Early in the morning on Good Friday (7 April), a mature polar bear sow with a cub at heal was chased with snowmobiles away from a recreation area used by locals on the west coast but drowned after she escaped into the water. Her cub, likely a yearling male, attacked authorities trying to retrieve her body and was shot.
It turns out this 17 year old female was well known to locals and is considered Svalbard’s most famous polar bear. They call her ‘Frost.’ She featured in the 2019 Attenborough-narrated Netflix documentary Our Planet, in the sequence showing the stalk of a newborn ringed seal pup (see screencap above), which was likely filmed in early 2018 after the cliff-falling walrus scenes in Russia that were filmed in October 2017. h/t Sheila.
Frost apparently returns every year to this fjord complex near Longyearbyen, the capital city, to hunt ringed seals on the frozen ice and this has put her in regular close association with people. The map below shows the location of Longyearbyen on the west coast and the many glaciers that cover the archipelago.
One photographer boasts of having filmed her for five years (see tweet below), which suggests she is habituated to having people around. Past videos and photos of her show a bear in excellent condition (i.e., fat) and indicate she is an accomplished hunter despite claims reiterated by Attenborough [watch at 34:14 to 39:00 in Our Planet] that global warming is making things difficult for bears in this area. However, there are no photos of her body condition this year.
It transpired that this female had been tranquilized a few days before as part of annual spring research conducted by the Norwegian Polar Institute and there is concern that drugs used to sedate her were still in her system and may have contributed to her death, perhaps exacerbated by the long chase before she entered the water. This may be possible but is not confirmed: a young bear died in September 2020 after being sedated and chased by researchers in their fall survey.
However, two or three days seems rather a long time to be suffering such effects from sedation: if she was very fat, it could have simply been heat exhaustion that got her, which polar bears are prone to suffer from if chased for extended periods.
The person tweeting his grief over the loss of the bear copied above blames the attractants in recreational huts on “tourists” but according to the following early report (7 April), the huts in the area, at Vindodden, are owned and used by locals (my bold):
During the night – which is not dark anymore, the midnight sun is not far away – the little bear family was seen by people near Vindodden. Vindodden is a small peninsula in Sassenfjord with a couple of huts owned and used by locals from Longyearbyen, and during spring weekends, especially the Easter weekend, it is very popular to stay in a hut.
The polar bears approached the huts, where people tried to scare them away with warning shots fired from signal pistols. This worked, and the polar bears moved away, swimming in the fjord.
…The female bear was soon seen dead in the water, head down, with the cub swimming around her. The Sysselmester (police) was alarmed and came by helicopter. The dead female was retrieved from the water.
The cub approached, the personell tried to scare the cub away, but this time, it did not work and the cub was subsequently shot.
It is my understanding from reports on previous incidents in Svalbard that people are forbidden from leaving stored food in these recreational huts because it can attract bears. However, it sounds like these particular cabins were actually in use and therefore had food people had brought with them.
Frost the polar bear was not only famous for her photogenic qualities and tolerance to people. It appears that she is also the mother of the young male that killed a camper in his tent in August 2020 and that over the years, she and various cubs have been responsible for many damaged huts. Frost may be the bear responsible for incidents I reported on in late March 2021.
According to a follow-up report on this incident (12 April), my bold:
Last Friday’s events at Vindodden in Sassenfjord will now be investigated by appropriate authorities, mainly Sysselmesteren. As of now, there is no indication of criminal behaviour, as Svalbardposten reports.
It is said that Frost was marked by scientists (Norwegian Polar Institute) during the days before her dead. Marking polar bears always involves general aenesthesia dispensed with a rifle shot from a helicopter. A potential connection of the aenesthesia and Frost’s death will be part of the investigation.
Frost had a cub with her that attacked the action forces as they retrieved her body from the sea. The cub was shot. Also this part of the incident will be investigated.
During her long life, Frost and her offspring had frequent contact with people and infrastructure, some of which was harmful or even tragic. This ranges from many damaged huts to the death of Johan (“Job”) Kootte in August 2020, which was caused by one of Frost’s cubs. Several of her cubs lost their lives during these and other incidents.
Bottom line: At least one person has died because of this bear’s preference for hunting in the one area in the entire archipelago where people are abundant in spring and summer. Her tolerance for the presence of people nearby, especially photographers, appears to have been passed along to several of her offspring, resulting in their deaths. Habituation of bears to people comes with a price.
Sea ice conditions
Two days before the incident:abundant ice on the east coast but this particular bear prefers to hunt in a western fjord where the deepest reaches have shore-fast ice (dark grey on this chart) that ringed seals use for giving birth in the spring and where there is glacier ice in summer: