Franz Josef Land: Secrets of the Russian Arctic

Sea Spirit - C Arctic Luxury Expedition Cruise Ship
Sea Spirit - C

Sail these islands found deep in the Russian Arctic to find seals, polar bears, walrus, and other wildlife surrounded by icy scenery. The archipelago was completely unknown to humanity until 1870, and since then has been obscured from the common traveler by veils of ice and politics. Travel when ice retreats enough to allow passage, taking advantage of this season’s window and a newly open political climate to explore the recently declared Russian Arctic National Park. Discover a dynamic environment of shifting sea ice and glaciated islands that create the perfect habitat for seals, polar bears, walrus, sea cliff breeding bird colonies, and the possible rare and elusive bowhead whale. The high Arctic is a polar desert, beautiful and stark, sometimes profoundly inhospitable, sometimes bountiful by turns. This exploratory voyage will take you from Longyearbyen on the west coast of Svalbard, east to Franz Josef Land, and back. Journey into waters where polar adventure and opportunity await!

• Spend eight landing days on one of the planet’s most hidden and seldom visited wildlife destinations, the northernmost archipelago in Eurasia
• Discover some of the world’s most dense populations of polar bears and walruses
• Ice, seascape, and landscape photography with dramatic lighting and arctic intensity
• Participate in citizen science alongside a team of international marine scientists

Day 1 — Longyearbyen, Svalbard

Relax in Longyearbyen for the night (hotel included), preparing for your expedition.

Day 2 — Embark Sea Spirit

Board the Sea Spirit and travel east by northeast into the Barents Sea, hoping for good whale watching conditions.

Days 3 & 4 — Cross Barents Sea to Franz Josef Land

Enjoy a lecture series about Franz Josef Land and the high Arctic environments you are traveling through. North of the Arctic Circle you travel through 24hrs of daylight, a wonderful novelty allowing the possibility of wildlife sightings at any hour. By afternoon of your second day you will be approaching the remote Franz Josef Land archipelago. Before you can land, your initial call is to the Russian polar station Nagurskoye in Cambridge Bay for customs and passport control.

Days 5 to 12 — Explore Franz Josef Land

Sailing into the waters of Franz Josef Land finds us in a rarified space. Curtained behind ice and political lines for most of human history, almost no compelling place on the planet has received less travelers. Yet you can expect to find iconic arctic wildlife including polar bears, walruses, bowhead whales, and enormous nesting colonies of seabirds. You will sail, Zodiac cruise, and hike around stunning, stark scenery filled with glowing glaciers and illuminated icebergs.

Zodiacs make the ideal platform for exploring cliff-nesting seabird colonies where you find large numbers of thick-billed murres (Brünnich’s guillemots) and black-legged kittiwakes flanked by black guillemots, dovekies, fulmars, and ivory gulls. The timing is perfect for the semi-annual event of every arctic sea cliff bird colony, when young guillemots leap seaward, attempting to evade glaucous gulls on their maiden glides into the sea.

Human exploration of the arctic was not friendly to wildlife. Svalbard was discovered in the 1600’s and immediately set upon by sealers and whalers. Walruses were eradicated and bowhead whales were hunted until they were extremely rare. But what the sealers and whalers did not know was that healthy populations were sheltered 300mi to the east, hidden for another 300 years in Franz Josef Land. Fortunately for us, these refuge populations are where today’s wildlife is now healthiest, repopulating waters that were hunted out. Around Franz Josef Land you can Zodiac cruise near important walrus haul-outs where large numbers of calves are born, and you can reasonably hope to find the elusive bowhead (Greenland) whale.

Potential Zodiac Cruising or Landing Sites:

Alger and Mathilda Island
Discover relics from many expeditions, including the huts of Camp Ziegler built by Baldwin in 1901. Zodiac cruise among illuminated icebergs. Ivory gulls are commonly found here.

Apollonoff and Stolichka Island
Zodiac cruise around the largest known walrus haul-out in the archipelago with up to 1,000 animals, dominated by females and calves, and keep your eyes out for polar bears looking for sick or helpless prey. Common eiders, arctic terns, and small colonies of little auks and glaucous gulls are found in this dramatic landscape they call home.

Bell Island
Walk amid the stacks and grottos of sandstone up to the bell-shaped hill for which the island was named. Travel back in time to Eira Lodge, built in 1881 by Leigh Smith and used as a refuge for several generations of explorers. While Smith was here, his vessel Eira was crushed by ice. We intend to avoid a similar fate. Walk amid three- to ten-thousand-year-old whale bones and see nesting glaucous gulls.

