Atlantic spotted dolphins in a superpod off the island of Pico, with whale watching tour operator Aqua Acores out of Lajes do Pico harbour in the Azores, an island of Portugal on Mallory on Travel adventure travel, photography, travel Iain Mallory_azores 008

Dolphins in Superpods off the Azores; Photo Essay

It had probably been less than an hour since the first dolphin had surfaced close to the speeding rib. Initially, the excitement had been intense, all aboard the inflatable craft gripped, even elated by this encounter. The marine mammal, so close we could almost reach out and touch it, holding our collective breath as it sped alongside the craft, easily matching it for speed.

A super pod of common dolphins in the Atlantic Ocean, whale watching from Lajes do Pico in the Portuguese Azores islands on Mallory on Travel adventure travel, photography, travel Iain Mallory_azores 001

Close up and personal

However, this was such a common occurrence now, that we barely gave successive dolphins a second glance.

Whale Watching Mecca

I was in the Azores, a popular whale watching destination and a major motivation for this visit to the Portuguese islands. I was of course hopeful of seeing one of the great whales. It was late season however, and although the chances of an encounter with the largest animal on the planet, a blue whale was unlikely, there was a slight hope that the mighty sperm whale could still make an appearance.

Terra Azul, a whale watching operator out of Franco do Campo on the island of Sao Miguel, the Azores, a Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean on Mallory on Travel adventure travel, photography, travel Iain Mallory_azores 023

All aboard the rib

Views of the islands: Postcards from the Azores

The largest toothed whale on earth and the subject of the classic book “Moby Dick”, seeing one would be a lifetime ambition achieved. A video of these mighty creatures filmed underwater by one of the crew had been showing back at the harbour prior to leaving. It was stunningly beautiful, and although any encounter is unlikely to have been this impressive, the video certainly left me eager for more.

“It wasn’t to be our lucky day, although we did manage to see a couple of smaller minke whales, we had to be ‘satisfied’ with a superpod of dolphins. Trust me, that’s still damned exhilarating”

Whale watching expeditions in the Azores, from the ports of Lajes do Pico on the island of Pico and Franco do Campo, Sao Miguel in the Portuguese archipelago on Mallory on Travel adventure travel, photography, travel Iain Mallory_azores montage

Clockwise from top left; minke whale, getting big air, seabirds mark the spot, spyglassing dolphin

This was my second whale watching trip in the Azores, the first had been out of the picturesque harbour of Lajes do Pico, with Acua Açores on the island of Pico. Several days later I was back out, this time on the island of São Miguel, with Terra Azul out of Franco do Campo.

On both occasions we encountered a huge pod of dolphins, probably hundreds, if not thousands of cetaceans. The ocean a thrashing cauldron of mammalian torpedos, with flocks of seabirds circling above.

Atlantic spotted dolphins in a superpod off the island of Pico, with whale watching tour operator Aqua Acores out of Lajes do Pico harbour in the Azores, an island of Portugal on Mallory on Travel adventure travel, photography, travel Iain Mallory_azores 008

Keeping pace

The first clue is usually these seabird squadrons, like duelling jetfighters circling above the waves, the cacophony of sound growing louder as we cruise closer. The sea appears to erupt everywhere, darting, sleek cetacean missiles breeching around the inflatable rib, surfing the waves, sometimes jumping clear of the water.

It may sound as if photography should be a cinch, with hundreds of dolphins causing the water to boil. Easy to get some good shots, however, they maybe everywhere, but it’s surprisingly challenging.

Atlantic spotted dolphins from a whale watching boat off Lajes do Pico in the Azores, the Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean on Mallory on Travel adventure travel, photography, travel Iain Mallory_azores 004

Playing follow my leader

Whale watching tour operator Terra Azul from Franco do Campo harbour on Sao Miguel in the Portuguese archipelago of The Azores Iain Mallory_azores 028

New age whaling

Dolphins and seabirds on a whale watching expedition in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Pico, one of the Portuguese islands which make up the Azores on Mallory on Travel adventure travel, photography, travel Iain Mallory_azores 024

Atlantic spotted dolphins

It is difficult to know where to point the lens, something seems to be happening everywhere, and they are extremely fast moving. Photography is often reactive, capturing disappearing tail fins as they slide away into the ocean. Discipline is required to keep the lens on a specific spot, patiently waiting for a dolphin to appear, rather than haphazardly reacting to every splash or sight of a random fin.

Whale watching adventures: Whale Tales and Beelines in New Brunswick

Atlantic common dolphins off Pico island in the Portuguese Azores on Mallory on Travel adventure travel, photography, travel Iain Mallory_azores 025

Speeding away

Fellow passengers try to help, pointing out where a particularly dramatic breech occurred, but usually it is too late; remain focused. I could mention the constant pitching and rolling of flimsy craft in a powerful swell, but you might start feeling sorry for me.

“At times they were so close, long lenses became useless!”

