ExploringThe Kuril Islands.
Alaid Volcano, Atlasov Island
In June 2015 Pete and I set sail from the Japanese port of Otaru on Hokkaido, our destination was Alaska and we were on an expedition cruise ship with 94 other passengers. After lengthy Russian immigration procedures on the large island of Sakhalin our route followed the line of the Kurils, a chain of 56 islands extending just over 800 miles north eastwards from the north of Hokkaido to the southern tip of the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia, separating the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean. They are part of the ring of tectonic instability encircling the Pacific often referred to as The Ring of Fire. The islands are summits of volcanoes, there are about 100 volcanoes on the islands plus nearly as many again below sea level; 32 of the terrestrial volcanoes have erupted in the last 300 years. We visited 3 of the northern islands and sailed in the fleet of rubber zodiacs along the shores of 3 others to see large numbers of Northern Fur Seals, huge Steller’s Sea Lions plus vast flocks of sea birds. We were in Russian territory, some islands further south are disputed territory, claimed by both Japan and Russia. The northern islands are in the sub-Arctic climatic zone, they endure long, cold, stormy winters; the summers are cool and notoriously foggy. The islands we visited are remote and uninhabited so our landings were made from the zodiacs; wellington boots were essential.
Our first landfall was on the tiny island of Yankicha, thankfully the early morning fog cleared sufficiently for us to be able to appreciate the stunning scenery. Yankicha is a volcano long since dormant, its crater now partially sunk below sea level, the resulting bay can only be entered at high water, the rock wall of the submerged crater could be easily seen through the clear water as we drifted over it in the zodiac. Kraternaya Bay is surrounded by a tall, steep, tree-less ridge clad in grassy meadows; the zodiacs made for the beach at the far corner of the bay which is backed by an area of bubbling hot- springs and boiling mud pools, bright yellow sulphur vents and ground which was too hot to walk on. The air was full of the smell of bad eggs and clouds of steam wafted across but only a few meters away, at the back of the beach, we found the first plants of interest. Bright yellow Potentilla megalantha was growing with large clumps of Cornus suecica, there were also several plants of Honkenya oblongifolia, all these were in full bloom. Amongst red volcanic rocks we found Rhodiola rosea, also in flower. We made our way to the rocky ocean shore across a meadow rich in tall grasses and herbaceous plants where Geranium erianthum (above right) was in flower, this was the only species of geranium that we saw on the journey but it was growing wherever we went ashore. Trollius riederianus (above left) with glossy yellow blooms grew with lily-of-the-valley family member Maianthemum dilatatum. I couldn’t detect any scent from its creamy-white flowers.
Suddenly we came on an area with many orchids, Dactylorhiza aristata in deep purple and shades of pink, some plants had plain leaves others were spotted as in the picture below; this species is also found in the Aleutian Islands and eastern Asia. The flora of the Kuril Islands is mainly made up of species found in Japan, Sakhalin, Kamchatka and North America; together with the Aleutians they form a bridge between Asia and America. Perhaps as a result of catastrophic volcanic eruptions there are gaps in the distribution of some species. Down by the shore there were thick carpets of Senecio pseudo-arnica, the yellow flowers still in bud, they must make a dazzling sight when in full bloom. Trotting along the shore was an Arctic Fox; these foxes have no experience of humans as only 1 or 2 ships a year call at this island and their curiosity led them to check us out. One fox engaged in a tug-of-war with one of our group when it made a grab for the hat she was carrying. The foxes were introduced, along with voles for them to feed on, by Russians in the days when they were valued for their fur; now there is balance between foxes and voles and they live with virtually no disturbance. Before we returned to the zodiacs Pete climbed a little way up the ridge and was rewarded by finding Fritillaria camschatcensis in flower.
The next island we visited was Onekotan, quite a way further north; this is a large island which has 2 volcanoes, one a cone in a crater lake which erupted in 1952.The zodiacs headed to a beach of black magnetite sand which is typical of volcanic activity. At the back of the beach dunes were covered with a species of beach rye grass, Elymus; in the cliffs above bunkers built by the Japanese in WW2 reminded us that the area hasn’t always been peaceful. We had to wade across a wide, fast-flowing river, I was glad I’d got my walking pole but one of the expedition team spent her whole time ashore seeing folk safely across. On the far side there was something of a path up the hill slope to the plateau on the top; dwarf thickets of birch, sorbus and alder sheltered a diverse flora which slowed our progress as we exclaimed over one treasure after another. At the base of the slope we found a deep blue Veronica grandiflora, then, where the path started to climb, were 2 violas; yellow Viola biflora, which has a circumpolar distribution was growing alongside the endemic V. hultenii which is white with purple guidelines.
