July 01, 2020

Owls of the Eastern Ice

Owls of the Eastern Ice
A shipwreck along the Sea of Japan coast in Primorye, Russia. Jonathan Slaght

A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl

Native only to eastern Russia, a remote region of China, and the Japanese island Hokkaido, the Blakiston’s Fish Owl is elusive, rarely seen even by ornithologists. When Jonathan Slaght sighted one, by chance, on an expedition to study tigers in 2000, it changed the course of his life. He felt he had no choice but to study this endangered and enigmatic species. In this excerpt from his book documenting the quest, he recounts a story told by one of his expedition partners.

Owls of the Eastern Ice
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When I finally returned to the cabin, it was close to dusk. I was drenched and thankful that Vova was already there; the cabin radiated warmth, the door ajar to allow some of the excess heat from the woodstove to escape. A blackened kettle of boiled water sat on a flat rock next to the stove, ready for tea. Vova didn’t have much to report, other than seeing a wild boar. Sergey had yet to return, but the table was set for dinner; there were three forks, the remaining jar of fish pelmeni, and a bottle of mayonnaise. I hung my clothes on nails next to Vova’s to dry and we waited. The rain was a wall of thick persistence outside. Vova lit the candle on the table just as Sergey entered, dripping. He reported with concern that water levels were definitely rising in the Sherbatovka: our supply of meat, cheese, and beer in the pot in the stream had been washed away. We scraped the jar clean of the last fish pelmeni. Eating taimen reminded me of the odd response I received from Vova’s father, Valery, about going out to sea. I asked Vova about it.

“It’s really quite something,” Vova began, then leaned back, lifting his eyes to the ceiling as one does when seeking to recall a distant but important memory. The cabin was warm and shadowed by soft light from the single candle. Rain drummed evenly on the roof above, sometimes with intensified volleys when the nearby spruce swayed in the wind and shed whatever water had accumulated on its branches. Inside, water droplets hissed as they fell from our drying clothes onto the hot woodstove. Sergey smiled and reclined on the bed. Apparently he had heard the story before but was not averse to listening again. In the early 1970s, Valery used his fishing boat to take a friend to the village of Maksimovka, which, while difficult to get to by road even today, is only thirty or so kilometers up the coast from Amgu, a nominal distance in a motorboat. Valery was almost back home, well within sight of the village, when his motor died. He tried to restart it but could not; the current drew him farther and farther away from shore. He gripped his single oar in a panicked attempt to paddle back to land, but the current was too strong. The poor man watched helplessly as the coastline grew distant and gradually transitioned to the rolling and silent terror of the open ocean. Valery had a handful of snacks left over from the trip, a rifle with a few shells, and a little drinking water. However, his food cache was gone by the second day. He shot at a few passing gulls, exhausting his bullet supply, and killed one, but the current prevented him from reaching its floating carcass. On the third day at sea, Valery saw a ship. He yelled and waved his oar. The crew saw him and shifted the vessel’s trajectory; he thought he was saved. As the large ship pulled up next to him, an amused Russian seaman peered down at this sun-blackened lunatic in a battered rowboat in the middle of the Sea of Japan and asked, “What the hell are you doing out here?” Hoarse from dehydration, Vova’s father replied, “The current brought me out.”

Jon and Vova
Vova and Jon

“Let the current take you back, then,” the laughing sailor retorted, and with that the ship continued on, abandoning the stunned castaway to what they must have assumed was his death.

On the fourth day, Valery awoke docked in Amgu with his wife calling him ashore. A moment later, he discovered himself half out of the boat, still in the middle of the ocean, interacting with an illusion that had almost drowned him. He fought this delirium for countless hours. Five days after Valery drifted away from the coast, he was picked up by a Russian vessel in the La Pérouse Strait.

“The La Pérouse Strait?” I nearly leaped from my stool. The strait is about 350 kilometers due east of Amgu.

Vova continued without reaction to my outburst. The ship took Valery to Nakhodka, a port in southern Primorye near Vladivostok, where his rescuers recognized the ship that had abandoned Valery based on his descriptions of it. Vova did not know what penalty that crew received for abandoning a Soviet citizen on the ocean, but it was certainly severe. Once he was ashore, the authorities listened to Valery’s story sympathetically, then politely asked for a passport to confirm his identity. “Passport?” he responded incredulously. “I got in a boat to take my buddy to Maksimovka. What do I need a passport for?” “Because you’re in Nakhodka,” the authorities countered, “and you are asking us to let you go to Amgu, the location of a sensitive border patrol garrison. You certainly need to prove your identity to do that.”

Given the lines of communication in those days, it took nearly two more weeks for Valery’s identity to be confirmed and for him to make it home. By then, he had been gone nearly a month. His family had held his funeral, mourned his loss, and begun to heal. When Valery reported back for work at the border patrol garrison, his superiors told him angrily that it would have been better for them if he had vanished at sea, because his metal boat, undetected for five days as it drifted about in the Sea of Japan, betrayed their incompetence. Their assignment, after all, was to detect and intercept unregistered boats – possibly spies – in the ocean. The central office in Vladivostok had savaged them for this embarrassing failure.

Vova paused and sighed, then concluded.

“My father left home for an afternoon trip up the coast and spent the next month in hell. So no, he doesn’t go to sea anymore.”

© 2020 by Jonathan C. Slaght. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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