The cetacean watching is an activity practiced in the waters of the whole planet. After the departure of the boat, the vast ocean is the scene in which the encounters between cetaceans and humans take place.
Sperm whales, baleen whales (Blue, Fin, Sei and Humpback whales), common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, Atlantic spotted dolphins, striped dolphins are some of the most seen species.
When to go?
Year-round for resident species. Spring for baleen whales.
Why it's a hotspot?
The Azores are currently one of the largest whale sanctuaries in the world, with nutrient-rich waters. From resident to migratory species, the Azores are a point of passage for several cetaceans, with 28 of the 87 existing species of cetaceans having been sighted in the region.
It’s possible to watch cetaceans during whole the year. 4 resident species can be seen throughout the year: common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, Risso’s dolphins and sperm whales. During Spring, there are many baleen whale species that choose the Azores as part of their migration route, including blue whales, fin whales and sei whales. During Summer, we can find other seasonal species, such as Atlantic spotted dolphins and striped dolphins. It’s also permitted to swim with 4 of these species of dolphins.
The chances of seeing at least one type of dolphin or whale here is reportedly 98 percent. Whatever the season, there are always discoveries to make.
In the past, whaling was practiced in the Azores and was banned in 1986. Nowadays these species are protected. Watching a whale or a dolphin in its purest and most natural state is a privilege few people have anywhere in the world. We need to take care and minimise interference in the paradisiacal habitat they have chosen as their home, to safeguard cetaceans, resident and migratory.
This way, cetacean observation is important in terms of the protection of resources since it ends up being a way of dissemination of concepts of conservation and environmental management. It can be used to educate people about threats and actions needed to protect the environment and species and maintain biodiversity. On the other hand, the effort involved in the observation of cetaceans can be oriented in order to acquire new information about cetaceans.
Baleen whales occupy a wide variety of habitats, from open oceans to coastal waters and undertake some of the longest migrations known.
In the summer months, most of the baleen whales go to feeding areas at medium and high latitudes richer in zooplankton and in the winter they migrate to temperate and tropical waters where they mate and give birth. Explanations for such long-range movements have included direct benefits to the calf by being better able to survive in calm and warm waters, the possible ability of some species to supplement their food supply from plankton encountered on migration or on the calving grounds, to reduce the risk of killer whale predation on newborn calves in low latitudes and another reason could be due to an evolutionary holdover, which means that individuals migrate because their ancestors already did.
Typically, baleen whales feed on zooplankton, mainly euphausiids (e.g. krill) or copepods, or small fish. While most feeding occurs in the colder waters of the polar and subpolar regions in the summer, baleen whales may feed opportunistically elsewhere.
The archipelago is one of the waypoints used in the migratory route of six baleen whale species in which the fin, sei, blue and humpback whales are included.
During their stay in the region of the Azores, individuals of this species are frequently observed feeding, which suggests that the waters of the archipelago can also be used to feed and replenish the energy spent by the whales on their migration. If this is true, then the Azores assume fundamental importance in the ecology of these whales.
Although baleen whales can be observed almost year-round in the Azores, spring is the season with the greatest number of sightings, which coincides with the months of higher productivity in the region.
The common dolphin is the species most seen in São Miguel and has a large are of distribution, but is mainly concentrated in shallow areas near the coast and relatively close to Ponta Delgada.
The bottlenose dolphin is the second most sighted species. This species is found mainly in coastal waters, however, also shows some preference for areas further away from the coast.
Risso’s dolphin is not observed so often. They are easy to identify due to their almost white colouration. They are observed near the coast but mainly in deeper zones and steep slopes, mainly near Vila Franca do Campo and also alongside fishing vessels.
The sperm whale is the largest of cetaceans with teeth, as well as the largest animal with teeth that currently exists. They are observed in the Azores throughout year in deeper water areas or in depth change zones / lines.
Bannister, J.L. 2002. Baleen Whales: Mysticetes. Pp. 62-72 in: Perrin, W.R., Wiirsig, B. & Thewissen, J.G.M.(Eds). Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Academic Press, San Diego-San Francisco-New York-Boston-London-Sydney-Tokyo. 1473 pp.
Biological Association. JMBA Diversity Records. Available from: http://www.mba.ac.uk/jmba/pdf/5728.pdf.
Evans, P.G.H. & Raga, J.A. (Eds.) 2001. Marine Mammals – Biology and Conservation. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers. New York. 630 pp.
Hoelzel, A.R. (Ed) 2002. Marine Mammal Biology – An Evolutionary Approach. Blackwell Publishing. United Kingdom. 432 pp.
Reeves, R.R., Smith, T.D., Josephson, E.A., Clapham, P. J. & Woolmer, G. 2004. Historical observations of Humpback and Blue whales in the North Atlantic Ocean: Clues to migratory routes and possibly additional feeding grounds. Marine Mammal Science, 20 (4): 774-786 pp.
Santos, M.B.O. 2008. Distribution and pattern of residence of the baleen whales (Family Balaenopteridae) in the Azores archipelago. Thesis, University of Azores. 46 pp.
Silva, M. A., Prieto, R., Cascão, I., Seabra, M. I., Machete, M., Baumgartner, M. F., & Santos, R. S. (2014). Spatial and temporal distribution of cetaceans in the mid-Atlantic waters around the Azores. Marine Biology Research, 10(2), 123-137.
Stern S.J. 2002. Migration and Movement Patterns. Pp. 742-750 in Perrin, W.R., Wiirsig, B. & Thewissen, J.G.M.(Eds). Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals.
Visser F, Hartman KL, Pierce GJ, D V, Huisman J. 2011. Timing of migratory baleen whales at the Azores in relation to the North Atlantic spring bloom. Marine Ecology Progress Series 440: 267–279.
Written by Andreia Vieira