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Monday, 18 July 2011

Russian Far East: Kuril Island Wilderness


Kuril Islands Title Banner



The Kuril islands stretch between Hokkaido in Japan’s north, up to the Kamchatka Peninsula that stretches off the Siberian mainland in the Sea of Okhotsk. All of the Kuril Islands are currently part of Russia and have controversially been that way since the end of World War II in 1945. Much like Sakhalin from the previous post, the Kurils have changed hands between Japan and Russia constantly during modern times.



Kuril Islands regional map/WikipediaRegional map showing the strategic location of the Kurils (from Wikipedia)



Kuril Islands Map - WikipediaMap of the Kuril Islands, showing the historically moving Russian-Japanese border in 1875, 1855 and the current controversial border that has been in effect since 1945 (from Wikipedia)



And again like Sakhalin there has been various treaties and agreements (or disagreements…) over the sovereign rights to the Kurils, exacerbated by the strategic location between Russian and the US (and US allies like Japan) during the cold war. Currently several of the islands are in dispute between Japan and Russia. Tee southern most Kurils, only a handful of miles off Japan, are claimed by Japan as their Northern Territories. The Russian’s have recently reactivated a military base on one of these islands have announced one of their new large naval helicopter carriers being purchased from France will be based there. The Japanese claim to these islands is based around a treaty signed before the end of WWII, whereas Russia claims the treaty is overridden by the fact the Japanese lost the war, so why would the treaty be relevant, as the islands were taken during the closing stages of WWII. It is often said that as long as the US forces have bases in Japan, Russia will not relinquish it’s hold on the strategic Kurils.



Soviet Era Radar, Matue, KurilsA Cold War radar station on Matua



Rugged Kuril Islands, view from Brat ChirpoyThe rugged Kuril Islands have long been seen as a Strategic Buffer between the US and their allies and Russia



The points above withstanding, the majority of the cold war bases in the Kurils have been long abandoned. The islands are essentially void of populations with exception of the odd Salmon fisherman, or the odd scientific researcher or the odd adventurous traveller. The number one reason to visit the Kuril; islands today is for the wilderness and the wildlife. Large volcanic cones, steaming and erupting, surrounded by wild arctic foxes, seals and sea lions by the hundreds if not thousands lining the shore, and the diverse bird life which is almost unbelievable. In some places you can barely see the sky for all the birds!.



Sky full of Birds, off Chirpoy, Kuril IslandsThe sky absolutely full of birds, off Chirpoy in the Kurils



Sea Lions off Chirpoy, Kuril IslandsMarine Mammals are abundant, this photo was off Chirpoy



The many islands of the Kurils have different names depending on which country is giving the name. The Japanese have their own names for the islands and the original Ainu people who were the indigenous peoples of the region also had their own names. Since all the islands are technically Russian today, the “correct” names are also technically the Russian names, all political arguments aside….


The following were the islands I was able to visit, listing the main highlight for visitors;


Geology, old Border Guard post


Marine Mammals, Birds


Foxes, Geology


Geology, old Prison Camp


Sea Otters, Marine Mammals

Skaly Lovushky

Marine Mammals, Birds


old WWII and Soviet Air Base


old Soviet Naval Base

I intend to cover the former Soviet remnants in the Kurils in a later post, but here we will look at the wilderness and the wildlife, island by island;




The first of the group I was able to visit was Urup. Urup is larger than many of the Kurils and is just outside of the Japanese disputed territories. Originally inhabited by the indigenous Ainu who also inhabited Sakhalin, Hokkaido and the other Kurils, Japanese Colonists lived on the island during the times it belonged to Japan, and then Soviet Border Guards resided there from WWII till the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Today apart from the odd Salmon fisherman, there is little habitation on the island.



