New post up on Nat Geo’s Explorer’s Journal site

Hello again!

My latest post just went live on National Geographic’s Explorer’s Journal blog. Check it out here and tell your friends to as well! Thanks to all!

Two whalers share their stories outside the harbor in Salão, Faial.

What a week…

Hello all!

Since I last left you it’s been a bit of a roller coaster, both in great and scary ways. On the upside, I’ve had five interviews with whalers this week, visited several old whaling ports and vigias, and had some really interesting discussions with the people I’m working with here. On the scary side, my computer crashed Tuesday morning and was at the computer hospital (i.e. the one person on the island who knows anything about fixing Macs) for two and a half days before coming back to me healthy again.

Rui explores the remnants of a vigia (whale watching post) at Capelinhos that was destroyed during the 1957-58 eruption of the volcano

I have a blog post waiting to go up on the Nat Geo site that I don’t want to copy too much of here, but I want to touch upon something that I’ve found really interesting this week. I’ve been speaking with the whalers about whether or not they’d like to go whaling again if they could and what they think about whaling in today’s world. The conversations that have ensued are making me want to ensure that there are always people in my life who will challenge me and my beliefs, even if I’m 84.

When I hear these men talking about how the Azores should still be whaling, it’s clear to me that there’s no real sense of how badly commercial whaling (of which the Azores contributed to, but in such a minute way) decimated global whale stocks, or that with current technology the products we sought from whales have no market anymore. One whaler, Luís Matos, said that it wasn’t fair that some countries were allowed to hunt whales and Portugal wasn’t.

Luís Matos, 83, outside his house after our conversation about whaling’s past and future

Rui, my friend and translator here, and I agree that it is not our place during interviews like these to challenge these men, who are being incredibly kind to let us into their homes, photograph them, and talk for hours about sometimes very intense parts of their life (e.g. Luís Matos’ father dying in port after returning from a whaling trip). Rui tried a polite interjection as this point, however, saying that the countries still hunting whales used them for food (which Azoreans never did). This point didn’t seem to phase Senhor Matos, and we continued on with our talk. I know there is a time, a place, a person, that’s right for having hard discussions that challenge our viewpoints and that my time here is none of those, but it still makes me think that when I’m old I want somebody in my life who will always tell me the hard truth about things…

I’ve also gained more and more respect this week for the work that whalers did in both the physical and emotional sense – it must have really been brutal. But they seem to have loved it above anything else. A visit to the old “harbor” in Salão, an important whaling village on Faial, had me thinking “these guys were crazy!” The harbor is but a mere pile of rocks arranged in such a way that there’s a bit of shelter, followed by a giant steep climb up a cliff. Even if I felt compelled to whale, I can’t imagine having to do it out of this port. Which of course leads me back to what I find one of the defining factors of whaling here: machismo. From pretty much any angle you look at it, these men were hardcore – and knew it.

Luís Jorge Borges, 77, and José Edvino da Silveira, 70, are still hardcore.

I’ve also discovered that some of that immunity I built up during the Watson to watching whales die (on film) has dissipated, which means I’m a little more nauseated now but also feeling glad to know that when we harden against things it doesn’t have to be forever.

The “harbor” at Salão, amazingly one of the most sheltered places on the north coast of the island. The whaleboats would come in on the right and in the old days the whale would be processed on the rocks in the water. Note the giant hill leading up the cliff.

In other news, Márcia and I bought five kinds of cheese when grocery shopping yesterday, which I mention solely because most people would find that indulgent, but I’m happy to report I live with someone who sees this as just as much a necessity as I do. Coming up, this week should be another exciting one. Monday I’m headed to São Jorge, one of the islands I haven’t been to, to interview some of the whalers there. I’ll also have my first visit this trip to Lajes do Pico later this week, arguably one of the most important whaling towns in the area on the island of Pico. And for now I leave you with the awesome view of Horta from Monte da Guia!

Running up Monte da Guia for a shot of sunset over Horta

Baleia! Baleia!

Back in the days of whaling, cries of “Baleia! Baleia!” rang out when a whale was encountered. Here we still follow the sightings of the vigias (lookouts) on the cliffs and move like hell towards where they’ve spotted whales. After going out on a whale-watching trip this weekend I think the only thing that’s changed is the instrument with which we shoot the whales. Tourists poised with cameras hang off the boats as much as they can to inch closer to that perfect shot (which a sperm whale rarely ever gives you). The boats move in herds towards any whale that is around and if you see them far off on the horizon you can almost imagine that they are the whaling canoes coming out for the hunt.

It is clear that the whale-watching industry has expanded since I was last here, and since it seems like the whales themselves aren’t keeping up, the ratio of boats to whales is getting pretty high. I was on one of six boats surrounding one whale, and it came as no surprise to me that the whale kept swimming away from us, never resting long enough to prepare for that sought-after big dive that gives the tourists the shot of the flukes they’ve come for. At one point there were enough whales that we were able to split the boats into smaller groups, which allowed us a little more time with a mother and calf nearby who had a perfectly synchronized dive to the deep together. Even though I think sperm whales are some of the most boring (they come to the surface to breathe for about eight minutes and then dive down again, often for over an hour), there’s still something pretty magical about that moment when you see their flukes and get a sense of how big these creatures really are.

