The Russian High Arctic

The High Russian Arctic is one of the least traveled and most remote regions in the Northern Hemisphere. The breathtaking ice-capped mountains, the fascinating history of the early explorers and one of the highest densities of wildlife in the world build the framework for an unforgettable expedition.

In 2020, two brand new itineraries to the Russian Arctic will offer adventurers andwildlife enthusiasts a unique and once in a life time opportunity to explore parts of the world on which very few have stepped foot.

The two expeditions will put you in the footsteps of past polar explorers on the quest to find the Northeast Passage, while visiting some of the most breathtaking locations the Arctic has to offer.

A zodiac in the high acrctic

Novaya Zemlya

One of the most memorable places to visit in Novaya Zemlya is Inostrantesva Bay. Its landscapes are partially covered by moss and lichen but also by glaciers and icebergs. Polar bears are not a rare visitor of this breathtaking bay.

Oransky Island, a smaller island situated in the northwest of Novaya Zemlya, is the home to many different species of wildlife such as whales, walruses, many different types of seabird and more polar bears.

The first explorers to come to Novaya Zemlya arrived in Cape Spory Navlok in the late 1500s on an expedition led by Dutch explorer Willem Barents. It was his 3rd and last attempt to find the Northeast Passage. Barents died after being forced to spend the winter in Cape Spry Navlok, trapped by the sea ice. The ruins of their hut are still there today.

Walrus in the high arctc

Frank Josef Land

Sites to explore in Franz Josef Land can include Bell Island and Cape Flo a on Northbrook Island where many expeditions passed through in the 19th and 20th century. Some of the huts and building that were constructed during these times now lay in ruins but can still be visited.

Cape Norway’s flora makes it worth a visit and specially interesting for botanists while the somewhat challenging to access Cape Tegetthof on Hall Island with its tall cliffs is home to a larger number and variety of sea birds. The island itself provides great hiking opportunities unless polar bears are encountered.

Walrus haul-outs and hundreds of pinnipeds can be encountered on Stolichy and Appolovnov Island, which can be overseen from a safe distance on a zodiac cruise.

Tiskhaya Bukta’s Rubuinis Rocks sea cliffs are home to are kittiwakes and dovekies.

On Deck Aboard An Expedition Cruise In The High Arctic

Severnaya Zemlya

Russia’s largest ice cap, the Academy of Science Glacier on Severnay Zemlya, is located on the northern end of the straight. An ivory gull colony can be visited on Trovonay Island, and polar bears are frequently sighted.

Check out our trips to The Russian High Arctic

Jewels Of The Russian High Arctic 16-days

Russias High Arctic Archipelagos 22-days

Polar Cruise Vessel The Spirit Of Enderby Jewel of the Russian Far East
Mike Unwin, travel and nature writer based in Brighton UK. Voted UK Travel Writer of the Year by the British Guild of Travel Writers. 
Mike Unwin, travel and nature writer

Mike Unwin is a freelance travel and nature writer based in Brighton UK. He writes regularly for the Telegraph, Independent, BBC Wildlife and numerous other publications, and is the author of more than 30 books for both adults and children. In 2013 Mike was voted UK Travel Writer of the Year by the British Guild of Travel Writers.  

Here Mike gives us a brief account of his experience on an expedition cruise aboard the Spirit Of Enderby with Wildfoot Travel.

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Wrapping up an Arctic excursion…

Despite having recently left the Russian archipelago Franz Josef Land, John found an intriguing remnant of Russian history during his visit to Svalbard. Here is more about what he encountered during his final two days on the kind of Arctic cruise you can book with our wildlife travel specialists.

Day 14

This was our last day on board. In the morning, we spent time walking around the abandoned Russian mining settlement of Pyramidan. Although Spitsbergen is Norwegian, it has a special status – and other countries with a historical stake in the island still have rights of residence and other activities there, including mining.DSCN5573

There are two such Russian mining areas on the island; this one was in operation until about 1998. It then fell into disrepair; however, many of the buildings have been partly restored in recent years. In its day, it was a model Soviet settlement with a school, fully-equipped sports centre and rare heated indoor swimming pool.

