Sunday, 11 February 2018

De Long Islands, discovered by the Jeanette expedition, at over 75º on the Siberian Artic

This was Ultima Thule for some: for the crew of the USS Jeanette, the failed but heroic Arctic Expedition of 1879-1881.

The Jeanette, a three-masted schooner with a steam engine taking 33 aboard, was to reach the North Pole by a never before attempted route: sailing the Bering Strait northwards and passing the Wrangel Islands (an area well known by whaling ships), then possibly to reach the Pole and proceed further to land somewhere north of Greenland. The enterprise was supported by G Bennett, an eccentric newspaper tycoon.

It all started quite well at San Francisco; the journey was well prepared, the route carefully thought, the ship entirely refurbished and reinforced, every detail meticulously previewed. Still it ended in tragedy - two years later the Jeanette sinked at 78º, on the Siberian Arctic ocean, under the brutal pressure of the thick ice pack.

The Jeanette trapped in the ice pack in Siberian Arctic waters.

The crew started a long retreat through a mixed path of sea water, ice and a few landings, discovering new islands on the way. From the Jeanette, they dragged two cutters and a whaleboat along the icepack until at last they reached open waters, but under a violent sea storm. After a painful journey, two of the three boats managed to land on the Lena River Delta, and part of the crew was finally rescued in vary bad shape at local native Yakut villages; but many couldn't and left their lives buried in the Siberian tundra soil. The story has been told several times, the best reading is probably "In the Kingdom of Ice " by Hampton Sides; maybe some day I will dedicate a post to the De Long /Jeanette polar expedition.

Here, I just wish to report the islands they discovered, as a small hommage to their brave but ill-fated accomplishment.

Now this really is a cold, remote and gloomy place. Ultima indeed.

De Long Islands: Jeanette, Henrietta and Bennett  

Discovered in 1881 by the Jeannette expedition commanded by W. De Long of the US navy, the De-Long are an uninhabited archipelago, part of the New Siberian Islands. Each of the three Islands has its own ice cap and glaciers.

Jeanette Island

Coordinates 76° 43′ N, 158°06′ E
Dimensions: 2 km long, area ~ 3.3 km2.

Jeannette Island (Russian: Остров Жанне́тты, Ostrov Zhannetty) is the easternmost of the De Long Islands in the East Siberian Sea.

The island surface is mainly covered by a central ice cap and firn. The highest point is just 351 m high. The ocean around is frozen most of the year.

The Jeanette crew had sight of the Island and named it as their own ship; but they did not attempt to land, for it was too far and small, and a new bigger island - Henrietta - was soon visible.

The smallest in the archipelago but also the most beautiful.

Henrietta Island

Coordinates: 77° 06′ N, 156° 30′ E
Dimensions:  roughly square, about 6km wide.

A Russian map, showing the abandonned station with a star (acmp.).

Henrietta Island (Russian: Остров Генриетты, Ostrov Genriyetty) is the northernmost island of the archipelago. Almost half of it is covered by a central ice cap that reaches its maximum height at 312 m. Cape Melville (Mys Mel'villya) and Cape Bennett (Mys Bennetta) are the two main features.

"The island is a desolate rock, surmounted by a snow-cap, which feeds several discharging glaciers on its east face". [G. Melville]

"A sled party landed, hoisted the national ensign, and took possession in the name of the United States." The excursion, led by George Melville, built a cairn, and placed inside it a copper case with record of their visit.

Polar bear on Henrietta's ice cap

A Soviet polar station was established on Henrietta Island in 1937, and closed in 1963.

The abandoned Station is still in a rather good condition. Inside some documents are kept for memory.

Visiting Henrietta.

Bennett Island

Coordinates: 76° 44′ N, 149° 30′ E
Dimensions: 29 km long, 14 km wide

Bennett ( Russian: Остров Бе́ннетта , Ostrov Bennetta) is the largest island and it has also the archipelago's highest point at 426 m.

The shores are rocky and high, covered by glaciers descending into the sea.

Cape Emma, named after De Long's wife. With a low pebble beach, that's where De Long party landed.

The men from the Jeanette expedition arrived at this island after their ship sank amidst the icepack, not far from Henrietta. They then walked painfully on ice carrying the three small boats they had taken aboard, which were almost useless at this point, as there was no open water. One of them, with a party led by George Melville, landed on Bennett after a hard fight against the ice pack.

The Melville party from the Jeanette landing on Bennett, pulling the boat to solid ground.

A pebble and gravel beach near Cape Emma.

Bennett Island has the largest permanent ice cover within the De Long Islands. It consists of four separate glaciers perched on high, basaltic plateaus bounded by steep scarp-like slopes.

Two of these glaciers are named as De Long East, De Long West.

Glacier on Bennett

Iced lake on the northeastern side

A peculiar and not totally explained ocurrence on Bennett is the plumes of gas, easily observed from above by satellite. It is not of volcanic origin, the best guess currently is some source of methane emission.


Today the De Long Islands are posession of Russia, which ignored them at the time and only twenty years later set foot on them. The Zhokhov Island, presently integrated in the archipelago, was also discovered later by Russian explorers. Humans had occupied that island in the Mesolithic, around 6000 BC - probably bear hunters. Tools of stone, bone, antler and ivory have been found.

Bennett links (In Russian):