Location: Kuril Islands - Urup Island
by Wayne Brown
Today is an another excellent day! Odyssey is about 37 miles (60 kilometers) south of Chirpoy Island. We are near Urup (oo-ROOP) Island. We are heading to a large bay (Natalia Bay) on the northwest coast of Urup. We will try to make a Zodiac landing on one of the beaches there and explore this island.
As Odyssey approaches Urup I can see that this island is like the other Kuril Islands. It is a chain of old volcanoes covered with small green plants. In Natalia Bay I can see a small Russian fishing boat, near the entrance to a river. Sergey points out the line of white balls in the water stretching out in front of the boat. He says these are the floats connected to a fishing net. The fishermen are fishing for salmon, like the fishermen we saw in Russkia Bay on the Kamchatka Peninsula (DAY 3).
Salmon are unusual cold water fish. Most fishes can only live in fresh or salt water. Salmon are unusual because they can live in both fresh and salt water. (Fishes that can live in both fresh and salt water are called "anadromus (an-ADD-row-muss) species"). Salmon are born in fresh water rivers, but spend most of their lives in the ocean. After a few years, when they are ready to reproduce, they swim back to the same river where they were born. The swim back to their home river may take several months and they may swim over 2000 miles (3200 kilometers)! The fishermen are trying to catch the salmon before they swim up river and lay their eggs. The fishermen want the hundreds of fish eggs that is inside each female salmon.
Around the point I see some other creatures that are probably here to catch some salmon. Spread out on a rocky beach is a large herd of northern fur seals. The male fur seals can grow up to 7 feet (2.3 meters) long and weigh over 600 pounds (275 kilograms)! The females can grow up to 4 feet (1.3 meters) long and weigh up to 110 pounds (50 kilograms). Unlike other seals, fur seals have ear flaps. These seals are called fur seals because their fur is thicker than all the other seals and sea lions. A fur seal's fur has over 300,000 hairs per square inch! Hunters used to kill these seals for their fur. Now fur seals are protected.
Through my binoculars I can see some of the fur seals are napping. Others just lazily watch us as we pass by. I don't expect to see any seals out looking for salmon now. Northern fur seals hunt for their food mainly at night. Day time is nap time. It is unusual to see these seals laying out like this. Northern fur seals spend most of their lives out in the deep ocean far from shore. These seals only come ashore in the summer to breed.
After Odyssey anchors we get in our Zodiacs and look for a good beach to land on. Most of the shoreline is rocky or has steep cliffs that drop into the sea. The first beach we see is wide and sandy. It would be a great place to land if it wasn't for the big waves crashing on the beach! The next beach is smaller, and would be good for landing if the fishermen did not have their nets across the front of it. We don't want to damage their nets so we look for another beach.
Finally, on the other side of the bay we find a small beach to land on. I steer slowly and cautiously around large rocks near the shoreline. The water is clear and I can see groups of large salmon zooming around the rocks underwater. We land on a beach that is sand and rocks. The tide is low. I can see seaweed on the beach along the high tide line. The seaweed has been out in the sun for several hours and it stinks. It has also attracted swarms of tiny flying insects and mosquitoes that we have to keep swatting away from our faces.
The green plants growing next to the beach are thick and so tall that they are over our heads. We can't easily walk through these plants. We try to walk up a stream that runs from the valley across the beach and into the sea. The rocks along the stream are round and slippery. One of our expedition team members slips and sprains his ankle. I seems like we will be stuck on the beach.
We notice that the stream is filled with salmon! The last 10 feet (3 meters) before the stream runs into the sea it is only about 3-4 inches (76-101 millimeters) deep. Big salmon are thrashing, half out of the water, trying to get back into the sea. They have laid their eggs and are going back to the ocean to die. One of the crew from Odyssey walks into the stream. He kicks the salmon out of the stream and onto the beach. This the first time I have ever seen anyone fishing by fish kicking!
As the salmon flap around on the beach, one of our team, Teresa, picks up a salmon to study it. It is a male pink salmon. It is also called a "humpback" salmon, because the male grows a hump on its back when it is time to reproduce. Besides the hump another way we can tell it is a male is by its hooked jaws. Males also grow hooked jaws when they are ready to reproduce. They use their hooked jaws for threatening other males as they compete for spawning (egg laying & fertilizing) sites. The spawning sites are where the males fertilize the females eggs after they are laid. Without fertilization the eggs will not develop into baby salmon.
After checking out the salmon we quickly get back in our Zodiacs and zoom away from this smelly, buggy beach!
Tomorrow we should not have to deal with smells and bugs. Tomorrow we are supposed to visit the one of the largest villages in the southern Kuril Islands and meet some of the people who live there.
Urup Island, Russia
Position: 46º 06' N / 150º 09' E
Midday Air Temp: 60ºF
Weather: sunny, scattered clouds and gentle swell.
Water Temp: 43ºF
Urup Island. Notice the large half-round bay. This is Natalia Bay. Odyssey is anchored here. (NASA photo)
Near Urup Island I see a Russian fishing boat. The line of white dots in front of the boat are floats from a salmon fishing net.
Large brown northern fur seals lay on the rocky beach just above the waves.
This is the small beach where we make our Zodiac landing. Along the left side of the beach a small river runs into the sea.
Theresa holds a large pink male salmon. It came from the stream at our beach. It was trying to get back to the sea after it spawned upstream.