Searching for Misha: The Life and Tragedies of the World’s Most Famous Polar Bear

Image: iStock

On the morning of August 31 2017, I didn’t meet a remarkable polar bear.

It was my third week of fieldwork based out of Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, studying the conservation of the bears on the Svalbard archipelago in Norway. Having spent a few days transcribing interviews in my small rented room, I needed a break and some air.

After breakfast I set out on foot from my apartment on the eastern edge of the settlement and followed the main road north, over the swollen stream of summer meltwater flowing into the fjord from the peaks of Nordenskiöld to the south, under the dilapidated pylons leading to disused Mine Number Two, and began to climb up the slopes of the plateau Platåberget that looms over the town.

The ascent was a slow scramble. In the shadowy troughs the rocks on the path were stuck fast and slick with black ice. On the sunny outcrops they were breaking loose, shifting under each footfall into saturated moss and mud. I grasped my backpack tighter, trying to prevent the butt of the rifle I was still unused to carrying from swinging to the ground.

Near the crest of the cliff the cold air juddered, and I turned to watch the governor’s helicopter heading out low across the estuary below. It banked left at the shore of Revneset, passing the abandoned houses at Hiorthhamn and slowed, patrolling back and forth. I paid it no further notice.

The view over Longyearbyen towards Platåberget. © Henry Anderson Elliott, Author provided

Upon my return later that evening, in a bar in town, I was told that they had been responding to reports of a female polar bear and her two cubs approaching Longyearbyen from the north, and had been driving her back along the coast.

The thought of this bear nearby across the valley had intrigued me. So, after my non-encounter that day I wanted to find out anything I could about her. I never expected the search to take me so far, nor the extraordinary life that I would find.

Over the next three years, this same polar bear began to surface repeatedly throughout my work. She turned up in almost every conversation, in stories I was told in Svalbard, in the transcripts of interviews with scientists I had been conducting. She even featured in the documentary films I had owned on DVD since before I began the research. On my department desk when I returned to Cambridge, I found her on a postcard, sold in the museum giftshop on the ground floor.

This is the story of “Misha”, as I have come to know her. Both I and my research have been deeply affected by a polar bear I have never met face to face. Ironically, I have known her for years but never realised that it was her. You will probably know her too.

Misha and one of her cubs, 2013: the photo that sat on my desk. © Rolf Stange, www.spitsbergen-svalbard.com., Author provided

For years I have been tracking her, through data, personal stories, film footage, photos, and across the Svalbard ice. Through this journey, she has led me to new understandings of her species and what their conservation means. Her life demonstrates the extraordinary power of storytelling in how we engage with wildlife, how we understand them, and how we imagine our shared future. At the same time, the tragedies she has endured highlight the pervasive human impacts on animal lives, even in the Earth’s remotest regions.

A TV star

Later that week, in a café next to the Longyearbyen library and cinema, I sat down with Jason Roberts, founder of Polar-X (formerly Jason Roberts Productions). Since moving to Svalbard from his native Australia, Roberts has worked on nearly every major filming project involving polar bears on the archipelago. It was him that introduced me to this bear as “Misha”, a name he had heard from a group of Russian miners near Pyramiden who had mistakenly identified her as male.

Misha is a renowned “local bear”, he explained, who had adopted a small home range in some of the neighbouring fjords north-east of Longyearbyen. Roberts first encountered her in 2012 and has filmed her for a huge variety of different documentaries and TV programmes ever since.

“She is one the few bears than I always remember as being the easiest,” he explains, “not aggressive, not scared, not worried about you … you could not get a better specimen to work with”. It is this calm demeanour that makes Misha a “good photo bear”, a phrase that was repeated by all the filmmakers I met that have interacted with her.

I asked what she has starred in, and Roberts reeled off a list of every major nature documentary production in recent history. She has been on the BBC in Earth’s Greatest Spectacles and The Hunt, on ITV for Life at the Extreme, in National Geographic’s Predators series, and most recently the poster child for Netflix’s Our Planet series. She has also featured in a questionable Hollywood production called Midnight Sun, as well as playing the part of Frost – the protagonist of a documentary called Queen Without Land, which explores the impacts of climate change on Svalbard’s ecology. He is certain there must be many more.

Later I spoke to Asgeir Helgestad, the director of Queen Without Land. “I think she must be the most filmed polar bear in the world,” he explained to me.

