Being a Vigia through the eyes of Marine Biologists

Our lookout Roberto searching for whales

Ever wondered how we search for whales and dolphins here in São Miguel?

Vigias view of the North Coast
Figure 1. Vigias view of the North Coast, in search of sperm whales. Photo: Miranda van der Linde

As you can see in figure 1 above, we have a person with binoculars looking at the sea. Milton, Roberto or Coelho are the people on the look-out searching for whales and dolphins for the whale watching tours. In Portuguese, we call them the “Vigias”, and this job has existed in the Azores since the whaling times. Today, besides finding the whales and dolphins and leading the whale watching and swimming with dolphins boats to them, the “Vigias” collect valuable scientific data about cetacean occurrence around the island. To learn more about how the “Vigia” works, you can refer back to our blog that was written by one of our previous biologists in 2007. 

As you can see, even on the backstage of the activity, our “Vigias” are the “key element” of our daily whale watching tours here in the Azores, and therefore, we want to offer them a well-deserved tribute.

Here in Futurismo the Biologists normally go to sea with our clients to search for whales and dolphins from the boats. But recently we have had the chance of joining the look-out on their daily work. We have experienced it first hand, and we can say that their job is quite difficult and demanding! Just to give you an idea of what it is like, this article is about being a Vigia from the biologists’ point of view.

Early mornings…

The start of the day was tough; we left the house at 6:45 AM to be at the Vigia’s location by 7. This is because the Vigias need enough time to search for any whales and dolphins before the whale watching tours leave the harbour. Once we arrived at the Vigia point, we went inside the small white house on the top of the cliff and started looking for whales and dolphins through these binoculars.

We (the biologists) searched for about 1 hour and found… nothing! Meanwhile, at the same time from the same location, the Vigia found two pods of common dolphins (yes, they can even identify the species from the binoculars!!). Then, we tried to look through the binoculars where the Vigia spotted the dolphins, and still nothing…we were looking and looking, but nothing… Then Milton had a look again and said, on the top right side in the view of the binoculars. So again, one of us looked and looked and then finally, a splash! A tiny splash! That must have been the dolphin. And then indeed, from the binoculars, the dolphin jumping in the sea looked tiny as well. It is an incredible experience to see how well the eyes of the Vigias have been trained to spot these dolphins and whales.

As the Vigias are located around 100m high on the cliff and can see up to 20 nautical miles out, you can imagine that the further away the whales or dolphins are, the smaller they look, and the harder they are to encounter.

Bright sunny days…

On the other side of the island, there was another Vigia and biologist team. Here the Vigia did not have shelter to be protected. It was cold, very windy, and the sun straight in front of us. We could not even feel our fingers anymore, neither could the Vigia. One hour of searching, but no sign of any animals…When we looked into the sun, it was quite a blind spot, as you can see in figure 2, it hurts the eyes and makes it even more difficult to spot animals.

Sun glare in the water from the lookout perspective
Figure 2. Glare in the sea which is very bright from this angle. Photo: Fadia Al Abbar

Beautiful views!

Then we continue to another spot to try our luck. At this point, we were all the way on the other side of the island. Here our view was very wide. We were very high, and very exposed, so the scanning of the entire area was even more difficult. In figure 3 you can see the red lines which have been added to the picture to represent the approximate width (so the area between one line and the next) of what the binoculars cover. You can imagine how long it takes to search for whales and dolphins covering the entire field! But wow, what a view! Here it was nice and warm too, and there was a Vigia shelter if the sun was too hot, so it was more comfortable too. It was so relaxing to scan the sea over here. 

View of the Vigia with red lines
Figure 3. View of the Vigia. The red lines show the approximate field that the binoculars can follow. Photo and edits: Fadia Al Abbar

We started searching, this time for whales. The Vigia searched and searched, and after approximately half an hour of searching, he found a BLOW! Yes!

Of course, not the biologists, but the Vigia had found a whale, and was able to identify it! It was a Fin whale! So the biologists had a look through the binoculars and nothing…. nothing…! Being a vigia requires quite a lot of patience, effort, and experience. Sometimes the whales dive as well and then it is hard to spot the blow of the whale again, particularly if it is travelling fast and out of sight of the binoculars. Try to find the blow of the whale again, it is not easy!  The vigia took over again and had another look. A couple of minutes later, and BLOW! Let’s try again….we had another look and indeed, a small tiny blow! Figure 4 recreated a blow of what it looked like to us through the binoculars. It looked small, and this was easier to see than the dolphins, as in reality, the blow of a fin whale can reach up to 6 meters, and common dolphins are only 2.3 meters maximum, so you can imagine the difference…

A representation of what a blow of a whale viewing from the binoculars
Figure 4. A representation of what a blow of a whale viewing from the binoculars looks like. The arrow points at the blow. This is not a true photo of a blow. Photo and edits: Fadia Al Abbar

As you can see, all the areas of the island have different conditions, different sea state, different temperatures, sometimes sheltered and comfortable, sometimes open exposed and cold, sometimes very hot. The conditions vary, even on the same day and on the same island! And sometimes the vigias do not see anything. But when they do…it is spectacular!

Article by marine biologist, Fadia Al Abbar

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