The Russian high arctic archipelago of Franz-Josef-Land is the northernmost outpost of Europe and even Eurasia and - with a land area of together ca. 16000 km² - about one fourth of the size of its western neighbour, the Spitsbergen archipelago. Franz-Josef-Land is split into numerous islands and only just about touched by the last the influences of the Gulf Stream. About 85 % of the surface consists of all-year ice, in most cases ice caps, which terminate abruptly into the sea on most sides all around the islands, while resting usually on mountain plateaus hidden under them. The few ice-free zones mostly are also plateau-like - either coastal lowlands or ice-free parts of higher plateaus, which are separated from the lowlands or the sea by often fairly steep cliffs, often partly hidden under scree slopes.
In many of the - partly very narrow - channels between the islands, drift ice or even a closed ice sheet, can last long into summer, sometimes even all year round.
Officially, Franz-Josef-Land was discovered as late as 1873 by the austrian-hungarian TEGETTHOFF expedition under the leadership of Carl Weyprecht, with Payer as the leader of the land explorations. Also later, the archipelago was often difficult or impossible to reach - from 1929, after the annexation by the Soviet Union, also due a ban on all foreign activities for more than 60 years until 1991. During the Soviet period, some fairly restricted areas of the few stations and military bases were massively damaged by human impacts and pollution, while the vast remaining territory survived practically untouched. Seen in total, Franz-Josef-Land is one of the most pristine high arctic territories until today.
For the European walrus, heavily hunted because of its ivory tusks and thick leather, Franz-Josef-Land was the most important area of retreat, until the species became internationally protected from 1952 onwards, and right to our days is the archipelago one of the best places to watch these heaviest animals coming ashore in the high North. Polar bears are numerous as well around the islands, and the surrounding seas offer good chances for spotting some whales, with some luck even the almost extinct Greenland Whale. Birders will look out especially for some of the high arctic rare species, which are hardly found elsewhere.
The extremely northern position of the islands attracted expeditions of the pioneer age (late 19th - early 20th century), which usually saw Franz-Josef-Land as a useful advanced base for attempts to reach from there the North Pole. Failing with this main objective, they explored instead or in addition the archipelago. The difficult accessibility together with the high arctic climate has preserved the relicts of these polar pioneer expeditions amazingly well - giving us at the same time an idea, how much of these valuable witnesses of the past has been looted and vandalised during hundred years of visits in more accessible places like Spitsbergen, by all kinds of visitors. Protecting these outstanding cultural monuments in Franz-Josef-Land while at the same time experiencing them as one of the biggest attractions of the islands is a challenge for tourism as a whole and for every single visitor.
Except of very few private expeditions with enormous preparation efforts over many years, Franz-Josef-Land is basically blocked for independent travellers: there are no means of public transports and usually, Russia does not issue permissions for visits by foreign vessels.
The only possiblity for a visit are therefore touristic expedition cruises on Russian ice-classed vessels: on 1-4 tours per year, the archipelago is usually briefly touched by the North Pole cruises on Russian nuclear icebreakers, which pay short visits to the islands on the way up and/or down. Furthermore - not every year - there are a few offers of expedition cruises heading specifically for Franz-Josef-Land to spend several days in the archipelago. There was no such cruise in 2007, in 2008 there were 2 successful cruises to the archipelago from and to Spitsbergen, none in 2009. For 2010, 2 cruises are planned, starting and ending in Murmansk and using the dieselelectric icebreaker KAPITAN DRANITSYN - a touristic cruise starting July 26th and a combined research and tourism cruise starting on August 6th - see tour offers Franz-Josef-Land.
Important: Franz-Josef-Land is the northernmost part of the Eurasian arctic. Accordingly, travelling there is extremely dependent on the actual ice conditions, which differ enormously from year to year. Even strong conventional icebreakers can reach their limits here - especially because sailing very slow in heavy ice costs too much of the limited travel time. Therefore, any itineries for Franz-Josef-Land can only be seen as non-binding examples. The actual route will be fixed by expedition leader and captain on short notice from day to day, based on the actual ice and weather conditions.
Specific reasons for travelling to Franz-Josef-Land: