Northbrook Island (О. Нортбрука, O. Nortbruk), Cape Flora - Franz Josef Land

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Öffnet einen internen Link im aktuellen Fenster  Overview Franz Josef Land

General, scenery:

Northbrook Island (288 km², roughly triangular shape, longest extension about 33 km, highest point 344m) counts among the smaller and southerly islands of the Franz-Joseph-Land archipelago. Only at the outermost tips in the southwest (Cape Flora - м. Флора, Cape Gertrude - м. Гертруды), southeast (Cape Barents - М. Баренца) and north (Camp Point - м.Лагерный (M. Lagernyj)), there are some smaller coastal icefree zones, plus some rock edges emerging through the ice near the coasts. The inland is completely hidden under several ice caps.
Two small rocky skerries Robertson Island (о. Робертсона) and Nowyj Island (о. Новый) are situated just off the east coast of Northbrook Island.

The sea south of Northbrook Island is very little ice-covered, even in winter, due to a so-called Polinya. This relatively good accessibility made especially the non-glaciated Cape Flora a natural choice for the early pioneers to set up their base here.

The northern tip of Northbrook Island: Camp Point, from northwest.
Camp Point (right) and flat Cape Kap Uskij (left, background), from north.
Situated just off the east coast: low Robertson Island (right) and Nowyj Island (left)l.
Sharply cut rock plateau sticking out of the ice cap on eastern Northbrook Island, low Robertson Island to the right.
Cape Barents, southeasternmost tip of Northbrook Island, seen from north.
Kap Barents in the southeast, from a similar perspective as in 1879 for the dutch expedition of de Bruyne on the WILLEM BARENTZ as probably the first people seeing it.
Cape Gertrude at the south coast - view from Cape Flora across Foka Bay.

Ice on Northbrook is retreating, actually especially on the east side, but this becomes especially apparent on the west side when studying the area east of Cape Flora on older maps, where the former connection between the part with Cape Flora on it and the major part of the island seemingly consisted of glacier ice, only, which has given way since at least 2007 to a shallow passage connecting Gunther Bay and Foka Bay, while separating the Cape Flora part from the remaining Northbrook at least at high tide. So Cape Flora is actually no longer part of Northbrook Island, but of a newly separated island.
In Russia, this has been published already by the mid-1980s. Lacking access to these documents, the discovery of this new passage has been wrongly claimed by others especially from other countries also later - and thereby a right to give a new name to the new island with Cape Flora on it. Currently, there is still a discussion, whether and if yes: which name this new island should get. Until this is solved, the newly separated island will be dealt here with under Northbrook Island.

The pictures to the right show the mostly ice-free areas of Northbrook Island - except of Cape Flora, which is dealt with separately further down due its special significance regarding wildlife and vegetation and also history.

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A shallow sound, given free by the retreating land ice, has separated the main island of Northbrook from the part with Cape Flora on it, to the left in the picture.
Cape Flora from South - below the scree slopes of the birdcliffs the flat lowland with unusually productive tundra and the historic relics.
Cape Flora - the sea is undermining the steep cliff edge.
The increasing melting of the permafrost in the ground leads to cavities in the ground and allows a subsurface drainage of water...
... which resurfaces again in the steep coastline, washing out also material, thus gradually destabilising the terrain.
The characteristic pond of Cape Flora is likely drying out further soon, because of the expected underground drainage.
Cape Flora Island from west (with the cape cut at the westernmost edge of the picture).
Cape Flora (the lowland at the very left) with the mountains above, seen from neighbouring Cape Gertrude.

Kap Flora (м. Флора):
Scenerywise, the most impressive part of Northbrook is certainly Cape Flora with the colourful rock faces of the plateau mountain rising about 200 m from the low plateau of the cape. The masses of birds breeding up there in the rock faces, fertilize the lowland and slopes underneath. This explains together with the southward orientation the unusually vigorous flora of the place, which even provoked its name. The cape lowland itself partly consists of frozen moraine deposits from the ice ages, first flooded by the sea after the ice age, and then rising from the waters as a small peninsula under the mountain slope. Some big rocks scattered over the plain, partly rolled down from the mountain and partly were dropped here by the iceage glaciers.On this lowland, there are also the historic relics. Its coastline is steep due to sea and ice pressure erosion and the narrow beach consists mainly of boulders and stones washed out of the coast cliff behind. This rough beachline, open to the sea from east to southwest, can make landings by boat sometimes difficult to impossible. 

