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Far East Russia Orca Project expedition 2004

An Orca Odyssey in Far East Russia
Sam DuFresne

In May 2004, I received an e-mail with the heading: “Russia Killer Whale Project Seeks Field Assistant”. Despite being very close to submitting my PhD, it was tempting. The correspondent had written ‘Sounds like an adventure…’, and eventually I decided that yes, it did sound like an adventure, and one that I wanted to participate in. Six weeks later, I was on my way to Russia.

The field station for the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP) is situated on Starichkov Island near the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (PKC), on the Kamchatka Peninsula. You’ll need a very detailed map of the area to find Starichkov- it is situated in the Avacha Gulf, just to the south of PKC, and is just 800m across and 150m high. To get there, I flew by perhaps the longest route possible; via Los Angeles, Frankfurt and Moscow and finally to PKC (flights via Asia were available, but were more expensive).

I had never travelled to Russia before, and didn’t really know what to expect. I knew something of the volcano-dominated landscape of Kamchatka from the few pictures I had found on the internet, but unfortunately I was denied any views on my flight there. In fact, it was to be several days before I got a good look at the spectacular volcanic peaks. Stepan Krasheninnikov, an 18th century explorer to the area, had this to say about the climate of Kamchatka: “The summer is very unpleasant, wet and cold… The sun often remains hidden for two or three weeks… One could hardly find any other place with fogs denser or of longer duration anywhere in the entire World…”. This description certainly fits with my first week or so there. But, once the cloud and fog lifts (and it does, I promise), it reveals one of the most beautiful places that you will find anywhere (and I come from New Zealand!).

On my first day in PKC, I met several of the people who I was to spend the next few weeks with on the island. The project’s main organiser is Dr Alexander (Sasha) Burdin, who divides his time between the Laboratory of Animal Ecology, at the Kamchatka Branch of Pacific Institute of Geography (part of the Russian Academy of Sciences), and the Alaska Sea Life Center, in Seward, Alaska. Sasha, along with Hal Sato, a principal investigator for the project from Hokkaido (Japan), were to spend the next several weeks carrying out a boat-based survey well to the north of us, so my meeting with them was all too brief. (Another key organiser, who was not present, is Erich Hoyt, a senior research associate at WDCS).

The team on the island was made up of graduate students (mostly from Moscow and St Petersburg), and volunteers (predominantly university students). Although there were some departures and additions during the time I was there, mostly there were 8 of us on the island. The research students have various areas of interest, and are collecting data to be used in their respective research projects. Together, these projects help to form FEROP, and cover topics ranging from foraging behaviour, to communications and vocal behaviour, abundance, social organisation, and genetic structure and relationships.

The team is split into two groups: the land team, lead by Karina Tarasyan (a PhD student from Moscow), carry out observations from a clifftop about 120m high. Here, they use a theodolite to track Orca movement, while observing foraging and other behaviours. They are also able to direct the boat crew to groups of Orca, since they have a considerably better view of the Gulf and can spot animals up to 18km away! The boat crew this year was made up of 4 people: myself, Ekatherina (Katia) Jikia, Tatyana (Tanya) Ivkovich and Pavel (Pasha) Samolkine. My job was to drive the boat, so I was responsible for decisions regarding safety and weather conditions. Beyond that, it was up to me to position the boat so that Tanya could successfully gather photo-ID data, and for Katia to take biopsy samples using a crossbow. Believe me, it is not as easy as it sounds, and on long days it can be very tiring. Also on the boat was a note-taker and general assistant for Tanya and Katia. While this position was filled by a number of people, usually it fell to Pasha, a biology student from St Petersburg.

The facilities on the island are quite basic. Accommodation is in the form of a 6m x 4m cabin (which we built during the first few days). Electricity is provided via a small generator, however there is no refrigeration for food, and all cooking is done on a kerosene stove. There is fresh water available on the island, but this has to be boiled for consumption. Communication with the city is possible using cell phones, but only from certain locations on the island, or while out on the boat. So, while life is far from luxurious, the necessities are all there. Think of it as an extended camping trip!

A typical day on the boat would start with us taking our little Zodiac out into the Gulf, to the seaward side of Starichkov. There we would lower a hydrophone to listen for Orca, and call the cliff team on a VHF radio to see if they had any animals in sight. If we were unsuccessful there, we would normally travel to Cape Apasne, about 10km to the south of the island. This is a very popular spot for the local fishing boats, and for the same reason it is also very popular with Orca. When we detected Orca on the hydrophone, we would often then use a directional hydrophone to determine where the Orca were coming from.

Each encounter with Orca was different, and decisions on what do to would normally be made once we had come close enough to the animals to know what they were doing. Our priorities were photo-ID and taking biopsies, however we also wanted to make recordings of the animals’ communications and vocal behaviour, using the hydrophone and a DAT recorder. So for example, if the animals were travelling in a consistent direction, we would often start by taking photo-ID pictures, followed by biopsies of one or two recognisable animals. Then, we would often travel ahead of them for 1 or 2 kilometres before stopping the boat and setting up the recording equipment, so we could record them as they travelled past. If, however, the animals were foraging, our time was often better spent making DAT recordings and behavioural observations with video cameras, since foraging animals tend not to move in any predictable manner, making photo-ID a difficult task indeed.

The days on the water were certainly varied. On some days we hardly had a chance to stop and rest because there were always Orca nearby; and sometimes they would disappear for days. We had a few absolutely amazing encounters, and two boat-friendly juveniles were particularly memorable. They would come in and swim very close to the boat, going right underneath us, stopping and looking directly up at us. On another day, after seeing a mixed group of Dall’s and harbour porpoise, a minke whale surfaced directly in front of the boat while we were stopped for lunch.

For me, the trip to Starichkov to work with the FEROP team was as much about a cultural exchange as it was science. The team were curious to learn about New Zealand, and I was interested to know more about Russia. Many of my evenings were spent having long conversations with the people who could speak English more confidently. Everyone on the island had a lively sense of humour, and there was always plenty of laughter. One consistent feature of my trip in general was that everyone I met was incredibly hospitable and friendly, and I was always made to feel very welcome.

Would I go back to Starichkov to work on the FEROP project again? Definitely. The work was at times challenging, but often incredibly rewarding. Life on the island is different to what most of us would be accustomed to, but that is all part of the fun. Someone on the team once asked me if I was finding the living conditions difficult. I replied that in that sort of situation, as long as you have a strong sense of adventure, and an equally good sense of humour, you will be just fine. The combination of the amazing beauty of Kamchatka, the fascinating animals, and a group of dedicated, hardworking, and very friendly people provided me with one of the most memorable experiences of my life to date. I will always cherish my Starichkov experience. I hope that I do have the chance to return, and I hope that one day I have the chance to repay the kindness of the wonderful people who hosted me, by showing them the same level of hospitality here in New Zealand.



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