Azores - Mantas, sharks, great wine...
September 1- 8, 2011
So here I am sitting at the airport in Ponta Delgada on the main island Sao Miguel, waiting for our flight to Pico (via Terceira). The flight down (charter) took 4 hours and 40 minutes and was smooth sailing. Sat on the flight talking to a guy behind me that was going to spend a week here fishing. His eyes got really huge when I mentioned all of the diving on Pico... hoping now for a new customer. :o)
I am traveling with my two kids (Elinora 4 and Sam 2) and my husband Henrik. We are going to spend 6 nights on the island of Pico before heading back for 1 night here in Ponta Delgada. We are hoping to do whale watching tomorrow to get the kids (and ourselves) adjusted.
And so to the detail that you are all wanting to know.... YES... it is hot and sunny here! At least 26 degrees and the breeze made it feel heavenly. I promise to send some your way.
I just needed to tell you about the flight that landed in Terceira. With Ellie asleep on my lap, I spent most of the trip staring out of the window. I couldn't quite figure out what I was seeing, but soon realized that it was whales and dolphins. So cool!
One of my biggest passions in life is food and Portugal does not disappoint. I have this thing about grocery shopping (it is in my DNA, as my mother is the same) and no matter where we are in the world, I drag my family into a local grocery shop. As we are staying in a fully equipped apartment, we wanted to stock up on our supplies. Admittedly I did bring some basic items with me from Sweden, as I was sure that the prices would be quite high here. To my great surprise, they were quite reasonable. The big grocery shop had a bakery, deli and fish counter. The selection was excellent!
After a long day of travelling, we finally arrived at our apartment. The first thing that I noticed was that we were right across the road from the ocean, and the kids thought that it was great that we had four beds "and there is even a bathroom mommy!" Thank god kids are so easy to please. :o)
Today we are off for some whale watching. A third of the worlds whale species goes past the Azores, with one of the most common species being the sperm whale. The group leaving for our whale safari was given a thorough briefing by Enrico, the dive shop owner. Extremely knowledgable and enthusiastic, Enrico gave not only a briefing about what would happen on the trip, but gave a fantastic description of the whales.
Off we went to our rib. Elinora and Sam sat right at the front and were very excited about the trip. As we zoomed off over the Atlantic waters, jumping the waves with the wind blowing through our hair and the sun shining above, Elinora decided that we should just turn around, "its too bumpy!" I think that I spent the next 45 minutes convincing her that this was going to be lots of fun. Luckily there was a whale that showed up. Our first sperm whale was a juvenile that showed up. The boat driver (a great guy that spun the rib around to grab Elinora's hat that flew off her head while high speed driving towards the whales!!!), knew his stuff and kept a keen eye out for the mother. And BINGO.. we found her. The swift spout of mist raising into the air was the give away.
As we are watching the mother whale, Elinora tells us that she sees another whale off to her left. Being the all believing mother (there were a lot of waves and white caps...), I told her that it was maybe a magic whale. "Wow, yeah maybe" she says. NO, it was a HUGE sperm whale that she saw. The biggest whale we saw during the whole trip!! I told her that she could become a whale spotter. "No, I am going to be a ballerina. But I could spot whales when I am not dancing."
Today we wandered around the village to see if there was anything exciting to see. I have to admit that there is no bustling downtown, but it is a cute little village where you instantly relax and feel at home. On the way we stopped to watch the local football team go through a practice run. Even the smallest of villages has a well-built large arena for watching and cheering on its local team.
We thought that we should go to the tourist information centre to get details about the island. The girl there was very sweet, but SO nervous. She was shaking like a leaf in a windstorm while trying to tell me how to get to the local caves.
After lunch and a very needed nap (all of this fresh ocean air mixed with listening to the sounds of the waves crashing in against the shore, makes you very sleepy), I went out for my first dive. I got my kit together (I forgot how heavy steel cylinders can be…), listened to an informative briefing by our guide Joao (pronounced Jano) and headed off to the rib. Like other things in the Azores, diving is weather specific and here, the wind never stops. Joao told us during the briefing about two alternative dive sites just in case the first one was too rough. Lucky for us the conditions were okay and we stuck to the original plan.
The dive site was amongst the volcanic rock that had spilled into the ocean roughly three hundred years earlier. As the hot lava hit the cool ocean waters, it created a huge upheaval, leaving in its path large bridges, tunnels and swim-throughs. We started our decent in 22 degree water and bottomed at about 25 m (21 degrees). What I noticed first was that the visibility was fantastic! We had at least 30 m of visibility and the sea was rough that day.
Diving here was similar to diving in the Mediterranean. There are no corals or super colourful fish, but the marine life was rich in other ways. Groupers, jacks, breams and wrasse are abundant and other dives, my dive buddy told me about seeing morays, eagle rays and stingrays. The excitement of this dive was to go in, under and around the lava rock and find small things. Personally I just enjoyed being in the water, responsible only for myself, and no one asking me when we were going to buy ice cream! :o)
Unfortunately sea conditions meant that we have been unable to go to Princess Alice. I am destined to never see a manta! On the other hand, it is a tough trip with almost three hours of boating on a rib to get to the site. Then two dives, with surface interval spent at sea. Then a three hours trip home to harbour again. For the dive season of 2012, the dive centre has purchased a new boat that will arrive early in the season. This will allow for more space for the divers and a more comfortable trip. Well needed!
