Wrangel Island - Explorer's Paradise of the Russian Arctic

Written by 56th Parallel
©ATerauds

Ever heard of Wrangel Island? Don’t worry, not many people have. However, if you’re a dedicated adventure traveller, a hardy explorer of the oceans or a passionate wildlife enthusiast, read on and prepare to be intrigued. The Russian cruise experience described in the article below is anything but your ordinary vacation cruise!

Where is Wrangel Island and What Makes it so Special?

140km off the northeast coast of Siberia lies the 7,600 square kilometres Wrangel Island. Along with its much smaller neighbour, Herald Island, Wrangel is an official off-shore territory of Russia, separated from northern Alaska by the ice packs of the Chukchi Sea.

Wrangel Island Cruise Russian Arctic Polar Cruises
©S.Crimmin

When approaching Wrangel Island by cruise ship (expedition ice-breaker), at first inspection, the mountainous, windswept island can appear barren and lifeless. But further investigation proves Wrangel is anything but. In fact, Wrangel Island is one of the most important wildlife refuges in the entire Arctic region. In particular, for migratory seabirds, and for its famously abundant polar bears. In season, Wrangel plays host to one of the largest breeding populations of polar bears on earth. It is also home to the world’s largest population of Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus).

Wrangel, Herald and the surrounding waters form part of a federally protected nature reserve. More recently, Wrangel’s ecological importance has been recognised by UNESCO, who declared the reserve a World Heritage Site.

The History of Wrangel’s Arctic Explorers

The Arctic landscape of rocky mountain ranges and high tundra has changed little since the woolly mammoth roamed prehistoric Wrangel up until 4,000 years ago. In fact, the Wrangel Island mammoths are believed to be the last survivors of their species – mainland mammoths were almost entirely extinct 6,000 years earlier. Recent scientific expeditions have uncovered precious hauls of well-preserved mammoth remains.

Fast-forward in time to the 19th century, when European and American maritime explorers were now venturing forth into new and dangerous Arctic frontiers. Having heard rumours around the 1820s of a rich hunting and fishing ground visited by Chukchi Siberians, Russian explorer Ferdinand Von Wrangel set out to prove the existence of this mythical island, only to have his expedition thwarted by treacherous sea ice. Several subsequent expeditions claimed to have sighted the island, but it was not until 1881 that the first explorers, a group of Americans, set foot on Wrangel’s stony, slate-coloured shores.

Wrangel Island Cruise Russian Arctic Polar Cruises
©K.Ovsyanikova

Although it experienced a period of human settlement, beginning in the 1920s when Russia claimed sovereignty over the island, the only village of any size, Ushakovskoye, has remained a virtually abandoned ghost town since the 1990s. Without a doubt, a ranger’s post on Wrangel Island is one of the loneliest in the world.

Birds and Wildlife of the Island Reserve

The Wrangel Island Reserve (which also includes the tiny, 11sq kilometre Herald Island, 64km east of Wrangel) is one of the most biodiverse areas in the entire Arctic region, with a greater variety of plant, insect and bird species than in the whole of the Canadian archipelago.

Kamchatka Commander Kuril Islands expedition cruise
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The rocky, snow-dusted steppe of the coastal interior may look desolate, but after the ice melt, it transforms into a fertile chain of meadows, bursting with vibrantly blooming tundra wildflowers. Streams and rivers trickle through lush valleys grazed by muskoxen, reindeer and stalked by Arctic foxes in search of their lemming prey.

Wrangel Island Cruise Russian Arctic Polar Cruises
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In ice-free years, as many as 100,000 walruses gather on the beaches of Wrangel Island, forming the most concentrated population of these giant marine mammals on earth. The nutrient-rich seas around Wrangel are a feeding ground for grey whales. Orcas, belugas, bowhead and minke whales also pay regular visits to the reserve’s protected waters.

Wrangel Island Cruise Russian Arctic Polar Cruises
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Over a hundred migratory bird species nest and breed on Wrangel Island. One of the major factors reasons for the reserve’s creation was its vital importance as the last major breeding habitat for Asia’s vulnerable snow goose population.

If you do get lucky and end up going on this Russian Arctic expedition cruise, you will board a fully ice-strengthened expedition icebreaker. You will start off by squeezing through the narrow Bering Strait, on our way to Wrangel Island. You will also sail past giant cliffs that shelter the summer nests of puffins, guillemots, snowy owls, skuas, Arctic terns and ivory gulls in Preobrazheniya Bay.

Wrangel Island Cruise Russian Arctic Polar Cruises
©J.E.Ross
Kamchatka Expedition Cruise
©A.R.Russ

The Polar Bears

The undisputed kings of their domain and most famous inhabitants of Wrangel Island are undoubtedly its majestic polar bears. Studies have shown Wrangel has the highest density of polar bear dens in the entire Arctic region. The bears arrive after the summer ice melt in search of food, while up to 500 females remain in snow dens over the winter where they give birth to their young.

