The Azores are currently one of the world’s largest whale sanctuaries. Among resident and migrant species, common or rare, more than 20 different types of cetaceans can be spotted in the Azores. It is an impressive figure and it corresponds to a third of the total number of existing species. This is an an ecosystem with unique characteristics. With majestic whales and friendly dolphins, the blue Atlantic Ocean becomes even more magic around these nine islands. And it brings to the present, when preservation is the keyword, an old cry: “How she blows!”
Whale and dolphin watching is possible throughout the whole year due to the great number of species existing in the waters of the archipelago. In addition to resident species, such as common dolphins and common bottlenose dolphins, with which you can swim, there are also the whales that pass through the Azores in their migration routes. Spotted dolphins are more common during the summer, while blue whales can be easily spotted at the end of the winter. Sperm whales, sei whales and bearded whales are frequent in the summer. One thing is for sure: regardless of the season, there are always new things to discover.
There is no age limit to enjoy this true gift of Nature. Having in mind that each trip to the sea lasts for about three hours, the recommended minimum age is five. A calm sea for an adult may sometimes be difficult to bear for a very small child.
Cameras are a must. During cetacean watching, there are moments that only happen once in a life time. An image is essential to help keeping the memory of a unique meeting. For those who are not used to travel by boat, taking anti-nausea medication may be a way of guaranteeing that the journey remains pleasant. You should take with you water and light food, such as fruit, sandwiches and energy bars.
This rarely happens. Whales or dolphins are spotted in 98% of the trips, regardless of the time of the year. The number of times you come across these sea creatures is so high that some operators will refund your ticket when either dolphins or whales are not, in fact, spotted.
When sea conditions are not ideal, trips may be postponed or even cancelled. But don’t get disappointed. You can learn more about the rich Azorean history related to whales. There are several museums and interpretation centres, mainly on the islands of Pico and Faial, which may be an interesting and charmingshelter. Visiting the vigias (whale observation posts) spread throughout strategic points on several islands is another option. Part of these small houses that provided information to the whale hunting fleets have been restored, and today, once again, there are trained eyes scanning the horizon, searching for cetaceans. The vigias are generally located in coastal areas and provide breathtaking panoramic views.
On S. Miguel Island there are several places for whale watching, such as Ponta Delgada and Vila Franca do Campo, all year long. Medium-sized boats can take up to 80 people, providing excellent safety and comfort conditions for this activity. Between São Miguel and Santa Maria, in spring time, it is frequent to watch the blue whale, the biggest animal on earth, 30m long and weighting 150 tons.
On Terceira Island, whether in Angra do Heroísmo or Praia da Vitória, there is a wide supply regarding whale watching. From the several species that frequently pass through the Azores in their migrate routes, the blue whale stands out. It can be seen during Spring and Autumn between the islands of Terceira and São Jorge.
Faial, Pico and São Jorge compose the so-called “Triangle islands”, where hard-fought battles between whalers once took place. The city of Horta, on Faial, houses today one of the most important and dynamic centres for monitoring cetaceans in the archipelago. Many whale watching companies operating on this island have experts and scientists linked to the University of the Azores as guides in their tours. The Horta university campus comprises an investigation and scientific centre for Marine Biology, Oceanography and Fisheries. Together with other universities around the world, the centre carries out many studies on the population, migration and routes of those giant marine animals.
The whale hunting tradition has its roots on Pico Island, the last place in the Azores to abolish whale hunting, back in the 80’s. But its people were very successful in converting this “job” into entertainment, as today there are whale watching companies in several places of the island, namely Madalena, Lajes and Santo Amaro.
The connection that people from Pico have to this activity is reflected by the several museums and ethnographic centres dedicated to whale hunting, where the traditional crafts of this extinguished activity are to be preserved. The Whalers Museum, in Lajes, and the Whalers Industry Museum, in São Roque, are two good examples.
The cetaceans that cross the Azorean seas are protected species. They deserve special attention and humans must minimise their interference in the paradisiacal habitat that they have chosen as their own. To spot whales and dolphins in their natural and pure habitat is a privilege that few people have enjoyed in the whole world. You should take special care in following the guidelines and safety rules given on board. To safeguard resident and migrant cetaceans, a code of conduct was developed and visitors should follow it.
- To chase, disturb or feed cetaceans.
- To swim with whales.
- To pollute the sea.
- To make noise.
- To have more than three boats at once in the same spot.
- To navigate along the cetaceans, at a constant speed and more than 50 metres away (100 metres away if there are baby cetaceans).