Still from Queen Without Land: Misha and her cubs. © Asgeir Helgestad, Author provided

In all of these productions, whether as a named individualised character or as a generalised representative of her whole species, Misha plays very particular and recognisable roles. She is frequently a symbol for climate change messaging, a spectacular and awe-inspiring creature whose wondrous Arctic world requires our protection. Her images are used to represent parallel tropes of vulnerability and majesty. She is pushed into the distance, the guardian of a remote yet fragile “wilderness”, while being brought closer through empathetic and anthropomorphised narratives of “motherhood” and “family”.

These stories are choreographed carefully. As such, they expose an enormous amount about how human societies beyond the Arctic conceptualise polar bears – through the manipulations of their digital counterparts on our screens. Frequently footage of Misha is cut and spliced in the editing room. Sometimes she appears in fragments of a longer sequence about another composite and fictitious “polar bear”. In The Hunt she appears only in a lingering final frame.

Other times her image is altered even further with CGI. In Netflix’s Our Planet, a radio-collar she had been given by Norwegian scientists to monitor her activity was edited out completely. Also, in the main title image with which the series was advertised, one of her two cubs has been removed, the other placed closer to her side, and the pair of them cut and pasted onto a scenic glacial landscape actually from Antarctica.

Polar bears on film inhabit unusual ecologies. Often, they come to resemble the bears of our imaginations – creatures born of storytelling, myths, and our relationship to wildlife – as much of cultures as of natures. So what of “Misha” herself, the real life behind these televised fabulations?

The local bear

For the rest of my time In Longyearbyen that year I heard far more about Misha from many of the film location scouts, wildlife photographers, and tourist guides that work in the area. To them, and to members of the Svalbard Governor’s Department of Nature Management, she is most commonly called “the Tempelfjord bear” – after the area at the heart of her local range.

Tempelfjord is a well-travelled fjord around 45 minutes snowmobile-ride NE of Longyearbyen, halfway to Pyramiden. Its past reveals a lot about Misha’s present. At the mouth of the valley stands the disused trapping hut “Villa Fredheim” of renowned Norwegian hunter Hilmar Nøis, who at the beginning of the 20th century killed over 300 bears here.

A still from Queen Without Land: Misha and her cubs in front of Villa Fredheim, 2013. © Asgeir Helgestad, Author provided

Since its documented European discovery in 1596, Svalbard has endured extensive human exploitation. From whale and walrus blubber to Arctic fox and polar bear pelts, animal lives were lucrative sources of capital for growing British, Dutch, and Norwegian economies.

By 1973, and the signing of the international agreement on the conservation of polar bears in Oslo that banned their trapping in Svalbard, bears were largely absent from the human-populated west coast areas. Some 40 years later, it is in the shadow of this history that Misha has established her home range, emblematic of a wave of “local bears” moving back into the region.

In Tempelfjord in particular there are now abundant populations of ringed and bearded seals. These seals “realised that this was a fjord system that was very safe” explains Oskar Ström, who also works for Polar-X. Historically polar bears were hunted into absence here, and more recently they mostly avoid the area due to its high tourist traffic. “They find it a little noisy and too busy,” he continues.

Notably, Misha’s tolerance of humans has enabled her to exploit this available prey. Whether her acclimatisation is primarily a result of common human presence in the area or the lengthy periods of time being accompanied by film crews is impossible to tell. She has a tendency to break into cabins in search for food, and astonishingly Roberts even describes how she has learned to use the filmmakers to help her hunt. She observes when seals have been distracted by the cameras and charges them from behind.

Misha charges a seal distracted by the camera. © PolarX, Author provided

Ironically, it is Misha’s comfort with human contact that facilitates her performance of particular “natural” behaviours on film. One of the polar bears most commonly used to tell stories about her species’ struggle for survival in this remote and awe-inspiring “wilderness” is herself the product of different entangled human-bear histories and interactions.

Misha in science: Polar Bear N23992

When searching for Misha, I was repeatedly warned about the misidentification of “individual” bears. Just like the documentaries that construct animal stories, the narrative power of individualised polar bears often clouds their multiple identities.

After recalling that in 2017 she had been wearing a radio collar, I travelled to Tromsø in Northern Norway to meet with scientists from the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI). NPI is responsible for the long-term monitoring of the Svalbard bear sub-population, guided in part by the aims of The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG).

