Madeira lies between the Azores and the Canary Islands in the North Atlantic and is the main island of an archipelago. Research from the last two decades has highlighted Madeira as an important habitat for several resident cetacean species, as well as an important pitstop for migratory species.

Whales and dolphins are an intricate part of Madeira’s natural heritage and the local community celebrates their presence through artworks and educational programmes.

Year-round whale watching has become an important part of Madeira’s tourism industry, with tourists attracted to the region’s mild climate and continuous abundance of cetaceans.

Madeira has a strong bond with whales, from their whaling past to the present whale watching activities and the ongoing cetacean conservation efforts, led by the local authorities, scientific institutions and local stakeholders.

Madeira became a designated Whale Heritage Area in October 2023.



    • Region – Europe
    • Country – Portugal
    • Area/State – Madeira
    • Area size – 11.635 km2

Cetacean species

      • Short-finned pilot whale
      • Atlantic spotted dolphin
      • Bottlenose dolphin
      • Blainville’s beaked whale
      • Bryde’s whale
      • …and 22 other species!

    The Destination


    Also known as “the flower island”, Madeira Island lies between the Azores and the Canaries in the North Atlantic and is the main island of an archipelago that also includes the uninhabited Desertas and Selvagens Islands, both natural protected areas for a variety of marine life. The Selvagens Islands are the largest current marine protected area (MPA) of the North Atlantic and Porto Santo, the archipelago’s second largest island, was designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 2020.

    The Whale Heritage Area encompasses the land as well as the territorial waters of the entire archipelago (Madeira Island, Desertas Islands, Porto Santo and Selvagens Islands).

    Cetaceans regularly seen

    So far, researchers have confirmed 27 species of cetacean in the waters of Madeira, which is equivalent to almost a third of the planet’s known species! Bottlenose dolphins and short-finned pilot whales can be encountered all year round, along with deep divers like sperm whales and beaked whales. Seasonal visitors include Atlantic spotted dolphins and the occasional blue whale, with orcas and humpback whales rarely seen.

    This diversity makes Madeira an incredible whale watching destination and, above all, underlines the region’s importance as a habitat for cetacean populations in the Atlantic.

    Cetacean Heritage

    Whaling in the seas of Madeira, associated crafts and activities, and the transition from hunting cetaceans to protecting them form a central part of cetacean-related culture in the region. Whaling, particularly for sperm whales, was introduced in Madeira in the early 1940s and the decade saw the construction of the first lookout post, whaling stations, and the Madeiran Whaling company EBAM in Caniçal. Raw material from hunted sperm whales resulted in a diversity of products, from spermaceti oil and ambergris, as well as artistic pieces known as ‘scrimshaw’, which were made out of the jaws and teeth. A ban on the sale of whale products in the 70s, as well as a steady decrease in the number of sightings, eventually led to the voluntary end of whaling in the archipelago in 1981.

    Today, Madeira’s history of whaling as well as its transition to conservation are preserved in exhibits at the Madeira Whale Museum. The museum accommodates a vast collection that includes art pieces, old utensils and whaling equipment, records and photos of whalers, as well as an accurate documentation of the history of whaling in Madeira throughout the 20th century.

    Several lookout points are still being used by spotters, locally known as vigias, to find passing cetaceans out on the Atlantic for whale watching boats.

    Things to do

    • Take a responsible whale watching trip to be in with the chance of spotting one or more of the 27 species of cetaceans recorded in this WHA.
    • Visit the Madeira Whale Museum to learn more about the region’s relationship with cetaceans through history.
    • Keep an eye out for whale-themed urban art pieces around the island, including the well-known baleen whale mural by artist Marcos Milewski in the capital Funchal, and the colourful pilot whale mural in Calheta, which was a collaborative piece by artist Piera Mattioli and the local community.

    Achieving Whale Heritage Area status

    Each Whale Heritage Area has a unique route to meeting the Wildlife Heritage Area criteria. Check out some of the highlights from Madeira Whale Heritage Area:

    Encouraging Respectful Human-Cetacean Coexistence

    As top predators in the region, cetaceans can act as ecological indicators for the health of the region’s marine ecosystems, which helps plan efficient conservation strategies for the general protection of local marine life.

    Whale watching activities in Madeira are subject to regulations established by a legislation made by the Regional Government in 2013. The foundation for this legislation was a voluntary code of conduct for licensed whale watching platforms, created by the Whale Museum in 2003.

    The Whale Museum was also the first scientific department to have conducted research on cetaceans, with first projects dating back as far as 2000, and was later followed by the Oceanic Observatory of Madeira (OOM-ARDITI). Both institutes conduct long-term, interdisciplinary research on cetacean populations in Madeira and have contributed to international research projects, particularly those involving cetacean populations in Macaronesia.

    Various whale watching companies contribute data from their cetacean encounters at sea, particularly through images used for photo- identification catalogues.

    Compliance with whale watching legislation is overlooked by the IFCN (Instituto das Florestas e Conservação da Natureza), to whom maritime operators send reports documenting their activity. IFCN park rangers also conduct observations from land or sea to monitor compliance amongst operators.

    Protection for cetaceans is also facilitated through the various marine protected areas (MPAs) in the region, particularly the SIC Cetaceos area. Another critical area for cetaceans is the whale-watching exclusion zone, where the observation of cetaceans is prohibited, which stretches along the north-east coast up to the waters in the east between Madeira and the Desertas Islands.

