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And the sea gets its own museum
In Gallipoli
It was set up thanks to the dedication of its honorary chairman, Giorgio Cataldini, and contains the most important collection of cetaceans in Puglia.
As well as the zoological part there is a project to include the history of fishing and the Gallipoli merchant fleet in the exhibition. And that of the tunny-fishing, recently re-discovered thanks to a book by Giuseppe Albahari and Luigi Tricarico
by Nicolò Carnimeo
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Gallipoli (Lecce). Museum of the Sea. Photo by Nicolò Carnimeo

The Museum of the Sea in Gallipoli, inaugurated last month (November), is home to the most important collection of cetaceans in Puglia. As soon as you step inside you come upon the skeletons of two gigantic examples of Cuvier’s beaked whale, which, when they were alive, were a good five metres long, and the bones of the breast fins are so similar to human phalanxes they take you aback; on observing these you can see how cetaceans and dolphins are similar to us and why a certain empathy exists between us. Giorgio Cataldini, the honorary chairman, or rather the heart and soul, of the Museum, tells us the story behind the two cetaceans. Without the devotion of a lifetime and a boundless love of the environment and the sea of Gallipoli, this exhibition would not have come about.

When fishermen find an animal in trouble in the sea, or catch a crab or a shell in their nets that they have never seen before, their first thought is to call “the professor” for an explanation. Instinctively they know that that discovery can be useful to science and to their sea. So the collection of naturalistic rarities has expanded over the years; apart from the cetaceans there are also crustaceans and crabs, shells and marine birds; all assiduous visitors to the seas of Salento and, in particular, of Gallipoli, which is a really exceptional spot for biodiversity. We must not forget that right opposite the “Beautiful City” lies the island of Sant’Andrea, a nature reserve and nesting site of one of the rarest types of seagull, “Audouin’s gull”.

In the newborn museum, every maxilla, bone and carapace tells a story that Cataldini narrates with skill and passion, the two beaked whales were beached a few years ago along the shore, one a week or two after the other; they are two females and are very rare examples. For this reason the “Professor” wanted to keep them in Gallipoli, ignoring the request of biologists in the north, and has managed to preserve them in exceptional condition. In the display case beside them there are various dolphins and also a small, newborn “Risso’s dolphin” perhaps abandoned by its mother and then beached. But some of the stories have a happy ending; many of the cetaceans and turtles have been saved by Cataldini and by other biologists that he calls on in emergencies. The most famous episode, in 1996, is that of a very young Risso’s dolphin that had lost its mother since she had been washed ashore: the little one wanted to follow her, but the biologists managed to guide it into a bight (that they then enclosed with nets) so as to be able to transport it to the dolphin house in Riccione. So the museum becomes a living entity, not just somewhere to show exhibits – the real novelty is in its transmitting passion and love for nature to younger generations, so that they have an opportunity to wonder at the examples of blue crab that somehow emigrated here to Salento from the Atlantic, or the vertebrae of a whale and of a sperm whale that look like the necklace of a giant.

Actually, the best-preserved whale skeleton is in the nearby Civic Museum, a hundred yards away. It dates back to the second half of the 19th century, and its huge cranium belonged to a creature of over 12 yards long. This exhibit was restored by Cataldini too, and his dream now would be to recompose and reconstruct the whole animal, like they do in the great natural science museums. With his signature stubbornness we are sure he will be successful, and in the meantime his efforts will be dedicated to spreading the news about the new Museum of the Sea, a rarity in Puglia. We hope that, apart from the zoological part, it can be expanded to include also the history of fishing and the merchant fleet in Gallipoli. For example it would be interesting to re-discover and preserve all the history connected with the traffic in lamp oil that made Gallipoli one of the most important ports of the Mediterranean. This town was one of the few to have enormous cisterns of local carparo stone that could filter the “green gold” and give it some special properties. And then there are the memories and history of the tunny-fishing, unique in Puglia, which have been only recently re-discovered in a book by Giuseppe Albahari and Luigi Tricarico, entitled Raisi, sceri e Patale. Le tonnare di Gallipoli. There is no lack of cultural containers in the old town center either, starting with the local market by the castle which has just been opened, an imposing central structure with room for exhibitions and conferences, and whose restructuring has exposed for the first time the city-facing side of the castle and its moat.

Gallipoli thus shows itself to be a small capital of the merchant navy, bringing together passion, tradition and identity. The sea has a broad horizon, the route is the right one, but there is still a lot to be done.