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This remote Russian Archipelago in the Arctic Ocean was first reported as recently as 1873 by an Austro-Hungarian North Pole expedition, they named the islands after the emperor at the time, Franz Josef I. Since then they have been the home to military bases and as a springboard for expeditions to the North Pole and since 1994 they have been protected as nature sanctuary and as of 2012, they are part of the Russian Arctic National Park.
In this high arctic wilderness, the conditions can be extreme with an average temperature of -22°C in the winter and 2°C in the summer. Glaciers dominate the landscape with around 85% of the total area glaciated. Of which if there were to melt it would cause the global sea levels to rise by 6mm. The islands are mostly low lying with rolling, windswept tundra covered by mosses and lichen interspersed with occasional high points, the highest on Wilczek Land rises to 670 metres.
Wildlife viewing is assisted by the 24-hour daylight in the summer and it is important refuge for several species. Compared to the neighbouring Svalbard Archipelago it lacks a species of ungulate but both Arctic foxes and polar bear are present. It is thought to be a maternity home for polar bears where they choose to give birth and raise their cubs. Bowhead whales may break from the depths and surface through the ice floes as you pass and given that this is considered to be the most endangered of all the populations of this whale in the world it is very important place for their continued survival. Other cetaceans in these protected waters are minke whales, humpback whales, beluga whales and less commonly orcas, fin whales and the mythical narwhal with its single tusk which can reach 3m in length. It is also a particularly important region for arctic bird species of which 41 species have been recorded and 14, constituting 5 million individuals, are thought to breed here. Sites such as Rubini Rock in the southwestern part of Franz Josef Land rises as tall as a 55-storey building providing breeding sites for thousands of birds.
Access to Franz Josef Land, 800 nautical miles inside the Arctic Circle is limited for much of year by the pack ice which forms on the surrounding sea. Therefore it is only possible to reach the islands by icebreaker ship during a short season July-August.
Tourism to the islands is severely limited and it is only possible to reach the area in the summer by icebreaker. We offer one 14-day cruise, The Franz Josef Land Expedition with a handful of sailings every summer. This luxury cruise not only explores this archipelago but as it departs and returns to Longyearbyen in Svalbard you also have a chance to experience another fantastic Arctic environment.
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