Dolphin and whale watching in the Azores

Around the Azores archipelago, you can find 24 species of whales and dolphins. That’s quite a lot, if you ask me! Because of this, you have quite big a big chance to see one or more of these animals during a whale watching trip.
During my round trip around these Portugese islands I was extra lucky, because I saw two kinds of whales and three species of dolphins.
Would you also like to see whales in the Azores? I tell you everything that you can expect, I give some handy tips. And if you don’t think all of that is interesting, then you might just watch at some of the photos that I took during my whale safari.

 

azores whales

Where in the Azores can you see whales?

If you’re in the Azores and want to see whales and dolphins, then you have different options. Actually, there are whales around each and every island, but not all of the islands offer whale watching trips.

You can spot whales on the Azores from the biggest islands:

São Miguel

From the biggest -and in my opinion, also the most beautiful- island of the Azores, you have most options.
There are two options:

  1. Terra Azul

I arranged my tour with this organization and was very happy with the course of the day. This tour operator leaves from Vila France do Campo (about half an hour from Ponta Delgada) and is the only company that offers day ecursions with rib boats (military graded inflatable boats). The advantage of this is that you’ll get to meet the whales and dolphins from up close. With this tour operator you also circle around the Vila France do Campo islet just in front of the shoreline of São Miguel. Absolutely worth it 😉 !
For an exciting boat ride with this company you pay €55.

2. Futurismo

This tour operator is located in Ponta Delgada (the capital city of São Miguel) and only has whale safaris that take place in bigger boats. The advantage of these, however, is that you won’t get sea sick so fast.
Watching whales in the Azores with Futurismo cost €55 per person. With these your operator you can also swim with wild dolphins, by the way! For this excursion you pay €70 pp.

whale safari azores dolphins

It’s really magical to see these animals in their wild environment!

Terceira

After São Miguel, Terceira is the biggest inhabited island of the Azores. This place is also quite popular among tourists, so there are regular whale watching trips offered from here as well.
If you you want to see whales from Terceira, then you can do this from the gorgeous Angra do Heroísmo. This picturesque village (UNESCO!) has a beautiful port, from where the whale watching tours leave.
In Terceira you pay a little less than in São Miguel. Here, a half day between dolphins and whales costs €50 per person. If you want to swim with dolphins, you’ll pay €65.

Pico

The second biggest islands in the Azores also has lots of whales in the surrounding ocean. Here too, tourists visit regularly and thus there are quite some whale watching tours on offer.
For an exciting excursion in Pico, you pay about €50 to €65 per person.

whale watching tours azores

Of course you will see a lot more than whales and dolphins during a boat trip. Beautiful landscapes and cool fishing boats are always close too!

My own experience

I visited the Azores in April. In this month, it’s still quite chilly (15 to 18 degrees celcius – 59 to 64,5 degrees fahrenheit) and because of this, the islands aren’t so touristy yet.
In fact, you have the biggest chances to see whales during the touristy summer months, but there will always be some dolphins and whales to spot outside this period too.
I had to reschedule my excursion from São Migel three times. Or the weather was horrible, or the sea was too wild. But as the saying goes: three times is a charm!

terra azul azores whale watching

And now, let’s hope for a day with lots of whales and dolphins!

Dolphin and whale watching with Terra Azul

The tour operator with whom I went aboard, Terra Azul, finds it important that their whale watching trip is a fun experience for both humans and animals. They try to never get too close to the animal. If these giants decide to come closer on their own, that is of course their own choice. What also appealed to me, was that they pick up plastic and garbage along the way and that they help to map the population of loggerhead turtles around the islands.

Around 08:30 AM, twenty other tourists and me were put into two separate zodiac boats (military rubber boats with an engine) on which we would set sail for the coming three hours.

Our guide immediately starts to explain their way of approaching things, what dolphins and whales we can see and what we can expect during our wild boat ride.

Also nice to know: all animals that we see, are noticed through binoculars from on the island. From two small huts on the island, there are a couple of hawk-eyed crew members who continually scan the seas to watch out for these majestic animals.

rib boat sao miguel whale watching

With these comfortable boats you race from whale to whale… That alone is already exciting!

Happy dolphins

An enthusiastic guide and an even more enthusiastic skipper guide us through the azure blue waters around the Azores, and only ten minutes after our departure we already see the first dorsal fins popping up out of the water. Tens of curious common-dolphins jump in en outside of the water, race next to the boat and some even show us their best tricks.

It really is wonderful to see how playful and joyful these quite big animals act in their natural environment. This is much better than visiting a dolphinarium, if you ask me!

After our memory cars are filled with photos and videos, the skipper gets another message from the lookout posts. Not so far from us, we can see another species of dolphins. With our fast boat we race to that specific spot, while along the way we are chased for by the common-dolphins and their joyful laughter.

