Coke Smith Photography & Travelogue

Expedition Cruise to the Kuril Islands

  The massive columnar basalt formations of Cape Stolbchatiy on Kunashir Island, the southernmost of the Kurils.


During the summer of 2007, my main goal was to get the family up to the Arctic.  I was contacting vessels sailing the Canadian arctic but could not find any that would allow Cokie to participate in the expedition.  Even though was willing to pay passage for over two months of expedition travel, none would take Cokie.  And while I was surfing the net to see what other options I could find, I came across the website of North Pole Voyages ( and saw that they offered trips to the Russian Far East.  I started reading further and became impressed with the itinaries they offered for a four-week cruis of Kamchatka, the Commander Islands and the Kuril Islands.  And the prices were well within our budget!  And they allowed Cokie to board their vessels, no problem.  That's all it took  - we were there!  And this is how our three-month expedition across Russia, followed by a one month trip to Scandinavia and Svalbard, began  I have decided to break the trip down in to multiple pages in order to present a more thorough picture of what we experience during this mulit-month expedition of a lifetime!


Kuril Islands and Monerone Island

We spent nearly two weeks cruising from southern Kamchatka to Sakhalin Island visiting almost a dozen of the spectacular Kuril Islands.  The volcanic nature of these islands makes the scenery stupendous but the diversity of wildlife is also dramatic.  Stretching from north to south for almost 700 miles, the islands have habitats that are truly subpolar to near Asian-temperate and in some cases somewhat subtropical – from subarctic tundra to endemic bamboo forests.  The Kurils are a naturalist’s paradise.  We had excellent luck with the birding on the islands and even saw a bit of terrestrial mammal life.  The highpoint was the views of at least two individuals of Hokkaido subspecies Brown Bear (Ursus arctos yesoensis) slapping salmon on Kunishir Island.  Some of the group did get a good sighting of a Kuril Island red fox, although we missed it.  We did see tons of fox sign though.  Bear sign was everywhere as well.  The only rodents we viewed were Lemming Voles (Alticola lemminus). 


A couple Steller's Sea Lions relaxing on a basaltic outcropping in Monerone!


The marine mammal viewing was the highpoint of the Kurils by far.  We once again had great Steller’s Sea lion encounters on several occasions.  There were more Insular Harbor Seals and well over 100 Common Sea Otter sightings.  On one occasion we witnessed a “social raft” of over 40 individuals.  On Monerone Island, we saw large groupings of the non-social Spotted or Largha SealsSperm Whales were very common on the Pacific side of the islands.  We had two close encounters with pods of the Kuril Island subpopulation-Orca.  They seemed to be somewhat paler with subtler saddle patches.  Dall’s Porpoises (both the Phoceonoides dalli dalli and P. d. truei subspecies) and Pacific White-sided Dolphins were seen in staggering numbers.  Mega pods in the high hundreds to thousands of individuals were seen on several occasions.  Minke Whales were also seen by the dozens – perhaps over one hundred in one morning.  Going through large groups of Minke for hours, observing them spy hop, breach, and fin slap, will be experiences I will never forget. 


These usually non-gregarious Largha Seals were caught off-guard when we caught them snoozing on a warm August morning on Monerone Island.


The Marina Tvetaeva was our vessel for our four-week expedition to the Russian Far East!  This was one of the best boats I have ever had the pleasure to travel on.  The crew was outstanding, the food was amazing and the cabins were extremely spaceous.  The only complaint was that it did not do well in stabilizing during rough weather landings and we often had to shorten our stays ashore when the waves or winds picked up.  This may however have been due to a timid captain, I am not sure.


To see our complete Russian Species List, click here!


Be sure to visit our Russia Galleries!

Kuril Islands Landscapes Gallery


We came across so many curious Steller's Sea Lions during our voyage.  These were coming in for a closer look!





We loved spending quality time with large pinnipeds up close and personal!  Their curiosity was captivating.



An immature White-tailed Sea Eagle seen during an amazing zodiac cruise of Ketoy Island.  We came across some of the clearest waters I had ever seen here. We were able to see an amazing undersea intertidal community filled with colorful sea stars, urchins and many more invertebrates.  The visibility was in excess of 40+ feet I am sure!



