Fatally flawed: Polar bear attack on cruise ship employee revives debate about tourism in Svalbard’s remote areas


The injured cruise ship crew member is recovering and the polar bear inflicting the wounds is dead after being shot, but the attacks resulting from the encounter are just beginning.

The crew member, a German man in his 40s, was one of two polar bear guards who went ashore at  Sjuøyane – the northernmost part of Svalbard – at about 9 a.m. Saturday to scout the area before passengers from the MS Bremen disembarked. He “was attacked by a polar bear and injured on his head,” according to Negar Etminan, spokeswoman for Hapag Lloyd Cruises, the German company that operates the ship.

The other guard shot and killed the polar bear “in an act of self-defense,” Negar Etminan told The Associated Press.

The attacked guard sustained moderate injuries, but was reported in stable condition after receiving initial treatment aboard the ship. A rescue helicopter brought him to Longyearbyen Hospital, where he received further treatment before being transferred to a hospital in Tromsø where he remained overnight.

The bear’s carcass was brought to Longyeabyen by The Governor of Svalbard at about 11 p.m. Saturday, Svalbardposten reported.

While the governor’s office is now investigating the incident to determine if the guards and cruise company acted appropriately, plenty of people locally and globally are already drawing their conclusions.

Unfounded speculation and accusations about the encounter, along with a quickly accelerating debate about the appropriateness of cruise ships and mass tourism in the most remote parts of Svalbard, began almost immediately after the attack was reported by the media.

Some initial reports suggested the attack occurred when the guards were trying to bring their small boat ashore, others stated the attack happened on land. A few social media commenters wondered if crew members sought out the beach because they knew a bear was in the vicinity (one noted bears have been seen there recently due to “a lump of whale fat on the beach”). A few others were angered because they thought the bear had been fatally tranquilized and wondered why it couldn’t have been sedated instead.

But beyond the guesses, most of the debate was about whether cruise ships should be visiting such areas in the first place. While the M/S Bremen is relatively small, with room for 155 passengers and 100 crew, the number of vessels making journeys in the archipelago has increased in recent years and will continue doing so in the future. News reports about the attacked noted 18 cruise ships of varying sizes will be docking in Longyearbyen during the next week and nearly 20 new ice-classed expedition ships are currently under construction.

“Economically profitable and socially beneficial coal mining we can’t have,” wrote Olaf Lingjærde, a former Store Norske employee now working for an infrastructure company on the mainland, in a Facebook post responding to a Svalbardposten article about the attack. “But tourism with big cruise boats and (burning) oil and killing of the King of the Arctic is okay? There is something not right with Norway’s management of the High North!”

The sentiment goes far beyond the boundaries of Svalbard. An article in the South China Morning Post had 15 reader comments as of mid-afternoon Sunday, all of which were variations of blaming humans for invading the polar bear’s turf.

“What humans are doing there anyway?” wrote a reader with the user name of “jst.” “Stupidity is unbeatable. Watch the bears from the ship. Leave the bears alone.”

Polar bear encounters in Svalbard tend to attract sensational and/or misleading headlines, and Saturday’s attack was no exception.

“Polar bear shot dead after attacking cruise ship tour guide as climate change pushes predators closer to human habitats,” was the headline in a story by The Telegraph of London that didn’t mention climate change or the movement patterns of polar bears in recent years. While many readers were quick to point out the discrepancy (“I think the headline is backwards. More a case of humans invading polar bear habitats,” a reader using the name Horatio Hornblower wrote in the first comment”) it also gave plenty of ammunition to climate change skeptics looking to case doubt on media coverage of the issue.