July 13, 2014

Day 12: Last day in Horta

I was expecting this to be a slow day hanging around Horta. No plans other than to relax. On Sunday morning the shops are all closed and the streets are deserted. Maybe everyone was in church. But it seemed like a good idea to go for a swim, so I walked to Porto Pim, half afraid that all of the people I didn’t see downtown would be there. As it turned out there was hardly anyone there, and I had a nice quiet time on the more private beach closer to town. After a swim and some reading I called Angie to say my goodbyes to her and the Cedros folks. A few minutes later there was a call from Lidia, telling me to meet Rui Prieto, the whale scientist, at 7:30 that evening at Casa. I had completely given up on this happening, but as usual it came together at the last minute. I spoke to Vasco for a moment and he said they were going to Capelinhos that day, if I wanted to come along. Having just been a few days before I declined, but it was very gracious of him to offer.

Walking back through town, on a whim I decided to go down to the marina and check out the various whale watching options. It would be pretty lame to come all this way and not actually see any whales, wouldn’t it? Out of several choices, I picked the one that looked the most professional. As it happens, they had a boat leaving in 30 minutes — just enough time for me to go back to the hotel, change out of my swim suit, pop a dramamine, and walk back. And it would get me back in time for my meeting with Rui. It turns out this is the only operation here that uses a hydrophone (underwater microphone) to locate the whales. A very funky, make-shift hydrophone, with a parabolic reflector dish made of styrofoam and duct tape. So we engaged in a bit of tech-talk about that.

We were a small group of seven. The on-board naturalist gave an informative talk about the various species of cetaceans. Soon we were off, following basically the same route as the whale boat to Pico the day before.

One of my theories about whale watching and cetacean research being an outgrowth of the whaling business was proven true when the naturalist told us that they employ one of the old whalers on Pico as a spotter. He uses the same lookout station, looks through the same field glasses, and sits on the same bench as he did when he was spotting for the whalers. And he applies the same traditional knowledge about locating whales and directing boats to them. At one point there was a lot of excited talk on the radio, and we zoomed off, away from Pico and headed out to open sea. Then we stopped and had a listen with the hydrophone. Sperm whales don’t “sing” like humpbacks, but they do make a distinctive clicking noise when they dive, which was picked up on the hydrophone. Eventually we saw the sidewise spray on the surface and cruised over for a look. Of course we couldn’t see much, just the top of the whale with the blowhole and the dorsal spine now and then. But eventually it dove and we got a great view of the flukes. Magnificent creatures!

Once they dive they stay down for a long time — maybe 25 minutes — and you never know where they’ll come back up, so there isn’t much point in hanging around. But they picked up another one on the hydrophone in a different direction and headed that way. Again, success. Then there was a report from another boat near Faial that was looking for a humpback, so we headed off in that direction since it was on the way home. After a little while we found it. The boats always kept a respectful distance from the whales, but in this case the humpback came up quite close to the other boat and did a little semi-breach with the back half of its body. Those folks had a great view. Throughout the trip we encountered many dolphins (three different species) who seemed to enjoy checking us out and playing with us, swimming around and under the boat, popping up right next to us for a look.

Even though I am unequivocally on the side of not killing whales, I have to admit that I did get a little hit of the thrill of the hunt that I’m sure was also felt by the old whalers, and probably by my great-great-grandfather. Pedro, the guy running the boat, confirmed this, and he said they even use some of the same language as the whalers when talking about their “hunt.” I should also add that the guys running the boat clearly love their job and care deeply about the whales. Their enthusiasm was apparent, and I’d say they were at least as excited by each sighting as we were, if not more so. And not just because it meant they'd get paid (they don't charge if you don't see any whales). They are really into it. Pedro was interested in my project and offered to make me some recordings later in the summer if I want. We'll see about that. I did not make any recordings on this particular trip. I didn't have a hydrophone (there would have been boat noise anyway), and any recordings I might have made of the whales blowing would have been drowned out by all the people talking and cameras clicking on the boat.

We got back to Horta with enough time for me to go home and change for my meeting with Rui Prieto. We had a really interesting conversation and he too confirmed my theory about the transmission of knowledge from whalers to their modern-day equivalents. One of the things Rui does in his work is tag whales so they can follow their routes from satellites, and he said he has consulted with one of the old whalers about how to get close enough to the whales to tag them. They also told him about which kinds of whales can be found where, and at what times of year or under which weather conditions. He has a lot of respect for the old whalers, even though he himself is on the opposite end of the equation. Yet he remains sympathetic to the life conditions that made whaling a necessity for them. Rui also confirmed that the whales could easily be heard through the hulls of the ships. But then he shot holes through my other theory about the whalers following the migratory routes of the whales; the reality was that they were depleting the stock and had to keep sailing farther and farther away to find more whales.

Had a nice final meal at Casa and said proper goodbyes to Eugenio and Antonio. Maria slipped out when I wasn’t looking, for which I felt bad. I leave feeling like they all took very good care of me, and I'll miss them and this place.