A nuclear lighthouse from the apocalypse
The Expedition Diary.
Day 14: Over to Sakhalin
We left Tyuleny Island late last night. Another 13+ hours at sea as we make our way south towards Sakhalin. 15 hours in we can see Sakhalin Island on the right hand side of the boat. The weather is super comfortable and the sun is out. There has been a lot of resting, battery recharging, eating and editing today.
We continue heading south on our way to the Aniva lighthouse, at the end of Sakhalin Island. There it is. The lighthouse can be seen in the distance. Afina and it's crew anchor about a kilometer away from the rock where the lighthouse rests. Back in the zodiacs and on to the lighthouse we go.
But before we go around the area to see if there is any way to hike up to the mountain near the the lighthouse. Povel finds a spot where he thinks he will be able to descend onto and start the climb.
Doesn't look easy.
After a few rounds on the zodiacs we make it to the island housing the lighthouse. Supposedly it's a lighthouse used during the 2nd world war. As we start our difficult ascend to it, it is evident that this is not a place humans visit often. The lighthouse has been completely overtaken by seagulls. It's their home. Beautiful, healthy, white seagulls, baby chicks and nests with eggs all over the place. We have to be very careful not to step on eggs as we climb. It is absolutely clear that we are not welcome here as the chicks and their worried parents chirp and scream as we are making our way up. We do our best not to disturb them but it's hard.
The lighthouse is in really bad shape but the structure is obviously still super strong. As we go up the stairs, after clinging on to some cable ropes left by someone else to make it to the entryway, we can see the birds extremely close. Old decrepit rooms are seen on the way up. Some of the adult birds lift off when we get close to the chicks as we make our way up and then dart back down at us almost hitting us in the head. They are clearly in protection mode.
We make it to the tip top of the lighthouse. The view is breathtaking and we can see Afina in the distance. The way down is tricky because of the structure and the birds.
Back on the zodiacs after our descend and off to the boat. Once there we decide it's a great idea to swim. Is the water too cold? It is, but it is survivable, for a few minutes at least. Several of us jump in and it is just perfect.
Of course the crew has set up some ropes at the back of Afina to make sure we can climb back up on board quickly. There is also a Zodiac on the lookout just in case. The water is cold!
It is our last night on the boat. You can sense many emotions and feelings: nostalgia, happiness, relief, excitement, gratefulness, thankfulness and a sense of accomplishment.
Oh, and yes. Povel did find a way to make it to the top of the mountain. Details of the whole ordeal are not clear yet, but surely they will be in days to come.
It's time for some celebratory drinks and some good food. Everyone gathers in the dinning hall for some fun, some fine words and some last pics. What a day. What a journey. What a place. Definitely one of the experiences of a lifetime.
Day 12: a very smelly and raw place
We are in Tyulenyi island where there is a huge and healthy population of fur seals and steller sea lions. Thousands and thousands of them are throughout the entire island where five scientists from Vladimir's team are stationed. There are also hundreds of thousands of sea birds all over the place.
On this day Vladimir delivers to his team the awaited backup generator and water for washing themselves and their clothes. They have a lot of drinking water and food in the shelters built years ago on the island.
We walk the entire island and get to see all the animals up close, literally one to two meters away in some cases. There are walkways designed for observation of the animals from very close. Wooden fences separate us from the animals in many places around the island. On the shore some seal pups wander away from their group, walk towards us and smell our cameras touching them with their noses.
The smell in the air around the island is nasty. A combination of excrement and decaying body smell combine to form what we are calling Eau d'Kuril. This is a very smelly and raw place to say the least. Life is abundant here but there are also many bodies of seals, sea lions and birds all over the place. It is especially hard to see bodies of pups that didn't make it. After a few hours on the island observing wildlife and shooting some interviews some of us head back on the zodiac back to the boat. We will also be at Tyuleny all day tomorrow. (AA)
Tyulenyi: Packed with life
We asked Dr. Vladimir Burkanov what to expect in Tyuleni: "On Tyulenyi Island we will see many northern fur seals, about 40.000 animals, pups and non-pups, and the same, steller sea lions, about 3.000, also pups and non-pups, and it's a huge colony of murre, thick-build murre. About 400.000 or up to 800.000 birds and many other species, birds and maybe spotted seals. The island is about 500 meters long and 100 meters wide, so it is a small island, but it is packed with life. It is one of the few places on planet earth with such a dense life. It will be interesting."
