Sea of Okhotsk aboard Spirit of Enderby

Sea of Okhotsk aboard Spirit of Enderby

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Little known outside of Russia and seldom visited by westerners, Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk dominates the Northwest Pacific. Bounded to the north and west by the Russian continent and the Kamchatka Peninsula to the east, with the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin Island guarding the southern border, it is almost landlocked.

Its coasts were once home to a number of groups of indigenous people: the Nivkhi, Oroki, Even and Itelmen. Their name for this sea simply translates as something like the ‘Sea of Hunters’ or ‘Hunters Sea’, perhaps a clue to the abundance of wildlife found here. In 1725, and again in 1733, the Russian explorer Vitus Bering launched two expeditions from the town of Okhotsk on the western shores of this sea in order to explore the eastern coasts of the Russian Empire. For a long time this town was the gateway to Kamchatka and beyond. The modern town of Okhotsk is built near the site of the old town, and little has changed over the centuries. Inhabitants now have an air service, but their lives are still dominated by the sea.

Perhaps no other sea in the world has witnessed as much human suffering and misery as the Sea of Okhotsk. Between 1932 and 1953 it is estimated that over 3 million prisoners (the vast majority of them innocent) were transported across the Sea of Okhotsk to the Gulags of the Kolyma Goldfields. It is estimated that only 500,000 of those prisoners survived to make the journey home. The town and port of Magadan were built to process these prisoners. Today there is little evidence of the town’s sordid past, but the Mask of Sorrow, a large monument on a hill overlooking the town, is a poignant reminder of Magadan’s origins.

The upper regions of the Sea of Okhotsk remain frozen for much of the year and winter storms make it an inhospitable place. However the lure of a rich fishery and, more recently, oil and gas discoveries means this sea is still being exploited, so nothing has changed there. In 1854, no fewer than 160 American and British whaling ships were there hunting whales. Despite this seemingly relentless exploitation the wildlife thrives, albeit probably not in the numbers it used to, but still in numbers that boggle the mind. The beautifully marked and rare Ribbon Seals are abundant here. On the small island of Iony, and on the Yamskie and Tyuleniy Islands, hundreds of Steller Sea Lions haul out each year to breed. Tyuleniy Island is also home to one of the largest breeding colonies of Northern Fur Seals in the Russian Far East.

Seabird numbers in the Sea of Okhotsk can only be described as spectacular. We are talking numbers rarely seen anywhere else in the world, such as an estimated 7 million on Matykil Island in the Yamskiye Archipelago. Then there are islands like Talan where the sky darkens when the Crested Auklets start massing offshore before returning each evening. Birds there include various species of guillemots, puffins, auklets and fulmars, but the richness of birdlife is not restricted to pelagic species. The Sea of Okhotsk has one of the highest concentrations of the majestic Steller’s Sea Eagle of anywhere in the Russian Far East.

Waterfowl are common, as are many migratory species. Harder to see, but not uncommon on this expedition, are the magnificent Kamchatka Brown Bear and other mammals such as the Arctic Ground Squirrel.

This is a truly unique expedition in that it travels through a little known sea. It is a region with a history that up until recently has been suppressed and not spoken about, the magnitude of the tragedy of Stalin’s Gulag system is only now becoming apparent. It is also an area with very significant and important wildlife values, both terrestrial and marine. There are still discoveries to be made and so for the inquisitive, adventurous and open-minded traveller, this is a ‘must do’ expedition.

Trip Name
Sea of Okhotsk aboard Spirit of Enderby
Vessel Type: Expedition Length: 72 metres Passenger Capacity: 50 Built / refurbished: 1984 / 2018 The Spirit of Enderby is a fully ice-strengthened expedition vessel, built in 1984 for polar and oceanographic research and is perfect for Expedition Travel. She carries just 50 passengers and was refurbished in November 2004 to provide comfortable accommodation in twin share cabins approximately half of which have private facilities. All cabins have outside windows or portholes and ample storage space. On board there is a combined bar/library lounge area and a dedicated lecture room. The cuisine is excellent and is prepared by top NZ and Australian chefs. The real focus and emphasis of every expedition is getting you ashore as often as possible for as long as possible with maximum safety and comfort. Our Expeditions are accompanied by some of the most experienced naturalists and guides, who have devoted a lifetime to field research in the areas that we visit. The ship is crewed by a very enthusiastic and most experienced Russian Captain and crew. The name Spirit of Enderby honours the work and the vision of the Enderby Brothers of London. The Enderby Captains were at the forefront of Antarctic exploration for almost 40 years in the early 1800’s. It also celebrates Enderby Island, arguably the greatest Subantarctic Island in the world. a) our fleet of RIB’s, (rigid inflatable boats) sometimes referred to as zodiacs. These extremely safe and stable craft will land you at some of the most amazing places.