    Celebrating Cetaceans

    Culturally, whales play a significant role in the past and present lives of the local community. The region’s past and present relationship with cetaceans is beautifully represented at the Whale Museum in Canical (Museu da baleia da Madeira), which acts as a testimony to Madeira’s past whaling era and the region’s transition to safeguarding cetaceans through research and conservation.

    In addition to the cetacean-themed murals that can be seen around the archipelago, the Art Caravel centre in Funchal also hosts a variety of art pieces, with several originating from sustainability projects. Their collection includes the art piece “Hope” by artist Nice, which is dedicated to life in the deep sea. The work of art was created within an awareness and petition signing event by SOA hub Ocean Devotion as part of their campaign against deep sea mining in Madeira. 

    Working Towards Sustainability

    Madeira has a 52-year history when it comes to the creation of marine protected areas (MPAs), which began with the Selvagens Island Nature Reserve in 1971. The reserve covers a total of 2677km2, making it the largest MPA in Europe with total protection. This represented a historical milestone and paved the way for further vital decisions to preserve the region’s wildlife.

    Over the past decades, the region saw the creation of further protected areas monitored by the IFCN and enjoyed by both tourists and locals, as well as nature reserves with restricted access. These include exclusively marine areas, such as the Garajau Nature Reserve, the Nature Reserve of Sítio da Rocha do Navio, the Marine Nature Park of Cabo Girão, the Marine Nature Park of Ponta do Pargo and the SCI Marine Protected Area that was created to protect cetaceans. They also include mixed areas (terrestrial and marine), such as the Selvagens Islands Nature Reserve, the Desertas Islands Nature Reserve, the Porto Santo MPAs Network and the Ponta de São Lourenço Protected Area, all important wildlife sanctuaries.

    The effective management of all MPAs has so far helped to preserve the natural heritage of the region, encouraged solidarity amongst the local public in maintaining the health of the archipelago’s wildlife, facilitated the protection of specific species, and attracted scientists from around the globe to conduct research in the region.

    Developing Research, Education and Awareness Programmes

    One of Madeira’s most iconic initiatives of education about cetaceans in the region is the Madeira Whale Museum (Museu da Baleia da Madeira) in Caniçal. While acting as a testimony to Madeira’s whaling history and the region’s transition to protecting cetaceans, the museum also accommodates a scientific department conducting interdisciplinary, long-term research on cetacean ecology in the Macaronesian region and the region’s cetacean stranding network. The museum seeks to spread awareness on the region’s cetacean populations through education and scientific research and achieves this through various exhibitions and workshops.

    MARE-Madeira, another research organisation on the island, presents its ongoing research projects on cetaceans to the local public through photo exhibitions in several locations, as well as lectures in primary and secondary schools.

    Several schools in Madeira are now “Blue Schools”, meaning they have adopted the nationwide “Escola Azul” educational programme. The programme is an initiative of the Portuguese Ministry of Economy and Maritime affairs and aims to improve ocean literacy in schools. The multidisciplinary programme relies on collaboration between several member entities, including schools, the maritime sector, municipalities, NGOs or hubs like Ocean Devotion Madeira. The programme’s aim is to guide students and create a united community of responsible and active generations that contribute to ocean sustainability.

    Key Information

    Who is leading the process locally?

    The Steering Committee members are:

    • Paula Thake and Joana Gomes (Lobosonda Madeira Whale-Watching)
    • Melanie Magnan (Ocean Devotion)
    • Luis Freitas (Museu da baleia da Madeira)
    • Filipe Alves and Rita Ferreira (MARE-ARDITI)
    • Mafalda De Freitas Araujo and Filipa Pinho Duarte (SRMar)
    • Philippe Moreau (Greeneract App)
    • Carolina Jardim Santos (IFCN IP-RAM)
    • Svetlana Azernikova-Yurzditskaya (ARTE.M and Art Center Caravel)

    Actions and Recommendations

     As part of the designation process, the Independent Review Panel (IRP) set out a series of actions and recommendations for the area to complete before or by the end of Year 1 of WHA designated status.

    Recommendation 1

    Education and Awareness

    It is clear that the community influences and raises awareness about the protection of cetaceans and their habitats, including ways for everybody to help contribute to solutions. However, the judges strongly encouraged to partner with the local and regional Blue Flag network partners and awarded sites, municipalities, marinas, and tourism boats.

    The educational programmes that focus on cetaceans and are delivered to local communities are excellent. The judges suggest a way of further enhancing them would be to get in touch with the Eco-Schools/ecoescuelas programme for collaboration.

    Recommendation 2

    Responsible Practices and Enforcement

    While strong regulations are in place, and efforts are made to promote and enforce responsible whale and dolphin watching practices, the judges expect to see evidence that the range of stated intended actions in indicators 3.1, 3.2, 3.4, and 3.6, that are not yet implemented (e.g. education program for tour operators), are brought into reality.

    Images credits: First header (Lobosonda); Second header (Lobosonda); “Things to do” image (Madeira Whale Museum); Third header (Fatima Kutzschbach​); Fourth header (Fatima Kutzschbach​); “Who is leading the process locally” image (Madeira Whale Museum).  Gallery: First (beaked whale, Lobosonda); Second (coastline, Fatima Kutzschbach​​); Third (pilot whale, Lobosonda); Fourth (whale mural, photographer unknown); Fifth (Madeira Whale Museum researchers collecting data at sea, Madeira Whale Museum​).