Azores : Easter weekend special

All of Saturday morning was dedicated to sperm whales. Multiple individuals were spotted in an area north of Faial. There was even a group of four of them socialising at the surface, most likely two mothers with their calves. As the mothers dived to feed at depth, the calves stayed behind at the surface. Our whale volunteers managed to collect a total of eight different flukes on camera during 14 separate sightings. We got one twice, others did not dive, hence no fluke, or some fluked before we got close enough to take a photoID shot, or the fluke disappeared behind a large wave. Being out there does show the patience and dedication cetacean scientists such as Lisa must have to collect data ‘one fluke at a time’. It was a great morning giving insight into this iconic cetacean species, once the main target of whaling here, while currently being one of the most appreciated during whale watching.

The vigias contacted our captain Siso on the radio with a special sighting, so we headed to the spot they indicated. The sea surface was rather flat, when our dolphin volunteers spotted some dolphin dorsal fins. Then we saw some white ones and others much darker. Coming closer, it became clear that these were Risso’s dolphins. Some call them the ghosts of the sea and they indeed have something magic and mysterious about them. They are easy to follow under water, especially the white ones. Risso’s are dark in colour when born but as they grow, through interaction and aggression with their peers, they get scars on their body. The pigment does not get replaced and thus you get older individuals that are almost fully white…. A truly unique encounter.

Later in the afternoon our cetacean citizen scientists heard a lot of excitement on the radio channel. ‘A baleen whale….there are two …..marvelous… white, …..’ Not sure what to expect exactly, we travelled southwards and off Ribeirinha when all of a sudden a massive humpback whale comes up starboard side of our catamaran. Almost immediately after we see a fully white smaller humpback whale come up along side it. We were speechless, as the odds of seeing an albino whale are almost zero. We followed them and were treated to both of them fluking, only to discover that our white friend does have some black spots on the ventral side of its fluke. So not an albino, but a 95% leucistic individual. Migaloo is a well-known male albino humpback whale from Australia – could “our” whale perhaps be the first one in the Northern Atlantic? Although the time to return to the harbour had already passed, we could not resist and decided to follow the duo a bit longer as this clearly was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Smiles all around as we returned to harbour eventually. During our debriefing Lisa matched the fluke of our white friend on the HappyWhale programme online to a white humpback seen around the Spitsbergen/Svalbard feeding grounds in 2012 (see video below). After more research by Lisa, the same individual appears to have been seen in the Guadeloupe breeding area in 2015, 2019, 2020, where it was given the beautiful name Willow. These life stories make extraordinary sightings even more interesting, unravelling where this individual has been.

On Easter Sunday we left the harbour, with a spectacular view of the cloud-free Pico volcano and could even see some snow on the top. The sea looked promising. Our first sighting was a large mixed group of common and striped dolphins. The first striped dolphins of the season for Biosphere Expeditions and our cetacean species number 10! They jumped synchronously off in the distance but were not interested in bowriding. A loggerhead turtle passed near the boat, and we saw another five ones later that day, with many Portuguese man-o-war around, one of their favourite snacks. Further ahead of us, we saw a huge blow…10 m high…must be a blue whale. And sure enough after the blow, we saw the gentle giant. It is amazing to watch its head come out, then the back and more of it and then there is even more of it still…..until you see what appears to be a tiny dorsal fin while it slides back into the water. Common dolphins were excited too and chose to bowride…you guessed it..the blue whale, what a sight !! After getting photoID shots, we saw another blow ahead of us and decided to check this one out also. It appeared to be another two blue whales. One smaller – probably a juvenile. Given their enormous sizes, it becomes a bit confusing what is a calf, a juvenile or an adult…. We enjoyed following them for a while until we got the photoID shots and then headed to Capelinhos, straight into strong winds before heading back to Horta and enjoying the view of the cliffs from the sea.

It has to be said, the teamwork on board was amazing, Barbara and Suzie ensured the datasheets were filled in despite all the commotion going on. Madeleine and Suzanne took excellent photos and the front deck whale volunteers Shelagh, Ellen and Bryony showed great determination and stayed out on deck through wind, sea spray and lots of waves. Lisa made sure to record all these incredible sightings on the Monicet App of the University of Azores for their cetacean monitoring programme. This will be an Easter weekend none of us will forget.

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