One of the best things to do when you’re visiting the Azores is whale and dolphin watching. It’s actually the best place in Europe to go whale watching! (Norway is also a great place but officially not part of the EU). Around the Azores archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean live 24 different species of whales and dolphins. Because of this, you have a big chance to see one or more different species during your whale watching tour. Read more about the things you have to know before you book your whale watching tour in the Azores!
We went in September during our visit to São Miguel island when the weather was still good. Although unfortunately, we didn’t see many different species but it still was an awesome half day on the Atlantic Ocean!
If you want to know al the best things to do in the Azores, read this blog post.
Where in the Azores whale watching?
What is the best place for whale watching in the Azores?
From the biggest and most well-known island of the Azores are a few options for whale watching tours. It depends if you want to leave from the capital Ponta Delgada or from Vila Franca do Campo (about half an hour from Ponta Delgada) and with what kind of boat. Because there is one organization, Whale watching Terra Azul, which departs from Vila Franca do Campo and only has the rib boats (military graded inflatable boats). The advantage of this is that you’ll get to meet the whales and dolphins from up close. With this tour operator you will also circle around the Vila Franca do Campo island, just in front of the shoreline of Sao Miguel island. The price for a half day tour is €55.
The other tour operators, Futurismo and Moby Dick, are located in Ponta Delgada and only do the whale tours in bigger boats, We went with Moby Dick as they were the cheapest with €40 and also offered to get another tour for only €15 extra if we didn’t see any whales. Futurismo offers tours starting from €55 for a half day whale watching tour.
The advantage of the bigger boats is that you won’t get seasick so fast and you won’t have to wear a life jacket, and no waves coming into the boat.
Read some reviews online before you book to be sure to book at the right place for you
After Sao Miguel is Terceira the biggest inhabited island of the Azores. There are also whale watching trips offered from this island. If you want to book your whale watching tour from Terceira island you can do this from the picturesque UNESCO village Angra do Heroismo, for example with Aguiatur Azores for €50 or with OceanEmotion for €50.
The second biggest island in the Azores also has a lot of whales in the surrounding waters. At Pico you can book your whale watching tour again with Futurismo and you pay the same price (€55) as on Sao Miguel island.
Best time for whale watching in the Azores
In fact there are whales and dolphins living year-round in the sea near the Azores. Four of the 24 species swim in the waters around Azores year long. The common-dolphin, bottlenose dolphin, Riso’s dolphin and the sperm whale. But the best time to spot more species and especially whales is in spring and summer, April, May, June and July. Because it is mating season in spring the whales are extra active. You might even see one jumping out of the water!
If you’re looking to spot the biggest animal in the world, the blue whale, then you have to go in March, April, May or June. Also the second largest animal, the Fin whale, can be seen in these months.
If you are really really lucky, you might even have a chance of spotting orcas and humpback whales!! But the chances are very small. At most, these whales are only spotted about once or twice a year.
The best period to spot the most species of whales and dolphins is March until June
How do they find the whales
Back in the days of commercial whaling there were several spotting points along the coast of the Azores. Powerful binoculars were used to scan the ocean and alert boat crews when a whale was sighted. These spotting points are still in use today by skilled spotters to find the animals. Only nowadays they luckily alert the whale watching boats instead of the hunting parties. These guys are so skilled that they can even tell from miles away which particular species there is just by seeing their blow. This means that the chances of seeing whales and dolphins are incredibly high as it’s not just ‘guess and go’, because the spotting is done by professionals.
Which whale species can be seen in the Azores
If you’re truly interested in all the different species swimming in the waters near the Azores archipelago, I’ve summed all 24 different species up for you below:
- The Common dolphins
- The Spotted dolphin
- The Striped dolphin
- The Rough-toothed dolphin
- The Bottlenose dolphins
- The Risso’s dolphin
- The black whales
- The Pigmy whale
- The Dwarf whale
- The Orca
- The Short-finned pilot whales
- The False whale
- The Fin whales
- The Minke whale
- The Sei whale
- The Humpback whale
- The Blue whales
- The Bryde’s whale
- The Sowerby’s beaked whale
- The Gervais’s beaked whale
- The Cuvier’s beaked whale
- The Northern Bottlenose whale
- The Blainville’s beaked whale
- The True’s beaked whale
Those worried about the welfare and wellbeing of these amazing sea creatures can rest assured. The Whale watching companies in the Azores all have strict guidelines when it comes to being around the animals. With great respect towards these magical animals the boats are only allowed to approach from behind, never from the front. Boats cannot get any closer than 50 meters. And if there are calves present the distance limit is even 100 meters!
