The far eastern coast of Siberia is not a place I ever dreamed to find myself, but here I discovered a wild, bountiful and theatrical coast. The backdrops should be scouted for a new season of Game of Thrones.
Outrageous spikey rock islands are literally crawling with nesting Black-legged Kittiwakes, Murres, Puffins and Auklets of several species.
Elegant in the sea and wallowing on the shores, are Northern Fur Seals and behemoth Steller Sea Lions like blond kings and queens of their realm.
Despite thick fog at almost every destination, we launched the Zodiacs and with the aid of GPS technology, switched to the olfactory and auditory senses to creep and crawl landward through the gray haze. Chattering seabirds, grunting pinnepeds and lapping waves were our guides into most island stops.
At Piltun Lagoon I witnessed a mother and calf Western Pacific Gray Whale – two of the remaining ~130 left in the world. They stayed with our boats and let us marvel at their size, giving us glimpses of their barnacle-encrusted bodies.
Perhaps an hour after leaving the encounter, I was trying to find the entrance to the lagoon in the fog with a couple of colleagues in a Zodiac and the whales reappeared. They were travelling with us, parallel to the coast, swimming beneath the boat and shadowing our passage close enough to be touched. Astounding.
Fedora Bay was new for everyone on the ship since it’s almost always iced in at the far north reaches of the Sea of Okhotsk. Our Russian guide had tried a handful of other times to access the bay, but had always previously been blocked by fast ice.
Somehow I was swept up in a spontaneous hike with one of the local Russian-speaking rangers to the summit of a nearby peak. Beating our way through nearly impenetrable brush, we became the first foreigners to ever reach the mountaintop and take in the views. It was an exhausting, but exhilarating accomplishment and is probably the wildest spot on the planet that I’ll ever set foot on.
In a dramatic about-face we visited the city of Okhotsk with about 5000 people living on the coast between Siberia and the Sea of Okhotsk. Language was an issue, but despite the communication barrier I spent time with some of the local kids letting them try out my binoculars and swapping simple vocabulary words.
Seeing the indigenous people with their clothes, lifestyle and beadwork so similar to people in North America was thought provoking. Reindeer, cranberries, dog sleds, fur lined skin clothing and meals cooked fireside were all icons of the culture. The people are relatable and realistic in this remote setting.
Back out into the uninhabited realms we encountered Ursus arctos, the brown bear. One particularly curious bear purposefully walked the shoreline within a few meters of our small fleet of Zodiacs, at times resting pensively on the shoreline and staring out at us through the rain drops. The rest of the time it appeared preoccupied with searching for food and filling its belly with mouthfuls of fresh green grass. I never knew a bear could or would eat so much grass, chewing on it like a grazing cow.
Far Eastern Siberia is not a target for the “1001 Places to Visit Before You Die” crowd – yet. There have been days I’ve had to pinch myself that I truly had the chance to visit this faraway borderline between Russia and the North Pacific Ocean. The mind-blowing magnitude of birds and marine life has truly amazed me.
I’m glad to know a place this rich in wildlife, wild flowers and wild places, and at the same time I am afraid for its future in light of the fact that it’s all perched on some of the richest oil and natural gas fields in the world.
Siberia and the Sea of Okhotsk may be one of the world’s last major proving grounds of our ability as a species to cohabit with wilderness.