Sysselmannen and Norwegian coastguard are currently criticized for a low flight over a group of walrusses on Nordaustland, in the strictly protected nature reserve Nordaust Svalbard. A similar event involving a Polar bear has now been reported. On July 11, a group of tourists of MS Quest had boarded 5 Zodiacs to cruise along drift ice southeast of Sjuøyane (north of Nordaustland). When a swimming Polar bear was seen from the ship, the Swedish expedition called the boats together to avoid disturbance: following swimming Polar bears with any motorized vehicles is strictly forbidden (and would without any doubt be ruthless).
A nearby small aircraft operated by the coastguard caught the VHF conversation between the guides and the ship. The crew of the aircraft decided to check what was going on, resulting in low flights over the Zodiacs and the Polar bear.
The expedition leader believed this to be a unique incident, until news of the low flight over walrusses surfaced recently, and then decided to write a report. In a first reaction, the Sysselmannen announced that the Zodiac operation of the tourists might have to be checked for potential disturbance of the bear. The factual disturbance of the protected animal by the coastguard aircraft does not seem to be a matter of great interest for the Sysselmannen, who is the highest representative of the Norwegian government in Spitsbergen.
The coastguard considers themselves a general police authority for the waters around Spitsbergen, which are under Norwegian legislation. According to other views, the duty of the coastguard is, in Spitsbergen waters, exclusively to control fishing vessels. Other control may be carried out in individual cases, where the need may arise, but generally, it is the Sysselmannen who controls tourism in Spitsbergen. Now it seems as if it is the duty of tourism – the closest thing to the “public” in the relevant areas – to control the authorities in the field …
Low flight over Polar bears: An incident in Holmiabukta, photographed by the author on July 31, 2010, when the presence of several bears in Holmiabukta was generally known. The helicopter is marked with a red circle, a Polar bear with a yellow circle*. Click here for a larger version of this image.
Amendment (December 04, 2012): Regarding the photo above, the Sysselmannen stated that there was no helicopter flight on behalf of the Sysselmannen in the area in question on July 31, 2010. According to the Sysselmannen, the helicopter in the photo was possibly chartered by a private party.
Source: Svalbardposten (47/2012)