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Azores Whale Watching (Detailed Review)

Azores Whale Watching (Detailed Review)

The Azores ranks among the best destinations globally for whale watching, reflecting its deep commitment to marine conservation and abundant biodiversity.

In recognition of these efforts, the Azores was designated as a Whale Heritage Site by the World Cetacean Alliance (WCA) in February 2023, a distinction shared with only 11 other locations worldwide.

We were invited by Futurismo, a WCA certified tour operator to experience whale watching in Ponta Delgada. But nobody told me what to write. These are my honest views and the true reflection of my experience. I did not accept any payment in exchange for any coverage.

Why should you go whale watching in the Azores?

Historically, the Azores played a significant role in the whaling industry, providing whale oil for lamps across the American continent until the practice was halted by the International Whaling Commission’s 1986 Moratorium.

Today, the region is renowned for its vibrant marine life, home to 28 different cetacean species — approximately one-third of the world’s total. This rich diversity is supported by over 42,400 square miles of protected marine areas, transforming the Azores into a premier destination for whale-watching adventures.

Furthermore, Azores is also an all-year-around location since the islands are home to four resident species: Common dolphin, Bottlenose dolphin, Risso’s dolphin, and Sperm whale.

Futurismo, as well as most tour companies, are located in São Miguel island. You can see why on the map below displaying all sightings recorded during Futurismo tours in 2023. If you need more info, you can explore all historic data here.

Photo credit: Emese Maczko, Eco Lodges Anywhere.

Best time for whale watching in the Azores

According to Futurismo each season offers a unique whale watching experience. Depending on the specific species you wish to see, you can select your travel dates accordingly.

Photo credit: Azores Adventures, Futurismo.

Spring marks the arrival of large migratory species such as blue whales and humpback whales. Most sightings of humpback whales occur during April and May. Eager to see these majestic creatures, we traveled there in May. Our trip was a tremendous success, as we had the opportunity to watch a pair of humpback whales swimming for about 15 minutes.

Summer is the best season if you want to catch a glimpse of large pods of dolphins with babies. To be honest, I was initially eager to spot a whale, but it turned out that watching dolphins swim alongside the boat, right below our feet, was an even more memorable experience.

Autumn is when the largest whale species you can spot would be the resident sperm whales. They usually live in families, so if you see one, there is usually more around.

Winter is the most quiet time, but Futurismo says orcas (also known as killer whales) can be sighted during these months.

If you book a tour with Futurismo 30 days in advance, use the code ‘EARLYBIRD‘ for a 10% discount.

Catamaran or Zodiac?

Futurismo, as well as other tour operators, offers ethical whale watching tours using two types of vessels: catamaran or zodiac.

Zodiac

Photo credit: Emese Maczko, Eco Lodges Anywhere.

Zodiac boats are highly maneuverable, allowing for quicker responses and the ability to navigate closer to marine life without causing disturbance as well as to cover more area and increase the chances of seeing whales and other marine life. People also sit close to the water’s surface, so when dolphins decide to join the boat for a swim, you get to experience a closer encounter.

However, passengers are more exposed to the elements especially in unfavorable weather conditions. This can be an issue for those prone to seasickness. There is usually no onboard restroom, and seating may feel less comfortable for some.

Futurismo also recommends an age limit of 8 years old for those considering booking a zodiac tour, as younger children may not be suited for this type of outing.

Catamaran

Photo credit: Emese Maczko, Eco Lodges Anywhere.

Since we were traveling with a 5 and an 8-year-old, we opted to board the catamaran. It proved to be the perfect choice for families with children, as the boat featured wider decks, multiple seating areas, a restroom, and ample space to stand up and stretch our legs.

Although the catamaran was slower and the zodiac boats had already reached the whales by the time we arrived, we still had plenty of time to observe them.

We expected that the boat might feel crowded as it seemed to be near full capacity, but thanks to multiple dedicated lookout areas, everyone had an unobstructed view of the marine wildlife.

