Some of the world’s best whale-watching can be found in a small group of islands in the mid-Atlantic. James Fair visits the Azores to learn how to tell one sperm whale from another and how to spot sei whales’ footprints.
A mile or so off the coast of Pico in the Azores, on a sunny June morning, is about as perfect a place as I can imagine being. The sea is a beautiful deep blue, broken only by the white of the wave crests, and the volcano dominating the island provides a towering backdrop to the scene.
Then what can only be described as the stench of slightly rancid egg mayonnaise sandwiches comes wafting on the breeze. I glance suspiciously at the people around me, but before I reach any conclusions about the relative flatulence of my fellow crew members, Chris Beer – our skipper – points to a barely noticeable brown patch on the water surface not far ahead of us.
“That sperm whale just did a crap,” he informs us brightly. “Sometimes we have to swim through that to collect skin samples,” he continues. “That’s a fun job. ‘What do you do for a living?’ ‘I swim in whale excrement.’”
Still, I prefer the idea of whale poo to an ‘icky’, which is something a sperm whale regurgitates from time to time that contains the indigestible beaks of squid, its favourite food.
Someone's got to do it
You may or may not find this sort of information absolutely fascinating, if slightly unappetizing – I’m afraid I do – but it does give you some idea of what you might experience when you go on a whale-watching trip in the Azores.
You don’t just see loads of sperm whales, plus other species of great whale and various dolphins, not to mention young loggerhead turtles and thousands of Cory’s shearwaters and Portuguese man o’ wars – you become immersed in the whole world of whale-watching and whale research.
That’s because Chris and his wife Lisa have been running trips out here and doing scientific research (funded by tourists) for more than a decade. Though there’s plenty they still don’t know about sperm whales, that’s down to collective scientific ignorance, not their own shortcomings.
And when I say collective ignorance, do take into account the difficulty of tracking an animal that can dive to 2km deep and stay down there for 40 minutes or more, and then trying to work out what it’s doing. The best anyone can say is that it’s probably eating squid.
Out and a spout
I spend four full days on Physeter (Latin for sperm whale), Chris and Lisa’s 12-metre motorised catamaran. Each morning, we leave Horta on the island of Faial at about 9am and head out to sea. Chris and Lisa make their decisions about where to go on the advice of the vigias or lookouts, islanders who provide a concrete example of how whale-watching can benefit a community.
Until 1985, when Portugal joined the EC, the vigias spotted sperm whales from their island lookout-posts for whalers. That industry thankfully closed down, as it has in most of the rest of Europe and the world (with three notable exceptions), but now a vigia can once again earn a crust from his skill at being able to distinguish a three-metre whale spout from a breaking wave at a distance of up to 25km. He can do it again and again, and the whales will still be there. Now that's progress, surely?
(Actually, whaling in the Azores never had a huge impact on numbers because it was always what you’d call a ‘cottage industry’, and right up to the last day they were still using hand-held harpoons. Still, you take my point, I hope.)
The adventure begins
Anyway, where am I? Heading out to sea with the chatter of the ever-vigilant vigias coming over the radio. Each whale-watch boat employs one lookout, who broadcast their sightings on a common radio frequency, so everyone knows where the whales are.
Of course, you still have to see the spouts for yourself, and on Physeter, Chris and Lisa normally spot them long before anybody else.
On the second day, research assistant Kayleigh Felice manages to spy a pair of sei whales, and on the last day, glory be, I see a sperm whale spout a few nanoseconds before Chris, but he is probably just being kind.
Sneaking up on sperm whales
The idea now is to sidle up behind the sperm whale as it takes in oxygen before its next dive. On average, you’ve got about 8 to 12 minutes before the whale heads down again.
Regulations drawn up by the Government in consultation with the whale-watching companies mean that none of the boats should approach a whale closer than 50 metres, and then only from the rear or slightly to one side.
Slowly, we come up behind the sperm whale, its presence – at first – betrayed only by the puff of breath it exhales every 10 to 15 seconds. As we get closer, I can make out the knuckled backbone, the tiny, almost indistinguishable dorsal fin and the huge bulbous head. In shape and colour – a dark, gun-metal grey, though some individuals can be a browner shade of grey – it’s not unlike a submarine.
As a sperm whale prepares to dive, the spouts get more frequent. You see its head lift out of the water a fraction and the rest of its body sink, and you know it’s going for it. Then, in one gloriously fluid motion, its fluke spears into the sky and hangs there for a fraction of a second before slipping silently into the deep.
You hold the memory for a moment or two – that extraordinary lobed tail with scallop-like chunks missing, creating patterns that make it possible to identify almost any given sperm whale.
But there isn’t much time to dwell on it because, sometimes within a matter of seconds, Chris or Lisa have seen another whale and the chase is on again.
Every time a whale flukes, Lisa takes a photo, and occasionally she instantly recognises an individual. A whale called ‘Half-tail’ is unmistakeable, while Half-tail’s buddy has white markings on and around its dorsal fin.
One whale has no chunks taken out of the fluke at all. “Does that mean it’s a young whale?” someone asks. “Maybe it’s like having good teeth,” Lisa replies. “Maybe it’s got good cartilage. We don’t yet know.”