Whale species you can see in the Azores

One of the biggest surprises of the Azores isn’t the number of whales you’ll see, but the variety of species that swing by its shores. This is the Atlantic “Gulp Stream”, where up to 30 species of whales and dolphins travel, rounding up krill, squid and schools of fish. Some, like blue whales, are visitors on their way to their summer feeding grounds, while others, such as sperm whales, stick around all year long.

And it’s not always the obvious species that inspire the most excitement. You’ll be amazed by fin whales, which aren’t far off a blue whale in size, and fascinated by the stories of resident sperm whales told by marine biologists who know their individual quirks. More unusual whale species blow through the Azores too – tropical visitors like Bryde’s whales and big gatherings of pilot whales.

It takes a moment for Amanda Stafford to choose one of her most memorable encounters with whales in the Azores. She founded our whale watching partner, The Dolphin and Whale Connection, and has two decades’ worth of whale watching tours to flick back through.

“It was morning and the sea was very, very calm,” decides Amanda. “The group I was with had had amazing experiences all week... The quality of the water felt special; it felt like a real Sunday. There was this sense that church bells had been ringing and everyone was resting today.

“Lo and behold, there in the water, lolling on the surface, was a huge group of northern bottlenose whales. They look slightly prehistoric, with great big heads, and they had been gorging on squid. They were totally satiated, lolling around, farting – it was unbelievable watching these things. They’d obviously been having a major feed. And they’re transitory whales; they don’t live in the Azores… They’re extraordinary. They’re nothing like anything else in the ocean. Everybody in the boat was in complete amazement.”

So although you might have a certain whale that you’re eager to see – and some tours even focus on seeing one species, such as blue whales – chances are that you’ll end up being surprised by something completely unexpected. Our whale watching holidays are steered by conservationists and boat captains who’ll give you the best chance of accessing the mysterious world of whales, translating what you’re seeing and ensuring that you’re observing instead of disturbing.

Keep reading to discover which whale species you can see in the Azores…

Whale species commonly seen in the Azores

Blue whales

Status: endangered
When to see blue whales in the Azores: April to June

Blue whales are among the most popular whales in the Azores. “I think it’s that sense that it’s an ultimate,” says Amanda. “There’s this incredible uprising of very childlike joy when you see one.”

After all, blue whales are the largest animals ever to have existed on our planet. They’re typically 20-25m long but can grow up to 34m – about the length of a jet plane wing. Weight-wise, think piling 30 elephants on top of each other.

Blue whales are the first migratory whale to appear in the Azores after winter, so go early in the season to catch them while they’re hoovering up krill before heading off to summer further north.

“One of the things that first struck me when I saw one of my first blue whales was the skin colour,” says Amanda. “I looked at João, the skipper, and I said, ‘It is actually blue, isn’t it?!’ Often, you think they’re black or dark grey, but the way the light was shining through the water, there’s a kind of shimmery turquoise blue in the skin.”

“The water is a very important part of it,” Amanda adds. “When you see them in that environment, the way the light shimmers through, the waves, the way the water moves and swells… that sort of environment is very meditative.”

Read our guide to blue whale watching in the Azores to find out more.

Sperm whales

Status: endangered
When to see sperm whales in the Azores: all year round

Listen out for the cry of “cachalote!” from the boat captain. It’s the fitting Portuguese word for the sperm whale, the most common whale in the Azores. They really do catch a lot of food, thanks to intelligence and echolocation skills that scientists have only just started to fathom.

The more you learn about the resident sperm whales of the Azores, the more you’ll wonder why visiting blue whales manage to steal their thunder every year. There’s nothing boring about these 18m-long beasts, which feed, breed and socialise in the Azores all year round. As a result, they’re the whale you’re most likely to see.

You’ll know a sperm whale by its oversized head, often announced with a huff of expelled water and air from the lopsided blowhole. Their skulls are home to the biggest brain on the planet, as well as a store of wax used for echolocation and complex but barely understood communication methods. (The wax looked suspiciously like sperm to 19th-century whalers, hence the name.) If you’re lucky enough to be swimming or diving when a sperm whale passes, duck your head beneath the waves to hear their clicking chatter. It’s like tuning into the radio frequency of a startlingly intelligent alien species.

Keep your eyes fixed on sperm whales once they’re above water, as they spend more time below. They are famously strong swimmers, diving up to 3,000m to chase their favourite snacks – squid, including giant squid. When they’re above the water, you might be treated to a backflipping breach or a view of the snapping saw-like jaw that shows off a sharp set of teeth.

