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.
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.
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.
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.
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…