Whale-watching in the Azores

by Nicki.Grihault

Thanks to the recent introduction of a direct flight from the UK, the beautiful islands of the Azores are now easy to get to - and the rewards are fantastic, especially if you want to watch whales

Aboard the catamaran, we have become like Pavlov's dogs. At the shout of  'whale!', we drop books, conversations and cups of tea and rush to the prow. Then, everyone is silent, peering expectantly at the rhythmic spray of water in the distance, as we wait for the reward: the moment the whale 'flukes', gracefully flicking its tail vertically into the air, before diving into the mile-deep water.
'Sounds great!' friends had said when I told them I was going to The Azores. 'Er, where is it?' Around 1,000 km from the Portuguese mainland and on the same latitude as New York, these nine volcanic islands stuck in the moody Atlantic, are little known and even less visited. But a new direct flight put them on the map in recent years, making it easier and quicker to head there for a bit of whale-spotting.
Too big to fit in an oceanarium, these graceful creatures have to be seen in the wild. I blame those girlhood whale and dolphin posters for compelling me to go on a five-day whale-watching holiday run by Chris Beer and his American wife, Lisa. Having met on the research vessel 'Song of the Whale', they have been obsessed with these marvellous beasts ever since. The trips fund their research.
'Physeter' may sound a funny name for a catamaran but it's Latin for sperm whale, the commonest species in Azorean waters. As a quarter of the world's whale species are found here, in three days of whale-watching most people see six or seven kinds. Whales were still being harpooned around the island of Faial until 1985. This made it all the more poignant to watch a couple of huge teenage sperm whales rubbing and rolling against each other, socialising just like us.
Whales show off to their mates by 'breaching' - leaping clean out of the water, and of course, they sing. As the catamaran glided up to a male sperm whale, I ask Lisa, a marine biologist, how she can tell. 'It has a big head, like most men,' she smiles, just as Russell, a cockney wildlife photographer, struts along the deck with a huge camera lens dangling down to his knees.
I strained to hear the tiny clicks like Spanish castanets through the trawling hydrophone, which means I can shout 'whale!', but all I can hear are dolphins singing. All of a sudden, exuberant and always smiling, they come leaping through the water for a free ride on the prow. You may find yourself tagging a leatherback turtle on its 25-year round trip home, or like me, volunteering to collect 'whale dandruff' after a fluke. Diving off the boat in its wake, I can't shake the thought that somewhere, a mile below, a 25-foot sperm whale is wrestling with its giant squid dinner. The next day we see a fin. I point and splutter 'swimming' and 'sharks', to Chris. 'He won’t hurt you,' he says cheerfully, going back to the serious business of steering the catamaran.
Whales dictate the pace, and the direction, so you may find you’ve covered another island or two in search of them. Sailing around the mist-covered volcanic Pico, past the dramatic craggy cliffs of Sao Jorge, it's easy to imagine why the Azores were once thought to be the remains of the lost city of Atlantis. But even the islands' name is a case of mistaken identity. The acores or hawks Portuguese sailors thought they saw swooping towards them turned out to be buzzards.
No self-respecting sailor leaves the pretty port of Horta without painting their emblem on the marina, or without visiting Peter's Cafe Sport, an unassuming drinking hole-cum post office, world famous for its G&Ts. But first, we drop off at the island's central crater and take a long freewheel mountain bike ride down.
Hurtling through the steep hedges stuffed with hydrangeas and gliding past fields with fat Friesian cows, only three cars pass us. Nonetheless, with four seasons possible in one day and a moody mist clinging to crater lakes in the mountains, giving it an aura of magical mystery, the Azores do have edge. And, of course, whales.