Wrangel Island, Russia – a wildlife wilderness

For centuries, Wrangel Island, lying 140km off the northeast coast of the Russian Far East, had almost mythical status; a rumoured land, part of Chukchi legend, out there in the frozen Arctic sea, but never reached. It was not claimed by Russia until the early 20th century, and has cost the lives of many unfortunate explorers, stranded here by the ice amongst the polar bears and rolling tundra. Today, the island is an uninhabited and heavily protected reserve, with UNESCO World Nature Heritage Status, the first place in the Arctic to gain that level of protection.
Despite the harshness of the climate here, Wrangel Island is a treasure trove of Arctic biodiversity, a rich relic from the Pleistocene epoch which nurtures over 400 plant species. There are mountains, coastal plains and interesting geological formations, all packed within a compact geographical space (the island is about 7,600km2) and contributing to its unique evolutionary status within the Arctic. Wrangel was also one of the Earth’s last refuges for woolly mammoths, and mammoth tusks can still be found, protruding from the ground.
How to get to
Wrangel Island

How to get to Wrangel Island

Expedition cruises are the only way to visit Wrangel Island, departing from the Russian port of Anadyr on the Chukotka coast. Once through the narrow Bering Strait, cruises travel west along the coastline before crossing the De Long Strait to Wrangel Island.
This is a journey only made possible in recent years by a thawing; both of the politics of the region and of the summer pack ice in the Chukchi Sea. In previous decades, Wrangel could be cut off by sea ice at any point throughout the year, even in the summer.
Small ships, typically carrying only around 50 passengers, make the journey here. Alongside the crew, there are expert expedition team guides, who lead walks and Zodiac cruises, and provide onboard lectures that bring this unique High Arctic landscape to life. Some cruises make use of a six wheel Tundra vehicle to explore the island’s interior.
What to see on Wrangel Island

What to see on Wrangel Island

Wrangel Island’s exceptional, pristine flora and fauna is what anyone who’s travelled the thousands of miles to get here is eager to see. Wrangel is the only land mass in the Chukchi Sea, and almost every animal in the region comes here to breed and feed, either on the island, or in the shallow waters around it.
The wildlife is exceptional and abundant. Wrangel Island has some of the planet’s highest concentrations of polar bear dens, with huge numbers of female polar bears raising cubs here each winter. It also has the biggest population of Pacific walrus in the world and in ice free years, between 80,000 and 100,000 of them gather in coastal rookeries.
Reindeer, musk ox (reintroduced here from Canada in 1975) and Arctic foxes also wander the tundra of Wrangel Island, and a dizzying array of birds come here to breed in summer, including some 200,000 nesting snow geese – the only population of these in Asia – snowy owls, skuas, Arctic terns, puffins and various gulls. Some expedition cruises nip over to Herald Island, 60km to the east, to see its cliffs crowded with seabirds.
You don’t even need to get off the ship to spot some of Wrangel’s biggest visitors. The island lies near major feeding grounds for grey whales that migrate thousands of kilometres north from their breeding areas in Baja, Mexico, and they can sometimes be spotted from the ship or, more thrillingly, from the Zodiac as you head ashore.
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Human history of Wrangel Island

Although Wrangel Island has been uninhabited throughout most of its history, humans have made it here, with mixed success. In Krasin Bay there’s a 3,400 year old Paleo-Eskimo camp, but from the 19th century onwards, controversy over discovery and ownership of the island became the main story.

In the early 1820s, Lieutenant Ferdinand Petrovich tried and failed to find the island on three separate expeditions, making sledge journeys over the sea ice. In 1867, a whaler captain, Thomas Long, was the first European who undisputedly sighted and landed on the island, and in 1911, two Russian icebreakers conducting surveys in the region claimed the island for Russia.

Next comes the famed and fraught voyage of the Karluk. A Canadian Arctic expedition with 25 crew, it set sail in August 1913, became trapped in ice, drifted and was crushed and sunk in January 1914. The crew struggled to survive, first on the ice and later on Wrangel Island, and 11 men died before rescue. You can visit Dragi Harbour where the survivors scrambled ashore and lived until they were rescued.
The island’s undisputed heroine is Ada Blackjack, an Inupiat woman from Nome, Alaska, who lived for two years on Wrangel Island. Her story is one of the most extreme wilderness survival tales ever recorded. In 1921, she had joined a private expedition organised by a Canadian explorer, with four other male crew members. One of them, American Fred Maurer, had already spent eight months on the island in 1914 after the sinking of the Karluk.

A supply ship failed to reach the island because of ice during the summer of 1922 and subsequently all the men died, leaving Ada alone. She was eventually rescued in August 1923, having survived by shooting seals.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Harald Deischinger] [Wrangel Island - cloud: Jully morning] [Wrangel Island Flora: KOvsyanikova- Heritage Expeditions] [Vehicle: Aterauds - Heritage Expeditions] [Auklets everywhere: GBreton -Heritage Expeditions] [Polar bear swimming: ARuss -Heritage Expeditions] [Puffin: Aterauds - Heritage Expeditions] [Cruise - whale watching: Aterauds - Heritage Expeditions] [Karluk's last voyage: Public Doman]