Bear Feast in the Far East - Wildlife Photography Expedition
In the back of beyond, there is a wilderness that made it to UNESCO's books ahead of travel brochures and measures as much as four European countries.
It is a virginal valley composed by volcanic calderas, crater lakes, mineral springs and bears, and until 1990, if you weren't a Russian national, you couldn't even visit it. It is a lost world where ecstasy is found, and it appears a bit like the earth's branch of the seventh heaven.
It is known as Kamchatka and it begs to be explored.
How is it?
In the far east of Russia, the Kamchatka Peninsula hangs down into the Pacific like some giant precinct. Virtually untouched by human avarice, it represents one of the most flourishing wilderness tracts in the country, spanning a galactic 472,300 km2.
Stunningly rich in natural resources and punctuated with glaciers and geysers, it is truly an ultimate retreat for the photographer whose itchy feet crave to tread off the beaten path and explore the extraordinary.
Flanked by the Okhotsk and Bering Seas and the Pacific Ocean, the peninsula is a flourishing hub of volcanism, seismology and floral and faunal abundance. As many as 28 active volcanoes brew in the eastern part while the number of wild animal species is close to three dozen.
With a mindboggling number of glaciers, rivers, springs and lakes big and small, the territory of Kamchatka, composed of magnificent valleys and sky-kissing snow-capped mountains overlooking Alpine meadows, can leave the awed visitor struggling to stifle a compulsively dropping jaw.
On the picturesque coasts, the lively sea and the quaint gulfs engage in interplay of serenity, and overlooked by the formidable ledges where eagles dare, dolphins and whales thrive in the waters that seem to have no horizon but an infinite depth.
Truly, Kamchatka is a place for those who 'bear' nothing less than the most idyllic.
What you will see and photograph:
Steller's sea eagles on the hunt, brewing volcanoes, exquisite waterfalls, hot spring baths and boating excursions - Kamchatka offers exceptional versatility in things to see, photograph and experience. And you don't have to take your pick, because you can do it all on this Expedition.
But the crowning glory of Russia's most precious wilderness is its bears.
A sub-species of the famous brown or grizzly bear, the Kamchatka brown bear hibernates in the harsh winter, when the landscape is frozen and the temperatures are negative. In April it rises from slumber and ventures into the woods looking for food.
During July, the sizeable salmon fish, which had gone away to the ocean earlier, rush back in large numbers to their exact birthplace in fresh water, to breed. And this triggers the marauding bears to go on a Salmon-hunting frenzy in around August each year, resulting in breathtaking scenes as they put on an action-packed show. And you can be a shutter-happy witness to it.
As the bears appear around the shallow waters of the mouths of small streams and rivers that offer the best hunting grounds, go on a clicking spree as a mother-bear fishes while her little teddies look on, a big male rears up comically on his hind legs looking for the next salmon to catch, or a female tucks into a sizeable pink catch and feasts on its tender flesh.
If the refined photographic opportunities are fabulous, there won't be a paucity of raw excitement either. With all the wildlife watching in Kamchatka always happening on foot, you can sometimes get as close as 15 to 20 feet to a hungry bear, who, absorbed by the eagerness to make the most of the marine feast, gives you a Nelson's eye and continues to do its thing.
Out in the ocean, which is where we will stay for a whole night and two days, killer whales or orcas - apex predators of the underwater world, which can weigh up to a staggering eight tonnes - can set your pulses racing with acrobatic moves, while adorable seals adorning the rocks will invoke your soft corner with their cuddly looks.
This is wildlife photography as it was meant to be - wild, versatile, undiluted and exhilarating.
Behind Jayanth's awe-inspiring work are a fierce commitment to nail the composition in the field, an assiduous abstinence from digital manipulation, a nearly devotional love for quality, and zero appetite for compromise. Jayanth uses the strengths of his tools to his immense advantage, creating powerful vignettes of optical excellence designed to pamper the aesthetic corner of a nature lover.