But it’s perhaps the stories you’ll get from boat captains and on-board biologists that are the best parts of seeing sperm whales in the Azores. Because they don’t migrate and they bring up their young as a community, guides are usually up to speed on the family dramas of the particular group of whales you’re watching.

Fin whales

Status: endangered
When to see fin whales in the Azores: April to June

Measuring 20-26m long, fin whales are the second-biggest animal on our planet after the blue whale. “The size of the boat is only about 10-15m, so you really feel that these are big creatures,” says Amanda. “What you see is just a hint of what’s going on underneath.”

You’re much more likely to see fin whales than blue whales too. It’s not just their size that’s a tell; they also have a bright white belly and head markings, plus an almost comically tiny dorsal fin that they use to stabilise their bulky bodies. It’s krill they’re mostly after, although they won’t say no to snapping up the occasional passing squid or fish.

Fin whales usually swim solo or in small groups – and when they’re really on a mission, they can reach speeds of up to 50km per hour.

Sei whales

Status: endangered
When to see sei whales in the Azores: April to June

Sei whales are hard to spot because they look like other species, particularly pilot whales. They sometimes laze around on the surface of the water, lolling up to 20m in length, giving you a chance to look out for their distinctive features: a goose egg bump on the head, a relatively tall, hooked dorsal fin, and a blow that blasts up to 3m in the air when they expel a breath above water.

Their movements are particular to them, too. Sei whales can move in bursts of 50km per hour. However, instead of diving with a farewell wave of their fluke, they tend to sink under the water like a submarine. Experienced boat captains will know they’re there by the circular “fluke print” they leave on the water surface as they move underwater.

“Sei” comes from seje, the Norwegian word for pollock, which chases krill alongside the whales. One of the whales’ favourite foods, sardines, is in the Portuguese name for sei whales, sardinheira, but mostly they munch on krill on the way to their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic.

Sei whales are generally happy in their own company or in groups of up to five. They’re also one of the few whale species still hunted today. Although technically protected by the International Whaling Commission’s ban on commercial whaling, Japanese whaling boats still kill about 50 sei whales a year for their “scientific” whaling programme.

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Whale species occasionally seen in the Azores

Minke whales

Status: least concern
When to see minke whales in the Azores: May to June

Minke whales are very distinctive, but not seen very often in the Azores when compared with blue, fin and sei whales. There’s no mistaking them when you do come across them, though – the smart white stripes on the flippers of this North Atlantic subspecies are visible even through the dark waters of the Azores.

Thanks to shorter bodies (10-12m), their movements are swift – more like dolphins than the momentous motion of larger whales. Minke whales also share a dolphin-like curiosity, with a habit of edging up close to boats or swimmers to see what they’re up to. Experienced whale watching guides will know when to switch the boat engine off and the distance required to keep the minke unstressed.

Minke whales like to feed on krill and herring, using a distinctive feeding technique where they lunge at their prey from the depths, sometimes resulting in a dramatic breach for whale watchers nearby.

Although the population is generally considered stable, minke are one of the whale species conservationists are most concerned about due to it still being hunted by Iceland, Greenland, Norway and Japan for food and dubious “scientific research”.

Humpback whales

Status: threatened
When to see humpback whales in the Azores: May to June

Humpback whales love to leap above the ocean and sing melodious tunes below, making them one of the most easily identifiable – and most beloved – whales in the ocean. They’ve also got a unique look, with a bumpy head, unusually large fins up to 5m tall, and tails that they like to slap on the water like a thunderclap.

The markings and scars on the tail flukes of humpbacks are so distinctive that biologists can often identify individuals, especially as they appear so occasionally compared with other whale species in the Azores. Humpback whales are among the species worst hit by commercial whaling, with around 95 percent of the population killed worldwide.

There’s another reason to go whale watching with seasoned biologists and captains – humpbacks are one of the whales most susceptible to stress caused by boats getting too close for comfort. Our responsible whale watching trips will make sure things never get to that point, and that you enjoy your encounter from a respectful distance.

Humpback whales have one of the longest migrations of all animals, sometimes swinging by the Azores for a snack on their way from their breeding grounds in Cape Verde to their feeding grounds in Norway. Krill and crustaceans are their favourite foods. They sometimes use a unique group hunting method called bubble net feeding, where a group of whales use bubbles to herd fish into a small space so they can gulp them down in one fell swoop of their huge mouths.

