FROM KAMCHATKA EXPLORER MAGAZINE: Watching Seabirds and Sea Mammals in Komandorsky Federal Nature Reserve

Photo: Evgeny Mamaev

Photo: Evgeny Mamaev

The islands are reachable from Petropavlovsk either by small plane twice a week or by boat (with no fixed schedule). But both methods may be unreliable due to capricious weather. The only inhabited settlement on the archipelago – Nikolskoye village – is located on Bering Island. Medny has been abandoned but evidence still remains of the formerly populated Preobrazhenskoye village with a few ruined buildings. The largest part of the islands’ territory and their aquatory belong to Komandorsky Federal Nature Reserve established to preserve the virgin nature of these unique lands. What makes the archipelago unrivaled, and why is its nature considered pristine? What attracts hundreds of tourists who come here annually from thousand miles away?

Tufted Puffin. Photo: Evgeny Mamaev

Tufted Puffin. Photo: Evgeny Mamaev

One of the Reserve’s main attractions is seabird rookeries – a home for myriads of colonial birds. Two small islands – Toporkov and Ary Kamen – are the most convenient to watch the birds. Toporkov or Puffins’ Island (the name speaks for itself) – the largest rookery of puffins on the Commander Archipelago – is inhabited by some 60,000 couples. Its flat plateau is dug with holes where birds lay eggs and breed nestlings, while its edge abounds in take-off and landing grounds for puffins. The moments of their leaving and returning to the islands are the most spectacular and exciting for bird watchers and wildlife photographers. Glaucous-winged gulls that breed nestlings on pebble beaches can also be spotted there. Pigeon guillemots whistle loudly sitting on coastal reefs, while harlequin ducks swim nearby. Thousands of birds soar in the sky above the island. The colonies live according to their own rhythm: in the morning, flocks of birds fly away to sea in search of food, and in the evening, the birds return in numbers. However, there are lots of birds that remain on the islands and around them at any time during the day.

OUR REFERENCE: The Commander Islands lie approximately 200 km from Kamchatka Peninsula. On the map they may seem the easternmost part of Russia. As a matter of fact, the easternmost part of Russia is another island – Wrangell Island.

Willow Ptarmigan. Photo: Evgeny Mamaev

Willow Ptarmigan. Photo: Evgeny Mamaev

The Isle of Ary Kamen is a pinnacle at sea densely populated by 18 species of seabirds. While the life of Toporkov Island’s dominating inhabitants is hidden amidst the grass, on Ary Kamen it is exposed to view. Thousands of black and red-legged kittiwakes cover rock ledges like a lightweight white blanket. They often neighbor common and thick-billed murre (an Aleutian guillemot is pronounced like Arah, giving its name to the island) sitting on rocky ledges in their black-and-white jackets, thus resembling grenadiers. Pelagic and red-faced cormorants are typical representatives of the bird colony. Cormorants are very photogenic: in the sunshine, their feathers play with metallic blue and green. Here one can see smart marine parrots – horned puffin. Crested auklets with funny cirrus, parakeet auklets, and whiskered auklets swim on the water surface. These species are not so numerous as kittiwakes and guillemots. To see them, one needs a keen eye and some luck. The rookery on Ary Island can be observed only from a boat as it’s strictly prohibited to disembark on the island, but the view opening from the boat is still enjoyable as it offers spectacular scenes of the colony’s life. Petrels and albatrosses – the sea wanders – can be spotted on the way to and back from the islands.

One of the most valuable fur-bearing animals - sea otter. It's value nearly lead to it's distinction. Sea otters - loved the world over, are attentive parents.  Photo: A. Chetvergov

One of the most valuable fur-bearing animals – sea otter. It’s value nearly lead to it’s distinction. Sea otters – loved the world over, are attentive parents. Photo: A. Chetvergov

A visit to Toporkov and Ary Kamen Islands can be considered an essential part of an ornithological tour during the stay on the Commander Islands – they present typical seabird rookeries of the Commander Archipelago and Northern Pacific.

