The best time for whale watching in the Azores is spring. As there have been seen already more than 25 different whale and dolphin species around the islands, the Azores is a great travel destination for whale watchers, but also for any nature-loving person. I have visited Pico Island in April, meaning, in the spring season when it is the best time to spot the “great whales”.
Whale watching in the Azores
The sea can be rough and wild. Loud and violent. Scary and frightening.
But it can also be calm and tame. Smooth and peaceful. Kind and comforting.
In the Azores I experienced both.
Sometimes I almost couldn’t wait to go on the next boat trip to be as close to the sea and the water as possible. And other times - although I love the sea - I was silently waiting and longing for having my feet on the ground again.
By all means, I felt safe in every moment on every boat trip I was participating in during whale watching in the Azores. But on some days the boat trip was all but not calm. I became wet. The waves were higher than usual. And the boat trips were bumpier. Too bumpy for some. But not for the majority of the whale watchers. Luckily.
Before I went to the Azores, I was asking myself: “Where is the best place for whale watching in the Azores?”
Maybe on the more well-known island São Miguel which is simultaneously the largest island of all the islands in the Azores? Or maybe it is just nicer to go for whale watching in the Azores on a smaller island like Faial? Or the two other islands of the Central Group in the Azores, Pico and Terceira?
Information: The Azores is composed of 9 islands which can be divided into three groups: the Eastern Group, the Central Group, and the Western Group. The Eastern Group includes São Miguel, Santa Maria and the Formigas Islets and the Central Group Terceira, Graciosa, São Jorge, Pico and Faial. The Western Group comprises only Flores and Corvo.
At the end my gut feeling decided for Pico Island.
Pico is the fourth-largest island in the Azores with about 15.000 inhabitants (compare: the largest island is São Miguel with about 125.000 inhabitants) and the landscape is dominated by Mount Pico - a volcano which is at the same time with 2.351m the highest mountain in Portugal.
There are two main places on Pico for whale watching. On the one side there is Madalena and on the other side Lajes. Madalena is located in the western part of the island and connected with the neighbouring island Faial by ferry. Lajes, in contrast, is located on the south and further east of the island Pico.
I went to Madalena and was happy with my decision (although I’m sure that Lajes is also a very good place).
Madalena is a nice and small town (or village) on Pico. As the island is just next to Faial and São Jorge, the main whale watching boat trips from Madalena led either to the north into the region between the three islands or - depending on whale sightings - to the south into the direction of Lajes.
Apropos whale sightings.
The whale watching companies on the Azores use so-called “vigias” to spot whales around an island. “Vigia” is Portuguese and means “lookout”.
In a “Vigia” sits a person with good binoculars.
If there is a whale, the person in the vigia notifies the whale watching company or whale watching companies, respectively. Often, the whale watching companies help each other to spot the whales. At least on Pico Island as they said.
Just imagine, sitting in a boat without knowing where the whales show up.
Thus, the person in the “vigia” is of a great help for the whale watching companies. This way, whale watching in the Azores is much easier with land-based observers than without them, as they have an overview of the area.
Important: Please note that it is usually not possible to see all whales and dolphins in the area on one single boat trip. Typically, the whale watching company has to decide where to go. In spring, the companies look for the whales. Dolphins, in contrast, are not the priority on these whale watching trips.
The whale watching company where I have been, has several “vigias” around the island. I have visited one of these “vigias” and imagined myself sitting in such a kind of an “office” the whole day looking for whales.
I would enjoy it!
I wouldn’t be bored at all.
However, maybe I would wish to see the whales sometimes a little bit closer. Like on a boat.
And like I did on several whale watching boat trips in Madalena with the company CW Azores.
I decided for CW Azores, because they are focused on the migration of the “great whales” during the spring migration.
I was hoping to see some of the “great whales”.
Like sperm whales.
Or fin whales.
Or even blue whales.
Importantly, however, the term “great whales” does not represent the taxonomic classification neither of the baleen (Mysticeti) nor the toothed whales (Odontoceti), although most species of the “great whales” are indeed baleen whales - except the sperm whale which is a toothed whale.
All these whales have something in common.
As the term “great whales” already suggests.
The following species are considered as the “great whales”:
- blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus)
- fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus)
- sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus)
- Southern right whales (Eubalaena australis, photo: on the left)
- North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis)
- North Pacific right whales (Eubalaena japonica)
- bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus)
- humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae, photo: on the right)
- gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus)
- sei whales (Balaenoptera borealis)
- Bryde’s whales (Balaenoptera brydei, photo)
- Antarctic minke whales (Balaenoptera bonaerensis)
- common minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata)
However, I have to say here that I couldn’t find a clear definition of what is exactly a “great whale”. Thus, in the following paragraphs I will rather try to avoid using this term. But when I use it, you know that I refer to the size of these animals.