We had a look around these buildings, most of which still look like everybody just walked out a few weeks ago. The outside of one of the accommodation blocks, however, has become a ‘cliff’ for nesting kittiwakes, whilst there are also wild reindeer roaming the outskirts. As the canteen remained manned, we called in for a rather smooth shot of vodka.IMG_3049

So not laid back, it’s almost vertical

We enjoyed an interesting final excursion that afternoon. Billed as a steep climb rather than a hike or walk, it turned out to be a very steep scramble up a near-vertical slope of loose scree and soft tundra. Most people sensibly gave up a little over halfway. However, of course, I – along with 5 others and our mad Russian ‘guide’ who had not actually been up there before and had just heard about it – continued up to see this ‘spectacular’ waterfall trickle emerging from the sheer rock face.

We perched with friable footholds looking at the, admittedly, beautiful scene across the fjord and the red dots of our now quite relieved companions on the shore below. We were back down more quickly than on the ascent and felt, actually, a little smug – despite the wobbly limbs and scratched hands!


Before dinner, we had an excellent slideshow with a compilation of images that the expedition photographer had taken and featured all of us and the places and experiences enjoyed. Then, a pleasant evening in good company, brought to an abrupt halt when we docked at the pier and our ‘barmaid’ rang a bell to tell us that no more drinks could be served. We were back in Norway and that country has some quite strict alcohol sale/consumption laws!

Day 15

After breakfast, we disembarked and went by bus to the airport to wait for our flight from Longyearbyen to Oslo. The departure lounge was absolutely chocker with passengers from our ship and the Ponant ship, which also disembarked that day. Most of their passengers were on a charter to Paris, whilst the rest of us were on the very full flight to Oslo.IMG_3073

Time for farewells and to reflect on the intense experiences in Franz Josef Land, what a superb couple of weeks…



Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago Cruise

In John’s previous report of his recent Arctic adventure, he focused on a visit to Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. In this update, he tells us more about what he got up to there. Remember that here at WILDFOOT, we can arrange for you to enjoy a luxury Arctic cruise like this.DSCN5532

Day 13

Monday. After leaving the islands of the northeast, we steamed at 14kt over the top of the Svalbard archipelago and down the west coast of the main island, Spitsbergen. This name came from the early Dutch explorer, Barents, and literally translates as ‘pointed mountains’. We could see why – for hours, we watched jagged peaks, bisected by glaciers as we headed south.

We could not land on the island anywhere without guns, because of the threat of polar bears; however, we were not allowed to have any firearms on board when entering Russian waters. So, the expedition leader decided that we should, rather than just make Zodiac excursions along the coast, instead sail at full speed back to Longyearbyen and pick up guns. This would enable us to at least make two landings on our last full day, tomorrow.

A relaxing break from all of the exploring

So, it was decided that we would arrive in Longyearbyen late that evening and then continue on up the Isfjord. This meant that Monday was spent very much at leisure, skipping breakfast and sleeping in, attending a couple of talks and enjoying the early farewell cocktail party. This was a delightful, relaxed affair, where we enjoyed a couple of martinis before dinner in good company.

Later, the German-speaking group on board took over the bar and enjoyed a boisterous pyjama party, whilst we watched The Red Tent, a 1960s film about the Nobile airship expedition to the North Pole. Sean Connery, Claudia Cardinale, Peter Finch and Hardy Kruger star in the film, which is very dated but quite entertaining.

Then, we returned to the bar for a series of nightcaps with our new friends – even after all this time, we have not really become accustomed to the fact that it is still broad daylight – quite disorientating!



Awe-inspiring icy scenery on a journey to Nordaustlandet

John has recently said goodbye to Franz Josef Land, an Arctic archipelago – but not long before he embarked on a trip to Nordaustlandet, a large island with an impressive ice cap. On the way there, he got to indulge in Arctic wildlife viewing like that on offer if you book with us at WILDFOOT.