Sunday we decided to head off to the neighbouring island of Faial. A thirty minute trip across the channel on a ferry boat brought us to the village of Horta. A quiet and very pretty harbour village, Horta offered up plenty of restaurants serving local fare, shops selling souvenirs and whale and dolphin information, as well as places to rent bicycles or scooters. Only 8 km from the Horta airport, this is a really good option for arriving to Madalena and Pico, as there is a direct flight from Lisbon to Horta every day.
After Horta, we literally ran home to meet the babysitter before heading off to get briefed about the shark dive. We made it back to the dive centre at 14:30 and listened as our small, but tough divemaster told us about what we should expect. So there I was amongst these three serious dive boys from England, two from Russia (they spoke English and were quite nice by the way...) and Henrik. As our divemaster started going into his briefing, he mentioned several times that the sea conditions were REALLY TOUGH. So being me, I asked just how tough because the ride out should only take one hour. "I wouldn't be surprised if it takes us at least three hours out and back, an hour to find the sharks and then the dive of course." Eight hours? Shit.. that it is not going to work with my babysitter if we leave at 15:00. Sigh... I guess I have to sit this one out. I would also like to mention that the divemaster told us about the morning dive where divers saw a minke whale during the dive and the other boat load saw two sperm whales butting heads with each other!!
Although I declined, I got to spend a great evening at the natural swimming pool with the kids snorkelling after the fish that we found there. After that we went on a treasure hunt and came home with our pockets full of lava rocks, polished tiles and a few shells, not to neglect all of the sticks that Samuel managed to collect!
"Henrik's shark tale"
I kitted up and got to the rib in good time. I was anxious to get going, not because I was nervous, but because I was excited. I was on a rib with four Italians and one self proclaimed shark expert. Nice guy, just thought a little too highly of himself. Oh well, this was the only person that I could talk to for the ride. The trip out only took one hour and ten minutes. When we arrived to the site, the dive guide and boat driver started the chumming. They don't actually feed the sharks here. They put small pieces of tuna and other fish in the water and float it to attract the sharks and then they remove it. This took about half an hour before the sharks started to move in. We were going to dive after the Mako and the Blue shark. The Mako shark is actually related to the Great White, but is just smaller in size and the Blue shark is long and skinny. Azores is the one of the only places that you can find both of these types of pelagics.
During the dive we were told to keep hold of one of the two drop lines that went down from the boat. The maximum depth was 10 m, all dependent on the surge of the waves! Once we dropped in, we had one Mako shark and around five Blues circling us. At first they kept a distance between us, but they were curious and started to come in closer. These are the times that I should have a camera! I spent the next 62 minutes watching these amazing creatures interact with us and search for food (which was not us thankfully). The ride home took a bit longer then the way out, but for the dive that we just did, it was worth it!
Monday was a day to explore the island. We got a car and decided to drive to Lajes, midway down the southern coast of the island. Leaving Madalena, all we could see was vinyards. Did I mention that there is excellent wine to be bought here for just €2.40 per bottle? :o)
We drove straight to Lajes, the original village on the island. It was a fishing and whaling village from the start. Whaling only ceased on the island in 1984 and today, thankfully, one can only go and watch the whales, or learn more about the whaling industry by visiting the whale museums in Lajes and Sao Roque. Just don't do what we did and arrive on a Monday, as all museums in Portugal are closed on Mondays!
After a great lunch (and beer) by the seaside in Lajes, we headed back towards Madalena. On the way in Sao Joao we found a beautiful park and decided to stop. Actually, we noticed the playground and knew that the kids would be love it. When we walked down into the park, we saw deer in an enclosed area and went to visit them first. After that we strolled around under the huge pines that sheltered the entire area. What we found was a huge surprise... an outdoor gym. It was a circuit gym in the middle, a 2 km obstacle course around the outskirts of the park, a playground for the kids and a picnic area with washrooms. No fees required. You work out and the kids play. Perfect!
Monday evening after supper we went out to find the local pool. It is a salt water pool with a natural pool beside it. The natural pools are enclosed lava stone areas that fill up and make the perfect pool. Plenty of small fish and the best spot for the kids to learn to snorkel. And with 24 degrees in the water, it was so refreshing. :o)
Tuesday morning arrived and I was up early and rather excited. It was time to snorkel with the dolphins. Our guide Arne from the dive centre gave us an excellent briefing about the various species we may encounter, as well as the "rules" that we would have to follow while on the trip.
With snorkel gear and a shorty on, I headed for the rib full of anticipation. We were seven customers on the boat, our driver Fernando and Arne, our guide. We motored out for about 10 minutes when we were lucky enough to come across a whole pod of Atlantic spotted dolphins. Everyone on the boat (including the big hulky German guy) was super excited. I felt like a little kid at a candy store, as we watched the dolphins swimming, jumping and playing alongside the boat. Eventually we slowed down and it was time for us to get in. The rule is that only two get in the water at any one time. This let us have the dolphins to ourselves. Fabulous!
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