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An incredible first time whale watch in the Azores

© Gretchen
© Gretchen

Gretchen D's story

Off to the Azores islands

I grew up in Acton MA, spent every summer of my life (except one) on Cape Cod, loved dolphins and whales since I was a young girl, and yet had never gone on a whale watch – until I was 40 years old and stationed with the US Air Force on the Azores islands. I thought about how cool it would be to say that my first whale watch was in the waters of the Azores! A place where the iconic sperm whale is reportedly in the waters all through the year, and that the blue whale, migrates through these waters? Oh my!

© Gretchen
© Gretchen
© Gretchen
© Gretchen

A birthday gift to myself

My April birth month is a time when the blue whale is migrating off the Azores and, though I knew the odds were small, I just had to try to meet those odds in order to see the largest mammal on earth! So, I planned my first whale watch ever as a birthday gift to myself. I had found a delightful Bed & Breakfast on the island of Pico attached to the whale watch company. I signed up for both excursions available that day. Prior to going out on the boat, all guests received a talk about whales and dolphins and protecting them and the ocean. Then the spotters reported what they were seeing, and we were told there was a guarantee of seeing dolphins, but no guarantee of whales. Did we still want to go? OF COURSE! My fellow watchers were two French families of four each.

© Gretchen
© Gretchen
© Gretchen
© Gretchen

The first sighting

In addition to the pilot, the whale watch group had a marine biologist accompany the group. So, we took off in the boat, stopped while getting more directions from the spotters (on land), and then we were off again. Stopped again, and I asked, more directions? And was told, No, sperm whale…straight ahead! I think my heart stopped a second with the thrill that went with me. I still can’t describe the feeling, especially since I honestly did not have my expectations high. There it was. I was in awe. We saw another sperm whale “spy hop” (of course that’s where I learned the term!) from a distance. A small pod of bottlenose dolphins came by. And then another sperm whale, and the biologist was watching the body language of the whale and conveyed that it was about to dive, and I got a photo of the flukes as it dove, and I remember thinking, I’m good now! Anything more is just frosting on the cake.

© Gretchen, male sperm whale
© Gretchen, male sperm whale
© Gretchen, spy hop
© Gretchen, spy hop

More sperm whales

Well, I received abundantly more… A sperm whale mother and calf—and again the biologist talked us through what we were seeing. And then a call came in from the spotter—possibly a blue whale sighted—but in order to go try to see it, it was going to take the rest of our time on the excursion to get out there, and everyone on the boat had to agree. I said a quick prayer, and oh yes, the group didn’t hesitate to say YES. And on the way to find the blue whale, beautiful common dolphins played in the boat wake. I love their markings!

© Gretchen, nursing calf
© Gretchen, nursing calf
© Gretchen, mom and calf
© Gretchen, mom and calf
© Gretchen
© Gretchen
© Gretchen
© Gretchen

And then, and then…. a FIN whale. Three of them! At first, I was “disappointed” (not really, how could I be? But still….) Although it was not a blue whale the biologist said at least one of the fin whales was estimated to be 20 meters in length—the largest fin they had seen in those waters, and it was bigger than some of the blue whales they had seen. In fact, that’s why the spotter thought it was a blue. So, I thought—well if my goal was to try to see the largest mammal on earth—the size of the fin whale essentially gave me the sense of the largest animal. It was surreal watching them. Pictures can’t begin to capture the memory.

“C’est magnifique”

We could only see the very tops of the whales. And I tried to envision the rest of the mammoth creature beneath the surface but just couldn’t. I watched as it took a breath and then the rest of the top of the body broke the surface and kept going and going and going due to its length. One of the French fathers said in an awed voice “c’est magnifique.” No translation necessary. In fact, perhaps that’s why I like languages, because the essence of it is captured better in a different language. And then it was time to head back in.

© Gretchen, fin whale
© Gretchen, fin whale
© Gretchen, fin whale
© Gretchen, fin whale

Incredibly awesome and awesomely incredible

The biologist and the captain both exclaimed what a rare excursion to see so many animals, and the size of them… They knew I was going on another excursion that afternoon and I think they were worried I would expect to have a similar experience—I assured them I was not thinking that—I just wanted to maximize my odds by spending as much time as I could of my birthday weekend. The afternoon excursion had many more sperm whales, and I learned to anticipate, too, when the animals were about to dive. The biologist said one of the sperm whales was a male—you could tell by the helmet like formation of its head. We also found a pod of literally hundreds of bottlenose dolphins, with babies, that we were able to cruise with for a long time.

My camera battery had run out, and I just decided instead of fretting about it (since there was nothing I could do anyways)—to just simply enjoy and take in it all. I write this “novel” about my first whale watch for a few reasons. It’s wonderful to relive the memories, but also, I think I was hoping to be able to come up with the words to explain and describe how I felt that day. I won’t be able to, but I’ll try. I can remember never ever feeling what I felt that day. Stunned awe. Life changing experience—and that’s not a cliché. I finally understood what that phrase meant. Incredibly awesome. Awesomely incredible! So so special. Beautiful. Breathtaking.

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