The joy of snorkelling feature.
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There she blows!
The vaporous spout of a huge sperm whale jets into the air from the sea off the Azores. It's a majestic spectacle at any time; when you're in the water and close to the beast it's plain awesome, as Charles Hood discovered when he took his snorkelling gear on a whale watching holiday.
Like a huge submarine without a conning tower, the 15m sperm whale approached, less than 100m from the spot where I was snorkelling. As it stood only about half a metre proud of the sea's surface, all I could make out was the huge bow wave where common dolphins flanked the whale as they would a ship.
When the 45 tonne creature was 20m in front of me, on a collision course, she spotted me and arched her back - a characteristic of the species - before executing a shallow dive.
She passed about 10m below me, rolling to one side to keep me in view all the time. Within seconds she had disappeared. The pod of common dolphins had also passed, waiting for the whale to surface and give them a fresh bow wave in which to play. I took a deep breath as I reached the surface, and reflected on the magnificent sight I had just enjoyed.
The Azores, an Atlantic island group 1200km west of Portugal, where I was taking a week's whale-watching holiday, are a haven for cetaceans of all kinds, and you are almost guaranteed a close encounter with one species or another when you dive there.
Because you are constantly getting in and out of the RIB, and the animals you seek move fast, at or near the surface, scuba equipment isn't much help, and I spent the entire week using snorkelling gear only. The surface temperature was about 20°C, so a 3-4mm one-piece suit was perfectly adequate.
The Azores economy was dominated by whaling for many years, and the last commercially killed whale was taken there as recently as 1984. The islands' towns, harbours and roads were all built with the profits from whale oil and the slaughter of great whales on a massive scale. Sperm whales in particular were hunted almost to extinction. Their oil was highly prized for fuel locally, but its chief use was in the cosmetics industry.
A visit to the museum at Larges and the old factory in Sao Roque is testimony to the carnage that went on. The massive slipways from the sea, with their awesome winches, are a grim reminder of the days when, to use the words of a local guide, "the sea was permanently red with the blood of whales. The smell made you sick: you longed to get high up into clean air".
Inside the factory the oil vats still remain, along with the furnaces used to break down the meat and bones into animal feed and fertiliser.
Fortunately, in 1974 Portugal (to which the islands belong) joined the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and whales were given protected status in 1981. Today, income from whale-watching is starting to replace the living that local people lost when whale-hunting ceased.
One of the best islands for whale-watching is Pico (about 45min by ferry from the international airport at Faial). Here the coastal town of Lajes is home to a whale-watching centre called Espaco Talassa, established in 1989 by Frenchman Serge Viallelle. Serge has set up a project to develop cetacean research studies, protect the marine environment, and educate and motivate the public.
He runs four Bombard 6m RIBs, two of which are for group charter, while the other two are usually available for individual visitors, grouped together as mixed crews. The boats come with an experienced skipper who is in permanent radio contact with lookouts (called vigias). They also carry hydro-phone equipment to help in the location of the whales. They adopt a simple code of conduct to minimise disturbance and stress to the animals, which is basically as follows:
We were taught to enter the water as quietly as possible about 100m in front of a whale and to orientate ourselves on a collision course with it by slowly finning, without splashing or breaking the surface with our fins. The whales know you are there. They can outswim you and outmanoeuvre you, so the game is to appear a non-threatening curiosity. On several occasions two of our group got within touching distance (although touching is not allowed) of a pod of pilot whales.
- Approach the animal from behind, using a reduced and constant velocity.
- During the approach do not make any sudden changes in the speed and direction of the boat, and never sail up to cetaceans.
- Never approach closer than 50m.
- There should never be more than two boats within 150m of an animal.
- Never spend more than 15min with the same animal. They also recommend that you don't swim among cetaceans, but snorkellers with an experienced skipper may do so.
Cetaceans most commonly observed off Pico are the sperm whale (Physeter catodon), the short-finned pilot whale (Globicephala macro-rhynchus), the common dolphin (Delphinus delphis), Risso's dolphin (Grampus griseus), the spotted dolphin (Stenella frontails) and the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus).
