Unexpected encounters and new success

 The morning of the second day greeted us with a very unusual dawn. The sky was still dark enough, as if the night did not want to yield its place to the day, while a huge raspberry sun disk crawled up over the horizon. It was clinging to the boundary between the sea and the sky, and the whimsical Fata *Morgana veil turned the sun into a nuclear mushroom. The stem of the mushroom was clearly visible for a long time, but gradually stretched to the limit and broke. Still impressed by the unusual sight, we moved along the shore.

Having decided to devote our time to one particular goral, we took our time getting to the ambush site. There was no point in rushing in, if we came early, we would have scared off the goral and disrupted the shoot. We expected him to lie down by noon, and then we’d have a better chance of avoiding a premature meeting. Even if a resting animal heard our footsteps, it wouldn't be frightened, it wouldn't bolt, but just wait until we pass. Then the beast would calm down and forget about us.

Yes, gorals could have nbeen found along the way in any of the "pockets" between the rocks and on any of the grass "shelves", and we, of course, would photograph them, but it was with that adult male that there was a chance to arrange a full-scale shoot, not "shooting fom the hip". On our way that morning we wanted to photograph halequin ducks and seals. The morning shore met with a warm and gentle rustle of the waves. I had a good supply of dinking water in the backpack, there was no doubt in the presence of the beast, and I felt a little better. Shooting the seal at our pleasure we traveled the damn three kilometers to the ambush site and lay in the stones. We saw gorals on the way, so there was  hope for a productive day.


These wonderful shores come alive with colors only in the morning. Until the sun falls behind the ridge of rocks, it is warm and beautiful here. Despite the fact that I was sweating during the march,  there was little chance of catching a cold, even while lying on the Ottoman-like rock fragment that I chose for myself. Putting my jacket under myself for comfort, I relaxed a little under the gentle warmth of the morning sun. Right in front of our camp stood a hillside on which the beaten paths of the gorals were clearly visible. It was necessary to keep a close eye on the slope, but sometimes the gaze strayed towards the sea. The morning waves shone through with colors of unbelievable purity and saturation.

At one point, I noticed a flock of big white birds flying along the coastline. Not used to the lack seagulls, I payed them no mind until they got very close. It was almost too late to shoot them, and I threw up the camera just for the "protocol" shot. A couple dozen white herons flew over us and fled as quickly as they appeared.

According to our estimates, our goat was probably laying down further up the hill. He could have come at any moment, of course, but it was more likely that on such a warm, sunny day he would have a siesta around lunch. The wait was not painful. I enjoyed the unusual views and warmth while listening to my body and noting how my condition was gradually improving, reaching relative normalcy. At noon I had the pleasure of joining the lunch party, and after that we all took our positions again.

In the afternoon, as the sun moved westward, it became apparent that the shadows were getting deeper and slowly spreading over the rocks. It started to get cold. In the sun it was still summer, but the shadows clearely belonged in October. Closer to three o'clock, the slope, strewn with goat paths, got covered by shadows. The light was fading, and I wanted so much to photograph a goral in the sun! All of the sudden a flock of crows swooped in. One might think there was nothing special about that event. But five black birds sat down on one ragged tree and clearly had no intention of going anywhere. An experienced hunter, Valery Maleev immediately realized that this is not for nothing, and pointed the birds out to me. It turns out that crows often give people the location of the game in order to then get their share of the prey - the entrails that hunters leave behind after the carcass is processed. I knew that it is necessary to look and listen to birds while shooting wildlife, but it was the first time I was hearing about such crow behavior and was very grateful for the valuable lesson.

The crows turned out to be very prophetic. After a while a male goral came out slowly from behind the sharp crest of the rock. He himself was in the shadows, but the slope behind him was still lit, and the dry leaves of the oaks burned gold. The goral was not far from us, and the three of us photographers must have been very visible to him from his elevated position. But the animal didn’t seem to see us. We did not make sudden movements, and because we sat among the stones, the goral did not see frightening human silhouettes.

The animal was calm and confident. He stood for a long time and posed among the picturesque wind-shaped tree trunks, afterwards he calmly moved in our direction, while picking some plants from between the stones.