Day 10 and 11: Making miles and saving drones
We have been navigating for more than 13 hours. We are at L'vinaya golova or Lion's Bay. A rock formation in front of us looks just OK compared to everything we have seen in past days. However, as we get close, the rock is filled with eagles flying over it. Usually you see one or two eagles at a time. This time there are 12 floating gloriously over us.
Olga and our captain Eugene are in the water very near the seals who are trying to figure out what the hell we are doing in their space. They pop their heads up and down quickly. They look right, they look left, they dive back down. Most of the crew descend on the rock. They spend hours filming one on one interviews.
Povel is climbing around the rock trying to find a path to the top. I go back to the boat and catch at least 100 fish with Eugene, Olga and the crew. Ridiculous how easy it is to catch fish here. You cast, you catch. Easy. We have sashimi. Absolutely delicious and fresh as can possibly be.
We are then heading to Tyuleny where Vladimir has five PhD students living for three months without any connection to land. They are studying the mammals on the island. We are bringing water and a generator for them.
We are on a 28 hour cross to Tyuleny. Not much action today. Near sunset we see a right whale. Vlad had done this crossing about 12 times and he says it's the first time he has seen on of these whales. The drones are up for about 2 hours taking awesome shots of it. One of the drones has trouble landing and crashes into Seb's hand and arms, while he rescues it from falling in the water. He's got some cuts but nothing to serious, and surely not the first time this has happened to him. He is a warrior. On we go on our way Tyuleny. About three hours to go. We should arrive by 2 am. (AA)
Day 9: Up close and personal
Day 9: We wake up near the coast of Brat Chirpoyev. Weather isn't as good as in previous days and the clouds cover the tops of the volcano. Lush greenery covers the sides of the island.
We jump on zodiacs and make a dry landing on the island. Not an easy landing as we need to climb the rocks while the zodiac is still on and the navigator accelerates lightly to keep the boat touching the rocks. Thankfully there are no mug waves today. We make it safely onto the island and as we ascend to a higher place we now see the rookery of seals. Hundreds of them on the rocks and the water. We can see many pups. Vladimir is explaining to us everything that is happening and how we should behave as to not disturb the animals.
Three drones are up in the air.
We walk through the rocks to a higher place. Now we are on a cliff overlooking the rookery. Crawling we get close to the edge and as our heads pop through the grass at the end, we see their civilization up close. We observe them for hours in awe of everything that is taking place in front of our eyes. They roar, they fight, they play, they swim. They are completely in full display in their natural habitat.
After everyone makes it down from the rocks into the zodiacs and back in Afina, we head down to Urup. (AA)
Day 8: Goodbye Ushishir
Day 8: We wake up late after camping on Ushishir. We take the camp down, most of it as some might come back later to stay the night on the island, and go back to Afina. Everyone enjoys a delicious lunch prepared by Tanya the cook who manages to feed 20+ everyday, three times a day. All batteries are being recharged after two days of unbelievable shots and shoots from all sides of the volcanic island. The drone footage we are starting to see is spectacular. We are leaving stunning Ushishir tonight and are heading to Urup. (AA)
Day 7: The sheer beauty of Ushishir
Day 7: We are now at Ushishir. The weather is perfect. The sun is out and there are no clouds in the sky. Plans are in the works as to what will happen in the next two days here. Most likely there will be a lot of island exploring and camping.
Right now we are anchored in a calm bay which gives us a nice break from the rough seas from previous days. Some of us jump on a zodiac, much easier now as the sea is as calm as a lake, and go to check out a cave filled with thousands of birds. They are also all over the rocks. White, Black and Tan birds all around. Thousands of them are also on the water and as we go by they all take flight creating an astonishing show of synchronicity as they fly in huge flocks in different directions.
Then we go to the lake inside the crater of the volcanic island. The tide is low so at some points our crew get off the boat and push and pull the zodiac. We navigate throughout the lagoon and see the lush green sides of the crater. Once again thousands and thousands of birds all around.
We can see a dead sperm whale on one of the shores. We then come to a shore where steam can be seen emanating from the earth. Scolding hot water flows slowly into the lagoon from a hot spring. With this thermal mineral water, rocks and a plastic tarp the crew starts creating a pool. Once done the water starts accumulating and we have our own Kuril Spa. Cold water has to be brought in buckets from the lagoon as the water is simply too hot for comfort. An arctic fox watches as we work on the pool.
I climb up one of the sides of the crater to the highest point I can reach without being in danger, as there is a deadly cliff just a few meters away. The climb is not too steep but the grass is thick and tall. At some points it reaches above my waist. It takes me about 30 minutes to the top. I sit, take several deep breaths, and admire the entire island from above. Simply majestic.
