Last week we finished the latest arctic voyage with SV Antigua in Spitsbergen. Now there are several pages with photo galleries and short narrations available to illustrate this beautiful journey. It is a privilege to experience this and it is a pleasure to share it here with everybody who might be curious – it was an amazing trip and it is certainly worth having a look at the pictures. Click here to start.
Antigua in Magdalenefjord, on a beautiful mid July evening.
In 2017, it was decided that the former coal mining settlement of Sveagruva would be abandoned and actually mostly physically cleaned up and removed. A milestone was reached recently, on 01st August, when the final flight took off from Longyearbyen to Sveagruva and back. This 20 minute air connection has been the lifeline for Sveagruva for decades, more than 40,000 flights are said to have been operated.
Airplaine on the runway of Sveagruva.
Now, the little airport of Sveagruva will be removed. About 70 people will work on this and other parts of the cleanup project for the next couple of months. During this time, they will live not live in the former settlement anymore, but on supply ships.
Next year, a small work force of 8 is scheduled to do the last bits and pieces of the cleanup, according to Svalbardposten.
It is nice to be somewhere remote, far away from civilization and offline, as we were on board SV Antigua until Wednesday (27th July). Without any connection to the outside world other than satellite-based communication, far from fit for real internet.
Back in Longyearbyen, this all changes. The world news are mostly depressing, but obviously not what this page is about. Compared to much of what is going on in the world, Spitsbergen is and remains a peaceful place without major troubles. But still, things happen here and many of them are not great at all.
One can only wonder what was got into some people who are working within tourism in Spitsbergen, steering ships or boats or being in responsible positions on them. Two French expedition ships (or small cruise ships, whatever you prefer) got their guns removed recently because they did not have the required papers. About 50 weapons in total! That can indeed raise an eyebrow or two. At least, mistakes made in this case were made on paper and not during navigation on the bridge or in the field, where major mistakes can have entirely different consequences.
As will become clear in this case, in case anyone may wonder. After the grounding of the Virgo in Fuglefjord a couple of weeks ago, the Ocean Atlantic, a major expedition ship (or: see above) operated by Albatross Expeditions, touched the ground (or ice?) somewhere. The incident was serious enough to have caused damage to the hull, involving ingression of water. And as if that had not yet been enough, the crew did not deem it necessary to inform the Norwegian maritime authority, who could have dispatched rescue forces to be on stand-by in the vicinity of the Ocean Explorer in case of an escalation. It is probably needless to say that such a report to the maritime authority would have been required by law, and talk of luck that the situation did not deteriorate. The crew on board was able to control the situation. Nevertheless, someone on board felt uncomfortable enough to make a phone call at some stage, and soon the Ocean Atlantic was escorted to Longyearbyen by a Norwegian coastguard vessel. Now the ship is anchored in Adventfjord, awaiting inspection. Earlier controls this year had already revealed more than 20 serious security flaws.
Comment: incredulous shaking of the head.
Ocean Atlantic in the port of Longyearbyen.
Less dramatic, but nevertheless serious and making one wonder, is the incident where a Zodiac fleet belonging to Hondius went to a small island in Kongsfjord to give their passengers an opportunity to see a polar bear. Witnesses claim that the boats were close enough to cause disturbance of the animal or even put people or the bear at risk, but this may be a matter of controversial debate; it is said that the boats were “at one time within 50 meters”, a distance that does not at all necessarily (but may) involve disturbance or even risk to life and limb of man or beast. It is not possible to say more about this aspect of the incident without further knowledge of relevant details.
But one thing is clear, unfortunately: the island in question is part of a bird sanctuary. From 15th May to 15th August, a minimum distance of 300 metres from the island’s (and neighbouring islands) shores are required for all traffic, including boats. This regulation has been in force for decades.
Comment: also here, one can only wonder how this could happen. The only explanation this author can think of is an astonishing lack of knowledge regarding relevant regulations. This should not have happened to the expedition staff of a ship operated by a comapany with decades of regional experience, an opinion shared by the chief operating officer of the company in question as reported by Svalbardposten. The incident is likely the debate about a certification scheme for guides, something which in itself is not necessary a bad thing at all, although this debate is not necessarily going a fruitful way either, but that is another issue.
