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The Azores

 

The second Whale Heritage Area in Europe

The Azores offers excellent conditions for cetaceans, and all nine islands in the archipelago have a strong connection with these magnificent creatures, from historic whaling practices to the current whale watching tourism activities. This bond is evident in the multiple cultural and socio-economic activities linked to cetaceans throughout the region.

Over 110,000 km2 of marine areas around the archipelago are under some form of protection, which is a testament to the Azores’ commitment to environmental conservation. In this beautiful region, 28 different species of cetacean have been recorded – approximately one-third of all cetacean species globally – making it a location with some of the highest species richness in the Atlantic and even on the planet. This biological abundance has fuelled the thriving Azorean whale watching industry and has put the islands on the map for those wanting to experience these majestic marine mammals in the wilds of the Atlantic Ocean.

The Azores became a designated Whale Heritage Area in February 2023.

KEY FACTS

Location

    • Region – Europe
    • Country – Portugal
    • Area/State – Azores

Cetacean species

      • Sperm whales
      • Bottlenose dolphin
      • Common dolphin
      • Risso’s dolphin
      • Fin whales
      • Sei whales

    The Destination

    Location

    The Azores Whale Heritage Area encompasses all nine islands and the ocean area up to 200 nautical miles from the coast.

    The Azores archipelago is situated in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean approximately 2000 km from the Canadian coast and 1500 km from mainland Portugal. It’s located at the Azores Triple Junction, where three tectonic plates converge. Despite being surrounded by deep waters, the volcanic nature of the islands creates a variety of submarine mounts, canyons, and shallower waters closer to the islands that interact with the dynamic ocean of the region, providing a diverse range of habitats for marine life.

    The waters of the Azores host numerous protected areas that provide various levels of management and safeguarding for their distinctive flora and fauna.

    Cetaceans regularly seen

    Sightings indicate that the waters off the Azores are host to an impressive 28 different species of cetaceans, comprising 21 toothed whales and 7 baleen whales.

    A number of these amazing creatures can be spotted throughout the year, such as the sperm whale, bottlenose dolphin, common dolphin, and Risso’s dolphin. Meanwhile, other species only grace the Azorean waters seasonally, such as the Atlantic spotted dolphins.

    For those lucky enough, you can spot certain species, such as the incredible blue whale, sei whale, and fin whale, as they travel past the Azorean islands during their migrations.

    Cetacean Heritage

    For the past five centuries, the people of the Azores have had a strong connection to cetaceans. It began with the use of stranded whales and captured dolphins as a source of food, but it wasn’t until the mid-eighteenth century, when north American whalers introduced sperm whale hunting to the region, that the Azoreans became actively involved as crew.

    Whaling eventually became an integral part of the Azorean cultural identity, although it’s thankfully no longer practiced. With the rise of whale watching, conservation of living whales has taken on a new importance. Today, the same land-based whale lookouts, known as “Vigias,” that were once employed by whalers are now used by whale watching companies to guide their tours.

    Things to do

     

    • Take a whale watching trip with one of the many licenced operators on São Miguel, Pico, Faial, or Terceira.
    • Visit one of the ‘Vigias da Baleia’, lookout points traditionally used by whalers and now used for whale watching.
    • Take a hike on one of the 11 Rotas da Baleação (Whaling Routes) to discover the whaling heritage of the Azores.
    • Visit the Whalers’ Museum and the Whalers’ Museum Library in Lajes do Pico (Pico).
    • Attend one of the many festivals and celebrations of whales, whaling culture, and marine biodiversity on the islands.
    • Visit Capelas, São Miguel on the third weekend of July for the ‘Whalers’ Week’.

    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 the Azores Whale Heritage Area:

    Encouraging Respectful Human-Cetacean Coexistence

    Whaling holds a significant position in the cultural heritage of the Azores, playing a vital role in shaping the local identity. However, it was the emergence of the Azorean whale watching industry that truly positioned living whales as a natural treasure and symbol of the Azores and its link with the ocean and distant countries.

    Whale watching companies in the Azores are licenced by the local government and follow strict regulation for protocols around cetaceans at sea. The crew also collect valuable data to help further scientific understanding of cetacean populations, behaviours and more.

    Many of the whale watching operators in the Azores have gone above and beyond in their commitment to responsible practices, with many having signed up to the Azores sustainability charter, and two operators have received the WCA Responsible Whale and Dolphin Watching Certification.

    Celebrating Cetaceans

    The Azores has experienced a remarkable shift from its historical legacy of whaling to a profound appreciation and celebration of its diverse marine life. In recognition of this transformation, many artistic, educational, and cultural institutions and events have emerged to commemorate and honour this newfound perspective and to celebrate cetaceans and the marine ecosystems surrounding the islands.

    Throughout the archipelago, there are several educational centres and museums that not only acknowledge the abundant marine diversity but also pay homage to the enduring relationship between the Azorean people and whales, as well as the historical and cultural significance of this connection.

    Celebrations often reflect the spiritual and symbolic importance attributed to cetaceans, as well as the maritime history of the Azores.. These events are also often accompanied by environmental education initiatives, which aim to strengthen public awareness of technological advancements, academic developments, and marine biodiversity, particularly in relation to cetaceans.

    The transition from whaling to whale watching is highlighted in the festivities, showcasing the evolving relationship between Azoreans and cetaceans as a symbol of their culture and legacy, which they proudly celebrate. Today, artists, musicians, and craftsmen find endless inspiration in the presence of whales, and their creations are embraced by both locals and visitors alike.