A breeching or jumping Atlantic common dolphin near Pico on a whale watching cruise with Aqua Acores from Lajes do Pico in the Azores, a Portuguese archipelago overseas territory on Mallory on Travel adventure travel, photography, travel Iain Mallory_azores 031

Jumping Jack Flash

There are Superpods and then there are Superpods!

The captain informs us that it’s possibly the largest superpod he has seen, and later even starts discussing the need for culling. A difficult topic for the average tourist to accept, but this is a fishing community, where families rely on the sea for the livelihood. A bloated population of dolphins almost certainly seems a threat to their way of life, it’s a difference of perception.

A Risso's Dolphin seen on a whale watching tour from Lajes do Pico in the Portuguese archipelago of the Azores on Mallory on Travel adventure travel, photography, travel Iain Mallory_azores 019

A Risso’s dolphin

Whaling was a major source of income in the Azores for more than a century, using traditional sailing craft and spotters in towers on the shore. The last whale was captured in 1987 in Lajes, and whale watching became a major industry. The lookouts system is still used, but now they guide watchers rather than whalers to the leviathans.

There is a museum in Lajes, which has some exhibits and videos detailing the history of whaling in the Azores. The walls are adorned with photographs of local whalemen, many of whom are still living, they fascinated me.

The Museu do Pico, (Museum of Pico), the whaling museum at Lajes, in the Azores on Mallory on Travel adventure travel, photography, travel Iain Mallory_azores montage1

The Whaling Museum, Lajes

It would be a lie if I claimed not to be disappointed to not witness the ‘blow’ of a sperm whale, yet this encounter with so many dolphins, not once, but twice was equally exciting. The fast-moving marine mammals are some of nature’s most charismatic creatures, continually smiling, they’re capable of bringing smiles to whale watchers on even the grimmest day.

Atlantic common dolphins forming a superpod off the island of Pico in the Azores, a Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the coast of Portugal on Mallory on Travel adventure travel, photography, travel Iain Mallory_azores 002

Dolphins everywhere

Each time a rib returns to harbour, its passengers are still excited, chatter continues about the encounter, not a hint of regret among them. Late September may not be the height of whale watching season, the blue whales may have migrated to their winter haunts long ago, humpbacks and sperm whales may not be around, but the dolphins most definitely are!

A superpod of Atlantic common dolphins cruising the Atlantic Ocean, on a whale watching cruise from Lajes do Pico harbour with Aqua Acores tour operator in the Azores, an autonomous region of Portugal on Mallory on Travel adventure travel, photography, travel Iain Mallory_azores 006

One big pod!

Seeing dolphins on a whale watching trip off Pico in the Portuguese Azores on Mallory on Travel adventure travel, photography, travel Iain Mallory_azores 010

Had enough dolphins yet?

Fact Box:


Getting there – Azores Airlines operates globally with flights from most of Europe, North America and northern Africa.


Getting around – Several car rental companies operate in the Azores, but Ilha Verde appears the most accessible, operating throughout the archipelago.


While flights are required between island groups within the archipelago, Alantico operate short ferry crossings between several islands.


Best time to visit – Sperm whales and some dolphin species are present year round, but the best time is Spring. April and May are especially recommended for blue, fin and sei whales.


OperatorsAqua Açores, Lajes do Pico, Pico


                        Terra Azul, Franco do Campo, São Miguel, this operator also organises swimming with dolphins tours.


MuseumsMuseu do Pico, Lajes


                         Whaling Industry Museum, São Roque

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Comments 6

  1. Katrin

    I’ve also been to the Azores to encounter whales and dolphins, back in 1997. We stayed on Faial, the smallest island in the Azores. On Faial is the famous Peter’s Café Sport, where sailers crossing the Atlantic traditionally stay.

    We were out for several days with a small speed boat, and also went into the water. It’s a magical experience to float on the surface and below are dozens of dolphins emitting bubble curtains, clicking and whistling and curiously checking you out. And we did get to see sperm whales, as well as pilot whales and false orcas and several dolphin species.

    When seabirds gather above a pod of dolphins it’s most likely a feeding frenzy taking place. The dophins have discovered a shoal of fish, and the seabirds know to read the signs.

    My honest opinion is that the sea is large enough for us all. Culling the whale populations for the purpose of lessening the competition for fish is way wrong in my world view. They live in the sea, we have no right to manage them like that.

  2. Kathryn @TravelWithKat

    That last photo is so beautiful, Iain!

    I’ve yet to see dolphins in the wild other than the briefest of moments. The week after next I’m training to become a Responsible Whale Watching Guide and it would be a dream come true to visit the Azores one day. Wish me luck with the course. It sounds pretty intense and I’m a little nervous!

    1. Post
      Author
      Iain

      Thank you Kathryn, so pleased you like it. That training and ‘position’ sounds amazingly exciting, you’ll have some fantastic stories to share about that in future. Good luck!

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