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The Shantars: whale watching first-hand experience

Date: 18.09.2020

The Shantar Islands in the Sea of Okhotsk offer some of Russia’s best whale watching. To check this, our travel expert Kseniya Rubtsova went there. Read her story to learn what it's like — swimming with a whale on a SUP board. This is her story: 

 

 

“A trip to the Shantar Islands is my most exciting adventure. I have visited many places abroad and in Russia, however it was the Shantars where emotions were overwhelming me. I'll tell you about my most vivid impressions. 

 

 

A whale at my SUP board

One day I was swimming in the bay on a SUP board. In the distance I saw something like a small island. To my surprise, it disappeared in a moment and then came into view again.

Suddenly our guides from the shore shouted: “Kseniya, whale! Take a life jacket, swim to it! "

First I did not believe: "Is it real? Swimming with a whale?" Then the chief guide swam up to me and said that the minimum safe distance between a human and a whale is 10 meters. Otherwise there is a danger of being upset to the sea if the animal whisks its tail. Together with the guide we came closer to the whale, and then just sat on our SUPs and were watching it: listening to its breath, observing how it was moving its tail under the water. This was an incredible feeling; I had goosebumps on my skin. You realize that there is a huge animal just next to you, and feel yourself so small. 

 

Bear 5 meters away

On the Ongachan base we had seen bears several times. During one of the encounters, the animal was 5 meters away from us. It was the guide's dog who had noticed the bear fist and started barking at it. It seemed that the beast had been watching us for some time before we saw it.

No one was scared, as we had an experienced guide with us; he immediately started shouting and the bear ran away. I was happy the guide hadn’t to use his gun. It was great experience; before I had watched bears so close just in a zoo.

 

 

Long-awaited whale tail

It was the last day of our trip and we had seen some whales so far. However the frustrating thing for all of us was that the whales did not want to show their tails, just heads and backs.

 

 

That day, we were moving from Wrangel Bay to Nikolay Bay by catamaran. Suddenly I noticed an ‘island’ that was getting in and out of the sea. By that time, I knew it could be a whale.

I shouted: “Whale, whale!", and we approached the animal as close as possible. The giant took its head out of the water, then the fin appeared and — at last — the long-awaited tail came into view!

The emotions were overwhelming, tears were in our eyes. On the last day of the expedition the whale showed its tail, as if it waved goodbye to us.

 

 

Things to pack

The weather on the Shantars changes quickly. To stay warm and enjoy all the activities, we recommend you to take the following things:

  • down vest
  • down jacket
  • insulated wind jacket
  • waterproof raincoat that also protects from the wind in bad weather
  • winter insulated pants — down thermal trousers
  • waterproof pants in case of strong wind and rain
  • thermal underwear
  • fleece
  • sweater
  • sunscreen
  • swimsuit
  • shorts
  • T-shirts

 

 

I had used all these things during the trip. My luggage weight was 18 kg, but I could not lay out anything, as I knew that each item would be necessary.

When at sea put on all the warm clothes you have. While standing on the shore, it’s difficult to understand what the weather is like at sea; there might be a great difference between the weather at sea and on the shore. Also, it’s better to wear all the layers before going to sea, as it might be not easy to put on something in a boat. While it’s not a problem to remove a layer if you are hot.

 

 

Why expedition travel is not the same as ‘classic’ trips

I think that the Shantar Islands are for adventure travelers. Remoteness, harsh conditions, changeable weather — if you accept all these, the islands will reveal their wonders for you.

All the activities and wildlife encounters are not guaranteed and depend on nature. Guides do everything to offer travelers maximum opportunities to explore the fantastic world of the islands.

 

 

I traveled to the Shantars in early July. It’s a season when whales are just starting to come to the archipelago. We had seen some whales at the beginning of the trip, but on the other days we were not so lucky. During our stay at Ongachan Bay, we knew they were nearby: we heard their breaths, but could not see them in the fog.

 

 

While cruising, there were no whales, but we watched seals and birds: rare Steller's sea eagles, puffins, gulls. There are large bird colonies on the Shantars.

 

 

If you meet whales at the beginning of a trip, enjoy the encounter in full — take pictures of them, observe their behavior, stick in memory your emotions. Nobody can guarantee that we will watch them in the following days. This is valuable — the feeling of catching the moment.
 

 

If you are one of those who are ready to discover the Shantar Islands, join our Whale Bay trip. If you have any questions, write to us at go@russiadiscovery.ru or call +7 (495) 241-36-74