Archive for the ‘Spanish sea tales’ Category

Grey whale spotted off Barcelona

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

Gray whale

To the amazement of scientists, a grey whale (Eschrichtius robustus) has been spotted off the coast of Barcelona, after being tracked from Palestine/Israel. North Atlantic-Mediterranean populations were understood to have become extinct in the 18th century, and there have no sightings since. The most likely expllanation is that the animal is a Pacific grey whale that has become lost. If it does form part of a new Atlantic population that would indeed be news. El País and BBC

Killer whales in Cadiz

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

BBC documentary of killer whales off the coast of Cadiz attracted by huge tuna captured by the almadraba fishing technique.

From The Natural World – Wild In Spain. Unfortunately it features Micheal Portillo.

The almadraba is an elaborate and age-old Andalusian technique of setting nets in a maze that leads to a central pool called “copo”. The maze uses just two net lines, called “raveras”. One net is connected to the shore and other line is secured in deeper water. Those lines have smaller oblique lines which leads to the central pool. Tunas are not able to see the exit from the central pool and remain inside. This simple maze works because tuna tend to go into the Mediterranean during spring and the beginning of summer. The floor of the central pool is raised in order to catch the tunas and when that floor is up, there is little room for tunas and they are then caught easily and slaughtered. Wikipedia

From Dolphins and whales in the Strait of Gibraltar

Killer whales (Orcinus orca) visit the Strait of Gibraltar during the tuna migration season in July and August. At the same time Spanish and Moroccan fishermen fish for yellowfin tuna, using longline fishing technics, they lower their fishing lines, armed with several hooks, vertically to the sea bottom. This fishing procedure is possible only in a limited area, where the depth of sea is only 100 metres. Killer whales, being intelligent animals, found out that it is much easier to take a tuna already caught on a fisherman’s hook, than to race with a fish in all its strength. Fishermen must often be satisfied with no more than the head of a tuna; orcas never eat the head of the fish as it contains a metal hook. This is the most dolphin safe of all methods of tuna fishery.

The killer whale population of the Strait of Gibraltar is only 12 animals (2006). There is a photo-identification catalogue of them. They are rather difficult to observe: they can only be found easily if tuna fishermen are on the sea, and the orcas hang around them. In any other instances, whale-watchers only can come across them by chance.

The second deepest natural harbour in the world

Monday, February 8th, 2010

A curiosity I heard today: Mahón, the capital of Menorca, has the second deepest natural harbour in the world – after Pearl Harbour. The harbour is 5 km long and up to 900m wide. Historically, it was one of the most strategically important harbours in the western Mediterranean. More from Wikipedia

Catalan sea cats

Thursday, January 3rd, 2008

I’m re-reading Robert Hughes’ Barcelona, a fascinating history of the city from its foundation to the early 20th century.  There’s a very interesting section on the Barcelonan and Catalan seafaring tradition in which he mentions the importance of ship’s cats – the bigger and blacker the better  – and the custom of Shanghaiing them by tempting them on board with a bit of fish. Under 14th-century Catalan maritime law (Les Bones Costumes de la Mar), ship’s owners were penalised of they failed to provide a cat and rats infested the ship. Here’s the full quote from the law I managed to find:

If good be damaged by rats, and there is no cat on board the ship, the managing owner of the ship ought to make compensation; but it has not been declared in the case where a ship has had cats on board in the place where she was laden, and after she has sailed away the said cats have died and the rats have damaged the goods before the ship has arrived at a place where they could procure cats; if the managing owner of the ship shall buy cats and put them on board as soon as they arrive at a place, where they can find them for sale or as a gift or can get them on board in any manner, he is not bound to make good the said losses, for they have no happened through his default. 
from “Les Bones Costumes de la Mar” (14th-15th c. Catalan text)  from Twiss, Sir Travers, ed. Monumenta Juridica, The Black Book of the Admiralty

Get Robert Hughes’ Barcelona from Iberianature/Amazon

Shipwreck in Galicia

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

La Playa de los Ingleses lies on Galicia’s bleak Costa da Morte, and is one of the few remaining stretches yet to be blighted by the scourge of second homes.

The beach takes its name from the 172 English sailors who were drowned off the coast here on 10th November 1890, when their ship, the Serpent, sank in a terrible storm. The Serpent had sailed from Plymouth on Saturday 8 November bound for Sierra Leone. Although there are several versions of what happened, the final verdict was that the Serpent had been lost through an error in navigation. Three surviviors reached the nearby village of Camariñas and sounded the alarm. A search party was sent out and most of the bodies were recovered. They were buried on the beach close to the wreck spot and a small cemetery was built around them. It stands today as a rather sad and lonely mounment. Letters of thanks were sent by the British government to the villagers and the mayor was given a shotgun and the parish priest a gold watch. Unusually for the time the survivors wore lifebelts, and there are claims that the incident led to their widespread use in the British merchant navy.