As if 2 years of Covid-19 were not enough for all who want to or who need to travel: pilots of SAS are on strike since negotiations scheduled until yesterday (Monday) failed. Up to 250 SAS flights are expected to be cancelled now every day as long as the strike lasts.
That includes flights to and from Longyearbyen.
It is an issue that has kept Norway and Russia busy already for some weeks: a delivery for Barentsburg, said to include mainly food, is kept on hold at the border between Russia and north Norway. The delivery was to be transported over land to Tromsø and from there by ship to Barentsburg.
Barentsburg during brighter times (here in 2019).
But due to the sanctions introduced after the Russian war of aggression and destruction began in February, Norway does not allow the goods into the country. The Spitsbergen treaty guarantees all signatory parties – this includes Russia – free access to Svalbard, but according to Norwegian authorities, this does not automatically include the right to chose a route through the Norwegian mainland. Norwegian officials say that Russia at any time has the opportunity to ship goods from their own harbours to Barentsburg. Svalbard ports are not included in the ban on Russian ships in Norwegian ports, and officials indicate that Norway would consider an excemption to the ban on Russian planes on Norwegian airports if the Russian side filed an application for a flight to Longyearbyen.
The Russian reaction is mainly irritation, political threats – recently, Russian representatives have repeatedly pointed out that Norway breaks the Spitsbergen treaty – and allegedly cyberattacks. There have been several cyberattacks on public Norwegian websites recently, which Norwegian authorities associate with Russian hacker groups, according to Svalbardposten and other Norwegian media channels.
At some stage, Russian representatives raised concerns about a serious shortage of supplies in Barentsburg, which was described as an overreaction by Norway. Now it is said that the supply in Barentsburg is stable, due to deliveries from other sources, according to NRK.
Bird flu, also known as avian flu or avian influenza, has been detected in Spitsbergen in June for the first time. It is the first evidence for this virus in the Arctic.
Scientists expected the arrival of the bird flu virus in Svalbard now because of a major recent outbreak of the disease amonst Barnacle geese in England and Scotland. Birds from this population migrate up to Svalbard to breed there during the summer. You can see Barnacle geese and others, mainly pink-footed geese, in and near Longyearbyen in large numbers in the early summer before they spread to the breading areas.
Barnacle geese are potential carriers of the bird flu virus (here in Ny-Ålesund).
The bird flu virus was now found in a dead glaucous gull that was found near the harbour in Longyearbyen, as NRK reports.
Bird flu is highly infectious and very dangerous for birds, both wild and domestic ones. Experts fear potentially disastrous consequences for domestic bird stocks in mainland Norway and wild bird populations both there and in Svalbard.
Report to the Sysselmester if you find a dead bird or an alive one that shows strange behaviour, but do not touch or handle dead birds or bird droppings. The risk of an infection for humans, however, is described as low.
After a long and controversial political process, the Norwegian government in Oslo has now made the decision that non-Norwegian inhabitants of Longyearbyen will lose the voting right (active and passive) on a community level. Only those “foreigners” (people without Norwegian passports) who have lived at least 3 years in a mainland community will be able to vote or to be elected into the community council (Longyearbyen Lokalstyre).
This applies to approximately 700 inhabitants of Longyearbyen. There is currently one member of Lokalstyre who has a passport other than Norwegian (Olivia Ericson from Sweden), according to NRK.
This had been a very controversial and, for some, emotional debate which was already subject of several earlier contributions on this page; read the previous article (click here) for more background, e.g. on the history of local democracy in Longyearbyen.
It is safe to assume that most non-Norwegian citizens have not spent 3 years as a registered inhabitant of a Norwegian mainland community. Many locals who have spent a major part of their lives in Longyearbyen will not be allowed to vote during the next local elections (in 2023) and they may not be elected into Lokalstyre.
The recent governmental decision frustrates many who are concerned; many feel like second-class citizens now, as Svalbardposten reports.
Minister of justice Emilie Enger Mehl gives the following explanatory statement (quoted from the press release of the Norwegian government, link above, my own translation): “The connection to the mainland makes sure that those who manage the community at any time have good knowledge and a good understanding of Svalbard politics and the (political) framework that is applied to Svalbard … considerable resources are transferred every year from the mainland to support public services and infrastructure. Inhabitants with mainland connection will often have contributed to these finances. The requirement for a mainland connection is also to be seen in this light.”