Boats surround a lone male sperm whale near Calheta de Nesquim, Pico.

Norberto, the friend who invited Márcia (the friend/colleague I’m living with) and I out, may not be the first person to have started whale-watching on the islands but is arguably the most well-known. It’s his hair, really. The pink Che Guevara shirt he was wearing that day was also pretty awesome. He invited us to dinner at his house on Pico (the island across the channel) after our whale-watching adventure and then to the festivities in Madalena, another town on Pico, for the Festas de Santa Maria Madalena. Summer in the Azores brings some huge party every weekend with the various towns celebrating their chosen saint.

Hydrangeas bloom outside a cafe in São Caetano, Pico, where we had dinner at Norberto’s house


After dinner we piled in the boat and took off for Madalena, leaving trails of light behind us as we cut through the bioluminescent algae in the water. The lights in the water seemed to mirror the stars in the sky, with a full view of Cassiopeia, the Big Dipper, and Scorpio. At one point Pico’s volcano seemed to be spewing the Milky Way, which made for a pretty magical ride. We were in the boat for over half an hour, only to run out of gas within a quarter mile of our destination. After drifting for a while, a friend came out to tow us in, and after procuring some gas we went to enjoy the concert – a seemingly fairly popular band from the mainland.

The last song of the night (well, before the DJ starts their set at 2am) at the Festas de Santa Maria Madalena


One thing that always strikes me here (and from what I can tell is fairly common in southern Europe) is how late young children and elderly people are out and about here. We arrived in Madalena after midnight and it was packed with people of all ages. I was beginning to think that Portuguese people were genetically programmed to stay up later, but maybe it’s just that they have years of practice at it. 

I try to emulate Norberto’s fantastic hair! My beard needs work…

In other news, I’ve had two very exciting discoveries this week (though not very grand in the scheme of things): 1) Márcia’s good friend has opened a tea house since I was last here that has 95 kinds of tea. NINETY-FIVE. I’m in heaven. 2). I found local bee pollen at the one major grocery store here, so now I don’t have to go without for the summer :-).

I’m lining up a few more interviews for this week so hopefully I should have more news soon! I’ll leave you with a shot of the harbor in Horta – there’s a tradition of people leaving paintings on the walls before they go out to sea to so they don’t encounter bad weather, which always makes for lots of fun things to look at…

A couple explores the paintings left by sailors over the years in the Horta harbor


Notes over vinho branco and potato chips…

Hello again!

I’ve written my first blog for Nat Geo’s site and it’s just in the final stages of being edited in DC. Since that will go up soon with all the news I’ll just post something I wrote the other day at the cafe next to the old whaling station…

Rihanna is playing out over the water from the cafe where I’m enjoying a vinho branco and a bag of patatas fritas. Earlier it was “Gangsta’s Paradise.” A man walks by singing along and dancing… “we fell in love in hoOopeless place…” Twenty minutes ago, not 50ft from where I now sit, I was walking the cobbled path of the ramp at the whaling factory, thinking about the sperm whales that were hauled up these stones. Here their skin sloughed, their bodies were cut into, and their blubber was removed in a spiraled fashion much like the way we try to remove as much of an orange peel as possible. Their blood, their guts, spilled across these stones where my feet now pause. Stones that now overlook the sunbathers of Porto Pim, a bay that used to run red with blood from the whales. A young boy with a floatie wrapped around his waist runs for the water. Times have changed. It has been four years and I am no longer shocked by the images of whaling. How do I transmit this? I need to remember that for others everything is new… 

The bottom of the ramp at the old Porto Pim Whaling Station

Also, you guys have to meet the critters I live with. The dog is Pipa and the cat is Kitty, and they are awesome friends. They play together all the time and it’s just too darn cute! 

Hello world!

Family, friends, and web-wanderers, this will be the simple blog I’ll keep during my National Geographic Young Explorer’s Grant (and beyond…?) to recount some details of everyday life. Posts exclusively related to my YEG will go up on NG’s Explorer’s Journal blog, which I’ll post links to when something of mine goes up.

As a bit of background, I’m in the Azores from July 13th to August 29th to complete a project on the whalers in this region. My work will mostly be carried out on the islands of Faial and Pico, but I’m hoping to get a trip to São Jorge in as well. For those of you who have no idea where the Azores are, you can find me here, on these little dots between Europe and North America in the middle of the north Atlantic. I first came to Horta (the town I live in on the island of Faial) four years ago during my travels as a Thomas J. Watson fellow to study different cultural connections to whales. I became so intrigued by the whaling culture here, which ended in 1984, that I knew I had to find a way back here to better record their stories. The opportunity presented itself in the form of a Young Explorer’s Grant from the National Geographic Expeditions Council, and here I am! Throughout the next six weeks I’ll be interviewing ex-whalers, participating in sailing and rowing practices in the old whaling canoes, documenting festivals for the patron saints of whalers, and immersing myself in the stories of this unique culture. I’ve only been here five days and already there’s a lot to tell, but for now I’ll leave you with a shot of Jonah, the stray cat who made himself at home at the old whaling factory in Horta (and was aptly named by the staff there!). Até já!