Unlike the Europeans before 1984, when the hunting of whales ended in the Azores, I hadn’t come to fire harpoons at the world’s great roaming cetaceans but hopefully experience the joy of seeing them up close. The Azores is known to be one of the best destinations on earth to see them and has recorded over one-quarter of the known 80 or so species of whales and dolphins.

Whale alert near Punta Delgada Whale alert near Punta Delgada

One particular species had eluded me during many whale quests over the years, the rather unfortunately named, sperm whale. Yet, joining a local operator, down at Ponta Delgada Harbour, my hopes were high. Generally, says Ana Castanheira, who would be our whale spotter that morning as we rode out onboard a zodiac inflatable, the sperm whales are resident and spend the whole year around the Azores. And the unfortunate name, I asked? “They have a large quantity of oil in their head for buoyancy, that was sought after by the whalers who hunted them,” says Ana, adding ‘it is a white coloured oil and they thought it looked like …”. I think you get the picture.

Our zodiac rode out quickly from the harbour on a calm sunny morning where the Atlantic and sky met in an indistinguishable and infinite blue horizon.

Whale watching boat Whale watching boat

It was only a matter of minutes thereafter that as we pierced the Atlantic’s inky blueness when we encountered, firstly, common dolphins, and then a writhing pod of some hundred or so, bottlenose dolphins.

Bottlenose dolphins racing the boat Bottlenose dolphins racing the boat

The faster skipper Rodrigo Cabral revved us forward the more frantic the bottlenose dolphins became. Riding the boats’ bow-waves and flinging themselves out of the sea, cartwheeling and landing with huge splashes. At one stage there must have been over one hundred of them around the boat.

Then after 30minutes at sea, the boat operator’s land spotter, called out sperm whales. Even from a distance these immense whales, which may reach 18metres in length, are easy to see as they have large bulbous heads.

My first ever sighting of a sperm whale My first ever sighting of a sperm whale

The sperm whales were thoroughly at ease yet would not allow us to get too close as they likely had calves. They are what is known as a toothed whales, so hunt aquatic life larger than phytoplankton, in their case, filling their considerable bulk with giant squids. We were able to watch several different groups for 15 minutes or sochilling on the water’s surface before they would dive to the Azorean depths, for up to three-hours or so. 

I was pretty much on a high the entire afternoon as Joseph later took me around the strikingly lovely westernmost region of São Miguel Island, around a large volcanic complex named Lagoa Azul.

The twin-coloured Lagao Azul, seen from two different viewing points The twin-coloured Lagao Azul, seen from two different viewing points

The twin-coloured lakes of Lagoa Azul – hues of peppermint green and milky blue – are trapped inside a huge dormant crater, which has not seen an eruption since 1439. The cliffs to the west of the volcano falls hundreds of meters into the Atlantic and offer blistering views along coastline towards teetering ash stacks and jet-black lava flows. My mind, however, was already thinking about seeing more whales. I have two more attempts over the next three days to search for them again. And who knows what other surprises were lurking in the depths around this divine archipelago.

Mark Stratton

Rugged coastal scenery near the western point of Mosteiros Rugged coastal scenery near the western point of Mosteiros
The Sunvil Family

By The Sunvil Family

17th June 2021



The Sunvil Family
The Sunvil Family
The Sunvil Family

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