From harpoons to binoculars and cameras
Whales and whaling
play an important part in the history and culture of the Azores. The arrival
of American whalers in the Azorean waters at the end of the 18th and 19th
centuries brought a new factor to the local economy. The first Yankee
whalers arrived in the islands in 1765 and the locals were soon beeing
employed on the American whaling ships. Azorean were recruited as crew
members, and developed a reputation for being brave and strong. Ultimately,
they designed and built their own whaling vessels. Longer, narrower and
faster than the American boats that were their inspiration, they were
dubbed the "Pico arrows". The whaling went on using the same
traditional open boats and hand harpoons right up until 1985.
Today the whaleboats no longer leave to hunt cetaceans.
The long battles at sea are just stories which the old whalers tell at
the doors of the old boathouse. However, the whales have not left the
islands and are today an object for a new fast growing whale watching
industry that brings a new generation of caretaking and friendly whalers.
The growth of the whale watching industry has led to
the establishment of rules, regulations and codes of conduct governing
whale watching activities. These often attempt to manage the growth of
the industry and to lessen potential impacts on the whales.
In the port of Lajes do Pico you will find a small Whalers
museum, and close to it is the BOCA (Observation Base of Cetaceans from
Azores). There you can find further information about the cetaceans that
live in the Azores waters, a library, statistics resulting from observations
of cetaceans, and information about different research plans in progress.
Where and when
Between May and October is the best time to visit the Azores, when Sperm
Whales are in residence (males are present year-round). There are many places
where you can find cataceans, and there are many companies offering whale-watching
safaris in small zodiacs from Faial, Pico and São Miguel but also
elsewhere. When sea watching at Mosteiros on São Miguel you will
often see groups of dolphins, and even Humpback have turned up there.
There are of course no guarantee to see whales on each
sea tour, even if the chances are good, but you will at least have a good
sea tour with close contacts with many seabirds and dolphins.
One other option is to combine bird and whale watching
taking one of the ferry tours between the islands.
What you could see
A large number
of cetaceans have been observed in Azorean waters. On the Espaço
Talassa web site (see "Links" below) you will find a list together
with lots of information about them.
Most often you will encounter species as Sperm Whale,
Short-finned Pilot Whale, various beaked whales, Short-beaked Common Dolphin,
Atlantic Spotted Dolphin, Striped Dolphin, Bottlenose Dolphin, Risso's
Dolphin and fortunately increasingly sightings of Blue, Fin and Sei Whales!
Whale watching tours
There are a
number of more or less serious companies that offer whale watching tours;
most of them in Faial, Pico or Säo Miguel (see the links section
below). Many of them use underwater microphones as well as old lookouts
"vigias" high up in the mountains, from where the whales are
spotted and the boats will be directed. In the past whales were spotted
from these lookout towers (built on prominent headlands), overlooking
the sea. As soon as a Sperm Whale came into view, the spotter shouted
"baleia á vista", which mean "whale in sight"
and fired a rocket into the air as a signal. Then everyone heading for
the boats, but nowadays only for watching them nice and easy...
Whales and Dolphins of the World. Simmonds. M., 2004. New
Mark Carwardine's Guide to WhaleWatching in Britain & Europe. Carwardine.
M. 2003. New Holland, London. (This book contain 8 pages
about whalewatching in Azores).
Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises. Carwardine, M. & Camm, M., 1995.
Dorling Kindersley, London. (A handy and very useful field guide to identify
these lovely animals).
Talassa The Azorean Whale watching base (In English, French,
German and Portoguese)
A great web site which contain a vast numbers of excellent photos and
recent sightings from the Azores. Highly recommended!
Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises (In English)
Very informative and descriptions of all know species and links to whalewatching
areas all over the world and of course many nice photos.
Azores Whale and Dolphin Watching (In English)
A whalewatching company with its base in Ponta Delgada on São Miguel.
The web site contain many nice photos, programmes and booking forms.
Watching Web (In English)
A great resource to everyone interested in this magnificant and charismatic
group of mammals!
Azores (In English)
A whalewatching company located on Faial. The web site contain many nice
photos, tour dates and research.
CW Azores (In English)
A whalewatching company located at Madalena, Pico. They can also offer longer pelagic bird watching tours.