Coke Smith Photography & Travelogue

Expedition Cruise to the Commander Islands

  A beautiful Horned Puffin seen at its nest on Medny Island.

During the summer of 2007, my main goal was to get the family up to the Arctic.  I was contacting vessels sailing the Canadian arctic but could not find any that would allow Cokie to participate in the expedition.  Even though was willing to pay passage for over two months of expedition travel, none would take Cokie.  And while I was surfing the net to see what other options I could find, I came across the website of North Pole Voyages ( and saw that they offered trips to the Russian Far East.  I started reading further and became impressed with the itinaries they offered for a four-week cruis of Kamchatka, the Commander Islands and the Kuril Islands.  And the prices were well within our budget!  And they allowed Cokie to board their vessels, no problem.  That's all it took  - we were there!  And this is how our three-month expedition across Russia, followed by a one month trip to Scandinavia and Svalbard, began  I have decided to break the trip down in to multiple pages in order to present a more thorough picture of what we experience during this mulit-month expedition of a lifetime!




Commander Islands

There is little doubt that the Commanders are some the world’s most remote rocks!  We spent almost a week circumnavigating the two main islands, exploring valleys, rookeries of red kittiwakes and massive seal colonies.  The landscapes were stunning and ever changing.  Although the islands are known for bitter cold and foggy days, we caught a welcome warm spell that brought very calm seas and 90+ degree weather.  We had amazing birding luck while there, seeing virtually all the species the islands are known for.  Mammals are rare and small in diversity as one might imagine due to the islands’ remoteness.  We did have an amazingly close and long encounter with a melanistic Medny Island polar fox (Alopex lagopus seminovi) (all individuals of this subspecies are “blue”.) and regularly came across very fresh sign of the Bering Island fox (Alopex lagopus beringensis).  Saw some more lemming sign but aside from these two species, no other land mammals were sighted. 


The Commander Islands are famous for being enshrowded in fog for most of the year.  This approach was definitely fitting the bill, but most of our time was spent in unseasonably great weather!


The Commanders are located some 200-250 kms off the coast of Kamchatka, Russia and are geologically the terminus of the Aleutian Islands.  We spent the better part of a couple weeks exploring the various nooks of these amazing rocks in the middle of nowhere!



To see our complete Russian Species List, click here!


Be sure to visit our Russia Galleries!

Commander Islands Landscapes Gallery



A massive bull Steller's Sea Lion seen on the impressive columnar basalt outcroppings of Dakaya Bay off Bering Island



A bull Northern Fur Seal with his herom on Bering Island.



A bull Northern Fur Seal with his herom on Bering Island.

The marine mammals were both profuse in number and spectacular in nature!  We saw dozens of Common Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris lutris) along with Steller’s Sea Lions, and Insular Harbor Seals.  We visited a couple rookeries of Northern Fur Seals (Callorhinus ursinus) where we spent hours observing the interesting and sometimes brutally violent behavior of thousands of individuals.  The cetacean group was well represented during our expedition.  We saw Pacific Humpbacks, Sperm Whales, Right or Bowhead Whale (Balaena gracilis), Orca pods (Commander subpopulations).   We were also fortunate to catch a glimpse of a Cuvier’s beaked whale surfacing in front of one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen.

Commander Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris lutris)

A Commander Sea Otter waving "hello" in Bobrovaya Bay off Medny Island.  While in the Commanders we saw dozens of these spectacular little guys hanging out fishing in the great kelp beds.  They did show a bit of fear of humans indicating that they are still poached.  But ever so often we were allowed to get close to get some mediocre images like this one. 


A parent-offspring pair frolicking in the kelp forests of Bobrovaya Bay. While cruising the zodiacs this morning, we saw over twenty of these critters!



Commander Sea Otters at play...



Once we arrived to Bering Island, the larger of the two main islands in the Commanders, we trekked for a couple miles to see an amazing Northern Fur Seal colony consisting of tens of thousands of Northern Fur Seals and a few hundred Steller's Sea Lions. We spent hours observing the behavior and daily lives of these smelly critters!  What a great morning!



Northern Fur Seals (Callorhina ursinus)

The massive Northern Fur Seal rookery on Bering Island.  We spent several hours here observing the daily lives of the two species of pinnipeds found here.



  Som enjoying the view of the massive Northern Fur Seal colony on Bering Island.



This picture shows a couple heroms and a nursery of Northern Fur Seals.  A few minutes later, a massive brawl between many of the adult bulls in the area ensued, killing dozens of the pups right before our very eyes!



Now at first glance this may seem like a touching moment between a adult and its pup, but this was actually a "before" picture of a rogue bull that had kidnapped this young pup to theoretically call his own....and a few minutes later we witnessed as he killed the poor little thing...Life in the Fur Seal rookery is brutal.


