The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Kuril Islands

How Kaspersky’s expedition helped scientist and activist Vladimir Burkanov, and what happened next

Photo: Renan Ozturk Photo: Renan Ozturk

In July 2019, a Kaspersky expedition was about to set sail from the port of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky to the Kuril Islands to spend 12 days exploring the world's most remote volcanic archipelago and make a visually captivating extreme adventure film. Shortly before departure, however, marine biologist Vladimir Burkanov asked if he could come aboard. He has been monitoring the population of Steller sea lions, an endangered species of seals, for three decades, and for the last three years, he has had to “hitchhike” his way to their rookeries on one of the islands, where his students work at an observation station. Eventually, getting to know Vladimir dramatically changed our team's plans, and instead of a tourist blockbuster, they created a story about one of the planet's most fragile corners and a man who calls this place home.

Vladimir Burkanov Vladimir Burkanov Photo: Chris Burkard
Photo from the personal archives of the expedition participants Photo from the personal archives of the expedition participants

Prequel, or how the stars aligned

Let's rewind to three years ago. Povel Torudd, head of the Brand Activation Studio at Kaspersky, came up with the idea of organizing an expedition to the Kuril Islands in 2017. He found support from Eugene Kaspersky, who had fallen in love with the Kurils in his childhood. He had visited the archipelago in 2014, and, as it turned out, hoped to return there in 2019.

Renan Ozturk, an outstanding high-altitude mountaineer and filmmaker, heard about Eugene and Povel's plans while working on another project with Povel - an all-female expedition to the North Pole - in 2017. It was there that Renan and Povel realized they shared a mutual fascination for the Kurils, and decided to make a documentary about the islands. Renan joined the project as the director of photography and co-director, and later his wife Taylor Rees came on board as director.

Eugene Kaspersky Eugene Kaspersky
Povel Torudd Povel ToruddPhoto: Renan Ozturk

Renan shared the news with an old acquaintance of his, Chris Burkard, a globally renowned nature photographer with 3.5 million followers on Instagram. Coincidentally, Chris had been dreaming about exploring the islands for a while and had even seen photos of the Kurils in Eugene Kaspersky's blog. In a nutshell, the stars aligned, both literally and metaphorically.

“Initially, it was supposed to be an environmentally conscious adrenaline story with climbing, drones flying, and the breathtaking beauty of the Kurils,” recalls Povel Torudd. “Gradually, as we got to know the challenges the islands pose, we realized that our story wouldn’t be focused on extreme adventures in a captivating setting but instead it would try to raise awareness of the region's environmental challenges. This was how the project title, From Kurils with Love, was born.”

Eventually, the team was extended to include not only filmmakers and photographers but also scientists. Apart from the project initiators, the team on the Athens, a yacht chartered by Eugene Kaspersky, included:

  • Film director and passionate environmental activist Taylor Rees and her team;
  • Extreme photographer Ted Hesser;
  • Drone photography virtuoso Ryan Hill;
  • Ecologist and science communicator Jeff Kerby;
  • Oceanologist and marine biodiversity expert Rishi Sugla;
  • Guide Olga Rumyantseva, who accompanied the expedition en route

When the Athens was almost fully loaded with filming equipment (our heroes had packed 22 cameras and 25 drones to shoot video in 4K and 8K resolution for wide-screen viewing), Vladimir Burkanov came aboard. He said he was ready to “sleep in the aisle” or set up a tent on the upper bridge deck as long as the expedition let him on board.

As it turned out, Vladimir was in a hurry to reach the island of Raikoke, notable for its large Steller sea lion colony and a volcano that had erupted less than a month before: “My biggest hope was that the cameras I had installed at the Raikoke observation station had survived the eruption and that I would be able to download the photographs they had been taking for almost a year!” he said. “This data would have high scientific value. Besides, I hoped there might be photographs of how animals reacted to the eruption. Little did I know...”

