Over 400 years ago, whaling was a way of life for small coastal towns in the Basque Country. Not far from San Sebastian, visitors can still experience this part of the regions history to imagine what life was like for hardworking fisherman, their story is one that has shaped the character, culture and traditions of the Basque country.
San Juan Whaling Ship
Built in 1563 by the Laborde shipyards, the San Juan whaling vessel was owned and operated by Ramos de Arrieta, known as “Borda”, from Pasaia Donibane. In order to source the best quality material, ship builders turned to the local oak forests, here trees were pruned and grown in particular ways by forest rangers so that they would grow in to the unique pieces needed to create strong seaworthy ships. These techniques were the beginning of the Basque region’s international reputation for quality shipbuilding, which still exists today.
In the spring of 1565, San Juan set sail for Terranova, loaded with goods from local merchants and 60 brave sailors set off on a journey under the orders of Arrieta, on his last mission.
A Tragedy Strikes
After a successful hunting campaign and a hold filled with barrels of whale oil, the ship was anchored near Red Bay when a heavy storm surprised the ship and its sailors. Strong winds eventually broke the moorings crashing the boat against the shore. San Juan quickly sank with its precious cargo into the icy waters of the Labrador Peninsula.
The remains lay at the bottom of the bay until its discovery in 1978 by Canadian archeology team Parcs from Canada. The discovery made the cover of National Geographic magazine and it became one of the most well known merchant ships of the 16th century.
History Comes to Life
Today visitors can experience first hand how a replica of San Juan was rebuilt using traditional methods. Experts from around the world carefully studied construction techniques and materials from the sixteenth century in order to share this era with present day. During the visit you can learn about how ships were built in the 16th century, how Basque whalers lived and their fascinating stories that have endured until today.
For more information, be sure to visit the museum website for details and visiting hours.0