OUR REFERENCE: The Commander Islands, discovered by the expedition of Vitus Bering in 1741, are the western ending of the Commander-Aleutian Ridge. They consist of two large islands – Bering Island (90 km long and 34 km at its widest), Medny Island (60 km long and 7 km at its widest and 300 m at its narrowest), and two small islands – Toporkov and Ary Kamen.

Besides bird colonies, the Commander Islands are famous for their cetaceans, sea-otters, and pinnipedia rookeries. Several thousands of seals spend summer on the northern and north-western beaches of Bering Island. These rookeries are the most accessible for tourists and can be reached by almost anyone who comes to the island. The period from June to September is the best time to watch seals and sea lions as their population reaches its maximum. In the mid-June and later, seals give birth to pups. Steller sea lions, lying nearby, can easily be distinguished from dark seals by a lighter color and a larger size. On the northern beach, sea lions occupy Sivuchy Kamen or Sea Lion Rock – a rock located far from the coast. The mammals there can be spotted only in binoculars, while on the north-western rookery no special equipment is needed. However, their harem life remains a secret as they don’t mate there. This place is meant for bull seals, young males, females, and pups. Low tides expose a wide reef plateau making it a haul out place for true seals – ringed seals, often dubbed “flower-seals” for their specific marks. Seaotters can also be observed here.

OUR REFERENCE: What to take along
The weather on Bering Island is severe and capricious, therefore it’s strongly recommended to take with you:
· Waterproof and windproof warm clothes (hat, sweater, socks, thermal underwear);
· Waterproof shoes (leather or rubber boots);
· Warm gloves and one extra set of warm clothes (if you are planning to have sea trips);
· Protective cases for video and photo cams (fogs and rains are common there);
· Vital medication (sometimes planes can be unavailable for several days due to bad weather conditions);
· Sun glasses and mosquito repellents (in case you are lucky with good weather).

Long-focal lenses are recommended to take pictures of the rookeries’ inhabitants.

Acrobatic tricks of the humpback whale. Photo: Evgeny Mamaev.

Acrobatic tricks of the humpback whale. Photo: Evgeny Mamaev.

Every naturalist visiting the islands is sure to appreciate a sea trip to oceanic giants – whales. They deserve to be called a pearl in the live necklace of the Commander Islands. Cetaceous in the adjacent waters are numerous. There are 21 species of them: energetic humpbacked whales, mysterious sperm-whales, recognizable killer whales, dexterous Dall’s porpoises, discreet bag-whales…  Just pull off from the shore for several kilometers by boat to witness humpbacked whales – the most numerous species of the Reserve’s waters. Here they amount to hundreds. Images of whales jumping out of the water or spouting into a flock of birds are unforgettable. During the sunset, such scenes are even more striking and dramatic.

Killer whales. Photo: Evgeny Mamaev

Killer whales. Photo: Evgeny Mamaev

Komandorsky Federal Nature Reserve offers a unique opportunity to explore the world of seabirds and sea mammals – from a small auklet to a jumbo sperm whale.

How to Get a Permit
Bering Island is not a frontier zone, and if you are a Russian citizen, no permit to visit the island is required. However, if you are planning sea trips, it is necessary to apply for a permit at the Border Protection Department in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Foreign travelers need a permit issued by the Federal Security Bureau and the Border Protection Department.

No permit from the Refuge is required to visit the northern part of the island (the northern and the north-western sea-mammals rookeries). However, it’s necessary to have a license issued by the Refuge to visit the southern part of the island and for sea trips. People arriving on the island by plane can get the license in Nikolskoye village one the day before setting off.

Photo: Evgeny Mamaev

Photo: Evgeny Mamaev

KOMANDORSKY FEDERAL NATURE PRESERVE NAMED AFTER S.V. MARAKOV
The main visit-center:
4 Gagarin Street, Nikolskoye village, Aleutian District, Kamchatka Region
+7 (41547) 2-22-25

Branch office in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky:
27/1 Prospect Pobedy, office 8, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky
+7 (4152) 29-85-90,  +7 (4152) 29-85-25
komandorskiy@mail.ru, www.komandorsky.ru

Kamchatka_ExploreThis article was published with permission from The Kamchatka Explore Magazine. Author: Evgeny Mamaev

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