National Geographic : 1955 Jan
Sicily the Three-Cornered floating observation platform. Two small craft, the ontri, tie up to the parent vessel. Atop the high mast a lookout stands for a 4-hour trick, scanning through narrowed eye lids the blue sunlit strait. The lookout usually faces upstream, as fish swimming with the current are swept by rapidly; occasionally he turns and searches the sea around him. Current Reverses Every Six Hours "Downstream" and "upstream" are not fixed terms in the strait, because the 6-mile an-hour current normally changes direction every six hours. The Ionian Sea to the south and the Tyrrhenian at the north end of the narrow strait have different tidal levels, and, when the tide changes, this difference causes violent currents and whirlpools.* I sat in one of the small boats several hours a day for three days, waiting for the appear ance of a fish. Six men man these little craft: the boss, who is also the harpooner; four oarsmen; and the lookout, who directs the actual pursuit of a swordfish. I was eager to film this mode of fishing, but I had been told that it would be impossible for me to get into the small boat that did the harpooning because I would be in the way during the speed and excite ment of the chase. But it was typical of the generosity of the Sicilian fishermen that they immediately invited me to join them. While we sat in the rocking boat under the blazing sun, the men tossed me bits of swordfishing lore. "What brings the swordfish here? Oh, they're like tourists," said Francesco. "Tourists nothing!" scoffed another. "They're here on more serious business; it's their breeding season. Haven't you seen them swimming in pairs?" "If the female of a pair is harpooned," the captain said, "the male hangs about, and often we can get him too." As we talked, the boats streamed at the ends of their painters. The current that gurgled and slapped at their sides flowed south through the strait. When opposing currents meet, or encounter a sudden change in depth, whirlpools form. In their early stages, before they become a smooth-sided whirling funnel, the currents meet with a clash of whitecaps, a peculiar soundless agitation of waters that resembles a school of fish breaking on the surface. With their sense of metaphor the Italians call these whirlpools gardfali, carnations; the agitated waters certainly resemble that flower with its tight whorl of notched petals. Classical sailors dreaded the passage through the strait, particularly through the narrow part close to where we were anchored. Here a rock called Scylla on the Italian main land nearly touches the point of Sicily, three and-a-half miles away. Off the Sicilian shore the ancients placed Charybdis, a monster lying in wait for luckless mariners. Actually it is a whirlpool. They also feared a monster that lived in a cave in the rock of Scylla. The hours dragged on, the lookout clung to his high platform, and some of the men fell asleep. We had been three days without sighting a fish, though our position moved up one station each day. The men, whose daily bread-literally-depended on their success, talked ruefully, but without real bitterness. To while away the time, Nino, one of the crew, stood up and began to sing in a Sicilian imitation of the Neapolitan dialect. A shout from the lookout came with such suddenness that Nino tumbled into the stern sheets as the captain leaped for the painter and cast off. Everyone automatically took his place, the men at the oars standing facing forward, the captain on his harpooner's plat form forward, and Nino on his short lookout mast amidships. I jumped on the midships thwart, my left arm and leg round the stubby mast, my right leg spread wide with the foot close to the gunwale, so that the oarsman immediately behind me could sweep forward without strik ing me with the loom of his oar. Harpooning a Swordfish Hugging the mast with my left arm and with Nino's feet just touching my head, I held the camera to my eye. As eager as I was to make the picture, my chief fear was of hindering my kind friends in the capture of their first fish in three days. All this had taken about five seconds. Now we were scudding over the water, guided by the shouted directions of the lookout high above the big vessel. The swordfish first cir cled out to sea, then doubled on his track. When Nino caught sight of him, he jumped * See "Fishing in the Whirlpool of Charybdis," by Paul A. Zahl, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, No vember, 1953.