Day 12

Sunday: I opened the curtain to another foggy morning; I couldn’t see anything of Kvitøya (otherwise known as White Island, a name given by an unimaginative Norwegian explorer years ago). It made me realise just how lucky we all were last week with all that clear sky and sunshine.IMG_2957

Nevertheless, after breakfast, we went out on a Zodiac cruise into the mist and through the dense, floating ice. It was quite cool today, around the zero mark. Here, we came across lots of walrus – singly, in pairs and in large groups – hauled up onto chunks of ice. Even though we have now seen loads of these animals, this was a different environment again, with lots of ice and fog.

Lots of ice, ice, baby!

Heading back, the ship gradually materialised like a ghostly ‘sea spirit’ out of the mist! There was a relaxing day ahead now, as we sailed towards the big island of Nordaustlandet, which had the third largest ice cap in the world after Antarctica and Greenland. Would we actually see any of it? DSCN5510

Well, believe it or not, the answer was yes! The island not only has that icecap but also the longest ice cliff in the northern hemisphere at some 250km or approximately 160ml. The fog cleared for us just as we approached the coast. So, we slowed down for half an hour and just stood on the balcony, sharing a bottle of wine with our Aussie neighbours as we passed through the brash ice and watched the cliff go on for as far as the eye could see in both directions, with the glacier sloping away behind. DSCN5512

We also had talks on polar bears and the history of Svalbard this evening – so combined with a night cap or so in the bar, it’s another past-midnight-in-broad-daylight night!


A big glacier and a big walrus on a final day in Franz Josef Land

John certainly got close to nature during his recent time in the Arctic – and today, he’s going to tell us about the last of the awesome sights he enjoyed before leaving the Russian archipelago of Franz Josef Land, a place you can also enjoy thanks to our wildlife travel specialists.

Day 11

Saturday: 85% of Franz Josef Land is covered in ice – and this morning, we again looked out on the snow-clad landscape, albeit under grey skies. Over the last few days, we have seen amazing glaciers, but our trip out this morning really took the breath away.DSCN5417

We caught sight of a rugged, intimidating and purely magnificent glacier with a jagged wall, over 100 feet high, creaking and breaking and, as we moved along the front, the classic slope down to the sea.  And all this under a brooding sky with the mist coming in, changing perspectives in seconds. Just when you think you have seen it all, nature still has the power to surprise… DSCN5416DSCN5398

Where did all of the ivory gulls go?

Later that morning, we were back off Alexandra Land and went out especially to see a rare nesting site of ivory gulls. This particular species does not migrate far and has a very limited distribution. It is also unusual in that it does not always return to the same nesting site each year. This was proved today; there were flocks of them here last year, apparently, but not one to be seen now!

Nevertheless, we did have the bonus of a big fat walrus posing for us on an ice floe, just a few yards away, with that beautiful glacial background. That was it – our last excursion in Franz Josef Land. We were then on our way back to the Russian military station where the officials would return on board to process our exit from the country.

That really was that for Wednesday. Steaming (figuratively) south, we expected to be off Kvitøya in northeast Svalbard the following morning. However, before that, there was – I’m afraid – another big night in the bar…


Embracing the history and meeting a polar pioneer at Franz Josef Land

Recently, we’ve been giving John the opportunity to tell us lots about what happened during his recent time at Franz Josef Land. This Russian archipelago just seems to keep on giving, as you can discover for yourself when you embark on one of the Arctic holiday cruises we offer.

Day 10

Friday. This morning, for the first time during this expedition, we woke to cloudy, overcast skies, but at least it wasn’t foggy. We were anchored off Rubini Rock on Hooker Island, home to thousands of seabirds, where we watched Brünnich’s guillemots, kittiwakes and little auks vying for space on narrow ledges and crevices, amongst a cacophony of sound. Especially recognisable were the ‘kitt-e-wake’ calls – I never realised that the name was onomatopoeic.DSCN5255DSCN5218

The outcrop is basalt and full of amazing geological strata and shapes, especially the classic hexagons. We spent ages on the Zodiac around the base of the Rock and offshore, where we tried to sneak up, with the outboard off, on guillemots and kittiwakes perched on floating ice. We did manage to get pretty close, too, before the former dived and the latter just scattered into the air.DSCN5277 DSCN5329

Fascinating remnants of Soviet history

On the opposite side of the bay, Bukhta Tikhaya, or Calm Bay, are the remains of a Soviet weather station, which was operational from 1929 until 1959. It is now manned during the summer by a small team from the Russian Arctic National Park Service, which is gradually restoring the wooden buildings into safe condition as a historical monument.

