Guns, Bones and Polar Bears

The hunt for fossils in the far-flung reaches of Svalbard is on! Jørn Hurum and his associates ply the arctic waters and snows of Svalbard to dig up some of the northernmost dinosaur fossils in the world. Their findings, particularly of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, are some of the most unique on record.

By Aubrey Roberts and Victoria Engelschiøn Nash

After finishing our last blog on the arctic excavations on Svalbard, we were no longer oh-so-happy-campers. We split up into two groups and Aubrey and Victoria kidnapped Tommy and Dr. Pat (he is called Plesio-Pat for a reason) to go plesiosaur prospecting. The other guys walked down the valley on an ichthyosaur trip.

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Things are not as quiet as they used to be in Flowerdalen. This photo was taken at 1:00 a.m. (Photo by Victoria Engelschiøn Nash)

Just as we were having an academic break with a rewarding conversation in a gully, we got radioed. “Hello! There is a polar bear on Vindodden, we are turning back.” As you can image, we were quite startled and ran up the closest cliff to see whether the others were within eyesight. They were not. It turned out the bear was walking westwards, away from us, and the group returning to us could no longer see it.

The polar bear. (Photo by Stig Larsen)

After regrouping, the four of us originally looking for plesiosaurs kept watch down at the delta, looking for the polar bear to make sure that it didn’t turn back. The group spent the rest of the afternoon around camp. For the past couple of nights we have had 24-hour polar bear watch. We sit, two and two, for three hours at a time, walking the perimeter every fifteen minutes.

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Always on the look-out. (Photo by Jørn Hurum)

The governor of Svalbard went looking for the polar bear by helicopter, without spotting it. Some tourists camping, however, had it walking a bit too close over at Diabasodden. That is not so far from us, so we are still on alert.

We always carry firearms and flare guns, and no one ever walks anywhere without them, not even to the toilet (we actually have a designated toilet gun. Therefore, we also always know if the toilet is occupied or vacant. Not by bears, however, as noted by Oyvind). Around our tents we have a tripwire system in place to give us an early warning, and scare the bear. If the tripwire system goes off during the night, people without firearms in the tents exit their sleeping bags but remain in their tents, during which safety inspector Tommy assesses the situation.

The camp, tripwire and toilet gun on the pallet. Photo courtesy of Victoria Engelschiøn Nash.
The camp, tripwire and toilet gun on the pallet. (Photo courtesy of Victoria Engelschiøn Nash)

All of these precautions are in place to never put ourselves in a position where we have to shoot a bear, although it sometimes means not picking up bones.

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In the summer, polar bears are always hungry and even old oil barrels are interesting. (Photo by Stig Larsen)

Read More By Jørn Hurum and His Associates

Changing Planet

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Meet the Author
Jørn Harald Hurum was born in Drammen, a city on southeastern Norway. Since childhood he has collected fossils and minerals in the Oslo region. Since 2000 he has been employed at the Natural History Museum of the University of Oslo where he works as an associate professor in vertebrate paleontology. At the University he teaches paleontology and evolutionary biology and supervises masters and Ph.D. students. One recent outreach effort brought him on stage before a general audience interested in his Arctic island project excavating fossils of ancient sea monsters. “There was a four-year-old in the front row and he couldn’t stop asking questions, really good questions” Hurum remembers. “This little boy was so excited to know there was somebody else who understood the things he was wondering about. He made my whole day! As a child, I felt very alone with my interest in fossils. Finally at age 13, I discovered there was a museum in Norway that actually employed people to study paleontology. I started corresponding with those scientists and it was such a relief, such an inspiration. I hope I can give some of that spirit back to the next generation.” Learn More About Jørn and His Work