I spoke with the project’s lead scientist, Jon Aars. It was he who had alerted the Svalbard governor’s office that Misha was approaching town back in August, reading the geospatial data fixed by her radio collar. To him, she is known by another name – polar bear N23992.

A still from Queen Without Land: Misha with her radio collar. © Asgeir Helgestad, Author provided

He had first encountered her on April 6 2009, when she was tranquillised from a helicopter in Wijdefjorden as part of a routine sampling capture. Seeing that she was unmarked, they tattooed her alphanumerical code on the inside of her lip, affixed an ear tag, pulled a pre-molar tooth to accurately age her, measured her, and collected a wide range of bodily samples for analysis – blood, fat, faeces, urine, hair, and so on.

In the years that followed she was recaptured four further times – in 2010, 2011, 2014, and 2017, when the collar was fitted. On all three of the most recent meetings she was accompanied by different sets of cubs, one in 2011, two in 2014 (two females), and two in 2017 (one female, one male).

Misha’s GPS wanderings 2017-18. © Jon Aars, Norwegian Polar Institute & toposvalbard.npolar.no, Author provided

From the data they gleaned, I was able to continue to piece together an increasingly detailed picture of Misha’s life. Born over the winter of 2005-6, she is a part of a bigger group of bears that have adopted localised ranges around the fjords of western Spitsbergen.

As indicated by the anecdotal evidence from the filmmakers and guides, the GPS data shows that she primarily inhabits Tempelfjord, Billefjord, and Ekmanfjord along the north-eastern edges of the larger Isfjord system, as well as making some longer journeys – north back up to Wijdefjord where she was first captured by NPI, and south to Longyearbyen where the helicopter had come to meet her.

“Local bears” like Misha are emblematic of a broader trend. “[We have] seen a huge shift in where the bears are,” explained Aars, while some “establish themselves in an area” the rest of the population is significantly more mobile, travelling longer distances with the fluctuating sea ice. As that sea ice around Svalbard has been reducing year-on-year, retreating ever-further north, the rift between these two groups has been increasing. Over the 20th century, hundreds of these more mobile bears used to travel to the eastern islands like Hopen in order to den. Since 2012, Hopen has seen none.

The bodily samples they have taken from Misha (N23992) tell further stories. They show high levels of persistent industrial pollutants, released in the production of paints, pesticides, fungicides, clothing, and fuel combustion. “Polar bears are one of the most polluted mammal species,” explains NPI scientist Heli Routti, a consequence of global oceanic and atmospheric flows carrying these chemicals to the Arctic and how they accumulate most in species further up the food chain. The researchers are trying to ascertain the impacts these are having on their hormone functions, fat build-up, and even reproduction.

The picture I had begun to develop of Misha’s life was increasingly at odds with the “wilderness” roles that she has played on our TVs and in our imaginations. She is a polar bear increasingly defined by her proximity to humans, their actions and their impacts.

A tragic end?

Such human-polar bear proximity also poses huge dangers. As I collated more stories about Misha’s past, these became uncomfortably apparent.

Some of the Misha’s most widely-used film footage was taken during 2013 and 2014, while she was accompanied by a previous litter of cubs. These were two females, known as “Lucky” and “Light” by Asgeir Helgestad, and N26207 and N26208 by NPI.

At 10:30am on April 4 2014, Misha was captured again by NPI in Billefjord for routine sampling. Both of the yearling cubs were also given a small dosage of the tranquilliser. The scientists gathered the same standardised samples and flew on.

A still from Queen Without Land: cubs ‘Lucky’ and ‘Light’ in 2013. © Asgeir Helgestad, Author provided

Jason Roberts had been following the family that week too. The day after capture, he says, “Light” died suddenly. Misha repeatedly nuzzled her to try and get her to stand, before hunting a seal and dragging its carcass a few kilometres across the ice to try and get her dead cub to eat.

Alerted to the death, the Svalbard governor’s office arrived to carry Light’s corpse back to Longyearbyen for a necropsy. Later, it was reported that the cub had died from a multiple organ failure. Now unable to find the body at all, Misha became visibly distressed and fled from the area completely.

By spring the following year Misha was sighted again in her Isfjord range, as was her other cub “Lucky”. At two-years-old she was now weaned and had headed straight back to Tempelfjord where she had watched her mother hunt throughout their time together.