An extraordinary big dolphin greets us with its dorsal fin full of scars. The Risso’s dolphin is a dolphin species of almost four meters long and is easily recognized by the many white scratches on its body. These scars are mostly because of games, fights with squid (the favorite meal of these dolphins). These animals are a lot less playful than the previous species that we saw, and don’t really show much more than their dorsal fins or tales. But still… It’s quite magical to see these amazing animals in their own habitat. With São Miguel as our picture perfect background, this excursion truly becomes perfect.

These swimming creatures sure do know where they have to be, because close by a man is fishing for squid with his colorful little boat. Who knows… Maybe they’ll get a tasty treat from him if they wait patiently.

Azores dolphins

And these animals can jump high!

dolphins azores rissos dolphin

This gramper or Risso’s dolphin is really breathtakingly beautiful, don’t you think so too?

Majestic whales

Just when the Risso’s dolphin shows its tale for the very last time (they do so if they go deep diving, and that means thay they won’t resurface anytime soon) we get even more good news from the lookout! They spotted a huge whale.

Vroom! Off we go again. Because of the speed, our neat hair gets an extra blow drying sessions because of the heavy winds and our eyes spontaneously start to tear. I try to make a few pictures from São Miguel island that we get to see from here in its full glory, but we go so fast that it’s almost impossible to hold my camera, so I stop my attempt after only mere seconds.

Almost frozen, we arrive next to the other boat who’s already been looking for the spotted whale for a while. It gets incredibly quiet in the boat, because everyone is looking for or listening to the sounds of this giant of the seas.

Isn’t it weird, that a gigantic creature like this is so good at hide and seek?

Moby Dick

The other boat decides to go about a bit differently and they put a machine into the water that listens to the whale sounds. There are most definitely some whales in the area, because we can hear their beautiful songs from under the sloshing water.

Suddenly I hear a blowing sound and I see a thin mist coming our way. “There!” the woman next to me yells.
We all turn our heads simultaneously and suddenly we see the back of a sperm whale.
What a gigantic beast! And another one behind that! I do sure hope that these animals are a bit more friendly than Moby Dick…

Actually, you only see very little of these giants, but it still is an amazing experience that I can almost not describe. The proximity of such a huge creature, the speeds (and graciousness) that it moves with, the sounds it makes and the hunt to see the whale from as closeby as possible seriously makes this an experience that you’ll never forget.

About ten minutes later, both whale number one and number two disappear under the dark surface with a single wave of their tail. Gallons and gallons of salt sea water drip off these streamlined fins and gone is the animal of twelve meters (39,5 ft) long.

sperm whales azores

Two sperm whales! These animals are gigantic!

The second largest animal in the world!

We keep hoping for them to resurface, but alas. They can’t be found anymore.

While the skipper slowly sets sail to our next location, he suddenly spots another whale.

“You’re a lucky bunch today!” he shouts. Right next to us, a huge Fin whale appears at the surface. This beast of more than twenty meters long (65,5 ft) is scary and impressive at the same time. Definitely if it swims so close to your boat. This animal doesn’t seem to be bothered by our presence and keeps on swimming slowly next to us. Sometimes it comes a bit closer to the sea surface to spray us with the water that it blows out of its (massive!) blow hole.

I’m going completely nuts and ask the skipper if I can put my GoPro in the water to film the animal. “Of course! I’m glad someone finally asks.” he says.

I don’t need to hear that twice! I give my other camera to the guide while she’s summing up interesting facts about the whales around the Azores, and in the mean time I put my GoPro into the water as deep as possible. From here I also get a much better view on the Fin whale. I literally am only two meters (about 6 ft) away from this creature! The adrenaline rushes through my body and at the same time I hope that the video that I’m making will turn out to be good.

From this closeby, you only start to notice how streamlined the body of a whale is, how big its blowhole is en especially… How gigantic this animal is!!!

After we sailed next to the whale for several minutes, it can’t be bothered with us anymore and decides to swim away at a much higher pace.

whale watching azores sao miguel

You only see a tiny piece of this fin whale, but this is the second largest animal on this planet!

Turtles that love to bite

One more stop, because the whale spotters have found a couple more of playful dolphins.

We leave at full speed but suddenly we make a very sharp turn to our left. The people in the boat start flopping their hands in the air like its a theme park ride!

We turn back and no one really seems to get why. When we stand still, we see something brown that is floating on the surface.

Plastic? Definitely not! It’s a sea turtle! Because Terra Azul maps the loggerhead turtles by chipping them, our boat tries to get the turtle out of the water, but… It’s shield is too slippery! While the animal bites at our skipper (and honestly, those jaws seem powerful!), it becomes too hard to reel it in and thus he drops the animal back into the water.

We circle around the turtle for a bit more, but we don’t want to stress it out any longer so we speed off for one last time. We couldn’t have a better goodbye. Dozens of bottlenose dolphins (Flipper!) jump up and down next to the boat. Only half a meter (about one and a half feet) we see their dorsal fins cutting through the water and sometimes, one of the gray sea creatures jumps right in front of us. I clearly already made too much photos, because my memory card is full… Too bad, but hey… Then I’ll just enjoy their company without my camera!

sea turtle azores

At first I thought: “What is he doing with that animal?!”, but rest assured… He’s only helping them!