One of the last moments of this little pup's life...


The end...



Insular (Stejneger's) Harbor Seal (Phoca vitulina stejneteri)

Insular (or Stejneger's) Harbor Seals were very common along the coast of the Commander Islands.



While at the Northern Fur Seal colony, I was invited in the researchers' quarters for the scientists studying the Northern Fur Seals.  This is an image of one on their pantries.  I got a kick out of the Russian Teletubbies!  While there (at about 10AM), the Captain of our ship (the Marina Tsvetaeva) came in with a bottle of fine vodka and invited me to drink with him, the scientists and the crew!  I was feeling pretty good...!  But I was honored to be invited to drink with them, but the other two tourists with me were not.  I was not sure why but they were definitely excluded from the morning's festivities.  I later found out that it was because they were German....I guess there is a little hostility left over from the war...




Medny Island

A spectacular Northern Fulmar rookery on Medny Island.  The vegetation on these sheer cliffs appeared to be covering spectacular columnar basalt formations.



Another spectacular zodiac trip around a bird rock during one of our many stops in Medny Island.  The birds here are mainly Red-faced Cormorants.



These sea stacks stood out as some of the more impressive geologic features of the Commander's impressive coastline.


Medny Island Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus semenovi)

"Who's dat!?"  We were very fortunate to spend some quality time with one of Medny Islands main endemic species - the Medny Island Arctic Fox.  He was definitely as curious of us as we were of him.  And he showed absolutely no fear as he approached all of us, including Cokie!  What a thrill this was!



A curous Medny Island Polar Fox taking a peek at his "stalker", me...



During a hot morning on Medny Island, we saw this curious Medny Island Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus semenovi) cruising her stretch of the beach.  She showed absolutely no fear of us and even approached Cokie to about one meter!  Cokie was stunned.  I followed her to her den for a few hundred meters.  What an amazing trip with one of the rarest fox species on the planet!



Medny Island!







Nikolskoye Town.  We spent an afternoon invading the space of this lovely remote Russian community.  We were treated as honored guests and were welcomed by the locals as we explored their remote but fascinating community!



Som taking a break outside the museum of Nikolskoye Town.



The Soviet era was not that long ago here, and there was more evidence of it on the Commanders than virtually any other location visited during our expedition to Russia.  These three images (Marx, Engles and Lenin) were seen on the side of a building in Nikolskoye, the only civilization visited in nearly four weeks!



While in Nikolskoye, we were treated to a cultural show of the Russian Aleutian natives.  I felt privileged to see their dances and hear their "Russian" songs.  Evidently the Russians were very efficient at assimilating the minority groups in their empire as even the native music was completely Russian.



Steller's Sea Cow (Hydrodamalis gigas)

Bones of the now extinct Steller's Sea Cow seen in the Nikolskoye Nature Museum.  They were very common when Vitus Bering discovered these remote rocks not that long ago.  His crew alone almost wiped them out in a few short weeks.  The Russians who followed finished the job.



 Some drying Salmon on a home in Nikolskoye.


 During one of our stops on Bering Island, we were allowed to explore a decomposing Soviet outpost base that was fascinatingly left basically in the same condition it was the last day the soldiers were there!  I was amazed at all of the cold-war memorabilia left to rot in this base. 



An old Soviet base in the Commander Islands!



I wish I could remember this old guy's name.  He is somewhat of a Commander Island legend, having sailed around the world in his little boat many times.  He even passed by our home in Port Angeles, Washington!




One of the many salmon streams in the Commanders. Yes they were filled with salmon during this trip!



A stream packed with Chinook Salmon in the Commanders!



Every chance they could, our Russian crew would drop their lines in the water and fish when the boat stopped for any length of time.  Here they brought up a tasty Rockfish!



Dried fish was a staple for the scientists living on the Commanders.



Yes, in case you were wondering, there is a healthy population of mosquitos on the Commander Islands!



Aurelia floating in the tidal zone of the Commanders.



The Commander Islands is home to an incredibly diverse intertidal community.  



Turban snails dominated here!



Plants and Flora of the Commander Islands

A Dactylorhiza species orchid in bloom in the expansive scrublands of the Commanders.



Karaginskaya sedge (Carex koraginensis).  While the interior of the Commanders would most likely be classified as a tundra scrubland of some sort, there were patches of grasslands here and there.





Scenecio species


Kamchatka Fritillary (Fritillaria camschatcensis) were very common in the thickets in the Commanders.



Mountain Harebell (Campanula lasiocarpa)



Oysterleaf (Mertensia maritima)



Siberian Mountain Ash (Sorbus sambucifolia)



Narcissus Anemone (Anemone narcissiflora Commander subspecies)



Reiders Globe Flower (Trollius riederianus)



Kamchatka Oxytrope (Oxytropis kamtschatica)




This spectacular Asteraceae speciman was nearly blooming in Bering Island.  I am thinking it is a Scenecio species. Please feel free to confirm or refute!



