National Geographic : 1955 Jan
The National Geographic Magazine of land that stretches toward the Aeolians from Sicily's mainland. From here I took an inland route to Palermo. Sicily's hinterland is a jumble of mountains and hills. The road wound down into valleys that in spring were brilliant with carpets of poppies, purple lupines, and yellow broom, but in midsummer are a uniform yellow-brown of wheatfields and sun-seared grass. Stone towns loomed from the crests of mountains. Beyond Enna, near the geographical cen ter of the island, I passed the yawning mouths of sulphur mines, strangely enough far re moved from any active volcanoes. Miners bring up dull-colored rock that is heated in furnaces to draw off the liquefied sulphur. Tuna Trap Brought by Moors One day in Palermo I received a telegram from the director of the Favignana fishery: the tuna had appeared in force and it was time for a mattanza-a killing. Late each spring, as they have since the dawn of time, the tuna reappear in the waters of Sicily, swimming south on their annual breeding migration. No one knows with certainty where they come from. One school used to maintain that they entered the Mediterranean from the open Atlantic; another describes a vertical migra tion, the tuna staying in deep water most of the year and coming to the surface to swim southward in the spring. The huge fish reappear early in May, and the migration lasts until the end of June. This is the happy time, when the tuna, "traveling on the left eye"-that is, keeping the coast on their left-swim toward Africa. During July the fish, having mated and spawned, re turn northward, but this time in smaller groups, thinner, hungrier, and wiser, and the net fishing is not so good. I took ship at Trapani to go over to the Egadi Islands to see the great tonnara of Favignana, largest in the Mediterranean. The tonnara is the system of nets stretched across the migration path of the giant fish. There are stone quarries on Favignana, and the people grow some grapes, but tuna fishing is the chief business of the island. In a wine shop that night the secretary of the fishery in troduced me to some of the fishermen who would man the nets at dawn next morning. I met the rais, captain of the fishery, a mustached old man with kindly eyes and a sharp jutting chin. The Arabic word "rais" is one of many Moorish terms used in the tonnara. The rais told me that the tonnara had been brought to Sicily from North Africa and that the records of the Favignana nets went back unbroken to the 17th century. "We have a man constantly on watch," said the rais. "He looks down through a glass-bottomed bucket and counts the fish as they come in. Then he opens the netting doors to let the fish pass from one chamber to another. When he thinks there are enough to warrant a killing, he sends word to me." At dawn I stood on the pier beneath a high bare hill and watched the black boats assemble in the yellow morning light. The heavy work boats were towed out in a long string to the nets about a mile offshore. I went in the last small boat with the rais. The tonnara is a net system stretching from the surface to the ocean floor in two main parts (page 10). The foot, a barrier a mile and a half long, stretches from the shore across the migration path of the tuna. This net deflects the fish, which turn shoreward and then encounter another, shorter barrier that conducts them to the door leading into a series of enclosed traps or chambers. The last of these, the "chamber of death," is the only one that has a netting floor. When the tuna are at last gathered in this trap, the men haul the floor almost to the surface, then pull out the wildly charging fish with hooks on the ends of long poles. This is the mattanza. Our towboat cast us off close to a bobbing buoy. The men took off their caps and chorused, "Good morning, St. Peter!" The saint's picture on the buoy seemed to nod. Fish Swim into Chamber of Death The other boats continued on to the lines of floats marking the end of the series of chambers and formed a U round three sides of the chamber of death. Our little boat moved in over the gate and down to the second of the eight chambers. The boat had a small glass-bottomed well amidships, and I sat over this, huddled under an old sail. I pressed my face to the luminous blue-green window, and when my eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, I saw them. Enormous shadowy fish, fusiform and com pact as submarines, slowly swimming about 20 feet down, endlessly going round in counter clockwise circles. Their sickle tails flicked from side to side, and flecks of yellow light gleamed from caudal finlets.