Headed for Franz Josef Land


5 August 2013

Leaving the Russian Yenisei River, Tara set sail for the archipelago of Franz Joseph, the Arctic islands located only 900 kilometers from the North Pole. Full sail on a glassy sea free of ice, the  schooner is heading towards the “jewel of the Arctic.” On Wednesday, land – or rather glaciers – should appear on the horizon and we will approach the group of islands some people call “Mini-Antarctica.”

“The archipelago of Franz Josef  is the jewel of the Arctic.” This is how Christian de Marliave, French polar explorer, described the place to Vincent Le Pennec, first mate, before the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition began. 191 islands, mostly covered by glaciers. A large, difficult-to-access region  where wildlife still abounds.  

We hope to meet polar bears, arctic foxes, walruses, Greenland seals (the bearded and harp species), and of course a multitude of birds – more than 40 species inhabit this region. If fauna and flora still flourish here, it’s probably because the Soviet Union appropriated this territory in the 1930s, and denied access to all other countries.

Over the years, 3 weather stations and 2 military bases were established.  In the 1980s, more than 50 people wintered on these islands. In summer, Russian scientists and explorers flocked here. It was still the golden age for research. For Sergey Pisarev, scientist aboard Tara, the Franz Josef archipelago served as home base during his Arctic drifts. For 10 years, Sergey – researcher in physical oceanography – criss-crossed the region on a snowmobile, including the Cambridge Passage where Tara will soon sail, located between Alexandra Land and Prince George Land.

Sergey also remembers having flown over a field littered with amazing stones. “From the helicopter, I saw stones shaped like balls, but they were partially covered with snow. A few years later, I saw a photo of Victor Boyarsky.* He was standing next to one of these stone balls that had a very regular shape. It must have been at least 3 meters high.” The origin of these natural stones still puzzles geologists today – a mystery that stirs up our curiosity and desire to discover the archipelago!  

The real discovery of this polar territory was in 1873, by the Austro-Hungarian expedition Tegetthoff, led by Julius Payer and Carl Weyprecht. In the following years, the archipelago became a vast domain for summer hunting. It was also a place of exploration and haven for many adventurers. Nansen, the famous Norwegian scientist who led an Arctic drift aboard the Fram, wintered in Franz Josef after his failed attempt to conquer the North Pole.

Today the island is still a place of passage for those wishing to venture to the North Pole. Two or three nuclear icebreakers bring over 300 visitors each year. But far from adventurers, these are privileged tourists willing to spend more than 25,000 dollars for 10 days in the Arctic, stopping over on the archipelago before being taken by helicopter to the Pole. Parallel to this development of limited tourism in the archipelago, the Russians created a natural park in 1994 – 42,000 km2 encompassing the islands and surrounding waters.

Now it only remains to erase all traces of past military activities, and educate new adventurers concerning the fragility of the polar ecosystem. The jewel of the Arctic must never stop shining, and we will do our part to assure this.


Anna Deniaud Garcia  

* Victor Boyarsky: Director, Museum of the Arctic in St. Petersburg, and traveling companion of Jean-Louis Etienne during his Antarctica expedition.  

Bibliography: Franz Josef Land by Susan Barr, Le grand défi des pôles (in French) by Bertrand Imbert and Claude Lorius, Practical Dictionary of Siberia and the North.