The Azores is one of the best places in the world for whale watching, with a strong cultural connection to whales. While there are some 25 species of whales in the archipelago, the mammoth sperm whale – forever immortalized as “Moby Dick” – is the most common.
We chose to go out to find whales and dolphins with Futurismo, one of the most experienced and responsible ecotourism outfits, based in Ponta Delgada on the island of Sao Miguel. The staff of Futurismo are nature lovers engaged in studying and preserving the environment and everything living in it.
Before heading out to sea, we listened to a briefing by Miranda, one of the marine biologists. Miranda explained how Futurismo was one of the first companies responsible for the transition from whale hunting to whale watching. She also talked about safety measures, respect for the animals, and rules for observation.
Futurismo is very conscientious about being non-obtrusive on their watch tours. They comply with the WCA (World Cetacean Alliance) which established minimum standards. During observation in the animals’ natural habitat, they strictly forbid chasing after whales or dolphins, disturbing, isolating or feeding the fascinating animals. If any of the animals appear agitated or stressed by the observation vessel, the distance between the vessel and animal is increased or they exit the area. If one of the animals approaches the vessel, the engine is idled.
Out to Sea
After donning our über-fashionable fishermen-style raincoats and heavy, baggy rain pants, we boarded our boat to begin our search for the cetaceans. Because of its location in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean between North America and Europe, the Azores is a passage point for about a third of the world’s whale species.
We launching out to sea and were treated to a picturesque view of the shore from our boat. We also learned from Miranda, who was also our onboard guide, that Futurismo also uses onshore lookouts to locate the animals to reduce searching time and reduce fuel consumption.
Whales in the Wild
Before long we sighted the massive animals. What a phenomenal, memorable experience! The spouting, the lunge diving, the fluke (seeing their tails), breaching…. even photos cannot capture the mystique and magic of these wild creatures. We observed six sperm whales – including two swimming together as a pair – and two fin whales.
Adorable, Intelligent Dolphins
On our return, Miranda pointed out a pod of jumping common dolphins and a few minutes later, a couple of bottlenose “Flipper” dolphins.
“You should not support dolphin encounters in captivity,” Miranda told us. “When they are captured in the wild and separated from their complex societies, they become depressed and are sometimes even medicated to get them to perform for tourists.”
Wait, what? Miranda went on to give us disturbing details. Dolphins are highly intelligent with large and complex brains. When they separated from their families and confined, they suffer, have dramatically shortened lives, and have even been known to commit suicide by starvation or suffocation. In captivity, they are unable to communicate or form relationships, care for each other or form social bonds.
Like humans, dolphins have a limbic system and can experience joy, love, grief, frustration, and anger. A recent study published in the journal Mathematics and Physics recorded dolphins in what was determined to be an exchange that resembled a human-type conversation. Confining dolphins for no other reason than amusement is cruel, as it deprives them of the instincts to engage in normal behavior in their natural habitat.
We arrived back on shore, amazed at not only the privilege of seeing whales and dolphins in the wild but what also what we learned during the trip. Many thanks to Futurismo for providing such a unique educational and emotional experience!
Whale Watching in the Azores first published in Epicure and Culture.
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