The guardian of the Kurils

Vladimir has dedicated 30 of his 62 years to his beloved Kuril Islands. In college, he studied spotted seals on Kamchatka but switched to Steller sea lions, the largest of the eared seals, in the late 1980s. Around the same time, Alaskan biologists raised the alarm, noticing a drastic decrease in the population of this species on the American coast. Rookeries that had had thousands of sea lions just a couple of years before were disappearing. Scientists ventured to assume that the animals had migrated to Russian shores.

The issue was raised at an international conference, and eventually, Vladimir undertook the continuous observation of Steller sea lion populations and migrations in the Russian Far East.

Photo from the personal archives of the expedition participants Photo from the personal archives of the expedition participants

Steller sea lions' natural habitat stretches from Japan and the Kurils to central California. You can find these amazing animals in the north in the Sea of Okhotsk and Alaska; a little to the south on Kamchatka, Sakhalin, the Commander and the Aleutian islands; and finally, on the west coast of the U.S. Also known as northern sea lions, Steller sea lions are large mammals, with the body of a grown male reaching 3.5 meters in length and one ton in weight. The first description of these amazing animals belongs to Georg Steller, a zoologist and explorer who joined Vitus Bering's expedition to the Alaskan shores. In spring, the males settle down on rookeries on islands or sea stacks and wait for the females to emerge from the sea. A few days after coming out onto land, females give birth to pups. Vladimir Burkanov tries to check the rookeries in spring or in summer to count the offspring and the animals returning to land to breed.

Photo from Burkanov's personal archive
Photo from Burkanov's personal archive Photo from Burkanov's personal archive

The funding supplied by the international program* covered vessel chartering, compensation for the students and sea lion pup tagging, which enabled Vladimir to identify them across their vast habitat.

Vladimir is the leading researcher both at the Kamchatka branch of the Pacific Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in the U.S. He spends half a year living and working in Kamchatka and the other half across the ocean, in Seattle. As it happens, there are Steller sea lions there too.

As a result, after 15 years of intensive research, Vladimir and his colleagues determined that there was no mass migration of sea lions from Alaska (even though they can cover thousands of kilometers): the species was disappearing, both in the U.S. and in Russia. The findings led to a dramatic decrease in interest and funding for the international program. Since 2017, Vladimir has only had enough money to pay for infrequent opportunities that can take him to Steller sea lion rookeries for research work and pup tagging. He has already exceeded his field research budget for 2021.

However, this obstacle, as insurmountable as it may seem, does little to deter Vladimir. His main preoccupation is to answer the question of why Steller sea lions and other sea mammals inhabiting the Kurils are dying out. And most importantly, how we can stop this process and preserve their natural environment.

*The international program for monitoring the sea lion population is financed under an agreement between Russia and the United States on cooperation in protecting the environment and natural resources.

Photo from Burkanov's personal archive Photo from Burkanov's personal archive

Steller sea lions,

According to Vladimir Burkanov compared to over 20,000 animals 50 years ago

Photo from the personal archives of the expedition participants Photo from the personal archives of the expedition participants

Every spring and summer – the breeding season – Vladimir travels to the islands of Simushir, Urup, Ushishir, and 40 more locations on the archipelago where Steller sea lions have rookeries. “My students and I look for any vessels headed for the Kurils or Kamchatka via the archipelago,” he explains. “Today we can only afford to pay for the fuel to get to the places we need, or even hitchhike our way there. Sometimes we get lucky!”

Working on the Kurils is hard. Equipment breaks down, corrodes, gets washed off into the sea by storms, or torn down by avalanches. In better times, before the 2010s, Vladimir had up to 30 students working with him on different islands. Now there are just a handful of enthusiasts and volunteers doing a big and important job almost for free.

Young scientists and students at the research station on the tiny Pacific island of Tyuleny, for instance, have to make do without heating, running water, or a kitchen. At the beginning of the season, Vladimir and his team have to bring enough water for two months of work, often risking their lives when unloading it in a storm.

