Land of the giants
At the base of a huge boulder, we find the lair. A mound of discarded scallop and barnacle shells surrounds the dark opening. While my dive buddy Dean wedges his head and shoulders in for a closer look, I try to imagine the creature that's lurking within the recesses of the cave, poised to ensnare and devour another victim. The attack wouldn't come in a flurry of teeth and fins, but rather as a silent ambush. After all, they are stealth hunters by nature, able to change shape to flow with the terrain, and skin color to match their surroundings. They are equipped with an array of special weapons; sharp cutting beaks, suction disks to pry open heavy armor, and solvents that eat through rock-hard shells, allowing them to inject a lethal poison to the animal hiding within.

A tentacle emerges from the darkness and latches onto Dean's gloved hand. Suction pads ensnare and hold the arm while another tentacle emerges and probes his shoulders and head. Without warning, the tentacle latches onto his facemask and pulls back. Cold water floods the mask and Dean yelps in surprise. This mask-grabbing octopus was just one of the many surprises experienced during two weeks of diving and exploring Russia's Far. East Federal Marine Reserve.

Since the early 1990s, Valeri Darkin has prowled the isles of the annual DEMA dive show, sharing photo albums and tales of the underwater wonders of Russia. A marine biologist and former head of diving operations at the Institute of Marine Biology in Vladivostok, Valeri became Russia's first PADI instructor in 1993, and recently finished construction on the first and only dive lodge on the country's Pacific Coast. It was the lodge that finally enticed me to take Valeri up on his longstanding invitation to visit his homeland. Honestly, I didn't figure the underwater experience alone to be worth a trip halfway around the world. From what little I knew about Russia's Pacific Coast, I expected mud bottoms punctuated by occasional anemones and unfamiliar invertebrates - sort of like Puget Sound at its worst. But I figured that the added allure of visiting a region long closed to Americans, combined with a stay in a traditional Russian log lodge, hikes into hills where Siberian tigers roamed wild and visits to remote, uninhabited islands might turn a so-so dive report into a decent adventure tale. I was right in my estimation of the adventure element - and dead wrong about the diving.

The Korean Air jet begins its descent into the Vladivostok airport. After 15 butt-numbing, shoulder-rubbing hours in coach class, plus long layovers in Los Angeles and Seoul, I'm ready for a shower and abed. As the wheels of the plane touch asphalt, Dean Morrow turns to offer a high five in celebration. "Now, let's hope they let us into the country," he adds. Despite months of preparation, our visas to enter Russia had arrived only two days before our departure date. In addition, we were traveling not on the usual tourist visas, but by special invitation of the Far East Institute of Marine Biology.

In the days of the Soviet Union, the slightest glitch in paperwork would have resulted in lengthy delays and endless explanations. Today, officials of the new Russian Republic scarcely glance at our visas; we are whisked through customs and immigration with speed and smiles. Valeri is waiting outside with a driver - and good news. For the past two weeks, he tells us, the region endured one of the strongest typhoons of the century. Fortunately, the heavy rains and wind subsided just hours before our arrival and perfect summer weather is expected for the next two weeks.

Lying at the same latitude as northern California, Vladivostok has been compared to San Francisco. Both cities perch on a series of hills that surround a large, sheltered bay, both were settled in the 1800s by pioneers pushing toward the Pacific, and both are important commercial and military ports. Vladivostok's buildings show signs of wear and neglect, but also hints of an emerging economic rebirth. Decrepit government buildings are interspersed with colorful shops, clubs and restaurants.

The roads are surprisingly busy and the majority of cars are imports. "Where are the Russian cars - the Ladas and UAZs?" I ask. "Soviet junk," Valeri tells me. "Now, everyone with money goes to Japan and brings back used Toyotas. Russia is one huge dumping ground for all Chinese and Japanese crap they can't send to America." We check into the Hotel Vladivostok, a towering remnant of the Soviet era complete with creaking elevators, sporadic plumbing and uniformed floor monitors. These days, the monitors aren't state employees charged with scrutinizing the comings and goings of each guest. Instead, they are hotel employees who spend most of their time evicting freelance prostitutes and riding herd on Chinese tour groups.

