Polar Bear safety

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.

Walrus; Walrus; Odobenus rosmarus
Phippsøya with Walruses on the beach (archive image)

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.

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Polar Bear on the sea ice, a safe encounter

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).

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Polar Bear on the shore, seen from a zodiac

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.

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The terrain on Spitsbergen is often unclear, making it difficult to find bears

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.

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Tourism on Phippsøya (archive image)

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.

Arjen Drost

Arjen is a Polar ecologist, nature photographer and full time expedition guide on expedition cruise ships in both Polar regions. With his pictures and stories he likes to show the beauty of these very fragile and threatened places.

10 comments

  • Thanks Arjen for the blog, I remain in waiting for Sysselmannens next move and who knows, your “wish” may come through. Possibly next safe level is to avoid landings, to allow zodiac cruises only, but what do I know, I’m just the Captain and won’t ever know what really happened when my expedition team reached the landing sight. On the other hand, it’s not really my cup of coffee either, so nothing to worry there from the ships captain’s view.

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  • In safari parks tourists stay in vehicles. I think this must apply here. If there are no vehicles on shore then no one should visit. You don’t get in the cage with the animals at a zoo. Wild animals have so few free areas left.

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    • Yes, but Spitsbergen isn’t a safari park. And the density of bears there is far lower as in a cage of a zoo. So that comparison doesn’t work well, I’m afraid.
      Apart from the impossibility to bring vehicles ashore there, it would also do far more damage to the environment then us walking around there. And, as you can see in the post, onshore we do our best to avoid any confrontation with bears. In several thousands of landings, I only recently had to scare one away with a flare. Apart from that, most landings we didn’t see a bear at all, or occasionally (once a year?) we have to retreat because a bear is in our way (or we are in the way of the bear).

      Why I still think it’s good to go ashore in these places, despite the minute change of having to shoot a bear, is food for tomorrows post.

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      • Short version of tomorrow’s blog: You’ve been following my blog for a while (thanks for that). By doing so, I think you’ve gotten a much better understanding of both the beauty and the fragility of the Arctic and have maybe changed your behaviour a little. None of that would have been possible if I had stayed on the ship all the time. With each landing, there is a minute risk of a bear encounter.
        This change in behaviour and the way they think about the Arctic is exactly what the passengers from my last cruise told me. And they will also spread the word at home. In my opinion, the Arctic as a whole will definitely benefit from this.
        If we had to shoot bears on a yearly basis, then I would completely agree with you. But seeing how rare it is (like I said, as far as I know, only 2 incidents this century), I think the scale tips to the positive.

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      • Yes, exactly. That is exactly my point. And if that will go at the cost of too much of the wildlife in the place, this isn’t worth it, but in this case, I think it is. As I wrote here, we try to minimise the risk as much as possible (and succeeding quite well, I think).

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  • http://icepeople.net/2018/07/30/hiding-in-plain-sight-footprints-and-whale-carcass-should-have-been-dead-giveaway-of-polar-bears-presence-say-research-crew-members-who-saw-it-a-day-before-attack/

    If there’s any truth in this, it raises questions in my opinion.. 8 unarmed versus 4 armed is not a normal procedure. Also if carcass and footprint were well visible from the ship…?
    Every blog I’ve read only touches on this single incident, but what about the bigger picture; an increase of tourism, resulting in an increasing demand of guides (new, inexperienced perhaps) in combination with diminishing sea and therefore possible alteration of polar bear behavior in the future… A possible recipe for an increase of human-bear confrontations, if no restrictions are set…?
    Just thinking out loud…

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    • Again, I won’t go into too much detail in discussing this particular case as those details are not known yet.

      But you do raise a very valid point about the increased demand in new guides, which will mean an increase in inexperienced guides (obviously you can’t start as an experienced one). The business might indeed benefit of a better training model and certain qualifications or certifications for guides.

      Thanks for your thoughts on this.

      Cheers, Arjen

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  • Hi, I totally agree with Arjen on this and I have the same experience here on Svalbard. In almost ten years of sailing and hiking and guiding I only had one dangerous situation. In most of the cases you can watch a polar bear from safe distance on a ship with a coffee in your hand. If the bear is relaxed it is possible to do a zodiac cruise getting a bit closer. If you are on land and you bump into a polar bear in many cases you just walk into the other direction and you will be fine. Still it is a very dangerous animal and it can just pop up everywhere. Most of the guides and expeditions leaders here are very experienced and they know what they are doing. The result is very often to be able to observe a bear in its natural habitat which is a beautiful experience. People who have seen a bear also start to understand better the problems of climate change and pollution because we also educate tourists. But I might add one thing… because of our consume based western lifestyles we are the biggest thread to the bear and to the Arctic as a natural habitat. SUVs, buying new smartphones every year, eating exotic fruits in the winter and so on. As the wolf the polarbear is a symbol for many things and for example the first wolf who sticks out is head out of a forest in Europe is shot. Some of the pig farms in Germany kill 16000 pigs a day and there are many of them. Eating meat three times a day is a much bigger threat to the Arctic than a small cruise or sailing ship. Save the Arctic! Save the planet! Think about your personal lifestyle!

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