Cruise ship bear guard survives being mauled by polar bear in Svalbard

Less than a month after a fatal polar bear attack near Arviat, Western Hudson Bay, European media reported this morning that one of two German polar bear guards escorting a group of tourists on a shore visit in northern Svalbard was mauled on 28 July by a polar bear before the second guard could kill it.

Svalbard dead bear_Gustav Busch Arntsen_Governor of Svalbard_NTB Scanpix via AP 28 July 2018

The man was air-lifted to hospital in Longyearbyen with non-life-threatening head injuries. Whether the bear was fat or thin was not mentioned but a necropsy will be performed.

More details are likely to be available within the next few days. The guards and tourists were from the German cruise ship MS Bremen, which apparently is operating a live web cam. The group landed on the Sjuøyane Islands, the northernmost group of islands in the Svalbard archipelago (see the top of the black box on the map below).

UPDATE 28 July 2018 11:00 pm PT: The photo of the dead bear (above, provided by the Governor of Svalbard), shows the animal was in poor condition. See my comments below regarding sea ice coverage for the area: the bear had likely been on the islands since early May and if he was not in good condition when he left the ice, he would have been desperate by now. However, we still do not know if he was sick or injured, young or old. That information will come with time.

UPDATE 29 July 2018: The cruise ship line has released a statement on Facebook that includes further details about the attack, see below.

UPDATE 29 July 2018: Hapag-Lloyd Cruises has released more details of the attack (my bold).

“Landings are possible only in a few places; these are not there to serve the purpose of polar bear observation, on the contrary: polar bears are only observed from aboard ships, from a safe distance. To prepare for a shore leave, the polar bear guards go ashore in advance after sighting the landing site as a group and without passengers. They then set up a land station and check the area again to make sure that there are no polar bears in sight. As soon as such an animal approaches, the shore leave would be stopped immediately.

The incident occurred when the four-person polar bear guard team, who are always on board for these expedition cruises as required by law, prepared for a shore leave. One of the guards was unexpectedly attacked by a polar bear that had not been spotted and he was unable to react himself. As the attempts of the other guards to evict the animal, unfortunately, were not successful, there had to be intervention for reasons of self-defense and to protect the life of the attacked person. The injured person was immediately provided with medical care and flown to a hospital with a rescue helicopter. We are in personal, direct contact with him. His condition is stable and he remains responsive.”

Read the entire statement here. It appears the guard who was attacked was armed but because he was taken by surprise, he was unable to protect himself. Polar bears are generally adept ambush hunters, as this incident shows.

Svalbard northernmost island map

This area of Svalbard last saw ice in early May 2018 (below), which means the bear may have been onshore since then. A well-fed bear would not yet be in desperately in need of food after three months but if it was not in good condition initially, it might have been dangerously hungry.

Svalbard ice extent 2018 May 4_NIS

In 2016, sea ice similarly retreated from northern Svalbard by early May:

Barents Sea ice extent 2016 May 9_NIS

After an early retreat in May 2016, the ice did not return until early February 2017 (below), which means any bears who took refuge onshore on those islands in May 2016 would likely have starved.

Svalbard sea ice 2017 Feb 3_NIS

If a similar pattern of ice retreat and return happens this year, the bear responsible for today’s attack in the Sjuøyane Islands would likely have been doomed to starvation.

Fortunately, few polar bears remain near Svalbard year round: the latest estimate is that around 250 bears are loyal to coastal Svalbard (Tartu et al. 2018) out of perhaps as many as 3,750 for the Barents Sea subpopulation as a whole (Crockford 2017, 2018), or about 7% of the total.

Most of the Barents Sea polar bear subpopulation resides offshore in the pack ice year-round or takes refuge in the islands of the Franz Josef Land archipelago to the east where sea ice coverage is less volatile (Aars 2015; Aars et al. 2017; Descamps et al. 2017).

There is no doubt that the Svalbard region in most recent years (except 2015, when the last population count was done) did not have enough sea ice to support a breeding population of polar bears. However, more suitable habitat is present not far to the east in Franz Josef Land and there is no evidence that the Barents Sea subpopulation of polar bears has suffered a decline in numbers as a result of this sea ice loss near Svalbard (Aars et al. 2017).

References

Aars, J. 2015. Research on polar bears at Norwegian Polar Institute. Online seminar (‘webinar”), January 14. pdf here.

Aars, J., Marques, T.A., Buckland, S.T., Andersen, M., Belikov, S., Boltunov, A., et al. 2009. Estimating the Barents Sea polar bear subpopulation. Marine Mammal Science 25: 35-52.

Aars, J., Marques,T.A, Lone, K., Anderson, M., Wiig, Ø., Fløystad, I.M.B., Hagen, S.B. and Buckland, S.T. 2017. The number and distribution of polar bears in the western Barents Sea. Polar Research 36:1. 1374125. doi:10.1080/17518369.2017.1374125

Crockford, S.J. 2017. Testing the hypothesis that routine sea ice coverage of 3-5 mkm2 results in a greater than 30% decline in population size of polar bears (Ursus maritimus). PeerJ Preprints 2 March 2017. Doi: 10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v3 Open access. https://doi.org/10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v3

Crockford, S.J. 2018. State of the Polar Bear Report 2017. Global Warming Policy Foundation Report #29. London. pdf here.

Descamps, S., Aars, J., Fuglei, E., Kovacs, K.M., Lydersen, C., Pavlova, O., Pedersen, Å.Ø., Ravolainen, V. and Strøm, H. 2017. Climate change impacts on wildlife in a High Arctic archipelago — Svalbard, Norway. Global Change Biology 23: 490-502. doi: 10.1111/gcb.13381

Tartu, S., Aars, J., Andersen, M., Polder,A., Bourgeon, S., Merkel, B., Lowther,A.D., Bytingsvik,J., Welker, J.M., Derocher, A.E., Jenssen, B.M. and Routti, H. 2018. Choose your poison — Space-use strategy influences pollutant exposure in Barents Sea polar bears. Environmental Science and Technology DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.7b06137

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