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Yearly Archives: 2022 − News & Stories


MS Vir­go hit ground in Fuglefjord

it, in prin­ci­ple, is a night­ma­re sce­na­rio: a crui­se ship hits a rock and the hull and a fuel tank are dama­ged.

We don’t know yet what exact­ly hap­pen­ed yes­ter­day mor­ning in Fuglefjord in nor­thwes­tern Spits­ber­gen and what the con­se­quen­ces will be. What we know is that the litt­le Swe­dish expe­di­ti­on crui­se ship MS Vir­go touch­ed the bot­tom yes­ter­day (Tues­day, 14 June) near 10 a.m. The acci­dent hap­pen­ed pro­ba­b­ly on the pas­sa­ge into Fuglefjord from the north, bet­ween a group of small islets, sker­ries and rocks known as Fug­le­hol­ma­ne.

The pas­sa­ge is rou­ti­ne­ly taken by small ships at least during clear con­di­ti­ons (wea­ther, ice) and the rou­te requi­res careful navi­ga­ti­on, but is usual­ly no pro­blem. The waters are well char­ted and the­re are seve­ral pos­si­ble rou­tes, depen­ding on ship size. Fuglefjord its­elf is lar­ge and deep (except a 7.5 meter shal­low in the ent­rance, but even this is more than deep enough for a rela­tively small ves­sel shuch as the Vir­go). Only the inner­most part of the fjord, near the gla­cier, is unchar­ted.

Fugleholmane, Fuglefjord

Pas­sa­ge bet­ween the rocks and islets of Fug­le­hol­ma­ne while ente­ring Fuglefjord from the north.

No fur­ther details about yesterday’s acci­dent have been released by the Sys­sel­mes­ter at the time of wri­ting.

But it is known that the hull was dama­ged and the same goes for a fuel tank, invol­ving the risk of a fuel leaka­ge. MS Polar­sys­sel, the ser­vice ship of the Sys­sel­mes­ter (gover­nor), was on site within a few hours. Polar­sys­sel is equi­ped with fuel lea­king fight­ing equip­ment and works to pre­vent spills were star­ted up imme­dia­te­ly.

Nobo­dy was hurt. The­re were 13 pas­sen­gers and a crew of seven on board.

As all ships in most parts of Svalbard’s waters, MS Vir­go has mari­ne die­sel on board. Hea­vy and cru­de oil are not per­mit­ted on board any ship in the natio­nal parks and natu­re reser­ves, which altog­e­ther com­pri­se the lar­gest part of the archi­pe­la­go. Hea­vy, long-las­ting oil pol­lu­ti­on is gene­ral­ly cau­sed by cru­de or hea­vy oil, while mari­ne die­sel dis­sol­ves rela­tively quick­ly even in cold waters. The risk of a major, long-las­ting pol­lu­ti­on event is this low. A less hea­vy pol­lu­ti­on, las­ting for days or even weeks, can, howe­ver, not excluded with the infor­ma­ti­on available and might be eco­lo­gi­cal­ly dis­as­trous, con­side­ring the­re are seve­ral lar­ge bird colo­nies main­ly with litt­le auks on some of the neigh­bou­ring islands such as Fug­le­son­gen and Ind­re and Ytre Nor­skøya.

Nofre­te­te and a cham­pa­gne glass. Lon­gye­ar­by­en snow­fields

A lot of the snow around Lon­gye­ar­by­en has alre­a­dy dis­ap­peared recent­ly. The warm days in late May, when the war­mest tem­pe­ra­tures of the months were mea­su­red that Lon­gye­ar­by­en had seen in 46 years with 12.9 degrees cen­ti­gra­de on 30 May, made the tur­no­ver from win­ter to sum­mer a very rapid affair this year, at least local­ly: it is actual­ly very nor­mal that the snow-melt in and near Lon­gye­ar­by­en starts ear­lier and hap­pens fas­ter than else­whe­re. You may get an impres­si­on of full ear­ly sum­mer in Lon­gye­ar­by­en while the­re is still full arc­tic win­ter some­thing like 50 kilo­me­t­res away to the north, east and south (and may­be even to the west, alt­hough this is less relia­ble). In Lon­gye­ar­by­en, it may be dif­fi­cult to access the fuel sta­ti­on by snow mobi­le while you can enjoy the win­ter sea­son at its best north of Isfjord or around upper Advent­da­len – if you can still get the­re, that is.

