Sailing from Sakhalin, we explore the Russian Far East to see its rich cetacean life on a unique voyage across the Sea of Okhotsk, then along the Kamchatka Peninsula to the remote Commander Islands.
Accompanied by renowned zoologist and explorer Mark Carwardine and his expert team, this is a rare opportunity to visit the Russian Far East, which is almost impossible to get to any other way. The region was closed (even to Russians!) for decades, and it is only now – some two decades after perestroika – that it is possible to travel here. Consequently, few people have been to many of the places we visit. Yet this is one of the richest corners of the world for marine life, in both variety and sheer abundance.
We have chartered the 50-passenger Spirit of Enderby – a comfortable, ice-strengthened polar expedition ship – for this wonderful, far-reaching 16-night voyage. Travelling through some of the world’s most remote and least-visited regions, we go in search of many different whales, and along the way pack in Zodiac cruises and shore landings for close encounters with a wide variety of exciting wildlife. Our journey takes us from Sakhalin Island to the Shantar Islands, then across the Sea of Okhotsk and through the northern Kuril Islands, before sailing along the Kamchatka Peninsula and across the Bering Sea to the incredibly remote Commander Islands.
In Mark Carwardine's words: “This has to be one of the most exciting whale-watching trips ever – in a part of the world that some people may find difficult to point to on a map. We hope to see critically endangered North Pacific right whales, bowhead whales, blue whales, humpback whales, fin whales, minke whales, rarely-seen western grey whales, eastern grey whales (perhaps even some of our old friends who will have migrated 6,000 miles from Baja California in Mexico), sperm whales, Baird’s beaked whales, Cuvier’s beaked whales, two different killer whale ecotypes, Pacific white-sided dolphins, harbour porpoises and Dall’s porpoises, as well as huge colonies of tufted puffins, horned puffins and other seabirds, and everything from Steller’s sea eagles, ribbon seals and northern fur seals, to Kamchatka brown bears and sea otters.
Day1: Fly to Moscow
Depart London on a scheduled flight direct to Moscow Sheremetyevo and transfer to our hotel in the city centre.
Accommodation: Hotel in Moscow, 1-night
Day2: Overnight flight to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk
The morning is free to relax. In the early afternoon we transfer back to Moscow Sheremetyevo international airport for an overnight direct flight to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk near the southern end of the island of Sakhalin, off Russia’s Pacific coast.
Day3: Arrive Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Sakhalin Island; transfer to the Spirit of Enderby
On arrival at Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk airport, Sakhalin Island, we are met and then transferred by bus some 30 minutes south to the port of Korsakov. Here we board the Spirit of Enderby, are shown to our cabins and have a chance to unpack and explore the vessel. There should be plenty of time to watch some of the birdlife around the ship – hopefully including rhinoceros auklets and spectacled guillemots – before we join the captain, officers and expedition team on the bridge to get to know everyone. After an introductory briefing and safety drill, we sail in the late afternoon.
This morning sees everyone out on deck or on the bridge to watch for whales and other wildlife. We could see North Pacific right whales, bowhead whales, western grey whales, killer whales, ribbon seals (right), spotted seals, all sorts of seabirds and much more.
While sailing across the Sea of Okhotsk towards Tyuleniy Island we can settle into shipboard life and adjust to the time change. There will be introductory lectures, as well as a chance to enjoy birding with our naturalist guides and watch for cetaceans from the deck.
We pass Tyuleniy Island, a small island in the Sea of Okhotsk to the east of Sakhalin, which until 1945 belonged to Japan but was then annexed by the Soviet Union. Each spring and summer many seabirds nest on the island, including crested, parakeet and rhinoceros auklets, common and thick-billed guillemots, black-legged kittiwake, ancient murrelet, and tufted puffin.
Day5: Piltun Bay (Bukhta Piltun)
We continue northward to Piltun Bay for a very special day with western grey whales. The last survivors of this critically endangered population gather off the northeast coast of Sakhalin Island to feed every summer. We expect to spend the whole day with them on their feeding grounds – spending as much time in the Zodiacs as possible. There is also a good chance of seeing Steller’s sea eagles here. In this area, the majority of whales are seen in waters shallower than 20 metres and are distributed in an area from several hundred metres to five kilometres from the shoreline.