Day 1 - Day 1: Sakhalin Island, Port of Korsakov
This morning we meet at theMega Palace Hotel and takea coach transfer to the Port ofKorsakov some 40 minutes southof the city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.Once on board you will beshown to your cabins and therewill be a chance to unpack andexplore the vessel. We plan to getunderway soon after you haveembarked. There will be briefingsand introductions to the ship,staff and crew after we havedeparted.
Day 2 - Day 2: Tyuleniy Island
We arrive at little known TyuleniyIsland off the south-east coast ofSakhalin Island. This small island isa stronghold for Northern Fur Sealsand, since 1990, an increasingnumber of Steller Sea Lions. Upuntil the early 1900s fur seals wereslaughtered in their thousandson this island. An internationalconvention, signed in 1911, onthe research and managementof fur seals changed thesepractices and the numbers haveslowly been recovering, reachinga record in the 1950s of about120,000 animals. In the 1960s asubstantial field research stationwas constructed on the island and scientists monitored thepopulation annually. In the1990s Steller Sea Lions startedbreeding on the island and theircolony now numbers about2,500 animals. Sea conditionspermitting, we plan a landinghere. This will be an opportunityto photograph the seals andsea lions as well as talk with theresearchers.
Day 3 - Day 3: Piltun Bay, Sakhalin Island
It was the discovery of oiland gas in this region whichput Sakhalin Island on manypeople’s maps. The firstcommercial wells were builtin Piltun Bay and they werenot without controversy andprotest. Biologists had beenaware for a long time of awestern population of GrayWhales that were (are) thoughtto migrate not to California(as most Gray Whales do) butpossibly to somewhere in theSouth China Sea. Piltun Bayis an important habitat forthis population so there werestrict environmental practicesimposed on the multinationaldevelopers. We visit Piltun Baytoday, where the oil and gasplatforms are very obvious,but we plan to go in search of the Gray Whales that live here,travelling by Zodiac inshore to theshallower waters where they areknown to feed.
Day 4 - Day 4: Iony Island
Iony Island lies almost in themiddle of the Sea of Okhotsk,about 120 nautical miles fromthe closest land. It is a tiny island,really just a rock, but what itlacks in physical size it more thanmakes up for wildlife. It is nothingshort of spectacular and veryfew people have seen it. Iony is awell known breeding ground forSteller Sea Lions. The island alsoteems with birdlife. Birds appearto take up all available space.There are guillemots, kittiwakesand various species of auklets,with Parakeet, Whiskered andLeast being the most prominent.We will Zodiac cruise around theIsland as Steller Sea Lions occupyall the flat ground and the fewrocky beaches make any landingimpossible.
Day 5 - Days 5 to 6: Shantar Archipelago
There are 15 islands in this littleknown archipelago. Lying asthey do in the western sector ofthe Sea of Okhotsk close to thecontinent, they are amongst thelast places here to become icefree each year. This late ice cansometimes restrict how far wecan explore. On the other handif there is ice around, it increases our chances of seeing someof the seals including Bearded,Ringed, Largha and Ribbon Sealsthat breed here. Potentially thisarea is one of the best to getobservations and photographsof the beautifully patternedRibbon Seals. The seas aroundthe Shanter Archipelago are alsorenowned for Bowhead Whales.If we can land there will bebirding, botany and photographyexcursions led by our team of onboard naturalists. We have setaside two days here to maximiseour chances of getting ashoreand also having the best wildlifeexperiences.
Day 6 - Day 7: Mal’minskie Islands
The sight that greets you whenyou approach these three smalloffshore islands is ‘birds’. There arebirds everywhere, in the air, in thewater and on the land. Numerousspecies breed here includinglarge numbers of SpectacledGuillemots, perhaps the largestcolony of these birds anywhere,as they are only found in the Seaof Okhotsk. Other birds includeAncient Murrelet, RhinocerosAuklet, Parakeet Auklet, Hornedand Tufted Puffin, CrestedAuklet and both Common andBrunnich’s Guillemot. It is littlewonder with the abundanceof birds that there is a goodpopulation of Steller’s Sea Eagleson the island and adjacentmainland.
Day 7 - Day 8: Okhotsk Town