Here, she was encountered by wildlife photographer Roy Mangersnes, who filmed her for a few days in early March. He watched as she managed to capture three seals, and began to play with a block of ice, diving head-first into the snow. Mangersnes wrote about his meeting with “The Happiest Polar Bear in the World”, and soon Lucky began to circulate more widely on travel blogs and social media.

A few days later, on the night of March 19, Lucky came across the unguarded camp of some Czech tourists awaiting the full solar eclipse. Bold and curious, she pushed past the trip wire and into a tent, attacking the man sleeping there. Awoken by his shouts, another camper shot her in the back leg, and she fled into the water. With already fatal injuries she was tracked down by the governor’s office and killed later that afternoon. The camper was air-lifted to Longyearbyen hospital with minor wounds to his head, chest, and arms.

Miles away in Stavanger, saddened by the news of Lucky’s death, Mangersnes published one final image from their meeting – “the ghost of a polar bear”.

This still wasn’t the end for Lucky: her body was then sent to a taxidermist in mainland Norway. I asked NPI if they knew where she had ended up and was sent a newspaper article in reply. In 2016, the Norwegian prime minister unveiled a stuffed polar bear in the lobby of the Oslo Department of Defence. Now (re)named “Nina”, there she remains.

Back in the café, Roberts had expressed his lack of surprise at these incidents. The entire west coast population of bears is in frequent and increasing contract with human groups – scientists, tourists and film crews alike.

In 2016, an older female bear was killed at a cabin in Austfjordneset when some fox trappers mistakenly loaded their rifle with live rounds instead of rubber deterrents. Her cub was then euthanised, for fear that it would starve alone. Together they would be two of four bears killed that year. She was known to NPI as polar bear N23688, and also to Roberts. This was the mother bear filmed for the famous BBC Planet Earth TV series released in 2006.

Misha and her cubs’ lack of fear for people places them in even greater danger. After Light’s death, Roberts remembers raising his concerns with the governor. “I wanted it on record that the other cub will be dead within two years’ time because it has not learned to be scared of people” he said. He fears Misha herself could end up shot.

Misha’s lessons

Misha is not only a remarkable bear, but also an archetype for the local Svalbard bears – their behaviour, ecology, and future. Her close contact with people has led to her extraordinary ubiquity within our culture, and the numerous roles she has played in how we understand her entire species. At the same time, her real life is a testament to the deep entanglements of human and animal worlds.

She lives in a local home range opened up by the banning of hunting in 1973, exploiting resources that are still rebounding after centuries of exploitation. The Tempelfjord seals she often preys upon inhabit a formerly bear-free haven sustained by the continued presence of tourists, sometimes hunted there after being distracted by film crews. She is unafraid of snowmobiles and familiar with cabins.

She must be one of the most-filmed polar bears in the world, existing in hundreds of hours of footage and thousands of photographs. As a digital bear, she has told further stories – as a devoted mother, a calculated predator, an emblem for climate change and the melting Arctic, as well as a metaphor for wilderness.

She is also a polar bear of science, implanted with technological monitoring devices that fix data on her movements and habits. The bodily samples that NPI have collected reveal pollutant contaminants, changing diets, and an uncertain future.

Fundamentally, Misha shows us so much about our relationship with the natural world. Even in its remotest regions, with its most charismatic of creatures, the Earth is a deeply interconnected place. Living with us has shaped her life, and taken those of her cubs. The landscape she inhabits, so often the scenic backdrop to our dreams of wildness, bear the indelible marks of human actions, past, present, and future.

But more than anything, Misha represents the extraordinary depth of our connection to wildlife. She is not one bear – Misha, Frost, N23992 – but all of them, a collection of stories and interactions that not only expose the multiple and complex ways that we value polar bears, but also espouse caution in our numerous ways we have to do them harm.

Put simply, Misha shows us everything we stand to lose.

Only prints. © Henry Anderson Elliott, Author provided

In May 2018, I tried to find Misha again myself. Following reports of her most recent sightings, a small party of three of us took snowmobiles from Longyearbyen east up Adventfjord and then north to the entrance of Tempelfjord.

I had heard from Helgestad and Aars that she had been spotted at the very farthest point of the fjord, near the glacier front, still with her latest adolescent cubs.

We searched for hours, but never found her. Only sets of polar bear prints alongside our snowmobile tracks, leading off across the ice and out of sight.

 

Henry Anderson-Elliott, PhD Candidate, University of Cambridge

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.