Searching for rareties on the shores of the Sea of Japan

When I was a kid I had a collection of postcards with rare animals and one of them depicted a goral. A fuzzy gray goat was staring bravely into the abyss that opened beneath the little ledge he was occupying. I was impressed both by the fearless animal and it's proud name. In the "Life of animals" encyclopedia my child hands carefully pencil-marked the pages where one could find the description of this Far-Eastern exotic beast. It was not surprising that I agreed to go photograph the goral as soon as Valery Maleyev offered. I wouldn't say no to an opportunity like this!

But when I wanted to refresh my memory in regards to how the animal looked I was somewhat put off. The search engines offered images of plain-looking common gray goats. To add insult to injury there was hardly any information on them. That did not dampen my resolve to travel to the Far East and find the real goral - not the pitiful scruffy gray shadows, but the powerfull fluffy mountaineers that once captivated my imagination as a child. And so it would be.

Reaching the home of the goral is no easy feat. After crossing the entire length of Russia I had to get on a small 15 seat airplane and fly another two or so hours. The space was so limited that we were not allowed to take our cameras as carryon even though we packed them into very small bagpacks. The only compromise we could talk the staff into was to load and unload the expensive gear ourselves. By then my head was splitting from a migrane but I still was curious enough to keep my eyes on the scenery below. When we were landing our little plane was shaken and tossed by the wind like a toy, but luckily the second guitar solo from  Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" was playing in my headphones and together with the gorgeous landscape beneath the wings it all came together in a very colorful experience.

However this little energy boost did not last long, I had been on the road too long. On our way to base camp I passed out in the shaky old van despite all the pitfalls in the broken up forest road.

Before we go forth with the account of the expedition I think it is worth saying a few words on what exactly is the goral and why everything about its situation is complicated. I will not be deslosing the exact location of the shoot to lessen the pressure on the rare animals, but I will be open about everything else in my story.

So what is so special about this little gray goat beside the fact that it is the rarest ungulate in Russia? On the surface it differs little from other mountain goats, it doesn't even have any kind of impressive horns! But it's not all that simple. Even though the goral is a member of the Bovidae family and even shares the Caprinae subfamily with goats, it, along with other goral species, has its own genus - Naemorhedus. Its closest relative is the slightly larger and stranger looking serow. There is a reason why the goral was once considered to be... an antelope. It has since been demoted, but it was recognized that this animal is a transitional link between the goats and the true antelopes. This is confirmed by some anatomical evidence, but when it comes to lifestyle the goral is a real goat. Henceforth when I talk about the goral I will be referring to only one species - the Russian long-tailed or Amur goral.

This is a relatively large animal that stands up to 80 cm at the whithers and weighs up to 50 kg. The gorals prefer to maintain small personal territories independant from one another. Their young can stay with the mother for extended periods of time but the adults are strict about their personal space. Even though there are populations of gorals in Sikhote-Alinsky and Lazovsky national parks, there are only a few places suitable for these animals and they are far between. As the result the population is fragmented and unconnected. The conditions these animals need are quite specific. They prefer tall vertical drops with grass-covered shelves by the sea shore. Here there are fewer predators to threaten the lives of the sure-footed beasts. The biggest fan of their meat in these parts is the lynx. Curiously, unlike anywhere else the lynx here hunt in groups, driving their prey into ambush. Eagles sometimes throw younger animals from the rocks, sometimes the yellow-throated marten may have a go at them as well. However, the bigest threat still comes from humans. The main reason for the decline of the goral population is habitat loss and poaching. And boy are things bad with poaching in the Far East.

On our journey we were accompanied by one of the staff from the reserve who told us that in some cases poachers shoot the gorals from boats. People fire even if they can't land and retrieve the carcass, just because, for the fun of it. We may and should talk about the underlying socio-economic reasons for poaching but at the end of the day it is still a crime. Everyone has a sobstory, not everyone becomes a criminal. People who work at the reserve don't have it easy, they aren't exactly swimming in money, but all of those who I encountered were very respectful of nature. Unfortunataly, people like this are a minority, too many are blinded by greed. Body parts of the goral are sought after in traditional Tibetan medicine. Human ignorance, short-sightedness, greed and indifference do not leave a chance for the gorals to replenish their numbers any time soon.

It's sad to say that the animals themselves are not making the job easier, as if purposefully sabottaging attempts to save their species. An experiment with enclosure-kept gorals in Lazovsky reserve showed that these animals are extremely sensitive to stress. As hard to catch as they are, they can actually die in the process just from freaking out. They do not breed or live long in captivity, and so far any attempts to establish a back-up captive population to support the one in the wild have failed. As of today the most realistic estimate of their numbers is around 600. All in all the population has nowhere to expand to despite the enormous territories of the national parks. We shouldn't expect any miracles if the gorals can only use a tiny bit of all of those lands. And with all of this sad situation who even knows about the goral? Who is campaigning to save the species? The goral is like the Uncatchable Joe from a stupid cshoolyard joke - uncatchable, because nobody gives a damn. Nobody except the poachers.

