It was the Governor of Svalbard's beach cleanup participants who came across the bear last Friday afternoon. A team of six people were clearing an area a few hundred meters to the west of Sorgfjorden and went in the Polarcirkel boat to retrieve a large green fishing net the helmsman of the governor's boat Tyr had noticed the night before.
Half of the team was left standing on the shore, while the rest went to retrieve the net 300 meters further north.
As the team approached, they saw a white figure sitting on the net. It turned out to be a bear, but it gave no sign of moving even though the boat was only a few hundred meters away. To check if it was because the bear was stuck, Police Chief Lt. Thor-Arild Hansen allowed the boat to slip near slowly. Then the bear began to show clear signs of stress, walking in a circle around its own axis.
"Then we saw that it was stuck in the net and we drew away to avoid stressing it more," Hansen said.
Afterwards they looked at the pictures of the net that stuck to a tag in the bear's left ear.
The boat retreated to remove the rest of the team from the beach and notified the governor's office in Longyearbyen. From the boat they could see the bear going down to the water to cool off. It was probably warm after fighting with the net for a long time.
The beach cleanup team then went over to a Russian research camp located less than one kilometer away from where the bear was. The researchers were alerted to what was going on and told to be on guard.
In Longyearbyen, the governor made a decision to bring in help from the Norwegian Polar Institute. They have expertise in drugging polar bears. But it would take several hours before they could be put in place.
Meanwhile, the bear had again taken up the fight with net. From the bridge of the Tyr, Lyssand observed that as the bear was moving back and forth, the net became longer and longer. It violently dragged and climbed up four steep meters, and dragged and dragged the net until it finally loosened and joined the bear on the brink.
"It is unclear whether it was being dragged by the ear tag all the time, or if the bear used its jaw to drag it behind itself," Lyssand said.
Dragging nearly its own weight
At half past eight o'clock in the evening, the Super Puma helicopter came in from the south. It made a sweep of the bear, which was cooling itself on a snowfield a few hundred yards from the brink, before the helicopter brought itself around 500 yards beyond. The bear had now risen up and saw the helicopter slowly moved towards its goal. The plan was to hover above the she-bear and dart it, therefore anesthetizing it with a rifle.
"I was on my way to setting my sight, then she jumped," said Rupert Krapp of the Norwegian Polar Institute. "She was clearly mega-stressed that we came with the large helicopter."
But shortly before the shot came, the she-bear bent her head down and with a powerful movement jerked herself free from the net. Then she ran southward at a tremendous speed. Krapp estimates bear mothers weigh between 200 and 220 kilograms. The governor's office weighed the net on Sunday. It turned out to be about 170 kilograms.
"In addition, there comes the friction that builds up on such a long net," Lyssand said.
'I could not believe my eyes'
"Had I not seen it myself, I never would have thought that it could be stuck in that," Krapp said.
He was in the helicopter to tranquilize the bear. He was now holding the bear's ear tag in his hand just after the she-bear ran away. It is a geolocational tag, used by researchers to measure the distances each day between where the bear is located. Using it, one can say how the bear moves and how long she is in the den.
"We use this type of ear tag continuously, but this is an older type," Krapp said.
The ear tag consists of two parts. In the front part there is technical equipment, while the rear section is just a clip that keeps the tag stuck in the ear. It was the rear part that got caught in the nets and finally gave way when the helicopter was just above the she-bear.
"I am very surprised that this has happened," Krapp said. "It seemed like fairly bad luck for the bear to be caught in the small bit."
Hair from the polar bear in an end loop is a clear sign of how the bear got stuck.
There was no trace of blood at the location. Based on that observation, Krapp said the bear must be all right. The bear was lying on top of a sheet of snow, probably because it
was hot after struggling with the net.
"We would have seen small drops of blood in the snow if something had happened to her ear," Krapp said.
He said the original plan was not to try to numb it from the helicopter.
"The plan was to approach it by boat, because that we had stressed was smaller and allowed a safe withdrawal," Krapp said. "But when we were told that the bear had dragged itself with the whole net ashore, we had to think differently. The helicopter was a last resort."
When researchers numb bears they use usually a small helicopter. Large helicopters of the Super Puma type the governor uses are not suited for this. The anesthetic is inserted anywhere in a large muscle, so that it is taken up in the blood. The trick is to avoid the ribs or stomach, which can do damage and also keep the drugs from working.