Tho­se who know Lon­gye­ar­by­en well also know the snow­fields “Nofre­te­te” and “Cham­pa­gne glass”. When the snow goes, some snow­fields stay behind for quite some times, and some of them have pro­mi­nent shapes in a very simi­lar way year after year. The fol­lo­wing two are the most famous ones. Let’s start with Nofre­te­te:

Snowfield Nofretete, Adventfjord

Snow­field “Nofre­te­te” on the north side of Advent­fjord. You can’t see it from cen­tral Lon­gye­ar­by­en. The simi­la­ri­ty to the famous bust of the old Egypt beau­ty is striking, even though she gives me the impres­si­on of being in a bad mood here. But who isn’t, every once in a while.

The “Cham­pa­gne glass” is even more famous than Nofre­te­te, pro­ba­b­ly also becau­se you can see it easi­ly direct­ly from Lon­gye­ar­by­en. It is a snow­field of the shape of – guess what! – yes, a cham­pa­gne glass on Ope­raf­jel­let, east of Lon­gye­ar­by­en.

Snowfield Champagne glass, Adventfjord

The snow­field “Cham­pa­gne glass”, not yet enti­re­ly free from the sur­roun­ding snow,
on Ope­raf­jel­let east of Lon­gye­ar­by­en, late May 2022.

The “Cham­pa­gne glass” comes with a litt­le sto­ry that attracts public atten­ti­on in Lon­gye­ar­by­en year after year. The pro­gessing snow melt relia­bly leads to the brea­king of the stem after the glass has got its per­fect shape – the cup its­elf being a bit less high and slim than with most real cham­pa­gne glas­ses. “Stet­ten går”, as the Nor­we­gi­an-spea­king locals say, “the stem goes”. The exact day then the stem “breaks” is the final one in a series of events in natu­re that mark the annu­al tran­si­ti­on from win­ter to sum­mer (the first one being the arri­val of the snow bun­ting in April).

The stem usual­ly breaks in late July or ear­ly August. You can try your luck and place a bet with Sval­bard­pos­ten, the local news­pa­per, about your best gues­sing of the date. Honour and reco­gni­ti­on in case of suc­cess.

This year, it was Sarah Gerats who pro­ved her instincts and know­ledge about the local natu­re, deve­lo­ped through years of life in Lon­gye­ar­by­en and on boats in local waters. Sarah was not the only one who pre­dic­ted that the stem would go on 06th June, but she was the first one.

Snowfield Champagne glass, Adventfjord

The cham­pa­gne glass with bro­ken stem on 6th June, 2022.

Hence, this year’s day of the bro­ken stem is among­st the ear­liest of its kind in recor­ded histo­ry, due to the abo­ve-men­tio­ned unu­sual­ly warm days in late May.

Sarah Gerats

Sarah Gerats, win­ner of the 2022 cham­pa­gne glass con­test.
Here tog­e­ther with Mario Czok, then Cap­tain on Anti­gua, at Bear Island (2018).

Con­gra­tu­la­ti­ons, Sarah!

Kongsfjord & For­lands­und – 04-05 June 2022

The attempt to sail down from the nor­thwest cor­ner to Kongsfjord was not exact­ly suc­cessful, due to a lack of wind. It wasn’t real­ly action sai­ling 🙂

But we still had some time to have a look on Blom­strand­hal­vøya inclu­ding two of the caves befo­re we went along­side in Ny-Åle­sund, whe­re we had a good look around the fol­lo­wing day.

In the after­noon, a desi­re to see wal­ru­ses came up, but we could cater for that in For­lands­und.

Gal­lery – Kongsfjord & For­lands­und – 04-05 June 2022

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.

