Northwest Russia and Franz Joseph Land
Closed during the Cold War, these rugged glacial islands can now be explored
Information about Northwest Russia and Franz Joseph Land
The remote Arctic archipelago of Franz Joseph Land has only been available for exploration since the 1990s. Following the Second World War, the Soviet Union placed great importance on Franz Joseph Land as a military asset, treating it as "an unsinkable aircraft carrier" in the Arctic ocean.
Swathed in secrecy, and only accessible to military personnel, the archipelago remained a mystery until only 30 years ago. Now, Arctic expedition cruises can visit this remote land of glaciers and rugged hills that lies only 550 miles from the North Pole.
While still home to a fully-operational and quite active military base (Russia's northernmost), the archipelago is also a haven for wildlife and is a designated marine mammal sanctuary. Species readily encountered here include harp seals, walrus, and bearded seals. A particular highlight is the critically endangered bowhead whale, for which Franz Joseph Land is an important habitat. If you are lucky, you may also see a Narwhal, that is scarce in Svalbard. In contrast, there are no reindeer here. As with Svalbard, Franz Joseph land is a good place to look for Polar Bears.
Most of the cruise ships that head up to the North Pole pass through Franz Joseph Land.
Interesting facts about Northwest Russia and Franz Joseph Land
Our expert guide says: 'The geography of Franz Joseph Land is stunning, with over 80& of the landmass being covered in glaciers. Reaching the archipelago is can be a challenge and the ice conditions in remoter parts of the archipelago can restrict most vessels except nuclear-powered ice breakers. If you do make it, then a sighting of the endangered bowhead whale will have made the effort worth it.'Our expert guide says: 'Franz Joseph Land is a great place to spot the elusive bowhead whale. Another fantastic wildlife encounter could be with the "unicorn of the sea", the remarkable narwhal, the toothed whale with the iconic tusk.'
Pictures of Northwest Russia and Franz Joseph Land
Highlights in Northwest Russia and Franz Joseph Land
Ship and Zodiac cruising
With the myriad of islands and channels, and the ice, there needs to be a lot of flexibility of where to explore within the Franz Joseph archipelago. But there is the chance to see a range of Arctic wildlife, such as the Polar Bear and Walrus, plus species like Bowhead Whale and Narhwal that are scarcer in Svalbard waters.
Many of the ships that head up to the north pole pass through the islands.
The most westerly of the group, and, like Kvitoya on Svalbard to the west, it is covered by an ice dome. Visited by expedition cruise ships sailing between the two archipelagos. There are two small ice free (almost gravel) areas to land on the wets and north sides – with a decaying weather station at the latter.
The popular site to visit here is Cape Tegetthoff, named after the ship used in the Austro-Hungarian North Pole expedition to find the North-East Passage from 1872 to 1874, partially exploring Franz Josef Land. There are interesting geological pinnacles, tundra, wildlife, and remains of the hut used by Wellman to winter in 1898 before his failed attempt to get to the North Pole.
The Admiral Tegetthoof, caught in the ice off Novaya Zemlya in 1872 came to a halt off this tiny island for the winter of 1873-74. They explored the area and there is the grave of Otto Krisch, the one expedition team member that died.
One of the largest islands on the SE side of the archipelago. Mapped by Payer in 1874 and visited by the Wellman expedition in 1898-99. It was the overwintering site of Bentsen and Bjorvik on the Wellman expedition, attempting to set up an advanced cache for Wellman’s attempt (he overwintered at Cape Tegetthoff) on the North Pole. Bentsen died here and the grave can be seen and the remains of the cabin.
The most northerly island in Franz Joseph Land, and in the whole of Eurasia - Cape Fligely, 911km/566mi from the North Pole, at 81o 52’N. Various expeditions came here, some over winter, with at least two explorers buried here - Sigurd Myhre (1904?) and Georgiy Sedov (1914). A meteorological station was setup in 1932 and as a Soviet airbase in the high Arctic. Now there are decaying buildings covered in snow.
One of the most southerly islands, in the SW. A number of expeditions visited Cape Flora between 1880 and 1929, some setting up bases and winter quarters, including the Jackson-Harmsworth expedition of 1894-97. There are still artifacts and remains visible. Cape Barents, was also visited by several expeditions.
Cape Flora is also famous for where, on 17th June 1896, Jackson spotted two men heading towards his base, and asked – “Are You Nansen?”!