October 23, 2020
This adventure takes me to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, a remote wilderness like no other in the world. It’s a place where snow capped volcanoes dominate the landscape and giant brown bears reign supreme.
Our recent photographic trip to Kamchatka was quite literally out of this world. Led by wildlife photographer Penny Robartes, I joined an exploratory Oryx Photographic Expedition that took us to the less-travelled North-East coast of Russia. We were often far off the beaten path and completely removed from any form of civilisation for days on end. With many of our destinations not connected by roads, our only mode of transport was by giant 6 wheel-drive off-road buses and Russian MI-8 helicopters.
A magnificently healthy brown bear emerges from the water after chasing salmon.
The Kamchatka Peninsula is a rugged, untouched landscape forged by volcanic activity, with around 28 of the region’s 200 or so volcanoes still currently active. We camped at the foot of these giant snow-capped volcanoes and mountain peaks, completely awe-struck at how they dominate the landscape. We saw both recent and ancient lava flows that have devastated entire forests and the lands around them.
Our ride out to Kurilskoye Lake in this 22 passenger Russian MI-8 helicopter.
We cruised the coastline, where volcanoes overlook the ocean and towering cliffs play host to the homes of thousands of sea birds. We were privileged to see the curious looking puffins, with small fish stuffed in their beaks for the return to their nests. We were also especially lucky to spend time with a pod of orcas while they swam casually around our boat.
The puffin is unique in that it can stuff up to a dozen small fish across it's beak before flying home to serve dinner to its youngsters.
Our defining moment though was our wildlife experience with the kings of Kamchatka, the magnificent brown bears. We travelled by helicopter to Kurilskoye Lake, one of the world’s best locations to see bears hunt for spawning salmon. It’s a remote place almost completely isolated from the outside world. We held a supreme eye-level position from which to photograph these incredible apex predators. It was both mesmerising and terrifying to see them from just a few metres away as they hunted with such precision and speed. In the blink of an eye the bears switched from standing position to a torpedo propelling through the water, with spray erupting all around them. As a salmon, it was not a great place to be.
Dinner is served. Bad news if you're a salmon.
Time and time again, we saw the sparkling red bodies of the salmon exposed as they were unceremoniously plucked from the water. This was promptly followed by a loud crack as the bear broke the salmon’s spine to make the kill. Often this was accompanied by a savage shake of the bear’s head, resulting in twisting curls of water spraying out from its body and on special occasions, a vivid orange trail of salmon roe was clearly visible. Some bears would eat the salmon right where they caught it, in just a couple of giant bear bites. More refined bears would bring their kill ashore where they deftly stripped the skin from the salmon in one swift motion. This delicate manoeuvre would seem beyond the limits of such giant beasts, but they expertly held the salmon’s head in the sand with their ridiculously oversized bear claws while stripping the skin from the body with their massive jaws.
The skillful art of skinning a fish is second nature to this brown bear.
We were mesmerised for some two days as Kamchatka’s resident bears of all shapes and sizes fished, fought, slept and played right before our eyes. Mother bears and their cubs, enormous battle scarred bears (who seemed to be the more expert fishermen), cute fluffy eared bears, brown, gold, skinny and fat, we saw them all. It was an awesome spectacle to photograph and one that I will personally treasure forever.
In the end, we’ve seen landscapes that most people can only dream of visiting. We’ve had wildlife experiences that (arguably) most people would have nightmares about (but are still envious of none-the-less). Sometimes though the weather beat us, as we endured rain, a thick rolling fog, a two hour hailstorm that turned the landscape white and at our most elevated location, a mountainous landscape still entirely covered by winter snow but pelted by horizontal rain.
But through all the highs and lows, our cameras were always at the ready. Our sense of adventure stayed alive and you could seldom wipe the smile off our faces. Our greatest attribute of this trip was indeed the comradery of our small 7 person group. Together we shared ideas and shooting techniques, we droned on about camera geek stuff (and people actually listened) and we made life-long friendships.
Kamchatka, you’ve won our hearts and minds. We’re all the better for having met you and I hope one day we can again cross paths on another epic photo adventure.
For more images from this trip see the gallery below or my full collection at www.waynesorensen.com If you would like to use any of these images for commercial purposes or if you would like art prints please get in contact with me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org