The Azores archipelago is found off the west coast of Portugal and northwest of North Africa. It is undoubtedly one of the best places in the world to see whales and dolphins year-round. This guide will help you choose which of the islands and when to visit for whale and dolphin watching in the Azores, depending on the cetaceans you hope to see.
The Azores’ mid-Atlantic location is on the migration route of many whale species as well as being the permanent home to common and bottlenose dolphins. Its waters comprise one of the biggest whale sanctuaries in the world. All in all, 28 different kinds of cetaceans are seen around its nine volcanic islands.
The Azores’ Unique Offering to Whales and Dolphins
In times gone by the Azores, an autonomous region of Portugal, was a major whaling post. American ships, known as Yankee Whalers, arrived in the 18th century. They exploited the huge numbers of Sperm Whales found there to supply their home markets with lamp oil.
São Miguel coast in the Azores
Local Azorean sailors learnt how to hunt the whales from the Americans and introduced the industry to the islands. The coastal waters around the Azores descend to depths of more than 3,000 metres. This means the whales come very close to shore, which enabled the hunting of them from simple rowboats.
Lookout posts, know as vigias, were erected to identify the locations of the whales for the hunters.
Whaling began to decline in the 1960s with the evolution of fuel technology and a rising awareness of environmental matters.
In 1989 the capture of all marine mammals was prohibited in Portuguese waters and shortly afterwards the first Portugal whale watching tours began. The old lookout posts were converted to shore-watching points, for those who prefer not to embark on a boat.
Dolphin, the Azores
The seas around the Azores provide bountiful food for whales and dolphins as they are rich in plankton and krill. The channels between the islands, in particular, amass vast shoals of these tiny creatures. These protein-rich swarms cause similarly large numbers of migrating whales to pause a while on their travels to feed up.
Which Azores Island to Choose for Whale Watching
São Miguel island, the Azores
This is the largest island of the Azores group, with the biggest population. There are several whale watching tour operators in São Miguel, found particularly in the south coast municipalities of Ponta Delgada and Vila Franca do Campo. In the spring Blue Whales can be seen in the channel between São Miguel and Santa Maria of the Azores. The cloud forests on the island are home to the endemic Azores Bullfinch that attracts many birdwatchers from all over the world.
Pico island, the Azores
This island was most involved in the whaling trade and there are museums here that give an insight into that industry. There are also whale watching tour operators based in the biggest town, Magdalena, as well as in Lajes and Santo Amaro. The most prominent feature of the island is the Ponta do Pico volcano that produced the black soil that is so good for grape production. The wines of Pico are widely exported abroad.
Capelinhos Volcano, Faial, the Azores
The University of the Azores’ Department of Oceanography and Fisheries is located on this island and its scientists often act as whale watching guides for trips from the city of Horta in the Azores. The Nature Park of Faial was created in 2007 to protect important areas for flora, fauna and geology. There are trails to follow along the coast and inland with belvederes and lookout sites giving good views of the landscape and habitats.
Terceira island, the Azores
There are whale watching tour operators in the seaports of Angra do Heroísmo and Praia da Vitória. The former is the oldest city in the Azores, dating back to 1534. Much of the interior of the island is a nature reserve with hiking trails, which vary but can be strenuous. The Monte Brasil peninsula is covered in dense forest that is full of wildflowers in spring.
When Can Each Whale and Dolphin Species Be Seen?
There are always exceptions to the rules, however, the list below will give an idea of what can generally be seen when.
Some species, such as Beaked Whales and Orcas, do not come to the Azores in numbers and so sightings cannot confidently be predicted.
Sperm Whales, Bottlenose Dolphins, Common Dolphins, Risso’s Dolphins
End of March to beginning of June
Blue Whales, Fin Whales, Sei Whales (can extend to the whole of June), Minke Whales (although they are not as common)
End of March to beginning of September
End of April to October
June to December
Atlantic Spotted Dolphins
Humpback Whales (these do appear in other months but sightings are best in the Azores in October)
What You Need to Know About Whale Watching in the Azores
Boat trips to go whale watching in the Azores generally run in either the morning or the afternoon and last for around three hours.
They can be aboard a RIB (rigid-hulled inflatable boat) or a larger craft such as a catamaran.
You will normally receive a briefing on shore before you set off. This includes health and safety advice, which whales have been seen recently and some facts about them and their behaviour. You will also be cautioned about your behaviour around all the marine life you might encounter.
The Azores, Portugal
Skilled spotters located in the old whaling lookout towers in the early morning and at lunchtime alert the whale watching boats of where the whales are in the Azores. They can also usually identify the species.
However, the trips are dependent on the sea conditions being good, so be prepared to have to change your plans at short notice.
And there are no guarantees! On most trips, operators say you will see some whale and dolphin activity, but as with all wildlife watching, there has to be an element of luck in what comes along.
There are strict rules to ensure the welfare of the animals. Boats cannot go closer than 50 metres, and double that if there is a calf with its mother. If any whale appears to be disturbed by the boat then it must leave the area.
If you are interested in knowing more about the marine environment and its inhabitants, check with the operator if they employ a naturalist on their trips.
It is prudent to take a waterproof and some sunscreen, especially if you are on a RIB as there will be no shelter. Also take some water and a snack.
If you are prone to seasickness, be sure to take a tablet two hours before you set out on your whale watching trip – taking something once you’re feeling unwell rarely works!
A good pair of binoculars will enhance a close encounter immensely.
Finally, don’t forget your camera – but don’t get so immersed in taking pictures that you miss the full awe-inspiring experience of seeing these magnificent creatures with your own eyes!
Are you interested in a wildlife tour in Portugal?
For more information, contact one of our specialist wildlife tour operators and companies to book directly your next wildlife tour.
Portuguese rules require travellers arriving in the Azores to fill in a questionnaire and have a COVID-19 test 72 hours before arrival and the test must be repeated when you have been in the Azores for six days. However, travel from the US for holiday purposes is currently forbidden. Visitors from England, Wales and Northern Ireland are not currently required to quarantine on their return to their home countries. More information at https://destinoseguro.azores.gov.pt/
4th September 2020