Information: While I was researching for a clear definition of the “great whales”, I came across the book “Great Whales” – a book about seven of the “great whales” which occur on the coasts of Australia. Please search for the book to get more information about this term.
In the next paragraph I write more about the whales which I encountered during whale watching in the Azores.
Baleen whales in the Azores
The largest animal on earth. Equivalent to about twenty-five elephants. Or fifteen school buses. Or more than 2.000 humans. Who hasn’t heard of any size comparison of a blue whale with any other animal or object?
Imagine that the size of the blue whale’s tongue has roughly the same size as an elephant. And the heart is apparently as big as a mid-sized car.
It is hard to grasp the real size of a blue whale.
But I wanted to experience it!
Interesting: Blue whales around the Azores are typically smaller than the ones of the southern hemisphere. According to the information I got at CW Azores, blue whales around the Azores usually reach a size of less than 30m.
Thus, one of my greatest wishes during whale watching in the Azores was to spot a blue whale.
And luckily, I did!
On two whale watching trips!
Actually, the first encounter was a little bit short. It was too short for me and for most other whale watchers. But the reason was serious. One of the whale watchers became a hurtful back problem after we were passing one of the larger waves. As it was such a windy day - but still very beautiful with sun and bright blue water - the waves became quite large. Thus, we had to go back to a port. As we were close to Lajes, the skipper navigated the boat to that port.
Tip: If you have back problems, follow the suggestion of the whale watching company! People with back problems should sit in the back of the boat, as in the front it is much bumpier!
It was a pity! But we had to go to the port!
However, after that incidence we went back to the sea - leaving behind the woman with the back problems - to search for the blue whales again. But as it was already late, we did not stay for a very long time close to the area were we had found the blue whales. We had to travel back to Madalena.
Unfortunately, we didn’t see the blue whales again.
But luckily, we encountered some more blue whales just three days later.
That time without health emergencies.
And we could take more time observing the blue whales.
A distinctive feature of a blue whale is its tall and columnar blow which can reach a size of 9 to 12m. The tall blow is a good way to spot a blue whale. As far as I know there is no other baleen whale with such a high blow.
As a non-expert, I was able to detect the greyish-bluish-mottled coloration around the dorsal fin, which is very typical for blue whales. Blue whales show only little of their massive body at the surface. Therefore, the coloration of the back gives whale watchers a clue about which whale they have in front.
More difficult is to distinguish males and females. Unless there is an expert around who knows the whales very well.
Female blue whales are typically larger than males. This is important in blue whales, because females loose about one third of their body weight during suckling.
Or to be more precisely, reproduction.
Calves are born in winter in warmer waters near the equator. In springtime - around March to June - they leave their wintering grounds and pass the Azores on their migration route to the north. In the north, they stay in their summer feeding grounds like, for example, in the waters around Greenland or Iceland.
While blue whales breed in their wintering grounds, they find massive food in their summer grounds where they put on some weight again.
And the Azores are like a “snack bar” for the blue whales on their long migration route from the south to the north. During springtime the waters around the Azores are full of zooplankton like krill, which is their preferred food.
Interesting: If you want to know more about feeding habits of baleen whales around the Azores, please visit CW Azores. On the website of CW Azores you learn, for example, that blue whales probably feed exclusively on krill. But please wait for further research on this topic.
One of the most spectacular moment on a whale watching trip is probably the one when a blue whale prepares for a dive. If a blue whale shows a rather flat tail before a dive, it is expected to see the blue whale in a few minutes again, as it might be just a short dive. If the tail is seen in a vertical position, however, whale watchers might have to count with some time to see a blue whale again, as a vertical tail typically means that a blue whale undergoes a deeper dive.
The most amazing thing about whale watching in the Azores for me was the experience that every trip was different and you never know what to spot next.
Humpback whales are one of the most spectacular animals on a whale watching trip, as they often display acrobatic jumps or other playful behaviour at the surface. I was lucky enough to have seen these special animals already in South Africa and Australia.
However, in the Azores, I indeed missed a very, very special encounter.
I went on several whale watching trips - nine in total. Usually, one trip in the morning, but not in the afternoon.
On one afternoon trip, a white humpback whale passed the Azores!
