Bathed by the Atlantic Ocean, Portugal is one of Europe’s premier destinations for watching whales and dolphins in their natural habitat.
Several different species of cetaceans are regularly sighted in the local waters, especially off the archipelagos of Madeira and the Azores. Capable of suckling their young, these extraordinary sea creatures are large, intelligent mammals with lungs, nostrils (blowholes) and front flippers evolved from forelegs.
Around thirty different types of whale and dolphin frequent the warm, unpolluted currents of the Gulf Stream near the Azores, including sperm and blue whales. Humpback and killer whales can also be spotted in the warm waters off the island of Madeira.
Portugal’s long whaling tradition is believed to date back to the 16th century when Portuguese fishermen ventured as far as the coast of Newfoundland in search of bacalhau, the codfish that remains the country’s staple dish to this day.
It subsequently grew into a veritable industry with the arrival of American whalers towards the end of the 18th century with more than two hundred boats known to have been operating in the waters around the Azores in 1768 alone.
The whalers mostly sought ambergris, a precious substance important to the perfume industry that was found in the large intestine of old male sperm whales. They were also looking for spermaceti, a white waxy substance often used for making candles that forms in the creature’s head.
Rare today but sometimes spotted in Portugal’s waters, the sperm whale commonly measures 15-20 metres (50-65 feet) and can weigh up to 70 tons. It also holds the world record for diving, with a duration of up to two hours at a depth of 2,000-3,000 metres (65,000-98,000 feet).
Whale Watching in Portugal
Thankfully, slaughter has given way to determined conservation and Portugal now leads the way in respecting the history of whaling whilst defending and preserving one of the planet’s most prized creatures.
A major focus of eco-tourism, whale and dolphin watching in Portugal is increasing in popularity with many operators now offering visitors the chance to get up very close to these spectacular marine mammals, most notably in Madeira, Algarve and the Azores.
Today, sightings are meticulously recorded with the information carefully analysed and collated by specialists working for scientific research institutions both locally and internationally.
A lasting legacy of man’s pursuit of these magnificent mammals can be seen at several museums on the subject of whaling in Portugal. Of particular interest to visitors to Horta (on the island of Faial in the Azores) is the Scrimshaw Museum (indicated on the Google map below) where many fine examples of whalebone carvings can be seen.
Besides whales, bottlenose and common dolphins are also a common sight in the waters around Portugal, particularly in the Sado Estuary south of Lisbon where a large pod of the former resides.
With its rich marine biodiversity, Portugal also offers some of the best diving conditions in the world, with hundreds of excellent sites notable for their crystalline waters and teeming sea life.
Likewise, deep-sea fishing is another popular leisure activity in Portugal with catches such as blue marlin now more commonly tagged and released back into the ocean.
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