The Azores: From Whale Hunting to Whale Watching

From Whale Hunting to Whale Watching: the Azores' History


Long known for their immense beauty and impressive biodiversity, it should come as no surprise that the Azores Islands are a travel destination adored by avid outdoorsmen and  adventure enthusiasts alike, as well as diehard nature lovers. However, what may indeed come as a true surprise to you is to discover that the Azores archipelago is also one of the fastest-growing whale watching destinations on earth! It´s true! 

Whale watching in the Azores is really hot right now, and with good reason, as between the Azores' unique volcanic origins, its pure blue waters, and its moderate air and ocean temperatures, this popular Portuguese archipelago is the perfect paradise locale for tourists and locals alike to come and see a vast array of species while out on an exciting whale watching adventure.


The History of Whale Hunting in the Azores Islands

The History of Whale Hunting in the Azores Islands 

Even though the practice of whaling was officially deemed as illegal way back in 1884, the pastime is still an integral part of the Azores' history. In the latter part of the 19th century, whale hunting first became popular in the Azores due to the strong influence of the crews arriving at the Islands aboard the New England ships that were sailing to the archipelago from America as they stopped here en route to their final destinations. 

In fact, the crews belonging to these voyaging ships actually began coming to the Azores — first arriving toward the end of the 18th century  — specifically in order to recruit new crew members from the Azores Islands to join them on their whaling excursions. Legend has it that many of the younger boys who left as teenagers around the tender ages of just 13 or 14 never returned after departing on these adventures. However, those among the wayfarers who did return to the Azores brought with them knowledge of the many things they learned — including the ways and customs of whaling — and even the practice itself. Now armed with the newfound knowledge and skills they’d learned from the Americans, the Azores — upon their return home to the Islands — began whale hunting in earnest, officially starting the pastime in the Azores Islands around 1864. 


Cabras Islets in Terceira Island, the Azores.

How Things Stand Today

As we spoke of earlier, whaling in the Azores was officially deemed illegal in the year of 1984. Shortly after this decree was made official in the Azores, the last whaling factory in the Islands was closed and the island archipelago shifted its focus to a much friendlier and sustainable activity -- whale watching. And let us tell you: Whale watching in the Azores was embraced wholeheartedly, and continues to be a beloved pastime to this day. This makes perfect sense, as its ideal location in the Atlantic Ocean —right between Portugal and North America — offers the Azores a perfect spot to serve as the permanent home and natural point of passage during migration to more than two dozen different types of whale and dolphin species, thus making the Azores Islands one of the world’s largest whale sanctuaries, and a hot whale watching destination!


Vila Franca do Campo Islet in São Miguel Island, the Azores, Portugal.
Vila Franca do Campo Islet, São Miguel Island

Whale Watching in São Miguel Island

On the largest island of the Azores, the island of São Miguel, visitors have the incredible opportunity to spot over 28 species of whales. Travellers have their pick among a slew of experienced, local tour companies offering excellent whale watching in the Azores excursions. 

Most tours launch from Ponta Delgada in the main marina of São Miguel Island, then sweep the visitor away for an epic and unforgettable cetacean spotting adventure.


Angra do Heroísmo bay in Terceira Island, the Azores, Portugal.
Aerial view of Angra do Heroísmo's marine

Whale Watching in Terceira Island

Thanks to the unique location of the Azores Archipelago, it is a vital stop along the whaling migration route of the Atlantic. In fact, more than an estimated 30% of the world’s entire whale and dolphin species pass by the islands on their migratory journey each season. 

For this reason, whale watching is possible for visitors to experience all year round, and there is not better place to do just that than on the island of Terceira. Due to the fact that the island is also a bit more under the radar than some of the other Azores Islands, your whale watching Terceira experience is more likely to be a smaller, more intimate excursion, far from the maddening crowds.


Mount Pico and Lagoa do Capitão in Pico Island, the Azores, Portugal.
Mount Pico and Lagoa do Capitão

Whale Watching in Pico Island 

More epic whale watching adventures await on the Azores Island of Pico, which is known to possess an immense diversity and abundance of cetaceans. In fact, Pico may be the Azores Island with the most whale species diversity, with more than 20 species of whales and dolphins officially being known to either inhabit — or pass by — the island's ocean channels while migrating each season. For this reason, Pico is often considered to be among the top whale watching spots in the entire world.


Almoxarife beach and views to Pico Island, Faial Island, the Azores, Portugal.
Almoxarife beach, Faial Island

As for Faial, this Azores Island is also a proverbial fantasy land of whale watching activity. So, if the idea of spotting everything from whales and dolphins to other amazing sea wildlife — turtles, seabirds and more — excites you, Faial may just be the perfect Azores Island destination for you.


Pico Whaling Museum, Pico Island, the Azores.

Whaling Heritage in the Azores 

The integral and intriguing whaling heritage of the Azores has been maintained and restored for cultural purposes specifically, which is a common and understandable thing, but what may surprise many is how much of a priority the archipelago has made of maintaining it for use in sporting purposes.

For example, the beloved Azores island tradition of hosting long beloved sailing regattas using whaler boats is still a common pastime here that continues to be celebrated with great enthusiasm. In the Azores, it is nice to see that the values and memories of whaling have continued to be cultivated, celebrated, and meticulously documented in several museums on various Azores Islands, including: the Whaling Industry Museum in Pico Island, the Whaling Station Museum in Faial Island, and the Boqueirão Whaling Museum in Flores, among others.

And speaking of official celebrations and Azores fanfare, a few other regional festivals also honor the bravery of Azorean men connected to the archipelago´s seafaring days gone by, like the ‘’Semana do Baleeiro’’ festival in Pico and the ‘’Semana do Mar’’ festival in Faial. ‘’Festa do Baleeiro’’ in São Miguel can also be added to this cherished list of whale-themed fetes due to its location in São Vicente Ferreira, the exact locale where the main Azorean whaling factory once existed. 

Azores tourism board - Visit Azores.

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