It was the main Russian base on the Pacific coast from about 1650 to 1860, but lost its importance after the Amur Acquisition in 1860. It is located at the east end of the Siberian River Routes on the Sea of Okhotsk where the Okhota and the Kukhtuy Rivers join to form a poor but usable harbor.
In 1639 the Russians first reached the Pacific 65 miles southeast at the mouth of the Ulya River. In 1647 Semyon Shelkovnikov built winter quarters at Okhotsk. In 1649 a fort was built (Kosoy Ostrozhok). In 1653 Okhotsk was burned by the local Lamuts. Although the Russian pioneers were skilled builders of river boats they lacked the knowledge and equipment to build seagoing vessels which meant that Okhotsk remained a coastal settlement and not a port. In 1682 Okhotsk had eight dwellings and five other buildings. When the Russians entered the Kamchatka Peninsula they had to travel overland from the north.
In 1714, Peter the Great sent a party of shipbuilders to Okhotsk to allow faster access to the furs of Kamchatka. In 1715, they built the Vostok and in 1716–17 Kozma Sokolov sailed it to Kamchatka. For the next 145 years Okhotsk was the main Russian seaport on the Pacific, supplying Kamchatka and other coastal settlements. In 1731 the Siberian Military Flotilla was established here. In 1736, Okhotsk was moved two miles downstream to a spit of land at the mouth of the Okhota, converting the ostrog into a proper port. Vitus Bering's two Pacific expeditions (1725–1729 and 1733–1742) brought in large numbers of people and the first scholars and expert sailors and led to a great deal of building. In 1742 there were 57 buildings, 45 other buildings in the Bering's "expedition settlement" and eight ships in the harbor. Anton de Vieira, of Portuguese origin (son of a Jewish father and Christian mother), was the town's governor at that time. From 1737 to 1837 there was a salt works several miles west on the coast that produced 14–36 tons annually. In 1827 it was worked by 150 exiles and about 100 guards and overseers.
Bering's men found valuable sea otters east of Kamchatka. Fur hunters began island-hopping along the Aleutian Islands. Furs were brought back to Okhotsk and carried inland, mostly to be sold to the Chinese at Kyakhta. The Russian-American Company was founded in 1799 with its base at Okhotsk. This brought in more money. In 1822 the English traveler Captain John Cochrane ranked Okhotsk just after Barnaul as the neatest, cleanest and most pleasant town he had seen in Siberia.
From at least 1715 it was clear that Okhotsk was a poor site. In addition to the difficult track inland, (see Okhotsk Coast) the harbor was poor and the short growing season and lack of plowland meant that food had to be imported. Around 1750 there were only 37 peasant families and a number of Yakut cattlemen. There was so little pasture in the area that pack horses sometimes had to be returned to Yakutsk unloaded. The harbor was ice-free from May to November but the sailing season was only four months from June through September. The town was built on a low narrow spit blocking the mouths of the two rivers. The harbor inside the spit was large, but three quarters of it was a mud flat during low water. Large ships could only cross the bar on an incoming or outgoing high tide and sailing ships sometimes had to wait for days for the wind to blow in the right direction. Ice-choked water during the spring breakup frequently flooded the town (20 times from 1723 to 1813), as did high surf on a number of occasions. In 1810 the Okhota, its mouth jammed by ice, cut a new channel through the spit and isolated the townsite. In 1815 the town was moved to the spit east of the harbor mouth. Goods now had to be unloaded and barged across the harbor. Because the harbor was shallow, Yakuts had to wade with loads from shore to barge. Fresh water had to be fetched from two and a half miles away. Goods could not be brought down along the Kukhtui River because of swamps.
In 1840 Vasily Zavoyko became head of the Russian-America Company post at Okhotsk and decided to move RAC post south to Ayan. This was done in 1845. The Yakutsk-Ayan Track was built and then rebuilt in 1852 at a cost of 20,000 rubles. In 1849 Siberian governor Nikolay Muravyov-Amursky decided to move the Siberian Flotilla to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and other government facilities to Ayan. The Amur Acquisition in 1860 shifted most things south. From 1870 Okhotsk was supplied form Nikolayevsk-on-Amur. In 1867 Russian America was sold to the United States. The population of Okhotsk declined from 1,660 in 1839 to 100 in 1865.
Between 1849 and 1866, American whaleships cruised for bowhead whales in the waters off Okhotsk. Some caught whales within sight of the settlement while others visited the town itself. They also fished for salmon in the Okhota River.
Okhotsk was of some military importance during the Russian Civil War, when the White army generals Vasily Rakitin and Anatoly Pepelyayev used it as their place of arms in the Far East.
Okhotsk was also a launch site of sounding rockets between 1981 and 2005.
The importance and population of Okhotsk sharply declined following the demise of the Soviet Union.
Okhotsk is served by the Okhotsk Airport.
Okhotsk has a subarctic climate (Köppen climate classification Dwc) with very cold, dry winters and mild, wet summers.