The sky was just starting to get light at 6:30AM. I moved slowly still trying to wake up as I took a deep breath of salty sea air. Palamos still felt like a ghost town at this hour, except for the little bustling activity around the fishing port. I watched as men greeted each other on the docks in Catalan, exchanging what I imagined to be niceties, but could have been rude challenges for all I know. Captain Xavi Miro greeted us right on time in front of the fishing museum and with a handshake our day learning how to be Costa Brava fishermen had begun.
He took us to his boat, the Estrella del Sur III, a simple boat that had been his father’s livelihood for decades fishing the seas outside of Palamos. At 7am sharp, the engines started and we were pushing away from the docks to begin our day learning about Costa Brava fishing culture. All the ships left the port at the same time creating this unique ‘rush hour’; I’ve experienced a lot of commutes, but nothing like this before. The sun was just peeking up from behind the church as we bid the port of Palamos goodbye and I popped my Dramamine wondering what the day had in store for me.
Tourism and Experience Based Travel
There are few things that are new to me any longer in the world of travel. I think this has to do with the fact that I’ve been traveling since 2006 non-stop, and probably because every location seems to be doing the same tourism offerings. Every city has free walking tours, food tours, Segway tours, museums, a food hall, and craft beer or a local distillery. When you travel as much as I do, it all starts feeling the same.
However, the Palamos fishing museum has figured out how to give its usual offerings a new twist. They offer a unique Costa Brava fishing tour I’ve not experienced anywhere else. You can actually spend a day on a fishing boat with a local fisherman, and then bring the catch in to the market and watch as it gets auctioned off immediately and the captain and crew are paid. The museum calls this Pescaturisme (fishing tourism) and it is a unique, authentic, experience spending a day on board a trawler. It is a mix of tourism and culture with a dose of education on sustainable fishing.
It was a chance to learn about fishing culture in Spain in a hands-on manner by spending a day on a boat with a local fisherman – of course I wanted to do this!
Captain Xavi runs one of the 10 boats in all of Costa Brava that welcomes tourists into the daily fishing routine. “It’s about sharing culture and ideas,” he says as he navigates alongside the cliffs of the Costa Brava. He’s been participating in fishing tourism for 4 years. He decided to take it on because the regulations changed and he thought it was important to share the history and knowledge and to meet new people and share ideas.
I’ve done a few other fishing experiences before around the world, but they were abbreviated versions of what really happens on a real fishing day. The captains have created a special experience for the tourist that is similar to what they do – but it’s not the real thing – it’s manufactured for the tourist. However, this fishing experience through the Palamos Fishing Museum was the real thing. The crew was going out at 7AM whether we were with them or not. They were doing their normal full day of trawling for gambas and we were just there to learn and observe – through the good times and the boring times. And that’s exactly what made this experience for me so great; I learned so much, it was exciting and it was boring – it was real.
A Gamba is simply a large, red shrimp that sits 800 meters below the water and feeds along the seabed. In the Costa Brava, the gamba is king. When we talked to Chef J0an Roca, the head chef of El Celler de Can Roca the 2nd best restaurant in the world, he quickly said that his favorite local ingredient to cook with was the gamba. Gambas are said to be special here in the Mediterranean waters off the Costa Brava coast; they are as well-known in the region as the lobster is to Maine.
The abrupt cliffs and climate of the coast in the southern parts of Costa Brava factor into the tasty gambas. The southern coast is covered in forest, and the trees grow right up to the cliff edges. The rain drains nutrients in to the sea and brings this rich mix of fresh water and salt water called sugar water (aqua dolce). I was told that the sea life feed in the aqua dolce elevating the taste. It sounded slightly far fetched to me, but there had to be some explanation for why the Palamos gambas were to good and sought after, and aqua dolce seemed as good as explanation as any!
The New Technologies of Costa Brava Fishing
His ‘bridge’ was a mishmash of old and new. The weathered, wooden dash was adorned in flat screens and new technology that looked like it belonged on star trek. I noticed that the traditional wooden captain’s ‘steering wheel’ even had a life of it’s own. Xavi never touched it – instead he would just punch coordinates into a gps and autopilot would move the wheel to where it needed to go. There were constant readouts and colors coming across the screens, which meant something to Captain Xavi, but just looked like pretty colors to me.
The technology isn’t just on the bridge, it’s also at 800 meters below the surface. Captain Xavi has invested in some of the latest fishing technology because he believes in the importance of sustainable fishing and ensuring that fishing for gambas can be continued for decades to come. It’s of utmost importance the seabed is protected, as that’s why the gambas are here. If trawling destroys the seabed, then there will be no more gambas – it’s that simple.
Xavi has a sensor that is connected to the opening of the net as well as two heavy metal iron plates that act as ‘doors’ to open the net. The sensor is what populates all of those colorful screens with data points. It is also a crucial piece to what helps Xavi control the doors too. It’s imperative that the doors float one or two meters above the sea bed so they don’t destroy the bottom driving away the gambas. And that is exactly what Xavi is watching so intently on the screen – making sure that those doors remain just above the seabed even though the seabed is always changing and never flat.
I get the feeling from Xavi that he is pretty special when it comes to his ability to master the technology and his passion for protecting the sea. Not all of gamba fisherman are this diligent. But on the other hand, I’m sure all of this new technology is quite an investment to make for a fisherman who might not be able to afford it.
