Nowadays, the Azores constantly appear in travel magazines and blogs among the top destinations for whale watching, not without reason as whales and the archipelago having a long common history. Already in Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick many of the protagonists on Captain Ahab’s ship, the Pequod from New Bedford, were from the Azores. From the late 19th century until its end in 1984 whaling was a major commercial activity in the Azores. The pictures we associate with whaling are large martial ships having a harpoon mounted to the port as if they were warships travelling to the other side of the world to pursue their bloody business. Whaling in the Azores was to the contrary always done with small rowboats that were equipped with a supportive sail and launched from the coast. The harpoons were thrown by hand from closest distance at the animals and it was not uncommon that the large animal crushed a boat with its tail into two pieces. It was a hard and dangerous job and the men exercising it were not becoming rich. Despite this kind of archaic method, whaling was done at industrial scale. At its peak in 1951, 137 sperm whales were processed only in the factory located in Porto Pim next to Horta. In the factory, which took up production in 1942, not a single part of the animal was left out from processing. Besides meat, oil for lamps and lubricants even the remaining bones were ground and used as fertilizer. Apparently, the latter had such a stench, that when spread by the farmers here on the island, one had to turn its head against the wind to avoid getting sick. For those interested, there is a great documentary, Barbed Waters, on whaling in Faial from 1968 narrated by Orson Welles.
After its peak in the 1950’s, whaling started to decline as oil and lubricants were being replaced by modern synthetic products. Chemical industry is, for a good reason, often blamed for its products. In this case though, it helped to reduce demand for whale products. Nowadays only the decadence of eating whale’s meat, which by the way tastes somewhat like beef, is a threat to those great mammals. The factory in Porto Pim ceased its activity in 1974, the one in São Roque on neighbouring Pico closed down in 1984 marking an end to whaling in the Azores. The local culture linked to whaling on the other hand did not disappear, but it was transformed and became one of the main attractions and source of income for the islands. Already in the late 1980’s whale observations started from Pico and Faial, not anymore from small wooden boats but from fast outboard powered zodiacs. Even some of the know-how is re-used. Like in the old days, whales are spotted from look-out posts situated at elevated points around the island. Imagine, that spotting a whale far out in the ocean with a binocular from miles away needs great experience. Also, the whaling boats, so called Bote Baleeiro, were saved from scrapping, today they are used for regattas where teams from the islands compete against each other each summer. Whale watching was one of the attractions, which brought us to the Azores when first visiting. It is just breath-taking seeing the peaceful cetaceans large as an urban bus from close. When breaching, jumping out of the water, you get somewhat of a feeling for the dangers which were associated to the business of whale hunting. These days, there was a whaling boat regatta held in front of our home port of Fetaira. Even though the waters were calm and winds moderate, the fragility of the small boats with a crew of seven was stunning. One can really imagine how tough and dangerous their business used to be. Once the teams crossed the finishing line, the first thing we saw was them scooping water out of the boats. As we are coming from landlocked countries, sailing regattas are not our speciality. That’s why we did not have a clue when the race actually started or what the itinerary was, only the blazing sound of a ship horn announcing the winner told us that the race is over. Luckily this whaling heritage is kept alive, so with the years we will even learn how to follow a Bote Baleeiro regatta.