Pilot whales

Status: not enough data
When to see pilot whales in the Azores: April to November (most common in June and July)

Pilot whales are on the smaller scale of whale species in the Azores – about 5-7m long, with large bulbous heads (“melons”) and dark grey-black colourings. They’re pretty much inseparable from their social groups, with females especially sticking with their maternal family for life, helping to care for new calves as a group. That means they’ve got some of the biggest pods in the world, ranging from 15-50 right up to 100 – and multiple pods get together in open ocean to socialise and mate.

Pilot whales also play well with others, often seen following behind (and even socialising with) groups of dolphins and appearing near sperm whales to sniff out their shared favourite snack: squid. They’re not so keen on boats, although have been known to come and take a look by poking their heads out of the water nose-first (“spyhopping”).

You’re most likely to see short-finned pilot whales in the Azores, although long-finned pilot whales do appear too. They’re almost indistinguishable, so only the most experienced guides will be able to tell the difference.

Bryde’s whales

Status: not enough data
When to see Bryde’s whales in the Azores: June and August

Although considered more unusual visitors to the Azores, Bryde’s whales might be more common than previously thought. These 15m-long beasts look just like a small sei whale, with the only visual clues the twin ridges on their brows that make them look like they’re permanently deep in thought.

Bryde’s whales prefer tropical waters (who can blame them?), with males straying further north or south to mate. But with increasing humidity and warming waters in the Azores due to global heating and a changing Gulf Stream, there’s a chance we could see these whales become more frequent visitors.

Food-wise, Bryde’s whales will take whatever they can get, hunting for krill, small fish such as sardines, herring and mackerel, squid and crustaceans – and (spoiler alert) even just rocking up for the last bite of a “bait ball” of sardines as per this amazing footage from BBC Earth’s The Hunt.

Northern bottlenose whales

Status: not enough data
When to see northern bottlenose whales in the Azores: July

This is where whales start to segue into dolphin lookalikes. The northern bottlenose whale is a permanent resident of the North Atlantic, but still a relatively infrequent visitor to the Azores, preferring chillier waters. Another reason they’re so difficult to see is their dive time – they can stay underwater for up to two hours while searching deep sea canyons for squid, sea cucumbers and starfish.

Northern bottlenoses reach up to 10m long, and you’ll usually see them swimming in small groups. Their spyhopping is particularly eye-catching, as they poke their long beaked noses out of the water first. The males have the biggest “melons” – large foreheads often striped with scarring from headbutting other males during mating season.

Many whale watching trips have hydrophones on board, lowering the microphone underwater to give you the chance to eavesdrop on the northern bottlenoses’ unusual chatter of clicks, high whistles and chirruping.

Whale species rarely seen in the Azores

Sowerby’s, True’s, Gervais’ and Cuvier’s beaked whales – named after the whalers who hunted them in huge numbers – are occasional visitors to the Azores. Beaked whales in general are mysterious creatures, shying away from people and little understood, so it’s a real treat if you spot one in the Azores.

The nearly identical pygmy sperm whales and dwarf sperm whales are solitary rarities with needle-like teeth used for chewing up squid.

North Atlantic right whales are vanishingly rare, almost hunted to extinction and still considered critically endangered, with around 350 left in the world. You’ll know them by their leisurely swim – which made them the “right” whales to hunt – as well as by the amazed face of your whale watching guide.

How to see these whale species in the Azores

Our best advice: travel with our partners who will match you up with the best and most responsible whale watching crews in the Azores.

“It’s exciting to go out there and be with the skippers who have such amazing senses,” says Amanda. “The skippers have a sense of what’s going on in the water; they pick up so many things that we don’t pick up…”

“We like to have whale researchers working with us because it does really help guests to engage and understand more about the animals,” adds Amanda. “One of our whale researchers, Rui Santos, passionately talks about the whales and their lives, and he knows everything about them and their biology and structures, so people love talking to him. We often say that he’s one of the stars along with the animals.

“I’ve had people say, ‘Now I’ve seen dolphins and whales, I can die happy’ and I feel like I’ve achieved something. Those extraordinary comments are from these deeply meaningful experiences. And people really, really retain it… People know they’re enriched by the experience.”

Read more in our whale watching in the Azores guide.

Responsible Travel would like to thank Azores Tourism for their sponsorship of this guide.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Thomas Kelley] [Intro: Kris Mikael Krister] [Blue whales: National Marine Sanctuaries] [Humpback whale: National Marine Sanctuaries] [Whale species rarely seen in the Azores: NOAA Photo Library]