At the top of the world in Russia’s Far East, lies Wrangel Island. This relatively unknown 2,900-square-mile island, sits above the Arctic Circle, about 87 miles north of Siberia. This is one of Russia’s coldest and remotest pieces of protected wilderness, yet despite it’s harsh climate it boasts the most diverse ecosystem, in the high Arctic. With its abundance of wildlife, it’s often referred to as the “ Galapagos” of the far north.
It is home to musk ox, reindeer, Arctic foxes, polar bears, wolves, wolverine Pacific walrus and several other species of land mammals including lemmings. It is also home snowy owls, massive populations of sea birds, and more than hundred species of migratory birds, many endangered, that use the island as their northernmost nesting grounds. It is also home to the only colony of nesting snow goose in Asia.
Wrangel Island is the world’s largest ancestral polar bear denning ground, and is often referred to as the Polar Bear Maternity Ward, with an average of between 300-400 coming ashore each winter, to raise their young.
Its waters are also a major feeding ground for migrating grey whales.
Wrangel Island was not glaciated during the last Ice Age, resulting is exceptional high levels of biodiversity and plants species that have survived since the Pleistocene era. Mikhail Stishov, a Moscow-based WWF scientist who lived 18 years on the island, once said: “you’re going back hundreds of thousands of years. It’s a place of ancient biodiversity, but it’s also very fragile.” Wrangel Island has a huge variety of plants (417) species, 23 of which are endemic. This is double that of any other similarly-sized area of Arctic tundra.
Wrangel island is believed to have been the last refuge for Woolly Mammoths on earth. Bone and fossil discoveries suggest that a dwarf subspecies thrived here as recently as 3,700 years ago, more than 6,000 years after mammoth populations became extinct elsewhere. Remains of their curved tusks can be found all over the island. It’s crazy to think that when the pyramids were being built in Egypt, elephants still roamed this island.
Wrangel Island Nature Reserve was created in 1976, by the Soviet Central Government, to protect the colonies of Snow Geese, Polar Bears and Walrus that flourish here, and it is now one of Russia's most treasured wildlife sanctuaries. The only people on the island are the 100 or so Eastern Sibertian Yupik and Chukchi people that live in the small village of Ushakovskoe. The village serves as a base camp for seasonal reserve staff. The only people allowed to access the reserve and the staff and invited guests.
The island gained UNESCO World Nature Heritage Status in 2004. It was the first arctic object in the UNESCO list. It was chosen as an outstanding example of the evolutionary development of the arctic landscape and ecosystem diversity on the earth.
Wrangel Island truly is the ultimate Arctic wildlife cruise destination and there’s no place quite like it on earth.