Day6: Whale watching at sea
As we sail to Long Island today we keep a weather eye out for ribbon seals and bowhead whales, which we are unlikely to find anywhere else on the voyage.
Days7-8: Shantar Islands (Shantarsky Ostrova)
An exciting couple of days pushing through ice and Zodiac cruising around these wild and remote islands – a hotspot for bowhead whales and gorgeous ribbon seals, as well as everything from Kamchatka brown bears to spectacular seabird cliffs.
Days9-10: Whale watching at sea
More whale watching as we cross the southern Sea of Okhotsk en route to the northern Kuril Islands. We might be lucky and see bowhead whales, and hope to see other species along the way, but our real target is North Pacific right whales. There are no more than a few hundred of these critically endangered whales left, and between here and the Commander Islands where they are seen most frequently by the scientists who are trying to keep tabs on them.
We pass through the Second Kuril Strait, between Paramushir and Shumshu islands off the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula, a rich feeding ground for cetaceans. Here we look for North Pacific right whales, bowhead whales, killer whales and a host of other species. There is also a good chance of seeing sea otters and there are Kamchatka brown bears here, too. We hope to visit the tiny Ptichi Islands, which are home to a spectacular variety of seabirds, as we continue northward towards the east coast of Kamchatka.
Day12: Russkaya Bay (Bukhta Russkaya)
We spend a day exploring this deep, wildlife-rich fjord on the Kamchatka Peninsula. We’re here to look for the local killer whales and Kamchatka brown bears, but this is also a great place to see the critically endangered Kittlitz’s murrelet as well as long-billed murrelet, Steller’s sea eagles, Steller’s sea lions and sea otters.
Day13: Whale watching at sea
Today could be one of the highlights of the trip – the sea between southern Kamchatka and the Commander Islands teems with whales, and the Kamchatka Trench, in particular, is one of the best places in the world for whale watching. We hope to see blue, fin, minke, humpback, sperm and killer whales, as well as Pacific white-sided dolphins and Dall’s porpoises. And this is where Mark saw a North Pacific right whale on a previous trip.
Days14-16: The Commander Islands (Kommandorskiye Ostrova)
After clearing the guard post on arrival in the Commander Islands, we have three days to explore the last known home of the extinct Steller’s sea cow (we’ll keep our eyes peeled, just in case!). This is a veritable cetacean hotspot, so we cruise just offshore in search of Baird’s beaked whales and Cuvier’s beaked whales. We also hope to see a variety of other cetaceans (including sperm, killer, humpback and minke), watch playful sea otters along the south coast of Bering Island, and spend time ashore to look for the endemic subspecies of Arctic fox and visit huge colonies of northern fur seals and Steller’s sea lions.
Day17: Olga Bay (Bukhta Olga)
Today is another special whale day as we visit Olga Bay, at the edge of Kronotskiy Federal Nature Reserve, an area frequented by large numbers of eastern grey whales. This is also a good spot for Kamchatka brown bears, and we could even see a Kamchatka reindeer.
Day18: Zhupanova River (Zhupanova Reka)
We take a Zodiac cruise into the scenic, slow-flowing Zhupanova River, bordered by birch forest and backed by snow-capped mountains, where we hope to have great views of Steller’s sea eagles (which often nest in trees beside the river), Kamchatka brown bears and spotted seals. Other highlights may include Far Eastern curlew, long-toed stint, Kamchatka gull and Aleutian tern. There is also a major salmon fishery on the river.
Then we cross the Kamchatka Trench and continue into Avacha Bay, one of the world’s greatest natural harbours, on our way to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, looking out for a large population of killer whales that lives here This is a good time to be out on deck as the birding can also be good.
Sadly we need to bring the expedition to a conclusion. This evening our farewell dinner provides an opportunity to reminisce and thank the crew and expedition staff. At some time during the early morning the Spirit of Enderby will dock in Petropavlovsk.
