Located way out in the middle of the North- Atlantic Ocean, the archipelago of islands known as the Azores attracts an impressive variety of whales and dolphins. It attracted us too - here is our account of a week-long whale-watching holiday spent on the volcanic island of Pico.
After several offshore jobs with few satisfactory sightings of whales or dolphins, we decided at short notice to fly to the Azores for a week, arriving the day before my birthday. We booked a series of whale watching trips with “Espaço Talassa” (www.espacotalassa.com) located in the small village of Lajes do Pico on the island of Pico. They also run a small hotel called Hotel Whale'come ao Pico, which is located next to their offices directly by the harbour. The rooms there were clean and comfortable and even had free WIFI. The view from the hotel is dominated by the volcano Pico. Talassa's boats were rigid-hulled inflatables (RIBs) and took a maximum of twelve passengers. They were very fast, so we could travel great distances in the three-hour trips. A lookout in a tower on the cliffs (Vigia) guided the boats to whales and dolphins. Our eagle-eyed spotter ensured we saw at least two species on each voyage and on one occasion he directed us to a single whale 25 km from land!
On most trips sperm whales were the main target, as most people who go whale-watching want to see the big whales. Female sperm whales and their offspring are found off Pico all year round, and are sighted on most days. The much bigger males join them during the winter months. We had some great sperm whale encounters on our first day (a special birthday present), when we could watch them at close quarters blowing at the surface for several minutes before fluking up and diving. But because these whales dive for up to 45 minutes before surfacing again, we also spent quite a bit of time waiting for them to appear again! The following photos show a dive sequence of one of Pico's sperm whales.
We saw sperm whales during several more trips, but those without sperm whales were actually more fun because we had frequent encounters with dolphins, which often came close to the boat. Our second day turned out to be very memorable, as we managed to see five positively identified species plus one unidentified one in the morning and another three species during the afternoon trip! There can't be many other places where you can see such a variety in one day! It certainly makes for a lot of happy whale-watchers!
Short-finned pilot whales live in deeper waters and are seen quite often off Pico. On grey days they appear all black, but in good light one can see their pale markings. On one occasion, two youngsters approached our boat, but when they got too close, one of the females intervened and pushed them away.
80 percent of the world’s Cory’s shearwaters breed on the Azores. When dolphins herd fish into a ball, the shearwaters often gather in dense flocks to take part in the feast. These aggregations of birds can be visible from many miles. These birds can be very noisy, and actually you can hear shearwater noises all through the night.
When we approached the circling shearwaters, it didn't take long to spot the dolphins. The first to approach our boat were actually two young Atlantic spotted dolphins (photo left), before we saw quite a few short-beaked common dolphins (photo right) that were feeding among the birds.
Common dolphins are enthusiastic bow-riders, and we soon had several of them accompanying our boat. At times they swam alongside, but they kept coming to the bow, turning onto their sides and watching us as intently as we watched them. Sometimes when they surfaced, the bubbles from exhaled breath stayed curiously intact in the air.
Striped dolphins are fast and furious swimmers, and the group we encountered later in the day had absolutely no interest in our boat and bow-riding. They were gone as soon as they had appeared.
Risso's dolphin is another species that is seen off Pico on most days; very often quite close to the shore. This species is one of our favourites. They are a blunt-headed species of dolphin and are usually covered in white scars, which accumulate with age, so they get progressively whiter. Sometimes it is possible to follow them under water, and they appear like white ghosts in the sea. The scars can be used to identify individuals and so far over 1200 different animals have been photo-identified around Pico.
While searching for sperm whales in deeper waters, we also saw some rarities: beaked whales that also live in deep water and surface only briefly. As the islands of the Azores rise abruptly in the middle of the deep ocean, it is a place where one can see these species relatively close to shore. Only a few of these enigmatic species are easily identifiable, usually you have to see the head and the shape of the beak to do so. We identified three beaked whale species: Cuvier's beaked whale, Gervais beaked whale (top photos) and Blainville's beaked whale (bottom photos) and probably also saw a fourth species, namely Sowerby's beaked whale. Gervais' beaked whale was a special treat as it is rarely identified or photographed at sea, and even text books rarely have photographs of these whales, so we were very pleased to get some half-decent pictures of this beast. The near perfect conditions on this day certainly helped in spotting these enigmatic whales!
Ironically, it wasn’t until our last trip that we finally tracked down the usually common bottlenose dolphins. A small group accompanied out boat for quite some time, surfacing with their heads high out of the water.
Our tally of species was quite impressive, with five or six species seen on one trip, and another three in the afternoon of that same incredible day! Overall, during our five three-hour tours we identified ten or perhaps eleven different species! That's almost half of the 24 species occurring in the Azores! We hope to return to Pico next April / May, as that is the season when the large baleen whales pass by, including blue and fin whales on their way to the far north.
Quite often the boats went out without being fully occupied. We found that the two seats in the front row were best for us, as we had a bit more space to stash our photographic equipment away and it also was easier for taking photos without having people sitting or standing in front of you. However, the ride - especially when going fast over slightly choppy seas - is also much harder, and sometimes feels like sitting on a bucking bronco! When two boats went out, the drivers often liked to race each other home (we once managed around 30 knots, nearly 50 kms per hour!), or surfing in the wake of the other. They usually went past the harbour entrance at high speed, only to make a handbrake turn and bank the boat over to see how many of the passengers squealed!
For anyone interested in whale and dolphin watching, we can thoroughly recommend the Azores. "Espaço Talassa" was especially good value as they offer not only the boat trips, but also have a hotel and restaurant right by the little harbour. All their trips have not only the boat driver but also a biologist on board, who provide information about the animals that you are encountering. All of them speak several languages, so that communication is not a problem. Their Vigia look-out is the son of the last man who spotted whales for the whalers. Before the start of each trip you are told what can be seen from the watch tower and you get the choice of whether or not to go on that trip. They also have swimming with dolphins trips, but these need to be booked for a whole week.