Barents Sea polar bear research in the good old days – 1968/69 – with video

Here is some old footage shot in 1968-1969 of four Dutch researchers – none of whom had any experience with large carnivores – sent to study polar bears at Kapp Lee on Edgeøya (eastern Svalbard). It’s in Dutch so I don’t know what they’re saying but given the choice of music (Beatles, “All You Need is Love”) I can guess the message.

Still, the images are kind of cool, it’s interesting to see how research was conducted at the time by inexperienced personnel. FYI, I began my university studies in 1968, I was not much younger than these students at the time.

Overwintering Spitsbergen 1968-1969 [Uploaded to youtube 21 October 2012; length 45:55]

Description: In the winter of 1968-1969 stayed four Dutch students on the island Edgeøya east of Spitsbergen to do research as to polar bears. During that expedition, this film made by Paul van de Bosch and Hans Sweet and exhibited by the NOS on Dutch television in 1969. 

[Barents Sea polar bear subpopulation background here and here]

I found some additional background that I’ve included below, which shows how naive these young men were, although clearly they had enthusiasm. Dutch researcher Piet Oosterveld was one of the original four on the 1968 expedition and according to a recent news report (see below), will accompany a new expedition to study the effects of global warming. Map below is from the Dutch News story cited below. Spoiler alert: in 1987, Oosterveld was attacked by a polar bear and seriously injured, blamed in part on the rapid increase in polar bear numbers due to their protected status.

Dutch expedition route map

Background of the expedition members and their experiences

I found a wealth of information in an English translation of a book chapter about Oosterveld and his expeditions, by Louwrens Hacquebord (2004): “Permanence in diversity: A life in the service of Arctic Biological Research.” The chapter is from a book called “PERMANENCE IN DIVERSITY: Netherlands Ecological research on Edgeøya Spitsbergen” edited by Hacquebord, L. and Boschman, N., published in 2004 (in Dutch) by Barkhuis Publishing.

I’ve copied some of the interesting parts below, see the rest in the pdf here.

LOUWRENS HACQUEBORD writes (bold below is mine):

Piet Oosterveld was born in Zwolle on 5 February 1939. After secondary school he went to university in Utrecht to study biology. In the final stages of his studies he did fieldwork on the exposition of vegetations in Iceland and later wrote up the results of this fieldwork in Spitsbergen.

In 1967 Piet taught biology for some time at the grammar school in the town where he had formerly lived, but it soon became clear that research was where his heart lay. When he was asked to join an expedition to Spitsbergen, he needed little time to think. In 1968 he and three others formed the Netherlands Spitsbergen Expedition and spent the winter on Edgeøya, an island in the east of the Spitsbergen group of islands which is now also known as Svalbard.

Why was there an expedition to Spitsbergen and whose idea was it? In his booklet Nederlandse Spitsbergen Expeditie 1968–1969, Piet wrote that it was Eric Flipse’s idea (Oosterveld 1970).

Flipse had met Norwegian zoologist Thor Larsen who had told him that there were plans to organize polar bear research on Spitsbergen. The status of the polar bear population there was a cause of serious concern at the time; the number of bears shot each year was higher than the number born. Moreover, at an international conference in Fairbanks (Alaska) in 1965 it had become clear that too little was known about the biology of polar bears to be able to take adequate measures to protect them. Through the Norwegian connection, Flipse came into contact with the zoologist Dr Anne van Wijngaarden of RIVON (Netherlands institute for nature conservation research) in Zeist, an institute working to conserve threatened mammals in Europe.

Together, they accepted the Norwegian invitation to take a Dutch team to do research in Spitsbergen in 1968–1969. They set up a foundation in order to raise funds for the expedition, which proved to be no simple task. Completely in line with the tradition of Dutch polar research, all the money had to come from private funds and the business community. In spite of repeated requests, the government contributed nothing. It was only a few weeks before their departure that, thanks to a few large contributions from the business community, they managed to raise enough funds to let the expedition go ahead.

At the beginning of August the expedition headed north. The members of the team who were to winter there were Eric Flipse, 23, a biology student who was the expedition’s technical leader, Ko de Korte, 25, a biology student specializing in ornithology, Paul de Groot, 21, a forestry student, and Piet Oosterveld, 29, a biology student who was in charge of the scientific side of the expedition. Anne van Wijngaarden, a zoologist and the overall leader of the project, and the technical assistants Nico Vergouw and Henk Vlug stayed with the team only for the summer, to help prepare for the winter and to build the research station. Hans Zoet and Paul van de Bos reported on these preparations in radio and television broadcasts.

