Sailing to the most remote corners of Russia is waving goodbye to the modern world and saying hello to active volcanoes, hungry bears and marine wildlife. Flying from Hong Kong to the far end of Russia, to Anadyr in Chukotka, is like travelling to the edge of the world. This part of Russia is remote and only a vicious Bering Strait lies between here and the United States.
It’s here where we embark on a month-long voyage with L’Austral, a new hi-tech expedition ship owned by Ponant, a luxury cruise company from France famous for its worldwide expeditions. The itinerary is exotic: Chukotka, Kamchatka, the Kuril and Sakhalin islands.
Chukotka Autonomous Okrug is the easternmost part of the Russian Federation. Our ship L’Austral anchors somewhere in the bay of Enmelen. As we step onto the pebble-strewn beach, we see a dog nibbling away on a piece of whale blubber. In the air we detect the smell of seaweed, fish and other sea mammals drying in a wooden barrack.
A population of 330, a mix of Chukchiand Yupik, live here in wooden, ramshackle houses, which manage to withstand a harsh climate. They survive mainly thanks to fishing and hunting reindeer. There is no escape possible: no roads leading to the village and when the sea is in revolt, Enmelen is isolated from the rest of the world. It’s no wonder that Enmelen means “capricious” in the local language.
As we continue exploring Chukotka aboard L’Austral, expedition leader Nicolas Dubreuil ventures out every morning with his team to check if a landing is possible and safe. At one point we are joined by Russian officials, including Serguei, the man responsible for the trip’s operations.
“Two years ago I came here ... with Serguei to check out the region,” Dubreuil says. “We travelled along the coast in search of beautiful places, looking for realistic locations to anchor a vessel of 142 metres long and 10,700 tonnes. A lot of planning and paperwork has been done and bureaucratic hassle is part of the deal. This is not a part of the world where a lot of cruise ships sail by so every landing and every exploration is quite special. So far, this is still one of the most remote corners of the world.”
We make our long and leisurely way southwest to Kamchatka, a 1,250 km-long peninsula caught between the Pacific and the Sea of Okhotsk. Few people (barely 322,000 in an area of 270,000 sq km) live here, but there is a plethora of flora and fauna. In addition to the Unesco-protected volcanoes, there are also bears, whales, unique birds and more. It is here that we see the lights in the night sky.
“Mesdames, messieurs, get out of bed for the Northern Lights,” announces Captain Marchesseau on a particularly quiet and cloudless night. Sleepy guests crowd alongside the captain on the ship, and one naturalist remarks: “Pretty exceptional to see [the Aurora Borealis] here.” The spectacle continues until the morning, when we also see hundreds of walruses packed on the beach in the Bay of Dezneva. We venture out to see them, and Florence, a naturalist and our Zodiac driver, steers carefully in the bay. “I once had a whale under my boat, and that’s enough,” she laughs.
To the east of Kamchatka is the island of Medny, which is home to a colony of gigantic Steller sea lions, the largest species of seals with ears. Not counting the orca and the great white shark, they are the strongest animals here. We head to Kronotsky Nature Reserve where we finally spot the first volcanoes. Here the landscape consists mainly of autumnal taiga – the Russian word for forest.
Where we land along the Chazma River are natural hot springs, with wooden barracks so that we can enjoy the springs in bathtubs. On our walk back to the ship, a mother bear and her two cubs appear in front of us on the sand. They stroll along the sandy strip between the passengers and the ship, before diving into the cold ocean to swim to the opposite side of the bay, where they continue their leisurely walk.
Another day, and Marchesseau wakes us up bright and early for another spectacle. “Mesdames, messieurs, if you’re still lying in bed, you’re crazy,” he says. “Get up now and enjoy the show outside!” We are in southern Kamchatka, the heart of volcano country, where no fewer than 30 volcanoes show signs of life and, now and then, make themselves heard. In the distance we spot Komarov spewing grey smoke into the atmosphere. This elegant stratovolcano is 2,070 metres high and has a crater measuring nearly 70 metres deep.
In the shadow of the volcano, we leave on a Zodiac trip along the Zhupanova River with the geologist Stéphane. Sitting in trees on the riverbanks are several Steller’s sea eagles, which weigh up to 10 kg. You can only find these particular ones here, with their bright yellow beaks. They are the largest of the eagle family and for many birdwatchers, a reason to come here.
When we’re back aboard L’Austral for lunch, the Kronotsky volcano suddenly spews a large cloud of ash into the sky. “A votre santé!” one passenger, Joel, says as he toasts both the volcano and us with a glass of rosé. “A perfect day again, n’est ce pas?”
We head further down south to the uninhabited island of Chirpoy, with its eponymous volcano that erupted on September 1, 2014 and still shows signs of activity. This is our last stop before we reach Hokkaido in Japan and return to the inhabited world.
Early in the morning, before sunrise, we sail close to the spectacle. The lava, when it comes into contact with water, generates a white and brownish smoke and noticeable hissing and crackling. Hot basalt rocks tumble into the turbulent sea. “Unbelievable”, “intimidating” and “beautiful” are the words heard on the Zodiac. We return to L’Austral with the awareness that there is still plenty of untouched and pure beauty on this planet. Kamchatka is still one of the last corners of the world to witness this, a true secret gem.