Screenshot from the film "From Kurils with Love" Screenshot from the film "From Kurils with Love"
Photo from the personal archives of the expedition participants Photo from the personal archives of the expedition participants

Vladimir is the informal leader, visionary, and supervisor of all the research on Steller sea lions in the Russian Far East. He somehow manages to find financing to cover his colleagues' and students' travel expenses, food supplies, photo and video equipment and drones, and even to fix fences separating birds from fur seals in the name of peace on the tiny islet of Tyuleny. But the international grants that made all of the above possible have almost disappeared.

“The Kurils, the entire Far East, are my home. Every spring, I fly to my beloved Kamchatka and the Kurils like a migratory bird,” says Vladimir. “I can always count on fishermen, border guards, yachtsmen, or tourists to help me reach the seals. I've known many of them for years. In better times, I lent them a hand too. But now I need funding to buy equipment and to continue my work. After 2020, I won't be able to charter a vessel or to cover my students' and volunteers' travel expenses. Our budget for the next year is zero. I need to find the money to pay for our share of food supplies on an opportunity ship or to pay for my students' ride.”

Of course, the Kaspersky expedition team hugely admired Vladimir's dedication and decided to help. They decided to support his research work and to dedicate the future documentary to the lifework of the Kurils' guardian. We invite everyone to watch the three stories that resulted from their effort.

Upon returning from the expedition, the Kaspersky team helped Vladimir Burkanov launch a fundraising campaign with an initial target of $400,000. The plan was to spend most of this amount, $300,000, on a permanent sailboat for Vladimir to reach the sea lion rookeries on his own. The scientist planned to use the rest of the funds to repair the research station on Tyuleny Island and to restore the vandalized and storm-beaten cameras at the Steller sea lion rookeries. However, during the campaign, Vladimir found a way to afford a sailboat for his expeditions, so he only needs to raise $80,000. At the moment, he is $14,000 closer to the new target. You can learn more about the campaign here.

Screenshot from the film "From Kurils with Love" Screenshot from the film "From Kurils with Love"
Photo from the personal archives of the expedition participants Photo from the personal archives of the expedition participants

Kaspersky presents: From Kurils with Love

“Find just 30 minutes of free time, sit back and watch the documentary on a big screen, not on your phone or tablet, preferably with a good acoustic system or headphones,” recommends Povel Torudd. “This way, a fully immersive experience is guaranteed. You will be watching the video in 4K and listening to an original instrumental film score composed by Logan Nelson. Enjoy the film!”

The Rise of Drons

For those who want to learn more about the technical side of Vladimir Burkanov's work and the goal of our expedition, we offer two “behind-the-scenes” shorts. The first one, The Rise of the Drones, covers the collection of sea mammal population data and the technologies that help scientists conduct this challenging fieldwork.

One Part Purpose

The other film, One Part Purpose, explains why Kaspersky decided to support Vladimir and how his work and the collection of high-precision data will contribute to scientific forecasting and help to prevent an environmental disaster in the Kurils. This short documentary is expected to premiere before the end of 2020, so stay tuned.

Expedition map

Those who have fallen in love with the Kurils and are seriously considering a visit to the islands are welcome to study the expedition map with our route and interactive location points.

The Kurils are made up of 56 large islands and hundreds of smaller islands, which stretch 1,200 kilometers from the Kamchatka peninsula to the Japanese island of Hokkaido. From one side, the archipelago is washed by the cold Pacific Ocean; from the other, the chilly Sea of Okhotsk. Here the warm and moist wind from the south meets the piercing cold wind from the north. Contact with the mainland is problematic. Natural disasters such as volcano eruptions, storms, earthquakes, and tsunamis are a constant threat. As a result, the population of the islands is only around 20,000, with more than half of that number distributed across three towns: Severo-Kurilsk, Kurilsk, and Yuzhno-Kurilsk. Nonetheless, the Kurils are one of the most spectacular places on earth and a must-see for every passionate traveler.