The 191 islands of the Franz Josef Land Archipelago have long been shrouded in mystery and secrecy. These remote islands, located northeast of Svalbard and between the Russian mainland and the North Pole, are notoriously inaccessible due to heavy sea-ice conditions and severe weather for a good portion of the year. During the Soviet era, travel restrictions imposed by Russian authorities made these islands almost completely off limits to tourists. Even now, independent travel to the Franz Josef Land Archipelago is nearly impossible. Access is permitted only with an expedition cruise ship or icebreaker. For the few visitors who make the journey to these enigmatic islands of the Russian High Arctic, the sense of remoteness in place and time is an undeniable attraction. Even more compelling are the secrets that seem to reveal themselves as if coming back from the depths of history. Here are a few of the astonishing highlights of a Franz Josef Land cruise.
Nowhere in the Arctic is the heroism and drama of early polar exploration more plainly evident than in Franz Josef Land. Among the many historical sites nestled within this desolate wilderness, perhaps none is more poignant than Cape Flora. Here, legendary explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen spent the winter of 1895-96 in a dwelling consisting of a shallow hole, low earthen walls and a roof of walrus skins supported by a driftwood log. One can still see the walls and even the weathered log beam of the shelter they called “the Hole”, a chilling reminder of the privations endured by these polar pioneers.
Located in Tichaya Bay near Hooker Island, Rubini Rock is the summertime host to the most important seabird colony in Franz Josef Land. Visitors to this cacophonous colony will observe tens of thousands of squabbling seabirds including murres, guillemots, kittiwakes, little auks (dovekies) and fulmars nesting on and around the curved basalt columns that rise spectacularly from the dark waters of the bay. If perhaps spooked by an Arctic Fox, clouds of airborne birds darken the sky as well.
Cape Flora, Northbrook Island
Being one of the more accessible locations in the archipelago, Cape Flora on Northbrook Island served as a base for many polar expeditions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This site, lovely in the light of summer, was the scene of many harrowing ordeals and incredible feats of winter survival. Artefacts visible all across the tundra can still be assigned to these various dramatic episodes in polar history. A plaque commemorates the famous meeting of Fridtjof Nansen and Frederick George Jackson, which occurred here in June 1896. Owing to the nearby seabird cliffs, profusely dripping with guano, the meadows here are as rich with wildflowers as they are with historical treasures.
Probably the most wondrous surprise is to be found on Champ Island, where visitors are delighted to discover numerous naturally occurring geodes (stone spheres) strewn across a stark polar desert landscape. The spheres range in size from a few centimeters to two meters wide, making for unique photo opportunities. As is true everywhere in the Franz Josef Land Archipelago, careful observation reveals even more secrets in the form of delicate wildflowers, rare Arctic birds, and beluga whales posing as cream-colored icebergs just offshore!