The first “normal” – without major disturbance by Covid19 – summer season in Spitsbergen has begun. Actually, the winter has just started to loosen its icy grip, the islands are still largely snow-covered, many fjords still frozen and there is currently quite a lot of drift ice on the north and east coasts of Svalbard.
But cruise ships have started trips of several days already weeks ago, and the first ship-based day-trips out of Longyearbyen were offered as early as March. It is not that long ago that the winter season (no ships) lasted until around mid May, then there was a break of several weeks with little activity during the snowmelt and then the summer which involved ship-based activity started in June. But that is history, tour operators are starting earlier and earlier every year, some as early as March.
Now, around mid May, there are already several dozen tourist vessels cruising Spitsbergen’s coastal waters, and there is already trouble although most of them have just started their season. There are photos circulating on social media showing close encounters of polar bears on ice and tourists on ships, and the public discussion is in full swing. The issue is already covered by NRK, Norway’s most important news platform. The headline of the linked-up article claims that Svalbard’s polar bears are disturbed by tourists “around the clock”.
Polar bear on ice close to a ship: who moved to visit the other part? Who was chased, disturbed or even put at risk? Maybe: noone. (Archive image, 2015).
The current discussion is fuelled by photos like this one, showing polar bears and ships with tourists in close distance. There have been situations like that also in recent weeks in Spitsbergen, photos are circulating and the discussion is going high. A reaction may also come from official side: the Sysselmester (governor) has announced to investigate relevant cases.
There is no doubt: violation of valid law, written and unwritten, and unethical behaviour, are inacceptable and should be followed by strictly by the authorities, involving fines wherever appropriate.
Illegal behaviour, unethical action or acceptable behaviour?
But the question is if it is really as easy as that. It seems so: many public commentators including journalists (NRK) take it as given that the polar bears are disturbed by tourists, even “around the clock”. But what does a picture like the one above actually show? The actual picture that has fuelled the current debate has, by the way, been removed from social media posts by the photographer. But it shows – from the perspective of another, not directly involved ship – a situation very similar to the one in the picture above. So, is a situation like this a problem, maybe even legally relevant, or not?
Over the years, I have been in situations like this one a number of times: a ship is parked at the ice edge or between ice floes. A polar bear gets a sense of the ship. Often being a curious and inquisitive animals, chances are that the bear comes closer to inspect the object of his (or her) curiosity. The bear may come close enough to even touch the ship, sniffing on the hull, while the people on board are taking pictures, and then walks his (her) way again. (I highlight “her” because both males and females may show curious and inquisitive behaviour).
It is, of course, hard to say what actually happened in any given case unless you have been there and seen it. Hardly anyone who is contributing to the current discussion has been there. In this given case, I have coincidentally been close enough to see a few bits and pieces (more on that below), but too far to see any details. Generally speaking, a wide range of scenarios is possible: did the people on board to something to attract the bear actively? Did they even feed it? Both is prohibited and completely inacceptable, there is no room for discussion about this. But unless there is any information that points towards such behaviour, there is no no need to assume that anything like that has actually happened: the presence of a ship, not moving, may well be enough to work up a polar bear’s curiosity; after all, being curious is natural behaviour for a polar bear, and this is often reason enough for a polar bear to come close and check out a ship (or hut or tent). This is not at all unusual and it is not condemnable. Neither is it unethical as long as the people on board don’t take any innapropriate action and as long as there is no danger for man or beast (people on board a ship a generally safe – which again means that also the bear is safe – unless the ship is so small that a bear can jump on board; something that would, however, be a very unusual behaviour. I have never heard of a polar bear jumping on a boat with people on deck). Also from a legal viewpoint, there shouldn’t be anything to complain about: §30 of the Svalbard environmental act prohibits any action to “attract polar bears, to feed them, to follow them or to seek out a polar bear actively in such a way that may involve a disturbance of the polar bear or that may put humans or the polar bear at risk” (my own translation). It should not hard to understand that none of these actions – or equivalent ones – need to be involved when a ship stands still and a polar bear decides out of curiosity to come close.
So, is everything fine then?
As mentioned above, of course it is possible to think of scenarios that involve unacceptable and even illegal behaviour. But this appears unlikely in the given recent case, where the ship was parked in the ice. As mentioned above: I was too far to see any details of what people on board were doing, but close enough to notice that the boat in question was not moving for hours. It was not actively moving anywhere.
It is, by the way, not a realistic scenario for a boat to follow a polar bear in dense ice; even at a relaxed pace, a polar bear will be more than fast enough to just walk away unless it is a strong ship that can push or even break ice at speed (breaking ice is, by the way, also generally forbidden).
Snow mobiles on fjord ice may – given unethical behaviour of the driver – be a different thing, but for that reason motorised traffic on fjord ice has been largely banned in relevant fjords already for years. Also fast motor boats in open water may easily be used in ways that can cause great disturbance to polar bears. Unfortunately, we have to assume that not everybody has enough common sense and relevant knowledge to behave appropriately: stopping immediately as soon as the bear shows the slightest sign of feeling uneasy about the presence of boats and moving away carefully without delay when necessary. In such a situation, any further approach that would involve disturbance is forbidden by law as it as been in force since 2001 (Svalbardmiljøloven).
Back to the given case: there is nothing to see or to read in photos and information publically available that points towards such behaviour. NRK journalist Rune N. Andreassen claims that polar bears in Svalbard are disturbed by tourists “around the clock”. His article (link above) does not provide information which would actually indicate this. It appears that the headline supports the same public opinion that it may well be derived from (rather than factual information): the combination of tourists and polar bears is generally bad, and if both are close together, it is just assumed that this is not acceptable and probably illegal.
It is clear that photos like the ones in question that are (were) circulating on social media easily give rise to a heated public discussion, especially when the viewer has never made a similar experience him- or herself, observing the actual event from the beginning to the end. Maybe the authors of articles such as the above-mentioned one on the NRK website have information that I don’t have, but I doubt it. It would be good to have solid information to base one’s opinion on when voicing such a strong statement such as a claim of polar bears being disturbed by tourists “around the clock” (or at all). Especially in nationwide media, but also elsewhere.
And especially when it comes at a time of a heated political debate: Norwegian legislative authorities are currently considering – amongst many other things – a legal requirement to keep a general minimum distance of 500 (five hundred) metres from polar bears under any circumstances.
Rather than letting a polar bear carry on with following his (or her, for that sake) curiosity even if it does not involve any risk or disturbance, this would mean that you would have to start moving your boat or even use deterrents such as a flare gun. Both options are much more likely to disturb the animal than just staying where you are as long as everybody and everything is safe. Something that will generally be the case as long as people are on the ship and the polar bear is on the ice. And this is what we are talking about. Nothing else.
By the way, NRK author Andreassen uses in his article (links above) a photo taken by a Norwegian Polar Institute field biologist, taken “from a proper distance” according to the comment under the photo. I would estimate the distance between the photographer and the two bears in this photo to be somewhere near 50 metres. On tenth of what Norwegian legislative authorities currently are considering as a legally binding minimum distance for polar bear encounters.