    Working Towards Sustainability

    The Azores holds the distinction of being the world’s first certified archipelago to receive the EarthCheck silver Sustainable Tourism Destination certification, in accordance with the standards set by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC). This recognition highlights the Azores’ commitment to sustainable tourism practices and the region is actively working towards achieving the gold certification by 2024.

    The Azores has also implemented a regional initiative known as the Sustainability Charter of the Azores. With over 200 signatories across the nine islands, including several whale watching operators, the charter focuses on recording and reporting sustainability indicators.

    Internally across businesses and organisations of the Azores, various measures are implemented to promote sustainability. These include practices such as recycling generated waste, reducing printing, eliminating single-use packaging, and encouraging the use of refillable canteens instead of plastic water bottles.

    Developing Research, Education and Awareness Programmes

    In the Azores, both public and private entities have developed several environmental education initiatives, with a strong focus on the “Eco-escolas” or “Escola Azul” programmes, which aim to integrate ocean literacy into the school curriculum. The FUNDAÇÃO OCEANO AZUL, through its Blue Azores programme, strives to equip children with specialised knowledge about the ocean and raise student awareness about its importance. To achieve this objective, the “Educating a Blue Generation” programme empowers teachers by providing them with comprehensive manuals and curricula specifically tailored to the Azorean Sea and its historical significance.

    Whale watching companies in the Azores also play a significant role in promoting environmental education. They frequently offer special opportunities for local schools to participate in their tours, where marine biologists onboard adapt the information to suit the younger audience.

    An abundance of research has emerged as a result of collaboration between universities, whale watching companies, and governmental initiatives, resulting in a greater understanding of cetacean populations and behaviours in the Azores. While published data vitally contributes to the wider academic literature, close collaboration between researchers and whale watching companies allows for new understanding to be incorporated into tours directly.

    Key Information

    Who is leading the process locally?

    The Steering Committee members are (as of July 2022):

    • José Azevedo (University of the Azores, São Miguel)
    • Laura González García (University of the Azores, São Miguel)
    • Ana Cristina Costa (University of the Azores, São Miguel)
    • Pedro Miguel (Picos de Aventura, São Miguel)
    • Maria Inês Pavão (Ocean Azores Foundation, São Miguel)
    • Rui Martins (University of the Azores, São Miguel)
    • Fadia Al Abbar (Wageningen University, Azores delphis Project, São Miguel)
    • Luis Barcelos (Terceira)
    • Lorenzo Fiori (Azores delphis Project, São Miguel)
    • Gilberto Carreira (Direção Regional de Politica do Mar, Faial)
    • Ruben Rodrigues (Futurismo Azores Adventures, São Miguel)
    • Raquel Pereira (Cámara Municipal das Lajes do Pico, Pico)

    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

    Sustainability

    The Azores WHA Steering Committee should continue to work with stakeholders to encourage the further development of plans for reducing the environmental impact of tourism and showcasing sustainable practices on a grass root level, for example::

    • Take further steps to reduce plastics at events and whale watching tours.
    • Create partnerships with other key stakeholders to develop projects and outreach programs working to address any environmental threats at the site.
    • Provide clearer information on the importance of sustainable practices on Steering Committee members’ websites.
    • Implement wider measures to encourage reduction in energy use and adoption of renewable technologies.
    • Establish initiatives and incentives to reduce carbon emissions in the tourism sector.
    • Further develop campaigns to promote environmental sustainability throughout the community and with local businesses.
    • Implement measures to reduce water pollution.
    • Implement measures to reduce discarded fishing gear and other solid waste entering waterways.
    • Provide sustainability training for local tourism businesses.
    • Communicate WHA designation and the underlying principles of WHA to community members across the site.
    • Implement or share Blue Flag best practices for beaches and marinas.
    Recommendation 2

    Regular training

    The judges recommend further development of regular training appropriate to the whale watching industry. They understand there is some training in place already that is required by law and regulations. They suggest adding a general course that operators involved in the WHA initiative could implement to train and give formal education to new staff members, especially people from other countries that work as guides for a season, to ensure they provide the appropriate local knowledge and know how to approach wildlife.

    Recommendation 3

    Enforcement

    The judges recommend the further engagement of all sections of the local community, including whale watching operators and marine conservation organisations, to work in collaboration with the local authorities to promote or advocate for more public enforcement.

    Recommendation 4

    Swimming with dolphins

    Swim-with-dolphins activities has been carried out by some tour operators in the Azores region at a time when there is mounting evidence that the activity disturbs cetaceans elsewhere.

    Ongoing research to assess the impact of any swim-with programmes in the Azores must be prioritised, with results feeding in to future management strategies. It is understood that there are some stakeholders currently undertaking this research. We request any early results as soon as they are available.

    Images credits: First header (Antonio Aquarius); Second header (Rui Silveira); “Things to do” image (Christian Gebhardt); Third header (Luca Nebuloni); Fourth header (Tom Swinnen); “Who is leading the process locally” image (Ali Bullock).  Gallery: First (dolphins, Alexandr Lipov); Second (sperm whale tail flukes, Laura González García); Third (archipelago, Ferdinand Stohr); Fourth (short-finned pilot whale, Christine Veeschkens); Fifth (archipelago coastline, Andre Mendonca); Sixth (Risso’s dolphin, William Terry Hunefeld); Seventh (boats in harbour, unukorno); Ninth (painted boats, Martin Talbot).