This town has featured in RussianFar East history since the earliestCossack explorers came fromthe west. Prior to their arrival theindigenous people undoubtedlyhad seasonal camps here toharvest the salmon. Vitus Beringtravelled overland from StPetersburg to Okhotsk in 1725,and again in 1733, and it wasfrom this small town that bothof these expeditions travelledto Kamchatka and beyond.Because of the hostility of theKoryak people in the northtowards the Russian invaders,the Sea of Okhotsk was the mainaccess route to Kamchatka.Today Okhotsk is the region’sfishing centre. The port exportssignificant quantities of salmonand other fish. We visit thetown, landing by Zodiac upthe river near its centre. Thelocal people are generous andwelcoming, and will provide someentertainment in the town centrewith a cultural display. This is achance to experience genuineRussian Far East culture andembrace their hospitality.
Day 8 - Day 9: Talan Island
An internationally known birdisland, Talan lies offshore some50 miles west of Magadan. It isfamous largely because of thehundreds of thousands of CrestedAuklets that nest here. There isalso an extraordinary numberof Black-legged Kittiwakesnesting along the cliffs, and notsurprisingly a large population ofSteller’s Sea Eagles. If weatherconditions are suitable we willcircumnavigate the island byZodiac before landing. We planto return in the evening afterdinner to witness the huge flocksof Crested Auklets amassingoffshore before returning to theisland. If the conditions are right itis one of those sights, and nights,you will never forget.
Day 9 - Day 10: Koni Peninsula
This is a mountainous regionto the south-east of the townof Magadan. Approximatelyone third of it is protected byits inclusion in the MagadanskiyZapovednik (a Federal NatureReserve). This reserve protectsamong other animals brownbear and Snow Sheep. There are numerous places to landand the climate is very muchaffected by the Sea of Okhotsk.Very few visitors have everlanded on, or explored, the KoniPeninsula. Many of our landingsare expeditionary and part ofwhat makes our style of travel sointeresting.
Day 10 - Day 11: Yamskiye Islands
These islands are also included inthe Magadansky Zapovednik andare claimed by some biologists tobe the largest bird colony in theNorth Pacific. According to birdcounts there are an estimated7 million birds nesting on MatykilIsland, the largest in the group Birds include Common andBrunnich’s Guillemot, Crested,Parakeet and Least Auklets,Tufted and Horned Puffins andNorthern Fulmars. The mostabundant of these is theLeast Auklet.The islands are also a well knownbreeding ground for the StellerSea Lion and we will see largenumbers both in the water andhauled on the few beaches onthe island. We Zodiac aroundthe coast as no landings arepermitted, but you get a muchbetter appreciation of the islandsand the abundance of thewildlife by cruising the shoreline.
Day 11 - Day 12: Magadan
The name Magadan is synonymouswith Stalin’s oppressive Gulags orprisons. It is estimated that between1932 and 1953 more than 3.5 million‘prisoners’ were shipped acrossthe Sea of Okhotsk to Magadan orNagaevo, as it was then known, towork in the Kolyma Goldfields. It isthought that only 500,000 survivedthe terrible conditions includingthe cold, lack of food, andinhuman treatment by the guardsand officials. Nowadays there isvery little evidence of this town’stragic past. The most poignantreminder is the ‘Mask of Sorrow’,a large monument, dedicated tothose who suffered here, on a hilloverlooking the town. Today it is a town of about 100,000people. Fishing is important andgold mining is experiencing arevival with mechanical dredgesand machinery successfullyreworking the areas once workedby the prisoners with their hands.The port is kept open throughout the winter by icebreakers as it isthe lifeline for those living here. Theinfamous Kolyma Highway, alsoknown as the ‘Road of Bones’,connects Magadan with Yakutskand the rest of Russia.We plan to arrive in the Port ofMagadan, late morning. There willbe a complimentary shuttle to acentral hotel in the city. In caseof unavoidable delays with eitherweather and/or formalities wekindly ask you not to make anyonward flight reservations until thefollowing day.
Day 12 - Please Note:
During our voyage,circumstances may make itnecessary or desirable to deviatefrom the proposed itinerary.This can include poor weatherand/or opportunities for makingunplanned excursions. YourExpedition Leader will keep youfully informed.

Trip Dates

StartEndPrice FromRoom Type


    • Discover Sakhalin Island
    • Enjoy Tyuleniy Island & Iony Island
    • Explore Shantar Archipelago
    • Travel to Koni Peninsula & Yamskiye Islands