Around the remote Portuguese archipelago of the Azores today you can still hear Baleia a vista!, a legendary shout meaning there is a whale in sight. These days, however, it only happens on boats dotted with tourists going whale-watching. Whale hunting, an activity important for cultural identity, but also the economy of the Azores, started being practiced back in the 19th century. It was officially prohibited in 1982, but the ban was fully implemented only in 1986. The last whale was killed in 1987, as a protest from a few old whalers from Pico Island. Today, hundreds of whales of over 20 different species are quite safe in the Azores archipelago, currently one of the world's largest whale sanctuaries.
Picture © Credits to Irina Korshunova
The whaling tradition in the Azores is special, as just 30 years ago whalers from the archipelago were using the same techniques as those described in Moby Dick in 1851, going to the sea in wide open boats and throwing harpoons with the their hands. There are several places in the Azores where you can hear the memories of the whaling days and time travel to the days where there were only "the land, the sea and the whales", as old people here like to say.
Picture © Credits to Nataša G.
Besides the museum in Pico Island and the Whaling Station in Porto Pim in Faial, you can also visit the observing spots, where the hunt actually used to start. Here, the vigias (watchmen) used to spend long hours, trying to spot a whale with their binoculars. Once they see one, they launch a rocket, wave with a white bedsheet or make smoke signals, and keep observing the animal. After the sign is given, the crew takes their boats out to the sea and starts the search that could last for hours, or even days. Once they find a whale, an uncertain fight between man and animal starts.
Picture © Credits to mrfotos
Hunting boats from the Azores were weak and old-fashioned, but beautiful and streamline. They usually had seven crew members, each one with their own tasks -- one was the "boss", five of them were rowing, and one was in charge of launching the harpoon. These boats were adapted from the on-board canoes of huge American whaling ships that centuries ago used to stop at Horta port, to recruit fearless seamen from the islands. Herman Melville wrote about it in his Moby Dick, saying that The islanders seem to make the best whalemen.
Picture © Credits to José Luís Ávila Silveira/Pedro Noronha e Costa
The hunt was not an easy task, but the whalers usually say that they were never afraid, because of the adrenaline they felt. The boat had to approach the whale silently until the crew member (trancador) was able to launch the iron harpoon to hit it. From that point on, the boat was connected, with a rope, to the animal, which reacted to the attack, trying to dive deep or run away. The persecution continued until the whale was dead, and taken out to the land. This process could last for several hours or even a whole day, and the main objective was to pierce the lungs of the animal.
Picture © Credits to ABBPhoto
After the job was done, another task followed: dismantle the body of the whale and use every single part of it. Fat becomes oil, it's exported and used as fuel and lubricant, or even in cosmetic industries. Bones were powdered and used as fertility treatments. In lucky occasions when whalers find ambergris inside the sperm whale, profits doubled, as this substance was used in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries, for soaps and perfumes. In many parts of the world whales have been hunted for spiritual or traditional reasons, but here in the Azores the practice existed for purely economic reasons. At that time Azorean economy was completely dependent on whaling business.
Picture © Credits to Henk van den Berg
Nowadays, whales aren’t hunted anymore, but the tradition hasn't been forgotten in the Azores. Most of the whaling heritage has been maintained and restored and since 1997 it's been used for cultural, touristic and sport purposes. There are rowing regattas with the old vessels, and of course, whale watching represents one of the main tourist attractions. Besides, for those more adventurous, you can also try diving with whales.
Picture © Credits to Mark Wong
The main season for whale-watching starts from April all the way through the summer to October and during these months different species pass by the Azores on their migratory paths. April and May are usually a good time to go for a chance to spot the larger whales such as blue whale, whilst October can be a good time to see humpbacks. Sperm whales are residents in the Azores, and can be seen all year round.
Like this story?
Get more! Subscribe to our monthly inspiration newsletter.