It was the 27th of March, 2019. The Thor Heyerdahl lay anchored in the marina of Horta, on Faial Island (The Azores). She was built in the Netherlands in 1930, originally named Tinka, and used in the trade between Europe, Africa and the Caribbean for decades. It’s a gorgeous, 50-metre, three-masted topsail schooner, now operating as the proud flagship of the High Seas High School (HSHS; Germany). My then boss Pedro was invited on board to deliver a presentation about whales and dolphins in the Azores. A nice experience for both us and the HSHS students. Later in the day, the students would come out with us on a whale watching tour. Pedro told them NOT to count on seeing orcas, because after all, they’re relatively rare sightings in our area and you need to be very lucky. Regardless, I crossed my fingers every day for it to happen. During the presentation, Pedro received several phone calls…
Pedro got in touch with the caller after the end of the presentation. It turned out to be one of the vigias. What is a vigia you ask? Well, I think they deserve a few words of appreciation! Vigias (as we call them in Portuguese) are land-based lookouts, seated in strategic, elevated places around the island. Their duty is to scan the ocean surface with large binoculars in search of whales and dolphins. In this way, they play a vital role in the Azorean whale watching industry. They often communicate with multiple skippers and keep track of different groups of cetaceans. Skilled as they are, they guide the skippers to the (almost) precise location of where they can find the animals. Do not underestimate an experienced vigia. On clear days with good sea conditions, they are able to spot whales tens of kilometres away from the coast. The best ones can even tell you the species, or at least give you an indication, based on the behaviour and the blow. The use of vigias comes with its own history. Back in the whaling days, vigias were the ones that located sperm whales for the Azorean sperm whaling industry. Thankfully, whaling in the Azores ended in 1984 while the incredible work of vigias carries on to this day. I’m sure we could find whales without the help of vigias, BUT they are key to the coordination and the high rate of very successful whale watching tours in the Azores. I have a deep appreciation for what they do and the amazing encounters I’ve had thanks to them. It doesn’t happen on a regular basis (would be freaking fantastic if it did, haha), but in no other place have I seen more than six species of whales and dolphins in a 3-4 hour trip. Anyways, one of the vigias called to inform us about a special sighting…not baleen whales (my first guess), not false killer whales (my second guess), no! KILLER WHALES!!! Yes, the killer whales we were not supposed to count on seeing!
Two hours later we were on our way to the south of Pico Island, where we found a small group of four orcas. If I remember correctly, an adult female with a female calf, a juvenile, and a young male.
Finally, after 25 years, I had my first encounter with wild orcas! A childhood dream come true. It’s impossible to put into words how I felt that day. I was beyond ecstatic to say the least. They would swim and surface next to our boat, dive underneath us…the HSHS students were in awe, their faces spoke volumes.
I could’ve stayed there forever, didn’t want to leave, but we all know that’s not how it works, haha. No reason to be sad though, because the day after…the same orcas were seen south of Pico again, and I was given another delightful moment in the presence of these mesmerizing creatures.
The orcas that visit the waters surrounding the islands of the Azores are pretty enigmatic – there have been resightings of the same individuals, but we know very little about them. I’ll be happy as a clam when we’re able to unravel a bit of that mystery!
In contrast, the orcas in the northeast Pacific Ocean are some of the most intensively studied. This includes the critically endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) community, also referred to as the ‘orcas of the Salish Sea’. Orca Awareness Month is celebrated each year with the purpose of raising awareness about the threats and fate of this small orca community. This year we celebrate the 14th anniversary of this initiative. If you’d like to learn more about the Southern Residents and the call for their protection, https://orcamonth.wordpress.com/ is a good starting point. The story of the SRKW is a story to be heard! To round things up, you should know that orcas have always been the dynamo of my life. I love them since childhood. A healthy obsession. Orcas put me on my path towards a career in marine mammal science and whale watching tourism. Funnily enough, I’ve seen more beaked whales in my life (in general considered elusive and difficult to see) than killer whales! Hopefully, I’ll get to experience more orca magic in the very near future and I won’t have to wait another quarter of a century for it to happen. Fingers crossed and I’ll keep you updated!
Hugs from an orcaholic,
This post was adapted from a blog, read the original here