Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Ocean Giants in the Azores

The Azores, a group of nine volcanic islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean surrounded by deep water and smack bang in the pathway of migration routes of some of the largest creatures on our planet. The people of the Azores have a strong affinity with the sea, and whales in particular, having hunted particularly sperm whales right up until the early 1980s. But this was not mass scale, explosive harpoon hunting, this was a few men, in small boats, using oar and sail to chase these leviathans and hand-thrown harpoons to capture them. Since then boats have gone out in search of whales, not to capture them but to watch them, and the Azores is now known as one of the best places on Earth to watch whales and dolphins.

A mighty fin whale surfaces near our little Morgan. Image: Joao Quaresma

Over 24 species have been recorded, with many being resident year round including dolphins like common and bottlenose dolphins, but even groups of young and female sperm whales. Between April and June however sees the seasonal migration through these waters of true ocean giants, humpback, fin, sei and the mighty blue whale. Each of which has suffered dramatic declines due to whaling.

Reports from whale watch operators in the Azores, including many partners of the WCA, is that this is year is one of the most abundant in terms of baleen whales (whales like blue, sei, fin and humpback that have no teeth but bristly plates called baleen that hang from the top jaw and filter food from the water). Out little Morgan was keen to find out more and see these incredible animals up close and personal.

So joining Helen Bailey, Ruth and Mike Jones our little Morgan set out on an adventure with Amanda Stafford’s Whale and Dolphin Connection, and went whale watching from the island of Pico with Espaco Talassa, one of the original whale watching companies that not only takes passengers out to see these creatures but collects data on sightings and individuals through photo identification techniques.

Morgan, Helen and Rachel

Amanda, Rachel and our little Morgan

Zooming across the ocean on fast RIB against a background of splendid mountains, day after day Morgan’s group came across whale after whale and dolphin after dolphin. The water swirled a greenish blue colour, thick with microscopic plants called phytoplankton and feeding on these are tiny animals called zooplankton. Together these form the basis of the entire ocean food chain, feeding fish, squids, dolphins and whales.

Everyday there were blue whales, surfacing with powerful blows, lifting their giant tail flukes high into the air. There were mixed groups of fin and blue whales, and dolphins surfing the waves the whales created. Curious fin whales hanging around the boat, meandering around it and gliding under and alongside, so close that Morgan and everyone got caught by their smelly, wet breath. Then there were whales that powered through the water, almost clearing the surface, doing a kind of mini-breach and surfing over the top of each other. Next there were humpback whales, hanging out with sperm whales and their calves, hanging out with fin whales, curiously approaching the slowly moving boat, diving underneath boat and waves, lifting their flukes with a curtain of water dripping along the trailing edge. Amongst all this giant whale action there were dolphins, from common to bottlenose, striped to Risso’s.

A true ocean giant - the blue whale

What an incredible experience for our little Morgan and everyone onboard, watching and learning about these incredible animals, up close and personal, and importantly in the wild.   

Thanks to Whale and Dolphin Connection for taking little Morgan on a fantastic adventure in the Azores.

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