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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  • Kayleigh Felice: the research assistant
    Kayleigh was born in Canada a long way from the coast, but says she was fascinated by the sea from an early age. She worked on Physeter with Biosphere Expeditions in 2004 and has been doing research on Risso’s dolphins. “I am trying to find out what their behaviour means,” she says. “I had never even heard of them before I came out here.”

The research
  • All sperm whales have marks on their tails – mostly scallop-shaped chunks that are a result of ‘wear and tear’. Lisa Steiner takes photos of the flukes and the images are logged onto a database called Europhlukes
  • Europhlukes has a programme that allows Lisa and other researchers to see if a new fluke image matches any others. (Previously, they had to spread the photos out on the floor in a giant game of ‘Snap!’)
  • The database now has 1,750 sperm whale flukes. Lisa has seen one whale nine times since 1987, and another whale she first saw in 1987 she saw again in 2004.
  • Lisa believes the males travel north from the Azores, and that females go south to places such as the Canaries and Cape Verde Islands. But nobody knows for sure.
  • Sperm whales get their name from the ‘melon’ at the front of the head known as the spermaceti (from the Greek, “sperm of the sea monster”) organ. This does not contain sperm (it was mistaken as such by whalers) but a soft, white waxy substance.
  • There are three main theories explaining the purpose of the spermaceti organ – that it has evolved as a battering ram for fights between males; that it helps the whale to control its buoyancy; and that it aids echolocation by focusing the whale’s sonar.
  • Spermaceti was a primary reason for targeting sperm whales. It was a highly valued substance, used in a wide variety of commercial applications, including lubricant for high-altitude instruments and cosmetics.
  • Sperm whales are also valued for something even stranger. Ambergris (used to make perfume) forms in a whale’s intestines in response to the irritation caused by squid beaks. It’s excreted and can be found on beaches or floating on the sea.
  • Sperm whales live in groups based along matrilineal lines. While males move away from the group when they mature, females stay all their lives. Calves are born roughly every six years. There is a gestation period of 14-15 months, and calves are weaned at about 18 months.
James Fair is the news and travel editor at BBC Wildlife. Meet him and the rest of the team here


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