You’ve cruised to the Caribbean, around the Greek Islands, down the Danube River in Europe, and maybe you’ve even made it to Antarctica – what’s left for you in the cruising world?
Why not head north, waaaay north; high above the Arctic Circle lays Wrangel Island. It might just be the last new place on Earth to cruise. Even though it’s remote, it just got a little easier to get there. Heritage Expeditions is sailing a new ship from Nome Alaska to Wrangel starting in their 2022 season!
This unknown island at the top of the earth has been in a tug-of-war between the US, Russia, and other countries throughout history, with it now ultimately part of Russia’s Far East. You might have heard of Wrangel Island due to its tragic expedition history with the famed and failed last voyage of the Karluk, but presently it’s home to some of the most rare and endangered animals, and landscapes in the world.
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A Very Different Kind of Arctic Island
The island boasts the world’s largest population of Pacific walruses and the highest density of polar bear dens. It is a major feeding ground for the grey whale migrating from Mexico and the northernmost nesting ground for 100 migratory bird species, many endangered. Currently, 417 species and subspecies of vascular plants have been identified on the island, double that of any other Arctic tundra territory of comparable size and more than any other Arctic island.
Wrangel Island was named a UNESCO World Wildlife Heritage Site in 2004, this island is a unique jewel in the High Arctic few people get to experience.
Expedition Cruise to Wrangel Island
If you are going to the last place on earth to cruise, then of course don’t expect this to be your typical cruise ship! I was a passenger on Heritage Expedition’s Spirit of Enderby, a Russian Polar Expedition ship based out of New Zealand.
Heritage is known for its trips to introduce you to the remote, unknown places like the Subantarctic islands I went to a few years ago (LINK) and seldom-seen islands and cultures in Melanesia (LINK).
Expedition cruising is more rugged, unplanned, and unpredictable than the typical cruise that you may be used to. Granted, you still do eat like royalty, however, the ship I was on was small and basic. I stayed in a basic cabin with 2 bunks, a desk, and a sink. The ship held 50 passengers and an expedition team.
Heritage Adventurer – A New Ship for 2022
Heritage Expeditions used the Pandemic to make big changes – they acquired a new flagship vessel for their polar expeditions! I loved the Spirit of Enderby, but it certainly wasn’t for everyone. However, the new Heritage Adventurer will provide a mix of expedition-style travel and a touch of elegance.
The Heritage Adventurer is Often referred to as the ‘Grande Dame of Polar Exploration’ due to her celebrated history and refined design. She was purpose-built for adventure in 1991 at Finland’s Rauma shipyard and specifically designed for Polar exploration.
As the new flagship, the Heritage Adventurer will sail with 140 guests and will be going beyond the Arctic and Antarctic circle on all of the Heritage Itineraries.
5 Reasons to Cruise to Wrangel Island
1. Rare Wildlife to View and Photograph
Wrangel Island Polar Bears
The island has been referred to as the Polar Bear maternity ward in the past because it has the largest population of denning polar bears freely making Wrangel Island their home for a few months. Some days we’d take the zodiac out and see more than 10 in one area.
Plus, the crew is excellent at educating you about Polar Bear safety as well as the current challenges the bears face with the disappearing ice. In fact, one of the few areas where the United States and Russia actually work as a team is on polar bear research around Wrangel Island.
The expedition team is made up of PhDs of botany, marine biologists, expert birders, biological scientists, as well as multi-language speakers who grew up in the Chokotka region of Russia we traveled through. You will most definitely walk off the ship smarter and more informed.
Birds and Astonishing Bird Cliffs
This trip to the Russian Arctic is a birders’ dream; Cormorants, Snow Geese, Kittiwakes, Puffins, Snowy Owls, Guillemots, and more. Plus, you’ll see some of the most densely populated bird cliffs in the world.
More Rare Arctic Wildlife
You’ll also see whales, walruses, seals, muskoxen, reindeer, arctic foxes, and lemmings. Plus – Wrangel is the last known ‘home’ of mammoths and you’ll find rare mammoth bones scattered around the island.
2. Remote Russian Culture
Stop at remote villages in the Chukotka region and see how life above the Arctic Circle is accomplished. The villages are a mix of Eskimos, Chukchi, and Russians.
These remote villages are few and far between and the Heritage Adventurer passengers are really the only exposure to tourists they will get all year, so they really know how to put on a show!
My visit to Lavrentiya was full of pomp and circumstance as the locals put on a cultural dance demonstration, and laid out a feast of local food for us to try; whale and walrus meat, tundra berries, donuts, tea, and tundra salad.
My day in Lavrentiya meeting and interacting with the locals was a highlight for me.
3. Setting Foot on the Tundra Landscape
Life happens close to the ground in the Arctic. There is a massive amount of plant life, but you have to look quickly as life on the tundra is very short! The soft, spongy arctic tundra is a fascinating landscape to see – and walk on.