Jayanth is one of the co-founders of Toehold and you can have a look at his work on his website www.wildlifetimes.com or keep a tab on him on his Facebook Page.
Read more about Jayanth here.
WHY GO ON A TOEHOLD PHOTO TOUR?At Toehold, we are passionate about photography just as you are, which lets us understand your travails and needs perfectly. And we use this insight to specially design our Photography Tours so they give you a toehold to excel at the art and set you up for success.
The Toehold team at your disposal will keep you tuned and geared, so you come in empty-handed but go out with bagful of images and tales of an experience that is better lived than heard.
- A clinically organized tour with utmost attention to your comfort and needs
- An open, informal environment that promotes interactive learning
- A team that will strategize and work to a plan to optimize opportunities and ensure a great tour
- Practical, hands-on assistance in photography from the tour Skippers both in the field and off it
- A wealth of subject matter knowledge
- Individual interaction with the Skippers over general or specific issues
- First-hand learning from the masters in the art and craft of photography
These exclusive, informative and interactive sessions are -
TESTIMONIALS BY OUR PREVIOUS TOUR PARTICIPANTSPhotography enthusiasts who were a part of a similar Tour previously said:
This trip exceeded my expectations every step of the way! We got to do everything we wanted to - i would say that the lodge and the lake are magical and I would have been happy to spend more days there ! This is not a criticism since we had adequate time but given how unique the place is - it was difficult to tear oneself away from the lake.
- Chet Kamat, Bangalore
I have been telling everyone how wonderful my holiday was. It was truly memorable and also great fun with you guys! I have around 6000 photos so it will take me a long time to look through them all and keep the better ones but I was pleased to see that I have some photos which are better than expected. On a personal note thank you for being so very helpful and for being such a great team leader. The holiday was fantastic and you were very good at looking after everyone and anticipating in advance anything that would make the trip smoother. The scenery and wildlife were stunning and gave fantastic photographic opportunities for both proficient and amateur photographers. The itinerary was varied and the attention to detail was excellent.
- Amanda Felix, Sussex, UK
Such a wonderful tour and everything so perfect about it. Thanks to toehold for organising this tour and such a unique location unexplored !!! There were lot of First time Things and Sightings ( Helicopter ride , Zodiac ,Volcanoes , Geysers ,Bears of course ,Killer whales ) that I had experienced and hence a unique trip and long time impression in memory till I do another trip with toehold in the future.
- Kartik Bhat, Bangalore
I write this with a gratitude in my heart for making me experience an unforgettable Kamchatka. Man, what can I say, you have just not lived enough and seen enough if till you visit this place. Serene, Calm, Magnificent, Immersive experience in the real lost world.
- Rajendra K Pai, Mumbai
One of my best wildlife trips ever.
- Shantanu Sharma, Delhi
Indeed it was a very wonderful trip, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Look forward to seeing you in the near future.
- Subhash Chopra, Delhi
What a great expedition, I have been asked to write an article about it in "Platform Magazine" and share some of my photos. Your leadership and planning was very good and must say I really enjoyed this (my first organized trip) a lot.
- Aman Chopra, Delhi
Thank you for this wonderful trip, enjoyed it all the way.
- Mohan Thomas, Bangalore
Thanks, Jay, for the trip of a lifetime. You are a great trip leader. Look forward to seeing you on another trip!
- Tom Ori, USA
Please click on any thumbnail and use the left and right arrow keys to navigate between photos in the gallery.
- DAY 1 28 July 2017, Friday: Arrival in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky
Participants arrive at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the capital town of Kamchatka, and are promptly transferred from the airport to a comfortable hotel. The day is spent adjusting to the weather and visiting the market to buy some essential gear like head-torches and gumboots at affordable prices which is essential for the rest of our expedition. Later in the evening, a welcome-dinner will ensue in the restaurant discussing the prospects of the Tour with Skipper Jayanth Sharma.