Apart from sea erosion, also thermokarst contributes to the loss of land at Cape Flora: Due to retreating permafrost, ice in the ground disappears gradually in the upper layer, causing cavities which collapse or allow a subsurface drainage of water from the surface. It is expected that this will make the characteristic pond on the Cape Flora flatland dry out in a not so distant future.





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Such varied tundra vegetation in such an extension is found in high arctic Franz Josef Land only at Cape Flora.
Scurvy plant (cochlearia officinalis) and colourful mosses find excellent conditions at Cape Flora, thanks to good supply with water, nutrients and warmth.

Flora (plants):

The name is certainly fitting: Cape Flora is probably the site with the largest area of vigorous tundra vegetation - thanks to both the fertilisation from the large birdcliffs above and the southern orientation with earlier snowmelt. Also the relatively little sea ice with accordingly less reflection of energy contributes to these favourable conditions. Accordingly, the site boasts with a rich variety of plant species, both grasses and flowers, as well as lichens and mosses.
The slopes above the lowland of the cape are partly covered by a thick layer of mosses and lichens, which are extremely sensitive to steps - these zones should not be walked on. Equally endangered by visitors are the steep slopes and gullies of loose material at the edge of the lowland down to the shore, where walking causes erosion and thereby destruction of vegetation - and the plants flowering there can also be found in less vulnerable flatter terrain nearby.
Also under Cape Gertrude, there is a more limited tundra vegetation on the lowland. The other ice-free smaller zones of Northbrook Island carry usually a much sparser vegetation, where mosses and lichens dominate.


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An adult Brünnich´s guillemot (usually the male) accompanies its young, still unable to fly, after its jump from the cliff across the tundra at Cape Flora to the sea.
Young and adult have reached the relative safety of the sea where the young can find food themselves and will be able to fly some weeks later.

Fauna (animals):

Opens internal link in current windowWildlife Franz Josef Land in general

Birds: Above Cape Flora, there is one of the major bird cliffs of Franz Josef Land, with mainly Brünnich´s guillemots (uria lomvi, thick-billed murre) and kittiwakes (rissa tridactyla). In addition, also black guillemots (cepphus grylle), glaucous gulls, geese, purple sandpipers, common eiders, skuas and snowbuntings are found as typical breeders. Around middle of August, the young guillemots jump from their cliff and rush to relative safety in the sea, animated by the male adults. If on the site then, groups should be guided in such a way (spreading least possible, etc.), that they do not stress the birds on their way to the sea. In sites other than Cape Flora, birdlife on Northbrook Island is considerably less, though there are a few other smaller bird cliffs.
Arctic fox: Kap Flora is one of the location with a somewhat better chance to spot one of the few arctic foxes living in Franz Josef Land, as the many birds provide a good source of food, while the scree slopes offer possibilities for dens.
Walrus: Walrusses can be met almost always in the water around Northbrook Island, also near Cape Flora, also resting on eventual driftice, or in groups on some flatter beaches. Attention: walrusses in Franz Josef Land are much shyer than in neighbouring Spitsbergen, because in Franz Josef Land, the groups include many females with young and therefore, the groups panick much quicker, stampeding into the sea, with the risk of young being overrun and killed - see also general advice regarding walrusses further down under tourism.
Polar bear: Even with no drift ice and seals around, polar bears are no unusual sight at Cape Flora and other places around Northbrook Island. Hungry polar bears may look out for an unprotected walrus young or feed on the vegetation at Cape Flora and rest in this relatively warm and sheltered location. Because of the many big rocks, they can be difficult to spot, requiring a careful inspection of the site prior to a landing with groups to avoid sudden confrontations.
Whales: chances are good for whale spotting in the sea south of Northbrook Island, for instance humpbacks, occasionally even Greenland whales, as there are some upwellings in that area, which cause good supply with plankton food.