In July/August the tundra flowers are in bloom. Nothing grows on the Artic Tundra over 2 feet, so it appears rather barren, however, it’s a carpet of beautiful, colorful flowers and trees if you look closely at the ground.
During the cruise, we landed whenever the coast was free of polar bears, and were able to do some long tundra walks and hikes making us appreciate this harsh, but beautiful environment even further.
4. Cross the Bering Strait and the Arctic Circle
When I cruised to Wrangel Island our journey started in Anaydr Russia. We chartered a small flight from Nome Alaska to Russia and boarded the ship in Russia.
However starting in 2022, getting to Wrangel Island has become a bit easier. The Heritage Adventurer will start the cruise from Nome Alaska and sail through the Bering Strait. This cuts out a pretty expensive charter flight!
Plus – this means you can also extend your trip to beautiful and quirky Nome, which is one of my favorite remote destinations in Alaska! Nome is a quirky town where you can experience real Alaska life. There are plenty of unusual things to do in Nome if you extend your trip.
5. Go Where Few People Have Gone Before
I know that traveling to remote destinations isn’t for everyone; however, for those who do love it (like me), Wrangel Island is one of the gems of remote travel. The only way to get to Wrangel Island is by an Expedition Cruise and very few permits are given to cruise companies.
When I visited, Heritage Expeditions was the only cruise company going to Wrangel – however, this island gem is getting noticed and now multiple cruise companies are starting to make the voyage. Heritage Expeditions has a long history of sailing in the region since 2013 and hence knows the landings, history, and culture the best.
No one knows what the future holds for travel permits to this region, so go now when you can!
Cruising and COVID
Among the new protocols, from 1 November 2021 Heritage Expeditions requires every guest, crew, and staff member on board its vessels to be vaccinated with a WHO-approved COVID-19 vaccine. Heritage Expeditions continues to monitor all guests prior to boarding and full vessel sanitization between voyages.
“As one of the few cruise companies who have been able to successfully and safely operate in spite of COVID-19, Heritage Expeditions has a proven track record of ensuring the safety of all guests, expedition staff, and crew while onboard. We are taking what we have learned and amplifying it in order to continue to protect everyone who boards our vessels,” explained Aaron Russ, owner and expedition leader.
Other Unusual Russian Far East Cruises
Be sure to check out all of Heritage’s Russia’s Far East itineraries for incredible wildlife in this little-known part of the world. In addition, Heritage runs a Northeast Passage cruise going for 21 days. Only a handful of passenger vessels have ever completed a transit of this waterway, but recent changes in the summer sea ice conditions mean that it is now possible for a brief time each summer.
I understand many people aren’t yet ready to cruise, however, whenever I get a chance to cruise with Heritage Expeditions I will! I know they will take me somewhere off the beaten path and expose me to things I’ve never seen or heard of before.
And that’s why I travel – to learn new things and satiate my curiosity.
Mark your calendars for next summer for the ultimate cruising location. Head north…way north… on an expedition cruise to Wrangel Island.
Wrangel Island FAQs
Where is Wrangel Island located?
Wrangel Island is situated in the Arctic Ocean, between the Chukchi Sea and East Siberian Sea. Covering an area of approximately 7,600 square kilometers (2,900 square miles), it is part of Russia’s Chukotka Autonomous Okrug.
Who discovered Wrangel Island?
Ferdinand von Wrangel, a prominent Russian explorer and naval officer, lent his name to the desolate island he discovered in 1823. Despite spending limited time there himself, his contributions to Arctic exploration earned him recognition as one of Russia’s most influential explorers. Today, his name serves as a reminder of the enduring spirit necessary to face the challenges posed by this unforgiving environment.
Does anyone live on Wrangel Island?
Ada Blackjack, born in 1898, was an Inupiat woman from Alaska. In 1921, she seized the opportunity to join an expedition to Wrangel Island as a seamstress and cook. Little did she know that this decision would radically alter her life. The expedition aimed to claim Wrangel Island for Canada, but it quickly turned disastrous.
As winter set in mercilessly on the uninhabited island, food became scarce and temperatures dropped dangerously low. Tragically, their ambitious endeavor quickly turned sour when they encountered brutal weather conditions and dwindling supplies. One by one, the members fell victim to scurvy or other ailments until only Ada remained alive among them – alone with limited resources and no hope for rescue.
Facing extreme isolation amidst snow-covered landscapes and chilling temperatures, Ada took it upon herself to survive against all odds. Using her resourcefulness inherited from her indigenous background, she hunted seals for food while skillfully sewing fur clothing for warmth. After almost two years stranded on Wrangel Island alone, a miraculous turn of events occurred when a rescue party finally reached Ada’s location in August 1923.
Wrangel Island’s extreme conditions make it inhospitable for permanent human settlement. Its isolation from mainland Siberia means that only brave adventurers or researchers dare venture into its frozen territories temporarily. The island experiences long winters with temperatures falling far below freezing point and has sparse vegetation due to permafrost-covered soil.