Lloydia serotina was in full bloom, it has 3 petals and 3 sepals which look alike giving the appearance of 6 petals. There were large patches of Anemone narcissiflora var villosissima (right), white with huge bosses of yellow stamens; creeping over rocks was purple Oxytropis retusa contrasting with pink Pedicularis pallasii and in amongst all these were pink blooms of Primula cuneifolia. The orchid we had seen on Yankicha, Dactylorhiza aristata, was also in flower here but there seemed to be more plants with heavily spotted leaves. When we did eventually make it onto the plateau it was to find a bleak upland giving amazing views out to sea, over the apparently barren island and up the river valley where large numbers of driftwood tree trunks had been washed up. The arctic tundra vegetation of the plateau included mosses and several heaths; Arctous alpina, or bearberry, is edible but not tasty, Loiseleuria procumbens was just coming into flower and we found crowberry, Empetrum nigrum. A ground-hugging rhododendron with large creamy-white flowers, R. brachycarpum, was a surprise in this exposed place, as was Mertensia pterocarpa.
Having dropped down the slope and re-crossed the river we climbed the dunes and made our way across a large flat area to a small lake. Here, among lush grasses, Iris setosa covered the ground, sadly there were no signs of any flowers but it must be a magnificent sight when they are in bloom. It was also too early for flowers on Veratrum album and a meadowsweet, Filipendula kamtschatica, ferns were unfurling their new leaves but a head-height rock was covered in Cassiope lycopodioides in full flower (left). Our time on Onekotan had been great.
Our final landing was on the northern-most of the Kurils, Atlasov. In geological terms this is a young island; circular, it consists of the volcano Alaid which is the introductory picture and at 7674’ is the highest point in the Kurils. As an almost perfect cone rising from the sea it was revered by the Japanese and was the subject of their woodblock prints much as Mt. Fuji – until the Japanese lost the northern Kurils to Russia in a treaty of 1855. Eruptions by Alaid in 1790 and 1981 are the largest recorded in the Kurils: we landed on the gently steaming black sand of Alaidskaya Bay backed by cliffs in fantastic shapes carved out of the ash deposited in 1981. In the soviet era Atlasov was the site of a gulag for women; they were political or intellectual prisoners who had to farm foxes for their fur. There were few remnants of the wooden huts where they lived but the watchtower way down the beach, made of concrete blocks, still stood tall. We walked towards it finding quite a lot of plants: Senecio pseudo-arnica, the yellow buds still not fully open, growing with pinky-red Epilobium latifolium and Artemisia unalaskensis which formed silvery-grey rosettes on the black gritty sand. Mertensia maritima ssp asiatica (above right) sprawled across the ground with Lathyrus japonicus, which is very similar to L. maritimus.
There were small clumps of Papaver alboroseum (left), its pale flowers rather weather-beaten although the conditions that day were near perfect. Poppies have flexible stems that enable the flower heads to track the sun and thus maximise the heat and aid pollination. By the watchtower we headed inland a little way to a waterfall off the lower slopes of the volcano, the water drained into a lake and here the vegetation was taller, we found a lamium and a dock amongst the grass but the only thing of interest was a pink orchid which we still haven’t been able to identify. We made our way back finding white Draba borealis, mauve Viola epipsiloides and the vivid red leaf rosettes of Pedicularis labradorica which would, in time, have yellow flowers. The only clouds that day had been wreathed around Alaid but they gradually lifted and before we left the island the full height of the snow-covered volcano was revealed, it made quite a backdrop as we sailed north to Kamchatka.
The diversity of the flora had been better than we had hoped and we were lucky to have visited the islands when so much was in bloom. If you would like to see these plants and landscapes then please come to the November meeting when the talk will also feature the Pribilof Islands and Nome in northwest Alaska.
A few more Kuril Island plants