It is quite difficult to answer the question: why do I need to go to the Shantar Islands? Yet the answers seem to be quite common: to watch whales and pinniped rookeries; literally to travel behind the edge of beyond; to check out the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk, to step on the land of islands which only few people have visited. Despite the storms, fog, humidity and chilly weather, adventurers make the difficult and very expensive journey, which is almost comparable to the migration route of whales. It seems that there is no philosophical reason, like - to find yourself and reboot. A trip there is pure adventure, which most people miss in their ordinary life. So, here I am telling you about all the locations I managed to visit on the Shantar Islands.
Shantar Islands is an archipelago of 15 islands in the Sea of Okhotsk, Khabarovsk Krai. Since 2013, it has the status of a National Park with a total area of 515.5 thousand hectares. The territory of islands is a habitat of many species of marine mammals, fish and animals, including wolfs, foxes, brown bears, stoats, sables, raccoon dogs, wolverines, and more than 240 species of birds.
This place was not on our list. The fact that our group ended up in this typical Siberian village could be called a force majeure. There was not bad weather, and the helicopters were in good condition. But the air company, suddenly, changed the crew, and the flight to the Ongachan air base was postponed for 24 hours. Thanks to «superior force» we had an 18-hour ride on a dirty and falling apart bus with the proud name of “5 stars” along the dirt road to Briakan, a small settlement on the map of the Khabarovsk Krai, where the helicopter base was located. So we were forced to visit a village named after the Soviet aviator Polina Osipenko (in fact, Pelageya Dudnik), who studied to work at a poultry farm, but after 2 marriages to military pilots, chose the profession of an aviator. After several air records, in 1938 she and her female comrades made a non-stop flight from Moscow to Komsomolsk-on-Amur. But due to a lack of fuel, the girls had to make a hard emergency landing in the forest near this village.
This event, (not counting our unplanned visit) seems to have become the brightest in the history of the village, which still lives a quiet and calm life. After a day of aimless wandering along a couple of streets; after a night in a hotel with the same name “Five Stars”, where water was dripping directly from the ceiling onto the plush leopard-colored bed covers, our group finally went to our destination - Ongachan air base.
Exactly at this point, the great journey to the Shantar Islands begins. An MI-8 helicopter brings tourists who want to see Shantars to this air base. A cozy camp is located in the bay, near Lake Ongachan on the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk. The view is mysterious. On a long black beach there are tons of sunken logs, where chipmunks scurry around. Rocks are constantly hidden by a thick fog, sometimes a Steller's sea eagle appears. Because of this fog, these places are considered as hard to reach areas. The fog prevents helicopters from landing and water transport from navigating. But also the fog once saved the bowhead whales from complete extermination by the whalers.
Behind the base there is Lake Ongachan, which is about 15 minutes by foot through impassable bushes, or little bit longer if you stop to admire the blooming irises and the taiga vegetation. They say there are bears nearby, but they rarely go to the camp, only when it's quiet and smells tasty.
Ongachan looks like an old soviet pioneers camp. The small wooden huts have a maximum capacity of four people; a village style WC within walking distance from the hut; a bathhouse that is heated in the evenings, but water needs to be brought from the river in buckets; a gazebo with a sea view - from where whales and killer whales can be seen very clearly; and a dining cabin, where all the guests gathers for breakfast, lunch and dinner, right after the ship's bells ring. The best way to spend your free time between activities is to sleep or walk around.
My favorite activity there was walking along the beach. I like to look at the objects that washed ashore from the sea. I did not find anything valuable, I thought maybe it's a good idea to buy a portable metal detector though. But there will always be trophies - from the shore of the Sea of Okhotsk I took away unusual stones and crooked wooden sticks polished by the sea, shaped like whales.
It's only about 15 minutes on a catamaran to get to the third largest island in the archipelago. If you look at the map in the mess-deck, you will see that Small Shantar Island is shaped like a fish. Almost all of it is covered with taiga, completely uninhabited. Well by human beings. But Small Shantar was chosen by sea birds and the Steller's Sea Eagle, which is included into the Red Data Book of the Russian Federation. You can see its huge nest on a high cliff as soon as you land on the island.