The weather is the best it could possibly be. As I write this I am wearing a T-shirt and the sun is shining from above on my back. Back at the Kuril Spa the water is very hot but after several minutes the body gets used to it and the volcanic water feels great for the soul. We plan to camp near the hot spring tonight so we go back to the boat to get some food and supplies for the night. Camp is setup and the tents are ready. The team collects wood for a very nice bonfire right next to the hot springs. The steam fro the springs and the smoke of the fire mix in the air. Some of the guys are still up on the rims of the volcanic islands. From camp we can see where they are by the headlamps on the heads. (AA)
Men at work
Continuation of Day 6: Walking the volcano
Zodiacs are out again. We are going to try to walk on the active volcano. We make it. Feels like walking on the moon. We are some of the very few people to walk here after the volcano erupted three weeks ago. Birds are struggling to find whatever little greenery is left covered partly by ash. Just a surreal experience to be walking on an active volcano. We haven't seen sea lions or seals on shore yet. We just heard that they are all gone. Only a handful of seals or sea lions were seen. The pups are gone.The smell of sulfur in the air is so present. Ushishir is next on our journey. (AA)
A big rock covered with ash
Alejandro Arango describes his experiences of today:
We wake up to a beautiful sunset near Lovushki where there are colonies of sea lions, fur seals and harbor seals. The drones are flying early capturing aerial footage of the sea lions, seals and birds all around the rock formations. A few people from our crew get ready to jump in the water to take a closer look at the friendly mammals. The zodiacs are deployed, three of them, and we go to see the animals in their natural habitat.
The seals and sea lions curiously look at us from the rocks and when they pop their heads up from the water. It is an unbelievable scene filled with beautiful visuals and noises from the mammals and the birds. It's a very busy and noisy place with birds guarding their nests and seals and sea lions protecting their territories and their harems.
We are now headed to Raikoke where the recent eruption happened. We are all waiting to see what happened to the seal population there. The fear is that they might have been all wiped out by the eruption. All ashes. An island that was lush and green is now a big rock covered with ash. No seal rookeries. No passages through the rocks while there were several before. New land now covers those areas. Thousands of birds flying around the volcano, seemingly lost. Not knowing what to do as they lost their homes. It's all gone. Weird feeling of death on the shores yet a clear and present reminder that earth is very much alive inside. The caldera is still steaming.
We are navigating around Raikoke and searching for life.
Pictures from Raikoke
Unforgettable Days on Onekotan
Those last 36 hours of the expedition were unbelievable. Summed up by our co-expeditor Alejandro Arango:
More on day 4: We wake to unreal Onekotan. The weather is perfect. No clouds and we can see the volcano in the caldera perfectly. We get ready for camping near the caldera tonight. Bagpacks are packed and ready to go for the hike. Before we go I fish some with the crew who are super nice. More flounder is caught. Zodiacs are lowered on to the ocean by the cranes. Off we go. It's about a 10 minute ride to the shore where we have to get out quickly. Once on land we wait for all the group to arrive. The hike starts. There is a fresh trail we can follow that is built over an old road built by the Japanese army way back. The hike isn't too demanding. After almost 3 hours we get to the top to see one of the most impressive landscapes in the world. Standing on the edge of the caldera we can see the lake and the volcano in the middle perfectly. Clouds and mist come in from time to time adding more beauty to the volcano and also covering it completely from time to time. We watch and admire for hours. Drones are up in the air. The guys say they are capturing some of the most amazing shots ever. All sort of cameras and special lenses shot countless photos of the scene. We then walk around the caldera to our camping site near a small lake. That is crucial as we have ran out of water and will boil water from the lake for consumption. The tents are up, we have a quick meal. The sunset is ridiculously beautiful. We all continue enjoying this unbelievable natural wonder for hours.
Day 5: Wake up, walk outside the tent and the volcano is still there for us to see in all it's beauty. Great weather. We make a decision not no try to hike to the summit of the volcano. It's just too dangerous. First we would need to descend to the lake which looks pretty difficult. Then we would have to cross through rough frigid water in an old raft, that doesn't look too safe. Then the hike to the summit looks extremely difficult due to the terrain, the wind and the uncertainty of it all. After the camp is disassembled we pack and head back down. We make it in about 2 hours. Zodiacs are called in and we get back to the boat. Blisters are on our feet and we have tired bodies. However everyone is extremely happy for how it all went.
