Franz Josef Land is located at about 80 degrees north latitude close to straight north of St. Petersburg, Russia. At the northern most island in the archipelago, Rudolf, we were approximately 600 miles from the North Pole at 81 degrees 47 minutes N. Do give you some perspective, Iceland is at 66 degrees N. There are 192 islands in the archipeligo but some of them are very small.
This map shows our route for our days traveling through the islands.
I flew from Kansas City to Newark and then to Oslo, Norway where I had to spend one night. There is only a couple of flights a day to Svalbard, Norway, an island north of mainland Norway and are starting point for our trip to Franz Josef Land. We could not make the connection so it meant a night in Oslo.
The preparation for the trip involved getting a Russian visa that took two months and involved five pages of questions about most of my life’s history. Where I’ve lived including addresses, where I’ve worked including phone numbers and supervisors and professional and social/fraternal organizations of which I’ve been a member. It was extensive. It took two months from the time I mailed my application, passport and passport photos until I got it back. I got a three-year visa because I plan to be back in Russia in September. More about that later
I went on this trip for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a place that most people have never heard of including me. Second, I wanted to photograph polar bear, walrus, Arctic fox, ringed seals and maybe whales.
Svalbard is a fairly large island but the main town on the island, Longyearbyen, has a population of about 2200. They get about 45,000 tourists a year.
There is a safety boundary around the city. Once you leave that area you are required to have a guide….or a gun…and usually both. The hills around town has a number of polar bear and they are extremely dangerous. Most tourists who come here cruise the perimeter of the island or take a guided snowmobile tour into the hills looking for the bears. Many of the snowmobiles are equipped with a side-mounted rifle holder.
One of Svalbard’s claim to fame other than it’s wildlife is the Global Seed Vault situated deep inside a mountain. It opened in 2008 and contains more than 5000 different plant species. There are more than 40,000 varieties of beans, 156,000 varieties of wheat and almost as many varieties of rice. It has the capability to hold 4.5 million seed samples. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a tour of it so…no pictures!
We spent one night in Longyearbyen before boarding our home for the duration of the trip, the M/S Sea Spirit. Breakfast at the hotel even included caviar in a squeeze tube.
The M/S Sea Spirit had 92 guests on board: 47 from the United States, the rest from Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, China, Britain, Canada, Namibia and Belgium. The biggest celebrity onboard was a National Geographic photographer from Russia. He has been working on a piece on Franz Josef Land for two years and has another year to go.
After an overnight in Svalbard, we headed northeast for Franz Josef Land. Our two and a half days at sea were filled with lectures from the specialists onboard. We learned about the plants we might see, the birds we might encounter and the wildlife we could expect to see. The ship’s photographer talked about photography. And we learned how well we’d eat. Breakfast was always a great buffet plus you could always order special items…eggs, waffles, omelettes, etc. Lunch was also a buffet. Then there was afternoon tea in lounge followed by a sit down dinner with four choices of salads, main courses and desserts. Plus there was always jars of cookies in the bar, as well.
Our first stop was Alexandra Island where a Russian military base is located. It is the westernmost island in the group. We sent out a zodiac to pick up several Russian Customs and Immigration officers who came aboard to clear us. We were not allowed to take photographs on or from the ship while the immigration process took place. It started about 8pm and lasted well over 4 hours.
Franz Josef Land is a Russian Arctic National Park and therefore we also picked up seven, national park rangers armed with rifles. They traveled with us on the ship and went everywhere we went both on land and on our zodiac cruises.
They lived with us and dined with us although only a few spoke much English. They controlled how close we could approach wildlife often telling our zodiac drivers we needed to move back. Never did they tell us we could get closer.
M/S Sea Spirit with zodiac approaching.
The temperature most days was usually about freezing. The coldest morning it was 29 degrees with a wind chill of 14 degrees. One thing you will not see in this or any follow up blogs are beautiful sunrise or sunset pictures because there were none. It was as bright at midnight as it was at noon. It’s 24 hours of daylight. My room was darkened by black out curtains. There was many days of fog and overcast skies. There was the occasional sunny day.
Each day a plan was laid out. Here’s where we’re going and why we’re going there. All were subject to adjustment depending on weather conditions. Frequently, there was a split event. Part of our group would do a landing while the other group did a zodiac cruise. Halfway through the morning we would switch. If it was foggy or a polar bear was sighted on land, we would all zodiac cruise.
Often our ship would reposition during lunch. I learned that ships never seem to “move” instead, they “reposition”.
There was a lot of fog as we moved from island to island. If there was fog at a proposed landing then we weren’t allowed to go ashore. The reasoning was that we wouldn’t be able to spot a polar bear and they are extremely dangerous predators. When we did land, the rangers went ashore and established a perimeter that we weren’t allowed to go out of.
They were constantly scanning the area looking for polar bears. On one occasion, a group of hikers were traveling along a ridge and spotted a polar bear quite a long distance ahead and were forced to alter their course to avoid it.
We were told that our best chance of seeing and photographing a polar bear was either from the ship or on a zodiac cruise. In fact, the first polar bear I saw was on top of a glacier about 500 yards away.
The rangers controlled how close we were able to get. We had to stay back a considerable distance from glaciers for fear of caving. If a large chunk of ice broke free it could cause a large wave which could upset a zodiac. While we were quite a distance away, I was still able, with a long lens, to get some pretty good images.
Two days later, on another zodiac cruise, we spotted a polar bear on land and were able to get much closer. In fact, the bear came to us and made his way down to the shoreline and gave us a lot of great poses!
We’ll see those on my next post!