- DAY 2 29 July, Saturday: Volcanoes
Our tryst with the Kamchatka brown bears begins as we reach the Kurilskoye Lake by evening, and along the way, we'll visit the following volcanoes.
KSUDACH VOLCANOThe weather allowing, a morning helicopter-flight lasting an hour will take us to the Ksudach Volcano (in the event of inclement weather, a second attempt will be made to visit it on the fifth day while returning from Kurilskoye Lake.)
After landing, we take a walk into the crater lake of Schtubelya, which is situated inside Ksudach Volcano, and then visit a beautiful waterfall where water pours out of the crater. Later, we visit a 'hot beach' - a site of hot springs on the shore of a lake, and then fly to the famous Kurilskoye Lake - an experience that will have uniqueness stamped all over it.
MUTNOVSKY VOLCANOGoing by helicopter, we disembark just below the 20000-year-old volcanic hills of Skalisty and Dvugorby, to climb up a foot-trail past steam springs, from where the trio of volcanoes of Asacha, Opala and Gorely are seen. The route then traverses by the hillside, crossing three snow-fields, before a final rise to the mouth of the caldera exit gorge.
Climbing the slopes of the glacial till, we descend slightly to the snout of the western glacier, slicing straight through fumaroles and mud pools, watching streams emerging from the snow and ice fields, and flowing back under the glacier toe.
Taking a recess after the helicopter ride at 1540m, we continue to explore the area close to the active crater from where the fumaroles can be seen on the crater floor, which is about 350m across, and its walls drop nearly vertically for over 100m.
Weather Conditions: Helicopter rides are subject to weather conditions. We will make every effort to adhere to the primary plan, but extempore modifications to the expedition itinerary may be inevitable under prevailing conditions. If we cannot visit these volcanoes on the fourth day as scheduled, we will make another attempt later. No refunds will be made if weather disrupts landings on the volcanoes.
KURILSKOYE LAKEFollowing this excursion in the afternoon, we arrive at our lodge at Grassy Point, a small and cozy wooden affair, which affords a magnificent view of Kurilskoye Lake and the surrounding mountains - a setup very similar to having a giant wallpaper outside your balcony. While we put our feet up and relax, we look out for bears that are often seen fishing along the lakeshore from the lodge. Afterwards, we venture onto the lake's pumice rock beach and receive our in-camp instructions for the rest of the Tour.
DAYS 3 TO 5 30 July to 1 August, Sunday to Tuesday: Bear Feast
For the next two days, Kamchatka's wildlife takes centre-stage, as we visit salmon-spawning places to pursue brown bears. We enjoy a walking excursion with local wardens to a nearby bear-viewing platform that is not far from the lodge and is located at the mouth of the several rivers that drain into Kurilskoye Lake. Here we have a good chance of making excellent, close-up images of bears fishing for migrating salmon, which stay briefly in the lake before moving on to the streams where they 'spawn'. The bears' opportunism will be matched by ours, as we seek to capture this unique phenomenon in all its extravagance.
We will also undertake longer walking excursions to a large meadow where bears feed on wild berries and visit other spawning streams farther from the lodge. Along these streams we are likely to see salmon and consequently bears fishing just a few yards away as we walk along the stream banks.
KHODUTKAWe start day five with another walk to the bear viewing platform and later in the evening, a helicopter will fly us to the Khodutka River for a blissful bath in Kamchatka's largest natural hot spring. The water sprouts from a section of tundra just below the Khodutka Volcano, forming a stream. Further downstream, the water gradually cools and we can find a section of the stream which is at just the right temperature for a dip of hedonism.
Following this sensual experience, we board the helicopter again, which takes us to the Ksudach and Mutnovsky Volcano plateau all the way up to the caldera if we failed to do this earlier due to weather conditions.
At the end of day 5, we return to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and stay over for the night.
- DAYS 6 AND 7 2 and 3 August, Wednesday and Thursday: Exclusive Marine Expedition
We take a boat from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky out of the Avacha Bay into the Pacific Ocean to see and photograph seals, Pacific gulls and, rather excitingly, killer whales.