As the goral moved down the slope, I had a good look at him. When you read information on the species, you often see in the description a word or two about its resemblance to the domestic goat. Well, in life, the goral does not look like a domestic goat. The authors could have  at least compared it to other wild goats, not with the domesticated ones! I cannot accurately describe this difference, it eludes me and does not want to be put into words, but having seen a living wild goral, I can no longer with a clear conscience say that it looks like any old billy goat from a farm. I’m willing to agree that perhaps the photographs don’t convey this elusive difference, but when you look at its movements, the way the winds ruffle the coarse hairs on the crest of the neck, the large well-developed muscles rolling under thick fur - you can tell see that it's no common gray goat before you. In fact, it's not exactly a goat. I don’t know who was the first person to test the goral for its relationto the antelope group, but that person clearly noticed that elusive je ne sais quois. This antelope connection is more obvious in the serow, you have to look harder for it with the goral, of course, but sometimes there is some momentary position or a turn of the head, and you get a fleeting glimpse at a hint of the transition from one form to another.
The goral walked across the pocket between two rocks, then returned as if looking for something and feeding along the way. Then he went back a bit and went up between the two ridges. We were satisfied, I was extremely happy. I could close my eyes and see the silhouette in front of a burning golden foliage. Before I could even take a look at it on the big screen, I put it down as my favorite. However, we did not relax. The animal was nearby and could come back at any moment. And then, literally a few minutes later, our goral crashed down from the mountain. Ahead of him flew the stones displaced by his movement and ran the trickle of small landslides. We expected a predator to come hot on his tail, but instead, lagging behind - our goral was running too fast - the second male was on the track! Apparently, the goral we'd just filmed was a younger contender. And all the while we'd been waiting for the older male. There he was, bursting onto the stage like a cannon ball. With ease he flew  down exactly the same path as the defiant intruder. They looked so similar, almost identical, so I don’t know what was the decisive factor in that collision. The young goral was clearly looking for a meeting with his opponent, but everything was resolved by some inside rules, without a fight - as is the case with the gorals.

The winner finished his mad dash in a most fitting way - on a pedestal. We had taken notice of that rock in advance  and jokingly said that it would be nice if the goral stood there. As per our order, the angry owner of the plot stood there, proudly looking down at the embarrassed rival. After a brief consideration, the male lifted his tail and marked the place, so that no one would have any doubt who the owner was. The goral stood still for a while, and then he went behind the crest, in the same direction as the rival, but slowly and with dignity. We saw him on the way back, almost down to the beach. But there was only a wary head sticking out of the thickets, and after the footage  we'd just taken it just wasn't the same.

Surprisingly, such a successful first two days immediately removed a lot of tension, which I did not think about, while it was, it turns out, pressing on the nerves! I already had fine material, there were various interesting shots, there was even the cherished one that captured my soul. Now, even if it was too early to relax, I no longer had to worry, but could enjoy the process. Should good fortune smile on me, it would make for a nice bonus, but if not, so be it. I must say, it is very rare situation when shooting wildlife, and such moments should be fully appreciated. In expeditions, I, a person of a rather skeptical and non-superstitious mind, get a little imbued with the spirit of animism.  It seems to me that if you’re respectful of the place where you come to shoot, if you’re sincere in your love and admiration of nature, it comes back to you. And I choose this approach not to get something in return, but for some inner, spiritual ecology. My own state of mind would be more harmonious if I walked away from the point of success not as an arrogant trophy hunter, but as someone who had received an unexpected miraculous gift. I don’t even like to call a good shot a photo trophy. I remember on one expedition, my colleagues started celebrating their victory early, like they had the animals in their pocket. I jokingly warned them, saying, do not anger the local spirits by premature celebrations of success. It’s may seem hard to believe, but the next day we got hit by a sandstorm, and we had to forget about the shoot. Now, you could say I’m a witch, or you could accuse me of superstition. If no one is running for firewood and torches, I’ll support the individual freedom to believe anything. But somehow the inner state, the respect for nature and the animals you work with, affects the process.

On the second day my physical and mental state somewhat improved, and I could start to enjoy the adventure. I was still thirsty and exhausted from walking on the rocks, but my life was slowly improving. The next day, fate graced us with another pleasant surprise. When we came to the shore in the morning, we noticed that the waves had somewhat increased, and the seals did not climb the rocks, although their heads were bobbing above the water. But there was someone lying on one very tall stone. It was impossible to believe that the seal was able to climb so high, but it was also difficult to believe that some twist of fortune had brought us a Steller sea lion. There are no sea lion colonies in the vicinity of this place, so seeing this animal here was a rare success. The female lay quietly on her stone, ignoring us. Even though we were far away from her, she seemed alert and healthy enough.

