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If only I had gills, Azores, Portugal 2016

When it comes to European diving, options aren’t numerous. In the crystal clear waters of Malta or in the far north of Scotland, shipwrecks are fantastic. But wildlife is scarce. I am sure there are many species of sharks, rays and marine mammals in the Mediterranean but it doesn’t seem there is one good spot from which to see them. Well, not in mainland at least. Far from shore, there is one place which offers just that. I didn’t come across it easily as it isn’t a popular diving destination but I am sure it will soon become one. Sharks and rays are almost guaranteed sightings there and many whale and dolphin species are regular visitors. Although it is quite litterally in the middle of the Atlantique Ocean, it is part of Portugal, making it one of the best European diving destinations to anyone who’s been there. The land there is the witness of brutal geologic activities going on under Earth’s crust. In fact, the nine islands are located on 3 different tectonic plates: the North American Plate, the Eurasian Plate and the African Plate. I am talking about the Azores Archipelago.

Sao Miguel island

It’s a long and painful journey to arrive at Ponta Delgada airport on the island of Sao Miguel, considered the main one. There I meet up with my parents for our first family holiday since I was a teenager. Yayyy ๐Ÿ˜€ I have to admit, I cannot wait to get underwater and the plan for the first day is just that. There isn’t much to see around Ponta Delgada apart from the wreck of a liberty ship which sank in WWII called the Dori. There is lots of metal on it, and I’m pretty sure it’s not all from the ship but probably also the cargo it was transporting to Europe. I always find it somewhat unreal when large fish come to frequent a wreck, which on this dive was a great barracuda. img_0590-1The day wouldn’t be complete with the best part of every dive holiday, the cold beer out in the sun.

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Most of the architecture in the area is similar to the facade of this church. Black volcanic rock is the most abundant material to use for buildings which are then painted in white creating an aesthetical contrast but also keep the heat away in the summer months.

The next couple of days are spent exploring the land (not very big, the island is barely a few kilometers wide). At Lagoa de Furnas, the ground is steaming.

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The water is boiling.

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Azoreans take advantage of the hot ground to cook the local meat stew.

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Hum, I can smell it as they take the pots out of the natural ovens, it makes me really hungry ๐Ÿ˜€dsc_0241

Even inside the local town of Furnas, boiling water is coming to the surface releasing a terrible sulfuric odor…

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Which comes to our advantage when relaxing our feet in 50 degrees water pool, although it is a bit too hot for mummy hahah.dsc_1920-1

Nearby, warm iron-saturated water comes out of the ground and is directed into a larger pool. I don’t know if it is supposed to be good for the skin, but it certainly isn’t for my white swimming shorts, now of a disgusting uneven brownish colour… :s

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But other than hot spots, the land is scared by past volcanic activitiy and craters are now filled with water. I am now looking over the Lagoa Azul, one of the two lakes in the Caldeira do Alferes, on the west side of the island. I am planning on hiking all the way around it, walking on the ridge we can see in the distance.

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The weather here is very peculiar. For the entire afternoon, clouds remain over the lake. But the path itself, being on the edge and closer to the sea, is also permanantly lit by the tropical sun.

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Approaching the sea, the view is absolutely stunning. Only a narrow and steep wall separates the lake from the ocean…

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… the path winding on its edge.

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That’s it for my stay on the island of Sao Miguel. Like I mentioned, there are nine islands making up the Azores. One in particular is drawing attention, to most people because of its volcano, the highest peak of Portugal, culminating at 2,351m. But to me, it’s the underwater wonders that draw me there.

Pico island

Humpback whales, blue whales, sperm whales and many others. Bottlenose dolphins, atlantic spotted dolphins, striped dolphins and again, many others. Blue sharks, mako sharks, devil rays, manta rays and, once again, many more species. You see where I’m going? The wildlife visiting the waters surrounding Pico is just astonishing and I am really looking forward to go and look for it. But first, it might be worth putting this into context. The Azores are located on large oceanic currents which animals use to travel. Rising from hundreds of meters deep, volcanic seamounts provide opportunities for many marine species to come to the surface to feed, rest and mate. The wildlife is so abundant that sightings are almost guaranteed. And I have to say, I got pretty lucky.

Princess Alice bank is located nearly 50 miles away from shore and it takes a minimum of 3 hours to get there. This oceanic seamount is completely underwater, the top of it some 40m underneath the surface.

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Divers hang on the line descending from the boat, waiting for something cool to happen.

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And today is pretty amazing. A school of 40+ mobula rays turn up and swim past us…

img_0616An incredible spectacle, at least from what I can remember… My mind was not ready to witness and record this unique moment. I don’t know if it’s the effect of excitement or nitrogen narcosis (cause by breathing nitrogen at depth), or maybe both, but I can barely remember this dive… A bit like after a heavy night out, you know you’ve had a good time, maybe you’ve got a few images stuck in your head, but that’s it! You’re missing all the connections and most of the reasons why you’ve had a good time! To add to the frustration, my camera settings were all wrong so I couldn’t even rely on it to try and bring back some memory…

I am so angry with myself for completely missing this moment, I book another trip to Princess Alice in the same evening for another opportunity to see mobulas. In the mean time, there is plenty more trips planned, the next one being with sharks.

