Killer Whales!

Location: Kuril Islands - Iturup Island

Day 11
by Wayne Brown

Today is an another excellent day! This good weather is very unusual for the Kuril Islands. Sergey says that this is the best weather he has ever seen in the Kuril Islands. Normally it is cold, and foggy and the seas are rough. Odyssey is about 70 miles (112 kilometers) south of Natalie Bay where we landed yesterday (DAY10) on Urup Island. We are headed to Iturup (it-oo-ROOP) Island and one of the largest villages in the southern Kuril Islands, named Kurilisk.

As we travel across the open sea, between Urup and Iturup, I see something splashing in the water far ahead of us. Through my binoculars I look out toward the splashes. I can see large dorsal fins in the water. Are they sharks? Porpoises? Dolphins? Whales? As I watch I see that the dorsal fin is tall and the animals have white patches on their sides and back. These are orcas! Our captain turns Odyssey so we can follow the orcas.

Orcas are called "killer whales". Orcas are actually the largest of the dolphin family. Orcas can grow over 30 feet (10 meters) long and weigh up to 9 tons (8,200 kilograms)! Orcas are called "killer whales" because they often kill and eat whales. Orcas also eat other dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions, squid, fish and even birds.

I can see eight orcas swimming rapidly. I watch four orcas swim next to each other in a line. They break the surface and blow together, moving quickly up and down in the water. These orcas seem to be hunting. Orcas usually hunt in packs like wolves. Orcas also can swim very fast. Orcas can swim up to 34 miles per hour (55 kph). These orcas are probably hunting salmon.

After a while the orcas rapidly swim away leaving us behind. Our captain heads Odyssey back toward Iturup Island. Our captain says that the weather is so good we can try to make another beach landing before we visit the villlage.

Odyssey enters a large bay on the northwest end of Iturup Island. The beach looks like it is wide and sandy. A great place for a beach landing! We get into our Zodiacs and head for shore. We land on the north end of the beach. To the south of us the beach looks like it goes on for over a mile or two (1.6-3.2 kilometers). The beach is black volcanic sand, like all the other Kuril Island beaches. Streams cut across the beach in three or four places. Green plants, about 2-4 feet tall (1/2-1.3 meters) grow along the beach. Near the beach we see things that we have not seen on the other Kuril Islands, trees! A dense forest of tall trees grow near the beach behind the shorter green plants.

I notice that other people have been here before us. I find the a camp at the edge of the beach near a small stream. It looks like this camp was recently used. In the center of the camp is a circle of rocks where there was a recent campfire. I find fishing line and parts of fishing net laying around. It looks like Russian fishermen used this camp. I see some large bones on the ground. These are the backbones (vertebrae) of a large whale. It looks like the fishermen used the bones as stools to sit on. I see the fishermen took the time to decorate their camp. One whale vertebrae has a bottle of flowers stuck into it!

The Russian fishermen probably left their camp to go fishing. They could have also left their camp for another reason. Maybe they were chased out by bears! Along the beach I find large tracks of a Russian brown bear, like the ones on saw on Kamchatka (DAY 3). I call on my radio to report the bear tracks to the rest of the team. Our team members report they have found bear tracks, too. The tracks appear fresh. Like in Kamchatka these bears are probably feeding on salmon at the mouth of the streams. The bears could be hiding deep in the forest or they could be right next to the beach. We don't know. To be safe we decide to leave the beach and return to Odyssey.

On the way up the beach to our Zodiacs I notice that another animal is here, too. I see tracks from an arctic fox. This fox was probably following the bear. I can see that the tracks follow the bear tracks and were made after the bear went by. Maybe the fox was following the bear looking for some scraps of food the bear may have left behind.

We gather up our group and head back to Odyssey. It was fun to go ashore here. I wish I could have gone exploring in the forest, but everyone was worried about the bears.

Tomorrow we will go to the village of Kurilisk and see what life is like for people in the southern Kuril Islands.

"Dah-svee-dahn-yah" (Good-bye)


Iturup Island, Russia

Position: 45º 54' N / 148º 59' E
Midday Air Temp: 60ºF
Weather: sunny, scattered clouds and gentle swell.
Water Temp: 43ºF

Iturup Island. We explored the "Bay of the Bears". The village of Kurilisk to the south. (NASA photo)

This killer whale is one of a pod of orcas we saw hunting for food.

Large brown northern fur seals lay on the rocky beach just above the waves.

Dr. Marjory holds a large whale vertebrae we found. Russian fishermen jused this as centerpiece in their camp. (Notice the flowers in the bottle stuck in the vertebrae.)

I am pointing to big Russian brown bear tracks and fox tracks I found on the beach.


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