At first her streamlined silhouette was clearly visible against the pink-lilac background. But then the sun began to rise, and the picture changed instantly. The early morning bliss disappeared, the sky burst with succulent flaming colors, the same colors pierced the waves. The sea lioness lay still on the stone like Venus. In her proud solitude and silence, she appeared ephemeral. Looking at her, I remembered how, when I was a kid, my parents used to take me to watch the sunsets near seal rocks on the Californian coast.

The second unexpected encounter also brought back memories and was equally pleasant. After we left the sea lioness and walked a little further, we came across a lonely bunting. It’s an Arctic species and it’s a little unusual to see it so far south. It was even more strange that the bird was all alone, whereas buntings prefer to stay in groups. All things considered, the snow bunting is a migratory species and can appear near the sea, so who knows what happened to this particular bird.

We’ve already seen this bird hiding in the rocks, where it hid at night from the wind and the predators, but then it was a little too dark for a good shot. Now it was sitting in the sun and let us get close. There’s something very sweet about the bunting, and I’m very fond of these harmless peace-loving birds. I saw them for the first time in Canada, and immediately developed a soft spot for them. In summer their bright white plumage contrasted beautifully with the greenery, and in winter they broke the snowy monotony like the cheerful specks of fluff that they are. And at any time of the year, it was nice to hear their cheerful voices.

We were unlucky with the gorals that day. We’ve seen them many times, but the animals tended to stay high up on the rock ridges. I still wonder how my companions managed to notice grey animals in grey stones from this distance. After close encounters that I was spoiled with during the first two days, the "Where's Waldo" types of shots held little appeal. By the way, where IS Waldo, I mean, the goral... Hint: there are two of them. And keep in mind, this is a full-frame shot from a 600 millimeter lens. I mean, in real life, you wouldn't be able to see the animals so well.

We decided to approach them from the top the next day. Yeah, it wasn’t ideal. From this angle, we’d have a lot of interference and the animals would look worse, but what could we do if they stayed there. It was the fourth day of the expedition and we went out to meet the dawn. From the first few steps, I knew I wasn’t going to be sprinting from one hill to another that day. I couldn’t say for sure when I hit my knee, it just didn’t leave a trace in my memory, but the trauma spoke for itself. The bruised spot was swollen and it got hot, so I was limping hard. That’s a shame, 'cause I just got rid of my dehydration and got back into the game! When we got to the beach, we split up. I stayed by the sea and my colleagues went on to climb the mountains.

Ходить по мокрым камням, когда ты совсем один и травмирован, - не самое разумное. Из-за холода на обломках скал сидеть было очень неприятно и я вернулась к самому началу маршрута, где лежал большой выбеленный морем и солнцем ствол дерева. Это было более подходящее место для долгого ожидания.

Compared to the previous days, the water was much colder and its level rose higher. No birds or animals were seen, but I didn’t mind. Having limped forward a little and made sure that the sea had flooded those places where it was possible to walk on dry land, I returned and began to look for a secluded place for observation. Walking on wet stones when you’re all alone and traumatized is not the most sensible thing to do. Because of the cold sitting on rubble was very unpleasant and I returned to the very start of the route, where there was a large bleached trunk of driftwood. It was a more suitable place for a long wait.

If there had been no animals that morning, it wouldn’t have been wasted. I rested and enjoyed the tranquil beauty around me. In my memory I played Pink Floyd’s instrumental composition "Marooned" note by note, and the wonderful music fell perfectly in sync with the surrounding landscape, creating a completely unique harmony.

The sun crawled upwards, melting the lilac twilight away. A pack of mergansers passed me. Funny ducks with long, thin beaks and disheveled heads used to attract a lot of my attention, prompting me to spend hours looking for them in Canadian forest lakes. Now I lazily watched them come closer. When they were right in front of me, I snapped a couple of shots, just because there was nothing else to do.

Suddenly I noticed some animals in the water. For a moment it looked like they were seals, but they were too small for seals. And then it hit me - otters! Smoothly, without any sudden movements, I slid from the tree onto the stones, pointed the lens at the otters and waited. The animals didn’t see me. They could not discern the human form in my outlines, and the wind was blowing towards me. We knew there were otters here. Their footprints dotted the beach and could be read even in small pebbles, and we even saw one otter recently. The trouble was, it saw us then, too. And now two animals were swimming towards me, very close to the shore.