Well, I needed gorals too, but for far less sinister purposes. That is why the very next morning after our arrival we got up early and went to the shore. I have to admit that in all of my great collection of memories of someone who grew up by the sea I can't find anything I can compare the Sea of Japan and these shores. As soon as you step onto the beach the air becomes noticeably warmer. The sea, unlike the waters I am used to, is smooth and tranquill. The air bares only a hint of salt and seaweed, lacking the iodine-rich saltiness I am more familiar with. No cries of seagulls were to be heard anywhere and these birds seemed to be completely absent in the area. Only groups of the colorful harlequin ducks gathered closer to the shore.

The entire shore is lined with brittle white cliffs. There are a lot of wide rockslides lining the coast. Only the sunbleached trunks of trees tossed onto land by storms attest to the fact that the sea here is not always so placid. All of the beaches are covered by pebbles that lie at a slope as the water washes them ashore.

It soon became clear that walking on these sloping pebbled beaches with a backpack is one hell of a cardio work-out. On top of that the beach was broken up by fifteen giant rockslides that were tough to climb over. This was phisically taxing, especially when you are unwell. And man was I unwell in the first few days! The migrane that hit me on the plane must have been a subtle hint from my vascular system that it was not happy with me. As a result it went haywire. I was crawling over rocks and dragging my feet on the pebbles all the while my insides were throwing a violent revolution. It wasn't enough for my body to have traumatized lungs, it had to add indigestion and dehydration as a cherry on top. Well, this does happen in expeditions, all you can do is pop a few pills and carry on with the work.

I was feeling like a complete wreck while falling far behind my compznions and going nuts from the thurst. I hated myself but kept on going. One thing I had was my stubornness and this quality really came in handy this time. Pretty soon all thoughts about thirst, pain, shame and self-deprication got replaced by one - keep putting one foot in front of the other. And still the ease and speed with which my friends cleared all obsticles made me feel profoundly ashamed of falling apart. But the guys never pushed me beyond my limits and never put me down. They were aware of the fact that they were much more used to this and did not expect nything extraordinary from me. Even when they got ahead they would stop to let me catch up and always made sure that I was OK. All of my problems were in my head. It took me three days to realize that the most importantthing is that I keep going. No whinning, no drama, just keep crawling in the right direction. I recovered after a couple of days and we established a working scheme for crossing the distance. I would go at a comfortable speed neither taking it too easy nor overexerting myself and the guys would go ahead, just looking back to see if I cleared the obsticles all right. this seemed to work for all of us and it gave me more personal space to move comfortably without the pressure of trying to catch up.

But all that came later and the first day was absolutely miserable. Our working distance was just three kilometers along the coast, but try covering it when you are sick! At least there were some distractions along the way. the nearest rocks were occupied by lazy sacks of potatoes - the spotted seals locally known as largha.

The spotted seal or the largha (or larga, both ways of spelling is acceptable) is a close relative of the common or harbour seal. Both of them are members of a group known as true seals and belong to the Phocidae family. The Latin name of the species - Phoca largha - is a composite of the Greek word  "phocа", meanin "seal", and the Tungus word "largha", which also stands for "seal". All of that means that the larga is the sealiest seal that has ever had the honor to seal. Not entirely true, but who could argue with a name like that? Now, we are used to calling all pinnipeds seals, but things aren't that simple. The pinnipeds are divided into three groups - the Odobenidae aka the walrus, the Otariidae or the eared seals such as fur seals and sea lions, and the Phocidae or the true seals aka earless or crawling seals. The walrus group is pretty cut and dry, but why are some seals considered to be true seals while others are just called eared seals? Well the two of them most likely evolved independent from each other at different times and from different ancestral species. The more ancient eared seals evolved in the waters of the Pacific ocean around 25 million years ago from a canine-like ancestor. Unlike the true seals they retained their external auricles and the ability to use all of their limbs while moving on land. They also prefer to keep closer to the coast. The more modern true seals arose around 15 million years ago in different waters in the North Atlantic region from entirely different ancestors. They are much more adapted for life in the water and are almost completely useless on dry land. They lack external ears and move on land with the grace of a sack of potatoes, but they are exceptional swimers and divers, much more efficient than their cousins. They are less dependant on dry land than the more ancient but "less advanced" eared seals. Even the biomechanics of their movements in the water differs - true seals swim with their back limbs, while the eared seals use theirflippers to propel them through water eith back limbs are used only for steering.