Our favorite spot was at the bow of the boat. It was truly magical to stand right at the railing, watching a pod of dolphins swimming alongside us. They came so close, it seemed we could almost touch them. The kids were completely mesmerized by this close encounter, captivated as the dolphins leaped above the waves.

Photo credit: Emese Maczko, Eco Lodges Anywhere.

In-depth recap of our 3-hour whale watching journey

If not all, then most whale watching tours in Ponta Delgada starts at the port. We arrived 15 minutes in advance to our boarding time to make sure we found the location without delay.

Photo credit: Emese Maczko, Eco Lodges Anywhere.

We exchanged our booking confirmation for a card before waiting in the group for the catamaran.

Photo credit: Emese Maczko, Eco Lodges Anywhere.

After boarding, a Futurismo staff member conducted a brief 10-minute presentation covering the vessel’s safety rules and what we could expect to see. He also provided advice on what to do—and what not to do—if you feel seasick.

Photo credit: Emese Maczko, Eco Lodges Anywhere.

To be honest, we were blessed with an absolutely perfect spring weather. The sun was shining, the ocean was calm, and there was only a mild breeze. Not a single person on board felt seasick during the three-hour journey. Since our kids are young, we took extra precautions and administered seasickness medication in advance. I can imagine the rougher weather during autumn and winter may offer a completely different experience.

After the presentation all passengers went up to the deck. The dedicated lookout areas were closed during sailing, but everyone could find a seat.

Photo credit: Emese Maczko, Eco Lodges Anywhere.

During the 3-hour journey, the catamaran moved toward parts of the ocean where land-based lookouts had spotted wildlife. And we didn’t have to wait long for our first encounter.

Within about 30 minutes, we saw our first pod of Common dolphins. We stopped, and everyone made their way to the lookout areas. We chose to go to the bow, where we could watch the dolphins from close proximity. Although it felt like only a minute, we actually spent around 10-15 minutes there, completely captivated by the sight.

Photo credit: Emese Maczko, Eco Lodges Anywhere.

After that, we continued on and our next sighting was a pair of humpback whales. As I mentioned earlier, the zodiac boats reached the area faster, but we still had a good 10-15 minutes to enjoy watching them.

Capturing photos of humpback whales is no easy feat. Fortunately, Futurismo had a professional photographer on board, allowing us to download all of her wildlife photos (like the one below) for free later on.

Photo credit: Azores Adventures, Futurismo.

After saying goodbye to the whales, we headed back to Ponta Delgada. But before reaching the port, we encountered an even livelier pod of Common dolphins than before. These dolphins were enthusiastically leaping over the waves, providing a delightful end to our experience.

Photo credit: Emese Maczko, Eco Lodges Anywhere.

Practical information

I believe there are two questions that come to mind for many people when they are considering whether a whale watching tour is worth it.

Did we feel seasick?

No, we did not. Fortunately, we enjoyed perfect spring weather. The sun was shining, the ocean was calm, and there were no harsh winds to churn up unbearable waves. We also acted proactively and took seasickness medication in advance. However, I do anticipate that the weather in autumn and winter may not be as gentle.

Did we see enough wildlife?

No whale watching tour is about seeing an animal at every corner. We saw two pods of dolphins and a pair of humpback whales. While some might think that’s not a lot, I would remind them that nature isn’t a circus or a zoo where animals perform on cue. It is wildlife in their natural habitat. I felt both honored and humbled to have seen them, especially grateful that the dolphins chose to come so close of their own accord.

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Emese Maczko is a travel blogger behind Eco Lodges Anywhere. Having explored several destinations around Europe, the US, Indonesia, and Australia, and resided in Germany, the United Kingdom, and Luxembourg, Emese possesses a keen understanding of diverse cultures and an appreciation for the beauty of each destination she visits. She advocates for sustainable travel and ecotourism.