Whale watching in the Azores

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.

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During my four days on Physeter, we have 16 or 17 encounters of this nature, plus quite a few where a whale ‘shallow dives’ so you don’t see its fluke, which is a bit of an anti-climax. Shallow diving often takes place when the whales are socialising.
We also see some spy-hopping, when a sperm whale lifts its head out of the water so that its eye is just below the surface, and there’s also a breach but – dammit, I want my money back – I miss it.
Other fins to see
Now it’s true that, to the naked eye – though not to a software programme called Europhlukes – one sperm whale fluke looks much like another, so it’s a bonus that there’s more to the Azores. Indeed, encounters with fin and sei whales are just as riveting.
Baleen whales, the second and third largest animals on Earth, pass through the Azores on their way to… well, nobody knows for sure.
On one occasion, we cruise parallel to a pair of fins that are 50 metres off our port side for 15 minutes. They swim a few metres below the surface, but we can keep track of them because their lower jaws and bellies are white and always just visible. As they come up every four minutes or so, this bluey-white patch grows like a spectre coming out of the dark, until you see tiny dorsal fins break the surface and tiny puffs of air from their blow-holes.
With a trio of sei whales, we learn how to ‘read’ a whale’s footprints – glassy patches on the surface of the water caused by the upwellings from the fluke. Seis don’t have the same white jaw as fins and are therefore harder to follow.
Dolphin delights
And then there’s the dolphins. Just when you haven’t seen anything for an hour or two, and the boat has been slopping around for a while and you’re starting to feel queasy and possibly a little bored, you find yourself surrounded by a pod of 20 or so common dolphins.
Common they may be, but I love the way they bob up and down in the water like horses on a merry-go-round, diving under the boat and swimming in the bow wave at the front and staring back up at you.
We see two pods of Risso’s dolphins, too, which are curious, rather lumbering beasts, and just one small group of bottlenoses. But this lot are a real disappointment – no tricks, no breaches, no synchronised leaps, no diving through hoops to take the fish. Indeed, there’s barely time for a flash of the trademark Flipper smile before they’ve swum off, leaving us wondering where those sperm whales have got to.
  1. Fin whale
    Notable for its asymmetric colouring – the lower jaw is white on the right side but dark on the left. Grows to 26m in length. Regularly seen in the Azores.
  2. Sei whale
    Supposedly the fastest whale, the sei was never hunted in the Azores (because it couldn’t be caught). Darker undersides than the fin whale and smaller.
  3. Risso’s dolphin
    Easily identified by its blunt head, dagger-shaped dorsal fin and scarred grey-white body. Normally seen in small family groups but not especially playful.
  4. Common dolphin
    Highly variable colouration, but the crescent-shaped tan or yellowish patch on its side is a giveaway. Much smaller than bottlenose or Risso’s and very playful.
  5. Loggerhead turtle
    The main species of turtle found in the Azores, the loggerhead migrates from its nesting grounds in Florida to eat the abundant jellyfish found here.
  6. Cory’s shearwater
    The commonest seabird seen in the Azores, which is one of this species’ main strongholds. Can be seen at close quarters in the waters around Faial.
  7. Portuguese man o’ war
    Not a single animal, but a colony of four kinds of modified polyps that depend on one another for survival. Sometimes seen in large numbers off Faial.
One of the joys of a trip with Whale Watch Azores is that research is being carried out around you and you can learn all about it. Here we explain who does what.
The researchers
  • Lisa Steiner: the scientist
    With the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Lisa studied the feasibility of whale-watching as a tourist activity in the Azores in the late 1980s. She met Chris Beer while doing the research, and they set up their own whale-watching business in 1993.
    Since 1988, she has been taking photos of sperm whale flukes as part of an ongoing research programme. “Restaurants, taxi drivers and hotels in the Azores all benefit from whale-watching,” she says.


  • Chris Beer: the tour operator
    Chris was running adventure trips in Asia before setting up Whale Watch Azores with Lisa. He used BBC Wildlife to draw up a business plan because the classified ads showed how whale-watching was growing. “We ran a sailing yacht until 2002, but now we have the catamaran we see more whales because we can cover large distances quickly if necessary,” he says.


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