Kuril Islands – volcanic islands exploding with birdlife

While Ring of Fire is a much loved song by the late, great Johnny Cash, the Ring of Fire is a loop of tectonic instability encircling the Pacific Ocean – and this is where you’ll find the Kuril Islands. Stretching out in a long ribbon between Hokkaido in Japan and Kamchatka in Russia, the 56 islands of this archipelago are actually the tops of stratovolcanoes, pushed up by the crunching together of the Eurasian and Pacific tectonic plates. Many of the volcanoes in the Kuril Islands are still active, and alongside them are a host of unique and amazing features, created by volcanic and geothermal activity, from puffing fumaroles, to super heated lakes and hot springs.
The Kuril Archipelago is approximately 1,300km long and divides the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean. Currently, Russia claims all the islands as its own, but there are ongoing disputes with Japan, which lays claim to four of the southernmost islands. The upwelling from deep trenches formed by volcanic activity, and the currents which swirl around many of the islands, produce fertile seas and perfect conditions for seabirds and cetaceans and this area is one of the richest in the world, both in number of species and their abundance. While you will find whales and auks, sea otters and puffins, you won’t come across many people. A small population is scattered across the archipelago but there’s still little infrastructure, so tourism isn’t a ‘thing’ here. Come to the Kuril and you’re coming on an expedition, to explore wild landscapes and wildlife, all largely untroubled by other human beings.
How to get to & around the Kuril Islands

How to get to & around the Kuril Islands

As with trips that take in Kamchatka and Chukotka, further north along Russia’s eastern coast, travel by sea is essential when visiting the Kuril Islands. The only difference is that some trips base themselves mostly on a single island – typically southerly Kunashir – while others are small ship cruises, using environmentally responsible vessels for transport and accommodation.
Generally, Sakhalin is your jumping off point. This large island lies just off the east coast of Russia and both small cruise ships and public ferries to Kunashir depart from the port of Korsakov. Winters are cold throughout the Kuril Islands, and harsher the further north you go, so expeditions tend to take place between May and late September, when the weather is milder but can be wet and foggy.
Some Kuril Islands vacations use Kunashir as a base, with boat excursions of a day or two to travel further north and explore neighbouring islands such as Shikotan and Iturup. To see the entire archipelago, a small ship cruise is the answer. This can travel the length of the Kuril Islands, from Kunashir to the Kamchatka mainland, docking or using a Zodiac RIB to get you on shore.
Trips that spend time on Kunashir typically rely on camping, since there’s no tourism accommodation and little infrastructure in the Kuril Islands. On a small ship cruise, visitors simply return to the boat each night to eat and sleep.
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What to see in the Kuril Islands

What to see in the Kuril Islands

Intrepid travelers come to the Kuril Islands to explore a remote and diverse landscape. Thanks to its size, the archipelago is home to a range of different landscapes, from tundra in its sub Arctic north, where you’ll find only sparse forest or no trees at all, to dense spruce, larch and bamboo forests in the temperate south. Active volcanoes, hot springs, lakes and rivers pepper the islands, and there are opportunities to hike, along wooded shorelines and up narrow paths to calderas. You can also paddle in warm geothermal pools and dine on amazing seafood and super fresh Russian caviar.
Kunashir, the southernmost island of the Kuril Islands, is a popular start point for Kuril Islands explorations. It is formed by four active volcanoes that were once separate but are now joined together by low lying areas of lakes and hot springs. You can visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cape Stolbchaty, famous for its basalt columns (think Giant’s Causeway, only bigger), and the fumarolic fields and steaming hot springs around Mendeleev Volcano. Atop the 543m-high Golovnin Volcano is a crater containing two lakes, with temperatures ranging from 36°C up to a don’t-swim-in-this 100°C. Matua Island, further north, has an active volcano on it, overshadowing neighbouring Toporkovy Island where vast quantities of seabirds live.
The Kuril Islands are catnip for wildlife watchers and twitchers, too. The surrounding waters are among the most productive in the North Pacific, and are home to blue, fin, sperm, humpback and grey whales, plus orcas and porpoises. There are also huge concentrations of seabirds, including auks, fulmars, puffins, kittiwakes and petrels. On Urup Island, you can spot sea otters, but they’re most abundant further north, in the Second Kuril Strait. On Chirpoyev Island, there are dramatic volcanic landscapes and headlands covered in breeding seabirds, while Yankicha Island is famous for its quantities of crested and whiskered auklets.

Human history of the Kuril Islands

When you look at a map and see how the Kuril Islands act as a string of volcanic stepping stones connecting Russia with Japan, it’s no surprise to discover that there was once an indigenous population of people, the Ainu, who settled throughout this region. The Ainu lived as far south as northeastern Honshu (Japan’s main island), and all the way up through the Kurils to Sakhalin and Kamchatka in Russia.

Disputes over the Kuril Islands between the Russians and Japanese throughout the last few centuries have seen the Ainu assimilated into the larger, national populations and, often, moved off their lands. The Kuril Islands themselves have been passed back and forth like a parcel in a children’s party game.

In 1855, a border was drawn so that Japan owned the islands south from Iturup while the Russian territory included Urup Island and the other Kuril Islands stretching north. Sakhalin was deemed a place where peoples of both countries could live. That didn’t last though, and in 1875, another treaty resulted in Japan relinquishing all rights over Sakhalin in exchange for Russia ceding all of the Kuril Islands south of Kamchatka to Japan, with the Kuril’s Ainu inhabitants coming under Japanese administration.

Today, though, the Kuril Islands are Russian, after the Soviet Union conquered South Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands at the end of the Second World War. Japan still maintains that the southern four islands are Japanese, with this ongoing Kuril Islands dispute ignoring the claims of the 25,000 or so officially recognised Ainu people. They continue to point out that they were natives on the Kuril Islands, and have petitioned President Putin not to award the islands to Japan, blaming the Japanese, the Tsarist Russians and the Soviets for crimes against the Ainu and asking for official recognition of genocide by the Japanese, too. He has, so far, not recognised this genocide.

Today, around 20,000 people live on the Kuril Islands in a handful of settlements, but there’s evidence of a human past here in the form of military remains. There’s a flooded caldera at the northern end of Simushir Island where a top secret Soviet submarine base lies abandoned, while Shikotan Island is littered with rusted Soviet tanks form the Cold War. On Atlasov Island there are also the remains of a women’s gulag. The women, who were political or intellectual prisoners during the Soviet rule, were sent here to raise foxes for fur.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Harald Deischinger] [Kittiwakes: JE Ross - Heritage Expeditions] [Little harbour: Peter] [Hike: Peter] [Hike into the bush: Peter] [Thermal springs: Peter] [Auklets everywhere: ARuss -Heritage Expeditions] [Ainu child: munechika tanaka]