Champ Island
Known for its special geological phenomenon: perfectly round stone spheres from around 1cm to 2m in diameter scattered amid the highest mountains in the archipelago. Claimed to be one of the most beautiful islands, the red, yellow, and green mosses are juxtaposed against the dramatic snow-capped peaks and surrounding glaciers, providing stunning opportunities for photography. Zodiac around the cacophony of bird calls along the cliff known to house nesting black-legged kittiwakes, little auks, and black guillemots.

East of Champ Island, you’ll Zodiac cruise Pondorff’s narrows in an extreme geographic rarity, a narrow stretch of open water between two dramatic glacier fronts that face each other.

Hall Island
At Cape Tegetthoff, photograph the towering dorsal fin shaped cliffs amid seabird colonies.

Hooker Island
Surrounded by glaciers, lava solidified to form Rubini Rock in Tikhaya Bay, named after the opera singer Giovanni Battista Rubini reportedly because of the raucous calls of around 100,000 nesting seabirds along the cliffs, including thick-billed murres (Brünnich’s guillemots), little auks, black-legged kittiwakes, northern fulmars, glaucous gulls, and black guillemots. You may encounter bearded or harp seals, polar bears, and with luck walrus or a bowhead (Greenland) whale.

Tikhaya bay is also home to the first Soviet polar station, Bukhta Tikhaya in operation from 1928 to 1959. In this most sheltered part of Franz Josef Land you can discover 43 of the archipelago’s 55 flowering plant species alongside possible sightings of rock ptarmigan, purple sandpiper or arctic fox.

Jackson Island
Travel back in time to Cape Norvegia to see the remains of Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen’s 1895–1896 wintering site, after their attempt to reach the North Pole. Walk among poppies, saxifrages, buttercups, willows, and beautiful carpets of red moss and watch black-legged kittiwakes flitting around their colony. Polar bears often roam nearby, and you may encounter narwhals and beluga whales near the coast.

Northbrook Island
Cape Flora is home to a few polar expedition bases amid thick carpets of colorful mosses. Leigh Smith spent ten months here after ice crushed and sank his ship in 1880 and where a chance encounter occurred between Frederick George Jackson and Fidtjof Nansen. You’ll visit remnants of the largely intact settlement from the Jackson expedition. You may witness young thick-billed murres (Brünnich’s guillemots) aloft and arctic foxes foraging. You’ll also Zodiac cruise in Günther Bay near an important walrus haul-out.

Prince Rudolf Island
If Franz Josef Land is unusually ice free, you will take the opportunity to navigate to Eurasia’s northernmost point, Cape Fligely, a site where the presence of polar bears can make it a challenge to set foot on this unique spot.

Wilczek Island
Discover the remains of the stations of early polar explorers like the Austrians, Weyprecht and Payer, who first discovered Franz Joseph Land in the 19th century.

Days 13 & 14 — Cross Barents Sea to Svalbard

Before you depart Franz Josef Land, you’ll have your final call at the Russian polar station Nagurskoye in Cambridge Bay. Sail westward to Svalbard.

Day 15 — Longyearbyen - Disembark

Disembark the Sea Spirit in Longyearbyen to catch your flights homeward.

A note about expedition cruising: Due to the expeditionary nature of this voyage, specific stops cannot be guaranteed. Flexibility is paramount in expedition travel; this itinerary depends on the conditions at the time of travel. We strive to land often and stay as long as possible, abiding by the guidelines of minimum impact travel set by AECO, the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators.

* Itinerary may be subject to change

Note: Deck plan, cabin arrangements, and cabin amenities are subject to change by ship operator. Deck plan diagrams are not drawn to scale.


   Owner's Suite
440 square feet (40 square meters); separate living room; King Size bed and sofa bed (can accommodate a teenager); private deck; jetted bathtub.
    Premium Suite
350 square feet (33 square meters); two twin or a King Size bed; private balcony; private facilities.
  Deluxe Suite
275 square feet (26 square meters); two twin or a King Size bed; private balcony; private facilities.
  Superior Suite
235 square feet (22 square meters); two twin or a King Size bed; picture window overlooks on outside walkway; private facilities.
  Classic Suite
250 square feet (23 square meters); two twin or a King Size bed; picture window; private facilities.
  Main Deck Suites
215 square feet (20 square meters); two twin or a King Size bed; minimum two portholes; private facilities.
  Triple Classic
250 square feet (23 square meters); 2 twins (convert to a King) and a sofa bed; picture window; private facilities.