The ocean was calling for me, so I flew to the Azores to dive into some marine research.
Fresh off the plane back from the Azorean island of Faial, I’m already missing the feeling of sea breezes and view of waves in the distance. I’ve always had a soft spot for “Island life,” the feeling of being on a self-contained floating town in the middle of the ocean, much more open to the elements, and without the need to forcibly rush everywhere. And so I went to the Hawaii of Portugal to the town of Horta for 9 days to volunteer with the local group Naturalist, which was started by some real-life Cousteaus/ marine biological researchers (Gisela & Jose,) who work very hard to show visitors the beauty of the seas and the natural land. The Naturalist whole team welcomed me very warmly, and I felt so lucky to spend time with the whole group.
While there were other research projects taking place focussed on marine litter, and the effects of climate change on cetaceans, the primary research I assisted on was the Portuguese Man of War (Physalia physalis) project. Man of War are not actually jellyfish - but a colony of polyps/ organisms, that work together to create a functional organism. They are very colorful, crazy, and a little scary.
It was fun to sink my teeth into a project with such a vibrant invertebrate, and it was particularly interesting in Horta, because the frequent “blooms,” (when hundreds of Man of war pile up on the beach) were very visible and accessible. The data I helped collect will go towards a future research paper focused on the correlations between warming oceans and Man of war blooms, and working on finding a way to predict these -- also for local swimmer safety! (During my time with Naturalist, I also worked on a short film for Naturalist on these creatures, so stay tuned for that launch!)
Some of the highlights of my time in the Azores were on the Naturalist whale watching/ research vessel, where we bounded over the boisterous Atlantic waves between islands in the rubbery Zodiac, like a professional "Zissou" crew. Once we were truly soaked in splash, and quaking in our seats, we looked towards the "blow" of far off cetaceans, hoping for some sort of connection with the ocean giants, before their fluke splashed, signaling the whale's descent to greater depths. It was truly exciting (and physically exhausting!) for all, as we rocketed over the waves on our rubber rollercoaster, hoping for a lucky chance. But it wasn’t all luck -- as Spotters on shore peered from their binoculars at the sea, locating any whales before we hit the water, upping our chances of finding whales.
The most common whales off Faial are Sperm whales/ Cachalotes, which were (quite recently!) hunted for their oil off these same islands until 1984, and now still dare to swim by. Locally, they are often females with juveniles, and are wonderful to see with their single nostril left-slanted blow, and massive heads bobbing through the waves.
I also had a lovely one-day visit to Pico island, (only 30-mins away by ferry!) with the wonderful Tripix team. There, I spent some time in the local Whaling Museum, which was fascinating but also truly shocking; I’d grown up going to Whaling museums in the USA, but this was a much more recent wave of whaling, so rather than just ancient etchings of the trade, there were full-color photographs of the whole brutal process of carving up an entire sperm whale. And while I understand the past need for the practice in these communities, it still stuns me to see it in the recent light of day... Hopefully we can move away from this activity permanently!
Other notable species in the Azorean waters were the three resident dolphin populations: the small common, grey-scratched Grampo/ Risso’s, and huge Bottlenose; the dolphins often punctuated our boat trips with cheerful jumps and elegant wave cuts. My particular favorite were the Grampo, as they looked similar to dreamy Belugas, (with their ball-shaped heads,) and moved slow enough for us to really have a good look at them.
On my last day, the morning before my flight, I was lucky enough to have one final boat trip, where we actually a BIG BLUE whale, which is the biggest animal that’s ever lived, although the proof I have of our meeting is very very small...
It was still hugely exciting, and definitely caught my breath watching it; particularly as right after we saw a Fin whale, which is often just as large, but a much speedier creature, built like a torpedo to zip under the waves.
Find out more about Naturalist here.
And book your trip to the middle of the Atlantic today! :)