Wrangel Island Cruise Russian Arctic Polar Cruises
©K.Ovsyanikova

Because they inhabit a relatively compact area in such great numbers, polar bears have become a top attraction for wildlife photographers and tourists visiting Wrangel on Arctic expedition cruises. On the Zodiac tours, bear families can sometimes be observed at close range on the beaches, scavenging on the whale carcasses that form a large part of their diet.

Wrangel Island Cruise Russian Arctic Polar Cruises
©ATerauds

How to Get to Wrangel Island

Due to its extreme remoteness, Wrangel Island is one of the world’s least visited, most restricted and most well-protected wilderness reserves on earth. Reaching Wrangel and braving its harsh, polar climate is not for the faint of heart.

Access to Wrangel Island Reserve is extremely limited. Tourist cruise ships may only visit when sea ice conditions allow during the brief summer months of July and August. Only a few fortified, expedition ice-breakers are properly equipped and licensed to take passengers to the reserve.

Wrangel cruises depart from the port of Anadyr, the administrative capital of Chukotka. The easternmost town in Russia, Anadyr is accessible via direct flights from Moscow.

An Arctic Cruise: What to Expect

If you’re more excited by the thought of a ‘remote expedition’ than a ‘cruise’ – a pioneering, high seas adventure to some the most pristine wildlife-rich reaches of the planet – then a Wrangel Island Cruise truly represents the voyage of a lifetime.

Kamchatka Commander Kuril Islands expedition cruise
©MKelly

The Wrangel Island Cruise is a 15-day Arctic Expedition, with two departures per year in late July and mid-August. If you’re lucky enough to be granted the opportunity to experience this incredible undertaking, you’ll be sailing aboard the Russian expedition vessel, Kapitan Khlebnikov, one of the world’s only polar-class passenger icebreakers.

After setting sail from the port of Anadyr, the adventure begins by cutting its way through the narrow Bering Strait that separates Russia from the United States. From the Bering Strait, the ship continues north into the heart of the Chukchi Sea, where Wrangel Island is located. After 6 days, the Kapitan Klebnikov arrives at Wrangel Island itself. The usual plan is to spend 5 days exploring the Wrangel Island Reserve (including guided walks on the islands), but here in the remote Arctic, activities are dictated by the weather.

Wrangel Island Cruise Russian Arctic Polar Cruises
©ACharles

On the way back to mainland Russia, the ship will skirt Northern Siberia’s Chukotka coastline, with the possibility of visiting a local indigenous Chukchi village.

Wrangel Island – Things to See and Do

Wrangel Island Polar Bear Watching: observing some magnificent specimens of the largest polar bear population on the planet, undisturbed by hordes of other tourists, is an exhilarating highlight. Sightings are all but guaranteed, it’s just a matter of how many, and how close you can get, safely. Your guide will be tracking polar bear movements whilst you explore Wrangel Island on foot, and there are also plenty of opportunities to see large gatherings of bears on the beaches as you navigate the islands’ coast on the Zodiac tenders.

Wrangel Island Cruise Russian Arctic Polar Cruises
©K.Ovsyanikova

Wildlife and Wildflower Walk on Wrangel Island: Your cruise co-ordinators will try to maximise the time spent exploring magnificent Wrangel Island on foot. In addition to polar bears, you’ll be scouting for musk oxen, reindeer and Arctic fox amid majestic tundra landscapes. The ice melt transforms the steppe into lush, grassy meadows, fed by crystal clear streams and emblazoned with the brilliant colours of summer wildflowers.

Russia Cruise
©ETan

Zodiac Tours, and Walrus Watching: The Kapitan Klebnikov is equipped with a tender fleet of 10 rigged inflatable Zodiac boats for ferrying guests from the ship to dry land. They’re also perfect for exploring the shallow coastal waters around Wrangel, Herald and other wildlife-rich islands in the Bering and Chukchi Seas. As much of Wrangel’s wildlife congregate on beaches, the Zodiacs are often the best way to get close to wildlife for outstanding photo opportunities. In particular, the Zodiacs are perfect for observing Wrangel’s walrus rookeries, which in summer are home to the largest population of Pacific walrus in the world.

Wrangel Island Cruise Russian Arctic Polar Cruises
©J.E.Ross

Whale Watching in the Arctic: As the cruise traverses some of the most nutrient rich waters in the Arctic, you’ll have numerous opportunities for cetacean watching, in the open ocean aboard the Kapitan Klebnikov and in the coastal waters from the Zodiac.

