Whales, Dolphins & Sea Turtles Thrive off Azores Coast
The nine Macaronesian islands that make up the Azores archipelago are located in the mid-Atlantic ocean, 1500km off Portugal’s coast. The maritime waters surrounding the Azores islands are currently home to one of the world’s largest whale sanctuaries. More than 26 different types of cetaceans can be spotted in the waters surrounding the Azores islands. A remarkable 1,883 marine species have been identified in the Azores so far, with five of the world’s seven turtle species being observed here during their migratory period. This may sound unbelievable, and you would think that the region must be a haven for tourists, however the Azores, although relatively popular, continue to remain unspoiled. In 2013, the global sustainability certification program “Quality Coast” compared 1,000 island and coastal vacation destinations’ and their sustainable tourism credentials. The Azores came out in the top 10 for its numerous environmental protections and the natural flora and fauna that draws close to 1 million visitors annually. In 2014, it became the first destination ever to be awarded the ‘Platinum Quality Gold Coast Award’. This international recognition has only enhanced the credibility of the region as a model for sustainable, balanced tourism. Whales are drawn to the islands year-round because of the mild temperatures and abundance of fish stocks. The weather patterns and rough seas make it more difficult to spot whales in the winter months. However, this sea is much calmer and warmer between May and October, making their sightings more common. Commercial whaling practices ended in the 1980s, and the ocean here is now a safe sanctuary for whales to swim freely. There is a small whaling museum on Pico island, where whaling was the most notable industry on the island for decades. Here you can explore all the Atlantic ocean history while admiring some unique, ancient whaling artifacts. Here in the Azores, whale watchers have seen everything from gargantuan blue whales, humpbacks, minkes, pilot, fin, and even sperm whales. Experienced fishermen offer tours on smaller and larger boats, depending on the whale you want to see and how far you want to travel out to sea. The tours have been gaining in popularity ever since the 1980s, which now eclipses the former whaling industry ever since it was banned by the Azores government in the 1960s. The Azores government is working hard to preserve and enhance the marine development of the surrounding waters and become a UNESCO marine heritage site. Watching bottlenose dolphins is also possible here in the Azorean waters, and is an experience not to miss. The different dolphins are visible on all the nine islands’ coastlines and they are generally very friendly. The government has implemented several procedures for how boaters should approach these gentle beings without frightening or endangering their safety. In 2020 there were multiple reports of whales and dolphins ramming into boats off the coast of Portugal. These rare and unusual occurrences by these gentle creatures have scientists puzzled. Some argue that the recent influx of cruise ships that dock daily in the summer months on the nine islands and off Portugal’s coast could be a factor. The balance between the tourism industry and the marine creatures’ natural habitat that call the waters off the Azores islands home is something the government continues to work at preserving.