Mermaids in Spain

Sunday, July 22nd, 2007

“They write from Galicia in Spain that some fishermen lately took on that coast a sort of monster, or merman, five feet and half long from it’s foot to its head, which was like that of a goat. It has a long beard and moustaches, and black skin somewhat hairy, a very long neck, short arms, and hand longer than they ought to be in proportion to the rest of the body: long fingers like those of a man, with nails like claws, very long toes, joined like the feet of a duck, and the heels furnished with fins resembling the winged feet with which painters represent Mercury. ”

From Scots Magazine 1739.

In Spanish a mermaid is a sirena. More Iberian knicknackery here

Basque whaling tradition

Tuesday, June 5th, 2007

This is a bit from The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky, an interesting if somewhat nationalistic portrait of that remarkable corner of the Iberian Peninsula. There’s a big section on whaling, from which I leave you all:


Seal of the Basque town of Biarritz, 1351, with whaling scene and two-flued harpoon. (

An important feature of the Basque whale was that, like the sperm whale, but unlike many whale species, it floated when dead. The whale’s back shone obsidian black in the water, though the belly was a brilliant white. Averaging about fifty to sixty feet in length, a quarter of which was the huge head, a single animal could weigh more than sixty tons. Such a whale would yield thirty tons of blubber, which could be cooked down to an oil valued for centuries as fuel. Most coastal Basque communities established facilities along their beaches for cooking down whale blubber. As with most things Basque, it is not certain when this oil trade began, but in 670, at the end of the age of the Visigoths, there was a documented sale in northern France by Basques from Labourd of forty pots of whale oil……
……The first commercial whale hunters were the seventh- and eighth-century Basques, who found an eager market for this meat in Europe. Whale meat became a staple of the European diet partly because the Catholic Church forbade the eating of “redblooded” meat on holy days-about half the days on the calendar including every Friday-arguing that it was “hot,” associated with sex, which was also forbidden on holy days. But meat that came from animals-or parts of animals-that were submerged in water, including whale, fish, and the tail of the beaver, was deemed “cold” and therefore permitted. So with the exception of beaver tails and the occasional seal or porpoise, whale was the one allowable red meat. The Basques became the great providers of this holy red meat. They sold the leaner meat fresh or preserved in salt. Fattier parts were cured like bacon. In Paris, where these cuts were a Lenten specialty, they were known as craspois. Tongues, fresh or salted, were regarded as a particular delicacy and served with peas. Being the choicest part, the only good part, according to some medieval writers, whale tongues were often demanded by local church or government officials as tribute. The port of Bayonne jealously guarded its monopoly on the tongue trade.

Replica of a txalupa, the original Basque whaling boat (

In the seventh century, the Basques, no longer content to await for ailing whales to beach themselves, built stone whalespotting towers along the coast from Bilbao to Bayonne, manning them between October and March. One still remains on a mountaintop near San Sebastian and another in Guethary in Labourd. The whale’s undoing was the fact that it is a lunged mammal and must rise to the surface to breathe. When it does, a tall column of vapor is released. Spotting the spout of an approaching whale off the coastline, the lookout in the tower would let out a prolonged yell. His shouts were actually coded signals that told whalers the exact type of whale sighted, and whether it was a single whale or in a group. Five oarsmen, a captain, and a harpooner would then row out in a lightweight vessel.
The oarsmen would row as silently as possible, muffling the oars in their locks and even the oar blades in the water with oiled cloth. Then, having sneaked up on the unsuspecting giant foundering along the coast, they would strike suddenly with wooden-handled spears and harpoons. The oarsmen had to row, close enough to the whale for the harpooner to plant the har•
goon deeply into the body just below the head. Harpooning became the trade of the largest, strongest men. After harpooning the whale, the oarsmen had to row furiously in reverse, turning a fast circle, for an enraged whale could kill a dozen men with a flick of its huge tail. Or, instead of turning on its attackers, the whale might try to dive to the safety of great depths, dragging men and boats with it. The whale would dive with harpoon, line, and buoys until, out of breath, it had to furiously resurface, only to be harpooned again. The process was repeated numerous times until the whale spouted blood and died or the whalers capsized and drowned. Sometimes the boat and fishermen would just sink under the weight of the wet ropes.
By the late thirteenth century, whales marked the town seals of Bermeo and Fuenterrabia. Among the other towns that included whales in their town seals were Biarritz, Hendaye, Guetaria, Motrico, and Lequeitio. Not only did these towns keep the whale on their seals, but, from the use of whaling launches, they developed an early and enduring passion for rowing regattas.

More books about the Basque Country I have read

The Basque Country: A Cultural History by Paddy Woodworth: Full of fascinating facts. An excellent balanced account.