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polar bear protection 1 month 2 weeks ago #3658

  • simoncurrin
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Protecting yourself from Polar Bears

Polar Bears are widespread in the Arctic and increasingly, as the ice melts, sailors are venturing into their territory. In recent years there have been some very high profile tragedies occurring on land based expeditions most notably in Svlabard and it is wise to be prepared when visiting their domain. I have put this summary together from the point of view of a European travelling to Greenland as that has been our recent experience but it would be very helpful if those with experience in Svalbard, Canada and other regions that are the domain of polar bears could add their comments.

Everyone wants to see a polar bear in the wild but none of us want to become their lunch so it is important to keep your distance and not take unnecessary risks. When we sail into frozen coastlines the ice is usually at its minimum. Given that sea ice is the favoured hunting ground for polar bears those that bears that we encounter are likely to be quite hungry and my guess a human is just as tempting as a seal to a starving bear.

There are lots of tactics used to keep bears at bay and I list below a few of the most popular:

When camping set trip wires around the perimeter of the camp site to give early warning. Commonly a non-stretch dynamo fishing line is strung at various heights between firmly guyed pole. The line is attached to a trigger that fires either a compressed air alarm or, more commonly, a blank shotgun cartridge. Some cartridges can be bought which send screaming devices and flares off into the sky. The latter will obviously give those in tents an idea of where the intruder maybe rather than just being awakened by a single gunshot in the middle of the night. Please be aware that Polar Bears used to loud bangs emanating from glacial ice and disintegrating icebergs so the noise is not a deterrent but a warning. Trip wire triggers and kits can be bought from: www.icebearalarm.com The trip wire itself is best deployed and stored on a simple fishing reel - it is after all just fishing line.

Food storage when camping. I have never seen it recommended elsewhere but I suggest food and other smelly accoutrements should be stored in back packer’s bear barrels as used in on the John Muir Trail etc. These have transformed bear behaviour in these regions and are light weight and impossible to violate by a bear unless they are carrying the dime required to open them. They can be bought from REI and other backpackers stores inNorth America.

Flares most boats have flares on board and it’s a simple precaution to carry these in dinghy and when ashore too. They might warn off a curious bear. I don't know whether the new generation LED flares influence bear behaviour but at least they could be used to attract attention when a bear has destroyed your dinghy whilst ashore!

Pepper spray. This might deter a bear but you would have to be so close to use it effectively most people wouldn’t want to rely on it. It is, of course, illegal in many countries and I suspect it is difficult to persuade airlines to carry it around the world.

Keeping out of their way has to be the most sensible precaution and always remember that these creatures can swim and charge at awesome speed so don’t rely on running away as a defence. They can climb on and off icebergs with ease so a yacht tender or kayak would not give protection and a yacht with an open transom could, feasibly, be very inviting. Having said all that I am not aware of anyone being attacked either on a yacht or in a tender but maybe others may know of some such instances? When ashore avoid areas where bears may be lurking behind cover.

Most recommend going splitting the shore party between two tenders and storing them several hundred yards apart such that if a bear decides to trash your RIB you can still get back to your yacht by kayak.

When going ashore take radio, flares and a satellite phone in case disaster strikes.

Firearms

I hope nobody reading this wants to deliberately shoot polar bears and if you do please remember that it is strictly illegal to kill a bear in all jurisdictions. So, if you kill a bear in self defence then it must be reported immediately to the Authorities and it will almost certainly become a crime scene. Like them or loathe them firearms have to be discussed as they do provide the ultimate dependable defence against Polar Bears so I devote the remainder of this article to a discussion about some of the practicalities of getting guns too and from the Arctic and their use.

Shotgun, Hand gun or rifle? If choosing a shotgun go for a pump action one so that you can re-load quickly. Choose cartridges that fire a single slug rather that pellets as the latter will not have the energy to stop a bear in its tracks. Hand guns (illegal in the UK) are widely regarded as being too inaccurate and are, mostly, not powerful enough. I do know some carry a Magnum pistol which can be mounted with a stock to make them legal but I understand you have to be a very accomplished shot to use this effectively in a panic situation. We opted for a rifle as we found it far more accurate than a slug shooting shotgun.

Choice of calibre? If you are going to carry a gun take one that will do the job and not just annoy an already angry predator. If taking rifle most would recommend a minimum calibre of .308. We chose a .375 which seems to have awesome power.

