“Whale watching in Azores” has always been on my wish list. Since I first set foot on that Portuguese archipelago, I always tried to go whale watching. However, because there was no vacancy or the sea conditions didn’t allow it, I always postponed the experience until I visited Pico Island.
From hunting to whale watching in Azores
The relationship between Azoreans and the whales crossing the Atlantic waters is a curious one.
American companies registered the first whaling expeditions to these Portuguese islands in the 19th century. This industry was huge then as they hunted whales for their oil, which had lighting and soap production applications.
The American whalers passed their knowledge about this type of fishing to the Azoreans, who saw this activity as a form of subsistence.
Thus, in the 20th century, whaling peaked in the Azores. Between 1920 and 1960, whale hunting became a vital industry in this region, with whaling companies from several countries, such as the United States or Norway, establishing bases in the islands.
However, the activity declined in the second half of the 20th century due to dwindling whale populations in the region and changes in environmental protection policies.
The last whale hunt in the Azores occurred in 1987 when Portugal officially banned commercial whale hunting in its territorial waters.
Since then, the cetaceans have returned to the waters of the Azores, and whale watching has become a significant tourist activity in the region. Whales thus continue to contribute to the economic sustainability of the Azoreans, but today in a much more positive way for everyone.
Meeting the whales
This is what brought me to Lajes do Pico. To go and meet the history of these islanders and the giants that have always and forever will populate these waters.
Several tour companies offer whale-watching trips, but I decided to go with one of the oldest and most reputable: Espaço Talassa.
The facilities are next to the fishing harbor and immediately catch the eye. A small building that crosses the blue and white that reminds us of the old beach houses with the black of the volcanic stone, so typical of the Azorean islands. Not to mention a small whale tail that stands out on the wall, leaving no margin about the activity of this house.
The visit starts at the appointed time with a briefing about what we will do, what we will try to see, and all the safety recommendations. After all, we’re going to the high seas aboard a vessel in ocean conditions that may not be the calmest.
After the safety briefing, the group heads to the dock to board a semi-rig that takes us to meet the whales. But these are challenging to find.
The trip lasts three hours, and during that time, the crew is always in contact with a lookout in Lajes that scans the horizon for mammals. The members of Espaço Talassa also use hydrophones to detect them.
Everyone strives for the sighting, but we never rule out the hypothesis that it won’t happen. After all, we are dealing with animals in their purest state, and we are the ones who are invited.
On my trip, after seeing several communities of dolphins and when we were running out of hope of seeing whales, the team received news by radio of the presence of whales. Soon, the boat moved at high speed to meet the indicated coordinates. And the giants appear.
We all believe that seeing whales is relatively easy. But in reality, a glimpse of them is only possible when they come up for air. Then, shortly after that, they dive, and it can be 20 minutes before they immerse themselves again in a different place. It is a cat-mouse hunt, but well worth it. The image we get of that animal, the way it moves and shoots air through the breathing hole, is inspiring, makes the heart beat faster and makes us feel small and, simultaneously, fascinated by our amazing world.
Whale Watching in Azores
After the whale watching
Back on land, it’s time for the trip debriefing. Our tour leader goes over all the animals we had the opportunity to see. It’s also time to visit the Whalers Museum, right next door. The ticket for the Espaço Talassa gives free access to the museum. It’s an excellent opportunity to learn more about the island’s past.
Three old whaling boat houses from the 19th century make up this space, housing five museum centers that tell the story of Azorean whalers, the boats they used, and the dangers they faced on land and at sea with this activity.
Fortunately, whale hunting is over, and today local tour operators are committed to preserving and promoting sustainable practices, such as respecting minimum distances to approach the animals and using boats with low environmental impact. Following these measures ensures that whale watching is a responsible experience that does not harm the animals or their habitats.
Plus, by witnessing these magnificent animals in their natural environment, we are reminded of the beauty and fragility of the oceans and the urgent need to protect them.
HOW TO GET TO PICO
You can get to Pico Island:
– By plane: Fly directly to Pico Airport (PIX) from Lisbon and Porto. Flights are also available from other islands in the Azores, such as São Miguel and Terceira.
– By ferry: From São Miguel, Faial and Terceira, using Atlânticoline. The ferries dock at the main port of Pico Island in Madalena. I recommend checking the schedules and making reservations in advance.
HOW TO GET AROUND
The best way to get around Pico is by renting a car, which allows you greater flexibility and autonomy to explore the island at your own pace.
You can also use cabs (you can find them at the airport or key points on the island) or buses, although the service is quite limited.
Visiting the main sights through organized tours or excursions is also possible.
WHERE TO STAY
Aldeia da Fonte Hotel (Lajes do Pico): The accommodation is divided between the sea and the mountain, offering stunning views, comfortable accommodations, and a peaceful atmosphere. It even features an old tower used for whale watching.
Basalto Apartments (Madalena): Close to the airport, this is the perfect accommodation to discover Madalena. It is also a good starting point to explore the rest of the island.
Whale watching in Azores
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