The larga is a numerous species that can be found in the Sea of Japan year-round. It is legal to hunt it here and in the area where I was photographing the seals are more commonly shot as bait for bears. Because of this even on the shores of the national reserve the seals are very weary of humans. You can avoid alarming them by not letting them see the human silhouette, but even then, should they catch scent of a human in the wind, they will immediately slide into water.  The spotted seals prefer to rest in quiet, they just snooze, motionless and hard to spot from afar. Sure, arguments flare up 

The seals that rest on the rocks are mostly quiet. They just snooze without moving much, so you can't even notice them from afar. Arguments do flare up, especially if a latecomer wants to climb onto rocks covered with fat bodies, but there's no space left for him. Then the latecomer cries loudly but backs off, while those who were quicker at the draw may quietly and politely explain to him why he was wrong. But usually they are too laid back to bother. There are no deafening quarrels that you'd find among sea lions and fur seals. There are just lazy and amiable fatsos, who only want to sunbathe and sleep.


The seals are perfectly capable of sleeping in the water, as floating on the waves like buoys. The only thing kept above the surface is the head, and the fat keeps them from freezing and drowning.

Little by little all the seals noticed us and slid into the water, and we moved on. I must admit, the shore itself presented a couple of pleasant surprises. First of all, there were giant red-berry cyaneas all over the surf line. We were able to find one of these jellyfish in the water among the rocks, where it was still trying to resist the current that carried it to the shore. Its beautiful dome opened and closed the petals with regal slowness. The juicy colors of the crystal body jellyfish teased my dehydrated brain, turning jellyfish into a mountain of fruit jelly in my imagination.

Cyaneas can grow to ubelievable sizes - up to 2,5 meters in diameter and almost 200 kg in weight. However, in this region their dimentions are much more modest. The dome usually grows to be about 50 cm in diameter. At the same time even the relatively small jellyfish can have tentacles that stretch out over dozens of meters. Cyaneas are predators, so their tentacles are armed with stinging cells that can cause a very unpleasant but not deadly (unless you are allergic) reaction in humans. I suspect that the species I encountered was the Сyanea capillata, aka the lion's mane or hairy jelly, aka the arctic red or giant jellyfish. If so, then why there was no train of tentacles trailing behind the specimens I saw? The answer is simple. Autumn is their breeding season, after which the bodies og the jellies start to fall apart. By the time the dying jellies are thrown onto the shore, their trains have long since been discarded.

In recent years ther's been such a rapid increase in the numbers of these jellies that the resourseful cooks from China, Japan and South Korea have learned to cook them. The jellies are dried, pummeled into powder, made into jell-o and tofu or simply fried. Before getting tossed onto a frying pan they are marinated in alum, and the resulting delicacy is called "crystal meat". I cannot speak on the taste qualities of this dish as I've never tried it.

There was something else very interesting in the surf. On some rocks I noticed snow-white growth of some kind. From afar it could be mistaken for salt, but it was too large for crystals growing in a more or less powerful tide. I climbed onto one of such rocks to investigate. The cold surface of the stone was covered by tiny blindingly white branches. At first I thought they belonged to seaweed, but then I went against the rule of never touching anything unknown (especially in the sea!) and cautisly pushed one of the stems with my nail. In all honesty, I consider this a very stupid thing to do on my part. Perhaps, due to exhaustion and illness, I was lead astray by my own curiosity. Had this white marvel stung me, I would have deserved it. But the stem seemed harmless, and the seals lounged on such rocks without any visible discomfort. It wasn't soft, like an aquatic plant should be, but hard, yet flexible. It reminded me of coral nost of all, but it was obviously not coral.

Later on and with some dificulty I did manage to find out what it was lining those rocks. Turned out, it was coralline algae. It really does bare some resemblance to true corals, because it also builds a calcareous shell, protecting it from sea creatures with a taste for algae. The shell is even used to make knock-offs sold as the much more expensive coral. Corallines often lay the foundation for true coral reefs, therefore they play a very important role in the ecology of the seas. Most likely what I found was belonget to the Corallina pilulifera species. It is red algae that usually appears to be reddish in color, though the ones I saw had been bleached by the sun into a flawless white. Thanks to the calcium carbonate in its tissue this algae fossilizes well and has a fossil record going back hundreds of millions of years. Just like true corals these algae are sensitive to the acidity levels of the water.

After a march that seemed to last forever, we reached the rocks in which we planned to wait for our goral. Here, in the pocket between two rocks, the same male had been living for the past several years. On the slopes we could see paths beaten by many goral hooves. The day was warm and, despite being active at any time of day, the gorals could have been laying down for a siesta during the brightest hours.


