"I'm here two to three times during the light time, but you can't cover the entire season," said Kit Kovacs, lead researcher at the Norwegian Polar Institute. "Cruise ships cover a large part of the year and gives me a good overview."
A few weeks ago an image of a polar bear eating a white-beaked dolphin got widespread play at news websites. The observation was remarkable because the dolphin species had never been seen so far north before. As such, it wasn't a part of the polar bears' diet until now.
These are, among others, observations of marine mammals from members of the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) who are continuously reporting their observations to researchers. The observations has led to an increase in knowledge and publications, said Frigg Jørgensen, AECO's executive director.
"The researchers spend a lot of time observing wildlife during fieldwork in Svalbard," Jørgensen said. "The number of researchers is limited, however, the islands are large and seasons are short. AECO its members have cruise ships that sail around Svalbard a number of times during a season. They visit areas that scientists are not able to visit annually. Thousands of employees and guests observe wildlife, and report what they see to the researchers."
Carrying her young on her back
AECO and Norwegian Polar Institute have agreed to continue the collaboration.
Kit Kovacs is one of the many Norwegian Polar Institute researchers using data from AECO. She said the data from the cruise industry is valuable for research in the Arctic and Svalbard citing, among other things, observations of a polar bear cub sitting on the back of a female bear swimming across the open sea. Other observations include a white humpback whale in the North Atlantic, large groups of bowhead whales and blue whales, polar bears mating on the ice in June, the polar bear eating the dolphin and a polar bear eating a narwhal north of Svalbard (see above picture).
Cooperation between AECO and the Norwegian Polar Institute officially began in 2004 and, according to the researcher, has evolved to being a solid contributor. In addition, the collaboration is allowing for greater precision when research projects are conducted.
"It gives us information about the entire system, about who is here, what they do and how long they are here," Kovacs said. "It helps me to make research programs better. AECO's findings means I know where to look."
"With all the reports I 'see' when the animals are coming. I get whole seasons and a great time series," Kovacs said, citing fin, blue and humpback whales as examples.
Translated by Mark Sabbatini
Jørgensen said she is pleased the collaboration is continuing.
"It is an example of how tourism can be a resource for others and how collaboration across industries can work," she said.