During a fair part of the Kuril's expedition, the weather was rough which prevented some landings that I very much regret.  But the rough weather did bring out some great Albatrosses.  This Layson's Albatross was one of many seen during the squalls. 



 We saw a couple Hokkaido Brown Bear (Ursus arctos yesoensis) during our trip to the Kurils.  This is one of the rarest subspecies of Brown Bear anywhere.  I was particularly excited to see this one up close at Kunishir Island's Pirchy Waterfalls as he was slapping Chinook Salmon that were as thick as mud in the plunge-pool below the falls.  We would have gotten closer had it not been for the particularly uncooperative zodiac pilot we had that afternoon.


Another Steller's Sea Lion colony along the coast of one of the central Kuril Islands.


 We had overcast weather virtually everyday during our Kuril Islands expedition.  Only on the very last day did we see this glorious sunset!  This view of the sun brought every single living soul of this vessel out on deck as it interrupted dinner.




We had a great time exploring the massive sea caves of Monerone Island.  These impressive basaltic formations were impressive to say the least.



An impressive basaltic natural bridge seen during one of our zodiac cruises of Etoruhu Island.


While Som was way too hungover from the previous night's festivities, I was somehow able to pull myself out of my hungover bed to get out to see the phenomenal columnar basalt formations of Cape Stolbchatiy!  These were perhaps the most impressive formations I haver seen. 



 Cape Stolbchatiy


 Cape Stolbchatiy


Spectacular Pirchy Falls on Kunishir Island.


Iturup Volcano on Iturup Island.  We spent the better part of a full day exploring this spectacular island with its lakes, calderas and massive shield volcanoes.  Here we saw an amazing diversity of floral communities, including the subtropical Kuril Bamboo forests as well as Sakhalin Silver Fir/Stone Birch mixed forests. 


Our spectacular approach to Urup Island.  These three phenomenal waterfalls simply added to the unbelievable beauty of this island.  Initially the seas were too rough here to land but as we arrived, everything magically calmed enough for our landing.  Here we trekked for hours exploring this phenomenal wilderness.  On the way back to ship, we were able to pace a moving pod of Kuril Orca.  A sublime evening.


The waterfalls of Urup Island



The fog starting to envelope Urup Island.  Perhaps more than the wildlife of the Kurils, which was outstanding, the scenery stood out as the most impressive aspect of our trip there.


Another shipwreck, this one on Onekotan Island. This was a great landing which allowed for some serious jungle trekking in the island's interior.  I also spotted a quick Kuril Island Lemming heading back in to its den.  During this delightfully sunny day, the weather turned ugly quickly and we had to have an emergency evacuation in order to get out safely without injury.  Ironically, as the crew was screaming at me with their bullhorns, I ran back to the shore, tripping, injuring my leg, breaking my lens and nearly cracking a rib!  Inexperienced crew can be dangerous and these blokes were grossly iniexperienced.


Photographers dream of this sort of light.  This was the calm before the storm on Onekotan Island during our stay there.  At least we had already experienced much of what the island had to offer.


After waiting a couple hours, the impressive shield volcano of Paramushir Island finally popped out of the low-lying clouds.  While the weather during our Kuril Islands expedition was rough for a good part of the trip, we had daily moments of spectacular views.  Perhaps the sour weather actually allowed us to appreciate these moments even more.


A foggy morning allowing spectacular images of the massive mountains of Paramushir Island.


Impressive shield volcanoes are the normal topography of virtually all of the Kuril Islands.  These were seen in the late afternoon haze at Iturup Island.


The impressive landscape of Shimushir Island as we passed by on the way to Urup Island.


Cokie actually had some playmates during the Kuril Islands Expedition.  The funny (or sad) part of this family's trip was that they actually thought they were booking a typical Carnival-style cruise, not an ecotour.  While this Moscow family took some time to adapt, they finally got in to the experience and ended up enjoying themselves.  There were several Russian tourists on this expedition who seemed to have been told the cruise was going to be different than it actually was.  Some of them were pissed off the entire trip and even refused to do landings!