It was big news!
As it was so special!
And the other whale watchers talked about this encounter with excitement, joy, and awe.
Later they found out that it was a humpback whale which had been already seen around the Faroe Islands and Norway where this individual was named Willow.
After hearing about this white humpback whale, I hoped to see this special white whale as well. But I kept my expectation low, as this is indeed a very, very unique encounter. I had to remind myself that I had been already very, very lucky. I had had already so many special and unique encounters. Be it in the Azores or at other places.
Although I didn’t see that white humpback whale in the Azores, I saw some other normally colored humpback whales.
Out of all nine trips, I saw humpback whales only on one whale watching tour.
I remember that tour very well. Not only because of the beautiful humpback whales, but also because the sea was quite rough on that day.
On all whale watching trips I usually tried to sit in the front of the boat, as the view there was best. On a beautiful day, I was not the only one interested in being in the front. But on a clouded and windy day, there was less interest among people sitting in the front. Like on the day of my encounter with the humpback whales in the Azores. But I took a seat in the front.
And yes. It was bumpy. Very bumpy. Maybe a little bit uncomfortable. And wet.
It was the only trip where I was thinking about leaving my camera just in my waterproof bag. Water was splashing around and into the boat. Also onto my camera. Even when the boat was not driving, it was bumpy. The waves were moving the boat up and down.
When I saw a white silhouette appearing at the surface, I prepared my camera to hopefully get a photograph. Even though it was not easy at all on that bumpy trip.
Apropos taking photographs.
Sometimes it was in general hard to decide.
Should I take photographs? Or should I just put the camera aside and enjoy the moment with the animals?
As I was keen on getting nice photographs of wild animals at that moment, I tried my luck with the camera. But anyway, sometimes it is just nice to just watch and enjoy the whales or dolphins that pass the boat.
Other typical baleen whales visiting the Azores in spring are fin and sei whales.
Unfortunately, I didn’t see any of these whales during whale watching in the Azores. But they were around. Just shortly after my departure, CW Azores observed these whales around Pico.
As much as I would have enjoyed seeing these animals, I had to remind myself again and again that I had already been lucky with all my observations.
Sometimes they also see Bryde’s whales.
Or a common minke whale.
Or even a North Atlantic right whale.
Information: If you are interested in knowing more about all the sightings of whales and dolphins on the whale watching trips of CW Azores, please visit their website and look at the charts. While it is very common to see whales in spring, in summer, there are more dolphins around Pico.
During my stay at CW Azores, I visited two presentations about the whales around the Azores. One presentation was about blue whales and the other one about the identification of whales during a whale watching trip.
By all means, I don’t find it easy at all to correctly identify a whale on a boat trip. Especially when the sea is rough.
But I learned some tricks.
For example, a fin whale has a white pigmentation on the right site of the lower jaw. Sometimes even extending to the upper jaw.
And sei whales have a relatively tall and sickle-shaped dorsal fin. The skin around the dorsal fin is also very typical for this species.
Do you remember this species?
Interesting: Did you know that blue whales (almost) exclusively feed on just kill? While humpback, fin and sei whales also feed on fish sometimes, blue whales seem to prefer only krill.
Toothed whales and dolphins in the Azores
The sperm whale is a species which many visitors will see around Pico during whale watching in the Azores. There are good chances to see sperm whales year-round. Although June, July, and August are the best months to observe them around the island.
In April, in about 40% of all whale watching trips visitors might spot a sperm whale.
Tip: Please visit the website of CW Azores. On the website you can find more information about the specific species and how often and when they were seen. Look at the charts and compare sighting frequencies and the absolute numbers of sightings.
I didn’t see a sperm whale on my first trips, but I saw them on several other trips later. On one trip I even saw more than ten individuals!
But still, for every encounter, luck is necessary. I talked to other whale watchers who also went on several boat trips, but hadn’t seen any sperm whale so far.
Thus, although they are around the islands of the Azores, luck, patience and an understanding for wild animals is still necessary.
However, interestingly, not all sperm whales stay around the Azores the whole year. Only females swim through the waters of the Azores year-round. Males, in contrast, migrate up north to Norway. They just come back again to the Azores to reproduce.
That is why we principally observed females on the whale watching trips.
Apropos females. Female sperm whales show a very interesting behaviour. Together with their offspring they form “nursery” schools where they even show allosuckling. Meaning, a female sperm whale suckles the young of other females.
Males, in contrast, are rather solitary animals, but might form small groups when they are younger.