1879 - the participants of the expedition of the dutch WILLEM BARENTZ under de Bruyne were the first who definitely saw Northbrook Island - but though being close, dense driftice prevented a landing. Still, the voyage proved that Franz Josef Land could be reached in a more normal way than the involuntary and eratic drift of the TEGETTHOFF 5 years before.

History and names:

See also:
Opens internal link in current windowSummarized history Franz Josef Land
Opens internal link in current windowTimeline year by year Franz Josef Land

This passage deals with the history of Northbrook Island in general. For Cape Flora, see special section on its history further down.

Due to its location at the southern rim of the archipelago and less ice problems than in other parts of Franz Josef Land, Cape Flora became a frequently used base for expeditions in the pioneer age of late 19th to early 20th century.
It can be assumed, that parts of the southeast coast of Northbrook could be seen already by the TEGETTHOFF expedition, though probably only vaguely, as part of the distant general coastline of the archipelago far to the west. At least, Northbrook is visible in the far distance from the position where the TEGETTHOFF was trapped in the ice off Öffnet einen internen Link im aktuellen FensterWilczek Island from late 1873 to May 1874. In any case, they could not identify it as a separate island, nor did they name any of its places.
The Dutch 1879 expedition on the WILLEM BARENTS, led by de Bruyne, saw at least the east of Northbrook Island from a distance, but did not approach the archipelago further, in view of dense drift ice. The name of its easternmost cape (some rocks pointing out of the ice), Cape Barents, dates back to this expedition.
The island as a whole was named in 1880 by Benjamin Leigh-Smith to honour the Earl of Northbrook, then president of the Royal Geographic Society. On his map, also the names Cape Flora (double reason: cousin Flora Smith of Leigh Smith, and the abundant vegetation) and Gunther Bay (Albrecht Günther, 1830-1914, german zoologist at the Natural History Museum in London) are found already.
Jackson, who had his base on Cape Flora from 1894-97, added Cape Gertrude to the map, and also Camp Point as the name for the northernmost loa and ice-free tip to the map, where he set up tent briefly during his sledge tour in spring 1895.

By far most of the historic activities on Northbrook Island are connected to Cape Flora in the southwest, which is (together with Teplitz Bay on Öffnet einen internen Link im aktuellen FensterRudolf Island) one of the most important places for the pioneer history of the whole archipelago - and is dealt therefore further down on this page under Cape Flora, and also under tourism.

By late 19th centrury, beaches of Northbrook Island were maybe the most important haulout for walrusses of the whole archipelago, numbering in thousands. This, together with its easy accessibility, made the island a prime hunting ground for ships from various countries, especially norwegian and british, Accordingly, the walrus population was decimated dramatically. In 1898, the british BALAENA alone succeeded in collecting about 600 walrusses - with the majority of killed animals sinking before they could be secured. Witnesses estimated therefore a total kill of more than 2000 walrusses by this ship alone for 1898 on Northbrook Island, and this does not include youngs starving or being killed by polar bears without their mothers. Though walrusses are met around Northbrook Island again today, The BALAENA was not the only hunting vessel operating in Franz Josef Land, nor was 1898 the only hunting season. The population has not recovered from that slaughter right until today - though at the same time, due to less ice today, walrusses have a wider choice of haulout locations.

During the soviet period, Northbrook Island had no special historic events.
Since 1990, the island has become one of the more frequently visited touristic sites in Franz Josef Land, with a clear focus on Cape Flora, occasionally also Gunther Bay (see tourism, further down).

In August 1912, the national park administration set up a small research base, consisting of 3 20ft accomodation containers, about 2 km northeast of Cape Flora, to be used for seasonal projects.

