Wrangel Island

  • overview
  • geography
  • history
  • fauna & flora
  • further reading


Travel to  Russia’s Wrangel Island with Heritage Expeditions. This Arctic Island is home to an abundance of wildlife, among them the polar bears and arctic foxes. A ‘must-see’ for explorers

At the top of the world near Alaska, 140 km off the northeast coast of Siberia, lie Wrangel Island and tiny Herald Island. Untouched by glaciers during the last Ice Age and looking much as they did in the Pleistocene epoch when woolly mammoths roamed the land, Wrangel Island and Herald Island are today best known for their denning Polar Bears. So if you want to see a wild Polar Bear, this is the destination for you.

The Soviet Central Government created the Wrangel Island Nature Reserve in 1976 to protect the colonies of Snow Geese, Polar Bears and Walrus that flourish here. This reserve is now one of Russia's most treasured wildlife sanctuaries. The small village of Ushakovskoe on Wrangel Island is home to approximately 100 Eastern Siberian Yupik and Chukchi people and serves as a base camp for up to 30 seasonal reserve staff. Only official personnel and invited guests are allowed access to the reserve, protecting the unique and untainted ecosystem. Wrangel Island truly  is the ultimate Arctic wildlife cruise destination.

Experience this destination by expedition cruising with Heritage Expeditions on the following departures:


Geographical Information: 
Wrangel Island lies 140kms off the northeastern coast of Siberia between the east Siberian and Chukchi Seas. Uninhabited and much smaller Herald Island is situated 64 kms north east of Wrangel towards the Bering Strait and Alaska. Wrangel Island straddles the 180 meridian and thus lies in both the western and eastern hemispheres.

Wrangel Island is a large island 150kms long by 126kms wide, a total area of 7,609 sq kms. The much smaller Herald Island totals only 11.3 sq kms.

Maximum Altitude: 
The highest peak on Wrangel Island is Mt Sovetskaya at 1,093 metres. The highest point on Herald Island is just 343 metres.

Herald Island

Herald Island Cave

Physical Features:
The central and southern areas of Wrangel Island consist of two eroded mountain ranges that run east to west across the island. The southern range contains the highest peak Mt Sovetskaya which rises to 1,093m ASL Within the central mountains lie comparatively warm and sheltered valleys. The mountainous areas are flanked by regions of hilly terrain and upland plateau. The northern half of Wrangel Island is much flatter, comprising a low plain dotted with numerous lakes and rivers. Smaller tundra-covered plains lie on the southern side of the mountains. 

Both Wrangel and Herald Islands are surrounded by a strictly protected 12 nautical mile wide marine zone. Beyond that a 24 nautical mile buffer zone provides additional protection.


It is believed that Wrangel Island is the last place on earth where woolly mammoths roamed. Evidence has been found of human occupation as early as 1700 BC, with some stone and ivory tools discovered in 1975. The Chukchi people of Siberia tell of a chief who led his people across the ice to settle the island. Whether this legend is true or not, there is evidence that hunters followed the reindeer herds north on their annual migration.

Wrangel Relics

Wrangel Relics

Cossack records in 1764 note the sighting of the island, which they named Tikegen Land. Eventually the name of the island was changed to honor Baron Ferdinand von Wrangel who tried unsuccessfully to locate the island after reading of this sighting.

A German whaler made the first recorded landing on Wrangel Island in 1866. Subsequently there were visits by whalers and Arctic explorers until in 1881 when a party from the USRC Corwin landed and claimed it for the United States, naming it 'New Columbia'. Ultimately the Tsarist government declared Wrangel Island belonged to the Russian empire in 1916. This proclamation was ratified in 1926 by the Soviet Union.

In the 1930's the appointed governor of the island, Konstantin Semenchuk, ruled by extortion. He forbade the people to hunt walrus, putting them in danger of starvation and was implicated in the mysterious deaths of his rivals. He was finally brought to justice and sentenced to death for 'banditry' and violation of Soviet law.

In 1976 it was decided to declare Wrangel Island, neighbouring Herald Island and the surrounding waters to 5 nautical miles, a state Nature Reserve for the purpose of preserving the unique ecosystem. The nautical limit has since been extended to 24 miles and a captive reindeer farm which was established in an attempt to generate income for island residents has been shut down. A military radar installation at Cape Hawaii on the southeast coast was closed in 1992 and only the settlement of Ushakivskoe remains occupied on the island.

In 2004 the Nature Reserve was added to UNESCO's World Heritage List.



Flora and Vegetation

Spider Plant

Spider Plant, Wrangel Island

Wrangel Island’s unusual history, isolation, climate and geology have preserved relics of the mammoth steppe vegetation complex. The island’s 400 plant species and subspecies represent an enormous floristic richness for such high latitudes grass-lichen, dry grass-lichen, and occasional shrub and forb communities dominate the island’s lower and middle mountain slopes. There are also sedge bogs with Sphagnum Moss, Sedge-cotton grass bogs and thickets of Elfin willows. Relatively large areas in the warm central parts of the island are occupied by subarctic vegetative communities composed of mosses, grasses, low shrubs and tussock tundra. Other natural communities include alpine polar deserts, high arctic mineral bogs and arctic meadows. Of special significance are the 24 species of vascular plants listed in the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna’s (CAFF) Atlas of Rare Endemic Plants of the Arctic.

