The Sicilian Channel separates Europe and Africa. It was one the very first intercontinental channels that humanity navigated. Unlike the Straits of Gibraltar or the Bosphorus (which also separate continents), one side is not visible from the other. In the early days of navigation – thousands of years before the Phoenicians – when men sailed and rowed small craft, crossing this channel was usually accidental, certainly not be design.
The Channel has seen thousands of years of trade, wars and deaths deliberate and weather inspired. It has transported civilizations and cultures and has enriched and diversified the human gene-pool.
Size and Shape
At its narrowest it is 77 nautical miles wide, between Cape Bon (the Good Cape) at the north east corner of Tunisia, and Capo Feto (Baby’s Head) at the south west corner of Sicily. It is fringed by reefs, and is shallow,with an average depth of less than 100 meters.
The Channel divides the Mediterranean Sea into two distinct areas – the deep western basin between Gibraltar and Tunisia – close to 3,000 meters deep in places, and the eastern basin which is even deeper, exceeding 4,000 meters at a point equidistant from Libya, Sicily and Greece.
Not only does it divide continents and cultures, it divides the climate, with distinct difference between the weather experienced in the western and eastern basins of the Mediterranean.
Whilst the weather between the East and West basins might have its differences, the rapidly shallowing depths in the Channel creates vicious short seas, particularly when the north easterly ‘Gregale’ (the Maltese name) has been blowing for a few days.
It was the ‘Gregale’ which drove Saint Paul’s ship ashore on Malta one wild and stormy night when he was travelling to Rome. Likewise, the prevailing winter westerly winds, blowing a thousand miles from the Pillars of Hercules at Gibraltar, pile up a powerful, steep and merciless sea on the western reefs and through the Channel.
So, it is a gap between continents, but more than that it is a bridge – a sunken bridge. Although a sunken bridge composed mainly of limestone, there are stepping stones scattered across the Strait, the main ones being the Italian Islands of Pantellaria, Linosa and Lampedusa, and the island state of Malta, with Comino and Gozo to its north.
The geological formation of the strait was complex, and the Italian Islands are volcanic. There is still change under way, as Italy and Sicily are quite active, with regular earthquakes; of course Mount Etna in Sicily is erupting almost continuously. The complexity is a result of the interaction between the African and Eurasian tectonic plates, and activity which pushed the limestone up to form what now appears to be a bridge.
In the eastern part of the Channel, south of Ragusa in Sicily and north of Malta, there are oil reserves which are being exploited, and oil exists in other areas too, for example off Tunisia. Libya, though well to the south has significant oil reserves.
Many of the western reefs take the names of famous ships or of explorers who discovered them or were wrecked there: Biddlecombe, Hecate, Talbot, Graham, Terrible.
In the 21st Century, the Channel is a conduit for much of the world’s trade, on the direct route from the Middle East (via the Suez Canal) to Western Europe and North America, saving five thousand sea miles and the often dangerous passage round the Cape of Good Hope. It also carries the Far East Trade to Western Europe and North America.
Anyone who has sailed a small boat through the Sicilian Channel will have experienced the frenetic level of shipping which is constantly changing course to follow the recommended channels through the dangerous waters and around Cape Bon.
Tunisia is, of course, part of the Barbary Coast (that part of North Africa is know also as The Maghreb) and as trade developed across and through the Sicilian Channel, it was at the mercy of the Barbary Pirates. And there was not much mercy. Cargoes and ships were plundered, and crews killed or sold into slavery in North Africa.
The Sicilian Channel is not noted these days for piracy, though it does occasionally happen. Yachts and small craft are advised to keep well off the Algerian Coast, and any vessels approaching the Algerian coast are strictly controlled.
The Mediterranean has historically provided an abundance of fish to the peoples on its shores, and although the20th Century saw over-fishing and eventual action by governments to prevent the exhaustion of this vast resource,fishing still continues today.
Anyone who has recently been on holiday in a Mediterranean country will know that fish is no longer a cheap option when dining out.
The western and eastern Mediterranean basins exchange water through the Sicilian Channel. There are two layers of current in the channel, one flowing east and one flowing west. The complex flows of these currents over the rugged,shallow bottom provide nutrient-rich seawater. This nourishes vast quantities of fish, and fishermen from Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Sicily and Malta congregate there to exploit the diverse wealth of marine life.
Undoubtedly it’s one of the most important channels in the world – although rarely mentioned in the way the Straits of Hormuz or Gibraltar are.
© 2011 James Marinero
September 2, 2011