Goading Dutch: Piet Oosterveld, 77, famous polar bear wrestler and researcher, dies

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Piet Oosterveld, 77, a biologist who was part of the historic 14-month Dutch Svalbard Expedition during the late 1960s and survived a fight with a polar bear in Svalbard two decades later, died this week of unspecified causes.

He remained involved in Svalbard research throughout his life, including participating in last August’s 10-day Netherlands Scientific Expedition Edgeøya Spitsbergen with the two other surviving members of the historic overwinter despite being in poor health.

“He was now a bit of a silent man, until you started talking to him,” the organizers of the 55-person expedition wrote in a prepared statement posted Wednesday at its official website. “Then the passion came back.”

Oosterveld and his two colleagues, interviewed at length about the changes to the area  more than 40 years later, emphasized vast natural changes such as far more vegetation as well as human ones such as people obsessed with mobile devices. But his long-ago experiences also helped change the archipelago in other ways.

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Piet Oosterveld, at right, braves the elements with, from left to right, Paul de Groot, Eric Flipse and Ko de Korte while spending the winter of 1968-69 at a research station on Edgeøya. Photo by Eric Flipse.

The 1968-69 expedition’s primary goal was to determine the distribution and health of polar bears in the area. Their research ended up playing a key role in the creation of the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears in 1973. The agreement, among other things, ended hunting of the species and is credited for an increase in their population in Svalbard despite the adverse effects of climate change.

But Oosterveld, according to Dutch media reports, was most famous for a 1987 encounter with a polar bear at Kapp Lee.

“A gun on an expedition? Piet Oosterveld would not hear of it,” an obituary in De Volkskrant notes. “The man who would magnify  Dutch polar research had, according to a friend, ‘a very relaxed attitude toward polar bears.’ Rather, Oosterveld took an umbrella, which he opened to scare the bears.”

He found out “this strategy doesn’t always work” when he and a companion saw a bear blocking the path their rubber boat and Oosterveld, hoping to scare the animal, instead ended up in a wrestling match that left the explorer with a tooth-shaped imprint in his skull for the rest of his life.

“A traveling friend grabbed the bear by the shoulders and the pair managed to miraculously escape and reach the hut,” the obituary notes.

But while the encounter made Oosterveld a media celebrity (unlike today, when he might face criminal changes and be fined for negligence), and he was willing to show up and have his scarred skull filmed, he tried to get viewers to focus on more substantial topics.

“Rather, he talked about his research,” the obituary notes. “With great passion he studied the growth patterns of plants and what role the grazing reindeer played there.”

Oosterveld returned to Spitsbergen the following for another summer of field work “and maybe a little therapy” – but it somewhat backfired, according to the obituary.

” That year he arranged for the first time to bring a weapon for his safety, but discovered in the field that the bullets did not fit. It was not possible then for him to go through with the ecological polar research. The cabin was sold to the Norwegians and immediately demolished to prevent it from ever growing into a Dutch claim to a unique piece of wilderness.”