We went ashore there this afternoon for a look around and – considering they really don’t get any tourists, just us once this year and the 50 Years of Victory four times – received an enthusiastic welcome from staff. One staff member was dressed in a polar bear costume, while another was attired as a postman standing by the original letterbox.

They do have a postal service here, so we sent postcards home – they will be picked up by the icebreaker in a couple of weeks. Then, the fog rolled in and we were hurried back to the ship, which was now invisible from the shore. Our driver said that these conditions were actually the norm for Franz Josef Land and we had just been incredibly lucky over the last few days. We weren’t complaining!

Meeting a true pioneer in polar exploration

We have also been enjoying a series of talks from members of the expedition team on history, geology, fauna and flora, etc. One speaker was Felicity Aston, who I vaguely recognised when we boarded. Then, when she started her talk, I remembered why. She had given a talk at the Birdfair in Rutland a couple of years ago.

She is a real polar explorer and is the first (and only) woman to have crossed Antarctica solo and unsupported – she skied from the Ross ice shelf, via the South Pole, to the Ronne ice shelf. Her talk was about how she coped physically and psychologically – and even though I had heard it before, it was still fascinating and quite inspiring. She is really interesting to talk to, too.

So that night, I was in bed without a view for the first time – just a blanket of fog…


Seeing even more birds and polar bears at Franz Josef Land

It’s a testament to the huge array of amazing sights at Franz Josef Land that John still has many more of them to tell you about. Here, the tale of his adventure on this Russian archipelago in the Arctic continues – and our wildlife travel specialists can help you to enjoy trips like this one.

Day 9

Come Thursday morning, we were out early on the Zodiacs, as we were later spending time at sea and so this was to be our only excursion that day. We landed near the spot on Wilczek Island where members of the Wellman expedition overwintered in 1898/9. Wellman was an American journalist on his second unsuccessful attempt to reach the North Pole.

For reaching the shore, our landing team had cut out some steps in the ice and fixed some rope hand-holds, which allowed us to climb about 12 feet to the level snow. We walked up to the remains of the hut and a simple monument and then just wandered. There was a wide stretch of tundra peppered with lots of diminutive bright yellow Arctic poppies and small patches of saxifrage leading down to the bay on the other side of the headland.DSCN5069

From no wildlife… to lots of wildlife

Here, it was choked with floating ice sculpted into innumerable beautiful and magical shapes. On our Zodiac return to the ship, we diverted into this field of white, gently nudging the miniature bergs and watching larger ones perform a perfect roll as their centre of gravity shifted. We saw no wildlife, apart from a few birds, today. However, there were footprints of both polar bear and Arctic fox near where we landed – I bet they spotted us!DSCN5046

Things changed this afternoon. We were supposed to go to Cape Tegetthoff, which is especially scenic with pointed hills; however, as the advance information on sea conditions was negative, we diverted up to a small island called Matilda, where we went for a Zodiac ride and watched another polar bear and lots more birds. These were mostly little auks, Brünnich’s guillemots (for my North American readers, these are also known as thick-billed murres), glaucous gulls and common eiders. I was really pleased to also spot a pair of ivory gulls, perched right at the top of one of the bird cliffs. DSCN5060

A serious problem for polar bears

This is an exceptional year for sea ice, which has receded at least a month early so that we have hardly encountered any – just a few ice locked bays. This means that the polar bears we have seen are effectively stranded since they rely on the sea ice for their principal prey, seals.DSCN5080

The first young bear we saw on the iceberg may not survive, because he would not have the skills to catch alternative food. The others may catch old or very young walrus or the occasional bird, but will probably struggle – and there are lots of them around. So for us, it has been good, because we have been able to access areas that would have been difficult – but the polar bears face a real challenge.