How much ammunition? Most rifles and pump action shotguns can be pre-loaded with 4 or 5 rounds which means you have more than one bite at the cherry. Our rifle has a magazine of 5 rounds and the bolt action means that we can fire off 5 rounds very quickly.

Get trained. The coroner’s report into the Svalbard schoolboy death made it quite clear that those responsible for using the gun MUST know how to use it. The firearm on that occasion was a Wolrd War 2 Mauser with an unusual safety catch which, when partially switched off, allows unfired bullets to be expelled from the breach. Thus all rounds from the magazine were ejected without being shot. It was only when the other guy, who knew how to use it, had picked up the bullets and re-loaded that the bear was finally despatched . By then one boy was dead and others injured. For our training we chose a local gun range (Minsterly Ranges) that ran courses for zoo keepers dealing with escaped large predators. As novices our trainer started us off with silenced .22’s before working up to the more powerful guns required. He let us take our time and take aim (in order to demonstrate these guns phenomenal accuracy) before moving onto yelling at us to simulate the panic of a bear attack. Under stress out pin point accuracy became, literally, hit and miss! He taught us to load the magazine and then to empty the breach so that the guns was safe and yet could be immediately loaded by pulling the bolt. He advised us not to use the safety catch to avoid the troubles that happened on Svalbard. I know of one commercial outfit that in the UK that runs spoke Polar Bear protection courses. Their website is:

Get everyone trained. It seems common sense to make sure everyone knows how and when to use any weapon that is carried.

Protecting the weapon. Firing mechanisms can freeze up if covered in snow and then they are useless. A way to protect the bolt and trigger is to stitch velcro onto an old inner tube and warp it around the bolt an trigger. This is sufficient to keep snow out and can be ripped off very quickly in an emergency. Over the barrel stretch the the cut off finger of a marigold rubber glove. I am told that this has not impact on accuracy but it keeps ice and debris out of the barrel. As we we want to preserve our gun for re-sale once south of 60N we keep our gun in a waterproof Pelican case when on board and in the dinghy to avoid corrosion. The case, though lockable for airline use, can very quickly be undone and the gun should always be in perfect condition. Obviously the case is far too heavy to carry around on shore although it has got wheels!


When in camp try and plan how you would deal with an intruder so that you don’t end up shooting each other.

If a bear is looking aggressive and continuing to approach despite all efforts to dissuade it with flares etc then consider firing warning shots but make sure you have rounds left in the magazine in case of attack. I know one person who carries a pump action shotgun specially extended to accommodate 6 rounds. The first two fire blanks and the last four are live rounds.

Try and work out beforehand under what circumstance you would squeeze the trigger so that your response, if the worst happens, becomes second nature. Shoot too soon and you have killed a magnificent predator and you will face certain prosecution.Shoot too late and you are your companions will be lunch. A lot will depend on your competence and confidence but 25 metres would be the minimum range that I would shoot at if a bear was charging. To put that into context if a bear is charging at full speed then at 25 metres he is just 2 seconds away! Aim for the chest which presents the biggest target and use lead tipped bullets which expand as they pierce the flesh causing massive damage to the internal organs. Now you see why you must choose a weapon with sufficient power to stop the predator in it’s tracks.

Always carry the gun. We were so elated when we arrived in Scoresby Sound that we went ashore leaving the weapon on board. We wandered around for an hour or so not really worrying about the fact that we were no longer at the top of the food chain. The next day we went ashore to the village of Ittottorqoromitt (where everyone beyond the outskirts carries a gun) to be told that2 Polar Bears had been seen roaming the same are of beach we had visited the day before. There is no point in having a gun if it is locked up in tis case half a mile away! We didn’t make the same mistake again.

Legalities

I write this from a UK perspective and have no knowledge of what happens in other jurisdictions but would welcome these gaps in knowledge being filled in.

In the UK you must possess a shot gun licence to legally own an ordinary shotgun but I understand a full firearms licence is required to possess either a pump action shot gun or a rifle. To obtain such a license you must have a reason to use it and our local Constabulary (Dyfedd Powys) was very very happy to accept polar bear protection as a reason to own a weapon. The UK Police are only concerned about the gun when it is in the UK. Allow at least 6 months to obtain a firearms licence and currently the fee for a 5 year license is £85. You will need 2 character referees and you will be visited by the Police who will inspect your storage arrangements. The Police will specify where you can use your rifle and how much ammunition you can possess. We are allowed 20 rounds and when in the UK are restricted to shooting on a rifle range.

