I had heard that the Azores was a great place to see whales. In fact, a few weeks before my trip, CBS Sunday Morning’s final moment of nature was video of whales swimming along the coast of Sao Miguel Island. It was a sign, I was meant to see whales when in the Azores! As my trip neared, I started to research what species I would have a chance to see...if any. From April to May, the Blue whales migrate past the islands. I pinned my hopes that there would be a few early birds heading south the week I was here. I also had just purchased a new camera and wanted to see how it would perform in this type of fast-paced situation.
We checked online for the various whale watching tour companies and decided on Terra Azul. On Thursday, our final day on the island, we hopped in the rental car and headed off to Vila Franca do Campo to see the whales. The roads on Sao Miguel are of two types: relatively straight interstate-like and narrow two lane roads that twist and turn up and down the mountains and through tiny little towns. There really is no in-between. I was having a grand time slaloming around the island (I usually drive and Mike navigates). However, if you are prone to car sickness, please beware if you are visiting and driving.
At the Terra Azul office, the group received a briefing from a marine biologist and the boat captain on what to expect. From there, we all boarded the 28 passenger Zodiak boat and headed out onto the North Atlantic. The ride was a little bumpy with, thankfully, very little sea spray.
It didn’t take long to come across a pod of Common dolphins. They were playful, swimming alongside the boat and jumping in groups all around us. I made good use of my new camera and zoom lens. It was extremely difficult to keep up with the dolphins though. Just as soon as I had one in my camera sight and hit the release, they were gone.
After a while with this pod, we had to move on. Apparently, regulations state a boat can only linger a certain amount of time. The spotters on shore hadn’t found any whales yet, but we continued further offshore hoping to get lucky. We were told how to tell a “blow” from just splashes of water. I scanned the horizon wanting desperately to be able to yell “Thar she blows!”.
Shortly after, I heard the radio and the captain turned the boat. Could it be? Did the lookouts find a whale? As we slowed, we found a pod of Striped dolphins. Our marine biologist was excited. He said this was only the second time he’s actually seen Striped dolphins in open water. Unlike the Common dolphins, the Striped don’t like the boat and swim extremely fast away as the boat approaches. I may have gotten one or two on film. However, I really couldn’t tell since they didn’t come very far out of the water to get a good glimpse.
Striped dolphin? We’ll never know.
It appeared there would be no whale sighting for me today. I couldn’t be sad though. I was having an amazing time. As we headed back, the captain took us to a small island off shore called Princess Ring. I had seen it as we approached town and wondered if there was a fort or other inhabitants. Turns out, the only beings living there are terns that nest on the island. We circled the island and headed back to dock.
Princess Ring Island
Since we still had half the day left, Mike did some quick research for another site to see on this end of the island. Along the northeast coastline is the oldest lighthouse on Sao Miguel Island. The reviews said it was beautiful so we headed off to see it. Luckily, the reviews also mentioned that the lighthouse is down a very steep road (of course) and they recommended we park at the top and walk down to see it. They weren’t kidding. The road is a 35 degree incline!
At least they warned us.
Near the bottom of the road, the lighthouse sits on a point overlooking the North Atlantic Ocean. As I walked down the road I came across a few couples heading back up. Each huffing and periodically stopping to take a breath. Each also commenting that the climb was worth it. They were right. The lighthouse and view were both grand!
Farol Ponta do Arnel
The drive back to Ponta Delgada was along the northern coast. This was all new scenery for me. Occasionally, there were scenic overlooks which I felt obligated to check out. Some were better than others, but all worth the stop.
As the day ended and I looked through my photos of the day, I reflected on my day. I may not have seen a blue whale, but I did have a whale of a time.