Another distinctive feature among sperm whales is their sexual dimorphism which means that males are typically larger than females. Males also do have a larger dorsal hump.
I have to admit that the sperm whales around the Azores - as beautiful they were - rather seemed to me small. Or maybe they appeared to me so small, as I had seen blue whales before.
But in any case, sperm whales are the largest species of the toothed whales.
Sperm whales are easier to distinguish from other whales due to their huge square head. Within their head cavities is the spermaceti organ which is used for echolocation. A way to locate, identify, and hunt their preferred prey - squids.
Interesting: Sperm whales are spectacular divers. In literature, they often write about dive depths of 3km. However, according to the information at CW Azores, it is rather about 2500m. Sperm whales are even outcompeted by Cuvier’s beaked whale. According to CW Azores, Cuvier’s beaked whales were detected to reach depths of 2900m during a dive.
One distinctive feature, which is quite useful on a whale watching trip, are their bushy blows. Their blows are furthermore directed to the left at low angle. Even a non-whale-expert is able to identify a sperm whale by just looking at their blows.
Another typical behaviour of sperm whales is the way they swim. Sperm whales are very slow swimmers. Sometimes they even appear motionless at the surface of the water.
Another distinguishable feature is their typical shape of the dorsal hump.
Or their triangular fluke which can be used by experts to identify individuals by comparing the marks on the trailing edges of the tail flukes.
Before sperm whales dive, they raise their humps and flukes. A behaviour which is very popular among whale watchers.
Unfortunately, I missed another typical behaviour among sperm whales. Apparently, quite many sperm whales in the Azores breach. Like humpback whales. One of the staff members told me that they see quite many sperm whales breach around the waters of Pico.
Later, when I was looking through my photographs, I saw something in the mouth of one of the sperm whales. How couldn’t I (was it just me?) not see this? The sperm whale seemed to have had a net in its mouth. Was it a net? That sperm whale even had a damaged dorsal fin.
As spectacular and special all these encounters were, looking at these photographs and realizing that I had overseen this on the boat, makes me thoughtful.
I remember very well my first whale watching tour in the Azores.
We saw no whales.
Actually, the skipper was in contact with the people in the vigias. He was waiting for information about the whales. But on that day, they couldn’t spot any whale.
Before our trip, the people from CW Azores told us already that they hadn’t spotted whales so far. We could decide, if we wanted to participate in maybe “just” a dolphin watching trip. They couldn’t guarantee us to see a whale.
Of course, all people decided to participate.
Although we “just” saw dolphins, it was a beautiful trip.
The day was bright and sunny.
It was bumpy, but not that bumpy like on the trip when we saw the humpback whales.
We saw quite many short-beaked common dolphins.
It was the only species of dolphins we saw on that trip.
But still it was very special.
Because we saw short-beaked common dolphins!
Maybe you remember my journey to South Africa. In South Africa I saw already common dolphins. However, in South Africa I observed not the short-beaked common dolphins, but the long-beaked common dolphins.
In the Azores, it was indeed a quite different experience when compared to South Africa. The long-beaked common dolphins in South Africa do not occur very close to the coast and cannot be seen frequently on whale watching trips around Plettenberg Bay. But when they pass a whale watching boat, they don’t pass it in just several smaller pods like the short-beaked common dolphins in the Azores. They pass in hundreds. Or even thousands?
Interesting: Long-beaked common dolphins usually occur nearer to the shore than short-beaked common dolphins. Remember that the Azores are islands in the Atlantic, and thus, are an excellent place to observe rather offshore species like short-beaked common dolphins.
At least it appeared to me like that.
In literature, I found numbers ranging between 100 and 500 individuals in one pod.
Short-beaked common dolphins, in contrast, live in rather smaller groups of maybe around 20 to 50 individuals. Like in the Azores.
The pods we saw on the whale watching trips were by far not that large than the one in South Africa.
Although we saw rather small pods of short-beaked common dolphins, we spotted them quite frequently on the whale watching trips. Actually, we observed them on every trip.
However, as springtime is whale watching season, the skippers of CW Azores usually stayed around the dolphins for only a short time.
The “great whales” were the priority.
Both common dolphin species have some features in common, although they are considered as two separate species.
Both species typically have a well-defined yellowish thoracic panel on their foresides. Often described as an “hourglass” flank pattern. Their coloration makes it easy to distinguish them from other species.
However, distinguishing both common dolphin species during a boat trip seems to be rather unachievable for an amateur.