It surprised us how easy it is to fly with a rifle although we did fall foul of airport security at one point. To fly with a gun it must be in an airline approved locked container. In our case we used a Pelican Case. The ammunition must be in a separate hard and locked container. We were not aware of this as the airline didn’t mention it but airport security confiscated our ammunition. You must pre-warn the airline of your intention to fly with a firearm. In our case we presented ourselves at the check in in Manchester Airport and the Police were summoned to officiate. Two armed police inspected our case and the gun. They then took it off us and said that we would have to collect it at the red customs channel at our destination. What actually happened is that they delivered it to airport security who rejected it because we had also put the ammunition in the Pelican case thus breaching unpublished airport security rules. Se were summoned to return to security and had to open the Pelican case again so that they could confiscate the ammunition. After that we encountered no problem.

Before flying into Iceland with the gun se sought out the chief firearms officer for Iceland at the police station at Kopnavagur. He was very helpful and much more relaxed than his British counterparts. His only requirement was that we must possess a European Firearms License which is a separate license available free of charge once the UK licence has been issued. Allow time for this additional paperwork.

On arrival at Keflavik Airport we presented ourselves at the red channel only to find our gun going round and round on the conveyor belt. Icelandic Customs were not remotely interested in the fact we had brought a gun into the country and we were able to replenish our ammunition at a Reykjavik gunshot with minimal formalities.

Although officially it is illegal to import guns into Greenland the police were not in the slightest bit interested in ours and it would have been thought negligent to not be carrying a gun.

We have been investigating what happens when we get to Canada and have had mixed reports. It is certainly illegal to take a gun ashore in the National Parks of north Labrador but on Baffin Island and other parts of Labrador firearms are considered highly desirable. We have heard one report of a gun being confiscated on arrival as it was deemed illegal south of 60N. It seems that this gun had been bought in Greenland and the owner had no license. Hopefully we will get a clearer idea of what we can and can’t do before we leave Greenland for Baffin and Labrador.

In Svalbard it is a requirement that anyone venturing into the back country must be appropriately protected.

I have no idea what the legal position is in other parts of the Arctic.

Hiring or Buying?

We chose to buy a firearm as we knew we would be undertaking an extensive cruise of Greenland starting and finishing in different ports making hiring impossible. It is possible to hire weapons in many Arctic countries. In East Greenland Nanu Travel will hire out guns. I have heard that guns can also be hired in Svalbard and Tromso, If hiring it is essential that you become familiar with the operation of the weapon you have bought as there are big differences between the various weapons. It is possible that some countries may require a certificate of competence or other evidence of licensing so it would seem to be a good plan to request some kind of certification from whoever does your weapons training in your. In the UK I know Chris Pannell of www.wentworth-sporting.com will provide such certification.

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Simon Currin
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polar bear protection 1 month 2 weeks ago #3663

  • Dick
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Hi Simon,
An excellent report: very thorough, well presented and very well thought through.
Your report could be thought of as a template for all the OCC reports that deal with kind of complicated protocols we cruisers sometimes encounter.
As a side note, although in the “Arctic”, Iceland is pretty much free from the worry of polar bears, I suspect the islands smaller size allows the Gulf Stream to make conditions for the bears less inviting through less ice & snow.
Thanks, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy
Ps. Our solution is to choose to not be so ambitious in Greenland, to stay S and orient our exploring from towns and depend on local knowledge as we find it.

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Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

polar bear protection 1 month 2 weeks ago #3664

  • alshaheen
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Simon
I was fascinated to read your masterly paper on polar bear protection, even though I am unlikely to venture into the Arctic again.
It was worth it just for the reference to Ice Bear Alarms. I have been looking for something like that to use around our property here in South Africa to warn of the presence of human intruders! just what I need - I will order a couple when I get back to the UK next month.
Thanks
John

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polar bear protection 1 month 1 week ago #3682

  • Dick
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Hi Simon,
As an aside to your excellent report, I have a few thoughts on the suggestion put forward by one of your sources to load blanks first and use them as a warning shots.
I would never recommend that. Firstly, when one reaches for a gun, you need that firearm to be ready to do its intended task and not wait for the time it takes to shoot two rounds and pump in real cartridges. A charging bear can cover a lot of ground in that time and you will be operating under high anxiety/adrenalin, a recipe for fumbling or errors. Given time (and enough shells) you can always shoot to miss as warning shots, but you can’t shoot to protect yourself (and others) with blanks.
Next, it is a head-set thing, but one should always experience a gun as loaded and ready to kill. It is not wise to propagate the idea of a gun having shells in it which are blanks as it may/will undermine the necessary precautions that owning/having firearms demands. In fact, I would deem it a dangerous habit.
My thoughts and welcome other’s thoughts, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

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Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

polar bear protection 1 month 1 week ago #3683

  • simoncurrin
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Dick I agree with you.