Birding Highlights
Wrangel and Herald Islands are the last landfall for migratory birds flying north through Beringia in search of breeding grounds. The island avifauna is typical of all Arctic bird communities, in that is there is a higher proportion of shore birds and waterfowl compared to passerines. There are 50 species regularly nesting on the islands with another 110 occasional visitors.

Waterfowl: Snow Geese are the most noteworthy. Numbers fluctuate and at one stage it was feared they would die out, but ‘global warming’ is actually assisting these birds and there are currently 60,000 pairs breeding on the island. Pacific Black Brant Geese nest here but in very low numbers. Common Eider nest solitarily and in colonies well inland while the King Eider which is much more abundant, nests in the lowland marshes. The only freshwater dabbling duck and irregular breeder on Wrangel Island is the Northern Pintail.

Shorebirds: As is typical for the Arctic tundra in general, shorebirds are by far the most common. The most common and widespread of the 36 recorded species are the Black-bellied Plover, Ruddy Turnstone and Red Knot. Dunlin and Pectoral Sandpiper are common but prefer moister wetland habitats whereas the Asiatic Golden Plovers seek out warmer hollows. Red Phalaropes can be found in most of the wetlands on Wrangel Island. Baird’s and Buff-breasted Sandpipers are the Reserve’s rarest shorebirds.

Seabirds: Some of the largest seabird colonies in the Chukchi Sea are situated along the eastern and western coasts of Wrangel and Herald Islands. All colonies are inhabited by a mixture of Black-legged Kittiwakes, Thick-billed Murres, Black Guillemots and Pelagic Cormorants. Species composition and proportion depends on rock structures that form the cliffs where the colonies are located. Horned and Tufted Puffins and Pelagic Cormorants are few in number and at the northern limits of their range. Arctic Terns are common. In addition to the Black-legged Kittiwake, four other species of gull are common – the Glaucous, Ivory, Ross’s and Sabine’s.

Raptors: Occasionally a pair of Gyrfalcons nest near seabird colonies on both Wrangel and Herald Islands. On rare occasions an Arctic Peregrine and Rough-legged Hawk may visit the islands; however the principal bird of prey on Wrangel Island is the Snowy Owl. There are three species of jaegar (skua) on the island. Pomarine and Long-tailed Jaegar are the most common with parasitic nesting in low numbers.
Songbirds: Although 52 species of passerines have been identified on Wrangel Island, only three are considered common Lapland Longspur, Snow Bunting and Hoary Redpoll.

There are only eight species of resident terrestrial mammals found on Wrangel Island. Five of these are endemic and two, the reindeer and Musk Ox, were introduced. An additional 10 species of marine mammals inhabit the islands coastal waters.

Polar Bear and Cub

Polar Bear Mother and Cub

Polar Bear: This is the animal that makes Wrangel Island so famous. Wrangel is sometimes referred to as the ‘Polar Bear Maternity Ward’. On average there are 300 to 350 maternity dens there each year and even higher densities can be found on Herald Island.

Pacific Walrus

Pacific Walrus

Walrus: Wrangel Island is one of the key areas in the world for the Pacific Walrus. Although most adult males stay on their Bering Strait haul outs, the majority of females and young adults reach the vicinity of Wrangel and Herald Islands by the middle of July, where they feed in the shallow coastal waters.

Lemmings: Collared and Siberian Lemmings constitute the only native rodents in the reserve. The Collared is recognised as an endemic species (Vinogradov’s), and is a distant relative of those elsewhere in the arctic. The Siberian is an endemic subspecies. Lemmings are a critically important component of the island’s food chain. Since they constitute the principle food source for Snowy Owls, jaegers and the Arctic Fox, the populations of these predators tend to rise and fall in synchrony with those of lemmings.

Arctic Fox: The Arctic Fox tends to be abundant on Wrangel Island as conditions are particularly favourable. The main reason for this is the abundance of prey species, favourable denning sites and the fact that the reserve is closed to trapping.

Wolverine: It appears that this animal arrived (self introduced) in the late 1970s. They are commonly seen hunting reindeer and feeding on geese.
Wolves and Red Fox have both been known to reach the island across the ice. It appears that wolves may have become established in 2000.

Reindeer: These were introduced to the island as a ‘herding enterprise’ in 1948 and 1952. The current population of reindeer is about 1,500 animals. Population has peaked at over 6,000 animals, more than four times the island’s carrying capacity.

Musk Oxen

Musk Oxen on Wrangel Island

Musk Ox: Were introduced to Wrangel Island in 1975 from Alaska’s Nunivak Island. The animals thrived and now number about 600.


Niven, Jennifer. The Ice Master - the Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk.  Macmillian Books 2000.

Stefansson,Vilhjalmur. 1925. The Adventure of Wrangel Island. Macmillan Company, New York.

Ovsyanikov, Nikita. 1998. Polar bears. Voyageur Press, Stillwater, Minnesota.

Portenko, L. A. 1981. Birds of the Chukchi Peninsula and Wrangel Island. Smithsonian Institution and Natural Science Foundation. Washington D.C. Volumes I & II

Vaughan, Richard. 1992. In Search of Arctic birds. T & A D Poyser, London.

Lister, Adrian, and Paul Bahn. 1994. Mammoths. Macmillan, New York.



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