- Raquel Cintra Pryzant
- From Sao Paulo to BBC News Brazil
March 25, 2023
Rugged and treacherous: this is the Death Coast (Costa da Morte in Galician), the scene of countless shipwrecks reconstructed, years later, by a fisherman in northwestern Spain.
Before the GPS system became popular, this fisherman born in 1941 in Sardiñeiro, on the Galician coast, found more than a thousand remains of boats at the bottom of the ocean.
Jose Lopez Redonda, better known as Pepe de Olegariois a living legend for Galicians who live near the sea.
“After 40 years at sea and more than a thousand shipwrecks, I still have ships to find,” he explained to BBC Brasil.
The Shipwreck Fisherman
Unlike other fishermen’s stories, the ones Pepe tells are usually quite realistic and very well documented: he has more than 1,000 shipwrecks located on a map full of treasures and tragedies.
Some of the best-known maritime accidents in world history, such as the British ship HMS Serpent and the oil tanker Prestige, took place in this region.
“They offered me to work on the land to earn more, but I didn’t accept it. And when I had to go home on Sundays, it made me sad,” he explained to BBC News Brazil.
But Pepe de Olegario never dedicated himself to fishing tilapia. He dedicated his life to finding a peculiar species: the grouper, a sullen and mysterious fish; a fish so rare that it became almost a legend.
The kilo of grouper was one of the most expensive at Galician fairs, which made it highly coveted.
It was then that other fishermen decided to follow Pepe on one of his days at work and discovered the secret of his success.
Groupers are fish weighing more than 100 kg that can live more than 200 meters deep, conditions that prevent their use of natural refuges such as algae and corals.
So these animals they end up living in ship hullsanchors and other wrecks.
“I traded fishing days for looking for shipwrecks. At that time I already knew that if I found one, I would also find groupers,” he recalls.
In his more than four decades locating the lost remains on the Galician coast, Pepe established links with the ships of the region.
The French, Spanish and Portuguese captains directly notified the fishermen when they returned from the sea with broken nets.
“Everyone knew me, they called me and told me ‘Pepe, I was hooked network’but even with his indications it took him days to find the shipwrecks”.
Following directions between lighthouses and beaches, Pepe de Olegario found spots that began to elude ships and covet grouper fishermen.
This fisherman who made his living looking for shipwrecks never stopped remembering the tragedies that shipwrecks entailed, sometimes with many victims.
“During the fishing I thought about the tragedy of that boat and, when I reached the shore, I inquired about the story behind it. And that’s how I learned,” he tells the BBC.
The English cemetery on the Costa da Morte
The most dangerous area of the Costa da Morte is called Ponta do Boi, in the town of Camariñas.
In these waters, three great shipwrecks forever marked the memory of the Galicians: the Iris of Hull in 1883, the HMS Serpent in 1890 and the SS Trinacria in 1893.
The Hull Iris was an English ship that had left Cardiff (Wales, United Kingdom) bound for India, skirting the Strait of Gibraltar.
In November of that year, this steam freighter manned by more than 30 men collided with the so-called Baixos de Antón, unleashing a tragedy that left only one survivor: Geoge Chirgwin.
The months of October and November mark the end of autumn in Europe, and it is when the sea on the Costa da Morte becomes most dangerous.
In addition to the north-easterly wind, which pushes the boats towards land, its rock structures are like icebergsmore dangerous than they appear at first glance.
It was also in November, this time in 1890, that another terrible accident caused a shipwreck in Ponta do Boi.
The British military ship HMS Serpent was en route to Sierra Leone, but the voyage ended in an accident in which 172 of its 175 crew died.
“The crew members were young; three of them managed to swim to the shore with great difficulty and warned the neighbors who, unfortunately, could not help,” says Virginia Barros, a tourist guide on the spot.
For several days the sea was returning the bodies to land and about 140 were recovered.
For them to have a decent burial, a necropolis was built: the English Cemetery.
On a stony ground, surrounded by the sound of the waves and the mist, this space today forms part of the European Route of Cemeteries.
“Until the middle of the last century, every time a British navy ship passed through the Costa da Morte, it issued salutes in honor of the victims of these great shipwrecks,” Virginia explains.
The Prestige disaster
The most mediatic shipwreck on the Costa da Morte was, without a doubt, that of the oil tanker Prestige in 2002.
Even with modern boats, technology and advanced cartography, the Galician coast continues to command respect to this day.
The Prestige disaster is remembered for the enormous curtain of black smoke and the pollution of more than 2,000 kilometers of coastline after the spill of most of the 77,000 tons of oil it was carrying.
Images of birds and fish covered in oil went around the world.
In response to so much tragedy, the Parador Costa da Morte hotel complex opened its doors in 2020, almost two decades after the disaster.
“The council of ministers of La Coruña decided, among the economic actions to recover the coast, to invest in tourism,” said Julio César Castro Marcote, director of the hotel.
In addition to promoting tourism on the Galician coast, as beautiful as it is dangerous, the Parador has also assumed the role of transmitting regional histories.
A photograph by Xurxo Lobato that shows the exact moment of the Prestige accident is exhibited at the entrance to the Parador along with portraits of fishermen.
There it is possible to admire, through the lenses of Ramón Caamaño and Virxilio Viétez, the sun-baked faces of a generation from the 1930s who called the sea “la mar” in feminine, as a sign of respect.
“The fifth floor of the building, designed by Alfonso Peneda, was chosen for the permanent exhibition of Pepe de Olegario’s nautical charts,” said the director.
The Galician who discovered more than a thousand shipwrecks during decades at sea proudly shows your handmade cartographyand now framed.
Already retired, he still remembers the names of the crew, type of cargo, destination of the ship, year and reasons for the accidents.
This is how the work of Pepe de Olegario helps to reconstruct this part of the memory of Galicia.
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