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Dec 13
in Underwater, Publications, Conservation, Photo Stories 0 Comments spermwhale, Azores, Atlantic, conservation
joostvanuffelen's picture

From whaling to whale watching

The archipelago of the Azores has a rich maritime history as well as an incredible attraction to marine wildlife.

Being an important hub between the Americas and the old continent sailors have been visiting the islands for centuries.

The Azoreans are reknowned for their seafaring skills as well. Because of that the Azoreans have also been involved in the American whalehunt since the 1960's. 

American whalers would stop over at the islands to stock up for their journeys and sometimes also welcomed seafaring Azoreans in their crew.

Years later the Azoreans started their own hunt for "Baleia"; the sperm whale (since they never hunted other whales than the sperm whale in their own waters).

This portfolio shows images of an industry that dramatically changed over time, from whale hunting to whale watching.

Interestingly enough many methods that came to be and lessons learned during the whaling days now are used in an ecofriendly way to benefit the tourism industry.

Local whale hunting in the Azores started due to the American whalers that visited the islands on stopovers to whaling grounds in the worlds oceans.

Halfway through the 19th century that local hunt florished. In 1890 in total 33 Portugese companies were hunting sperm whales of which most were located on the island of Pico.

The hunt in the Azores never grew as industrial as elsewhere, although also in the Azores machines supported the whaling industry in its hay days.

Azoreans have for example never used grenade harpoons which were used heavily and mortally effective by other whaling nations.

In the Azores so called Vigia's (spotters) would signal the arrival of whales. Their lookouts are placed on the steep hill sides of the volcanic islands, sometimes even located in between the islands worldfamous vineyards.

In the early days fireworks would be lit and later radio's were used to transmit the news of the arrival of the whales.

Once the news reached the whalers they would leave their day job (many were for example baker or carpenter by profession next to being a whaler) to go and hunt the whales.

Specifically designed whaling boats from the Azores would go after the whales using sails and oares to get (silently) close to the whales.

A harpoon would be thrown to fasten the boat to the whale. Once the whale would dive the whalers would allow it to take line.

Sometimes the dive would be so deep that the line had to be cut to prevent the boat from capsizing.

Other times the whale would only take a limited amount of line which would be cooled by pouring seawater on it.

When the whale would loose its strength lances would be thrown at it in hopes to hit a lung, or better, the heart..

The whales would be brought back to shore by using a motorized vessle where the whales would be processed.

The whalers were mostly after the oil and spermacti that the whales bodies contained.

Of special interest to the whalers was the so called ambergris which was (and still is) used in the production of perfumes.

This by-product of the metabolism of a sperm whale consists of encapsulated squid beaks. Once the whale expells the substance (by vomiting or defecating) the ambergris floats on the surface and hardens.

Nowadays one kilogram of ambergris still fetches a whopping €6000,00!

Other parts of the spermwhale that were used were its blubber and bones.

With the whaling industry a special art called "Scrimshaw" developed and became a common practice in the Azores.

In the Peter Sport Café in Faial one of the largest private collection in the world is on display.

Today, many places where previously the whale industry thrived are now turned into museums. On Pico both in Lajes as well as in Sao Roque you can find museums.

The Sao Roque museum is hosted in the former whale factory and it hosts besides all the machinery used in the process also (most probably) the smallest spermwhale foetus in the world.

The little animal that was taken from the womb of a killed sperm whale cow is only 7 cm long.

On Faial the Porto Pim whaling station is also turned into a museum. It has a great collection items from back in the whaling days as well as an incredible skeleton of a spermwhale.

This whaling museum is also the most modern museum and a must-see for anyone interested in whaling history.


Images from this portfolio have been published in the February 2019 edition of Duiken Magazine.

joostvanuffelen's picture
About the Author:
Joost loves the oceans, travelling and (underwater)photography. Combining those three elements he creates ocean art, travel reports and ocean photo stories...

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