1881 (contemporary drawing): The EIRA of Leigh Smith being crushed by ice off Cape Flora.
Winter 1881/82: shooting an intrusive polar bear on the improvised wintering shelter "EIRA Cottage".
Collage: Ruin of Leigh Smith`s improvised wintering cabin, remains in 1894, same site (see marked stones) in 2011 - the cabin site has been lost totally to coastal erosion.
1894: The dragway, via Jackson´s crew pulled all building materials from the shore up onto the cape plain for the construction and running of the wintering bae on Cape Flora.
Collage: The pond today (with lower water level) and at Jackson´s time (1894-97) with the then many station buildings.
Only some faint traces on the ground are left of Jackson´s strong main cabin right next to the huge boulder, with a few rusty metal objects, bones, porcelain and broken glass.
Only of one of the bigger cabins, the ground platform ist partly still there.
In the area of the light octogonal cabins (stables, forage) onlz one foundation is still clearly visible.
This small cabin (probably originally a shelter for instruments) of Jackson had been moved by the Fiala-Ziegler expedition to higher grounds in 1904. It collapsed only in winter 2010/11. The russian cross is one of the many modern monuments.
The stone obelisk was set up in 1901 by the norwegian Støkken search expedition, looking for the 3 missing members of the 1899-1900 STELLA POLARE expedition, which could not enter the archipelago much further due to heavy ice.
The russian icebreaker YERMAK of Admiral Makarov, which set up a bamboo cabin on Cape Flora - bamboo pieces can still be found there.
In 2012, the national park administration installed 3 accomodation 20ft containers 2 km northeast of Cape Flora on the west side of the ST. FOKA Bay as a base for summer research projects.

History Cape Flora:
Situated at the southern edge of the archipelago and blessed with less sea ice problems, Cape Flora was a natural choice as a base for a number of pioneer expeditions to Franz Josef Land.
The first known visitors to the cape were the private expeditions by Benjamin Leigh Smith with his custom-rebuilt expedition vessel EIRA, who in 1880 explored and mapped much of the southwest coasts of the archipelago including Northbrook. He planned to winter on his 1881/82 expedition, intending to winter on Öffnet einen internen Link im aktuellen FensterBell Island in Camp EIRA, set up by his team upon arrival in Franz-Josef-Land in 1881. However, the EIRA was crushed by ice off Cape Flora shortly after, forcing the expedition to winter there, instead, in an improvised shelter ("Eira Cottage") made of locally collected stones and materials rescued from the sinking ship. The expedition was picked up in summer 1882 by a search expedition. In 1996, Susan Barr et al. could still find the last stone wall parts of this dwelling right on the erosion cliff. Since then, sea erosion has washed away the last remains completely. During a landing by the AKADEMIK SHOKALSKIY in August 2011, expedition leader Andreas Umbreit reidentified the exact former position of Eira Cottage by finding the same stone blocks in the terrain and on an old photo of the cabin by Jackson. As the EIRA seemingly sank very close to this cabin position in the there shallow water, her remains are most likely smashed and spread by icebergs plowing the area every winter over more than hundred years, since.
The most important wintering pioneer expedition based on Cape Flora was the 1894-97 Jackson-Harmsworth expedition, which during its 3 years mapped and explored from here most of the western part of the archipelago, but became publicly more known for a side event: in spring 1896, it saved coincidentally Nansen and Johansen, who otherwise most likely would have perished on their retreat from their attempt to reach the North Pole from the FRAM in 1895. Ironically, Nansen had refused Jackson before as a member of the FRAM expedition for nationalistic reasons and, returning to civilisation by Jackson´s support vessel in 1896 (one year before Jackson), Nansen then took the liberty of publishing much of Jackson´s cartography work in his (Nansen´s) expedition reports before Jackson had the chance to do this himself. The famous meeting of Jackson (actually first by one of his other men) with Nansen happened on the sea ice off Cape Flora on June 17th 1896, after Nansen and Johansen had wintered on Öffnet einen internen Link im aktuellen FensterJackson Island during the previous polar night. The impressive work of Jackson´s well-organised expedition is hardly acknowledged anymore today - even his buildings on Cape Flora are claimed to be Nansen´s on some websites, which is obviously absurd in view of the modest capacity of the sledges Nansen and Johansen dragged behind them. Of the little historic remains left on Cape Flora today, most dates back to Jackson.
Further early expeditions using Cape Flora at least briefly, were Wellman (1898), the 1899/1900 STELLA POLARE expedition of the Duke of Abruzzi, the Støkken search expedition (setting up an obelisk memorial stone at Cape Flora for the disappeared participant Støkken of the STELLA POLARE expedition), the russian icebreaker Yermak with Admiral Makarov (setting up a small bamboo cabin) and the Baldwin-Ziegler expedition all in 1901 and Fiala-Ziegler (1903-05, doing even some coal mining in a thin seam coincidentallz found above Cape Flora)
Another dramatic story connected with Cape Flora is the rescue of the last two survivors Valerian Ivanovich Albanov and Alexander Konrad of the 1912-14 Russian polar expedition of the ST. ANNA, who were found on Cape Flora in summer 1914 by the Russian ST. FOKA of Sedov. Sedov had perished by then in his ill-fated attempt to head for the North Pole, but the ST. FOKA visited Cape Tegetthoff not only in 1913, but also in summer 1914. Further visitors were the Russian HERTHA expedition (1914) and the HOBBY in 1929.
Compared to the multitude of expeditions having based here, relatively little of their presence is still visible. Much was reused by later expeditions either by relocating materials (Wellman to Öffnet einen internen Link im aktuellen FensterCape Tegetthoff) or by using them as firewood, especially the Sedov expedition needing fuel for its steam engine, which in 1914 otherwise would have failed to return home due to lack of bunker coal. Remnants close to the cliffs of Cape Flora certainly have become victims of the land erosion there by sea and winter ice. On the cape, there are still a number of foundations and the last partly intact small cabin (originally erected by the Jackson expedition and then relocated by the Fiala-Ziegler expedition in 1904) stood until 2010, plus a variety of materials scattered on the ground. A number of items has been taken away also by visitors, also since the opening after 1990, including a big kitchen oven, which probably disappeared to an unknown collection in Russia.
The last still standing small cabin, originally set up by the Jackson-Harmsworth expedition in 1894 and moved by the Fiala-Ziegler expedition a bit up in the slope, collapsed in winter 2010/11.
Unfortunately, also Cape Flora has not been spared the dubious trend of setting up more and more modern monuments and plates for all kinds of historic events on the site and at the same time usually for those who set up the sign: a kind of disguised grafitti. This addition of modern artefacts reduces the authentic atmosphere of the site, while being of little help for visitors, as their majority is familiar with the outlines of the local history, already. One central information board would certainly be enough.

