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How cold is Kamchatka?

This was a question that occupied much of our thoughts as we were packing in Australia. We decided to pack for Antarctica, but with a few less warm socks. In sweltering Tokyo we thought we might have made a terrible mistake, but this morning, as a near-freezing drizzle fell, we put on just about everything.

Today should be a jackpot.

The Zupanova River is a renowned breeding ground of the large and endangered Steller’s Sea Eagle. We also expect to find spotted seals. But the big attraction is the possibility of seeing a Kamchatka brown bear, one of the largest bears of all.

We have two chances: a morning excursion and another in the afternoon.

The morning excursion reveals lines of spotted seals sunning themselves on sand bars in the river – rather like corpulent chorus girls. We have a great sighting of a Steller’s Sea Eagle too: first perched on a grounded log, then flying majestically directly in front of our Zodiac.

But by the time we’re back on board for lunch we’re cold and wet and the afternoon excursion holds little appeal, so many settle into the lounge. But, more out of duty than desire, I put my wet gear back on and head for the gangway.

Initially, the afternoon offers nothing more than the morning, and I’m soon considering a hot chocolate back on board. But then we see something unusual: flocks of gulls wheeling around a point in the river. We investigate and find hundreds of dead salmon on the bank, on the river bottom and floating on the river surface. The Zupanova River is a major salmon spawning area, so this isn’t a big surprise, but such a feast should draw a bear or two. Sure enough, we round a corner and see a bear rapidly retreating into the bush.

We continue into a large river lagoon and find some eagle nests before turning for the ship. But we all want another look at the salmon graveyard to see if the bear has returned. As we approach, we see a different bear ambling along the shore, picking-up salmon along the way. We follow at a distance that has him appear as a dot in my viewfinder. At first he’s curious about us, but soon ignores us over the delights of his smorgasbord – at one point, he even peels back the riverbank to extract a decomposed fish. We cover about a kilometre in tandem with the bear until it disappears into a dense area of vegetation.

Suddenly, he emerges right in front of us. Nonchalantly, he continues to munch on fish as we try to muffle our squeals of joy at this wonderful wildlife encounter. We watch him for about 45 minutes until he’s belly is replete and our shutter fingers sore. Then he climbs up the riverbank, takes one last look at us and disappears into the forest.

We all let out a long sigh of satisfaction. That was surely Kamchatka at its best.

Words by: David McGonigal