The Atlantic and the Azores – Dolphins and Shipwrecks
Two fun activities we greatly enjoyed in the Azores are whale watching (and by natural extension, dolphin watching, since dolphins are also whales), and swimming with the dolphins. The mild temperate waters and warm currents that flow around the islands of the Azores make it the perfect place for whales to feed, and breed, all year round.
The waters in these areas are deep and filled with a popular food among marine mammals – squid. There are also giant squids here, although these are almost never seen since they live a mile deep.
On our day for whale watching, we got up early to get to the marina of Vila Franca do Campo on São Miguel, where Terra Azul, the company with which we signed up for whale watching, were located. Like most other days on São Miguel, it was a wonderful, sunny day, with sunlight glinting off the rich, deep, blue of the Atlantic ocean.
There are ten most commonly sighted species of cetaceans in the surrounding waters of São Miguel, most of which are around during the spring months. We were there in autumn, at the end of the whale watching season, so we only caught sight of two resident species – the common dolphin and the striped dolphin.
The common dolphins we encountered first, playing in the water around us. The first batch stuck around and we lingered to watch these beautiful creatures until they wandered off.
We encountered a few pods of common dolphins during the first two hours of our trip. Since there’s a three hour time limit that tourist boats can be out on the waters here, and we were far from land, our guide told the skipper to turn back around this time. I was quite disappointed we hadn’t seen any other species of whale. However, not long after changing course to head for the marina at Vila Franca do Campo, our guide got a tip from one of the vigias – clifftop towers that were built during the great age of whaling, during the industrial revolution. A huge pod of striped dolphins were spotted!
We went racing after them and soon found them. It was a huge pod. Our guide estimated it to be around a hundred and fifty individuals strong. They were swimming at a breathtakingly fast speed, and it was truly amazing to watch them race along in the water, so many of them in a line diving and flying out of the water and diving again. There were some big ones paired with little ones, which must have been their calves – somehow all of them were keeping time and staying in line, moving as one pod. Our guide told us this wasn’t so common, to see such a huge pod of stripped dolphins.
We spent quite some time chasing these dolphins as they raced on the surface of the water. Eventually, our time was up and we had to head back. I was a little sad we had to go, but was very glad we got to end our trip with the sighting of so many dolphins behaving in such a unique and coordinated way. It really made me wonder about the lives of all the intelligent, sentient creatures that live in worlds far divorced from our own – why did all those dolphins gather into that mega pod? Where were they racing to? Scientists still don’t have much of a clue into behaviours and migratory patterns of stripped dolphins, so I can only speculate…
Snorkelling with Wild Dolphins
We went swimming with the dolphins another day. From the very start, when we gathered once again at the marina, I knew this was going to be a different experience. Our group was smaller this time, and we were offered wetsuits which we changed into before getting onto the boat.
Our boat was also different – this time we used a rubber dingy instead of the larger speed boat we took when we went whale watching. Needless to say, this is not an activity you would want to bring a non-waterproof camera to.
The activity began much the same way as the whale watching had begun. We headed out into the open ocean with our guide and skipper taking us to places where dolphins are often spotted, while she listened out for sightings from the vigias. Eventually, we found one and followed them around until they found a spot to linger at. The guide, seeing our opportunity, told us to get ready to take turns going into the water for a closer encounter with these creatures.
We were far out at sea and the water was quite choppy. Out here, in the waters surrounding the islands of the Azores, the sea floor is far, far below. If I was not so comfortable in water, thanks to my background in diving, I would have found the experience a little frightening.
Our guide told us that different groups of dolphins exhibit different behaviours at different times. If you’re lucky, you might get to encounter a group that’s friendly and curious, with the members of the pod coming up to visitors and sticking around to engage in some friendly interaction. The pod we encountered wasn’t like this. I’m not sure what they were doing, but I think they were hunting since they kept diving into the deep at regular intervals.
We managed to get quite close to these creatures, as you can see from the video we took with our trusty – now quite old – GoPro.
Although we didn’t get much time with the dolphins – I think we were in the water for under ten minutes – it was truly worth it. Out here, I really got the sense that I was nothing but an observer in the dolphins’ world. Being human, we often feel like masters of our environment. It was sobering to be faced with how insignificant and unadapted I was in these deep waters as I watched the dolphins swim and dive effortlessly, going about their day.
Once everyone had a go in the water and the pod we were following began to swim in the opposite direction of where we needed to go, we headed back for the marina, just in time for lunch. I wished we had more time with them – but such is the nature of observing wildlife outside captivity, there are no guarantees.
Scuba Diving – MV Dori
The waters around the Azores are also pretty great for diving. Danijel and I had both signed up for a dive trip, but unfortunately, I suffered a blocked nose that morning, and he had to go at it alone. Instead I joined Phillip, our travel companion, for a snorkel in the waters above the MV Dori dive site.
The waters around the MV Dori go down to twenty meters. The boat rests on the seafloor, with its stern rising up to the nine meter mark. It’s a pretty impressive wreck, with lots of life living in, on and around it. The ship was built during the Second World War and took part in a number of missions off the coast of Normandy before it sunk off the coast of Ponta Delgada in 1964.
The main attraction here is obviously the wreck itself and the marine fauna. There are quite a few turtles swimming around. You can even see them while snorkelling on the surface! Phil said the turtle we saw brushed up against his elbow. I have to say I’m a little jealous she didn’t give me a little friendly nudge too. They are truly such lovely and adorable creatures!
The stern, which is mostly intact, with minimal damage, is home to shoals of little fish that swim in small clouds around it. Sometimes, schools of larger fish also drop by. Towards the bow, there are many pipes and other exposed metal parts that give the underwater scene a feel from a movie about an urban dystopia.
Embedded deep into the sea floor was the gigantic propeller. In the photograph, you can see how large it is compared to the dive master, who posed beside it for size.
While diving, Danijel encountered a dead turtle. He said it was the saddest dive of his life. We asked our scuba guide what had happened, and he said that the turtle had been caught in a net – although she had been released, she was badly injured. Unable to recover, she died not long after.