Fishing Boat on Urup, Kuril IslandsA fishing boat on Urup



Wild Flowers on Urup, Kuril IslandsWildflowers on Urup



5912040156_c31b61c7b2 Old Soviet Border Guard outpost on Urup



UrupMountains and glaciers of Urup



Urup FishermanLocal salmon fisherman camped out on Urup




Chirpoy and Brat Chirpoy (literally Russian for Chirpoy’s Brother) actually make up the island group known as Chyornie Bratya, although most visitors just refer to the islands collectively as “Chirpoy”. The native Ainu people called these islands Repunmoshiri, a word meaning “place of many small birds”, a a name still relevant today. As well as birds there was no shortage of Marine Mammals today either.



imageNorthern Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) and other birds fill the sky off Chirpoy



Tufted Puffin off ChirpoyA tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) floats off Chirpoy



Steller Sea LionsSteller Sea Lion (Eumetopias jubatus) Rookery, Chirpoy 



Chirpoy BirdsEvery available surface was used by nesting birds on Chirpoy




Yankicha is one of the islets making up Ushishir in the central Kurils. The northern islet is known as Ryponkicha. There appears to have never been any permanent human inhabitation on the island, although Ainu certainly visited the island during summers. Yankicha had abundant wild Arctic Foxes (Vulpes lagopus) running around, who showed now fear of humans, and lots of fumaroles and other volcanic activity. Volcanically heated water made for a great impromptu hot spring bath, although finding the right temperature was difficult as the water really was super hot. As with all the islands, there was no shortage of birds.



Makeshift bath - hot springs YankichaMaxim, an officer from our navigation team, tries the impromptu hot spring feed bath



Arctic Fox, Yankicha, KurilsAn Arctic Fox wanders the shore line of Yankicha



Crested Auklets raft up off Yankicha, Kuril IslandsA raft of Crested Auklets (Aethia cristatella) drifts until being disturbed off Yankicha



Birdlife of Yankitcha, Kuril IslandsA slaty-backed gull (Larus schistisagus) stands proud while hundreds of Auklets and Puffins fill the sky behind at Yankicha



Arctic Fox YankichaAnother Arctic Fox prowls around the fumaroles and volcanic vents on Yankicha




Both the northern most island in the Kurils and the largest volcano, sitting off the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula. It’s often described as one of the world’s most perfectly shaped volcanic cones, giving Japan’s Mount Fuji a run for it’s money. There are remains of a Soviet prison camp on the island still today.



Atlasova, Kuril IslandsAtlasova, with it’s summit in the clouds



imageThe old Soviet prison back dropped by Atlasova’s Volcano



imageOne of Atlasova’s active volcanic vents





Like Atlasova, Shumshu is at the northern most end of the Kuril Chain, it was once home to a large number of Ainu and was significant Japanese base during the battles for the Aleutian Islands in WWII. The day of my visit was shrouded in fog, but numerous Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris) and Spotted Seals or Largha Seals (Phoca largha) showed themselves through the mist.



imageSea otters floating off Shumshu



imageA spotted seal pops up for a look at Shumshu



imageAnother pair of Sea Otters off Shumshu



imageSpotted Seals are also known as Largha Seals, Shumshu



imageSeals and Otters were the order of the day at Shumshu





Hardly an island, Skaly Lovushky is nothing more than a pile of partly submerged rocks, surrounded by underwater kelp forests. This pile of rocks however is home to several seal and sea lion colonies, including the giant Steller Sea Lions. Whilst the Stellers were the most spectacular, Northern Fur Seals (Callorhinus ursinus) were by far the most numerous.


imageThe giant Steller Sea Lions were in significant numbers around Skaly Lovushky



imageBut the Northern Fur Seals were the most numerous



imageThe Northern Fur Seals seemingly had no fear swimming right up to our boats



imageThrough the thick fog the giant frames of bull Steller Sea Lions could be seen atop the rocks



The incredible diversity and more so density of wildlife in the Kuril islands is impossible to describe with words and pictures, it needs to be seen, heard, smelt and experienced to appreciate it all……….


PART 2: Russian Far East: Cold War Kurils


How Do I Get There Banner


So you want to visit the Kurils?

- being so remote and without airfields on al but the disputed islands next to Japan, the only way in is by ship.

- several expedition cruise companies offer expeditions through the Kurils in the warmer ice=fee months of the year, departing either from Kamchatka or Hokkaido normally.

- other than that its very difficult and expensive to get to these remote and unique islands



Kuril Islands






  1. Man, you have turned this in to a first-class travel blog. Kudos, Justin.

  2. What a fantastic location I'm sure you need an assistant to carry all your photo gear, where do I apply?

  3. Tony the Russian Far East is a photographers Paradise. You and Kelly would love it up there. It's now up the top of my list of incredible places that's for sure


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