Whales in the Azores

Whales in the Azores

As the sun rises over the Atlantic Ocean, the locals begin their days in little cafes that fill the air with the delightful scent of hot espresso and warm, freshly baked pastries. The water is calm in the harbor as our boat waits for our captains arrival to prepare it for a day at sea. The idle sailboats, and wooden docks warm in the sunlight. These are all safely guarded by a large cement wall surrounded by huge cement pieces that look like jacks, each point larger than myself. We are each filled with excitement as we arrive to the boat and head out of the bay of Angra. The air is cool as we pick up speed, setting our eyes on the horizon in search for whales. Our captain maintains communication with our spotter, the man on the mountain that searches the seas for whale blows, breaches, or any activity that catches his gaze. Some days the sky fills with fog and creates a great barrier for our spotter. Having to search many miles of sea this can be detrimental in our quest for whales. Some days require us to go in at lunchtime, due to unfavorable weather conditions. Other days give us clear skies, and allow our mountain man to see for miles in the distance. 

Each day as we head out to the open ocean, we all lean over the edge of the boat to check the water conditions. Some days it is murky and filled with Portuguese Man O War. Wearing thick wetsuits, these deadly creatures don’t seem to bother our eagerness to enter the water. Aware of their danger, we know to enter the water with caution. Other days the water is clear as sunbeams pass into the cold water of the ocean.  

After receiving information from our spotter, we head in the designated direction. We speed across the waves with high anticipation of what could be out there. As we get closer our captain slows the boat so as not to disturb the animals in the water. Sperm whales breach and play with each other in the distance, and our excitement and interest spike. We slowly approach, respecting their domain. The whales are resting now at the surface readying themselves for diving. After spending time at their side waiting to understand their behavior they dive down. These are the largest toothed predator in the ocean. They are no doubt diving deep into the abyss, hunting for food. Sperm whales often dive to depths over 2000 meters. Which means waiting for them to arrive to the surface can account for around 45 minutes. Once they dive we search instead for snacks to eat on the boat. Knowing we have time to wait for them to surface. 

Once the whales surface, we again slowly make our approach over the their side. The water ripples and reflects around their dark grey bodies. Sunlight reflecting off the water on their back. They exhale, spraying water that was once resting on top of their blowhole. The water droplets shining in the air, creating a foggy mass which quickly dissipates. We watch their behavior, eager to enter the water to see them entirely. Curiosity of what the rest of the animal looks like beneath the reflective salty surface. Out captain quietly says, “water” and two of us slide our bodies into the water without a sound. Even as silent as we can manage, the whales are aware of our every movement. They could very quickly react negatively and stun us with their sonar abilities. They know we are not a threat and allow us to swim closer. They slowly swim out of our view and with murky water, we only see shadows drift out of our line of sight. The water is cold, but our bodies protected with 5 mm of neoprene. We return to the boat to allow for the next encounter. 

We venture out onto the seas each day in hopes we are able to get interactive encounters. Some days leave us cold, and hungry returning to the harbor and others anticipating clear water and future encounters. Many days we see dolphins which play in our wake, and even some which swim around with us to play. Our focus continues and there are only a few days left to spend out on the Atlantic. 

It’s a beautiful Monday morning, the air is warm and smelling of the baked goods at the local bakery. We pack our things and venture down to the harbor where our team awaits us. The sun warm on our backs as we head again out of the harbor in search for whales. Our spotter gives us news of Sperm whales in the west, and on our way we encounter a pod of pilot whales. We boat alongside the pilot whales for a while, watching as their black bodies surface the clear blue water, their fin follows and then disappears into the shining liquid. Understanding their behavior, we depart from the area and head to the far side of the island. Our spotter moves locations on land so he can better assist our search. We pass by a pod of around 100 striped dolphins, playing and jumping we ride along side in enjoyment with them. We continue west, passing by many man o war drifting in the water. We continues several kilometers from the island. We come upon a large Sperm whale which lets two of our group close, and continues to make his way through the ocean. The weather conditions are perfect. The sun is warm and bright, water clear and blue. We are all happy to finally see the clarity this good here. As we follow the large whales trajectory we see two blows from other whales. We are already in line to meet them and see the large whale head there as well. We slowly approach and we see it looks to be a mother and calf. We are a bit away, but decide to swim out to them so the boat will not disturb them. We swim with the current quietly and quickly and see the mother and calf slowly drifting through the water. We stop at a distance from them to ensure comfort, and spend a short time with them in the water. Their skin wrinkly, and the baby close to its mothers side. They are so calm and allow us a great look before continuing on. Many days on the water not finding any sign of whales all is forgotten in moments like this. A couple weeks passed quickly and effortlessly to achieve small encounters like this. 

Charyse ReinfelderComment