Whale conservation in the Azores

When we spoke with Amanda Stafford, the founder of our partner Dolphin and Whale Connection, she was preparing for a trip to the Azores to see how it was progressing with its application for Whale Heritage Site status. You read that right – Whale Heritage Site, a project set up by the World Cetacean Alliance and World Animal Protection charities to celebrate places that celebrate their whales.

“Whale Heritage Sites are where the local culture is very much about the people, the sea, and the whales and dolphins that they live very close to,” says Amanda. “It’s to do with that reciprocal relationship. We want to encourage the relationship between what people on the land do and the animals out there, and for them to know that they’re sharing an environment.”
Whale Heritage Site status is awarded to regions that have reached – and celebrate – a point of peaceful coexistence with their giant neighbours. The Azores has one in its sights.
Amanda co-runs some of our top whale watching vacations in the Azores. She also works with the World Cetacean Alliance on the World Heritage Site project, helping destinations work towards WHS status.

There’s a set of criteria in place that whale watching destinations must live up to, including celebrating cultural associations with the creatures through festivals and art, developing research and championing conservation programmes, teaching children about the whales on their doorstep in schools, and upholding sky-high standards for whale watching tours.

“When they have all of these criteria, then we can say it’s a place we recommend because they’re doing the right thing,” says Amanda. “There’s definitely an appreciation in the Azores. The more they can prove that they want to preserve and protect the whales’ environment because it’s part of their own environment – that will help them get the status.”

The existence of this award isn’t unique. It sails in on the wave of a new interest in rewilding and awareness of climate and conservation issues.

“We’re in a time of massive regeneration,” says Amanda. “It’s becoming an appreciated behaviour to do things that respect and restore our natural world rather than destroy it.”

Conservation championed by ex-whalers

Whale conservation in the Azores has an unexpected ally: ex-whalers. For over 100 years, whales in the Azores were hunted by North American ships that stopped at the islands to refuel – and then by local whalers who learned their trade from those same ships.

Whaling stopped here in 1983, after the International Whaling Commission Moratorium banned the capture of marine mammals in Portugal. You’ll find remnants of the industry all over the archipelago, including the ubiquitous stone vigias – watchtowers originally built to help whalers spot incoming prey.

While visiting whaling boats were ocean-sailing tall ships, the Azores’ whaling industry was considered largely sustainable, with local people favouring canoes and hand harpoons. Ex-whalers and vigias are a vital part of whale conservation today. The former whalers now make some of the best guides and data collectors.

“The skippers can look at the movement on the top of the water and they know what’s going on underneath,” says Amanda. “They’ll often turn around and get their camera out and you think, ‘Oh my God, something’s going to appear.’ They’ve seen it before. They’ve seen the patterns and they know the patterns… You realise how they’re reading the natural world.”

Whale watching tour operators in the Azores – including ex-whalers – have become some of the loudest voices supporting stricter regulations for the industry. They know how engine noise effects cetaceans and why sperm whale nursery groups should be protected. They, perhaps more than anyone, know about the vulnerability of whale populations – and how falling numbers impact an industry they rely on.

What are whale conservation vacations in the Azores like?

There are two types to choose from. You can sign up as a volunteer on a dedicated whale conservation vacation, shadowing working conservationists on their week out and about on the ocean. Alternatively, you can go on a whale watching vacation that incorporates a voyage where you get the chance to be a marine biologist for a day.

Where will I be based?

In the east or central islands of the Azores, such as São Miguel or Faial. Faial is a particularly interesting starting point, as it was the first island that American whaling ships began stopping off at, enticed by the resident sperm whale population, as well as opportunity to refuel, restock and repair in this otherwise uninhabited patch of the Mid-Atlantic. Visit the Porto Pim Whaling Station in Horta to see more about the social history of whaling.

Do I need any experience?

No. You’ll assist an expert team of biologists who are pleased to have a pair of enthusiastic helping hands and who are ready to share their knowledge and skills with you. You’ll learn about the biology of cetaceans, how to ID them, conservation issues and projects in the Azores, and research techniques that help you to help them – and all in a relaxed environment.

“One of our guests said that what our whale researcher Rui Santos doesn’t know about dolphins and whales isn’t worth knowing,” says Amanda. “He passionately talks about whales and their lives, and he knows everything about them and their biology and structures, so people love speaking to him. We often say that he’s one of the stars along with the animals.”

