The Christmas Story – In Svalbard, where you sail among the bears/2


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bee-portion2Giovanni Porzio is one of Italy’s greatest reporters and a passionate sailor. In his book “The Sea is Never the Same” he has recreated the essence of reportage, that is, “reporting” from a voyage news, but also stories, feelings and images. Here is the second installment of his trip to the Svalbard Islands in the Great North! (You can find the first part here)

It is impossible to work with halyards and sheets with bare hands: even with gloves, fingers are frozen. But the body is warm. I am well equipped: microfiber “tactical” jerseys and tights, down jacket, oilskin, boots, balaclava, wool cap. Inside Ecland there is a pleasant warmth, the oil stove works, but in the bunk we sleep clothed.

We proceed on autopilot (in turn at least one of us stands watch at the inner wheelhouse or in the cockpit) to the placid anchorage of Salvagen Bay: still water, the sun shines on the glacier, a stream roars through the beach rocks. Two walruses pass puffing aft. And we are alone in the primordial nature. No ships, sails or fishing boats. In the morning we notice some signs of life: next to the remains of a shack of trappers, bear and Arctic fox hunters, are the tents of a scientific expedition. Apart from Longyearbyen the archipelago (62,500 sq. km: 60 percent covered by ice and only 10 percent with some form of vegetation) is almost completely depopulated.

In the Ny-Alesund Fjord
In the Ny-Alesund Fjord

In Spitsbergen, 400 Russian-Ukrainian miners resist in Barentsburg settlement, a hundred Norwegians in the Sveagruva mine, a handful of Polish meteorologists in Hornsund, a team of international scientists in Ny-Ålesund, and a couple of misanthropic seal and blue fox hunters who have chosen to isolate themselves at the edge of the world, drifting into the vast spaces of Europe’s largest wilderness. There are also the Soviet ghost towns of Pyramiden and Grumantbyen, long since evacuated but intact, with busts of Lenin, Cyrillic inscriptions, even a swimming pool and a music school. Discovered by Dutch navigator Willem Barents in 1596, Svalbard (“Cold Coast”) soon became the destination of a wild northern gold rush: whale oil, walrus ivory, seal, fox and polar bear skins. Remains of whaling stations, ancient cemeteries, fat boiling pots, mandibles and vertebrae of whales are scattered throughout the archipelago. Between the late 17th century and the mid-20th century, fleets from Holland, Russia, England, France, Denmark, and Norway exterminated millions of mammals. So much so that large cetaceans such as the Right Whale and Blue Whale are now threatened with extinction. Bears-protected since 1973-are on the rise and pose a real danger.

Michele, in order to obtain permission to sail in Svalbard, had to ensure that there was at least one crew member aboard Ecland with a gun permit. And the manuals go on and on in their recounting of lethal encounters and recommendations: use powerful, large-caliber weapons, from shotguns to semiautomatics, with magazines always engaged and ready for use. We, actually, bluffed, having only the boat’s flares in the boat…. But of bears, fortunately, we did not spot any.



Discover all of Giovanni Porzio’s reports in his book “The Sea is Never the Same!”



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