Moneron: the hidden gem of Russia’s far east – photo essay | Russia


The sparsely populated Russian far east is far removed from the European part of the country, and not just because of the nine-hour flight. It has its own special climate, wild, impassable landscapes and indigenous population.

The allure of this place is in the immense variety of nature and wildlife. I’ve travelled to the region several times and never cease to be amazed by encounters with bears, whales and seals. I believe that this sense of wonder is an essential part of a human being’s (most certainly a photographer’s) happiness.

Moneron Island waters

The climate here is harsh and the sea is cold and turbid, making it difficult to dive and shoot. However, this time we were heading to a place unlike any other. “Get a thinner wetsuit,” my colleagues told me.

We voyaged to Moneron Island, where the warm Tsushima current creates its own unique local climate, and thus a special ecosystem, where subtropical species live in the clear and warm sea. Most astounding of all is that these are generally unexplored waters.

Moneron Island

Moneron is a small volcanic island 25 miles (40km) from Russian Sakhalin, and 55 miles from Japan. It was part of Japan until being invaded by the Soviet Union towards end of thesecond world war. This whole time, Moneron was closed to the public, but we were finally given access this year.

On the first dive we were struck by vivid colours and bustling underwater wildlife. A diverse concoction of northern sea anemones and warm-water Haliotis (mollusc), kelp, spectacular-looking Japanese warbonnets, subarctic jellyfish and giant predatory starfish, Plazaster borealis, which are not found anywhere else in Russia.

Metridium sea anemone
Haliotis mollusc
Aurelia limbata jellyfish
Plazaster borealis starfish
Japanese warbonnet

Largas, or northern spotted seals, whose rookeries are found in the rocky bays of the island, are timid and swim away as soon as they see us. But it’s worth hanging around next to the rookery for an hour or two. As interest picks up, the spotted seals creep up from behind, carefully biting and tugging at your flippers.

But we were in Moneron with a different goal and had to stay focused despite all the exciting distractions. Steller sea lions in clear and warm water – I had found my heaven on Earth.

Larga, or northern spotted seal

Stellers are a large northern species of sea lion, or “eared seals”, whose males can weigh more than a tonne. Their rookeries on Moneron are large and noisy, with a very distinctive smell spreading hundreds of metres. Basically, this is an island of sea lions. In fact, that’s how Moneron was called in translation from the language of the Ainu, the first ancient inhabitants of the islands.

Stellers are large northern species of sea lion, or ‘eared seals’
Sea lions growl and clumsily wobble from flipper to flipper as they see our boat
Male Steller sea lions can weigh more than a tonne

At the rookery, sea lions growl as they see our boat and clumsily wobble from flipper to flipper. But everything is different underwater – here they are fast, graceful and agile. Now it’s us who are out of our element and suddenly object of interest – strange men with weird things on their back arouse great curiosity in sea lions. Cautious divers would say this interest is too intense, and I would say to them this: I’ve had the pleasure of diving in many different places all around the world, and in my opinion there is honestly nothing better than diving with Steller sea lions.

Let me set the scene: dozens of sea lions rushing past, blocking the sun, breathing out bubbles and playing with bits of algae. Then they stop, observe, and poke your mask with their muzzles, looking deeply into your eyes. They grab your hand with their flippers, nibbling at everything: your limbs, head, fins and regulator hoses.

Dozens of sea lions rushing past

Although their bites are very noticeable, they never cross into actual pain and aggression. I liken the sea lions to boisterous children who were bored in the class, finally released into the wild and given a new toy. The concept of play is one of the most complex topics in psychology, not only in animals but humans too. Very few animals exhibit playful behaviour, and the ones that do are some of the most organised.

We dived with sea lions for several days. Our bodies were covered with bites and scratches, our wetsuits with holes, and our hearts with indelible imprints of love for these animals. The expedition was coming to an end, we had shot lots of material, and I thought we had experienced all that Moneron had to offer. But on our last day – I met her (or him, it’s very difficult to distinguish a female sea lion from a young male).

Sea lions in clear and warm water
Close-up of a seal snout
A young Steller sea lion
This cub was only a few months old

I swam away from the rookery to take pictures of the breathtaking underwater scene, and soon felt a slight nudge from behind. This sea lion had separated from the group and wanted to play one on one. She (let’s assume it was a female) had a distinctive scar on her right shoulder, so it was easily to spot her when she surfaced to breathe and swam back to play.

I sank to the bottom and played my part in the game. She brought me bits of kelp so that I could throw them back to her, hugged me with flippers, lay down on the sea floor next to me and rolled over so that I could scratch her belly. Some time later, another sea lion tried to join in, but she drove him away, clearly stating that this was her human. It’s truly amazing to have this kind of interaction with a wild animal – she took a liking to me, and the feeling was, of course, mutual. I put my camera down on the ground so as to not be distracted with technicalities of photography and miss the magic of our encounter. I wanted to see my new friend with my eyes, not through a viewfinder, and be fully present in the moment with all my senses. After about an hour, I was running out of oxygen, but I could not part without taking a cheeky farewell selfie.

This sea lion separated from the group and wanted to play one on one
Getting acquainted with a seal
A farewell selfie with my new friend

I’ve had the great fortune of exploring distant lands and feasting my eyes on places of awe-inspiring beauty. And now that I’ve had some time to reflect on this trip, one thing is clear – there are fewer and fewer places like Moneron on our planet. Humanity is advancing and nature is receding, and this confrontation with inexorable progress will only stop destroying unique places of untouched nature when we learn to limit our sense of entitlement to the planet.

In a sense, we need to keep these places away from ourselves, protecting them as carefully as female sea lions protect their cubs. When I go back to Moneron (and I will definitely go back), I will look for a sea lion with a scar on her right shoulder, I really hope that we will see each other again.