Azores - April 14-May 2, 2002

It had been a dream ever since my first visit some 4 years ago to return and try to find out more about the few blue whales seen off Pico and Faial in the Azores during spring. Chrisitan Ramp - MICS’ warm weather specialist and I were joined by cameraman Laurent Guenoun to discover what we could about blue whales from Lajes de Pico. Because the Azores sit astride the mid-Atlantic ridge towards the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, they offer a strategic base from which to discover a great deal about many species of cetaceans, who pass by or even reside in the waters surrounding these islands. Could the blue whales observed off the Azores be the same seen later in the summer off the West Coast of Iceland? Or even in eastern Canadian waters?

During the first days North Atlantic waves, wind, and rain greeted us. By the beginning of the second week of our stay this gave way to calm, warm and sunny almost flat calm weather. Lajes is a quiet little fishing port home to traditional double ender wooden fishing skiffs, however, since the late 80’s it has been home to a growing whale-watching base run by Espaço Talassa and founded by Serge Viallelle. Serge had kindly offered to provide us with one of his rib inflatables and a room in his local inn. The fuel was provided by the local office of the ministry of environment run by Andre da Silva. We would not have even been in the Azores if it had not been for the generous support provided by Sarah Haney of the Canadian Whale Institute, who covered the airfare.

At sea we were in the capable hands of Serge’s right hand Juan Pedro who handled the 4-6m swells masterfully. We did not expect to see many blues but were hoping to get some Ids and biopsies, as well as deploy a satellite tag. With the help of the sharp-eyed vigias working for Espaço Talassa we did find four different blue whales and were able to photograph all four, however, our biopsy crossbow developed a mechanical problem in the trigger, which made the use of the bow dangerous. The locking mechanism would not hold the cocked bowstring, which of course is a potentially dangerous problem. As to the satellite tag we found the swells a bit too large to be certain of properly deploying the tag and by the time the seas were calm there were no more blue whale sightings. Such are the vicissitudes of fieldwork. None of the blue whales sighted seemed to be known animals, but we will have to wait for the prints to be certain. We can say that when passing by the Azores they do feed and the food as in other areas was determined to be krill due to the brick red color of the feces. The dives were short, with most in the 4-6 minute range, however one animal often dived for no more than 2-3 minutes. The animals observed ranged from a yearling to medium sized adults in the 22-25m range.

There were sightings of fin, sei and various beaked whales, and regular sightings of Risso’s dolphin and sperm whales for which the Azores are best known.

Lajes de Pico is one of the best places to be based from for cetacean work, especially with the wonderful support provided by Espaço Talassa and Andre da Silva.