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Yearly Archives: 2022 − News


Polar bear inci­dent in Ekmanfjord

Today (Wed­nes­day, 08th August), a per­son was inju­red and a polar bear kil­led during an acci­dent at Sve­a­ne­set in Ekmanfjord.

Not much is known so far in public, but a polar bear came into a camp with 25 French tou­rists. A woman recei­ved inju­ries to her arm, but her con­di­ti­ons appears not to be life threa­tening.

The polar bear was shot at during the event and it is now repor­ted dead.

Fur­ther details are not avail­ab­le at the moment.

Spits­ber­gen with SV Anti­gua: Pho­tos & short online dia­ry

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, Magdalenefjord

Anti­gua in Mag­da­le­n­efjord, on a beau­ti­ful mid July evening.

Enjoy!

P.S. if you pre­fer to expe­ri­ence Spits­ber­gen yourself (whon wouldn’t?), then you can join us in Sep­tem­ber becau­se a cabin on Anti­gua is avail­ab­le again after a can­cel­la­ti­on. Click here for more infor­ma­ti­on or get in touch, ide­al­ly direct­ly with Geo­gra­phi­sche Rei­se­ge­sell­schaft (Ger­man spea­king depar­tu­re, so you should at least be able to under­stand some Ger­man).

Sveagru­va: air con­nec­tion is histo­ry

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.

Aircraft, Sveagruva

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.

The for­mer coal mining sett­le­ment of Sveagru­va, inclu­ding the mines of Lunck­ef­jel­let and Sveagru­va, is well docu­men­ted on this web­site (click here).

The (almost) ever­y­day mad­ness con­ti­nues

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, Longyearbyen

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.

SAS pilots on strike

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.

SAS strike

SAS, plea­se find a solu­ti­on, asap!

Rus­si­an deli­very stop­ped – Rus­sia reacts with irri­ta­ti­on and cyber­at­tacks

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

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 detec­ted in Spits­ber­gen

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, Ny-Ålesund

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.

Nor­we­gi­an government dis­pos­ses­ses for­eig­ners of local voting rights

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.”

Norwegian Longyearbyen and voting rights

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.

Com­ment

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 back in Lon­gye­ar­by­en

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, Longyearbyen

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.

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!

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.

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