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Home* News and Stories → Polar bears dis­tur­bed by tou­rists “around the clock”?

Polar bears dis­tur­bed by tou­rists “around the clock”?

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 and ship

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.

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last modification: 2022-05-19 · copyright: Rolf Stange
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