Sperm whales are shy animals (and have every right to be, given the way they have been treated by man!) so we spent a lot of time trying to get close to these huge creatures. Adult sperm whales average 15m in length, but can reach a maximum of 20m and a weight of 70 tonnes.
Their heads are frequently covered by white scars, probably resulting from fights with other males or with giant squid. The head makes up a third of a sperm whale's length and contains the famous spermaceti organ (producing a waxy substance formerly used in ointments and cosmetics) that gives the creature its common name.
Males are found for most of the year in the Azores, but females are seen mainly from May to October. The sperm whale cannot easily be confused with any other whale as it produces a distinctive bushy spout, or blow, up to 5m long, that emerges forward at an angle of about 45 degrees from the head.
It can dive to a depth of 3000m and stay submerged for 90min. It waves its flukes (tail lobes) as it dives - a familiar feature captured on many a postcard.
When sperm whales were not in the area we went for the "second best": short-finned pilot whales. These were much easier to approach, and tended to congregate in groups of up to 15. Much smaller than the sperm whale (at 4-5m) they weigh in at 2.5-3 tonnes. Our approach here was similar to that used with the sperm whales, although pilot whales tended to move more slowly and not be bothered by us.
If there were no sperm whales or pilot whales, dolphins were the third option. At one stage the waters were like dolphin soup! Our guide asked us which type of dolphin we wanted to see; he then radioed to shore and the vigia replied with the location of our chosen species. As we approached the dolphins they would immediately flank our RIB, riding in the bow wave.
The skipper then taught us an interesting way to get underwater pictures. It involved forming a loop of rope fastened to the bow of the RIB and ending amidships. You pass this loop around your shoulders and under your arms and leap into the water to be towed alongside. At first this seemed highly dangerous, but at low speed and with a competent skipper it became apparent that it was perfectly safe. (Don't try this at home! - Ed.)
The dolphins loved this idea. They would race up within feet of us and swim in and out of the bow wave. I set my camera to "auto everything" and just concentrated on framing: not an easy task with 6 knots of water rushing past. It was the nearest I'm ever going to get to experiencing the exhilaration the dolphins must feel. They seemed to have endless energy and would stay with the boat for 5-10min at a time.
When they were not in huge feeding groups our skipper would parallel-approach a pod of dolphins at high speed. This resulted in the dolphins zooming in and out of the bow wave, sometimes leaping clear of the water's surface only metres from the RIB. They followed us (or were we following them?) for several miles for the sheer delight of having a challenge.
The Azores can be reached by flying to Lisbon and then on to Horta (the international airport on the island of Faial). Whale-watching is organised by Espaco Talassa Expl. Tur. Mar. Lda, Rua do Saco 9930, Larges do Pico, Azores. Tel 00-35l-92-720l0 or Fax 672617. They are also on email: espaco. talassa @ mail. telepac. pt and have their own web site: http: // www. ciberacores/ talassa/.
It is best to organise a group of six to charter a boat, because if you turn up to form a mixed group you could be with passengers who are not interested in getting in the water. The boat costs about 150 per 6hr day, including a skipper. The day can either be taken in a single trip or two 3hr slots. As the whales appear only a 20min ride away this proved the best option for us.
Accommodation is in a bed and breakfast two-star hotel, which is clean, basic and has en suite showers. It costs about 25 per head for a twin room. A new hotel about a 10min taxi ride away costs around double this price.
For those also wishing to go diving contact: Norberto at Actividades Maritimas Lda, Rua do Paiol, 12-9900-Horta, Faial, Azores. Tel/fax 00-351-92-23891. For local tourist services at Horta: tel 00-351-92-23801, fax 0035192-22004.
Sunbathing is confined to one small bay, as most of the coastline is volcanic rubble. And, don't expect any night life. There is a choice of two reasonably priced restaurants, a modern Chinese restaurant, a sea-view bar called Moby Dick, and that's it! The remoteness and unspoilt atmosphere of the Azores is one of the islands' greatest attractions.
Appeared in DIVER - July 1998