The common otter is not a sea otter, and watching it at sea is not normal. But there was a stream here that came up to the beach. Having stumbled upon a rocky embankment  and lacking a strong current to overcome it, the stream formed a pool, which allowed otters to establish relatively safe exits into the sea. By the way, the same pool served as a watering hole for the goralas, I found their path when I tried to find the exact spot where the otters were crossing from one body of water to another.

Most likely, the otter we saw earlier was a male, and now I was watching a female with an adolescent. The otters were very affectionate and playful with each other.


The two animals swam up to the stones opposite me, and climed up their side to explore them, but unfortunately they were more comfortable climbing on the side that was hidden from me. I managed to make one shot where the muzzle of the constantly moving animal was visible, after which the otters quickly went into the water and swam away.

Пока у меня не выдалась лишняя минутка. Довольно быстро ряды противника поредели, а потом и вовсе остался один-два недобитка, которые прятались от меня в щелях и боялись жужжать. Теперь мы спокойно могли вести наши беседы (а у меня были очень интересные собеседники!) о животных, об охране природы, о сложностях и проблемах нашей природоохранной системы. Или же травить байки и безобидно подшучивать друг над другом. Да, хорошая у нас была компания, и мухи в нее не вписывались!

There was no point in pursuing them, and I was happy as I was. I had something to show for when we reunited for lunch. Alas, my friends were not so fortunate, but they still went out once more to look for the gorals on the summits. I tried to walk around, photographing the local birds, but soon after lunch it started raining. I went back to our cabin and I did what I’ve been dreaming about all these past few days, destroying almost every fly in the cabin. I don’t know where all of these flies came from, but when we moved in, they were sitting on the window in dozens. These annoying creatures kept buzzing even in the dark, but since we left early, and were busy with other things upon return, no one had a chance to get rid of them. Until I got an extra minute of free time. Very quickly, the enemy’s ranks thinned out, and then at all there was left was one or two strays, who hid from me in the cracks and were too afraid to buzz. Now we could calmly conduct our conversations (and I had very interesting people to talk to!) about animals, about nature conservation, about the difficulties and problems of our environmental system. Or we could tell stories and good-heartedly poke fun of each other. Yeah, we had good company, and flies didn’t fit in!

On the last day, my warning about the rising water was taken into account, and I got a pair of fishing boots. Now I was not afraid of flooded pathways. We found gorals almost immediately, but it was too early and dark. The animals left without giving us any footage. Our usual spot was also a dud this time. The goral didn’t show up. It was cold, so I wrapped myself in my jacket and chilled, looking at the slopes. Like I said, nothing was getting on my nerves, I already had a lot of good stuff, and I didn’t have to worry. I think Valery and I were just resting quietly, sheltering in the stones. It is wonderful, when you are equally comfortable when talking and sitting silently with a person, so it is always a pleasure to work next to Valery.

In the morning of the last day we were starting on a long road through the forest and a flight to Vladivostok. On one of the peaks we stopped to once again look at the enchanted shore, where the fiery autumn colors of land connected with the sea turquoise.

Upon my return to civilization I tried to make myself as comfortable as possible. I still had a long flight to Moscow ahead of me, so I needed a good rest. I satisfied the hankering for oysters that plagued me all week, repeatedly soaked in a hot shower. I can sleep comfortably in a sleeping bag in a hide, but sleeping in a big, soft bed was incredibly pleasant, although the noise of city life, from which I'd managed to detox myself,  irritated me. The next day at Vladivostok airport, I occupied a massage chair until the boarding announcement. That’s how I was adjusting, doing everything I could to relieve my fatigue and endure the final sprint home.

The pain and fatigue have long passed, but it will be with great fondness and on many an occasion that I will be returning to the memories of the unusual enchanted shores that have given shelter to the sleek sea nomad and the shy fatties larghas and the strange beast - the goral.




As per tradition, I extend my gratitude to the following people:

My family, who always support me and provide inspiration for new adventures and stories

Valery Maleev - for another wonderful adventure and company

Eugene T., whom it was very nice to meet and work with

All the friends who take care of my animals when I leave

To all who read my stories and support me with kind words