The little island of Hopen seems to be the place currently regarding rare wildlife observations. Just a few weeks ago a polar fox attacked the station’s dogs, later it appeared to have rabies. Only a few days later, the crew of the weather station Hopen Meteo got a wildlife observation of century class. Generally, polar bear sightings are nothing unusual on Hopen. During some winters, there are several hundred polar bear observations close to the weather station. But the event observed on 04 May was truly unique!
Initially, the weather station crew thought that the two polar bears that came close to the station might be a mother and her second year cub, having a little family dispute as they kept roaring against each other.
Routinely, the station crew made attempts to scare the polar bears away with making noise. The bears went away, but only to return later. They had obviously been hunting successfully in the meantime, as evidenced by traces of blood on the face.
Soon it became appearent that it was not an everyday polar bear visit, but that they were a male and a female about to mate. After a while they got down to serious business.
Being totally busy with themselves, the bears did not pay much attention to their surroundings but kept mating for a good hour, with obvious pleasure as the photos suggest. The 4 crew members of Hopen Meteo hence got the opportunity to enjoy an observation which is not just once in a lifetime, but much rarer actually. Obviously, they took the opportunity to take unique photos. Here are some amazing shots by meteorologist and photographer Ted Torfoss who made good use of this chance of a lifetime and I thank Ted for his kind permission to show some of his photos here! For more photos, visit the webseite of the Hopen weather station. Maybe the whole thing was a birthday present by nature to Ted Torfoss, who could celebrate his 60th birthday soon after the event? Anyway, happy birthday!
Of course, polar bears are mating every year and the event as such is common in polar bear areas in nature at this time of year. But as a small number of individuals is spread out over immensely large and very remote areas, observations are very few and far between. There are not many photos or footage taken. No earlier observations are known from Hopen, which would be the hotspot in Svalbard for such an occasion given the density of polar bears in good ice winters and the presence of the weather station.
A few weeks ago, a group of lucky tourists also saw polar bears mating in the distance in Tempelfjord not far from Longyearbyen. Photos taken by guide Yann Rashid were seen by many on the web and have without any doubt scarcity value, but they do not compare to the photos taken from a much smaller distance by Ted Torfoss on Hopen.
A polar fox was found to have rabies after having attacked dogs on the little island Hopen in southeast Svalbard, according to a note by the Sysselmannen. The fox attacked the dogs which belong to the weather station Hopen Meteo on 26 April; it was killed by the dogs during the attack. Routinely, the fox was taken to Oslo, where it was found to be infected by rabies.
Hopen is in the far southeast of Svalbard, 90 kilometres away from Edgeøya, the next large island, 200 kilometres from Spitsbergen’s east coast and almost 300 kilometres from Longyearbyen. It is, however, easily possible that other, infected polar foxes are already further west, where the settlements are located and tourists have their more common routes, or they may cover these distances quickly: most sea areas in the east of the Spitsbergen archipelago are still covered by dense drift ice, where polar foxes are known to travel large areas. It is very likely that the rabies virus came with a polar fox from arctic Russia, further away from Hopen than the main island of Spitsbergen. This is not the first time rabies is found in Svalbard; on the long term, it happens actually more or less regularly: the virus has been found no less than 7 times since 1980, including the recent incident on Hopen. The last time was in 2011, when rabies was found in reindeer and foxes on Hopen, in Hornsund and near Longyearbyen.
Polar fox on Edgeøya: curiosity is normal behaviour, aggression in contrast an alarm signal for rabies.
Rabies is dangerous also for humans: “If you have accidentally touched potentially infected animals, then wash your hands very carefully afterwards; washing in disinfectant is even better. Getting the virus through bare skin contact is near impossible, but matters are completely different if you have been bitten. If you suspect an infection, then it is definitely advised to contact the Sysselmannen as soon as possible. Vaccination is possible for a short while even after exposure to the virus. The risk of actually getting infected is very, very low, but if things go really wrong, then the result will be fatal.” (quotation from Spitsbergen-Svalbard guidebook)
Unusual behaviour of polar foxes including aggression towards humans or larger animals is a clear warning sign of a rabies infection.
The actual risk of infections for humans is very low and the recent episode does certainly not involve any general risk for travelling in Svalbard, but awareness of the situation is, as always, important.
