Tracking the attack: Bear that attacked cruise worker was skeletal, expert says; signs of its presence on beach should have been obvious, researchers who saw it the day before say

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The cruise ship wasn’t trying to bring tourists ashore to look at a polar bear. The uneven landscape of the beach meant the animal could have been out of sight a short distance away – but a whale carcass and lots of bear tracks should have been a dead giveaway. The crew tried to scare the bear away before being forced to kill it. An expert researcher says it appears the bear was very thin.

A few more details were released Monday by officials and a lot more criticism was expressed –including from celebrities and other prominent people worldwide – about a polar bear that was fatally shot after attacking a cruise ship crew member in northern Svalbard on Saturday.

Twelve crew members from the MS Bremen cruise ship went ashore in two dinghies at Sjuøyane, a group of islands at the northernmost part of the archipelago, at about 8:30 a.m. to prepare for a shore excursion by tourists on the vessel, according to a press release issued by The Governor of Svalbard. Four of the crew were polar bear guards, according to Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, a German company which operated the ship.

“The attack happened on shore,” Police Chief Lt. Ole Jakob Malmo said in the governor’s press release. “The victim, a 42-year old man from Germany, was wounded in the head. Two of the others in the group opened fire on the bear and killed it.”

Although the crew received widespread criticism from commenters wondering why sedation or other non-lethal means were used against the bear, Malmo said such attempts were indeed made.

“Initially, the group attempted to scare away the bear by shouting and making loud noises as well as firing a signal pistol, but to no effect,” he said.

A polar bear – almost certainly the one that was shot – was spotted the day before the attack eating a whale carcass by research expedition participants aboard the M/S Clione vessel from the Czech Republic.

“He just ate and then slept and then enjoyed being there,” said Josef Elster, director of the Czech Centre for Polar Ecology.

Jan Pechar, captain of the Clione, said an uneven surface on the beach meant the bear could have been a short distance from the cruise ship crew without being seen, but the whale carcass and bear footprints were clearly visible through a telephoto lens from the ship.

“There definitely was some proof” of the bear’s very recent presence, he said.

Pechar said he reported the bear sighting, as well as others spotted in the area during the expedition, to the governor’s office. Officials at the governor’s office did not immediately respond to questions about whether such reports would have been available to others traveling in the area.

Although the bear was able to eat a large last meal, photos of its carcass suggest it was “quite emaciated,” Jon Aars, a polar bear expert with the Norwegian Polar Institute, told NRK.

“Polar bears can attack people, regardless of whether it is hungry or not, but there is a greater risk that it attacks people when it’s hungry,” he said.

The vast majority of criticism by outside commenters toward the cruise line was for causing the bear’s death by invading the bear’s natural turf.

“Let’s get too close to a polar bear in its natural environment and then kill it if it gets too close. Morons,” wrote British actor-comedian Ricky Gervais in a Twitter message.

An abundance of other accusatory Tweets – not all of them entirely consistent with the facts of the incident – were posted, forwarded and reported in a rapidly growing number of media outlets worldwide.

Among the more common apparent misperceptions was the cruise line was deliberately attempting to allow passengers to view the polar bear from land (although such suspicions have been expressed by a few locals and observers at Sjuøyane noted there were bears in the area since a large amount of whale fat was on the beach where the attack occurred).

“Maybe cruise sightseeing tours shouldn’t take place then polar bear guards wouldn’t be needed to protect gawking tourists & polar bears would be left in peace & not shot dead merely to satisfy a photo-op?” wrote Jane Roberts, a British genealogist.

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, in a statement, stated they do not intentionally bring passengers ashore to watch polar bears.

“Polar bears are only observed on board ships from safe distance,” the statement notes. “In order to prepare a shore leave, the polar bear guards will go to land as a group and without passengers to land, set up a land station and secure the area to make sure there are no polar bears. Once such an animal approaches, the shore leave would be stopped immediately.”

The cruise line stated it is working “intensively and cooperative with the Norwegian authorities for the reconstruction and enlightenment of the incident.” The governor’s office is investigating to determine if negligence or other wrongdoing was a factor in the attack.

“We expect that it will take some time to complete the investigation,” Malmo said.

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