The carbon “fluke print” of whale watching…

Excuse my bad joke in the title, but whales don’t have feet (anymore)!

I’ve had a pretty action-packed week spent on three different islands, but I’d like to share a conversation I had with Serge Viallelle, the Frenchman who started the whale-watching industry here in the Azores in the late 1980s. He arrived in 1987, the year the last whale was killed on the island of Pico (the last whaling factory in Pico closed in 1984, but a whale was taken out of protest in 1987). He was a wandering sailor, with no tie to the Azores other than that the woman he loved (his current wife) is from the islands.

He knew nothing about whales when he arrived, let alone setting up a business around taking people to see them. His first year he had 56 clients, most of whom he tricked into going by using what he calls the “John technique,” where he would approach an incoming bus to Lajes (where he is based from) and ask people if they were Mr. and Mrs. John. Of course he knew they would say they weren’t, and then he would lament about how he was looking for them because he was supposed to take them to see the whales. This would pique people’s interest and they would ask if he could take them to see the whales as well. So it began. Now he has over 7,000 clients a year.

The view from outside my house in Horta of Pico across the channel. Sunrise before catching the ferry to São Jorge. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

We had a very interesting conversation in general because the timing of his arrival at the end of whaling mixed with his involvement in whale watching is really the perfect combination to express how things were changing at that time. One of the men who worked as a vigia (lookout) for whaling also worked for him for many many years, and it was the old whalers who taught him everything he knows about whales and their behavior. It was also these old men that laughed at him when he said he was going to get people to pay to see a whale – for them “paying to see a whale was the same as paying to see a potato,” it was just something so normal they couldn’t imagine anyone would spend money for it. At the end of our talk we got to talking about his business though, and it led to some very interesting points…

Serge spoke about believing that the main purpose of his company was not to see whales, but to use seeing them to send a greater message about the environment and climate change – about “things that are bigger than dolphins and whales.” He spoke about wanting to keep smaller boats because he thinks the only good thing to come out of these trips was to educate people, and that you can’t have the same intimacy on a larger boat.

Gone huntin’. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

The hard part of his philosophy for those that grew up in the “save the whales” era was this: whaling was more sustainable than whale-watching (I’m speaking ONLY for the Azores here). He said they use about 200 liters of fuel (~50 gallons) for each boat every trip, not even counting the footprint of people having to fly from far away to get here or the food and other goods that have to be shipped in. He told me that at the peak of whaling, 80% of the population of Lajes was involved in whaling somehow or another – truly a local enterprise. If you’re wondering how killing a whale could be more sustainable than looking at one, the answer lies both in the truly small-scale industry that was Azorean whaling, but also in challenging some preconceived environmentalist ideas.

I have had conversations with people throughout the years who think that it is more important to save a single species than to do our best to preserve a climate in which all things currently existing depend on to survive. Serge and I were in agreement that it means nothing to “save the whales” if we cannot educate people about (and begin to change!) the larger issues at stake. In the beginning of whale watching he always said, if you have to shoot a whale, a camera is better than a harpoon – “now,” he says, “I don’t know.”

Looking out for dolphins and whales from the bow. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

I understand that marketing charismatic megafauna as poster children for environmental campaigns is easier than larger-scale issues, but I think it’s steered a lot of our thinking (and our funding) down a dangerous path. We can throw all our efforts into saving the polar bears, but if current use of fossil fuel continues there’s not that much we can do about their habitat preservation. We become attached to saving the cute and fuzzy, unable to conceive of the geologic time scale wherein 99.99% of everything that has ever lived has gone extinct.

Serge’s briefing before whale watching trips is the only one I’ve encountered around the world that touches so heavily on overarching environmental issues – making people question how they travel, what they buy, how they eat, where they throw their cigarette butts and how much waste they produce along the way. I think the idea of ecotourism has skyrocketed in recent years and, unfortunately, well-intending people are becoming the new problem that faces fragile environments and ecosystems. Without education, I think it is probably very true that we are causing more harm than good with whale watching.

The animal we’ve been flocking to for over one hundred years, either with a harpoon or a camera in hand. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

If you’re in search of a good read on the topic of climate change, this article that came out in Rolling Stone last week is actually really fantastic. I definitely suggest you check it out.

On a lighter note, things are gearing up for the Semana do Mar (Sea Week) celebrations that are about to start here. Food and beer tents are going up everywhere, mics are being tested for the endless concerts, and I’m preparing for a very busy next few days! Fingers crossed I’ll be in the boat carrying Senhora da Guia, patron saint of whalers, during the festival for her on Sunday. Lots more to come soon! But for now, CHEESE:

I don’t always talk about sad things like killing whales! I eat cheese too! This piece of São Jorge cheese was bigger than my hand. Served with fig jam, yum. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

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