Photos from Remote Moneron Island: A Hidden Wildlife Paradise
Wildlife photographer Dmitry Kokh has traveled worldwide in pursuit of amazing wildlife images. Specializing in large marine animals and underwater photography, few locations are as perfect for Kokh as Moneron Island in the Russian Far East.
Moneron Island is at the northeastern end of the Sea of Japan about 56 miles north of Hokkaido and, on a clear day, it’s possible to see the Japan’s Rishiri Island from it.
What the roughly 12 square mile (30 square kilometers) Moneron Island lacks in size, it more than makes up for in a rich diversity of flora and fauna. Surrounded by large rocky cliffs, Moneron Island is a haven for seabirds.
In 2006, infrastructure was established to allow tourism to the island and Moneron Island National Park became the first marine national park in the Russian Federation. At its peak, there might be up to 30 people on Moneron Island, although it doesn’t have a permanent population.
The island was once home to 2,000 people in the early 20th century while it was still under Japanese control — traces of the island’s once-prosperous rice terraces remain to this day. Following World War II, Moneron Island became part of the Soviet Sakhalin Oblast, and by the 1970s, nobody was left on the island and it was essentially closed off, greatly benefiting the native wildlife.
Despite its small area, Moneron Island’s ecosystems are very diverse. There are hills and mountains, meadows, rivers, waterfalls, and cliffs scattered around the island.
“Personally, the allure of this place is in the immense variety of nature and wildlife untouched by man. I’ve traveled to the Far East several times and never cease to be amazed by my encounters with bears and whales, and seals, and I believe that this sense of wonder is an essential part of a human being’s (most certainly photographer’s) happiness,” Kokh writes.
An experienced diver and past visitor to the Far East area of Russia, Kokh expected the waters around Moneron Island to be cold. However, thanks to the Tsushima Current‘s warm waters, the site is significantly warmer than its latitude typically permits. The warm waters also allow diverse sea life to thrive around Moneron Island, including many species usually found farther south.
The largely unexplored waters surrounding Moneron Island are bright turquoise and full of subtropical species, which would typically struggle in the northern waters.
“On the first dive were struck with vivid colors and bustling underwater wildlife. A diverse concoction of northern sea anemones and warm-water Haliotis (mollusks), kelp, spectacular-looking Japanese warbonnets, subarctic jellyfish, and giant predatory starfish – Plazaster Borealis, which are not found anywhere in Russia, except for Moneron,” Kokh remarks.
While inhabited by many different species, Kokh says Moneron is “an island of sea lions.” Steller sea lions have massive — and odorous — rookeries on Moneron Island. The large animals can weigh up to a ton and are generally clumsy on land. However, the large aquatic mammals are graceful and agile in the warm waters surrounding Moneron Island.
“Cautious divers would say that this interest is too intense,” Kokh says. “I would answer them this — I’ve had the pleasure of diving in many different places all around the world, but there is honestly nothing better than diving with Steller sea lions (in my humble opinion!)”
While diving, dozens of stunning Steller sea lions swam around Kokh, blocking out the light, playing with algae, and even poking his mask with their muzzles. They nibble at “everything,” including “your limbs, head, fins, and regulator hoses.” While their bites are easily felt, Kokh says they were never aggressive.
After several days of diving, Kokh was covered with bites and scratches, and his wetsuit was full of holes. However, he adds that his heart was full of “indelible imprints of love for these animals.”
On his final day visiting Moneron Island, Kokh had an especially remarkable experience with a lone sea lion that wanted to play. It delivered bits of kelp to Kokh so that he could throw them for an impromptu game of fetch. After about an hour, with Kokh’s oxygen reserves running low, he grabbed a last-second farewell selfie.
Kokh says, “In my life, 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.”
Kokh hopes that on a future visit, he will run into his sea lion friend again. They will be easily recognized thanks to a distinctive scar on their right shoulder. Kokh adds, “I really hope that we will see each other again!”
Image credits: All images by Dmitry Kokh and used with permission. To view all of Kokh’s images from Moneron Island, read his article on Notion. To see more of his photography, visit Dmitry Kokh’s website.