There are two types present in the Azores waters: the blue shark, very graceful with its very thin body up to 3m in length, and the mako shark, shorter and bulkier but fastest of all reaching speeds of up to 75 km/h. I have previously freedived with the first in England (yes there are sharks in the Channel), in Cornwall. I had such a good time that I’m really looking forward to getting back in the water with them. I’m also really excited with the possibility of seeing the second, a much rarer and more special encounter. But first, we need to get chumming and Stefano is the lucky one having to prepare the lovely mixture. haha ๐Ÿ™‚dsc_0309I have read a lot about shark diving in the Azores, mostly associated with negative publicity from the fact that the sharks are fed. This is not true!!! It may be a practice used by certain dive operators but not the standard rule and certainly not a method used by CW Azores. Sharks are attracted with a “fishy juice” that smells strong but can’t feed them. I guess it’s a bit like chicken stock, it tastes great but you’re certainly not going to make a meal from it right? Anyway, three blue sharks turned up and, curious that they are, got very close. Here are the best shots.

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One of them even had a sort of remora fish (I guess) in its gills.

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There is something else about Pico that make it a really attractive destination to most grape amateurs: its landscape is classified as a Unesco World Heritage site. It specifically has to do with the vineyards. In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, it is definitely not in a climate zone normally appropriate for wine making. However, early settlers worked out that they could surround the vines with black volcanic rock. During daytime, the plants would enjoy hours of sunlight and the stones would get heated up by the sun. At night, these stones would release the accumulated warmth and create a micro-climate, allowing the vines ot grow and the grape to mature in unique conditions. Unfortunaly, phylloxera hit in the late 19th century and put a stop to Pico’s wine production. However, the land remains marked by this part of the island’s history.

We head to a place called Cachorro (portuguese for dog) because of the distinctive shape of a natural volcanic rock sculpture.

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Along the coasts remain the evidence of small ports where the wine barrels were loaded onto small boats and then transported onto larger ships just a few miles offsore.

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Very recently, a number of cooperatives are trying to revive the industry and restore the long-abandoned vineyards. I would certainly miss the opportunity to get a taste of the local grape juice. ๐Ÿ˜€ ๐Ÿ˜€ ๐Ÿ˜€

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Have you noticed in the corner? The perfect minibar! I’m definitely getting one of these in my house one day hรฉhรฉhรฉ ๐Ÿ™‚

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But the call of the sea is stronger and I am very quickly on a boat again, heading to Princess Alice Bank one last time. After the 3-hour journey, about half of the boat is sick but, luckily, I’m ok and I spend the first hour relying on my lungs as tanks. The activity is pretty low and I switch back to the traditional cylinder for the second dive… which ends up being the most boring and most fantastic dive of my life. Apart from a few rays passing by very quickly, I spend the first 70 minutes staring at an empty blue ocean. It’s so frustrating given the spectacle that I got to see a few days before (but can barely remember). However, a mobula finally turned up and gave Stefano and myself an even more unique spectacle. It circled around us for 10 minutes, coming extremely close and allowing for some fantastic clsoe ups.

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I love the pure curves of the animal gliding in the water towards me.

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The air in my cylinder is about to run out but I can’t get my eyes off the beautiful fish.

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The mobula alters its direction only a few meters away from me and passes within arm’s reach for a great portrait and a clsoe view to the two remoras stuck on it.

img_0741-edit-2_reduced-sizeI don’t think the dive could have ended much better than this, a combination of extremes. I am the happiest man in the world and the images are printing in my head in the 3-hour trip back to Pico.

Right, I’ve got only two days lefti n this trip. I have had a great time with blue sharks, a fantastic time with mobula rays but I’m still to experience the unforgettable experience with dolphins. And that’s not despite trying, I’ve already been on two trips! Yes they have been very good as we’ve seen a pod of common dolphins the first time and atlantic spotted dolphins the second time. But they stayed quite far and I am sure it can get better. And I’m not the kind of person who is going to give up! After a day spent getting wet while making an attempt to climb Mt Pico in the clouds, I head for my third (and last) dolphin trip. I fly in the afternoon so fingers crossed, I’ll be lucky.

Three hours have gone and we’ve just seen a pod of common dolphins in the distance… not looking too good. But at the last minute and literally 4 hours before I’m due to take off, we find a pod of bottlenose doplhins, the largest species and that of the famous Flipper. They are also very curious and give me another absoutely mind-blowing moment with marine wildlife.

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He looks really happy smiley dolphin this one doesn’t he???

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But the still images don’t quite do justice to the moment. The group of dolphins isn’t too shy and sticks around for a bit, some individuals checking me out. I can play and play the video again, this is certainly one of my best underwater interaction with a marine animal of my life!

Once again, persistence pays off and the numerous and long hours of searching were definitely worth the last few minutes. Now it’s time to head back to the continent. I’m late on my schedule but I should be alright to catch my flight. To be honest, it doesn’t really matter. I’m just the happiest man in the world right now. And before I have the time to sit back or look at my images, I am at the airport waiting to board on my flight back home. Now is the time to review all the videos of sharks, rays and dolphins, all condensed in a short film.

Wow, the Azores have been asbolutely incredible. The underwater world of Pico is unique and I can’t think of any other place in the world that can provide so many opportunities to see iconic species like here. I think I have absolutely loved it because it is relatively undiscovered. Mass tourism has not quite reached these islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean so it still remains very authentic. Part of me would like it to stay like this as it gives the destination its charm and attractiveness. However, the other part of me knows that for the wildlife to be protected, it needs the revenue from tourism. I also wish for wildlife and underwater lovers to discover this incredible place, which gave me unforgettable memories. And let’s not forget, one of the best thing about diving is the time spent relaxing in the evening with a glass of wine in the hand, a tasty dinner on the table and the company of family. ๐Ÿ˜€