Azores: busy, busy, busy

Saturday morning started a bit grey and damp, but the south of Pico was looking brighter. First we spotted a Cory’s shearwater with a damaged wing, at one point it looked like some monofilament was wrapped around it. We called the university and they said someone would come to collect it. But as we fuelled the boat, the bird came closer so once we finished, with no sign yet of the people from the university, we decided to catch it. Using a net, normally used to collect skin or poo samples from whales, we managed on the second attempt. Luckily for us, there was a bird box from the rescue campaign in the autumn, when the young birds can be found on the roads, at the police office in the marina. So we boxed up the bird and left it to be collected later. The bird will be transferred to Pico where hopefully it can be re-rehabilitated and released.

Off we went, just ahead of the rain showers. The lookout, Antero, had seen a sperm whale in front of the vigia at São Mateus, before we left, so that was our destination. As we reached the south, the wind dropped off and the sun came out. It was summer! Removing a couple of layers of clothing, we were scanning the horizon looking for a blow the lookout had directed us to. We found the whale and got the camera out just in time for the fluke. As it dived, I shouted “1198”!! She is one of our very well known females, first seen in 1989. Her group had been seen a few days previously closer to Lajes on Pico. The lookout then said we should go a few miles ahead where there were more whales. I did think this was strange, since usually the “family” of 1198 tend to swim fairly close together. But you don’t disagree with the lookout, so off we went. We just missed a mother & juvenile diving, but soon found another few whales, then another one and so on! We even saw what I think were two young males. By the end of the day, we had 13 different flukes from 16 encounters, but not another member of the 1198 family. So I will just have to wait a little while longer to see “1019”, one of my favorites, first seen in 1988. Apart from one of the animals I suspected were male, all of the other flukes were new to the catalogue. The “male” had been seen by the university in 2004. I will be in contact with them to see if it was identified as a male at the time. I doubt it, because the animal we saw was not a “mega” male, which are the very large, up to 18 m, animals. This was maybe 14 or 15 m most, so in 2004, it would have still been with its family group most likely.

In between some of the sperm whale sightings, we also saw a very energetic group of bottlenose dolphin, with at least one very small calf. We didn’t spend very long with them, because a sperm whale came up to the surface. As we were trying to leave the dolphin, two of them raced in front of the boat and did some amazing, 5-6 m leaps into the air!

About 45 min after the bottlenose dolphin, we came across a group of pilot whales. The group was split into a group of three large animals and another of five or six smaller ones. The three large ones just rested at the surface about 50 m from the boat, waiting for the others to catch up. And when they did, the whole group moved off and dived.

We kept following sperm whales and just as we started to see repeat whales and were thinking of heading for home, I spotted another blow. As we headed over a second whale appeared and they headed towards each other. Heads were coming out of the water, mouths were open and we saw what at first glance appeared to be a turtle that they were playing with. That turtle turned into something much more dangerous, a big tangle of rope. The two juveniles continued to play with if for another five minutes, before moving off, leaving the rope behind. On the boat, we gave a collective sigh of relief. It would have been disastrous if the rope had gotten stuck in one or both of their mouths. Although there is a knife on board as well as a mask, disentangling a whale can be quite dangerous.

Another four whales had come to the surface in the meantime and our two juveniles went over to join the adults, maybe complaining that we had removed their “toy” from the water. It appeared that the group was going to socialise and since the wind had started to pick up, we headed for home. We arrived home, happy and tired after 56.5 miles and 6 hours at sea.

All pictures (c) Whale Watch Azores

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