We settled down, having chosen the most comfortable spots among the boulders heated by the autumn sun. The thirst has already turned my tongue into sandpaper. I had a couple of cups of tea from the thermos, but it didn't quench the sickening drought inside of me. I drank in small sips, held the tea in my mouth to absorb as much as possible through the oral mucosa, but it was not enough, and the thermos was meant to be shared by all. Looking at the rocks, I noticed that not far from our shelter there was water trickling over the stones. Having decided to try my luck, I went to look at this place. At first glance, it was nothing to get excited about, but it seemed to me that the water just had to either accumulate somewhere, or start to flow normally. To my great relief, I found a hole where a few handfuls of pure water had gathered. I wondered how likely it was to catch anything from this water, and I remembered the sad, but relevant "Don’t drink from it, you’ll turn into a goat!"* and yet yielded to thirst. A few good, large sips of cold water brought me much-awaited relief. I left the hole to fill and returned to my place, firmly deciding to take at least one and a half liters of drinking water exclusively for my own use next time. 


*A warning from an old Russian fairy tale. Of course, it was ignored and someone did turn into a goat.


The gorals don’t like to travel long distances and avoid deep snow. On these rocks, exposed to the winds at any time of year, they can find a variety of plants in any season. What’s interesting is that a goral can feed for a long time while standing in one place. The list of plants it consumes is very long, and the animal can find enough food, not going anywhere, but eating vegetation where it stands. Strangely, this way of feeding is very ecological, and unlike ordinary goats, the goral does not damage its territory. This allows them to live on one small plot for years.

Interestingly, the rocks on the back side were covered by oak trees. Conifers and larch trees are in the minority here. There are curved Mongolian oaks everywhere, while in Mongolia itself they can hardly be found. But it was there that the tree species was first described and named, and when we learned that the main population is growing in Primorye, it was too late to rename it. As it turned out in the afternoon, the abundance of deciduous trees also gives the goral an advantage. Having waited in vain for our goral, after lunch we went around and up these mountains to come from the side of the forest and look at the cliffs from above. The dry leaves, which were sometimes piled above the knees, were so noisy that it was clear that no predator would be able to stalk the prey unnoticed, and two photographers would definitely fail to do so!

Again I had to strain myself. The slopes were steep, and given the passing light, we had to hurry! I tried, I really tried to go uphill as fast as I could, making up for lost time on the downward slopes. I was sweating as if I were in a sauna instead of walking in the woods. Very soon, the injured lungs reminded me of my limits, burning and feeling like they were getting stabbed by sharp needles of pain. I thought I was about to start spitting them out in pieces, but I really didn’t want to cough!

One thing was good - the air was incredibly clean, and in places where the Far Eastern rhododendron grew, it was also filled with the sweet aroma of essential oils. Surprisingly, many bushes still held flowers, although the smell did not come from them, but from the disturbed foliage of short bushes.

Stunningly beautiful views opened from the top of the slopes, although it was necessary to approach the edge as carefully as possible. And not just because we could be seen by animals, but simply for safety reasons. People happened to die, slipping off these steep cliffs.

Because of the geographical features of this place, the sun  here goes down early, taking with it all the warmth and the golden pink light. Time was running out. But in one of the "pockets" in the rocks Valery found not one, but three gorals at once! Most likely, it was a female with two adolescents, as the young gorals can stay close to their mother for up to a year. The animals had undoubtedly heard us, but they could not see us. We hid at the edge of the cliff. The gorals could not decide whether to run or not.

They began to shift slowly, lingering for a long time where branches and shrubs covered them. They obviously didn’t want to leave, but they couldn’t decide whether it was safe to stay here or not. Apparently, they chose to take precautions and, in a leisurely way, went behind another rock. Near a golden larch, one of them lingered to turn our way one last time. The goral still didn’t see us, so he stood there as if posing.

I must admit, for a first day things were looking very, very good! Such a start was inspiring, despite all the difficulties. We got to the camp and it was still light, so I ran straight to the stream, from which we took drinking water. The cold water didn’t scare me, I was so hot, it felt like I'd just popped out of a steam room. As I poured water out of the ladle and onto myself, I felt the pain, the sickness and the fatigue recede a little. It was clear that work would be required in the coming days, but the results promised to be worth every effort. 

That night we held a council and decided that we weren’t going to be shooting the gorals from above. We didn’t like the angle and it was hard to get around unnoticed, not to mention the fact that I couldn’t run from one hillside to the next. We were more inclined to devote more time to the very male whose territory we knew for certain. A wolf may keep itself fed by its feet, but a wildlife photographer, more often than not, is an ambush predator. The chances of getting something good are better if you lie low in the right place. That’s what we d3cided upon.

There was no way of telling what the following days held, but the primary result was not so bad. And it took some of the pressure off of me, making my own misery a little easier. There obviously was an abundance of animals here, and I was going to get better! There were four full days ahead of me, and I really wanted to believe, even against my own poisonous doubts, that I would succeed.