Deep and big imprints in the soft tundra (video camera as scale next to the closest damage) by helicopter landings reduce the quality of the site and should be easy to avoid - by chosing more solid ground a bit further away, if helicopter landings are done so close to a bird cliff, at all.

Tourism (Cape Flora, Gunther Bay): 

See also: Opens internal link in current windowTravel possibilities

Cape Flora
surely ranks among the most important tourism destinations in Franz-Josef-Land. However, landings are often problematic, maybe even not advisable - in summer not so much because of hindering ice, but rather heavy swell on the little sheltered, rocky beaches, while helicopter landings are often unfavourable due to many birds, from early June into August. In June 2011, the helicopter of the 50 LET POBEDY collided with birds while approaching the cape, but was lucky twice: the landing of this flight on the cape could be completed without casualties and the two dozen passengers of the helicopter could be evacuated from the cape by zodiacs, as there was luckily neither much swell nor drift ice - returning the passengers with the damaged helicopter to the ship was deemed too unsafe.
A further hindrance can be a coincidental polar bear having chosen the locality for a rest, which may cause a cancellation of a landing due to conservation and safety considerations. 
Of the various constructions of the pioneer days on Cape Flora, mostly only some foundations and minor construction parts are still visible, spread also some further materials and a number of memorial signs. Just one minor cabin was still partly standing (set up by Jackson, relocated by Fiala-Ziegler expedition in 1904) until it collapsed somewhen between summers 2010 and 2011. Another attraction is the local tundra flora, which is unusually vigorous and varied here - for Franz-Josef-Land standards.
Showing consideration is a keyword here, both trying to avoid damages to the few and fragile remains of the past, but also to the flora. Though adapted to harsh arctic conditions, it is not at all equally adapted to the impacts of bigger visitor groups. Especially sensitive are the plants in slopes against increased erosion and being trampled down. The mosses on the scree slopes rising above the lowland with the historic ruins are particularly vulnerable: The stones underneath are fairly instable, but covered by a partly thick plant layer, which then is easily trampled down with the stones underneath getting out of position. Climbing these slopes needs therefore extra careful steps and good balance, which is not the case with a number of cruise participants - or maybe one should even decide to abstain from such a climb completely.
Another negative impact is the increasing number of deep imprints in the tundra from helicopter landings.

