Somewhere, Beyond the Sea: The Awesome Azores
We’re allowed in the water two at a time, but we’re an odd number in the group so I’m going it alone. Slipping into the Atlantic, I’m careful to make as few splashes as possible. Sudden or big movements might disturb them, which is the last thing any of us wants. It’s cold, and below me there is nothing but blue Atlantic for 1,600 metres. Well, I say nothing… but I’m in the Azores, and considering that there are twelve large shadows moving through the water towards me from about 25 metres away, it’s entirely likely that there are a few much bigger ones moving around in the mile of water beneath me.
It’s a strange feeling, bobbing around on the surface of such a vast, mysterious expanse. As much as the diver in me would love to be surprised by a passing whale or shark swimming in the depths around me, I’m also aware that it’s terrible etiquette to pee oneself in a rental wetsuit, which, let’s face it, would be a near-certainty should something huge and unexpected swim into my field of vision. I can’t stop thinking about giant squid.
Now, about those 12 shadows… those ones don’t worry me. Those ones are expected, in fact I’ve just spent over an hour blasting through the waters off Pico Island on an RIB, just so I could jump into the Atlantic and swim alongside them. The deep, clear waters around the Azores are a bit of a cetacean soup you see. Over 25 different species of whale and dolphin are regularly spotted here, including blue, sperm and humpback whales, common dolphins, bottle-nose dolphins, and Risso’s Dolphins – a pod of which are currently swimming directly towards me.
Risso’s dolphins look different to the dolphins that you think of when you think of dolphins. Less like Flipper, more like beluga whales who’ve been in a few too many scraps, they have bulbous heads, snub-noses and scar-mottled skin. The feature they do share with other dolphins is their mouth; adorable, perpetually smiling and definitely the cause of significant amounts of anthropomorphism. They just look so, so friendly. They’re really beautiful. Closer up I see another little member of the gang – a young calf who’s swimming close to its mother – making it a pod of thirteen. They’re coming right for me. Just a few metres away though, some imperceptible communication happens between them and they dive deeper in unison, to bypass me from below.
They swim beneath me and I freeze with genuinely bated breath. Now that I have a perfectly clear view of them I can see that the calf has actually started feeding, and that the rest of the pod are protectively surrounding it and its mother. It’s quite a thing to see. The placid grace with which they move is contagious, and you can’t help but feel calmed just by watching them roll through the water. What really gives me goose bumps though, is how the eleven dolphins surrounding the mother and her calf let me know they know I’m there. As they swim past beneath me, they all turn on their sides, at the same time, to suss out the creepy girl lurking above, staring wide-eyed at them. Eleven inquisitive eyes trained on my awestruck face. We see you. There’s no threat or danger or anything like that, just acknowledgement.
Of course, with those smiling mouths and my over-active imagination, I’m already bleating on in my head about the amazing connection I have with them. I mean, of course I am. Sure, they are most likely to be assessing me for danger, or simply looking at me the way you might stare vacantly through the window of a bus… but honestly, it feels like more. Looking at a wild animal like that and having it look back at you is special. We had a connection. Definite affinity. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Within moments they become shadows again, and I float there alone, watching as they disappear, then just staring at nothing. I’ve probably been in the water for about four minutes, but it’s time for me to get out, and give someone else the chance to get stared out of it by a bunch of gorgeous sea-mammals.
And that’s how the experience goes. This isn’t swimming with dolphins in the ‘Florida’ sense. You don’t get to grab onto dorsal fins and get taken for a ride by a chirping, trained bottle-nose with a cute name and the promise of fish to keep him jumping through hoops. You won’t get a photo of yourself with a smiling Flipper lookalike. These are wild animals, doing their wild animal thing, and your part in the encounter is that of a lucky observer. Trust me, it’s more than enough.