When is it whale watching season in the Azores?

In fact, you can see whales in the Azores year round, but the best time to spot them is probably around spring and summer (April, May, June and July).

There are four animals that swim in these waters all year long. The common-dolphin, the bottlenose dolphin, the Riso’s dolphin and the sperm whale.

The blue whale (the biggest animal of the world) can only be seen in March, April, May and June. For the second largest animal of this globe (the Fin whale) you also need to be visit in those months.

Killer whales and humpbacks can also be seen here, but the chances are incredibly slim. At most, they are spotted about once or twice a year. If you really want to see these animals, I recommend to book a whale safari to Norway or Iceland.

azores whale watching season

This whale (fin whale) is ready for a dive.

Which whales can you see in the Azores?

Like I said earlier, there are 24 whale species (including dolphins) that you can see in this archipelago. I sum them up for you:

  1. The common dolphin
  2. The spotted dolphin
  3. The striped dolphin
  4. The rough-toothed dolphin
  5. The bottlenose dolphin
  6. The Risso’s dolphin
  7. The sperm whale
  8. The pigmy sperm whale
  9. The dwarf sperm whale
  10. The killer whale
  11. The short-finned pilot whale
  12. The false killer whale
  13. The Fin whale
  14. The minke whale
  15. The sei whale
  16. The humpback whale
  17. The blue whale
  18. The Bryde’s whale
  19. The  Sowerby’s beaked whale
  20. The Gervais’s beaked whale
  21. The Cuvier’s beaked whale
  22. The northern bottlenose whale
  23. The Blainville’s beaked whale
  24. The True’s beaked whale

On the photo below, you can see them as well:

all whales azores

We saw the fin whale, the sperm whale, the common dolphin, the tumbler and the risso’s dolphin.

Some extra tips for your whale watching safari in the Azores

  • If you’re sure that you want to see whales in the Azores, then I recommend to book a tour right away. There are two reasons for that. First of all: there are only a few spots open everyday (in the morning and around noon), but much more important: the weather in the Azores is very unpredictable. Because of that, it’s possible that your whale watching tour gets postponed for a couple of thats (mine was even postponed three times!). The sooner you book, the more certain you are that your whale safari will take place.
  • Take enough layers of clothing with you. It doesn’t matter how sunny and warm it is when you leave, it’s much colder on open sea and with your boat you’ll also sail at quite high speeds without stopping. The icy wind makes sure that the warm sun cools off quite fast! Most tour operators offer an extra (water repellant) jacket, but just to make sure: take an extra sweater with you.
  • Use sun protection. It may feel less warm at sea, but the sun still burns here. On top of that, the sunlight is reflected on the sea surface. Because of that, it takes no time for you to look as red as a boiled lobster! Taking sunglasses with you is also not a bad idea.
  • You’ll of course also want to take quite a few pictures of the whales around the Azores. Definitely don’t forget to bring a couple of memory cards with you. It’s very difficult to make nice pictures of the dolphins and whales. The dolphins jump out of and back into the water in less than a second, and the tail of the whales is only seen for a few seconds as well. Use your camera almost non-stop if you want to have at least a few good photos of your experience.
  • Don’t try to look through your camera lens the whole time. Because otherwise you’ll miss out on a lot. Most tour operators also make (beautiful!) pictures of your day. So… Put away that camera and enjoy!
dolphin watching azores

Dolphins usually swim in small groups. These animals are also much more curious than whales.

5 tips to not get sea sick

If you want to see whales in the Azores, you’ll need to climb on a boat. There’s no doubt about that. Our skipper gave us a couple of good tips to avoid getting sea sickness:

  1. Look at the horizon in the direction of where you’re sailing, all the while following the movements of the boat.
  2. Make sure that you had enough sleep. So… No wild parties before you go and check out the dolphins and whales around the islands!
  3. Try to skip alcohol for at least twelve hours before your excursion. When your body is hydrated, it tends to not get sea sick as fast.
  4. Try to eat some ginger 12 to 24 hours before you set sail. Scientists discovered that this powerful root helps to prevent nausea and sea sickness. Don’t you like ginger? Then get your hands on some sour sweets. If it doesn’t help, than you at least have a good excuse to enjoy some candy!
  5. Another last, funny, tip: put some cotton in the opposite ear of the hand that you write with.
sao miguel whale watching azores franca do campo islet

You’re on the boat for more than three hours, so you don’t want to get seasick…

Whale watching Azores excursions

Are you heading to the Azores soon and don’t you want to miss out on this top attraction? Then book your tickets online. This way, you’re sure of a spot.

 

» All tours in the Azores

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Hi, I'm Sam Van den Haute. The last three years I've been traveling the world almost constantly. Heading out for an adventure and visiting the most beautiful places are what I love to do! Let me inspire you with great stories, beautiful pictures and handy tips from my adventures and travels. On my facebook page and instagram account you'll get to see the latest updates and photos to inspire you for your next vacation.
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