Nor­thwest Spits­ber­gen – 03rd June 2022

We are back to the nor­thwest cor­ner of Spits­ber­gen. And the wea­ther is inde­ed still on our side. It is most­ly calm and sun­ny, just occa­sio­nal­ly a very light bree­ze and some clouds, which is a good thing.

We visi­ted litt­le auks and the migh­ty gla­cier in Fuglefjord, a place of stun­ning beau­ty. The­re was so much ice drif­ting in the fjord that the­re was no chan­ce of get­ting near the gla­cier. The beau­tiful impres­si­ons keep coming with high fre­quen­cy. So it was a good thing just to anchor in the late after­noon, let things calm down, and mar­vel at the beau­ty of the land­scape sur­roun­ding us.

Gal­lery – Nor­thwest Spits­ber­gen – 03rd June 2022

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.

Ice – Bis­ka­yar­hu­ken – 02nd June, 2022

The point of a trip so ear­ly in the arc­tic sum­mer – one of the points, at least – is of cour­se the idea that the sea ice is likely to be still some­whe­re near the coast. Of cour­se you need the wea­ther for it.

We had both. Ice and wea­ther. It could not have been more beau­tiful!

Gal­lery – Ice, Bis­ka­yar­hu­ken – 02nd June, 2022

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.

And we even had time for a litt­le landing at Bis­ka­yar­hu­ken later in the after­noon.

Nor­thwest-Spits­ber­gen – 01st June 2022

Time ist just fly­ing. The days are full of expe­ri­ence and beau­ty. The month star­ted with no less than four polar bears in the bay whe­re we had inten­ded to go ashore. Well, chan­ge of plans! Ins­tead of our pro­jec­ted snow­shoe hike, we went crui­sing at the gla­cier Smee­ren­burg­breen.

Gal­lery – Nor­thwest-Spits­ber­gen – 01st June 2022

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.

In Kob­befjord we had a look at the old arc­tic post­box. Someone had appar­ent­ly emp­tied it sin­ce we had left post­cards the­re three years ago. I won­der if they have actual­ly arri­ved.

Prins Karls For­land – Fug­le­hu­ken – 31st May 2022

31st May was still to con­ti­nue. We still had time and the wea­ther was so good that we didn’t want to miss the oppor­tu­ni­ty to have a look at Fug­le­hu­ken, the nor­t­hern tip of Prins Karls For­land. It is one of tho­se places that are so expo­sed to the open sea that you don’t get here often at all It is real­ly a mat­ter of having a very good day. The most beau­tiful places are often not the easie­st one to get to.

220531e Fuglehuken 019

But today was the right day. Guil­l­emots and kit­ti­wa­kes are bree­ding in lar­ge num­bers on the steep cliffs high abo­ve the tun­dra, pro­vi­ding suf­fi­ci­ent fer­ti­li­sa­ti­on to the accor­din­gly rich tun­dra. The­re are even thick lay­ers of peat under a sur­face of mos­ses and lichens in some places. And part of the tun­dra is alre­a­dy snow-free, making the reinde­er hap­py that are gra­zing here in num­bers.

Being able to visit a place like Fug­le­hu­ken is real­ly a pri­vi­le­ge! I am more than hap­py to dedi­ca­te a blog ent­ry to this very enjoya­ble event.

For­lands­und – 31st May 2022

We had left yesterday’s den­se fog behind us. Bright suns­hi­ne in Horn­bæk­buk­ta – what a start into the voya­ge! Ama­zing views over the bay, moun­ta­ins and gla­cier.

Inde­ed, For­lands­und is in its best mood today, with an almost mir­ror-like water sur­face and a beau­tiful sky abo­ve the jag­ged, snow-cover­ed moun­ta­ins and the famous gla­ciers of Prins Karls For­land.

Gal­lery – For­lands­und – 31st May 2022

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.

Later we drop­ped the anchor in Engelskbuk­ta for a litt­le late after­noon walk. Just a few kilo­me­t­res fur­ther north than Horn­bæk­buk­ta, but a cou­ple of weeks back in the sea­so­nal deve­lo­p­ment. A lot of wet snow, a lot of water. Real­ly in the midd­le of the snow melt.

