Second in a series drawing upon my July 2009 experiences on an expedition cruise exploring the Kamchatka Peninsula, in the Russian Far East.
Steaming out of the naval port at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, we enjoyed a spectacular passage out through the Avacha Bay then down the Kamchatka coast, passing snow-streaked volcanoes one after the other. Lifeboat drill was a bit hairy, plus all sorts of briefing on how to prepare for shore excursions.
Our first two excursions aboard the Zodiac inflatable boats, first landing on fog-bound Onekotan Island and trekking a kilometre or two across a moorland terrain before turning back down to the black-sand beach. That evening, swarms of sea birds gathered around Ekarma, a steep-sided volcanic island, and apparently a trackless wilderness, which reappeared out of dense fog as we approached and skirted the nesting sites.
Before long everybody felt comfortable climbing aboard the inflatable Zodiacs, bobbing up and down at the foot of the gangplank. Preparation involved multiple layers of clothing, waterproofs and Wellingtons, as it is always chilly out on the water. Once aboard, one perches on the rubber side of the vessel and moves up or down to balance the numbers, as directed by the person driving the outboard engine.
Another day we visited two separate volcanic calderas, volcanic cones broached by the ocean so that we could motor inside the steep walls. Once inside, we cruised more slowly by the sea bird nesting sites, exchange stares with fearless foxes, admire the jagged, green-clothed caldera walls, usually shrouded in a changing cloak of fog. All these islands are now uninhabited, although the Ainu people, who survive in Hokkaido, Japan, once inhabited some of them.
Yankicho Island in the Usashir group is a haven for auklets, puffins, harlequin ducks, guillemots – described as the northern hemisphere counterpart of the penguin – Kamchatka gulls and northern fulmars, a clumsy, bulky bird.
The same afternoon the zodiacs took us to Simishur, where the Soviet Union maintained a submarine base from 1978 onwards, then abandoned it abruptly around 1993.
The whole settlement is now derelict and uninhabited but quite eerie and evocative in places – the ruined school, the naval lecture room with murals of Soviet power and past glories, the vehicles and power plant simply abandoned where they stood. All within a starkly beautiful, sheltered natural harbour.
All the Kurils are volcanic so if they are not drowned calderas or perfect cones, they are sheer-walled slabs formed by flows of lava, now clothed in green – not unlike some of the Hebridean islands. On Shiashkotan we scrambled up a steep escarpment to explore a ruined Japanese command post (or was it a more recent Soviet border guard post? Different versions, depending who you ask).
Ano ther morning, a lonely, foggy bay on the large island of Paramushir – with a population of BEARS, so we were urged to stick together and to pay attention to a demonstration of how to respond if a grizzly should appear – they can be half camouflaged in the low brush of dwarf alders and long grass. Saw none, for better or for worse, but there was some scat about. Later that day, Atlasova Island revealed a perfect Fuji-like cone and the ruins of a Gulag prison camp.