Whales & Dolphins (PICO ISLAND, AZORES ) May 2013

30th May 2013
Pico Island, Azores (17th to 27th May 2013) note: see also latest whale & dolphin gallery images

" 150 meters off the starboard bow a Blue whale broke the surface and a plume of spray rose into the air, at that moment one of my lifetime ticks was ticked off. With tears in my eyes I shot off a series of images in the vague direction of this beautiful animal. I may never use these images but I will never forget this moment ".

Mount Pico (Volcano), Pico Island, Azores

Sperm Whale, Pico Island, Azores

In 1986 the tide turned for the whale, however political the decision may have been the application of the ban on whaling meant that with a few exceptions (Japan, Iceland and Norway) the depleted and endangered cetaceans were given a stay of execution.

Sperm Whale after diving for a spot of lunch rests on the surface regaining its breath

However critical we may have been of the nations involved in whaling (including yours truly for Greenpeace) there were gaps left for the communities and in some the birth of whale watching started a new and in lots of ways more profitable way of supporting the community.

Fin Whale

This brings us to the Azores where nothing seems to have changed in the last century and the infrastructure which supported the whaling industry pretty much still exists and instead of using the lookout towers (Vagia’s) to spot the whales for whaling the towers are now used to spot the cetaceans and radio through the locations to the whale watching boats.

Look out tower (Vigia) covering 30 nautical miles out to sea.

Found in the North Atlantic 1500km west of Lisbon and 1900km southeast of Newfoundland the Azores are an archipelago of nine volcanic islands which lie on the whale migratory motorway from the south to the north. In the spring the baleen whales visit the archipelago and this is what brought us to Pico Island in May 2013.

Common Dolphin, Pico Island, Azores

The Industry of Wildlife photography is becoming more difficult and niches are harder to find in the business. Two years ago we decided to try and put together a portfolio of cetaceans. We soon realised that attempting to put together a portfolio of images for whales and Dolphins was like trying to photograph a pack of lions which never leave the long grass.

False Killer Whales on the loose, people are starting to wonder about the obvious

7 days in paradise yielded one of the best weeks in years from the Island. In the middle of the North Atlantic half way between Portugal and North America the weather in the Azores is notorious. However when it all comes together the Azores deliver in a big way. In 6 days we managed 8 boat trips and put together a species list that could have taken years to accumulate.

Short finned pilot whale and week old calf

Links below to YOUTUBE footage taken from the boat of Common Dolphins and a Sunfish (MOLA MOLA)


2 BLUE WHALES, 5 FIN WHALES, 20 encounters with SPERM WHALES with 15 on one day, 1 pod of between 40 & 50 FALSE KILLER WHALES (Pseudorca), 2 encounters with SHORT FINNED PILOT WHALES, 3 encounters with pods of RISSO'S DOLPHIN, 2 encounters with STRIPED DOLPHIN, Daily encounters with COMMON DOLPHIN, Daily encounters with BOTTLENOSE DOLPHIN, 1 SUN FISH (Mola mola) approx 2 meters height, 2 LOGGERHEAD TURTLES (Caretta caretta), FLYING FISH.


From a photographic point of view this is quite a rough game. The boats are very fast RIBS and with calls coming in for new locations from the look outs relocation is a regular thing. One minute you are static and the next minute you are heading 10 miles out in a rough sea. Forget the idea that you may be in a calm sea most of the time it is choppy and you can spend a lot of the time bouncing from wave to wave.

Small LOGGERHEAD turtle, Pico Island, Azores

The truth of the matter is that there is a lot of action and a lot of sea spray, there is not much chance to change lenses and with the subject either landing in your lap or on the horizon a couple of zooms with one up to about 400mm is ideal. I took a couple of full frame bodies and stuck a 70-200 2.8 L on one and a 70-300 L lens on the other. Ideally I could have done with one being a little longer but when shooting dolphins you need a very fast focusing lens which has good weather sealing and which is easy to wield around a leaping boat.

Portuguese Man of War, Pico Island, azores

Photographic opportunities with the big whales vary with the species and of the 3 species that we saw only one gave the iconic image of the tail fluke showing when diving. Only 18% of Blue whales show the tail fluke when they dive so putting together a portfolio of usable images for the big species is not that easy. Other species like Humpbacks spend more time out of the water but are best seen on the east coast of North America.

Lajes harbour, Pico Island, Azores

In the long run if you are going to specialise in big Whales you need to spend time underwater in their own environment to complete the portfolio but there is still a lot of work you can do on the surface. Dolphins on the other hand are a lot more user friendly but expect to spend a lot of hours and wasted data to capture that one image that you are looking for.

The outfit that we used are called the “Dolphin and Whale connection” based in Brighton (www.dolphinconnectionexperience.com) who use a firm called Espaco Telassa (www.espacotalassa.com) The boats are excellent and the team who run them are knowledgeable and very professional. The owner “Serge” runs a hotel on the harbour next to the headquarters for the whale operation which can be booked through the UK operator.

Whale "Come" Hotel, Pico Island, Azores

Lajes, Pico Island, azores

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