Azores – An oasis in the Atlantic

Azores – An oasis in the Atlantic
Devil rays (mobula tarapacana) Santa Maria Island

In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, almost half way between the United States and Europe, lie the most remote group of islands in the Atlantic ocean, The Azores. For the many species that migrate the Atlantic, the Azores is an oasis in a big blue desert. The Azores is at the epicenter of the cold and nutrient-rich currents of the North and the warm waters of the Gulf Stream from the South. These currents meet to create an upwelling resulting in an explosion of life every year.

Text and images by Nuno SÁ

The beginning of this cycle starts with the spring “bloom” as the water gets warmer and fills with microscopic algae, giving it a greenish hew. This attracts the biggest and smallest of the ocean’s animals. This microscopic algae, or phytoplankton, attract zooplankton, which in turn attract and serves as nourishment to giant travellers crossing the ocean. Blue, fin, bryde’s, sei and minke whales arrive, stopping in these nutrient rich waters, to gather strength and food in order to complete their migration north to the cold Arctic waters. During their visit to the islands, these large baleen whales meet the Azores’ resident giant of the seas, the pods of sperm whales that hunt for squid in the deep waters that surround the archipelago.

When the first days of summer arrive the water gets clearer by the day, yet the food chain continues with the microscopic plankton giving way to large bait balls of fish and the multitude of predators that follow. As the warm summer breezes arrive so do the more tropical species such as large pods of Atlantic spotted dolphins, pilot whales, loggerhead turtles, devil rays, blue and mako and whale sharks and finally, the large schools of fish.

Loggerhead turtle Santa Maria Island

The archipelago of the Azores comprises nine islands and lies over five hundred kilometres (approximately three hundred and ten miles). These nine islands are the most isolated in the North Atlantic, situated one thousand, three hundred kilometres (approximately eight hundred and seven miles) from the southwestern coast of mainland Portugal.

Diving is possible at all of the islands of the archipelago and encompasses shore dives, cave dives, wreck dives and the Azores highlight – diving on distant underwater mountains (seamounts) where dozens of manta rays and big schools of fish are a common sight.

The archipelago can be divided into three groups – eastern, central and western. Within each group, the islands are in close proximity to each other (just four miles from Pico to Faial in the central group), but each group can be up to over a hundred miles away from the next. Yet, each island is so different from the other that it is hard to describe them as group. What they do have in common is peace and quiet, breathtaking volcanic landscapes and cows everywhere … roads included.

Underwater, these islands are as diverse as they are on the surface, with blue sharks at one island and whale sharks at another. Or a World War II shipwreck on one island and 15th and 16th century wrecks on another. Coastal dives are however, rather similar throughout the archipelago. Because the islands are of volcanic origin the islands underwater rock formations are very impressive, with large arches that originate from ancient lava flows and deep caves that inter-connect to several chambers.

Typical sea life includes large dusky groupers, curious triggerfish, and several species of nudibranchs, morays and octopus amongst the rocks. Colorful red hogfish are normally more common at greater depths of twenty meters or more where the black coral (Antipathella wollastoni) branches are also quite common.

Many small and colourful species such as peacock wrasse, parrotfish, Azores chromis (Chromis limbata) and Mediterranean rainbow wrasse can also be seen. Large shoals of pelagic fish such as guelly jack, almaco jack, yellow mouth barracuda, Atlantic bonito or, for the luckier, a majestic devil ray, a turtle or an ocean sunfish are occasionally sighted on coastal dives. But the offshore underwater seamounts are definitely the place to visit for big pelagics and are what makes the Azores a unique diving destination.

Azores Highlights
Some of the most well known diving experiences in these Islands are the Princesa Alice offshore seamount, and diving with blue sharks in high seas. Both these dive experiences are to be found in the central group of islands and are done from Pico or Faial Islands. Diving offshore seamounts is among the best diving these islands have to offer and the Princesa Alice dive is definitely second to none. Located about forty-five miles from Faial Island (three hour trip) this seamount erupts from a depth of in excess of five hundred metres to around thirty-five meters below the surface.

Offshore dives in high seas are completely unpredictable, but big groups of curious devil rays and big shoals of thousands of large pelagic fish, such as yellow mouth barracudas, jacks, and especially Atlantic bonitos, are among the main attractions. Several species of shark, ocean sunfish or manta rays are also among the most sighted species. Of course, with the Azores being home to over twenty different species of whales and dolphins, the trip to Princes Alice always includes some ocean travellers such dolphins, sperm whales or loggerhead turtles.

The Azores is also one of the few places in the world where you can dive with one of the sea’s most beautiful predators – the blue shark, and Pico and Faial are the birthplace of this new activity. Diving with blue sharks is done “in the blue”, either snorkeling or scuba diving, and is definitely an unforgettable experience. Just minutes after a container with bait hits the pristine water subtle shadows can be seen shooting from hundreds of meters deep straight to the surface.