The aim of the expedition was to gather biological data on polar bears in the east of Spitsbergen. The animals were under great pressure due to hunting, and in addition their health was being seriously undermined by toxic substances such as DDT and heavy metals. Because the polar bear is at the end of the food chain, it consumes many toxic substances which accumulate in its fat. The bears were measured, weighed and tagged in order to find out more about their biology and behaviour (Oosterveld 1969, 1971a). When the summer team returned to the Netherlands in mid-September [SJC: i.e., those who were not staying for the winter], the real work started (De Korte and Oosterveld 1970b).

During the winter, the spring and the following summer, Piet Oosterveld and Ko de Korte also did scientific research of their own. Oosterveld was studying reindeer (Oosterveld 1971b) and De Korte the birds on the island (De Korte 1972). In the summer of 1969 a few big expeditions with ships and helicopters came to visit. Many of the ships belonged to Norwegian seal hunters who provide transport around Spitsbergen in the summer. Eric Flipse in particular made contact with the seal hunters and became fascinated by their work.

In mid-September 1969 the Norwegian seal-hunting ship Norvarg picked the team up and took them back to civilization. Back in the Netherlands, the Rijksinstituut voor Natuurbeheer (Netherlands Institute for Nature Conservation) gave Piet a job writing up the data collected by the expedition. Paul did a photography course and soon after went to work as a police photographer. Ko and Eric were keen to get back to the polar region as soon as possible. Ko did so soon after his finals. In 1973 he continued his research into the breeding success of the tundra birds. Supported by the Foundation for Arctic Biological Research, which was the successor of the Foundation for the Netherlands Spitsbergen Expedition 1968–1969 and whose administration was headed by Piet Oosterveld, he spent the summer months of several years on the east coast of Greenland.

His research eventually resulted in a dissertation and a doctorate awarded by the University of Amsterdam (De Korte 1986). Eric made good use of the contacts he had made with the Norwegian seal hunters in the summer of 1969. From 1972 on he collected data on Arctic seals in the marine area around Jan Mayen. His activities were also supported by the Foundation for Arctic Biological Research (Flipse and Oosterveld 1975).

In 1970 the members of the team who had spent the winter in Spitsbergen were awarded the Visser-Neerlandia prize for their work. One year later, partly due to the results of the Dutch study, polar bear hunting in Spitsbergen was restricted and from 1974 on it was completely prohibited.

1987 was a dramatic year; indirectly, the events which took place then led to the end of Dutch research on Edgeøya. That year Piet Oosterveld and George Visser were together at the Kapp Lee station on Edgeøya. Oosterveld was continuing with his reindeer research and Visser was working on the vegetation. Together, they were trying to find out more about the reindeer’s grazing behaviour. A few days before the two scientists were to be picked up by the MS Plancius, Piet was attacked by a polar bear.

Because of the conservation measures which had been taken partly as a result of the Netherlands Spitsbergen Expedition in 1968–1969, the numbers of polar bears had increased considerably. In sixteen years’ time the population had grown from 1000 to 3000 bears. [SJC note: there was no official estimate of numbers in 1968] Most of the bears were on the pack ice in the north-east of Svalbard, but the number of encounters with polar bears at Kapp Lee had also risen sharply.

On that particular day Piet saw a young male bear hitting the Zodiac rubber boat on the beach in front of the research station with its claws. He grabbed a newspaper, rolled it up tightly and lit fire to it. Holding this torch, he went towards the bear to chase it away. But the bear refused to be chased away: it turned around and walked towards Piet. Piet, who had not expected this, turned around, intending to go back to the station. While doing so he slipped, and immediately the bear was on him, biting his head. George Visser saw what happened, and without hesitation ran outside and grabbed the animal by the scruff of its neck.

The polar bear let go of Piet, so that he was able to escape. George came in for a few hefty blows from the bear, but also managed to get away. Badly hurt, the two scientists stumbled back into the station, where they would have to wait three days for the Plancius to arrive. The captain of the Plancius used the radio to call in the help of the Governor of Svalbard, who immediately sent a helicopter.

The bear, which was still roaming around the station, was shot dead, and the two men were taken to hospital in Longyearbyen. There they were patched up well enough to return to the Netherlands, where Piet had to stay in hospital for several more weeks. In 1988 Piet Oosterveld returned to Kapp Lee one more time. Jalink and Nauta accompanied him and completed the fieldwork they had begun in 1985. They took mycological samples in the experimental sites which had been laid out in 1985 and also took soil samples.