Lon­gye­ar­by­en & Advent­fjord – 30 May 2022

Pre­pa­ra­ti­ons for a sai­ling ship voya­ge in the Arc­tic will never real­ly be just rou­ti­ne. Next to all the pack­ing, try­ing not to for­get any­thing, car­ry­ing stuff around, tra­vel­ling etc the­re is always some­thing that doesn’t work and that needs to be repai­red or repla­ced. This time, it was the satel­li­te com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on sys­tem. It seems to have been suc­cessful. If the­re are no updates in the arc­tic tra­vel blog here the next days, then it wasn’t …

Gal­lery – Lon­gye­ar­by­en & Advent­fjord – 30 May 2022

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.

But now we are moving. We board­ed good old SV Anti­gua this after­noon in glo­rious suns­hi­ne and sai­led out into Isfjord and straight into a thick cloud 🙂 so now the world around us is grey and small. Very atmo­sphe­ric, and it feels a bit adven­tur­ous. Hope it doesn’t stay too long, though …

The tou­rists, of cour­se. Or the Rus­si­ans?

Bewa­re, this arc­tic­le con­ta­ins a bad play of words.

The who­le thing star­ted in mid May. Ever­y­bo­dy who has been in Lon­gye­ar­by­en knows the famous polar bear war­ning signs that you can find in seve­ral places whe­re you can lea­ve Lon­gye­ar­by­en and enter are­as whe­re the risk of polar bear encoun­ters increa­ses signi­fi­cant­ly.

Polar bear warning sign, Adventdalen near Longyearbyen

Polar bear war­ning sign in Advent­da­len near Lon­gye­ar­by­en.

The spe­ci­men in Advent­da­len dis­ap­peared at night time in mid May. Such a theft cer­tain­ly requi­res a bit of bra­va­do in the mid­night sun peri­od next to a road that seems to lead out into the nowhe­re, but has a sur­pri­sing amount of traf­fic at almost any time of day and night the­se days.

Rumours and spe­cu­la­ti­ons were going wild soon: who could have been the thief? Who in Lon­gye­ar­by­en would be so stu­pid to hang this on the wall in the living room, in a town whe­re real­ly ever­y­bo­dy knows the­se signs?

So, no doubt, the be the bad guy couldn’t be a local. Sval­bard­pos­ten repor­ted about this cri­mi­nal case. They found a bus dri­ver who had not seen any­thing rele­vant to the case, but the man dri­ves tou­rists to their desti­na­ti­ons pret­ty much every day, so he must know exact­ly, of cour­se: “Det er jo turis­tene som stje­ler sånt, sier han.” “It’s the tou­rist who ste­al such things, he says.” (quo­ta­ti­on Sval­bard­pos­ten). It is striking: not only did the thought appar­ent­ly not cross the mind of the jour­na­list that this is a state­ment that, based on not­hing but assump­ti­on, deser­ves some cri­ti­cal ques­ti­ons. No, in the print edi­ti­on, this actual­ly beca­me the head­line of the artic­le, not even mark­ed as a quo­ta­ti­on. Yes, of cour­se, the­se evil and stu­pid tou­rists! Who else?

Svalbardposten: polar bear warning sign

Artic­le in the print edi­ti­on of Sval­bard­pos­ten on 19th May:
Head­line “It’s the tou­rist who ste­al such things”.

The abo­ve-lin­ked online ver­si­on of this artic­le has, by the way, got a new head­line in the mean­ti­me: “Hvem har stjå­let isbjørns­kil­tet?” (“Who has sto­len the polar bear sign?”).

At least, the who­le mat­ter came to a rather humou­ristic end some days later when the sign in ques­ti­on was found again – in the car of Lars Fau­se, which was park­ed at the air­port.

Lars Fau­se is the Sys­sel­mes­ter. The gover­nor.

But Fau­se had been on the main­land during tho­se days, so he can not be the thief. And it appeared any­way unli­kely that anyo­ne, let alo­ne someone so expe­ri­en­ced with cri­mi­nal cases (from a poli­ce and juri­di­cal per­spec­ti­ve, that is), would lea­ve the sign, a pret­ty lar­ge item, for days in a car park­ed publi­cal­ly.