Before turning in for the night, I skim the scientific information Valeri has provided on the Far East Federal Marine Reserve. Created in 1983, the reserve encompasses several hundred miles of undeveloped coastline and extends offshore to include several small groups of islands. According to biological surveys, the reserve has the greatest biodiversity of any marine ecosystem in Russia. It is home to more than 2,000 species of invertebrates, 300-plus varieties offish and marine mammals and some 300 types of birds. The publication also states that underwater visibility can reach 100 feet and this is a research paper, not some tourist brochure. "We may have better diving than expected," I tell Dean.

It is not the rusty fishing boat we expected. Instead, we are welcomed aboard a gleaming 5o-foot motor yacht. Owner Sergey Nikiforov is one of the small but growing members of Russia's upper class. In 1990 he opened the first electronics store in Vladivostok, bringing Japanese televisions and Korean CD players to the proletariat. An occasional diver and avid yachtsman, Sergey has offered to guide us to the Rimski-Korsakov Archipelago, a group of offshore islands in the heart of the reserve that can be entered only by special permit.

The yacht's big turbo-diesel engines crank up, we exit the harbor and thread our way through a Sunday afternoon fleet of sailboats and fishing skiffs. The bow churns through muddy brown water - the result of last week's coastal flooding. As we move farther offshore from Amursky Bay into the Gulf of Peter the Great, the water makes a gradual transition to blue. Two hours later, we pick up a mooring in a small bay on the northwest corner of Pelis Island. From the flying bridge, I can clearly see the sand bottom through 30 feet of emerald green water.

A ramshackle collection of buildings and docks line the shore and a pair of small aluminum boats sit on the rocky beach. This is one of the reserve's two ranger stations. Here a handful of dedicated volunteers live year-round in primitive conditions, depending on private donations and sporadic state funding for even basic staples. The small skiffs on the beach are their only patrol craft. Despite Valeri's assurances of warm water, I had assumed the worst and almost packed a drysuit. The surface waters of the Gulf vary widely in temperature, often turning to ice in the winter, then warming into the mid-70s by late summer.

Dean tests the water with a tentative toe. Meanwhile, Sergey simply strips to his shorts and jumps overboard. We all don masks and snorkels and begin free diving for the giant scallops that litter the sand bottom. After a lunch of scallop sushi, we load scuba gear into a small inflatable and motor along rock cliffs that tumble to the sea in a confused collection of ledges and pinnacles. Below the light aquamarine surface, we can see the indistinct shapes of huge boulders. We stop at a massive headland and drop anchor on a patch of off-white rock 100 yards from the cliff face.

Easing overboard in light wetsuits, we find we are atop a stone tower that rises precipitously from depths beyond 100 feet. A slight current washes the pillar, which is covered in a rich carpet of stalked anemones, pink carbon algae, encrusting sponges, multi-colored muscles and giant orange-red tunicates. Sea urchins, red sea stars and bat stars prowl the vertical rock while greenling, sea perch and china rocks hover in the shadows. It is a perfect slice of cold-water Pacific eco-system - minus the cold water.

I am so absorbed in watching a ling cod that I almost miss the giant octopus. My fin touches what appears to be a gray outcropping in a boulder field; the rock turns rust brown and comes to life. What was a confused mass of soft tissue takes on a streamlined shape as eight long tentacles align behind a head the size of a soccer ball. The octopus emits a cloud of dark ink, then jets off into the depths. We give chase, but at a depth of 80 feet, a layer of bone-chilling water stops us cold. We have found the thermocline. To penetrate the 48-degree water below, we'll need 7mm suits with hoods and gloves.

We surface, exchange excited commentary and marvel at our luck. "A giant octopus on our first dive," Dean marvels. "What are the chances of that happening?" "Only one?" Sergey asks. "That's not a very good dive." For the next two days, we explore the waters around Pelis Island, hike to abandoned World War II gun batteries, prospect for amethyst stones on deserted beaches and trap enough king crabs for an evening feast. The quality and diversity of the underwater scene far exceeds our expectations.

