Three unarmed Polish researchers stranded on a remote Arctic island were rescued by helicopters as polar bears were closing in on them, officials said Wednesday.
The hairsbreadth escape took place on an island in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, about 650 miles (1,050 kilometers) from the North Pole.
“It was the worst imaginable situation. They were cold and wet, had no equipment or weapons, and were surrounded by hungry polar bears,” said Peter Braaten of the Svalbard governor’s office.
The men were rescued by helicopter Tuesday after 15 hours shipwrecked at the edge of a tiny bay between two glaciers, he said.
The three were aboard the Polish research ship Horyzont when they set out in a small inflatable boat to pick up equipment on one of the islands.
“Their boat capsized, and they lost all their equipment and weapons,” Braaten told The Associated Press. He said they swam and clambered over chunks of floating ice to get to the island of Egdeoya.
Braaten said the ship repeatedly tried to send in another small boat to pick them up, but conditions were too rough. The ship finally used a harpoon cannon to fire a rope to land, so it could send the researchers food and water. Then it called for help.
“They managed to start a fire, to keep warm and keep the polar bears away,” he said, explaining that the men used the spark plugs from their capsized craft’s outboard motor to get the fire going. The island has some dried grass and scrubby plants.
“It was a bit like MacGyver,” Braaten said, referring to the adventure television series featuring a character who relies on science and his wits to solve problems.
Braaten said at least three polar bears looking for a meal were within roughly 20 yards (meters) of the three men when the helicopter picked them up.
“That is dangerously close,” he said.
Polar bears have no natural enemies in their frozen domain and regard all other living things, including humans, as potential meals.
The three men, who suffered only minor scrapes and bruises, were flown directly to a Polish research base on the islands and dropped off for treatment.