The Fishing Game
Xavi’s eyes rarely left the screens for more than a minute at a time; he even ate his ‘Suquet’ (fish stew) lunch there in front of the screens, as the rest of his crew enjoyed a group lunch below with conversation and laughter. He would watch the screen, ever so slightly adjust the speed and sometimes the bearing and then watch and see the effects. He spent 6 hours just like this.
This is how he played the game.
The ‘game’ of fishing or trawling for gambas was all about strategy. He had 3 moves he could make and control: 1. Speed 2. Direction 3. Length of the starboard and port net cables. The rest is left to luck. It was sort of like watching a talented card player in Vegas gamble with strategy trying to conquer the system…but there’s always a little lady luck involved…and so it goes with fishing.
As I watched him intently watching screens barely moving, I thought to myself how this wasn’t really that much different than sitting in a cube in front of a computer all day – something I never would have associated with fisherman before.
What Can You Do on the Boat
From a tourism perspective, trawling is the boring part. The boat moves above the giant canyon at a walking pace. It’s 6 hours of rocking super slow. I think I must have nodded off at least 10 different times thanks to the easy rocking waves. I mainly sat on the bridge and talked to Xavi; he was a fascinating man in a fascinating industry.
A highlight of the day was watching the small crew of 3 make lunch in a tiny little boat gally. You can’t even believe what kind of delicious food can come out of a galley that small and simple, but it did. Chef Tony has been in fishing for his whole life and he loves to cook for the crew. He made a traditional fish stew for the crew and us with fish they had pulled up in the net the day before. After our giant stew lunch I sat on the front of the boat soaking up the sun as the boat slowly rocked me right into a little nap.
We were lucky as the weather was perfect for us, I can’t imagine what those 6 hours would have been like in rougher seas. It’s a good idea to bring a book or podcasts to potentially listen to if you want to fight off sleep. However Xavi is more than happy to entertain any and all of your questions for hours too!
After 6+ hours in a pretty simple existence rocking with the motion of the sea and waiting, suddenly everything seems to happen in the last 2 hours – and it’s those 2 hours that make the whole experience.
“The game is over,” Xavi said to me as he put his waterproof overalls on over his regular clothes. It took me a second to realize what he meant. But what he was really saying was that he did everything he could in his game strategy and now it was time to see what the result was. There was nothing more he could do at this point but pull up the net. The crew all dawned their fisherman overalls and gloves and went to their spots like a well-rehearsed team. It was fascinating to watch them all operate as a team – barely speaking, as they each knew their parts so well.
We sat and watched and waited with anticipation as the seemingly endless ribbon of net was wound up with the help of hydraulics. Finally the heavy end of the net was pulled up and we all let out a collective sigh of relief – there was red at the bottom! Xavi immediately said that it looked like 70 kg. He wanted 100, but said that he’s be happy with whatever he pulled in. After all, he told me that if he didn’t get them today, then it just meant there was more left for tomorrow.
The crew quickly went about dumping them into a giant pile and quickly sorting them into bright blue trays. Sorted into small, medium, large, and extra large. Each of these groupings brings different prices at auction so they must be separated. As Xavi pointed the boat back towards port the rest of the crew quickly sorted, resorted, cleaned and iced the gambas readying them for market.
As we pulled into the Palamos port again to fuel up and go to market, Xavi asked me “Do you like sushi?” “Yes!” I exclaimed. Before I knew it I was pulling heads off Gambas and sucking their brains out. Xavi made sure we tried both male and female gambas so that we could taste the flavor difference…and yes – there is a difference.
Palamos Fish Market and Auction
Fishing doesn’t end at the docks. We followed the gambas we caught with Xavi all the way into and through the Palamos Auction and Fish Market. It starts with quality control categorizing the fish into different sizes and qualities, and then the fish get placed on blue crates and enter the auction. Bidders sit on the sides and the fish come down the middle in plastic crates. The screen shows which boat caught the fish, how much it weighs, how many crates your buying and how much money it is per a kilo.
We cheered as Chef Xavi’s catch came down the belt to be bid upon; I’m pretty sure we were the only tourists on the floor of the auction! In this unique auction, the price of the fish begins high and starts going down rapidly until someone clicks a button, the price stops, and the blue bin is sold for that amount/kg. The winning bidder picks up his/her fish and it is likely utilized that night at a local restaurant; this culture is all about the freshest fish possible.
After everything sold, Xavi motioned to us to follow him upstairs to the office where we were able to see the end of the process, the payment. It’s not often you get to experience the entire fisherman process – from the sea to the market, but in Palamos, you can do this any day.
Back at the boat, the crew was busy cleaning the boat. They had to get it ready again to start this whole process again tomorrow at 6:30AM, regardless of if they had tourists/guests on the boat or not. Our day on the boat was a truly unique experience, one that you can’t experience many places in the world. I was educated about sustainable fishing, learned what it takes to fish gambas, made a new friend in Captain Xavi, and had a beautiful day at sea on a boat all day in the Mediterranean! It was a great way to travel deeper in a region and learn about what is on your plate and why it’s so special. I only wish more places offered these kind of authentic experiences for travelers!
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