Sometimes the whales and dolphins do come closer because they are quite inquisitive. This is totally fine as it is the animals choice.
If a whale or dolphin seems to be agitated in any way, then the boat must leave the area. And there is also the rule that boats shouldn’t stay in the same area of the same whale for more than half an hour.
Things to know before you go whale watching
Book a tour as soon as you know you want to go whale watching, and better to do this at the start of your time in the Azores. The reason for this is there are only a few spots open every day. In the morning and around noon the boats mostly leave for the whale watching tour if the sea conditions are good and the boats can go out considering the weather. But when the weather is too bad or the sea too rough your tour will be postponed to the next day.
Take enough layers of clothing with you as it might be chilly in the morning on the open sea. Better is to have a windbreaker or waterproof jacket with you and underneath that a sweater and t-shirt.
Don’t forget sun protection and your sunglasses as the sun will burn extra on the open sea.
Take enough water and some snacks with you.
To avoid getting seasick you can do a few things. Don’t drink alcohol for at least twelve hours before your excursion. Look at the horizon in the direction that you’re going. Take a motion sickness medicine before you board the boat. Eat ginger 12 to 24 hours before your whale watching tour. Scientists discovered that this powerful root helps to prevent seasickness. If you don’t like ginger some sour sweets also do its job. The last funny tip when you’re already seasick is: put a cotton in the opposite ear of the hand you write with.
Of course don’t forget your camera and bring some extra empty memory cards.
It’s awesome to capture the whales and dolphins with your camera but don’t forget to enjoy the moment and take your time to just look at the sea with your eyes instead of through your camera.
To be well prepared for your whale watching adventure as photographer there are a few things you have to think about to take with you.
- Enough charged batteries
- Empty memory cards
- Take a zoom lens with you if you have one (preferably a 100-400mm telelens but a 70-200mm for a full frame will also do the job) Read more about different focal lengths in this blog post. Because the boats won’t get closer than 50 meter to the animals, you really do need a zoom lens. But you also want to get your shots when the animals come closer, so have a look for yourself which lens in your kit will be the best.
- To be sure you can take a waterproof bag for your camera (if you have one). Especially when you’re booking with a tour company who only has rib boats (military graded inflatable boats). We went with a bigger boat, so there was less worry about waves or splashes hitting the camera.
Be prepared with the best settings. Read more about that below.
The right settings
Of course you want to capture that special moment when a dolphin (or whale!) jumps out of the sea or when the tale of a whale is visible. This takes a little bit of luck and practice to have your camera pointed on that specific part of the sea where the whale comes up.
You need to shoot manual here as you want to adjust the shutter speed and aperture to get the best results. The best thing to do is to set your shutter speed above 1/250 so the movement of the whales and dolphins will be sharp. If your camera has the option to shoot burst, use this! It will help you to get the perfect shot, but be sure to have enough memory card space 😉
Depending on the aperture of your lens, you can put it at around F5.6 to be sure you have everything in focus. Also don’t forget to put your Image Stabilization on your lens ON! Because you’re on a wobbling boat in the water there is a chance that you give little shaky movements to your camera. You don’t want blurry shots because of your shaky hands, so be prepared and put the Image Stabilization on your lens ON. Read more about how and when to use Image Stabilization here.
Most important is to have your camera shoot ready. As soon as there is action, you will be the first capturing that magical moment!
Don’t forget to enjoy the tour and watch with your eyes instead of through your camera constantly.
It is always such a magical experience to see these wild and big animals in their habitat!