.
In another cove, near Tikhirka Bay, a dark, flexible flipper fans above the water. A hoarse bark from the shore alerts us to a territorial scrum of Steller sea lions. They slump over one another on the rocks – females sleek and flexible, males shaggy and gigantic. The largest, his pointy head poking from rolls of fat, shifts his bulk from flipper to flipper, roaring to keep us from his harem.
Seals are so common even the most eager photographers stop snapping them. The military presence on these islands during Soviet times inadvertently protected the wildlife; fishermen and hunters stayed away as Russia and Japan squabbled for territory.
Each afternoon when we turn back in the kayaks, the ship seems a long way out. “It’s getting a bit gnarly out there,” Hill says on one occasion. The wind picks up, sending ruffled waves towards each kayak’s nose. A wave rushes towards us and smacks me in the face as it breaks, drenching my beanie and dribbling down the fitted neck of my dry suit. It is too rough to scramble up the rope ladder that dangles from the ship’s back deck, so Hill calls down a Zodiac and it’s winched up by crane.
When things get rough, sick bags appear, tucked at regular intervals behind the ship’s railings. One evening in the dining room, I grip a bottle of wine between my ankles to stop it crashing to the floor. The sky has turned white and the ocean grey.
“Could we ask you to close your portholes?” Whelan asks over the intercom. “We’re expecting a bit of wind.”
A master of euphemism, Whelan has a reputation for promising “a short walk” then leading the group crashing through dense alder thickets or puffing up volcanoes. His “bit of wind”, it transpires, is a typhoon.
It whips the ocean into a mist that hurtles across the bow. The air blackens and the ocean writhes. From the bridge, we see water hammering the deck.
I go to bed fully dressed, lifejacket and gumboots handy – just in case.
In the relative calm of morning – the ship still lurching from side to side – the captain admits he has never seen such a storm. News reports reach us from the shore – Typhoon Roke killed 13 people as it swept Japan. It cut power and closed expressways. In Russia, the emergencies ministry warned of hurricane-force winds of speeds up to 37 metres a second but the ship’s instruments recorded gusts of 52 metres a second. We toast the crew in the bar that evening with gratitude and relief.
The Kuril Islands make a mockery of travel itineraries. Whelan stressed when we set out that all plans were weather-dependent. The heaving seas in Typhoon Roke’s wake leave us stranded on the ship for a day. Bird-mad Burger and his fellow academic, geologist Mike Gottfried, offer lectures in the downtime.
With virtuous intentions, we arrange ourselves in the lecture theatre to learn about migration patterns of sea birds and the evolution of whales. The earth here rumbles and erupts, Gottfried tells us, because deep beneath the ocean, tectonic plates thrust against each other.
Many of the volcanoes around us still have fire in their guts. Matua Island (the name comes from an indigenous Ainu word, meaning “hell mouth”) erupted two years ago, spewing ash plumes that disrupted air traffic between Asia and North America. For all the geological drama going on outside, the gentle swaying of the lecture theatre sends heads nodding and eyelids drooping. One small, crinkled fellow is slumped in his chair, head sinking to his neighbour’s knee. When an announcement of “Orcas to starboard!” comes over the intercom, the theatre clears in a flash.
All we can see of the black-and-white mammals in the distance is the spray shooting from their blowholes. A fleet of Dall’s porpoises – as if apologising for their antisocial orca cousins – dance in the bow wave. Their tails flicker as their stocky bodies zoom before the ship. Before long, the sea calms enough to let two-legged mammals enjoy the water as well. In the kayaks again, we slide onto a beach of fine grey sand, scattered with driftwood bleached to the colour of bone.
Hill rummages in his waterproof bag and produces a bottle of Cointreau, six plastic cups and a block of dark chocolate. We snack and sip and gaze out at the ocean, which stretches wide and empty. Behind us, yet another volcano rises through the clouds.