These giant marine-emperors are rewarding photographic subjects, as they challenge your reflexes with their spectacular acrobatics above the water surface, 'porpoising', 'breaching' or 'skyhopping' in some sort of aquatic dance performance, holding you in a relentless grip of total enthrallment.
Equal to the allure of the orcas are the lower rungs of the food chain, the Steller's sea lions, Northern fur seals, harbour seals and spotted seals, which often strut out in the open presenting themselves as sitting targets from atop the rocks.
Breaking away from the ship in small zodiac boats to feel the sea from closer quarters, we can get close enough to resting seals to get wide-angle perspectives and other creative opportunities.
We spend a day pursuing images and experiences, staying out at sea in the boat on the night of 2 August — an exclusive experience that is likely to stay with us forever.
On 3 August, we return to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and stay over for the night.
- DAY 8 4 August, Friday: Checkout and Dispersal
Participants not availing of the optional extension check out after breakfast and are transferred to the airport for their departure for Moscow and thence home.
OPTIONAL EXTENSION: 1 NIGHT/2 DAYS
- DAY 8 4 August, Friday: Geyser Valley Tour or Avacha Bay Visit; Overnight in Petropavlovsk Kamchatsky
This day we highly recommend our participants to travel by helicopter to the amazing Valley of Geysers and the Uzon Volcano at an additional cost of EUR 800/- or use the day to visit the Avacha Volcano close to town. Jayanth will accompany guests who choose to opt out of the Valley of Geysers tour on a drive to the Avacha Volcano. This day can also be used to swim and rest if you are not interested in either the Geysers or the Volcano. The following are the details of the options.
GEYSERS VALLEY AND UZON VOLCANO OPTIONAL TOURAdditional EUR 800/-
Post-breakfast, participants wishing to visit the lovely Geysers Valley and Uzon Volcano at additional cost will leave their things in their rooms, deck themselves up in boots, add rain gear to the sack, and leave in a bus on a 45-minute drive to the heliport at Yelisovo and fly to the Valley of Geysers in about 75 minutes. This takes you to the east of the Zhupanovsky Volcano, with the low flight affording spectacular views of the taiga landscape home to brown bears, which are nearly sure of being spotted during the flight.
The cluster of geysers, fumaroles and hot springs in the Valley of Geysers, discovered in 1941, lies above the Uzon Caldera. A few large-but-brief periodic eruptions are seen in the valley, and there are many perennial hot water spouts.
Our helicopter lands in front of a timber lodge, whence we take a trail into The Valley of Geysers in the Kronotsky Nature Reserve.
The walk shows us a magnificent overview of the landscape, punctuated as it is with cliffs of tuffs, eroded into earth pillars. Down in the valley below, the vegetation is mostly lush. Ahead, the Bolshoi and Maly Geysers form major attractions, the former especially interesting for the water it throws about 10m high!
Continuing on the path upstream, we then descend to a bridge over the Geysernaya River. The river reaches a temperature of 26°C in the summer; while in the winter, it drops to about 16°C. Water from the springs and geysers varies from 35°C to a literally boiling 100°C. A little upstream of the bridge, the Schell Geyser, which erupts every 35 minutes, will make things very interesting indeed.
The walk ends with a view of the Velikan, a giant geyser on the far bank, which throws water to about 25m for around a minute each time. A trail on the terrace above the valley floor affords splendid views of the Fountain Platform, and goes by various hot pools. A hot lunch at the Valley of Geysers Lodge rounds up the morning's trip.
We then visit the Uzon Caldera, which is bordered by steep caldera walls and shows features of three collapses and lake remnants on marshy ground sediments. The lake, which is about 30m deep, is a pool of liquid sulphur at a balmy 140°C.
To the east, we plough through the alder bushes up the Belaya Dome, adjacent to which there are two small acid lakes. To the north, we explore Lake Dalneye, which is nearly a kilometre across and was produced by the steam explosions from the caldera floor.