Unfortunately, 1988 was also the Kapp Lee station’s last year. In 1989 Piet Oosterveld sold it for a symbolic sum to the Norwegian Polar Institute. The Norwegians immediately demolished the station to forestall any future Dutch claims to the area. Norway knows better than any other country how important a role research stations can play in political and territorial claims; after all, it owes its own sovereignty over Jan Mayen to a claim of this kind. Since the demolition of the Dutch station, there has not been any mediumsized research facility on the island, which has in the meantime been proclaimed a nature reserve. From a scientific point of view, it was a serious mistake to demolish the station, because now the only high Arctic research station on Spitsbergen has been lost. All research stations still in existence are on the west coast of Spitsbergen where low Arctic conditions prevail because of the warm Gulf Stream.

After the sale of the station, the Foundation for Arctic Biological Research was no longer necessary. On the instructions of Piet Oosterveld, the executive committee terminated the Foundation, thus putting an end to one of the most important Dutch research initiatives in the Arctic since the Second World War.

In retrospect it has become clear that the studies never really got off the ground and never produced the expected results because they were not formally embedded in an research institute in the Netherlands. Piet Oosterveld was therefore forced to spend a great deal of time on logistic and financial preparations for the expeditions and on keeping the station running. He was too often dependent for his research on scientists who had other jobs and were therefore doing this research in their spare time. The consequence was that many unique scientific data were published very late or not at all.

Piet Oosterveld himself never received any structural financial support from the Dutch organization for scientific research, so that in fact the Foundation for Arctic Biological Research suffered chronically from lack of funds. Lack of both funds and staff eventually led to the premature end of this unique research initiative.

Polar bear publications resulting from the 1968-69 expedition discussed above:
Oosterveld, P., 1969. Polarbear. Nederlandse Spitsbergen Expeditie 1968–1969. Preliminary report, no. 2.

Oosterveld, P., 1971a. De IJsbeer (Thalarctos Maritimus Phipps) Research en management in de jaren ’60, in Arctis. Vakblad voor biologen, 51(9), 206–214.

It appears that although Norwegian researchers made use of the information collected by the Dutch expedition, none of them went on to do further polar bear research. See this mention of the Dutch group’s contribution noted in Thor Larsen’s 1970 IUCN PBSG report on Norwegian polar bear research in 1968 and 1969 (Pg. 21), my bold:

“…From September 1968 and one year onwards, an expedition which was established in Tjuv£jordcl1) Edgeoya, worked with ecological and physiological polar bear investigations (Larsen 1969 b). The group, consisting of four men, was headed by Mr. T. Larsen, (ecological programme) and Mr. N.A. Oristland (physiological prograuulle). The same winter, a Finnish expedition in Sveagruva on Spitsbergen and a Dutch group at Kap Lee on Edgeoya worked with polar bear studies.


Oosterveld in 2015: to accompany new expedition to Svalbard

Researcher returns to where polar bear attacked him 16 August 2015 NEWS STORY [Google Translate version, I haven’t bothered to tidy it up]

The Dutch researcher Piet Oosterveld is one of the participants in a large Dutch scientific expedition in the Arctic, which begins next week. A special trip for a man who returns to the place where he not only did years of research, but also was attacked by a polar bear.

Oosterveld told his chilling story time in the TV program Sonja on Sunday. Still with the head in the dressing, in which an impression of the teeth of the polar bear were clearly visible. Oosterveld camped in 1987 along with a fellow biologist in a hut on Svalbard for research into the vegetation and reindeer.


When he looked out on a day in September, Oosterveld saw a polar bear who was trying to destroy their boat. Therefore, the researcher ran with a burning torch out, hoping to chase away the polar bear. That failed. Instead, the polar bear turned on him.

On the way back to the cabin, tripped Oosterveld, then the polar bear jumped on top of him. Which immediately set his teeth in the mind of the investigator. His colleague, George Fisher, seen from the cabin what happened. When the bear had a lot ear, cheek and scalp in his mouth. Visser ran out, then jump on the back of the polar bear, the beast was momentarily distracted, and the two men could still reach the hut.


“When George has all those shreds and slices laid along my head hung back in place, a shot of alcohol over thrown back and laid a solid palliatives”, Oosterveld told by Sonja Barend. Then the two men had to wait three days before they were picked up by a boat.

Almost thirty years later Oosterveld goes back to the place where his fight took place with the polar bear. Particularly to do with it, he says. Although he is also somewhat annoyed at the structure of the trip, which is too much like his eyes on a cruise. In his eyes, it would have been better to stabbing the money in an investigation of a few months, by a handful of scientists.


The expedition which begins this week, more than fifty Dutch scientists come along. In many different fields is investigated. It looks at “the impact of human activities in one of the most remote wildernesses,” said the expedition’s website. “One area where currently major change in recent years because it has become considerably warmer.”

The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the world. This has major consequences for plant and animal species, the glaciers and the sea. To examine these aspects, boating scientists from the capital of Spitsbergen, Lonqyearbyen, to Kapp Lee on the island Edgeøya.

Read the rest here.


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