A very ‘ice’ time after touring a new ship at Franz Josef Land

The eighth day of John’s adventure in Franz Josef Land, an archipelago in the Russian High Arctic, was fun-packed – he couldn’t tell you all of the highlights in one article alone. Here is part two of the story about his exciting day on the kind of luxury Arctic cruise you could also enjoy with WILDFOOT.

Day 8 continues

Later in the day, we had a real bonus. There is another ship chartered by Poseidon, a nuclear-powered icebreaker called 50 Years of Victory, that does a series of sailings each summer up to the North Pole. On the way there, it calls at Franz Josef Land – and today was the day! So, we made a rendezvous and the two ships went bow to bow, the Sea Spirit being dwarfed by the massive icebreaker.

As this new ship carries a helicopter, we also watched as that came and went and flew above us – all very exciting for passengers and crew alike. Then we had the announcement that anybody who wished could go aboard the icebreaker for a short tour.

50 Years of Victory was really interesting and a big contrast to our ship. The accommodation and public areas were all quite basic – in my opinion, it is just a ship for box tickers to say they have been to the North Pole and I don’t think I would fancy bashing through the ice for days and then doing the same on the way back and not having more than basic comforts on the way!

Amazingly beautiful icy scenery

We returned for a late dinner and then went out on the Zodiacs at 22:15 for another spectacular cruise along a channel separating Champ Island and Salisbury Island. The channel is about half a mile wide and bounded by massive ice cliffs, which are over 100 feet high and where the glaciers come down into the water.

We went up a couple of miles through the bergs and lumps of ice, with these amazing white and blue striated walls on either side illuminated in the clear evening light with kittiwakes, guillemots, little auks and the occasional ivory gull soaring above or swooping alongside. What a great end to the day… DSCN4562

Well, it wasn’t quite the end. One of our group had her birthday today and because we had to rush dinner, we had not had time to enjoy her cake and celebrate properly. So, we returned to the bar for a few drinks. It turned one o’clock again… and still the sun shone…


Amazingly diverse wildlife to continue seeing in Franz Josef Land

Here, John continues the story of what he got up to during his recent trip to Franz Josef Land, an archipelago in the Russian High Arctic. You can look forward to some Arctic wildlife viewing of your own when you book with us here at WILDFOOT – but first, John has more to tell you.

Day 8

Wednesday. This morning, we landed on Champ Island, where there are numerous large spherical stones and some smaller ones, too – it seems that there used to be a lot more, but earlier explorers and visitors took them away as specimens and souvenirs. Nevertheless, the immovable big ones are impressive.

Kittiwakes, Arctic foxes, walruses and polar bears

We then Zodiaced around under bird cliffs that, this time, were teeming with kittiwakes. Beneath these cliffs’ slopes are big patches of green vegetation fed by the birds’ guano. This is also the habitat of Arctic foxes, which patrol the bottom of the cliffs looking for fallen chicks and eggs. The day before, we saw a fox, with its white winter fur showing in patches as well as its summer brown – but we didn’t see any of these creatures on Wednesday.

Over lunch, we sailed on to nearby Hayes Island and took a pretty lumpy Zodiac ride over to the shore and the surrounding ice pack’s edge. We could see lots of walruses out on the ice and in the sea, but weren’t prepared for the sight of three polar bears. One big male was chewing on the remains of a walrus carcas near the shore, while a little way off was a younger bear lying in the snow, waiting with the kittiwakes for his share. We watched him/her take over when the older bear got bored.DSCN4931

Then, we saw another bear wandering around, uninterested in the food – we followed him along the shore and now and then, he stopped and posed for photographs. Mind you, that wasn’t as easy as it reads, because of the very choppy water. As we cruised around, lots of walruses kept popping up around us – very entertaining.DSCN4848

The day was just getting into its stride…

We were out for about two hours – and by the end of this time, it was pretty cold, with the wind and the spray, so we were all happy to get back to the ship for a hot chocolate. Keep an eye on this blog to learn even more about what happened on the eighth day of my expedition.