Day19: Disembark in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy and fly to Moscow
After breakfast we disembark and transfer to Petropavlovsk Yelizovo airport to check in for an afternoon scheduled direct flight back to Moscow Sheremetyevo. On arrival in Moscow shortly after midday (local time), we transfer to our hotel in the city centre and the remainder of the day is free to relax and enjoy the city..
Accommodation: Hotel in Moscow, 1-night
Day20: Fly to the UK
Transfer back to Moscow Sheremetyevo airport and fly direct to London.
You should note: This tour is highly dependent on weather and sea conditions; although we will follow the above itinerary as closely as possible, it may change to make the most of local conditions.
Duration and price including flights from/to UK: 20 daysfrom £12,995 pp: Price based on main deck triple-share cabin
Group size: 45
Included in the price/package:
16 nights on board Spirit of Enderby
2 nights hotel in Moscow
All activities aboard Spirit of Enderby
Services of Mark Carwardine, Joe Cornish & Katie Murray
Mark is an award-winning writer, magazine columnist, widely published photographer, consultant, broadcaster and lecturer.
With Stephen Fry he co-presented Last Chance to See, a BBC TV series about endangered species which was broadcast in autumn 2009. He also presented the weekly half-hour programme, Nature, on BBC Radio 4 for many years.
Mark has written more than 50 books – including the best-selling field guide to whales, dolphins and porpoises ever published. He has also penned monthly columns in BBC Wildlife and Wanderlust magazines for many years. Mark has an extensive collection of wildlife, nature and environment photographs taken on all seven continents and in more than a hundred countries – which are sold around the world. And for many years Mark was the Chairman of the Judging Panel for the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition.
A wildlife and landscape photographer, Joe started his career freelancing for the National Trust in 1988.
Years of close encounters with nature have left him him convinced of the need to reconnect people with the natural world, and travelling to Antarctica with Mark Carwardine in 2013 reignited Joe's passion for wilderness. He has subsequently joined Mark on trips in Svalbard and Baffin Island.
Books are the heart of Joe’s photographic output, and he has written several landscape photography publications, including Scotland's Coast, and the critically acclaimed Scotland's Mountains. His training in fine art and experience assisting commercial photographers have helped Joe bring together these two worlds, and his enthusiasm has made him a popular speaker and workshop leader.
Katie is a polar addict, a Shackleton groupie and a Scot.
With a background studying Scottish History then Museum Studies, her real quest in life seems to have been to seek out the wettest, windiest and wildest places…..a Cold War RAF camp on the Hebridean island of Lewis, a stone-age tomb on Orkney, and best of all, the old whaling station of Grytviken on the Subantarctic island of South Georgia. Here, her first task was to dig the museum out of the snow! Other duties included tending to Shackleton’s grave and trying to shoo fur seals out of the cemetery. Back at home Katie is studying for a PhD in polar cultural history at the University of St Andrews.
The Kamchatka Peninsula, known for its stunning landscapes, is home to an abundance of iconic wildlife, notably brown bear, Steller’s sea eagle, and the endangered spoon-billed sandpiper. It is located between the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean, whose waters offer superb cetacean watching.
Where: Russian Far East
Ideal for viewing: brown bear, Steller’s sea eagle, spoon-billed sandpiper, sea otter, Kittlitz’s murrelet
Excellent for: Wildlife cruises, Mark Carwardine wildlife holidays, Bear watching
East of the Kamchatka Peninsula lie the Commander Islands, consisting of Bering Island, Medny Island and 15 smaller islets and rocks. Northern fur seal and Steller’s sealion are abundant here, while more than 200 bird species include large colonies of seabirds which nest on the coastal cliffs.
Excellent for: Wildlife cruises, Mark Carwardine wildlife holidays, Birdwatching
This itinerary is available on the following
The ice-strengthened Spirit of Enderby accommodates a maximum of 50 passengers in comfortable twin cabins, all of which have an outside view. She makes an ideal expedition vessel for visiting remote locations such as the Kamchatka Peninsula or the South Pacific in search of wildlife.