Visits to Cape Flora should observe the following points:

  • Very careful stepping in the cultural heritage area: hardly visible fragile-rusty objects in the ground are ruined with one step - a particular risk not least with ardent photographers, moving even backwards with the camera in front of the face.
  • Scaling both the scree slope with its fragile moss vegetation above the cape and the gullies down to the shore with their crumbling soil is highly damaging to the vegetation and should be minimized. An idea might be a defined narrow track up to a view point, defined by the national park administration, to limit erosion to a small area.
  • Helicopter landings should be avoided at least on the soft tundra and in the area of the heritage site. A suggestion to the national park administration is to define an acceptable landing site. Another issue is the general desirability of helicopter landings so close to a major bird cliff both under conservation and safety aspects.
Due to shallow waters: long distances to be covered in zodiac boats.
Gunther Bay - east side in the background view through the passage onto Cape Gertrude at the southern coast of Northbrook Island.
In case of encountering walrusses: both panic among the animals and passenger safety have to be considered.
West side of Gunther Bay. Appearing fog can quickly become a problem, when long distances in difficult shallow waters have to be covered.

Gunther Bay:
Besides Cape Flora, also the very shallow sound between Foka Bay in the southeast and Gunther Bay in the northwest, which was set free by the retreating glaciers during the last decades, is visited by zodiacs, mainly for possibly observing walrusses.
While Cape Flora is the big exception with its intensive green and mostly icefree land, Gunther Bay can be called rather typical for Franz Josef Land: the glaciers reach right to the sea almost everywhere (with low ice fronts), in some places with narrow beaches or sandy hooks sticking out under the ice, and some sand banks in the very shallow water. Possibilities for landings are very limited.
Please observe:

  • Both the sound and Gunther Bay are extremely shallow - accordingly long are the distances between the ship, which has to anchor far outside, and the sound area. Great care is needed under navigation to avoid ground contact, also at good distance from land. Trying to navigate through the whole sound between Foka Bay and Gunther Bay cannot be recommended, as this can result in various unpleasant combinations of groundings, currents, walrusses and polar bears.
  • In view of long distances at partly slow speed on shallow water, stable and calm weather conditions (wind, swell, visibility) are important.
  • For eventual walrus observation, the usual safety rules apply (no standing in the boats, silence, etc.) for passengers.
  • Walrusses in this area are mostly females, often with youngs, and accordingly much easier to disturb, than the walrus groups in Spitsbergen, which consist mostly of bulls. Especially when resting on land, where the animals are not very agile, disturbance can quickly result in panic and a flight stampede into the water, during which youngs can easily be overrun and killed. Accordingly, everything has to be done to avoid such an incident: taking good time for a very slow approach with the boats closely together (to avoid the impression of being encircled), visible already from a long distance (to avoid surprise stress and to give the animals good chance to get accustomed to the new element in their environment) and stopping and retreating as soon as unrest rises among the animals. In the very shallow water, where the driver also must have an eye both on the resting walrusses on shore and other animals possibly approaching in or under water also from other directions, this is no easy task for the driver. In any case, a panic stampede of the walrusses, with possibly even some young killed, is inacceptable from an environmentalist point of view.
  • Close encounters: If an approach is conducted in such a careful way, some walrusses may even approach, being curious - in extreme cases even bumping into the boat and examining it. Keep in mind that also a friendly, inquisitive walrus is strong enough to seriously puncture a boat with its tusks or give it an unexpected push, which can send some exciting standing photographers right into the icy water between the huge animals - both potentially dangerous situations. For faster reaction, the engine should never be stopped, the boat should be preferrably in slow movement, a paddle should be at hand for the driver or guide to fend off a too inquisitive animal and participants should always stay securely seated.


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Last Modification: 24.06.2013