The experience is built around the dolphins’ well-being, rather than the snorkeler’s entertainment. Everything is done slowly, carefully and calmly so as not to spook them or cause distress. The staff from Pico Sport watch the animals’ behaviour closely for any signs of anxiety or stress. The boat quietly and slowly moves in front of the pod (giving them a wide berth) and then comes to a standstill while the dolphins are still a good distance away, but moving towards us. Taking turns, you sit over the edge of the boat, fins and snorkel on, heart thumping, waiting to be told to go. Then you go.
The care with which the tours operate, and the respect given to the dolphins, is great to see. The Azores are an incredible destination for people who love nature and wildlife, and it bodes well for the islands that they maintain a strict adherence to sustainable tourism practices, which should ensure that they remain an incredible destination for the foreseeable future.
Whale watching, one of the archipelago’s main tourist activities, is similarly regulated, and both conservation and sustainable practices are at the forefront of the industry. Most common among the different species of whale spotted here is the Sperm Whale. You know the one – the prehistoric-looking leviathan that ate Jonah? Same guy that smashed a boat to pieces in Moby Dick? Yeah, that one. Well, the Sperm Whale is also the one that was historically hunted by Azorean whalers, until there was a moratorium placed on whaling in the mid-1980s. Undoubtedly a scary thing for Azoreans, to lose such a big part of their economy – but within years, it was becoming clear that whales had value beyond their blubber. It’s an amazing and lovely evolution actually; where whales were once a resource here to be hunted and killed, they are now most valuable alive, protected and plentiful – so that people like me and you can watch them. Yes to that, and more of it please.
Whale watching and swimming with wild dolphins is amazing, but what’s even better is that it’s really just scratching the surface, as it were. For divers, the Azores is a bona fide marine mecca. I should tell you now, lest your dreams be dashed; you can’t swim or dive with whales here (although in the unlikely event that they happen to swim by when you’re underwater, nobody will lock you up) – but don’t sweat it. If you like to dive with big things, there are plenty of them swimming the deep waters in this neck of the woods to keep you more than happy.
Here in the Azores you’ll find the kind of diving that I always thought would require a long-haul flight and a live-aboard dive trip. But nope. Just a few hours away on this windswept archipelago in the Atlantic you can dive in visibility of over 30 metres, with the kind of marine life that makes every diver come over all funny: devil rays, manta rays, turtles, whale sharks, occasional hammerheads, the odd giant sunfish… but probably the most exhilarating, bucket-list diving you can do here is a special excursion to look into the giant eyes of the elusive blue shark.
I did some great diving on Pico Island with Cowfish Dive Centre, but sadly time and weather prevented me from getting to see the blue sharks. The silver lining in that particular cloud is that it’s another excuse for me to visit the Azores again (as if I really needed one). If you really want to see them though, my advice is to go there between June and the end of September when the weather’s best, the sea’s calmest, and the water is clearest. Blue Shark encounters have been less of a ‘sure thing’ here in the last year, something that can be attributed to El Nino rearing his head and increasing water temperatures – blue sharks like colder water – but also, to the continued fishing of blue shark for their meat and more so their fins for shark fin soup. They are now classified as a ‘near-threatened’ species, which does make you wonder exactly how threatened we will allow a species to become just so that humans can add bits of its body to their soup for ‘texture’? I don’t know. I don’t get it.
Anyway, they are thankfully still out there (for now) and the beauty of diving with them – and any marine life for that matter – Is that the more people who see them cruising through the blue waters of the open ocean, the more people will be utterly awestruck by them, and the more people will care about their survival. Let’s just hope that shark-finning goes the way whaling did back in the early 80s, and that these beautiful apex-predators become as valuable alive as whales have.
So go and see them. You’re really in the open ocean for this one, so it’s definitely an experience for more advanced divers. You should also be prepared for a long boat trip and thus a much more expensive dive than the usual kind – but come on. Some things are priceless, and diving with blue sharks is among those things.
The great thing about the various oceanic attractions on offer in the Azores is that anyone can have a go. You don’t have to be an experienced diver to have some truly incredible encounters with the marine life swimming through these waters. You don’t even have to get wet if you don’t want to.
But it helps.