Longyearbyen is becoming more Norwegian. Exclusion of non-Norwegian inhabitants from local democracy is a price that the Norwegian government is appearently willing to pay.
So far so clear: those who (potentially) have paid are to decide; those who have paid potentially less (local taxes are low) and to not have the right passport are excluded from political participation where it really matters.
Longyearbyen Lokalstyre is a community council and no more than that. Lokalstyre’s decisions concern local traffic, kindergarten, school, other local infrastructure – just what a community council generally does, and no more than that. Lokalstyre does not have any influence in national legislation – beyond trying to be heard, which too often does not happen, otherwise the decision in question would not have happened as it did. Lokalstyre does not make decisions concerning Svalbard outside the community of Longyearbyen.
So one may ask what kind of problem the Norwegian government assumes to solve. Or, same question in other words: what are they afraid of? So far, Longyearbyen Lokalstyre is firmly in Norwegian hands. There is currently exactly one local council member who is not Norwegian, and that is Olivia Ericson from Sweden. Who is afraid of Olivia? And even if, one future day, Danes and Swedes, Germans and Thai would make up a visible proportion of Longyearbyen Lokalstyre and thus have a say in matters concerning local road building of kindergarten – so what?
Last year, a local council member of Høyre (“Right”) said something like “This is about security. Thus, we can not make any compromise.”
It would be interesting to know more about where politicians from the quoted local council member up to Minister of justice Emilie Enger Mehl see Norwegian security threatened.
Let’s just assume they would be able to give a convincing answert to this question (noting that nothing points to this actually being the case): the current decision is, at best, preventive. As mentioned, there is currently exactly one local council member who is not Norwegian, and nothing points towards an increasing trend of international diversity in Lokalstyre.
For this preventive measure, the Norwegian government is willing to pay a high price – or rather, to let others pay the price: the exclusion of a large group from local democracy. Many of those feel like second class citizens now.
Norwegian politicians usually not let an opportunity pass unused to point out that Svalbard and Longyearbyen are Norwegian (and I haven’t heard anyone questioning this, with some exceptions of bizarre claims made by Sovjet/Russian politicians, but that’s a totally different issue and by no means relevent in a local democracy context). But suddenly, Longyearbyen is not Norwegian enough to give those who have been living there for years good knowledge of the Norwegian political framework for Svalbard policy? That is, in my opinion, bizarre.
Justizministerin Mehl said (author’s translation): “Nobody is excluded from the democratic process, but you must have lived on the mainland for 3 years to be elected into Lokalstyre.” (Svalbardposten).
It is hard to say what is more worrying. That the government plainly ignores most of the opinions being raised during the public hearing – the voices from Longyearbyen where by far singing the same song of democracy and political participation.
Or that Mehl pretends that nobody is excluded from the democratic process while this is exactly what happens, which is either a concerning lack of knowledge or plainly false. There are very few non-Norwegian inhabitants of Longyearbyen who have spent at least 3 years as registered inhabitants of a mainland community. And the desire to do this has probably not grown for many whom the Norwegian government has now given the finger. This may be perceived as a strong description of the recent decision, but this is exactly how those who are directly concerned may well feel about it (so does this author, in any case).
Which other modern, democratic, European country has retreived lcoal voting rights from foreign inhabitants who used to have these rights before, some for many years? This decision apperas politically disgusting, right-wing nationalist and xenophobic. With this decision, the Norwegian government has joined a circle of European governemnts where, I am sure, they do not wish to see themselves.
MS Virgo, which hit a rock in Fuglefjord, is back in Longyearbyen. She is said to have done the passage under her own power, but accompanied by the coastguard to assist if needed.
Coastguard divers made an attempt to repair the hull damage temporarily, but it is said that this did not work. Polarsyssel, the governor’s vessel, pumped fuel from Virgo‘s damaged tank.
MS Virgo in Longyearbyen, today (Thursday) morning.
There is no further information available at the moment, nothing about the extent of damage, the volume of diesel that may have been lost in Fuglefjord and escaped into the environment or why and how exactly the grounding happened.
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.
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.
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” 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.
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.
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, winner of the 2022 champagne glass contest.
Here together with Mario Czok, then Captain on Antigua, at Bear Island (2018).
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 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?
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.
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.
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 (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.
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.