Monday, December 17, 2012

All you need to know about whale watching and swimming with dolphins in the Azores

Following is an English translation of a blog originally written in Dutch for the biomassaliteit website To read the original blog in Dutch click the following link:(http://www.biomassaliteit.nl).
The second and third sections were written by Bert Voeten.
This blog will be featuring on the biomassaliteit website for a month.


WHALE WATCHIING IN THE AZORES
On each tour in the Azores it is almost guaranteed that you will encounter at least one or two different whale and/or dolphin species. In fact it is not uncommon to see five or six species in the space of just a few hours at sea. Where else in the world is this possible? In the Azores you can see at least 25 whale and dolphin species throughout the year, with the spring and summer being the best months to see more. The unique situation in the Azores is the presence of a great diversity of whale and dolphin species.
Four species are resident in the waters of the Azores. The most noteable is the sperm whale which was hunted around the islands until 1986. The deep waters of the Azores provide groups of sperm whales with a plentiful supply of squid, their main food source, as well as a place to give birth and raise their calves.  These very social whales are frequently sighted in nursery groups of between 5 and 30 individuals . Bottlenose dolphins, Risso’s dolphins and common dolphins are also resident here. In the late spring to early summer more dolphin species arrive to the area to take advantage of the warming waters and increase in food supply. This is the time that we receive frequent visits from striped dolphins and pilot whales which do not stay in the area long but can be sighted on a regular basis.

The best period for seeing whales in the Azores is from about mid March to mid May. Alongside our four residents species we can see the three largest species in the world as they pass the Azores during the spring months. These three largest animals, which are also our most sighted baleen whale species, are the blue whale, fin whale and sei whale. It is also possible to see the occasional humpback whale and minke whale passing the area.
Later in the season, generally from about June until the end of the year, the Azores hosts large groups of Atlantic spotted dolphins which are frequently sighted in superpods of several hundred to a few thousand individuals all travelling and feeding together.

Our latest sighting statistics indicate blue whale and fin whale numbers may be increasing in the Azores. This year alone we have identified 31 different blue whales passing São Miguel Island, all of which were individuals we had not here seen before.



Throughout the year the Azores is one of the world’s major biodiversity hotspots for a large majority of whale and dolphin species, as well as predatory and prey fish.  The large variety and density of around ten dolphin species is especially gratifying.  Due to the enormous increase in whale watching our understanding and interest in whales and dolphins has also increased. This is not surprising as it is, and remains, a very special experience to be able to encounter these animals in the wild in the ocean. Due to their sensitivity to noise and disturbance we should be carefull around these intelligent animals. They are sensitive to noise disturbance because they use sonar to communicate, maintain social contact and also to locate their food.

Since the start of whale watching at the end of the 1980’s this activity has developed and the number of whale watching tourists has increased steadily. This has lead to concern for the welfare of the animals and since 1999 regulations were introduced in accordance with international whale watching laws. All commercial whale watching companies operating in the Azores are required to enforce these laws so that the animals' normal foraging and reproductive activities are not altered. During tours at sea the rules are explained and strictly monitored to ensure that the boats do not chase after the dolphins and whales. If the animals want more contact they will come to the boat themselves. Contact during swimming with dolphins also depends on whether or not the animals choose to approach. Moreover, it makes no sense to swim with dolphins when they they are avoiding you because it is impossible to keep up with a fleeing dolphin.





SWIMMING WITH DOLPHINS
Meeting living dolphins and whales in the wild is an amazing experience. In the Azores it is possible to responsibly swim with dolphins. In this area we can swim with bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins, Atlantic spotted dolphins and occasionally Risso’s dolphins. The dolphins are often very curious about the presence of people in their environment. It is actually more a case of dolphins swimming with people rather than people swimming with dolphins. If the dolphins are not interested they will simply swim away, sometimes alogether leaving the area of the boats.


The possibility of swimming with these fascinating marine mammals is dependent on several factors:


  •      The animals must be interested in the boat;
  •      The sea has to be relatively calm;
  •      Those wanting to swim with the dolphins must be strong swimmers and capable of using a mask and snorkel.

In situations that it is not possible to swim with the dolphins they will usually still approach the boat and they can be seen from the boat instead. Very frequently the dolphins will enjoy swimming together with the boat and this alone is a great experience.

SOME SPECIES SIGHTED AROUND THE AZORES
Compared to the rest of the Atlantic ocean the Azores is an oasis, rich in food to support a great diversity of species. This situation owes to the diverse underwater landscapes of submarine volcanos, seamounts, steep ocean walls and ledges as well as the presence of warm water currents.


A)     Beaked whales

In the Azores, mostly during July and August, you can occasionally see the very elusive and still little-studied beaked whales. Species that can be sighted here include Cuvier’s beaked whales, Sowerby’s beaked whales, Gervais’ beaked whales and Northern bottlenose whales. Beaked whales can stay underwater for long periods of time and are able to dive to over 1000 m deep. There are more than 20 different types of beaked whales in the world, and most of these are very shy and elusive and therefore little is known about them. In Pico, beaked whales often form small groups of two to five individuals and they spend most of their time on deep dives.

B)      Dolphins

The Azorean waters attract at least 10 dolphin types, with the more common species being the bottlenose dolphin, common dolphin, Atlantic spotted dolphin, striped dolphin and Risso’s dolphin. Both coastal and offshore variants of bottlenose dolphins occur here, ranging size from 3 to 4.5 m. During the summer months in particular, groups of dolphins come together to form much larger groups to work together in hunting, mating and raising their young. Often different groups coordinate their hunting efforts to bring their food together.

C)      Pilot whales and Risso’s dolphins
Larger dolphins, such as pilot whales and Risso’s dolphins live in small groups and feed mainly on squid. Pilot whales live in close family groups that are lead by older females. Orcas (the largest dolphin species) can also occasionally be sighted here. Orcas that are sighted in the Azores are not resident, rather they are transient individuals that just pass on rare ocassions.





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