The island’s environment
Pico Island is located in the central group of the Azorean Archipelago and is the southernmost point of the triangle. It is separated from Faial Island only by 8 km and 15 km from São Jorge, which constitute the other two ‘vertices’ of this small triangle of islands. The three of them are so different and at the same time complementary between them.
The island is 46 km of long and 15 km wide, which makes it the second biggest island of the Azorean archipelago. In its centre is located the highest mountain of Portugal, with 2,351 meters of basalt emerging from the ground and another 6,098 m that extend immersed through the depths of the ocean, involving a resting volcano. To better understand the volcanic history of the island, you can visit the underground caves, whose lava tunnels are still quite well preserved, with the longest counting with an extension of up to 5 km.
Pico is the newest of all the 9 islands, a baby with only 300,000 years. The last eruptions occurred at 1718 and 1720, and locals called them “mysteries”. They are still well demarcated in the coast landscape and can be easily spotted from the sea on the south side of the island. In Pico, finding a little sand or even an evolved and compound soil can become an interesting challenge. Here, we mostly find mountains decorated with volcanic rocks, some patches of native vegetation and extensive pastures with cattle. The landscapes of vineyards with their extensive labyrinths of volcanic stone walls were considered a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 2004. Those vineyards cultivated on lava floors are unique in the world. If we imagine all the walls in a single line, they would surround twice the Equator!
During almost two centuries (starting at the middle of the XVIIth) in Azores, and specially in Pico, most peasants – from the youngest teenager to the oldest elderly – had turned to the sea to seek sustenance for their families. “With harpoons and prayers, they have been hunting whales for decades (…)” Due to the past importance of this socioeconomic activity, much of the Whaling heritage was conserved up to today. It allows us to almost revive it, to imagine it while visiting the Whaling Museum in Lajes do Pico and the main whale factory at São Roque do Pico. Some of the techniques developed by the whalers are still used today for Whale Watching – for example, the teamwork with the lookouts.
If you want to know more about the reality during Pico whaling times join us for a guided tour throughout all these heritage points.
“Pico is the most beautiful, most extraordinary island in the Azores – with a beauty that belongs only to it, a wonderful colour and strange power of attraction. It is more than an island – it is a statue rising to the sky and shaped by fire – it is another Adamastor, like the one at Cape of Good Hope.” (Raul BRANDÃO, The Unknown Islands)
The marine mammals that can be sighted from Pico
The physical-chemical environment characterizing this marine area, a small parcel in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean that extends from the surface down to abyssal depths, is extremely diverse and complex. The 9 volcanic islands of the Azores were formed along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and are distributed along the borders of the three tectonic plates that here are bounded together (American plate, Eurasian and African).
Around the islands, a few miles off the coast, the bathymetries go down with depressions of abrupt slopes that take us to depths greater than 3,000m. So far, in these areas have been discovered 6 hydrothermal vents, which are extreme and rich environments that fertilize the waters and harbor many unique species. From these depths rise more than 200 submarines mounts (which were once active volcanoes). They rise at least 1,000m above the benthos, and usually induce an explosion of marine life, creating important aggregation zones for preys and predators of the sea, as marine birds, several tunas species, sharks and our dear cetaceans! Finally, in the Azores, we have wide seasonally variations in water temperatures, reaching a minimum of about 15ºC in March and maximum of almost 25 ºC at the end of summer-beginning of autumn.
Thanks to all these conditions, currently there are described for the archipelago 28 different species of cetaceans, which is about one third of the total number in the entire world. Some species can be considered resident because we are able to sight them regularly throughout the year. Our resident species are the sperm whales, common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and Risso’s dolphins.
On our tours in Pico, we go out to the sea with a maximum of 16 guests in our zodiac Alfredo Baleeiro, which was named like one of the lookouts that worked for the whalers before the hunting was banned in 1986, and after the prohibition, he started to find cetaceans for whale watching instead of whale hunting. During the 2018 season, from April to October, the species that we mostly found around the island were Risso’s dolphins (seen on 64.2% of the days we went out), sperm whales (62.2%) and common dolphins (53.4%). Especially during the spring, we sighted the big baleen whales: the blue whale, the fin whale, the Sei whale and the humpback whale.
The most frequently sighted baleen whales in 2018 were the fin and the blue whale, sighted, respectively, on 61.7% and 42.55% of the days we went out in spring. However, sei whale and humpback whale were the least frequent: sighted on 12.77% and 4.26% of our spring days. Our sightings of sei whales extended up to the end of summer. When the water temperature got warmer our sightings of the just arrived curious and active spotted dolphins started. We also started to see the large families of pilot whales and various species of beaked whales (Ziphiidae family) – the Abyssal divers-, who in the summertime always mesmerize us with their high jumps. In the warmer periods we can sometimes see tropical species such as Bryde’s Whales. Finally, the species whose sightings appear to us always as a surprise are Orcas, Fraser’s dolphins, rough toothed dolphins, and the pygmy and dwarf sperm whales. Some of them, such as orcas or false orcas – for example – can be spotted here during every season, but in such an occasionally and irregular way that we cannot predict any pattern (yet!).
For those interested in experiencing greater proximity to these animals, in Pico it is possible to swim with 5 of these 28 species, namely with the common dolphins, striped dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and also with the spotted dolphins. Spring and summer are the best seasons of the year for this activity. To go swimming with dolphins with us, we will provide you with a neoprene short wetsuit, diving goggles and a snorkel. If you have to use glasses to see, it is better to bring contact lenses or your own adequate personal mask.
If you are coming out from Pico with us to look for whales or dolphins (or both!), we risk saying that the probability of seeing them is very high! This is due not only to the favourable environmental conditions existing around the island, but as well to our fantastic land-based lookouts armed with powerful binoculars, searching the sea to find cetaceans for you. In case we don’t sight any marine mammal (which is something very rare), you can re-book with us again free of charge. If you join us, the only indispensable thing to bring with you will be your curious adventure spirit to discover the best of what Pico Island has to offer you. Let yourself be fascinated by all the life that inhabits here- or that passes by along migratory paths- while contemplating their most common natural behaviours like hunting or feeding or even some rarer and more intimate ones like giving birth. Do not worry about animal welfare because we always bring with us our sense of responsibility, we do a responsible whale watching following the regional legislation and the advices of the World Cetacean Alliance. Respect and care for these animals during each of the observations are our priority!
Final Note: If you have a pre-disposition to feel seasick during boat trips bring fresh clothes with few thin coat layer (as we will provide you with a raincoat) and some dry snacks to eat during the tour. It is never convenient to come with empty stomach! Bananas and ginger prevent these nauseous situations, while fatty or sugary food and alcoholic beverages trigger and intensify them.
Written by Maria Fonseca and Rui Santos
- Blog RTP Ensina. ‘’Baleeiros açorianos: a história que não se repete.’’ Disponível em: <http://ensina.rtp.pt/artigo/baleeiros-acorianos-a-historia-que-nao-se-repete/>. Acesso em 26 de Fevereiro de 2019;
- Governo Regional dos Açores. 2012. “Uma proposta para uma melhor proteção da área marinha em torno dos Açores, no âmbito da reforma da Política Comum das Pescas”;
- García, Laura González, Graham J. Pierce, Emmanuelle Autret, and Jesús M. Torres-Palenzuela. 2018. “Multi-Scale Habitat Preference Analyses for Azorean Blue Whales.” PLoS ONE 13 (9): 1–25. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0201786.
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