Day 4: Onekotan - a peak attempt with rafts
The second biggest island of the Kurils is Onekotan. It is uninhabited and features an over 1300 meters high volcano that rises from a lake within a caldera. A breathtaking sight, and according to Eugene Kaspersky the most beautiful volcano in the world. When Eugene was here in 2014 it was covered in clouds. Such a difference today. The peak is free, blue skies. So, our plan stands: we will try to get to the top.
What sounds like a relaxed hike is a proper adventure. We will march up to the caldera, carrying two portable, inflatable rafts with us. Those we will then take down to the lake, and try to set over to the actual mountain. And that's where the proper hike then starts. You can check our rough route in our expedition map.
This trip takes us away from the boat for two, maybe three days and that will make a proper change in many ways. Sleeping in tents during a land-bound expedition will be a nice distraction from the on-boat routine. Getting on top of the maybe most picturesque of all volcanoes on the Kuril Islands, anyway.
But we will also for the first time be in proper internet-wilderness. While on the ship we have a satellite connection and Wifi, the days on Onekotan we are cut off. Nevermind the low bandwidth on board you may have noticed massive social media activity by the crew members since we left. We needed to create a usage timetable for the satellite connection to accommodate the needs of everyone.
Now, the flow of Instagram posts has run dry for a while. Digital Nomads, all of us, we had to go analogue. But we can forsee challenges for the bandwidth when we are back with breathtaking imagery from Onekotan, that wild, breathtaking beauty.
Kuril Islands - Onekotan, Krenitsyn Volcano in clouds in 2014
Filming between the Whales: Hear the ocean breathe!
We went out on a Zodiac (in simpler words: a smaller excursion boat) so that Chris, Ryan and Ted could do some drone work and Renan, Taylor and Rishi would film underwater shots of what we believed might be a few humpback whales. In the end, we were surrounded by these amazing creatures - they were around us, below us, everywhere. It is hard to describe how it felt - maybe only really understandable if you have been there. "360 degrees of them surfacing and breathing these amazing spouts of water high into the air", Taylor tried to describe. " Their sounds of breath were like the ocean itself breathing."
While, due to bandwidth limitations, we can for now only share videos shot on our phones, it is incredible, which impressive technology the film makers brought on board. Several drones out at the same time, underwater cameras - expect incredible films! As Rishi put it: "Growing up as a major nature documentary nerd I'm starting to realize the major shift that must have happened pre and post introduction of drone technology!"
Day 3: Shades of Green
We've seen a lot of green today. The island of Paramushir offers an incredible spectacle: mineral waters from the island's rivers mix with the sea and create all shades of blue and green. So, we got the drones out to shoot the scenery, which ended in breathtaking photography, as shared by Chris Burkard above. While the cameras were up in the air, our boat did some circles, even intensifying the stunning effect.
There was more green, in faces, as a few of the crew fell seasick. Unavoidable, most likely, and those of us who are not (yet) affected really feel with them.
The weather meanwhile stays calm, yet overcast. No rain, no sun. We are still hoping for the clouds to make some way in the next days. While not filming we kept ourselves busy with fishing - resulting in flounder for dinner.
We are now going south, on our way to Onekotan, where we plan to stay for a few days. We hope to do some hiking, see the lagoon and hopefully climb to the top of the volcano in the middle of the caldera. That could get us off the boat in tents for a few nights - but the weather will decide that.
Blue is for already reached destinations, yellow shows the plan.
Day 2: Setting Sails
It is the day we have all waited for so long. The ship is ready, we are ready. The day starts with rushing back to the airport hoping for more equipment to arrive. Some of our camera gear won't make it though.
"We are excited, we are nervous and a little psyched", Chris describes the situation properly. Loading, safety briefings, all go smoothly - before actually moving into our rooms proves difficult with the amounts of equipment we have.
Our home for the next 12 days is the ship "Afina". It takes us out south and in less than an hour we are spotting the first whales. We are in love.
The crew, the boat, the filming business
Day 1: Arriving
Arrival excitement. Arrival disappointments. Arriving to Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka. A different experience. A place, isolated as it can be, only reachable by boat or on a plane. "Pretty wild - end of the world", as Chris Burkard puts it. So, we flew in and will leave on a boat. As you would expect when travelling to such a remote airport: half of the stuff did not arrive. So we are getting used to the timezone (not well), dealing with customs (intense) and waiting for the rest of the luggage to arrive. Also: the whole group meets each other for the first time! Exciting, different.
The main task of the day: shooting an interview with Sergey Rafanov of WWF Russia, which gave us deep insights into the environmental challenges of the area - and lots of useful information where to go and where not to go.