A cruise ship operated by Hapag-Lloyd Cruises out of Germany made a scheduled stop on an Arctic archipelago near Norway on Saturday, but before allowing any passengers to disembark, the ship’s four-man polar bear security detail had work to do. Their job was to ensure the area was safe and secure for the customers on board, and if necessary, scare off any polar bears in the area with their most common methodology: firing their weapons up into the air.
Unfortunately, as the team left the ship, one of its members was taken by surprise by a bear they hadn’t spotted beforehand. As he was being attacked, the other members of the security detail shot and killed the bear, saving their teammates life, and sparking an international debate about these commercial ventures into the wild.
“There had to be [an] intervention for reasons of self-defense and to protect the life of the attacked person,” a statement from the cruise line read. “Hapag-Lloyd Cruises is very aware of its responsibility when traveling in environmentally sensitive areas and respects all nature and wildlife.”
The guard was flown by helicopter to a nearby hospital, where he is now listed as responsive and stable, despite serious injuries to his head — and while few would argue that the cruise line staff should have allowed the bear to kill the man, many have argued that the cruise line should never have been ferrying passengers into such a location in the first place. To be fair, there’s a reasonable argument to be made there: polar bears have seen a steep decline in the amount of sea ice available within their habitat in recent years, placing them on the “vulnerable” list of animals at risk of being endangered. Some contend that shipping boatloads of humans into shrinking polar bear territory is a recipe for these sorts of incidents, making the endeavor responsible for the bear attack, rather than the bear that’s acting on instinct.
I’ve taken some cruises over the years on multiple cruise lines. Alaska, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean — years ago my wife and I came to realize that a cruise offers her the comfort and familiarity she craves, while still granting me a bit of the adventure I need to justify spending hundreds (or sometimes thousands) of dollars on a floating hotel room and buffet. I’ve had good experiences and bad, but despite not thinking of cruises as my preferred way to spend some time off, it’s hard to argue with the convenience and comfort allotted by taking your hotel with you as you travel to new destinations.
However, there’s another element of the cruise experience that’s tougher to stomach. At each port of call, you disembark to find a Disney Land-esque recreation of what the tourism officials assume Americans believe that part of the world looks like (if it were clean and wealthy). Passengers disembark and shop on boardwalks, drink fruity drinks, and rarely look past the very intentional facade presented to them. Because I’m a bit foolhardy, I’ve always made it a point to venture out beyond the locked gates and faux wealth, to find the real populations, cultures, and in most cases, poverty of the surrounding territory. These people rely on cruise lines for income, but it’s hard to deny the effect of constructing these fake paradises on the people, and the environment.
I’m not a particularly “green” minded guy via intent. I clean up my campsites when I’m hiking because nature is beautiful. I recycle my cans because I live on a budget. I want solar panels to reduce my dependency on the grid because I worry more about cyber attacks than I do about climate change — but despite my at-arms-length relationship with environmentalism, I can’t help but feel a little disgusted when I see the effect thousands of tourists can have on “paradise.” Most of us go out of our way not negatively affect our social and physical environments — but I firmly believe in the 10% rule. At least 10% of any group of people suck, whether we are talking about Democrats, Republicans, Marines or cruise line passengers. Project that 10% figure to the tens of thousands of tourists in the Arctic each year, and you end up with some pretty crappy results.
The trouble with the international market is that it doesn’t do anyone much good to yell and scream for regulations. They may be passed by national and international bodies, but the top third of the globe is a pretty tough area to actively police, especially for environmental reasons. The United States Navy is currently amid bringing back their once defunct 2nd Fleet just to try to keep Russian submarines out of American waters — patrolling the southern coasts of the entire arctic would invariably be a losing endeavor (though some will still attempt to some degree of effect).
What is the solution then? Well, for my money, it’s a matter of social policing.
In the United States, we tend to demand the government act to ban things we disagree with. Any time something bad happens, our first instinct is to shout at politicians until they make a law that lets us feel as though we did our part. Real problems rarely have such simple solutions, however, and when it comes to international waters, it doesn’t matter how many hashtags you project into the digital ether. No — the answer is deciding for yourself that you’re not going to hop onto one of these cruises. The answer is prodding your friends, nudging them away from booking that trip to see polar bears in the wild. Your friend may not be part of that 10%, but his ticket helps pay for the gas that gets them there as well.
I get it guys. I desperately want to see more of the Arctic and have always dreamed of putting boots to ice in Antarctica… but I’m not going to do either as a part of a large tourist endeavor that will destroy the beauty it’s peddling. It’ll cost more, it’ll be harder, but if I want to see polar bears in their natural environment, I’ll have to do without bringing my own natural environment (and 5,000 friends) with me.
Everybody wants to solve problems by shouting at someone else but some issues don’t need trending outrage, they just need a little self-restraint and common sense, exercised by an army of individuals.
If we can do that — we can do a whole hell of a lot more than save the polar bears.
Featured image: Authorities search the coastline, Saturday, July 28, 2018, after a polar bear attacked and injured a polar bear guard who was escorting tourists off a cruise ship on the Svalbard archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole. The polar bear was shot dead by another employee, the cruise company said. | Gustav Busch Arntsen/Governor of Svalbard/NTB Scanpix via AP