Getty Images
A boat approaches Unalaska Island in the Aleutians.

J.D. Simkins  – March 22, 2021 | Updated March 24, 2021

home tour logo

“Accessible” has never been a word associated with Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Resting between the 49th state and Siberia, the network of over 2,500 land masses is protected both by its remoteness and the rough, frigid sea that mercilessly tosses any vessel that dares venture into the tumultuous domain.

Designated an Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, the islands, many touting an astonishing assembly of wildlife and volcanic activity, show little, if any, signs of human interference. And yet, this hostile archipelago is where a recent siren call beckoned award-winning photographer Ian Shive, who, alongside a crew that included scientists and personnel from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, set out to share the natural wonders of the Aleutians with the world for the new discovery+ documentary series The Last Unknown.

Getting to the Aleutians required navigating a cauldron of the world’s roughest oceans that the photographer, in a conversation with Sunset WildLands, categorized as “Earth-shattering at times.” Perilous waters capable of catapulting the boat airborne were especially unnerving, Shive said, when the crew’s last sighting of another vessel occurred some 3,000 miles away.  

More Videos From Sunset

Going from ship to shore presented another hurdle, with crew packed into an inflatable skiff struggling toward an unwelcoming coastline that reflected the rugged influence of its waters. With no docks or trails, and a shoreline covered in rocks Shive described as “ankle-breaking,” the effort of shepherding the approximately 400 pounds of camera gear and electronics, like the entirety of the crew’s at-sea experience, was “truly all hands on deck,” Shive said.

“I might be there to take pictures or film, but everyone has to pitch in and look out for each other. That created a sense of camaraderie I didn’t expect.”

Despite any impediments prior to their arrival, the remote allure of the islands proved more than enough reward for the nautical roller coaster that preceded it.

Swarming hordes of northern fur seals, sea lions, puffins, humpback whales, orca, and sea birds make the Aleutians “truly a place where it’s survival of the fittest,” a show release said, each species linked and thriving in a region considered to be one of the most volcanic places on Earth.

Spread across the vast chain of islands are more than 80 large volcanoes, one of which—the currently active Bogoslof volcano—was filmed by Ian and his crew for the first time.

“There are moments in the wild where you realize you’re seeing a feature that no one’s really seen before,” Shive said. “You feel like Darwin, stepping on the beach where there aren’t any footprints. Incredible places like this still exist and are worth protecting.”

But for all of the natural wonders the crew documented, there are other thrilling discoveries featured in The Last Unknown that the expedition perhaps did not anticipate. World War II relics, many of which remain undisturbed since being discarded by then-occupant Japanese forces, are scattered across select islands.

Ian and his crew encountered “Japanese tunnels, shells, old Japanese submarines still sitting on a beach, sunken ships, even a B-24 bomber that had crashed over 75 years ago,” Shive said.

“It was like being in a time capsule.”

By the expedition’s last day—and after three and a half weeks without a shred of cell signal, which Shive admits he “didn’t miss”—the team had secured a symphony of stunning, hair-raising imagery that Shive believes underscores the importance of these islands to our planet’s health.

“This isn’t your typical wildlife documentary, but a groundbreaking, wild adventure that intertwines the human experience of going where few people have ever been before, and the emotionally charged, life-changing moments that can only happen when you stand amidst some of the most spectacular wildlife spectacles on Earth,” he said.

“I am so excited to bring audiences along for the ride!”

The Last Unknown is available now for streaming on discovery+.


Read the 2021 Camping Issue

To read: Click on the right and left arrows at the edge of the box to turn pages; to make the text larger, click on the fullscreen icon in the lower-right corner (desktop) or in the center (mobile).

Get one year of Sunset—and all kinds of bonuses—for just $24.95. Subscribe now!