Information: Another similar behavior of both common dolphin species is the swimming behavior. They are both very fast swimmers. If you want to take photographs of these animals, you need a lot of patience and luck. But as a photographer you also have to adapt, be as fast as possible and know very well the settings of your camera.
Short-beaked common dolphins are stockier than long-beaked common dolphins. The coloration pattern also slightly differs between the two species.
But the best way to find out which common dolphin can be seen on a whale watching trip is to research their distribution pattern.
While short-beaked common dolphins are more widespread, the long-beaked common dolphins’ distribution is restricted to specific coastal areas (like the ones near Plettenberg Bay in South Africa). Thus, just because I could exclude the long-beaked common dolphins, I knew that the short-beaked common dolphins are around the Azores.
Importantly, however, in some regions of the world the distribution of both species overlaps and it is more difficult to distinguish them.
Common bottlenose dolphins
One of the probably most well-known dolphin species is the bottlenose dolphin.
I knew them already from a dolphin workshop in Slovenia. Or from a boat trip in Galician waters in Spain. Or from several boat trips in South Africa.
Bottlenose dolphins are always a joy for me to observe.
They are playful. Aerobatic. And may leap seemingly effortless out of the water.
It is always a pleasure to encounter this special dolphin species.
How lucky I was to see them again during whale watching in the Azores!
Bottlenose dolphins can be easily distinguished from common dolphins.
Bottlenose dolphins are one of the larger dolphins. They are more robust and chunkier. Although there might be differences among populations.
By the way, in dolphins, males are typically larger than females. Compare blue whales. In baleen whales, in contrast, females are usually larger than males.
Compared to common dolphins or Risso’s dolphins (see below), respectively, common bottlenose dolphins are rather uniform in colour. Its colours can be described as pale bluish or grey.
Information: Do you know Guiana dolphins? These dolphins are like bottlenose dolphins grey in colour. Please visit one of my previous blog entries about the Guiana dolphins in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins in South Africa as well are coloured in grey.
We did not spot these bottlenose dolphins around Pico as often as the common dolphins. Their groups seemed to be slightly smaller. However, this is just my personal impression and might indeed not be the reality.
Bottlenose dolphins are - like common dolphins - fast swimmers.
I was so hoping to see at least once a Risso’s dolphin!
I knew that there were Risso’s dolphins around the Azores. But would I be able to see them?
To come straight to the point. I saw them and I felt so lucky.
I felt so lucky, because I saw these special dolphins only on my second last and last boat trip. Actually, I was already losing hope to see them.
Just seemingly in the middle of nowhere they appeared at the surface.
Or had the skipper of the boat gotten a clue from the persons of the vigias?
It didn’t matter to me.
The most important part was that I saw them.
It was just a more or less short encounter when compared to the bottlenose and common dolphins, but not less valuable!
Risso’s dolphins are indeed very easily recognizable. Even for non-experts.
These dolphins are heavily scarred and in comparison to the other two dolphin species, Risso’s dolphins possess a rather bulbous head. They are beakless and can be further characterized by its typical high, falcate dorsal fin.
Young Risso’s dolphins are typically darker and with no scarring. Older individuals, in contrast, become much paler with age.
I had the best observation opportunities on my second-last whale watching trip. We could observe them for some minutes.
Luckily, Risso’s dolphins don’t move as fast as bottlenose or common dolphins. Their behaviour at the surface of the water was more predictable. And thus, it was much easier to photograph them.
Information: Are you interested in taking photographs of whales and dolphins? I was using a 70-200mm lens from Sigma and a Nikon D500 camera. It is a fast camera and perfect for wildlife photography. However, I wouldn’t use a focal length of longer than 300mm on a whale watching boat due to the movements caused by the waves.
An even shorter encounter was the one with the striped dolphins.
Actually, I never would have expected to encounter striped dolphins in April around Pico. CW Azores sometimes see striped dolphins in April. However, they usually see more of them in the summer months of June, July, and especially August.
Therefore, I felt indeed very, very lucky on that day.
It was the day when I had my first blue whale encounter. The day when we had to head back to the port due to a back problem of a passenger.
Nevertheless, it was a very, very short encounter.
We were far away heading to the blue whales. There was not much time for the dolphins.
Most people interested in wildlife and the Azores go for whale watching. However, there are some more treasures to be found in the Azores.
In my next blog entry, I write more about some other marine wildlife species, but also about birds I found in April on Pico. I also write about what to do on a bad weather day...
Have you ever been whale watching in the Azores or at any other place? If yes, where and when? Which species have you seen? Please let me know in the comments.