Following an utterly fascinating day of exploration and learning, we return by helicopter to Yelisovo and by bus to the Petropavlovsk Hotel, dine and retire for the day.
AVACHA VOLCANO EXCURSIONAdditional EUR 200/-
In order to make the most of the Tour, we recommend participants to avail of the Geysers Valley Tour, but as an alternative, you may opt to visit the Avacha Volcano instead. Talk to us to find out more about the Geysers Tour and why you should avail of it.
- DAY 9 5 August, Saturday: Departure from Kamchatka
Having enjoyed an epic excursion to a geological goldmine thriving with wildlife and natural phenomena, reluctantly part with Kamchatka and depart for Moscow, from where they fly back to their respective homes with the sweet taste of the Far East lingering on their consciousness.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What are the requisites to participate in this Tour?
Apart from interest, a valid visa and related documents, a minimum level of fitness is essential. Visa assistance will be provided.
I am a newbie in nature photography. Am I eligible?
Absolutely! This Tour is meant for fledgling as well as experienced photographers. Beginners get all the advantages of learning on and off the field. In fact if you are a newbie, you should jump on this terrific learning opportunity and sign up right away! However, in order to make the most of the Tour photographically, we suggest you be familiar with at least the basics of photography. If you're not, please consider signing up for a Art and Science of Photography Workshop before the Tour.
How difficult are the treks on this Tour and what level of fitness is required?
Although grading the difficulty of walks is difficult due to the subjectivity of each individual's threshold, the walks on this Tour may be approximately generalized to be of Grade B and C, with the definitions as follows.
Grade B: Moderately easy for those of any fitness level and who are able to traverse moderately hilly terrain.
Grade C: Strenuous and requires a higher level of physical fitness. However, no special physical preparations are needed.
What is the nature of lodging on the Tour?
Due to the remoteness of the region, accommodation at all the campsites will be basic and comfortable but not luxurious. Owing to the limitation of available space and the eco-friendliness of the camps, lodging is in bunkers that accommodate five people, with non-attached common lavatories outside.
What equipment do you suggest on this Tour?
For bears and orcas, a telephoto zoom lens in the range of 100 to 400mm or 70-300mm works very well. A wide-angle or normal zoom to capture landscapes and volcanoes or creative perspectives of wildlife is highly recommended. However, if you do not have appropriate equipment, there is no need to fret. Toehold offers an exhaustive array of cameras and lenses on rent, so you can always hire what you need. Click here to see what we offer. If you are not a keen photographer, you may bring a compact digital camera if you have one, or even just a pair of binoculars.
How sure are you about photographing wildlife on this Tour?
Considering the meticulous attention to timing we pay while scheduling Tours and the local expertise we leverage, we believe that it would be extremely unfortunate if our sightings and photography were unsatisfactory. The Kamchatka peninsula is a fabulous place to photograph brown bears, especially in August. However, since we will be in an uncontrolled environment, we do not guarantee sightings.
How different are your Photo Tours from ordinary tours?
Unlike travel agents who plan your holiday from a remote destination to places they sometimes haven't experienced themselves, Photo Tours offer a comprehensive toehold to experience a place through the guidance of a professional photographer. The common ingredients in all our Photo Tours are fun and a lot of learning and knowledge sharing. Besides, most or all of our Tour participants are photography enthusiasts, which keeps the group in harmony and helps make your experience focussed.
© - All Text, Photographs, Videos and Narrations are properties of Toehold Travel & Photography Private Limited.
26 July to 2 August 2017
- Tour Cost:
Per person inclusive of taxes
Per couple inclusive of taxes
Per person inclusive of taxes
(2 and 3 August)
Geysers Valley and Uzon Volcano
Per person inclusive of taxes
Per person inclusive of taxes
All costs exclude flights to and back from Petropavlovsk Kamchatsky.
- Skipper: Jayanth Sharma