Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley) Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley)
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Russia’s wild Kamchatka Peninsula by Stanley Johnson

Published in The Times 15th January 2011

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The remote ‘ring of fire’ in the easternmost part of Siberia is full of wildlife, best seen up close by small ship

A volcano was venting a cloud of dust into the atmosphere as we came into land at Petropavlosk-Kamchatsky, though the pilot of our Aeroflot Boeing 767 seemed unfazed.

The Kamchatka Peninsula, which drops like a giant pendant from the easternmost part of Siberia and is a ten-hour flight from Moscow across eight time zones, has more volcanoes — about 300 — than any other region on Earth. And 29 of them are active. As we lost height, I could see the great conical shapes pushing up through the cloud base below us, the peaks catching the late-afternoon sun.

Our ten-day voyage on board the 72m Spirit of Enderby, from Avacha Bay on Kamchatka Peninsula to the Kuril and Commander Islands — and back — was a journey around a ring of fire. Many of the volcanoes we saw were more than 3,000m high, rising steeply from the sea to snow-capped summits. You can explore this territory by land, but the infrastructure is limited, the distances long and the roads and hotels poor. A cruise by small ship, with good accommodation on board, makes much more sense.

If physical beauty is one of the characteristics of the region, the abundance and the variety of wildlife is another. In terms of its biological richness and diversity, this is one of the most extraordinary parts of the world I have visited. It’s a trip that could easily be justified in terms of its whale-watching interest alone. The thrill of being in a Zodiac surrounded by a pod of killer whales (or orcas) as they hunt for Steller sea lions or sea otters takes some beating.

On our last full day at sea, when we were heading back from the Commander Islands to Kamchatka, we must have seen a score of humpback whales, at least as many killer whales and a handful of sperm whales. A few days earlier, in Olga Bay, we spent a morning following a group of grey whales. When a grey whale comes to the surface and blows just a few feet from your small inflatable boat, you hold your breath. You can smell the whales’ breakfast.

On the northwest cape of Bering Island we parked our Zodiacs and hiked across the dunes to visit a vast colony of northern fur seals. More than 5,000 females and their pups had been herded into harems by jealous males. Young male pretenders lurked off shore and from time to time tried to seize a piece of the action, only to be hurled back into the water by irate bulls.

But perhaps most remarkable is the marine birdlife. On the craggy cliffs of the Kuril and Commander islands, guillemots, puffins, fulmars and auklets abound. At Ariy Kamen, a rocky outcrop a few miles west of Bering Island that we reached in our Zodiacs, we were greeted by thousands of birds. On another occasion, as we circled Toporkov Island in the southern Kurils, Adam, our on-board naturalist, informed us nonchalantly that the most recent estimates put the population of crested auklets at “over a million pairs”.

More than a million pairs! We watched enthralled from our boats as, towards evening, the auklets began to gather on the water in huge flocks. “Rafting” is the term the birders use. Then, as dusk fell, the sky darkened further as the birds took off from the water to settle on the cliffs for the night.

Don’t overlook the terrestrial mammals: Kamchatka is famous for its bears and the Kamchatkan subspecies of brown bear is the second largest in the world. There are thought to be 10,000 bears throughout the peninsula — and with a visit scheduled to the Kronotsky biosphere reserve, which extends over one million hectares, you have high hopes of seeing one. We spotted one sunning himself on the tundra. He loped off before we could get close. It was one of many magical sights on a voyage filled with unforgettable wildlife.


Need to know

Steppes Travel (01285 880981, steppestravel.co.uk) has a 12-day voyage of Kamchatka on board the 50-passenger ship Spirit of Enderby from £6,000pp full board, including all flights and excursions.



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