We creep along the coast, using radar to feel our way through the fog. To our right are the towering cliff faces of the Asian mainland. Ahead lies a narrow opening into Vityaz Bay. Protected from almost all wind and sea conditions by a ring of steep hills, this oblong body of water was once the site of a secret Soviet sub base and a military dolphin training program.

As we enter the confines of the bay, the fog lifts. A pair of 19th-century wooden whaling ships lie abandoned in the shallows and a bright red Zodiac inflatable is beached in front of a two-story log cabin. This is Valeri's dive lodge, a dream he and his sons Denis and Demitri completed just last year. The lodge is done in traditional Russian style, and built entirely of native wood. A huge clay furnace and a long dinner table dominate the great room. In the days ahead, the guests and staff of the lodge will spend a lot of time around this table swapping tales, sharing meals and offering toasts.

Equally important to lodge life is the adjoining steam bath. Russians take this form of ablution very seriously, we learned, parboiling themselves in a 200-degree chamber, beating each other with hot oak leaves to restore circulation, then plunging into an ice-cold bath. After an evening session in the steam bath and a glass of local vodka, sleep comes easily. By the end of the first week, we have settled into a comfortable routine. Each morning we fill scuba tanks from Valeri's massive military surplus compressor. Originally built to pressurize ballistic missile silos, this five-stage stainless and titanium juggernaut cranks out 200 cubic feet a minute at a pressure of 6,000 psi.

With full tanks and loaded cameras, we had the choice of exploring the region's many offshore spires or submerged rock walls, visiting one of a half-dozen local wrecks, or stopping off at Octopus Rock for a tangle with the local population of cephalopods. Dean, who is a native of Oregon, has seen his share of giant octopus encounters in the waters of Puget Sound and the Inside Passage. The abundant populations we encounter in the waters of the reserve amaze him. Occasionally, these big invertebrates will move up in the clear water above the thermocline to hunt, but more often we find them lurking in dens in the cold, murky layer below. By the second week, we stop counting the number of octopus we have seen, but on any given dive it was not uncommon to find a half-dozen or more within a relatively small area. Most are in the 4- to 6-foot range, but several surpass the 10-foot mark.

Octopus encounters may have become almost routine, but other surprises await us. One day, we round the corner of a submerged cliff and run into a huge jellyfish that measures at least 8 feet across and trails 20 feet of tentacles. We congratulate ourselves on this once-in-a-lifetime find... then we find an even larger one the very next day. A pilot whale leads us to an offshore pinnacle covered in a checkerboard pattern of white and black anemones. What we are actually seeing, Valeri explains, is rival factions of the same species that align by color and fight for territory. The resulting black and white design is actually a battlefield. During surface intervals we snorkel with playful seals, dive for scallops and pick seaweed that the cook converts into tasty dinner salads. On night dives our fins leave trails of phosphorescence and Valeri highlights dozens of unusual species of invertebrate with his dive light. We dive wrecks from the Soviet era and the time of the Czars, then discover a research vessel that sank less than a decade ago.

The end of each diving day is the beginning of another adventure. We ride horses into the hills, explore the unsettled coastline by four-wheel drive and hike to abandoned Soviet military installations. Some of our best memories are created at the lodge where we mix and mingle with Russian divers. A former Special Forces officer regales us with stories of his service in Afghanistan; a businessman plays guitar and sings Russian folk songs; Dean upholds American honor by matching the lodge divemaster shot for shot of local vodka.

All too soon, our time is up. We share a final dinner, relive our adventures and laugh at our initial misconceptions. I make the usual promises to return some day, then Dean tops my promise by offering to return with help. As a representative of the Philippe Cousteau Foundation, Dean hopes to bring both financial and technical aid to the rangers and scientists working to protect the reserve from development and illegal fishing. His offer is met with applause and a toast. The reserve may never gain the worldwide notoriety of tropical dive meccas such as Palau or the Cayman Islands, but it is every bit as special. It is a destination seldom visited, but also one that is not easily forgotten.