Curious «floats» stick out of the water in the quiet bay - those are ringed seals and bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus), they like to look at new visitors. They prefer to keep a distance, but with each dive come closer to the people. Before this trip, I honestly thought that all these similar-looking «faces», sticking out of the water and snooping around the boat, were phocids. And now I know that this one, for example, is a bearded seal. The second largest seal in the Arctic after the walrus. Like whales, it communicates with congeners through a variety of sounds and whistles. They live easily as neighbors with ringed seals and Steller sea lions, without any competition for food, because bearded seals do not eat fish, but krill from the sea’s bottom.
If you go to the forest, you can pretty easily pick a full basket of cloudberries and lingonberries. Well, I didn’t have a basket with me and in a fisherman’s suit I would feel like an astronaut who landed on an unfamiliar planet.
We arrived on Feklistov Island at sunset for a night, set up camp, and made a big fire. The Shantar Islands are only a few kilometers apart, but it's pretty difficult to get from one to another due to the hard fast currents and heavy storms. We got stuck in one of them. For two hours we tried to get to Feklistov Island, it felt like waves were playing with our catamaran as if it was a rugby ball and just threw us to the shore.
We all got wet, got lots of bruises and bumps, but still got to the land. We hung our clothes to dry, sat by the fire and chatted for a long time. Someone even took the chance to swim in the cold sea, there are several bays where the access to the water is quite easy on Feklistov Island. But most of the island, with a length of almost 40 km, is inaccessible and especially unsuitable for any kind of activities.
A narrow strip of the coast is cut off by a tall, impassable forest; it is quite scary to go there in the dark, since it is quite possible to run into a bear. Well the bear, however, will also be very scared - not very often does it have the chance to see humans there, but you never know how it can end up. Bears on the Shantars are mostly vegetarians, they mainly eat cone nuts, berries and roots. But during spawning season, they go fishing. At other times, they look for yummies thrown by the sea onto the shore. We saw one of these bears in the morning, rummaging through the algae, and it was so scared by the unexpected meeting with us that it ran away, throwing a couple of fish skeletons away.
We spent a long time in the bay near Big Shantar. Over the year, currents change coastal reliefs: where there were depths last year, this time can be shallow. On a narrow sandspit, there is a camp for employees of the National Park. Several people are always living there, keeping records and patrolling the marine surroundings. The views are fantastic there. On one side there are high cliffs with spruce trees «touching» clouds of fog. On the other side, behind a mound of small stones, there is open water.
From time to time, in the foggy horizon, fins and dark backs can be seen: marine mammals’ routes pass through Big Shantar — pilot whales, whales and killer whales can be seen there. And a huge number of ringed seals can be seen splashing in the bay. They feel pretty safe until their predators appear, at which point the ringed seals dive into a narrow and shallow bay into which their larger predators cannot enter.
Big Shantar seems to look the same as it did during the prehistoric period. Rivers are full of fish. A dense forest. Deadfall and sunken logs. Virgin pebble beaches, long and wide even at high tide. Mount Veselaya rises above the ancient world. Everything would be absolutely wild here, if Fedor Konyukhov had not come there, and built the Chapel of St. Nicholas of Myra in this wilderness, for some reason. Well, bears got into the habit of walking to the church; they tear their claws on the walls and look for some food.
Big Shantar is the headquarters of the Shitster program in the Grand Theft Auto IV computer game.
The highlight of the trip for all visitors is Wrangel Bay. There is a summer camp set up and the bowhead whales come here. In good weather, it’s about two hours to get there, passing Gniloy Ugol, bright red cliffs of jasper and bird colony.
Wrangel Bay has an almost perfect horseshoe shape. There is a gently sloping sandy beach on the inner side and high cliffs with a forest behind it. On the sides there are huge boulders that look like peas falling out of a giant's pocket. You can climb them every day, but carefully check the schedule of tides. If you’ll be a little late, you will definitely have a 12 hour adventure - it’s easy to get into the sea trap. The tides on Shantars are impressive, the difference in water level can reach 8 meters, at low tide the water goes up to several dozen meters away from the coast.
The chances of seeing bowhead whales are like winning the lottery. The chances are mixed like balls in a drum: it can be foggy for a week, or pouring rain, or a heavy storm. And even during perfectly calm weather, perhaps there will be no whales. There is no schedule according to which marine arctic wanderers appear in Wrangel Bay and disappear from it. But if you are lucky, all the difficulties of the trip or expedition will be worth it.
The Four Seasons of Russia project is supported by the Russian Geographical Society www.rgo.ru
he route to the Shantar Islands is recommended by the Russian Geographical Society.
You can buy a tour to the Shantar Islands on the website "Russia Discovery" www.russiadiscovery.ru