Where the Whales & Dolphins are by Terry Ward
With villages that look similar to mainland Portugal’s but landscapes that might remind you of a mash-up between Hawaii and New Zealand, the Azores are like no place on Earth.
Located about 900 miles off the coast of Lisbon, the nine-island volcanic archipelago rises to dramatic effect in the mid-North Atlantic Ocean and is a common stopping-off point for yachts migrating east and west between the Mediterranean and the Caribbean Seas.
And from April to around October, there’s a different sort of migration to feast your eyes on in these magical islands.
That’s peak season for spotting diverse whale species that include fin whales, sperm whales and even blue whales – the largest creatures on the planet – with tongues that can weigh as much as an elephant. When the whales chart a course through the deep cerulean waters of the Azores, passengers on whale-watching cruises from islands like São Miguel, Faial and Pico thrill to views of flukes, breaches and spouts that often come with a spectacular volcanic island as a backdrop.
While whales were once hunted in the Azores, whaling officially ended in 1984, when the last operating whale factory (processing sperm whales) was finally closed. These days, after agriculture (pineapples raised in greenhouses) and the famed Azorean dairy products, tourism is the Azores’ biggest money maker. And most travellers who venture here have heading out on a whale-watching tour at the top of their list.
According to officials with the Azores Promotion Board, the Azores are a permanent home or point of passage for more than a third of the world’s whale and dolphin species. The spring months are the best time to see migrating baleen whales such as fin whales, sei whales and blue whales while the summer months delight visitors with regular sightings of Atlantic spotted dolphins, pilot whales and striped dolphins.
Throughout the year, chances are high of seeing sperm whales, common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and Risso’s dolphins.
Nature always has its own plans, of course, and on any given day you never know what you might spot.
“We saw a sperm whale mother and calf. We also got to see another sperm whale surface on its back and open its giant mouth wide,” recalls Porto-native Gabriela Seabra, who travelled from mainland Portugal to island hop in the Azores during the autumn months. “Our skipper joked that the whale was on its way to the dentist and said that being able to peer into its mouth like that was quite rare.”
Sperm whale sightings in general, however, are not rare in these magical islands, where the toothed whales are the most famous year-round residents and are commonly sighted
on whale-watching tours. The animals feed on giant squid and routinely dive down over 3,000 feet in pursuit of their prey, often staying underwater for as long as 90 minutes. The renowned Swedish underwater photographer Magnus Lundgren, who has visited the Azores several times to go scuba diving with sperm whales on special permitted trips, calls any encounter with them “thrilling and amazing.”
“They seem to be creatures from ancient times”, he says, adding that the feeling of seeing a pod of sperm whales surface around you with a volcano as a backdrop is as special as whale watching gets.
THREE MORE SIGHTINGS NOT TO MISS ON LAND IN THE AZORES:
Terra Nostra Gardens on the island of São Miguel (the Azores’ largest island) are a veritable garden of Eden, with over 2,000 species of endemic and introduced plants brought from countries with similar climates to the Azores. Endemic to New Zealand, the red-flowered Pohutuka-wa tree grows faster and larger here than its native land. Make time to dip in the gardens’ orange-tinted, naturally warm mineral pools, with water temperatures that range between 95 and 104 degrees.
Lagoa des Sete Cidades is probably the most photographed sight on São Miguel, with twin crater lakes in distinctly different shades of green and blue occupying the top of a dormant volcano that you can drive to for incredible views.
Peter’s Cafe Sport in Horta on the island of Faial is a legendary bar among the yacht set and well worth visiting for a pint and to mingle with sailing captains and crew while ogling the eclectic decor dominated by sailing flags from around the world.
Witness Whales and Dolphins for yourself. For Regent Seven Seas Cruises visiting Azores click here
Freelance travel writer Terry Ward is based in Florida but is frequently on the road (or at sea!) to report stories. Her work has been published by such outlets as Travel Channel, the Washington Post, Travel+Leisure and Cruise Critic. Visit her website to learn more, Terry-ward.com.
This article was originally published in EXPLORE Magazine by Regent Seven Seas Cruises®. EXPLORE is a regular print publication of travel content covering art, culture, history, cuisine and more across every region of the world. Learn more at RSSC.com/discover-more/digital-brochures