Over the past decade my research and travel plans have taken me all around the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean. Now, it was time to venture into the hearth of this ocean. Close to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge lies a group of island that experience the full forces of this ocean on a daily basis: The Azores. The main reason that I travelled to these islands might not surprise you that much, to experience the underwater world of the mid-Atlantic and interact with some species of sharks and rays that I haven’t seen before.
After a short stay over on the main island of the Azores (or Açores), São Miguel, I flew to the island of Pico. Pico is not only famous for its high density of cetaceans, but it is also home to the highest mountain of Portugal, Mount Pico. The island is a relatively young one at only 300,000 years old and is of volcanic origin. I was here to dive for ten days with CWAzores and their amazing crew. It was in the waters around this island where I experienced lava tunnels, dove into a remnant crater and was on the hunt for blue sharks and sicklefin devil rays (mobulas). Secretly I was hoping on a shortfin mako shark too..
For the blue sharks we dove into the pelagic zone, the deep blue waters off the shelf of Pico and Faial. The waiting game can be long for any shark species, but especially for pelagic species which generally have to come from far, so having to wait for a couple of hours was a common occasion. As soon as you experience them underwater you quickly realize that blue sharks are perfectly adapted to live in these waters. Their blueish skin lets them blend in perfectly with the deep waters underneath you, which sometimes makes them a bit tricky to spot in the depths. Fortunately, these sharks are curious and do not keep their distance. During our first dive in the pelagic I could actually already thick off more than I hoped for, during a one hour dive we had a shortfin mako, blue shark and smooth hammerhead shark (!) round us!
Although mobula rays can be found throughout the Azores, there is one specific underwater seamount where they are known to aggregate. Princess Alice Bank is located 45 nautical miles from Pico and is famous for its aggregation of these large rays and high densities of pelagic fish species. As soon as we arrive on the spot we see the large silhouettes of two mobulas swimming around the boat. As soon as we enter the water they come to check us out for a moment. We first did our deep dive, diving to the top of the seamount at a depth of 35 meters to check out the huge schools of fish and a beautiful roughtail stingray. Halfway through the dive we decide to move up on the anchor line to hangout with the mobulas in midwater. While we look back down we see a huge black ray with an entourage of fish slowly hovering over the seamount, an OCEANIC MANTA!! Also this dive brings more than I could have hoped for. During our second dive we hang out for over an hour with seven different mobula rays, which are just as curious as us and take their time to carefully check us out. The majestic swimming motion of these animals is the perfect underwater therapy by the way..
Besides the dives for the big sharks and mobulas, I also planned a couple of coastal dives. During these dives I got to experience lava tunnels (i.e. remnants of lava streams underwater which left perfect arches to swim through), a remnant crater which partially broke the water surface, big stingrays and the most amazing dive of them all.. the batcave!
Furnas do Monte da Guia is a dive site in a cave where young eagle rays spend the night. Diving in the morning hours and entering the cave over the bottom allowed us to see the rays leave the cave in the darkness of the cave, and while swimming back out of the cave you’re overwhelmed by the rays that now have started to school in from of the entrance. A truly magical experience in a surreal setting that you need to experience for yourself to do it justice!
Lastly I would like to thank all the amazing people that made this an unforgettable trip! Especially to the crew of CWAzores for the great dives, expert guidance and good times on the boat!