So, who was it then? The solu­ti­on (and now comes the game of words): the Rus­si­ans. But not the Rus­si­ans who are mining coal in Barents­burg (it is actual­ly main­ly Ukrai­ni­ans who are working in the coal mine), let alo­ne tho­se who set the world on fire else­whe­re the­se days: the Nor­we­gi­an word “russ” means “high school gra­dua­te”. Add the defi­ni­te arc­tic­le, which in Nor­we­gi­an comes at the end of the sub­stan­ti­ve, and you get “rus­sen”, which in Nor­we­gi­an is “the Rus­si­an”. Or “the high school gra­dua­te”. The con­text tells you what it is about in any given case. It is obvious­ly the lat­ter. High school gra­dua­te in Nor­way par­ty as much as any­whe­re else (or may­be even more and har­der), and tricks and pranks are part of the game. The theft of the polar bear war­ning sign was exact­ly that and not­hing else. A suc­cessful coup, as most will agree. This includes Sys­sel­mes­ter Fau­se, by the way.

And we could just smi­le sad­ly about the resent­ment­al reflex action to attri­bu­te (almost) all the bad and evil things in the world to tou­rists. It is one thing to utter this over a beer or five or eight in a bar late at night, and it is ano­ther thing to say this to a news­pa­per. And it is yet ano­ther thing when a jour­na­lists non­cri­ti­cal­ly adopts such a com­ment and even turns it into a head­line. Still, one could just smi­le mild­ly if the same mecha­nism of sen­ti­ment wasn’t wide­ly appli­ed the­se days in much lar­ger and much more rele­vant dis­cus­sions, such as the one that may lead to the clo­sure of lar­ge parts of the Sval­bard archi­pe­la­go.

May­be think twice befo­re say­ing that the thief must have been a tou­rist.

New levels of hys­te­ria. Com­ment by Mor­ten Jør­gen­sen

Com­ment writ­ten by Mor­ten Jør­gen­sen, regar­ding the dis­cus­sion about polar bears being dis­tur­bed by tou­rists (or not), see this artic­le of the web­site owner. Comm­ents of other per­sons do not neces­s­a­ri­ly need to reflect my (Rolf Stan­ge, the website’s owner) opio­ni­on. But on a per­so­nal note: I have very high respect for Mor­ten regar­ding his know­ledge of polar bears and con­ser­va­ti­on and I stron­gly recom­mend Morten’s fol­lo­wing com­ment to all reader’s atten­ti­on.

Nor­we­gi­an aut­ho­ri­ties, insti­tu­ti­ons and sci­en­tists harass and end­an­ger polar bears, while the bla­me is shifted onto tou­rism and par­ti­cu­lar­ly inter­na­tio­nal ope­ra­tors

May 21, 2022 – Mor­ten Jør­gen­sen, con­ser­va­tio­nist

In Skin­bo­den, in Lon­gye­ar­by­en, you can buy the remains of a shot polar bear. In Ber­gen, the­re is a store-room with 100 slaugh­te­red polar bears. Nor­way is sin­gu­lar­ly the world’s grea­test per capi­ta importer of legal dead polar bear pro­ducts, and is pro­ba­b­ly a hub for the laun­de­ring of ille­gal trade as well.

In the one month of April 2022 alo­ne, Nor­we­gi­an polar bear rese­ar­chers distres­sed at least 50 live polar bears in Sval­bard (per­haps as many as 20% of the enti­re local popu­la­ti­on of bears). The­se bears were cha­sed by heli­c­op­ter, shot from the distance with a dart with seda­tiv­es, then man-hand­led in various ways which include blood sam­pling, bio­psy sam­pling and tooth extra­c­tion, then left lying hel­p­less­ly expo­sed in the envi­ron­ment until able to reco­ver enough to go about their busi­ness again.

