Monday, May 28, 2012

Basques sell sea shells by the sea shore

May 14th, 1901 is an important date in Basque history - not for a war or an election, but for an event that was the last of its kind in the long story of the Basques.  On this very day, around 9am, a treasure appeared to the men of Orio.  A treasure not in the sense of a pirate treasure box or a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, but the type of treasure that rowers of that time dreamed of - a Right Whale (a sort of humpback variety).  The Oriotarras, what people from Orio are called in Basque, rushed to their boats and headed out to sea at top speed.
A fin or sei whale caught by some local Basques

At this point, the Right Whale was practically extinct in the Bay of Biscay.  After years and years of hunting them, barely any had survived and the talented Basque sailors ventured up to the Nordic Seas and to North America for new whale meat.  So, when this appeared, you can imagine their adrenaline pumping!  They had to arrive to the whale and harpoon it before the rivaling neighbor towns of Zarautz or Getaria got there.  In whaling, first to harpoon is the town who claims the coveted prize.

In honor of this final kill, a poem was composed in Euskera to honor the famous day.  In it, they describe the whale who moved agilely in the water as if he had lice and was trying desperatley to remove them from himself.

Upon seeing him from their fishing village, 5 Orio men, burly as they are described grabbed their rowing teams and raced out to catch the beast.  In an older and traditional Basque style of rowing, the men looked to almost lay down as the fiercely paddled out to see, from the comfort of their little inlet.  The five boats were led by the 'traineras' (drifters - those who steer the boat and harpoon the whale) who are now immortalized in Orio - Olaizola, Loidi, Uganda, Atxaga and Manterola.

The made it to the whale and without further ado, killed the massive creature who let out terrible and immense screams according to the poem.  Some disagree, saying a rival town arrived first and Orio swept the whale out from under their feet and stole him, but ask any Oriotarra and their rowers were the ones who claimed the spoils fair and square.

Measuring 12 meters long (almost 40 feet) and 10 thick (about 32 feet) it is said they the whale's body weighed over 30,000lbs and even more with his tongue!  It was a heck of a catch and earned the Oriotarras a lot of pesetas and the fame of having caught the last Right Whale in the Bay of Biscay.

While the Basques no longer hunt whales, they do maintain the rowing competitions that used to be used in them.  When any town saw a whale, they gathered their best rowers and dashed out to catch it.  Nowadays, water spouts from whales are hard to catch, and when they do appear the same reaction doesn't happen, but throughout the rowing season, the Basques constantly battle against each other to show who can make it out to sea and back the quickest.  Rowing as their ancestors did, they look to paddle with just as much strength and desire to make it out and back, whale or not.

In Orio, this momentous day is accounted for in an entire plaza that the town has used to honor it.  When Cathy and Grammy came, we took them to the plaza where you can see, with tiles and mosaic art along with part of the poem, the story of the last hunted whale in the Basque Country.

Famous for this as well as their constant rowing skills, everyone always ask me if Joseba is/was a rower since he is from Orio.   It's like asking if someone from Texas is a cowboy or someone from California has been to LA - it is part of this little fishing village's fame and it so far embedded in the culture that it cannot be lost. 



Cornelis said...

Hi. Is that a stock photo of a different whale at the top left? That's neither a humpback nor a right whale -- it's either a fin or sei whale. Right whales don't have ventral pleats (grooves) on their ventral (bottom) surface, and humpbacks don't have that many ventral pleats -- they usually have 14-22 widely spaced ventral pleats, whereas the whale in the photo has many narrowly spaced grooves like a fin or sei whale. Where did you find the photo?

Amanda said...

Cornelis - Such a whale expert you are! I took that photo of a photo in a musuem exhibit in Donostia - San Sebastian. Thanks for the correction, I'll definitley check into it! Anyways, the picture is not directly related to the story of Orio killing the last whale, the photo isn't even taken in Orio, just of some Basques who killed a whale and took a snapshot. I'll put a caption so people will know it's not a Right Whale! Thanks for reading.