The advice to use this method was from someone using a pump action shot gun which allows you to five five rounds very quickly. Actually his rounds weren't blanks but fired a very noisy screaming device with the intention to deter a bear 100m away. He had had success with this but was a fire arms professional with a cool head.

We are not cool and definitely amateur. We carry a rifle without blanks as we had hopeless accuracy with a 12 bore shooting a single slug. Blanks and screaming rounds are not an option for rifles.

John - remind me not to pay your South African house a visit late at night and unannounced!

Simon

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polar bear protection 3 weeks 5 days ago #3769

  • Janice.Fennymore-White
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Hi Simon,

A nice article, a couple of points, gun hire is longer possible from Tromsø. Meaning a stop in Bjornoya is without a gun unless you can borrow one from a Norwegian or have your own. (2016)

We purchased a Marlin 45-70 which looks similar to the classic Winchester repeater from the old cowboy films. Gun nerds will talk forever but it was recommended to us by an experienced Finn. I am left handed, my wife right handed do this gun is perfect for us. It is short and light
It holds 5 rounds and reloading does not stop you shooting unlike a bolt action. It has a very heavy slow bullet that is very effective at close range, this calibre is used extensively for hunting big dangerous game in close bush. More or less how a polar bear will approach, you do not need to shoot it until it is very close.
I was surprised how little ammunition you keep. We have 200 rounds on our licence, we use 50 rounds practicing each time. You need to be very proficient. 25m is close, you need to be able to fire 3 rounds quickly on target.

We also carry a 4 gauge flare pistol ( ex German army) and the exploding flares sold in Svalbard. As Brits we had to have it put on our firearms certificate. It is a reasonable deterrent and with red flares doubles as a distress flare. The White ones are good when sailing into dark anchorages. Only purchased in Norway, possibly some other Scandinavian countries, they are a different calibre to the U.S. plastic ones.

Regards dinghies and going ashore, we always go ashore in full survival suits ( a second hand purchase, Viking 6 hour immersion suit, model PS4180). Together with a pair of fins one of us can swim back to the yacht and collect the spare dinghy. We also take the Sat phone, a VHF, matches, some food and a lot of repair patches. Bears are very curious, we watched one sniffing the sand and ripping up a log that I had tied our dinghy too last year. Luckily we had just returned to the yacht after getting surprised by another bear hiding in a dip in the sand on a foggy day on the most NE tip of the Svalbard islands (Storøya). We had 3 cases of bears swimming close by us as well at anchor. They are not afraid of boats, just curious.
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polar bear protection 3 weeks 4 days ago #3771

  • Gyda
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A very good article which covers the most of it.
We´ve been to Svalbard twice, and are on our way again this summer. Apart from the issue being armed at all time, our most challenging concern is the rubber dingy. Polar bears are notorious curious, and a rubber dingy looks and feels (at first touch) just as a seal. This results in the bear trying out the dingy the same way it does with a seal just caught, bumping and chewing on it. One touch of a polar bear claw, and the rubber dingy has had it.
Check out this video:


After seeing polar bear swimming we immediately stopped rowing our dingy. No way we can out row a swimming bear, chasing it´s lunch.
On the north and east side of Svalbard there is a lot of shallow beaching’s, sometimes making it necessary to anchor 200-300 meters from the beach. The thought of having to swim back to the mother ship in water holding just 1 degree Celsius, even with a survival suit on, doesn´t seams very tempting or wise. Thinking of the speed of a swimming polar bear, it´s really not a very good alternative at all.
Our solution to the dingy issue has been to swap the rubber boat for a solid plastic boat. We choose the foldable “Porta Boote”, but another good alternative could be the “Steady-boat” type. Both those boats can withstand a lot, even a polar bear looking for something to put its teeth in to.
www.gyda.biz

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