Cautious and elusive at first but settled as their confidence grows, these predators of the deep are extremely curious. They approach and inspect every diver, sometimes even lightly brushing divers with a tactile test along the shark’s sensitive lateral line. On a typical dive divers are surrounded by eight to fifteen of these beautiful predators of the high seas, with the occasional elusive mako shark showing up for a quick visit.

Santa Maria Island situated in the eastern group, is probably the Azores best kept secret. It is a small island with white sandy beaches and is completely off the beaten track boasting whale sharks and groups of devil rays just thirty minutes from the harbour. Although big groups of devil rays are typically seen on offshore seamounts, Santa Maria is the only island of the Azores where you can see dozens of these majestic animals slowly gliding around divers on a daily basis just three miles from the coast. This happens in a place called Ambrósio, and you can literally see up to fifty devil rays on a single dive, as well as large shoals of pelagic fish … topping it off with the occasional whale shark.

Up to three years ago whale sharks were a very rare sight and mostly described by tuna fisherman after encounters in high seas. However since 2008 the biggest fish of the sea has chosen the island of Santa Maria to spend the summer. Nonetheless spotting this colossus is not for the
faint of heart, as they usually appear about six miles from the coast, which involves setting aside a day to search for them and being prepared for many hours out at sea. But when you do get lucky the experience is priceless; pristine blue water several hundred meters deep, shades of sunlight descending beneath you and a massive whale shark followed by hundreds or thousands of tuna hitching a ride through the Atlantic.

Around twenty-five miles south from Santa Maria (or about forty-five miles north from São Miguel) are two of the Azores most well known offshore dives – Formigas and Dollabarat. Formigas is a series of small rocky islets in the middle of the ocean where a small and uninhabited lighthouse was constructed to prevent ship collisions (unfortunately there were many before it was built).

Dollabarat is an underwater seamount just three miles from Formigas, so making the trip usually involves diving at both sites. What both dives have in common is amazing visibility (up to forty metres and more) and the chance to see big shoals of oceanic pelagic fish such as wahoo, yellow mouth barracudas, jacks, and Atlantic bonitos, as well as devil rays, hammerhead sharks and the occasional manta ray or whale shark. Between dozens of devil rays at Ambrósio, going out for the whale sharks, taking a trip to Formigas and Dollabarat (including a few species of whales, dolphins and sea turtles on the way there), and a few sunsets at Praia Formosa beach, it is no surprise that the divers who are lucky enough to have these experiences like to keep this island a secret.

Aside from the abovementioned highlights, each of the nine islands of the Azores has excellent and different dives. The western group (Flores and Corvo) being the most remote of the islands is known to have breathtaking landscapes, the most pristine waters and is the best place to see large groupers. Terceira Island in the central group is the top place to see 15th – 16th century wrecks, and São Miguel Island on the eastern group is home to the Azores’ most famous wreck dive – the World War II Liberty Ship – DORI.

Visiting the Azores: The Azores’ nine islands offer world-class diving, amazing landscapes, fewer tourists and a lot of peace and quiet. With reasonable coastal dives and the chance of unique experiences on offshore dives, the Azores offers dives for every taste and level of experience. However thinking you can visit all of the Azores “highlights” in just one trip is simply an illusion.

The distance between islands means you should plan some of the more isolated ones as a destination on its own. Yet it is possible to dive in two or three islands in a one to two week trip and still have time for whale watching and sight seeing.

When to go: July to September are the months with the warmest water, best weather, best visibility and best chances to sight pelagic species. Water can get as cold as 16 – 17cº in the winter, and is a pleasing 25cº in the summer. Air temperature, not surprisingly, approximates the water temperature since the islands are very small and hugely influenced by the surrounding mass of water.

Getting there and around: There are airports and daily connections between all the islands, as well as regular boat connections in the summer. TAP (www.tap.pt) and SATA (www.sata.pt) have direct flights to the Azores from Lisbon and several other European capitals as well as Boston, Oakland, Montreal and Toronto. There are 2 official boat operators in the Azores as well as plenty of private taxi services. Transmaçor (www.transmacor.pt) only operates in the central group, while Atlanticoline (www.atlanticoline.pt) connects all the islands. Boat connections work very well in the Western Group (Flores and Corvo) and also between the “Triangle Islands” in the central group (Faial, Pico and São Jorge) with several daily connections. However moving between any other Islands can sometimes be very time consuming and it’s well worth taking a flight. However if you don’t mind taking a day off for the trip it can be very nice (and cheaper) to take a boat trip along the Islands.

Other than that just relax, and get into its easygoing ambiance. After your first visit I am sure you will feel you have discovered a small paradise in the Atlantic.

Devil rays (mobula tarapacana)

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