Russia Cruise Kamchatka
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Birdwatching in the Arctic: Guests are graced with dozens of incredible opportunities for birdwatching, both in the reserve itself and as the cruise ship passes various islands and rugged coastal cliffs along the way. Birding highlights include a Zodiac tour of the spectacular seabird nesting sites of Preobrazheniya Bay in the Bering Sea.

Traditional night of dancing and bone carving in the historical village, Uluen, with the Indigenous Chukchi people, encompassing the largest centre for traditional Chukchi and Inuit art in the world – better than your sessions of watching discovery channel.

Another fantastic birding site is Kolyuchin Island. A now derelict Russian Polar Research Station, its only residents now are thousands of puffins, guillemots and gulls, easily photographed up close from their cliffside nesting sites.

Kamchatka Cruise
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Whale Bone Alley is the name given to a beach on Yttygran Island in the Bering Sea. Landing on the beach, you’ll take in the haunting atmosphere of this ancient site, where the strange organic structures of gigantic whalebones appear to sprout straight out of the otherwise desolate ground.

Wrangel Island Cruise Russian Arctic Polar Cruises
©JERoss

Uelen is the most northeasterly village in Russia and supports a small predominantly Chukchi population and is one of the foremost centres for Chukchi and Inuit art. It’s possible to pay a visit to the bone-carving workshops to watch the master craftsmen at work.

If a Wrangel Island Russian Arctic Expedition Cruise sounds to you as one of the most epic Arctic cruise expeditions ever, you definitely aren’t wrong! Exploring this mystical island, you will encounter the most magnificent coming together of wildlife in extraordinary numbers – all gathered in one tiny, far-flung corner of the globe as if they were awaiting your presence.

Kamchatka Cruise
©ATerauds

If a Wrangel Island Russian Arctic Expedition Cruise sounds to you as one of the most epic Arctic cruise expeditions ever, you definitely aren’t wrong! Exploring this mystical island, you will encounter the most magnificent coming together of wildlife in extraordinary numbers – all gathered in one tiny, far-flung corner of the globe as if they were awaiting your presence.

The vast distances and unpredictable weather present their own unique challenges, but for the hardiest of ocean-travel fans, diehard Arctic explorers and wildlife fanatics, cruising to Wrangel Island is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to commune with nature on its own terms.

Extending Your Wrangel Island Cruise – Option of Taking on the ‘Overland Traverse’

Simply circumnavigating Wrangel Island by boat is an unforgettable experience. But for those adventurous souls seeking an even deeper exploration into what lies beyond the Wrangel coastline and over the crests of its hills and mountains, it’s now possible to add an exclusive extension to our upcoming Wrangel Island cruise trips.

The Wrangel Overland Traverse is a 3 day / 2 night overland journey to see and experience to remotest parts of the island. Participants in the Overland Traverse will be granted an extraordinary privilege, as some of the first visitors to set foot upon the wildest reaches of the Wrangel Island Nature Reserve in search of even more incredible wildlife encounters.

Lucky guests on this very special expedition will be joined by local rangers in co-operation with the Wrangel Island Nature Reserve, navigating the open tundra and rugged hill ranges on a six-wheel Russian-built all-terrain buggy. Out on the tundra one may encounter herds of shaggy, lumbering muskoxen, and reindeer grazing on the coastal plains. They share the island with smaller predators like the Arctic fox and wolverine, but Wrangel is undisputedly the land of the polar bear, and for three days, their island kingdom will be your home.  

As well as offering extraordinary wildlife viewing opportunities, other highlights of the three day Overland Traverse will include:

A Visit to Devil’s Creek. Recently discovered remnants of a Paleo-Eskimo camp make this island’s only known archaeological site

Traversing a pass through the Somnitelnie Mountains on a hike to a tributary of the Mammoth River, the island’s longest waterway.

Walks on the tundra slopes will grant possible sightings of snowy owls, lemmings and a wide variety of High Arctic plants and flowers.   

Accommodation on the Overland Traverse will be at the Wrangel Ranger Huts at Somnitelnya, and on night two, at the Peak Tundra Hut, a field hut for scientist studying the Snow Geese who nest nearby.

If you’ve dreamt of being one of the very few humans since the early Arctic explorers to lay eyes on the stark beauty of Wrangel’s interior, numbers on the Overland Traverse are strictly limited to two groups of five person max per expedition – advanced bookings are a must.

We hope you enjoyed this virtual Wrangel Island expedition. Now it’s your move! Come and join us for the real experience.

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About 56th Parallel

56th Parallel is a travel company specialising in providing packaged tours and travel services in Russia.

Our goal is to redefine travel to Russia, focusing on creating the most rewarding experiences, which help travellers unfolds the soul of this exciting destination.


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