As most of you have read, a bear was shot last weekend by two guides on Phippsøya, Spitsbergen. Even though details of the encounter are scarce yet, it looks like the guides had gone ashore to scout for bears to bring passengers ashore later. One of the guides was attacked by a bear, which in turn was shot by two other guides. The attacked guide was transported to a hospital in Tromsø and appears to be doing fine. For more details (and I’m sure eventually the full report) see the website of the Sysselmannen.
This incident was picked up by many media outlets all over the world and has created quite an uproar on social media. ‘Why were these people there in the first place?” and “That’s what you get when you invade the bear’s territory, he was just defending himself” are things you read regularly (often in much stronger words). Like I said, the incident is still under investigation so I can’t comment on what happened there. But I can give a bit of an insight in tourism vs Polar Bear safety on Spitsbergen as I do more or less the same work as these guides do.
First of all, when we know a bear is ashore, we are not allowed to go ashore at all. We love to see Polar Bears, also up close, but safety goes first. The up-close Polar Bear photo’s shown you see on the internet made on Spitsbergen (like the ones in this article) are all taken from the safety of a ship. That way we don’t disturb the bear, and it’s all up to the bear what he wants. We are not allowed to chase, lure or pursue a bear, so the final approach will always be made by the bear itself and he is the one to decide when the encounter is over (or we choose to leave after a while). So the remarks that the objective of this landing was to find a bear, so the tourists could visit it are most likely not valid at all (if that was the case, they were doing something highly illegal and will be fined heavily by the Sysselmannen after the investigation).
The standard procedure is to first scout the landing site and its surroundings from the bridge of the ship. If any bear is seen during that scout and the landing will be cancelled, and an alternative plan will be made (maybe we can have a look from the zodiacs, or go to a different landing site). Next, we will put most of the guides ashore, who will go out and check a larger area, also behind ridges, rocks and around corners. The terrain on Spitsbergen is often very unclear, with many things a bear could hide behind that we can’t see from the ship. As far as I understand, the guides from the Bremen were surprised during this scouting on Phippsøya.
Only when we’re confident there are no bears anywhere near us, we will bring the passengers ashore. During the landing, we will always keep on scanning the terrain, as a bear might still be hidden behind a ridge or just walk or swim in our direction.
When we do see a bear, our first option is to avoid a confrontation. Most bears we encounter on shore, are picked up at a distance, so we can safely retreat to our landing site and return to the ship, without bothering the bear at all. This, of course, is our by far preferred option.
When a bear is too close and a possibly dangerous situation could appear, we might decide to scare away a bear. In this case, we might ask our passengers to start making loud noises or shoot one of the flares we always carry for this purpose. This already is something rare. In the many thousands of landings I’ve made in my career, I only had to shoot a flare once. Typically, the bear would get scared by this and will run away. This gives us the time to safely retreat to our landing site and be transported to the ship and leave the bear alone. Most bears are mainly curious at what strange things are now walking around in their world (no, Polar Bears don’t have a territory) and are not in the first place out there to kill people. Especially when we are walking around in a group, we must be quite scary for the bear, and an attack will be unlikely.
Only when all of this doesn’t work, and the bear is still approaching us, we are allowed to use our rifle. Typically first to fire more warning shots, but if worst comes to worst, the bear will now be within 20m from us, we can shoot to kill. Something I hope I never have to do and I’m sure all my colleagues think the same. Also, fortunately, something that rarely happens. Due to all these strict regulations and the AECO Polar Bear guidelines (pdf), fatal incidents (for bear and/or human) are extremely rare. I haven’t seen the statistics, but this is the first incident I remember in this century involving ship-based tourism.* Each dead bear is one too many, of course, and I hope we can learn from this incident so we can make tourism even safer, but fortunately, it is not something that happens regularly.
In my opinion, the only option to avoid incidents like this all together is to stop tourism on Spitsbergen completely. Why I don’t think that’s a good idea and why the benefits of this kind of tourism will outweigh the downsides, I’ll explain in a next post.
*EDIT: There was one more incident this century, in 2006.