I have 25 sum­mer sea­sons of expe­ri­ence from Sval­bard. After 2+ years of not working as a gui­de due to the pan­de­mic, I was lucky enough to spot my first polar bear of 2022 back in April, when from the ship I was on and through my high-power bino­cu­lars I noti­ced way in the distance a fema­le bear with a cub-of-the-year eating off a reinde­er car­cass just in from the shore­li­ne abo­ve a low cliff. An hour later, she was still rela­xed and fee­ding, while her cub was play­ing around her, dart­ing in and out of holes in the snow drifts. The ship was per­haps half a mile or more from the sce­ne, while tho­se with very long len­ses in the two Zodiacs that were clo­ser but at a respec­ta­ble distance were able to get some­what decent shots of the sce­ne. This peaceful and delightful sce­ne was then des­troy­ed by a coast-guard heli­c­op­ter ‘inspec­tion’. The polar bear mother stif­fe­ned alre­a­dy when the heli­c­op­ter was still far away (she was col­lared, so had obvious­ly been trau­ma­ti­zed befo­re), and as the heli­c­op­ter flew low over the area, she had alre­a­dy stop­ped eating. Minu­tes later, she was scrambling up the hills­i­de, aban­do­ning her meal to go into hiding. In an attempt to pro­ve tou­rists wrong, aut­ho­ri­ties (again) bro­ke their own laws.

The abo­ve three para­graphs descri­be the rea­li­ty of how the offi­ci­al Nor­way tre­ats polar bears. They are com­mo­di­ties, com­mer­cial trade items. They are stu­dy sub­jects that may ran­dom­ly and exces­si­ve­ly be trea­ted as non-sen­ti­ent objects. And they are a tool see­mingly to be exploi­ted for the poli­ti­cal agen­da of New Nor­we­gi­an Natio­na­lism, whe­re making Sval­bard more Nor­we­gi­an that the Spits­ber­gen Trea­ty actual­ly allows seems to be the dri­ving moti­va­ti­on behind not least the per­se­cu­ti­on of the tou­rism indus­try and espe­ci­al­ly its inter­na­tio­nal ope­ra­tors.

In an age of fake news and wild con­spi­ra­cy theo­ries, I shall be careful not to say out­right that the­re is a coor­di­na­ted attack going on, and that the well-being of polar bears has been taken hos­ta­ge as a con­ve­ni­ent excu­se for poli­ti­ci­zed mani­pu­la­ti­ons. But it sure looks that way.

It looks that way when a jour­na­list from NRK, ins­tead of being fired for lack of sobrie­ty and inte­gri­ty, gets away with a head­line like “Polar bears are dis­tur­bed around the clock by tou­rists” – in a sen­sa­tio­na­list artic­le full of spe­cu­la­ti­on, fal­se­hoods and fin­ger-poin­ting. (edi­to­ri­al note: click here for the NRK artic­le).

It looks that way when the Assistant Gover­nor of Sval­bard (‘Sys­sel­mes­te­ren’ in its­elf being an unde­mo­cra­tic insti­tu­ti­on whe­re legis­la­ti­ve, exe­cu­ti­ve and judi­cial powers are not sepa­ra­ted), can be quo­ted for say­ing both that poten­ti­al law-breaks are still being inves­ti­ga­ted, but also that it is clear that laws have been bro­ken! Sounds a lot like ‘assu­med guil­ty until pro­ven guil­ty’.

In looks that way when the orga­ni­zed part of the ship-based tou­rism indus­try feels so under attack that its knee-jerk reac­tion is a cowe­ring defen­se mode, inclu­ding the intro­duc­tion of a poli­cy of self-cen­sor­ship, becau­se appearan­ces are more important than actions. And when a spo­kesper­son for that same part of the tou­rism indus­try, rather than coun­tering the many outra­ge­ous claims with a digni­fied refe­rence to the over­all posi­ti­ve track-record of Sval­bard tou­rism, ins­tead sto­ops to par­ti­ci­pa­ting in the scape­goa­ting and sowing fur­ther divi­si­on by clai­ming that some parts of the tou­rism sec­tor are inde­ed bad actors, and that it hap­pens to be just tho­se who are not mem­bers of the incre­asing­ly exces­si­ve­ly poli­ti­cal­ly cor­rect, pri­va­te, lob­by orga­niza­ti­on, from which she draws her sala­ry.

