Separating the Sea of Okhotsk from the North Pacific Ocean −1,250 kilometres from the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula southwards to the Japanese island of Hokkaido− the 22 main islands and 30 smaller islets of the Kuril Islands (Russian: острова́) chain a necklace of coastlines waiting to be explored. This group of islands −covering 15,600 square kilometres area with volcanoes, geysers, and black sand, is part of a dispute that is no less sizzling than its thermal springs. At the same time, this stunning archipelago harbours natural beauty where it becomes one of few places on Earth where nature goes rampant. Yet, despite the toughness of the elements and the dubious issues of the humans, the Kuril Islands are a feast for the eye and a must-visit for the daring soul. The nature here is rich and mesmerizing in its uniqueness, it leaves no one indifferent to its charms. The wildlife is rare and features species listed in the Red Book of Russia.
Although Russian sources mention the Kuril Islands for the first time in 1646, the first information about the existence of the Kurils comes from explorer Vladimir Atlasov in 1697. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow and Tokyo have still not resolved the issue of the ownership of four islands in the Southern Kurils. The four islands include Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashiri and Etorofu. If traced back, the history of this territorial dispute has actually been going on for more than three centuries. In the 18th century, the Kuril Islands were settled by both Russians and Japanese. In 1875 Japan ceded to Russia the nearby island of Sakhalin in exchange for full Japanese possession of the Kurils (Saint Petersburg Pact). The islands were returned to the USSR by an agreement reached by the Allied powers at the Yalta Conference during World War ll. Japan however continues to claim the Southern Kurils, calling them the Northern Territories.
The dispute, however, had little effect on the lives of the local residents. As one of the most remote regions of Russia, life here has not changed for decades. The Kuril Islands had long been inhabited by the Ainu until they were expelled from the northernmost part by Russia in the 18th century. There are a significant number of artefacts attributable to the historic Ainu population which thrived on the islands from about 800 years BP till recently. Artefacts recovered from recent excavations suggest that the original inhabitants may well date to the Epi-Jomon period (2250-1300-year BP). In the 19th century, unfortunately, the natives Ainu presence on the island has diminished to the point of being preserved. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the surviving Ainu (about 200 people) were repatriated to Japan. To this day, the history of Japanese influence in the southern Kurils can be seen through the regular discoveries of ancient relics. For example, items from ancient Japanese porcelain can be found while strolling along the coast of Kunashir. Currently, the Kuril Islands have a total population of 20,500 people. The largest island is Iturup with the city of Kurilsk which is home to 6,409 people and is the centre of all business activities. There is no shopping centre there but a small cinema. All vehicles are made in Japan, but none of the roads are paved.
The Kuril Islands is part of the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’ providing the perfect backdrop for Russian Far East cruises. The Kuril Trench, a seabed trench, is located 200 km east of the islands. The archipelago is of volcanic origin where the land mass is actually the peaks of seabed volcanoes that arise from the ocean surface due to plate tectonics. There are at least 160 volcanoes amongst the islands, 40 of which can be described as currently active. Many villages and even some small towns are located on the slopes of these active volcanoes. Earthquakes, tsunamis, and frequent eruptions have forced local residents to leave their homes more than once. For that reason, the islands are full of abandoned places and there are no buildings that are more than 2 – 3 floors high. Not far from the old, abandoned lighthouse there are even graves of tanks and flood bunkers that were once used for military operations.
The Kuril Islands are mainly a protected area. They host the Kuril aka Kurilsky Nature Reserve established in 1984 to protect and study the extraordinary landscapes of the Southern Kurils, their flora, fauna, marine and coastal ecosystems. The reserve is usually subdivided into the Kuril Reserve per se and the Maly (Lesser) Kuril Wildlife Sanctuary, which administratively belongs to the Kuril Nature Reserve. The Maly Kuril Wildlife Sanctuary spreads over several small islands of the Kuril Ridge and partially on Shikotan Island. Marine protected area of the reserve is 33 thousand hectares. The island of Kunashir is the heart of the Kuril reserve. It captivates with its beauty at any time of the year. It is the southernmost island on the Great Kuril Ridge stretching 123 km from northeast to southwest, its width varies from 9 km on the land bridges to 30 km in the northern part of the island. Most popular sites to visit on Kuril Islands include Cape Himmerling near Rogachev Lake (a rookery of bay seal and various bird colonies) Golovnin Volcano Caldera, Tyatya volcano (1,819 m, one of the most active volcanoes and the second largest volcano of the Kuril Ridge), the Neskuchenskie Springs (the thermal springs where hot gases wallowing time to time), the Pillar Cape (Stolbchaty Cape), the Ptichya River and the Ptichy Waterfall. The Ptichya (aka the Bird River) is the second largest river on Kunashir Island. It is actually a series of waterfalls, the color of water changes throughout its length apparently due to mineral springs in the upper reaches of the river.
The climate in this mostly uninhabited archipelago is maritime monsoon, humid, with very strong long-lasting winds and an abundance of fog. The fog can be very thick with visibility is limited to two meters. But besides known for its intense fog, the Kuril Islands is teemed with marine life, from sea otters to harbour seals, Steller sea lions to orca, Dall’s porpoise to beaked and sperm whales. The islands also form a natural ‘flyway’ for migratory bird’s species moving north and south including both horned and tufted puffins, whiskered and rhinoceros auklets and exquisite little murrelets. The influence of warm and cold currents that wash the Kuril Islands from all sides bring asymmetry into the vegetation. Most of the islands are densely vegetated where the terrain allows, in higher areas the vegetation is tundra like or absent. Flora comprises broadleaf forest, dark coniferous forests, open woodland, grasslands, and the alpine tundra zone. The forests are inhabited by brown bears, foxes, hares, sables, weasels, and European minks. Vegetation becomes more luxuriant and taller from north to south as the climate becomes milder, eventually allowing the growth of dense stands of bamboo on Urup Island. On all the islands vegetation type is strongly affected by the vertical relief as well as the islands geographical position within the Kuril Chain.