It was early morning and as we pulled away from the shore, the hairs on the back of my neck lifted in rapid unison. On board a cruise boat myself and seven other excited ladies looked back in awe at the isolation of the islands that make up the Azores. The island of Pico stood proudly out of the ocean behind us. Huge volcanic rocks jutted up from the waves and they were covered in a vibrant mix of greens and red. The tallest tip, Mount Pico, was constantly hidden in the clouds.
The smell of seaweed and salt offended my nostrils as I breathed in anticipation. Dressed in a wetsuit and armed with a snorkel, I was about to fulfil a long-held ambition to swim with dolphins in the wild. What I did not expect was the life changing experience that was about to unfold!
As we cruised to our first dive spot, we relaxed on the front deck watching the birds and clouds drift over us, the perfect compliments to this beautiful setting. When we arrived, a single Atlantic Spotted dolphin appeared off the back of the boat. It waited there, inviting me to take the plunge into the unknown. I lowered myself awkwardly into the invigorating water and placed my head under the surface. The cold hit my ears, banished the sounds from above and I was in another world. The dolphin led me and my ‘dive buddy’ to its group gathered below. Spotlights twinkled under me, as if coming up from the depths. Thirty metres down, the ocean was pitch black and I held my breath in fear as I looked down into the dark void. The immensity of this alien environment shocked me into insignificance and I gripped my buddy’s hand for reassurance.
In suspended animation, eight dolphins watched me with intense curiosity, appearing to be smiling, pleased to share their wilderness with my kind. All of a sudden, I was blessed with amazing chatter of these incredible animals. They ‘clicked’ to each other and each sound vibrated within my body. Then one of them sang what could have been a ‘hello’ and others quickly followed in a harmonious chorus!
After 20 minutes, I climbed back on board and felt like I had experienced something surreal! The others in the group squealed with similar delight and we hugged. I had tears in my eyes and we were all numb with disbelief that our dream had just become a fantastic reality.
Continuing to our next dive, I laid across the front of the boat, my head hanging over the side, my mind spinning. I watched in wonder as a dozen spotted dolphins raced to join the ‘bow ride’, twisting and turning through the waves as though part of them.
Coming up for air they blew salty kisses into my face and they looked up at me through eyes that penetrated my soul. Some of us called to them from above and our excitement seemed to elaborate their playful antics.
My next encounter in the water was with the most famous of dolphins –Bottlenose. The swell of the waves had become choppier and when I tentatively descended into the water, it was a lot murkier. I could see their unmistakable form clearly enough to make me struggle for breath and my heart skipped a beat. I felt like I was in a movie as I floated with these friendly and inquisitive beauties. Their long snouts, complete with distinct smile, make them lovable characters and their song was enchanting and hypnotic. I wondered who was watching who with such intense bewilderment as we stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity. I will never forget my special interaction with my favourite mammal!
On a final dive before we headed back towards Pico, and just when I thought that things could not get any better, there were more surprises. Risso’s Dolphins were out in force, in a courageous show of curiosity. The crew were ecstatically amazed by this very rare event. One of the other girls went in and told me afterwards that she was blessed with a very close encounter with these incredibly elusive creatures. She described its comical smile and was left speechless and in awe by this amazing experience.
With the day closing, we reluctantly headed back. We were tired but so content with the special journey that we had just shared. All of sudden, one of the crew shouted and pointed to our right. Then we saw it. The spray of a whale’s breath shot up into the sky and rainbows danced within each droplet as it met the sun. Sperm Whales! Such an awesome high to end this epic day! Our spirits lifted as the captain took us closer to it. I held my breath as, without warning, a huge entity rose out of the ocean and then created a mighty splash as it crashed back down into the waves. In front of my very eyes I was watching a forty tonne whale jump out of the water for what looked like a deliberate act of showing off! I had to pinch myself to make sure I was not dreaming.
The mix of creatures who live, breath and play in this magical place left me mesmerized. My emotions were higher than the clouds that curtain this scenic paradise. As I once again stepped back onto this volcanic wonderland, I realized that the islands had given me a totally unique and unforgettable experience. One that has to be seen to be appreciated and believed!!!
All photos credited and copyrighted to Anita Johnson
This post was adapted from the book “Whales and Tales“