Polar bears are being exploi­ted in so many ways. Let me high­light five of them.

1. Three nati­on sta­te govern­ments allow com­mer­cia­li­zed polar bear hun­ting, cal­ling it cul­tu­ral reco­gni­ti­on, when it de fac­to is part of the dis­gu­i­sing of a con­tin­ued neo-colo­ni­al sup­pres­si­on of local (remo­te, Arc­tic) mino­ri­ties.
2. Nor­way cas­hes in on inter­na­tio­nal com­mer­cial tra­ding in polar bear body parts.
3. World-wide fake wild­life con­ser­va­ti­on NGOs use polar bears as icons to coll­ect money, by bemoa­ning how end­an­ge­red they are, while simul­ta­neous­ly sup­port­ing the con­tin­ued exces­si­ve com­mer­cia­li­zed hun­ting of them.
4. Num­e­rous sci­en­tists trau­ma­ti­ze polar bears repea­ted­ly and exces­si­ve­ly to main­tain most­ly irrele­vant stu­dies, care­ers, and fun­ding.
5. Sval­bard tou­rists take pho­to­graphs from the decks of small ships or from Zodiacs of polar bears in their envi­ron­ment, in 99% of the cases wit­hout cha­sing them, dis­tur­bing them, fee­ding them, luring them, or put­ting them in dan­ger.

Which explo­ita­ti­ons are benign, and which are offen­si­ve? You be the judge.
Who is actual­ly dis­tur­bing and end­an­ge­ring polar bears? You be the judge. What is the real moti­va­ti­on for this ‘cam­paign’ against tou­rism? You be the judge.

While we slow­ly sink our ship, the fidd­lers keep play­ing.

SAR heli­c­op­ters with the capa­ci­ty to loca­te mobi­le pho­nes

Safe­ty-rele­vant infor­ma­ti­on fur­ther down in this pos­ting!

The ope­ra­ti­on of the SAR (search-and-res­cue) heli­c­op­ters in Sval­bard is regu­lar­ly adver­ti­sed to poten­ti­al com­mer­cial con­trac­tors. After Air­lift and Luft­trans­port, CHC Heli­ko­pter Ser­vice is now fol­lo­wing as the ope­ra­tor of the local heli­c­op­ter base. CHC Heli­ko­pter Ser­vice is the Nor­we­gi­an daugh­ter of the Cana­di­an com­pa­ny CHC Heli­c­op­ter.

The local per­so­nel remains unch­an­ged to ensu­re a fric­tion­less tran­si­ti­on. Even during the han­do­ver, SAR ope­ra­ti­ons were actual­ly car­ri­ed out wit­hout pro­blems.

SAR helicopter

SAR heli­c­op­ter (Super Puma) of the Sys­sel­man­nen (now: Sys­sel­mes­ter):
now upgraded with sta­te of the art tech­no­lo­gy. (archi­ve image, 2015).

Also the two SAR heli­c­op­ters remain the same machi­nes that have been used by Luft­trans­port, but they will recei­ve an important tech­ni­cal upgrade, accor­ding to Sval­bard­pos­ten. They will get new, front-facing infrared came­ras to “see” miss­ing per­sons in cold envi­ron­ments, and they will be equip­ped with tech­no­lo­gy that can loca­te mobi­le tele­pho­nes – inde­ed inde­pendent­ly of the pre­sence or absence mobi­le net­work covera­ge. This will be a gre­at advan­ta­ge in Sval­bard, which in most of its land and sea are­as does not have mobi­le net­work.

This, howe­ver, requi­res – and this is the safe­ty-rele­vant infor­ma­ti­on announ­ced in the begin­ning of this pos­ting – that the mobi­le pho­ne in ques­ti­on is tur­ned on and not in flight mode. Then, the pho­ne will send a signal that can be picked up by the heli­c­op­ter, enab­ling the crew to loca­te the device. This is said to work on a distance of up to 35 kilo­me­t­res, given the­re are no ter­rain obs­ta­cles blo­cking the direct line bet­ween the pho­ne and the heli­c­op­ter.

