Top 5 reasons to visit the Russian Arctic

  1. A truly ‘off piste’ experience where travelling by small ship offers the best and only means of access to remote rocky coastlines, epic bird cliffs, isolated islands and wildlife hotspots
  2. Wrangel Island is renowned for its number of polar bears and unparalleled chances of sightings in significant numbers
  3. These Arctic waters are also incredibly rich in both bird and marine life
  4. Experience the warm welcome of indigenous groups including Chukchi people, as they generously share their traditions and culture
  5. Abandoned Russian bases tell of Russia’s more recent history

Choosing your Russian Arctic cruise

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The Russian Arctic, just the words themselves conjure up images of wild territories, remote settlements and extreme conditions. Exploring this region is something very few people do, and while there is choice, it is relatively limited. Ships need to be strong and capable of coping with the ice that will be in their path, and that often comes at the expense of comfort. Small 50-passenger ships operate in the far east and Wrangel Island regions but to go across the top of Russia you need something bigger and stronger, like a 100 passenger ice breaker. Times are changing however and the new breed of ships allow you to access this route in serious luxury too aboard larger expedition vessels with between 130 and 290 passengers.

The window for travel is small - realistically it is only from July to September that trips can operate at all, and each route is likely to be operated only once a year. Your chances of seeing walrus and polar bears on ice is better earlier in the season. Later in the season, the berry-strewn tundra is bathed in a warm autumnal light. Choosing a vessel that has the strength to get you where you want to go is key and booking in advance is vital, these trips are limited and if they are operating one year there is no guarantee that they will repeat the itinerary a year later.

Trips to the Russian Arctic

Cassia says

Where to go in the Russian Arctic

Wrangel Island

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During the winter, Wrangel Island lies almost dormant, cloaked in ice and inaccessible to all but the hardiest explorers. In the summer months, however, the shallow coastal waters are a favourite spot for walrus and the steep cliffs become crowded with guillemots and puffins.

Having left the winter ice, polar bears come on to land, making life interesting for the rangers who call this inhospitable spot their home. This Arctic wildlife sanctuary is one of the very few places in the Arctic where you can be on land in sight of a bear. There is great history in the region too, with astounding stories of survival such as that of Ada Blackjack and Inupiat woman who survived alone here for months in 1923 in freezing conditions. Going further back in time, the land shows its age with mammoth bones scattered across the tundra.

Chukotka

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The Chukchi people of the Russian Far East call this region home, and despite the cold, they never fail to offer a warm welcome to the few visitors who come their way. Away from the town of Anadyr, you'll discover abandoned settlements and military outposts which give you a glimpse of the fascinating past of this frontier zone.

Out on the water, beluga whales often congregate in Anadyr harbour, and grey whales migrate here from Mexico in the summer. This is also home to one of the world's rarest birds, the spoonbilled sandpiper.

Kamchatka

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Smoking volcanoes on the horizon are the first indication that you are approaching the Kamchatka Peninsula which sits in both the Bearing Sea and the Pacific Ocean. This land of fire and ice is only accessible by ship, and cruising the narrow fjords surrounded by mountains is a unique experience.

Elk, reindeer, fox, otter and brown bear can be spotted on land, with puffin choosing to nest here too. Out at sea, walrus, stella sea lions and pusa seals are commonly sighted, as are orca, humpback and grey whales. This is where wilderness meets the Arctic in spectacular fashion.

Franz Josef Land

Over 190 islands make up this hugely remote region of the high Arctic. Originally sighted by Norwegian sealers in 1865, and subsequently annexed by Russia in 1926, very few people reach the unpopulated Franz Josef Land. Those who do get there are in for a treat though.

Over 80% of the mountainous scenery is capped in glaciers and snow yet the cliffs are prime breeding grounds for little auks and kittiwakes in their thousands. The presence of birds in those numbers means arctic fox are prevalent in the region and keen eyes may pick out the odd hare too.

As a dedicated Marine Mammal Sanctuary, this is also home to bears who love to hunt seals on the vast swathes of fast ice. Those seals are there due to the richness of the waters which also attracts humpback, minke and beluga whales. Orca and narwhal are also occasionally sighted if you're lucky.

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Novaya Zemenya

Flanked by the Barents Sea to the west and the Kara Sea to the east this strictly controlled Russian Island has been known since the 11th century and was once the site of nuclear tests at the height of the cold war. It's a destination that has only very recently opened up to visitors, giving a few lucky explorers the chance to discover the stunning flora and fauna of what is now a protected national park of Russia.

The southern capital, Belushya Guba, has been in the news recently as the polar bear population on the island grew so large they started appearing in large numbers in the streets. But it's not just bears - Arctic fox, hare and bird life are making the most of the land where arctic poppies also grow.

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