You won’t sit down in a lecture theatre for days on end, either. Our experts know that the best way to learn and become engaged in whale conservation in the Azores is to get out there and do some field work – in this case, zooming out into the Atlantic aboard a whale watching boat or driving out to a vigia lookout to scan the ocean for movement.

What tasks will I do?

Tasks vary depending on the conservation project, weather conditions and time of year. However, typical tasks include:

    Collecting photo IDs of whales Collecting research data, e.g. numbers and movements Basic cleaning and maintenance of the boat Conducting surveys from vigia lookouts Cataloguing and analysing data in an office Welcoming visitors at a whale watching center Interacting with and educating tourists on whale watching trips

What whales will I see?

Blue, sperm, fin and sei whales are the most sighted, but around 28 species of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) come to feed in the vast, nutrient-rich waters of the Azores, so you might well see more. They arrive both alone and in big pods over the year.

And don’t overlook the other cetaceans. The Azores is home to a variety of dolphins, including Risso’s, bottlenoses, Atlantic spotted and false orcas. The archipelago also regularly hosts super pods of 100-plus dolphins that are as spectacular as seeing the fluke of a blue whale. Real orcas (AKA killer whales) are very occasional winter visitors; it’s a real treat to see them.

Other sea life you might encounter includes blue and mako sharks, deep-diving sicklefin devil rays, and migrating leatherback turtles. At up to 2m long and 600kg in weight, leatherbacks are the largest sea turtle of all.

When should I go?

Many whale conservation vacations run from May to July. This is when the most whales are in town, the ocean is calmest, and visibility is at its peak. When to go also depends on what species of whales you’d like to see. Enormous blue, fin and sei whales use the Azores as their feeding ground April to late May en route to the warming waters of Northern Europe. Sperm whales hang out all year round.

It can be chilly on the Atlantic Ocean, especially in the earlier part of the whale watching season, so pack warm layers and a hat whatever time of year you’re going. The open ocean can be choppy even in summer, so it’s always worth packing seasickness pills too.

Our top Azores Vacation

Whale watching in the Azores

Whale watching in the Azores

Classic whale watching trip in the Azores archipelago

From £610 7 days ex flights
Tailor made:
This trip can be tailor made to start on any day of the week from March to October
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Azores or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Will I get any free time?

Yes – especially if the weather takes a turn for the worse. This is a far-flung archipelago bashed by the Atlantic, so the weather in the Azores can be a little unpredictable. Local guides are well accustomed to switching things up, offering alternatives like whale watching from land, hiking along high-rise coastal paths, canyoning and bird watching – or just recommending a restaurant where you can kick back and enjoy a glass of island-made Arinto.

And from our travelers…

“This was a great experience. Tiago and Joana are super nice people who care a lot about volunteers. Even when we could not go in the sea because of the weather they were offering other activities. They also spend a lot of time on the education part, sharing their knowledge on whales’ biology, the Azores and much more. Seeing so many whales, including blue whales, was priceless.” – Sylvain Masse on our whale conservation vacation in the Azores

How are whales doing in the Azores?

It’s really hard to judge whale populations. These animals like to keep conservationists on their toes by diving deep, living long lives and traveling huge distances for food and to breed. But it does seem that, on the whole, whale numbers are increasing in the Azores – and with it, the number of sightings. Whale tours are seeing very high numbers of encounters with sperm whales, fin whales, Bryde’s whales and killer whales (orca). Most tours report around a 98 percent success rate of seeing whales.

The North Atlantic right whale is the most endangered whale that swims through the Azores. Only 336 were known to exist as of 2020 – the lowest number in 20 years. Whaling decimated the population in the 19th and 20th centuries – these whales were so-named because they were the “right” whales for hunting – but these days collisions with ships, entanglement in fishing gear, habitat destruction, noise pollution and chemicals in the water are the main reasons why they’re in decline. It’s a stark reminder why whale conservation is so vital.

Responsible Travel would like to thank Azores Tourism for their sponsorship of this guide.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Navin75]  [Intro: Green Fire Productions] [What are they like?: guillermo varela] [What tasks will I do?: Jules Verne Times Two] [Will I get any free time?: Guillaume Baviere]