Our amazing treks of Urup Island rank as some of my favorite of the entire expedition.


Cokie and Som below the spectacular Urup Island falls.





Coke bracing himself for the Urup Island landing.




Cokie curious as to what's awaiting him at Urup Island.  Cokie seemed to enjoy the zodiac rides this summer more than any other aspect.  This kid has had so many amazing experiences!



Cokie and Som exploring the Goat's Beard of Onekotan Island.  We were basically getting lost in the bush just for fun.  Goodness knows that our guides had absolutely no idea where they were going.  It became clear after our first day together that the guides were basically useless and we decided to be our own guides.  The other clients soon picked up on this fact as well and began to follow Som and me everywhere we went as we seemed to have an innate ability to find species and cool experiences.



The Kuril Islands are a botanical paradise!  We saw so many species of plants on the islands and my lectures ended up being flora dissertations more than anything.  There were many examples of dwarfism and island gigantism.  Here, Cokie and Som are posing next to a dwarf Alder species only found on the Kurils.  Another interesting floral characteristic of the Kurils was due to their lenght as an island chain.  The northernmost islands were subarctic in their flora while the southernmost has aspects of subtropical flora. Amazing transitions were the norm, floristically speaking.

The spectacular bay at Onekotan Island.  I enjoyed the jungle trek at this island.  We basically followed a stream a couple kilometers inland just see what we could see. 


The Sakhalin Fir forest (note the Tiger Lilies in the foreground) of Iturup Island.  This island allowed us to see the striking elevational transitions in floral communities heading up the Iturup Volcano.  We also spotted many Dall's Porpoises (including the Truei morph) and Sperm Whales in and around the shores of this island.


After our amazing trek of Urup Island, we had the opportunity to pace these amazing Kuril Orca.


A beautiful Dall's Porpoise bowriding on our way to Kunishir Island.


A Pacific White-sided Dolphin bowriding.  Without a doubt some of the more impressive wildlife spectacles experienced on this expedition were the numerous megapods of cetaceans. There were times when thousands of Dall's Porpoises and Pacific White-sided Dolphins would appear as if from nowhere to come to great our ship!


I never knew that whales could form megapods until this morning when I spent time alone on the deck with about 100 Minkey Whales!  I watched alone for hours as they were spy-hopping and breaching everywhere. It was truly an amazing natural event, and no one else was out on deck!  I kept trying to signal the bridge but no one seemed to be paying attention at all.  Their loss.  I was feeling a bit guilty not runing in to tell Som what what going on but when I met up with her a couple hours later, she mentioned to me that she had seen dozens of breaching whales while she was relaxing in the aft of the ship!  Figures, great minds think and act alike!


A lovely White Wagtail singing his heart out during a lovely sunset on Urup Island.


This Terek Sandpiper was just one of the many lifers for me during the Kuril Islands expedition.



Slaty-backed Gulls were the main species seen in the Kurils. This one was approached our zodiac during our morning zodiac cruise of Monerone Island.


These Slaty-backed Gulls evidently found something tasty in the sea!


These Spectacled Guillemots were common in Monerone Island but not many other places.


This lovely Northern Fulmar flew at eye level while I was photographing wildlife from the deck.


While in the southern Kurils, we came across numerous Japanese or Temminck's Cormorants.  This flock was seen on a rock outcropping on Kunishir Island.


Perhaps the greatest disappointment of the entire expedition was being limited to only viewing this amazing bird bazaar on Yankicha Island from the deck of the ship.  While the seas were absolutely doable, the captain decided to cancel the landing.  This was really an inexcusably incompetent thing to do on an expedition of this sort.  Even the experienced zodiac drivers were saying the seas were no problem whatsoever.  Consequently we missed the largest bird bazaar of the entire Kuril Island chain.  At least we hung out here to watch the flocks of thousands of pelagic birds coming and going from this impressive bazaar.  Maybe next time!



To see our complete Russian Species List, click here!


Be sure to visit our Russia Galleries!

Kuril Islands Landscapes Gallery