After arriving, unpacking and setting up, what is most important when you are in the Arctic? Looking out for Polar Bears! So far, as Hannah mentioned, there have been several visits by polar bears to Kongsfjord and around Ny Alesund, although not while we’ve been here. Hearing that there have been nearly 15 so far this month left us feeling very excited, if a little apprehensive. So, to prepare properly Steve W, Hannah, Steeve C, and I have just completed the Polar Bear gun training.
This doesn’t actually involve hunting polar bears; please don’t call in the animal protection agencies just yet! It actually involves a lot of information about polar bears, how they behave and how we should behave around them, and worst case scenario, what we do if they decide they want to eat us… We spent two hours on polar bear and gun theory. Learning facts such as
• Polar bears can grow to 3 m in length. Imagine one stood upright, 3 m high, that’s nearly twice my height (I come in at a small 1 m 54 cm, in case you’re wondering).
• Polar bears are heavy. The giants can get up to 1000 kg! But males are more frequently found to be between 400 – 600 kg, while females 300 – 500 kg. That’s the weight of a rather large bull.
• Polar bears are fast. And I mean fast. At over short distances they can reach a top speed of 40 km per hour. That is about 11 m per second, which means that an angry polar bear 100 m away from you will reach you in about 8 seconds.
• Polar bears can climb and have been known to get into huts and onto roofs…
• Polar bears are very curious animals. When they are just being curious, you can see it in the way they behave; they sniff the air and move their heads around to catch smells. Sometimes they will stand up on their back legs to get a better view of the surrounding area. And if they are still not sure they will move randomly towards the disturbance (you!). Most of the time curiosity is followed by indifference and they move away.
• Polar bears can easily get irritated. They will warn you of this with their behaviour too. They will snarl, blow angrily out of their nostrils or even smack their lips. When they start doing this, take the hint, and get out of its area quickly! If irritation turns to anger, then its time to take action, and by action, I mean scaring with flares and gun. The aim is to scare away and it usually works but legally we are allowed to protect ourselves (that’s good news!) but there’s a big penalty if you are found to have caused the bear to attack or shot it without reason.
• On the rare occasion a polar bear will decide to attack humans. This is rare and only really happens either if the humans have disturbed it and made it angry, if it is sick, old and really hungry, if it is a teenage bear that has recently left its mother so is also really hungry, or if it is a mother protecting her cubs.
Steve W on a skidoo. Photo Helen Findlay
This morning we continued the practical exercise part of the course. This involved a snow-mobile (also called a Skidoo) ride up to the shooting range. Steve looked pretty cool on his skidoo but unfortunately they went the wrong way and both Steve and his driver managed to overturn their skidoo while trying to do a U-turn and got flipped off – no injuries though. When we had all safely arrived at the range, we were shown our rifles and after yesterdays demonstration we got straight into it. We each had a go with five bullets shooting while kneeling, another five whilst standing and then a final five kneeling again. All in all we did really well; Steeve and Steve were a bit low of the target to start but not by far and complained that it was a problem with the gun! Hannah and I both got 3/5 bulls-eyes the first round, I steadily improved with 4/5 and then managed a 5/5 on the final round, while Hannah levelled off at a good 4/5. Polar bears watch out!
Hannah and Steeve C at the shooting range. Photo Helen Findlay
Finally we all had a go at firing the flare gun, which is a bit of a novelty shot really. The aim is to send the flare between you and the polar bear so that it bangs and sparks and then scares the polar bear off. Steeve went first but his went off while still in the air so the only thing he would’ve scared were birds. Steve went next and he sent his flying way beyond the target, so the polar bear would have been scared towards us. Hannah went next and shot the flare into the ground about 5 m in front of the hut – we’re dead again…. Finally, having learnt from all their mistakes, I had a go and perfectly shot the flare between the target and us – consider the bear scared!