On August 3, 2011, our travelers aboard the National Geographic Explorer took part in making history. Their landing at Franz Josef Land in the Russian Arctic was the first time a non-Russian expedition vessel has called at this remote island archipelago since 1928.
Since its first official discovery in 1873, Franz Josef Land has beckoned adventures from around the world. They forged through pack ice and formidable polar seas in order to explore this raw wilderness and launch expeditions to the North Pole. Many of them landed at Cape Flora on Northbrook Island, as the Explorer did last week. In the early 1930s, Russia closed off the territory and, other than a brief German occupation during World War II, the entire archipelago was shrouded in obscurity until 1990, when access began to open up again.
Amazingly, despite its remote location, this pristine Arctic refuge is steeped in fascinating history. Here, National Geographic’s connections run deep, as we discovered while sailing among the islands explored by Walter Wellman, whose 1898-99 expedition was sponsored by the National Geographic Society. Although Wellman didn’t complete his coveted expedition to the North Pole, he did discover one of the largest islands in the group and named it after then-president of the Society, Alexander Graham Bell.
At Cape Norway, where we ventured ashore, the flowers and mosses were surprisingly lush, and seabirds serenaded us as we tried to imagine what life must have been like for the earliest visitors. The wildlife was extraordinary: we spotted eight bowhead whales on a single day; a polar bear hovering over a kill; and the ever-present ivory gull was never far from the ice. From penetrating heavy drift ice to exploring windswept beaches populated only by walruses, this was an expedition of the truest kind—and for many of our travelers, a thrilling journey into the unknown.