Whales, Wildlife & Wilderness                                                                                                                                                 Pam & Wayne Osborn

Sperm Whales - The Azores


The Ihas dos Acores - Isles of Hawks


The nine islands of the Azores are peaks of submerged volcanoes. They straddle the mid-Atlantic ridge some 1500 kilometres to the west of Portugal at 38 degrees north. The co-existence of deep water and a plentiful supply of squid conspire to make this a favoured habitat of nature's largest toothed predator, the sperm whale.


The Azores were officially discovered during the golden age of Portuguese navigation inspired by the Infante Dom Henrique - known to the English speaking wolrd as Prince Henry the Navigator. After the official discovery in 1431, the Portuguese took possession one year later.


We first visited the Azores in 2005 with good friends Wade and Robyn Hughes. Our base has been the the island of Pico of each of our five visits to dive with and photograph the resident sperm whales. Each visit inspired us to return again - a managed addiction one might say to the gentle leviathans of the Azores.


Opposite: The Pico volcano and a traditional whaling hand lance.

Azorean Whaling


Opposite: Azorean 'canoas' or whaleboats in Horta harbour on Faial.


Azoreans may have been introduced to whaling by the Basques, however it was the arrival of the New England Whalers riding the northern segment of the Atlantic gyre that took it to commercial levels. The Yankee whalers first visited in the 1730's and by 1750 Azoreans were being actively recruited as sailors. Highly regarded for their work ethic and and seafaring skills, they adapted well to hardships on board a whaler. This era lasted 170 years until the last whaleship visited in 1921.


The Azores were known as the 'Western Islands' or 'western grounds' by the Yankee whalers attracted by their large sperm whales. In 1780 around 200 whaling ships could be found in the Azores which had also become a resupply depot for the industry.


Shore whaling did not commence unitl 1832 when a shore station was set up at Porto Pim on Faial. Pico started whaling in 1853 after the aphid-like insect, Phylloxera decimated its vineyards forcing the need for alternative industry.


Opposite: Whale spotting lookouts on Pico.


In shore whaling for sperm whales was unique to the Azores. Whilst this method was used for slow moving right whales and and humpbacks in other parts of the world, it was the specific volcanic bathymetry and topography of these islands together with a large resident whale population that made it possible.


The whale spotting was done from land using lookouts perched on mountain slopes. These 'vigias' scanned the sea with powerful binoculars. They claimed a range of 30 NM on a good day. This seems a stretch but we have comfortably worked with vigias at a range of 15 NM.


When a blow was sighted a rocket would be fired to call the men to the whaleboats. At 11 metres their 'canoas' were 3 metres longer than American whaleboats and carried a crew of seven.


They were carvel built (smooth sided) rather than clinker built as the Azoreans knew water slapping on the strakes would alert the sensitive whales. We have found this precaution to be well found and try and maintain a splash free, silent approach when in the water with whales.


The sail rig was jib and a gaff main. The mast could be quickly unstepped however the boat would sail onto the whale if it could.  The harpooner worked from the bow to throw the lance and make fast to the whale.


Opposite: Whale slipway and processing factory at Sao Roque on Pico.


Photographing Sperm Whales


In water photography with sperm whales is mostly solitary work.  It's probably not a good idea to read Melville's Moby Dick if you have an over active imagination.  However it's reassuring to hear that sperm whales are 'timid and inoffensive' according to Thomas Beale's 1838 'The Natural History of the Sperm Whale.'


When you are floating alone in a thousand meters of deep blue sea waiting for a leviathan to emerge from the featureless gloom, it is easy to imagine that Beale got it wrong.  I am pleased to say that after hundreds of in-water encounters, I have never met a sperm whale that was having a bad day or was anything other than curious, gentle or timid.


Once a whale is sighted,you slip quietly over the side of the boat and swim without splashing towards its path and wait for the whale's approach.  When the water is rough you can sometimes hear their sharp retort of their exhalations before you can see them.


Once they have seen or echo-located you they decide whether to continue the approach or dive and avoid you.


All in water work is done by free diving. Bubble noise from SCUBA systems disturbs the whales and is prohibited. A permit from the environmental regulator is required to enter the water. Two divers in the water tend to confuse the whales and inhibit close approaches so most diving is solitary.

Portuguese Man o' War


Portuguese men o' war are a major hazard for divers.  They are plentiful in the waters around Pico Island and trail several metres of sticky tentacles festooned with stinging venom filled nematocyst cells.


Opposite: A glassy day with the Pico volcano in the background. In the foreground is a Portuguese man o' war.

Volcanoes and Wine


Opposite: Our base and the village port of Madalena on Pico Island. The volcano towers in the background.




Opposite: Wine was being produced from these 'currais' or stone walled enclosures by the late 15th century. Pico's boutique vitners made Vinho do Pico, a much sought after table wine in Europe. The sun warmed the lava during the day and the heat radiated back to the vines at night creating a unique micro climate. Donkey carts hauled the grapes off to be crushed. These currais were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

The Pico Volcano


"Early in the morning of July 20 I saw Pico looming above the clouds on the starboard bow. Lower lands burst forth as the sun burned away the morning fog, and island after island came into view. As I approached nearer, cultivated fields appeared, and oh, how green the corn. Only those who have seen the Azores from the deck of a vessel realise the beauty of the mid-ocean picture."


Joshua Slocums's first sighting of Pico in 1895. From his memoir 'Sailing Alone Around the World' published in 1899.

Storm Clouds Over Faial


The island of Faial is just to the west of Pico. They are separated by a narrow straight. Faial is a famous and favourite port for sailors transiting the Atlantic.

Volcanic Bathymetry


Opposite: Chart showing the deep shelving bathymetry around the the islands of Pico and Faial.



Opposite: GPS tracks from our 2010 expedition to the Azores.  We travelled 448 nautical miles and had 101 sperm whale contacts.