History and context
The Azores archipelago is an autonomous region of Portugal in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 1,360 km west of the European Mainland. The volcanic islands, first inhabited by Portuguese settlers in the 15th century, are rugged and remote, challenging inhabitants to eke out a living from the land and sea. In the 18th century American whaling ships (often termed ‘Yankee’ whaling ships) began to roam the world’s oceans, frequently calling in at a port on the island of Faial in the Azores. By 1768 as many as 200 whaling ships of different origins were calling in at Faial each year. They were attracted by the resident sperm whale populations around the islands, as well as the convenience of a mid-ocean port where vessels could be repaired and stores replenished1.
Inhabitants of the near-by island of Pico took note of the demand for whale products and decided to launch their own shore-based whaling industry from the village of Lajes, a distance of less than 5 nautical miles from the main port at Faial. Whaling commenced from Lajes in 1867, and continued for over a century. At its peak the industry involved 22 canoes and 98 men organized under seven community whaling companies2. Lookouts were posted in a network of stone watch towers perched high on the cliffs around the island. When sperm whales were sighted, they would signal the whalers, who would set out on canoes with sails, lowering the sails as they drew close to the whales, and approaching stealthily by paddle-power to launch hand-thrown harpoons. From the 1930’s onward motorized launches were used to take the canoes to within range of the whales, but the final approach and harpooning was conducted in the same traditional manner. The men involved in this dangerous practice became experts in understanding the distribution and behaviour of the whales, predicting where they would surface next, as their lives, and livelihoods depended on being in the right place at the right moment with their harpoons.
The high value of whale oil, particularly spermacetti oil from sperm whale heads provided a valuable source of income for the inhabitants of Pico – particularly those of the village of Lajes, which also became known as A Vila Baleeia (Whaling Village). The different whaling companies were in steep competition with each other, but all had open access to the whales. Those with the greatest speed and accuracy on a given day were rewarded, as once the first harpoons were thrown, the rest of the whale pod would usually quickly disperse. In this sense, the industry was self-regulating and appeared to be sustainable, as catches per unit of effort did not decline1. Gradually, the demand for whale oil decreased, and by 1982, when Portugal agreed to support the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on commercial whaling, the whalers of Lajes were ready to lay down their harpoons.
Just a few years later, however, a new opportunity for a different type of whale hunting presented itself. Tourism in the Azores was on the increase, and whale watching was a new form of marine tourism that was taking off in coastal areas around the world3. In 1987 The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the European Community supported feasibility studies to investigate the potential for whale watching in the Azores. In1989, both foreign and local entrepreneurs launched whale-watch operations from the port of Lajes. While sperm whales were the original target of these ventures, the diversity of cetaceans around the islands (confirmed now at 28 species4) and their reliable year-round presence allowed the industry to expand from 50 tourists in 1991, to 4000 in 1997, and an estimated 12,000 in 20112. By 1998 eight tour operators were running tours from the village of only 400 permanent inhabitants, with some running two boats, each making up to two trips per day during the peak summer season. The traditional watch towers used to alert whalers to their prey were reoccupied: Once again, the hunt was on.