Machiel Lamers and Linde Van Bets' experiences on the SEES expedition to Spitsbergen

Published on
September 2, 2015

Machiel Lamers and Linde Van Bets from the Environmental Policy Group were among few social scientists who joined the Netherlands Scientific Expedition Edgeøya Spitsbergen (SEES) in august 2015. They recently returned from Spitsbergen after having successfully collected data for an ethnographic study of the expedition and a network analysis of the scientific participants.

The SEES expedition was initiated by the Arctic Centre of Groningen University, the Willem Barentsz Polar Institute, NWO and Oceanwide Expeditions. The SEES expedition has been framed as the largest Dutch research expedition to the Polar Regions and combined the work of around 50 multidisciplinary scientists, along with 50 paying tourists, various media representatives and other officials on a 10 day expedition cruise on board the Ortelius. During the expedition Machiel and Linde investigated if and how the two practices of tourism and science would co-exist, how they mutually affected each other, and what are the management implications of this combination. An ethnographic research approach of participant observation and interviews was followed to meet this objective. For example, their strategy was to split up all the time, to never participate in the same activity or sit at the same table during meals. This way they had ears and eyes everywhere in the expedition. Machiel and Linde explained the participants on board about their research approach and remained open about it throughout the expedition.

Most participants, both tourists and scientists, were aware of the unique combination of science and tourism during this expedition, the differing stakes and objectives, and the flexibility this brought along. The scientists were eager for their own scientific mission to be successfully completed. For most of the tourists the presence of the scientists and the data collection provided a key motivation to take part in the expedition to learn from the scientists and by participating in different scientific projects. However, insurance rules complicated this process. Tourists could only participate in scientific projects if a tourist guide from Oceanwide Expeditions joined them and if the ship Ortelius would stay in the neighbourhood. Also, to give everybody a chance, people could sign up for particular groups, for example, to be an archaeologist for one day. Scientists, on the other hand, could only conduct research if the itinerary and logistics allowed this.

In the beginning the right balance between tourism and science had to be found. Tourists thought there would be more opportunities to participate in scientific projects or more scientific lectures in the evening. Also, taking data samples by scientists during tourist walks slowed down the walks and created challenges for the guides to keep everyone focused. It was also difficult to make sure that all scientific projects (archaeology, geology, vegetation, glaciology, …) could be conducted. As the expedition progressed, the participants adapted to the differing interests in the expedition. Flexibility, smart planning and clear communication were keys to successfully combining science and tourism. Every day the schedule had to be adapted due to the weather, the presence of a polar bear or another cruise ship at our landing spot. Spotting wildlife seemed to be on top of everybody’s priority list, no matter if you were a tourist or a scientist. Lectures and group pictures were paused or delayed because humpback and fin whales were spotted. The further the expedition progressed, the more scientific projects were successfully completed and the more relaxed the atmosphere became.

Since the SEES expedition aimed to provide an impulse to Dutch polar research Machiel and Linde also conducted a second study, a network analysis among the scientists on board. They are currently still in the process of collecting questionnaires and no insights can be derived at this stage. However, it was interesting to observe how filling in the questionnaire made people already reflect whether their research purpose enables or constrains them to network on the ship. Also, the presence of a large group of multidisciplinary scientists on board a ship for 10 days resulted in interesting and innovative ideas for new research projects.