Kamchatka Rhododendron (Rhododendron camtschaticum) were the dominant shrub in most locations in the Commanders.



Arctic Bearberry (Arctostaphylos alpina)



The marine intertidal algal community was incredibly diverse as well!



Viewing the vast and dense kelp forests of the Commanders gave us a glimpse of what the entire north Pacific must have looked like not that long ago, when the native Asians were floating their way over to the Americas.  As thick as it was during our visit there, our naturalists were telling us that every year the density of kelp was diminishing.



Amazingly biodiverse here...



The Commander Islands are not known for their sunsets, but we had an amazing view every single night during this voyage!  The crew and naturalists were more surprised than we were!  And on one afternoon, we even recorded a temperature of 93 degrees F!



 Another spectacular Commander Islands' sunset!  We named this one the "Nuclear Sunset"!  A few moments later, it morphed in to a hamburger-shaped sunset that became known as the "McSunset"!



Birds of the Commander Islands!

Bird Island!  The highpoints of our cruise to the Commanders had to be our Zodiac rides around the many bird "bazaars".  Check out this columnar basalt!


The Commander Islands are known for their horrible weather conditions, even during the summer months.  While we were there during July of 2007, we were fortunate to have some amazing weather.  The experienced Russian crew was blown away by the 90+ degree days while there!  While walking the beaches in tee-shirts and shorts, we felt more like we were on a beach in Thailand than on the beaches of a couple sub-arctic islands!  Here is one of the daily spectacular sunsets we experienced on the islands.  We had just finished cruising these rock-outcroppings observing the hundreds of thousands of Red-faced Cormorants, Thick-billed Murres, Puffins and countless other species of pelagic birds!


Horned Puffins on Medny Island!



Another Horned Puffin...



A Startled Horned Puffin taking flight after noticing our approaching zodiac.



Tufted Puffins on the Commander Islands...



A glorious Tufted Puffin ready to take off!



A Tufted Puffin finding his way back to his nest on Commander Bay, Medny Island.



Tufted Puffins...



Lapland Longspurs were one of the more common songbirds in the Commanders.



Red-throated Pipits were also easy to spot!



Thin-billed Murres were common - almost as common as the Thick-billed Murres...



Some very rare Red-legged Kittiwakes relaxing on some rocks in Dikaya Bay.



A mating pair of Red-legged Kittiwakes in Dikaya Bay.  This is purported to be the largest Red-legged Kittiwake rookery on the planet.




REd-legged Kittiwakes in flight!



A Red-faced Cormorant Rookery off Medny Island.



I never tired of the Red-faced Cormorants that were literally everywhere during our expedition to the Commanders.



 A close-up view of some Red-faced Cormorants along the Medny Island coastline.



A Red - Faced Cormorant sunset!



A massive Northern Fulmar rookery on Bering Island.



We saw literally hundreds of thousands of dark-morph Northern Fulmars during our expedition to the Commanders!




Northern Fulmars



Northern Fulmars escaping our approaching zodiac!



Northern Fulmar seen from the deck of our ship!



As it was July, I was not surprised to see the Snow Buntings out of their winter plumage like this one, but we did see at least a couple near-solid white ones during the expedition as well.



During one of our zodiac cruises, Guenther grabbed this Least Auklet for some close-ups!



These amazing "bird bazaars" were seen during our sunset zodiac cruise in Dikaya Bay.  This evening ranks as one of the best nature experiences I have ever had.  We spent two hours sipping vodka and enjoying the sights, sounds and intense smells of this amazing natural spectacle.




Black-legged Kittiwakes and Thick-billed Murres on Bering Island.



The massive columnar basalt outcroppings make perfect nesting sites for the numerous pelagic species found here.



Some Thick-billed Murred, a Red-faced Cormonant and Red-legged Kittiwakes thrown in for fun!




Some Black Guillemots enjoying some sushi on Medny Island.



A mixed flock of Red and Black-legged Kittiwakes take flight reacting to our approaching zodiac.




Red-faced Cormorant






Another spectacular Commander sunset.



These spectacular falls were seen in Gladkovskaya Bay.



Although we had great sightings of the Medny Island Polar Fox, the only evidence of the Bering Island Polar Fox were the numerous tracks we saw along the beaches during our landings. 


During some of our landings in the Commanders, we were given time to trek the vast, treeless tundra wilderness of the islands.  These walks introduced us to the fantastic scenery and flora of the islands. 

To see our complete Russian Species List, click here!

Be sure to visit our Russia Galleries!

Commander Islands Landscapes Gallery