The ocean that surround our islands offers sightings of many species of cetaceans, that’s why Whale Watching is one of the main tourism activities in the Azores. The switch from whaling to whale watching is a very interesting story.
In the second half of the 19th century, the Whaling Industry was developed in the Azores. It was introduced by the American “Yankee” whalers. Whaling was very important in the economy and culture of the Faial and Pico isles. The main focus of the whalers was the Sperm Whale (Physeter microcephalus), due to their slow movement at the surface and the fact that they don’t sink when dead. The most important raw material, was the oil, which was used for lighting and industrial machines and instruments. Other parts of the whale were also used to make soaps, perfumes, cosmetics and flour.
Commercial whaling in the islands did not end until 1984, when the whaling moratorium from the IWC, International Whaling Commission, came into effect, as well as other international treaties. The last 3 sperm whales were killed in Lajes on Pico, in 1987, only for the teeth to make into scrimshaw, the art of scrollwork, engravings, and carvings done in Sperm Whale teeth.
The art of whaling in the Azores used the most archaic techniques known to man. It was performed in small whaling boats with seven men, sometimes sailing, sometimes rowing, and throwing harpoons by hand. The whales were found due to the hard work of the “vigias”, the watchmen, who, at the high points of the isles spent their days searching sperm whale blows through powerful binoculars. Much of the islands whaling heritage has been maintained and restored since 1997 for cultural, touristic and sporting purposes. The whaling boats are now used for sports and during summer festivals for regattas, as new tradition.
In recent years, there has been an increase of Whale Watching activity in the Azorean islands. The old “vigias”, formerly used to locate the whales to be hunted, have been given a new lease of life, as they now direct whale watching boats to the whales instead of whalers, to be watched instead of hunted. This growth in the number of companies and people watching the whales, provides new opportunities to study these little known animals.
The Department of Oceanography and Fisheries (DOP) and the Dept of Biology of the University of Azores have some projects to determine if the activity of whale watching is detrimental to the animals. Many of the whale watching boats have biologists aboard that collect identification photos which can be used to track the movements of these migratory animals over long distances, with collaboration of other investigators in other regions. There is also website, called monicet, for clients to share their photos and contribute to the knowledge of the whales via “citizen science”.
It was in the isles of Pico and Faial where whaling had the greatest impact, and today it is on these isles that most of the whale boat regattas take place and the majority of whale watching can be found here as well. Norberto Diver was one of the first companies to start whale watching, using the traditional method of spotting whales and dolphins from shore-based lookouts with the aid of powerful binoculars. If you go whale watching with Norberto you can either go in a RIB or on a catamaran.