There is a multitude of world-class locations to observe whales both above and under the water, yet there are not many locations in the world that contest the Azores. The sheer quantity of whale species that inhabit the deep waters of this Portuguese Archipelago are the reason the Azores Islands are rapidly becoming one of the ‘must visit’ eco-tourism destinations on the planet and in turn the reason they have endured as a perennial favorite for me.
850 miles west of the Portuguese mainland, each one of the seven Azorean islands holds their own distinctive allure, Pico the second largest of the island’s is famed for its towering volcano that dominates the landscape. On the cobbled streets of the capital, Madalena, CW Azores is a small family run whale watching and diving business that operates with unparalleled knowledge and respect to nature. The dive center is one of the only institutions in the Azores which will take freedivers to swim with whales. Attaining the right to swim with whales is a government matter and subsequently, a laborious process reserved only for scientists and filmmakers whose work is considerate to the species that inhabit the waters. I was lucky to work on a film project that enabled me to acquire such a license.
Shimmering shades of emerald green and sapphire blue contrast these barren, volcanic Mid-Atlantic islands. The ocean here is vacant, save a handful of small R.I.B’s that patrol the calm waters, awaiting the leviathan and its distinctive blow. The mid-afternoon sun beat down on the rubber float.
Shaking with nervous anticipation I placed myself on the float of the R.I.B, my heavy camera housing in hand and my long free-diving fins hanging over the side, cutting the waves as the boat speeds ahead, a million specks of water fly like shattered shards of silver in the light.
“Blooow”, my silent absorption breaks as the radio screams to life. From his perch high on the cliffs of the island the lookout bellows commands to the skipper in thick Azorean Portuguese. “Esquerda, esquerda, mas!! vai, vai, vai”. These are the same lookouts who searched for whales to hunt before the International Whaling Commission banned whaling on the island in 1984. “Pronto”, now it’s the skipper’s turn to relay instructions, I spit in my mask and pull the neoprene hood over my head, my heart pumping within my chest, the adrenaline generating a nauseous excitement.
“Pffffff”, a colossal form parts the calm water mere meters from the boat releasing a giant bloom from its twin blow-holes, the whales putrid, krill infused breath fills the air. The exhalation of breath is a sound not like any other a deep, awesome rumble. The gigantic creature rises high above the water; it’s endless spine arcing 3 meters above the surface before sinking back into the emerald, plankton stained water.
“Go, go, go” cries the skipper as he turns the boat parallel in the direction of the approaching whale and cuts the whirring engine. I take a breath and use the rope on the float to quietly slide into the water, ignoring the cold water that fills my suit. As the bubbles clear I begin to swim calmly, I look down, and through the gloomy green water, a shape that resembles a locomotive begins to take shape in my sight.
I angle my camera in front of me as if it were a shield that would protect me from impending danger, yet I am nothing here, as significant as an ant under a boot.
The blue whale, more dappled grey than blue grows larger still, the largest creature to ever grace our planet so close I can distinguish the baleen pleats and the barnacles on its jaw. As it dives within inches of my flailing legs it’s eye focus’ on me for what must be a flash of time yet felt like an eternity – an immense creature, exuding intelligence, emotion and a quiet serenity that touches my soul.
I point the camera down and observe this 25-meter creature continue to pass underneath me, its giant fluke larger than the boat above. The whale slips back into the depths, and as fast as it had arrived it has vanished again.
I lifted my head above the water to the eager screams of the figures on the boat. “viste?” they shout, I swim slowly back to the boat processing my thoughts, and pass the bulky camera into the outstretched hands of the skipper. In the distance the leviathan surfaces and exhales once more, a sound that will remain for me the definition of tranquillity.
The Azores and CW Azores had been gracious hosts to me and I have returned time and time again to these mysterious islands. The only negative is the temperamental nature of the weather here, tropical storms and hurricanes can emerge during both winter and summer, delaying trips to the ocean as swells easily reach 7 meters in height. Plankton blooms are also a nuisance for videographers, especially in the spring which coincides with the height of the baleen whale migration. As shocking as it is to say it can be hard to identify a blue whale even when it is mere meters from you. Despite this, the unpredictability of the Azores is what makes them unique and the chance to encounter so many species at one time is unparalleled.
What You Need To Know
How to Get There
International flights will often fly directly to Ponta Delgada, the largest of the 9 Azorean Islands. Flights from Lisbon will connect directly to Pico Island with a 2 ¾ hour flight. The whale watching harbors of Madalena and Lajes is 30 minutes in either direction from Pico Airport. Inter-island ferries connect the 9 islands of the Azores and are reasonably priced (4 euros). Whale watching, dolphin swimming, and diving tours are held daily between March and November.
When To Go
It is possible to visit the Azores throughout the year. Each season elicits a unique feature from the islands, for example, Spring is the baleen season where Blue, Humpback, Fin and Brydes are just some of the whales to pass the islands during their migration. Summer is shark and manta season where air temperatures soar to 30 Celsius and the water reaches a comfortable 25 Celsius with visibility exceeding 30 meters on most days. The winter is the quietest time of year yet an ideal season to experience the culture of the Azoreans with their cheese, wine and flower productions.
Where to Stay and What to Eat
Local’s wine houses or ‘Adegas’ have been transformed into chic accommodations across the island of Pico. These lava stone homes with wooden interiors can often be found on websites such as Air B & B and Booking. There are multiple restaurants on Pico serving local fish and tapas menus, be sure to try the Tuna, Octopus, and Lapas (limpets) at either Cella Bar or Ancorodoro two restaurants located on either side of Madalena.
Euros are the currency used in the Azores. There is a colloquial form of Portuguese spoken on each island yet many operators on the larger, more tourist-oriented islands speak fluent English.