It seems to be neces­sa­ry the the SAR sys­tem knows the mobi­le pho­ne num­ber, but this is often the case when a per­son is repor­ted miss­ing by fri­ends or fami­ly, who usual­ly have the pho­ne num­ber of their miss­ing fri­end or rela­ti­ve.

Con­clu­si­on: if you are out in the field on your own in Sval­bard in a situa­ti­on whe­re dis­as­ter may poten­ti­al­ly strike, then lea­ve your mobi­le pho­ne on and acti­ve even when you lea­ve the area cover­ed by mobi­le net­work, against up-to-now’s prac­ti­ce which has been to turn the pho­ne off or at least into flight mode to save bat­tery power. And it goes wit­hout say­ing that when­ever you are out the­re, someone in civi­li­sa­ti­on should know about your whe­re­a­bouts, your pho­ne num­ber and when to rai­se the alarm in case you do not return in time.

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.

Natio­nal day cele­bra­ti­ons wit­hout child­ren from Barents­burg

The 17th of May is the Nor­we­gi­an natio­nal day and it is cele­bra­ted ever­y­whe­re in the coun­try with gre­at enthu­si­asm and a lot of public atten­ti­on and acti­vi­ties.

In Lon­gye­ar­by­en, this usual­ly includes the tra­di­ti­on to invi­te repre­sen­ta­ti­ves from the Rus­si­an sett­le­ment of Barents­burg, only 40 kilo­me­t­res away from Lon­gye­ar­by­en. Repre­sen­ta­ti­ves from the mining com­pa­ny Trust Arc­ti­cu­gol and the con­su­la­te came as well as child­ren who met the local child­ren in Lon­gye­ar­by­en.

17. May, Longyearbyen

Repre­sen­ta­ti­ves from Barents­burg hol­ding spea­ches next to the Sys­sel­man­nen (now: Sys­sel­mes­ter) and the mayor of Lon­gye­ar­by­en on the 17th of May (here in 2019).

It had been made clear in advan­ce that offi­ci­al repre­sen­ta­ti­ves would not be wel­co­me this year, but the child­ren and “neces­sa­ry entou­ra­ge” were invi­ted. Their visit was, howe­ver, can­cel­led by Barents­burg after “inter­nal dis­cus­sions”, accor­ding to Sval­bard­pos­ten As a con­se­quence, the­re was no mee­ting bet­ween the neigh­bours Barents­burg and Lon­gye­ar­by­en in the con­text of the 17th of May 2022. The ori­gi­nal idea that the Rus­si­an and Ukrai­ni­an child­ren from Barents­burg and the Nor­we­gi­an and inter­na­tio­nal ones from Lon­gye­ar­by­en would sing tog­e­ther had to be can­cel­led.

Local offi­ci­als hope that cir­cum­s­tances allow a nor­mal rela­ti­on bet­ween the neigh­bou­ring towns again soon.

Isfjord

Again, the snow-cover­ed arc­tic land­scape was glit­te­ring in the sun around us as we awo­ke to ano­ther day in Isfjord. Stun­ning beau­ty ever­y­whe­re around us.

Ymerbukta

Ymer­buk­ta.

Reinde­er are roa­ming in lar­ge num­bers over the snow-cover­ed tun­dra. They are loo­king for­ward for the snow to dis­ap­pear soon.

Reindeer, Erdmannodden

Reinde­er at Erd­man­nod­den.

In the after­noon, a strong visu­al con­trast and a bit of regio­nal histo­ry fol­lo­wed in shape of the aban­do­ned Rus­si­an sett­le­ment in Coles­buk­ta, which belon­ged to the coal mine of Gru­mant­by­en. (Click here for some back­ground infor­ma­ti­on about Rus­si­an coal mining in Spits­ber­gen.)

Colesbukta

Coles­buk­ta.

Pho­to gal­lery Isfjord

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.

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