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Far East Russia Orca Project expedition 2014

Translation by Marina Maksimkina

The season of 2014 was truly eventful. This time we reached a more remote corner of our country – Paramushir Island, which is a part of the Kuril Islands.

It took us a lot of time and efforts to get to our camp. We took a voyage vessel from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky to Severo-Kurilsk. There we took a schooner and a boat to Shelikhov Bay. Sometime ago there was a fishing plant, but now it is a sad and abandoned place with rusty cars, containers and stranded vessels. Also there was an extant wooden house we used as a shelter.

Paramushir Island is the territory of wild nature. The population of the capital (which is Severo-Kurilsk) is about 2.5 thousand people. There are several streets, two dozens of four-storied houses, summer houses around the town area, the port and plants. The silence beyond the town is so incredible that your own footsteps seem loud. You can easily come across foxes, also there are blue-black cormorants on the cliffs near the port.

Paramushir Fox

A small bay we lived in is a true wild land. The river is full of fish which is very enticing for bears. Sly foxed preferred the easiest way of getting food – begging it from us. There were spotted seals looking like barrels and of course majestic ocean with all its inhabitants.

It was difficult to work at this new place because of unstable and changeable weather, cold and the absence of boats and schooners around to ask help if necessary. We met several boats which were waiting for better weather only once during all our staying in Shelikhovo.

FEROP at Paramushir

But we enjoyed the sounds of the ocean free from motors squeals. Every splash and flow of the water, every click of sperm whales and killer-whales’ sounds were so loud that sometimes it seemed that in a moment we could see a deep-water giant or a desirable black fin. But very often we found no one.

Despite all difficulties and few working days, our trip to the Kurile islands turned out to be successful. We met Dall’s porpoises regularly, leisurely they were looking for fish. We saw Northern fur seals. From the shore we watched a grey whale in the bay. Our work with orcas was productive: we got a huge amount of pictures and audio data, also we took several biopsy samples and samples of fish scale on the hunting area. Preliminary we can conclude those were new animals we had never met before in Avacha Bay.

Group of killer whales in Okhotsk Sea near Paramushir

One of the days left a lasting impression. At first we met a group of orcas and worked with them. We were far away from the shore when it became foggy. Unexpectedly we saw fountains of humpback whales! It was a female and her baby, they breathed and dived to the depth. So, we came closer to that place, turned off the motors and kept waiting listening to the surrounding silence.

Suddenly, right in front of the boat in a hundred meters from us a huge whale jumped out from the ocean depth, turned around the axis in the air and flopped into the water loudly. This unexpected and unbelievable scene was absolutely breathtaking. It took us several minutes to come to ourselves. But the most impressive thing was that “the flying whale” turned out to be a baby who decided to romp while his mother was feeding in the deep. We couldn’t even imagine how huge the mother was.

Also we were lucky to meet a sperm whale. It was foggy that morning. We lowered our hydrophone to listen to orcas, but we heard the clicks of a sperm whale only. We spent one hour in the boat and despite of bad visibility we decided to go in search of the animal. The fog became less thick to the south.

It is not an easy task to find a sperm whale on the water surface. They can spend about an hour in the deep, come up for breathing and dive again. This moment is the only possibility to see it. At first, there were water sprays only, then we saw a dorsal fin. Slowly swinging in the waves the sperm whale breathed loudly. He noticed our approach, raised himself and looked to the side of our boat. In a second, this huge body began to submerge slowly. He showed his tail one last time and disappeared.

Sperm whale near Paramushir

Two weeks in Shelikhov Bay flew very fast. The weather was not always favorable to us and not always let us work. But still this short time was enough to get useful data and we considered this place worth coming back some time. In the evening we put our luggage to a barge and went to Severo-Kurilsk. We saw an incredible sunset and colorful clouds. And far, on the horizon in the golden rays, we saw high dorsal fins of Kurili killer-whales.

In a couple of days we arrived at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, we bought and took all necessary things and went to the Zeleny Cape in the Velutchinskaya Bay, which seemed so homely. It poured, but we need to tent, to carry things and to live somehow. All our dreams about summer didn’t rush to come true. The sky was not favorable to us for a long time. Interchangeably it cleared and overcasted, making us dripping wet.

Ruadan in the fog

The arrival of unexpected guests made a variety in our monotonous days. A couple of kayakers from Ireland and their accompanies brightened up our rainy days. We listened to Irish songs, told stories and called for good weather and orcas.

Rain cannot last forever! Our worked started. And our Avacha killer-whales “posed” for pictures.

FEROP boat in Avacha Gulf

Pirates in Avacha Gulf

We visited our old familiars – Steller sea lions on the Kekurny cape. But this trip was not delightful. We noticed an animal with a fishing net around his neck and lower jaw. The net harmed his flesh and made him suffer a lot. Unfortunately, this sea lion most probably would die because of carelessness of anglers who left the net unattended.

Steller sea lion entangled in fishing net, Kekurny cape

Luckily, we had more positive moments. One morning we met frequent guests of Avacha Bay - Dall's porpoises. These animals love to ride a bow wave. Moving ahead of them, we decided to entice them with our boat. And it worked! Two animals settled ahead the bow and jumped out spraying us. Finally, we were as happy as wet.

At the end of the season there two memorable meetings with sea otters. We went to sea on the 20-th of August as usual in the morning. We heard familiar sounds under water, defined the direction of orcas and rushed toward the Pyramid cape. On the way we found a drifting group of sea otters. They noticed us and dived. But one animal stayed on the surface. It kept drifting lying on the back and covered his eyes with paws. We wanted to check if everything was fine with it and come closer. The animal did not react and we thought it to be dead. When the distance between us shortened to several meters, the sea otter jumped, looked at us in surprise and rushed to the opposite direction. It turned out that it was fast asleep and even covered his eyes with paws.

Sea otter near the boat

That day we had one more meeting with sea otters. We found killer whales; they were in pursuit of salmon moving to the north. Turn by turn we approached orcas hoping to gather samples of fish scale on the hunting area. One moment we approached the male from Icarus family AV063. A sea otter was swimming nearby. It seemed to us that the sea otter was shocked to see such a huge orca coming out so close. Being confused, the sea otter swam under our boat, pushed it with a paw and came out near the side of our boat. In amazement, he found out us in the boat looking at him. He disappeared under the water immediately.



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