Azores: Autumn surprises

I have still been able to get out to sea around the windy days. After the remains of storm Paulette passed to the west, there were still some choppy seas for a few days. Once back on the water, it was nice to see that there are still sperm whales and sei whales around.

On the 27 September we even saw five species. Sperm & sei whales, as well as common, spotted and bottlenose dolphin and a turtle too. The group of whales is known as the “Chrissie/Willie” group and were first seen in August. They are usually on the south of Pico, but this was the second time they were seen to the north of Faial.

Nike’s group has also been seen to the north of the islands a few times. But they didn’t stay there. On 28 September, they were in the north, then on 2 October, they were on the south of Faial. They didn’t stop there and continued to the south of Pico on the 5th, where they have remained, at least up until the 11th. So they have circumnavigated Faial!

On 30 September we went to the north of Faial/Pico. Four sei whales had been seen in the morning and we managed to find them in pretty much the same place in the afternoon. They were making some short dives, circling in the same area, so probably feeding at depth. The sea was quite choppy, so not easy to spot them under the water or see footprints as we usually do. The large waves can make for some pretty spectacular photos, if you catch a whale at the top of a wave or coming out of one.

We went a very long way down the south coast of Pico to see some sei whales on 4 October. There have been sightings of them lunge-feeding in that area for a few days. Unfortunately, not while we were watching. They both had very well marked dorsal fins, so the long haul was worth it.

On our way back to Horta, we also got a glimpse of a whale shark. There were three in the area and one swam past our boat. These animals are not usually seen in the Azores, but there had been sightings for a few days and the lookout can see their large fins above the water. Whale sharks are filter feeders, eating plankton and small fish out of the water column. They are sharks, because instead of bone, they have a cartilaginous skeleton. They are called whale sharks, because of the huge size they grow to, the one we saw was at least 9 m. This is the first whale shark I have seen in 32 years of working in the Azores!

On the 5 October we were again to the south of Pico. Nike’s group present and accounted for close to Lajes, a group of common dolphin feeding with some Cory’s shearwaters and another whale shark encounter on the way home. This time, the visibility was much better and we could see the whole body of the animal as it swam slowly past our boat twice.

On 8 October, we were back to the north of Faial. It was quite choppy, but with the help of the lookout, we found sperm whales and then false killer whales found us! Only one of the sperm whales fluked, the others shallow dived and whether it was a response to the false killer whales in close proximity or they were going to socialise, we don’t know. There were quite a few head-outs and some changes of direction of the sperm whales. False killer whales aren’t known to attack sperm whales and it was also only a small group of them (4-6 animals). It was difficult to get photos of the dorsal fins, due to the choppy seas, but I got two. Hopefully they will match to the false killer whale catalogue. False killer whale sightings are few and far between – they usually follow big pelagic fish, such as tuna or mahi mahi. And we know that there are individuals that have been seen repeatedly since 2005. It is unknown what caused the marks on the sperm whale fluke; suggestions have included a virus, fungus or even a shotgun. The marks are well healed, if indeed it was an injury and not genetic.

On 10 October we were again south of Pico and Nike’s group showed up again after a short stop with some bottlenose dolphin. We were very lucky to arrive just as three of the sperm whale group were at the surface, although two weren’t at a good angle for photographs, but thanks to some very distinct markings one of them, it was identified, as well as the one we were actually following. We waited for the whales to return to the surface, but instead saw a different individual. The lookout then directed us in towards the shore and a group of around 30 false killer whales that was traveling along the coast. This time it was easier to get some dorsal fin ID photos. There were several calves in the group, swimming next to their mothers. The last couple of weeks, the south of Pico has had large schools of tuna, according to fishermen, and this is what the false killer whales are there for. We also had a small group of spotted dolphin, one with a very distinctive “flash” on the dorsal fin. We passed by the whale shark again, but this time only saw a bit of a shadow under the surface. Since they breathe via gills, they do not have to come close to the surface and it is only sometimes if they are feeding close to the surface that we can see them well.

And finally on 11 October, we once again spotted Nike’s group on the south of Pico. A small group of four bottlenose dolphin was then followed by a large group of common dolphin just outside the channel between Pico and Faial.
The main season is now finished on Faial, so I will have to wait for some good weather days to try and get out again.

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