It is incredible how long-lived some rumours are. They are so persistent that they are not only often repeated by media anywhere in the world who do not do their homework, but – even worse – you can hear them locally, told as adventure stories by guides.
Still, they are rumours and the truth is different. You as a reader of this site know better or at least you will know better in a minute.
The first and maybe most often told rubbish is that it is not allowed to die in Longyearbyen. From a practical viewpoint, you may ask how to enforce such a rule or law. What happens if you actually die in Longyearbyen? Do you get a fine, or do they put you in jail? Seriously: such rumours often have a root somewhere in real history, and such is the case also here. For most of its history which goes back to 1906, Longyearbyen was nothing but a company town, completely owned by a mining company. There was no free housing market, but a company that provided accommodation to her employees. When your contract period was finished, you had to leave Longyearbyen (theoretically, you could stay elsewhere in Svalbard, as some trappers actually did!). For this simple reason, people did not die in Longyearbyen because of age (they often died from other causes, though). Even today, when you are seriously ill or you need intense care, you will be much better off on the mainland or somewhere else with advanced facilities, which do not exist in Longyearbyen. The hospital is small and not prepared to treat special cases, and there is no home for the elderly. So, if you need any of that, you fly to the mainland, for simple practical reasons.
People live happily in Longyearbyen …
In case an inhabitant dies, there is often the wish to be buried in a home community in mainland Norway (or elsewhere). Only very few families are connected to Longyearbyen over generations. Most people have a stronger family connection elsewhere, so in case, they want to be buried elsewhere. If someone chooses to rest eternally on the cemetery in Longyearbyen, then this is absolutely possible. There is only one restriction: only urn burials are allowed, no coffins. The so far last burials in Longyearbyen have been in 2014, but there will be more in the future when the occasion calls for it.
This is the factual background of the rather silly rumour that it is “not allowed to die in Longyearbyen”. There is no law like that, and there has never been one.
… and sometimes (rarely, though), they happen to die in Longyearbyen. There is no rule against dying in Longyearbyen.
Why are people, even guides, telling such silly things? Maybe it is the attempt to make Longyearbyen even more exciting and exotic than it actually is. Quite unnecessary, as Longyearbyen is already quite exciting and exotic as it really is. Maybe it is too much effort to make some quick research, and maybe some people think that the facts don’t matter in times of fake news (and the “rule against dying” is really more fake than news anyway). This is not the case! Things should be told as they are. One who did that regarding the right to die in Longyearbyen was local priest Leif Magne Helgesen, a while ago in a letter-to-the-editor in Svalbardposten.
While we are at it, let’s have a quick look at the other, more pleasant end of the life cycle, namely birth. When it is said that it is not allowed to die in Longyearbyen, it is also often said that it is not allowed to be born there either. That is rubbish just as well.It is only because of the above-mentioned practical reasons that pregnant women will take a flight to the mainland a few weeks before they are expected to give birth. In case of difficulties, it will be much safer to be in the university hospital in Tromsø or elsewhere in or near bigger, more advanced medical facilities, just in case. There is no law or rule of any kind against being born in Longyearbyen.
Another subject, similar level of bullshit: it is often said that people are required by law to carry a gun in Spitsbergen. Has anyone ever seen such a law? No! Because there has never been such a law. It is self-evident that your chances of survival in the worst case of meeting a really angry polar bear will be much better in case you have a suitable weapon when you are in the field in polar bear country, so it is indeed very common to carry a gun. But this is simply not required by any law! The only thing that you are legally obliged to have is some kind of deterrent, usually a signal pistol with special ammunition. If you apply for a tour permit, which you need for remote areas (outside the so-called administration area 10), then the Sysselmannen will also require that you carry a weapon for polar bear protection, but based on safety considerations and not on law. If you decide to walk outside Longyearbyen without a gun, then you may be a bit suicidal, but you don’t do anything illegal. Again: there is no law that requires anyone to carry a rifle in Svalbard!
It is not forbidden to die in Longyearbyen and there is no law asking you to carry a rifle in Svalbard. Not having anything to protect you against polar bears might, however, be a life-threatening mistake.
So, now we have clearified a good bit of arctic rubbish. See you soon!