For those with an adventurer’s spirit, there can be few destinations more alluring than the storm-shaped islands of the Azores archipelago. Located 850 miles/1,365 kilometres west of continental Portugal, the nine islands of the Azores are the product of violent volcanic activity, and a natural stepping stone for sailors crossing the Atlantic. In the past, they provided shelter for those that spent their lives upon the sea – including traders, explorers and the pioneers of the whaling industry that formed the basis of the archipelago’s economy until the late 20th Century.
Today, the islands are no longer a cetacean killing ground but instead, a paradise for those with a passion for ocean pursuits. They are particularly well known for whale-watching, and for the richness of the archipelago’s myriad dive sites. One location in particular has earned itself a reputation as one of the North Atlantic’s most rewarding dive destinations – a submerged seamount known as Princess Alice Bank. Here, the seafloor rises dramatically from depths of over 1,000 metres/ 3,280 feet to just 35 metres/ 115 feet at the seamount’s western peak.
Discovering Princess Alice
Princess Alice is named after the royal research vessel of Albert I, Prince of Monaco. On 9th July 1896, it was one of the prince’s oceanographic campaigns that first put the seamount on the map. Today, Princess Alice is renowned as the Azores’ top dive site, and is accessible via a 2.5 – 3 hour boat trip from Pico Island, where the majority of the archipelago’s dive charters are located. The 50 nautical mile journey is an adventure in its own right, with the sea sometimes as smooth as watered silk, and at other times as rough as the pirates that once plied the same route.
On the way to the seamount, those that keep a weather eye can expect to see a cornucopia of marine life, ranging from solitary sperm whale bulls to a joyous escort of common dolphin. The Azorean waters offer a concentrated glut of food in the otherwise barren expanse of the mid-Atlantic, and as such they boast an incredible level of biodiversity. No fewer than 20 species of whale and dolphin can be spotted throughout the year, including the blue whale and the Cuvier’s beaked whale, respectively known for being the largest and the deepest-diving of all mammals.
Diving the Seamount
With so much to see en route, one often forgets the purpose of journeying to Princess Alice in the first place – until the destination is reached and the dive briefing begins. Strong currents and an absence of terrestrial run-off usually result in spectacular visibility, and the peak of the seamount is often visible from the surface. With so few points of reference available to help orientate oneself, the water clarity can be deceptive – making a keen awareness of depth essential. Most operators employ a descent line, helping divers to maintain a safe depth and stay within reach of the group.
The reef around Princess Alice’s summit is home to a smorgasbord of interesting critters, ranging from moray eels to large stingrays. However, the seamount’s main claim to fame is the incredible numbers of mobula rays that aggregate there in summer, forming a carousel of golden wingtips beating in synchrony against the rich sapphire of open ocean. The rays are attracted to Princess Alice by nutrient upwellings caused by the bank’s dramatic topography. Often numbering in their hundreds, they swim in effortless circles around the seamount summit.
Other animals are also drawn to Princess Alice by the bounty of food, including sharks, manta rays and great schools of barracuda, tuna and jacks. Dive expeditions to the seamount typically include two dives, and the interval in between can be spent on snorkel, playing with the rays that often come within a few feet of the surface. The site’s incredible topography makes it an ideal spot for freedivers as well as scuba-divers; however, anyone planning to visit Princess Alice must have the confidence and the experience to deal with both current and extreme depth.
Most operators require a pre-trip test dive, as well as a minimum of 50 logged dives. For scuba divers, a PADI Advanced Open Water certification (or the equivalent from another training organisation) is mandatory. It is also important to remember that trips to Princess Alice are heavily dependent on weather. When the sea is too rough, the long passage from Pico to the seamount becomes unsafe, and dives will be postponed for another day. For this reason, it’s a good idea to leave several days free in order to maximise your chances of a successful trip.
On days when Princess Alice is not possible, there are countless other shore and land-based dive sites to choose from. In season, offshore shark dives offer the chance to get up close and personal with two of the ocean’s most magnificent shark species, the blue and the mako. In between dives, there are plenty of other activities to indulge in, including whale-watching, pelagic birding, and swimming with one of the archipelago’s five wild dolphin species. Inland, opportunities for mountain-biking, climbing and trekking complete your Azorean adventure.
For more information, click here.