As other countries continue to hunt whales for their own economic profit, we Azoreans couldn’t be prouder to have put a term on this sad tradition. However, our History is important to us, as it forged who we are, and we don’t want to forget it. We still give tribute to the whalers through historical monuments, movies, museums and other places related to the whaling history. It is important to keep the memories of the old traditions, even if we are glad that nowadays we can see whales peacefully, happy in their natural environment, without the threat of being harpooned for their meat or their oil.
How did we come up with this idea?
Sperm whale hunting began in the Azores archipelago in the 18th century, when American whalers discovered that our waters are full of them. Indeed, our islands are the best destination in Europe to see whales and dolphins. We have plenty of migratory species passing by our coasts, but also some resident species, including the sperm whale. That means we can find them all year round. In fact, out of the 81 different species of cetaceans in the world, here you can see 28 of them. Another reason why the Azores were the next American whale hunting spot is because it was the perfect location to stock up on supplies while sailing across the Atlantic between America and Europe.
Many Azoreans would go on the American boats to hunt whales. Their presence increased between the end of the 1812 war and the end of the civil war of the US (1861-1865). Some of them would go back home after that, but a lot of them would indefinitely migrate to the East coast of the United States, that turned up to be a big destination for the Azorean emigration for several decades. Whaling represented a great job opportunity and soon, Azorean people would master the skills required to hunt sperm whales. And it was in 1864 precisely, that many Azoreans returned to their land in order to apply what they learned to their islands.
Whaling techniques adapted to the Azores
During the 19th century, the islanders adapted and developed the American techniques to better suit the conditions in their environment. For instance, before going to the ocean, they located the whales visually from land-based lookouts, known as “vigias” in Portuguese, a technique we adapted for whale watching at Futurismo, with more modern equipment. Now they have more powerful binoculars and instead of rockets and smoke signals to indicate the presence of whales, now they have radios to communicate with our boats.
The trips at sea were dangerous, fighting with the whales could result in drowning, due to bad sea conditions, and ultimately dying in the bottom of the ocean. The boats were small and fragile, like canoes, and without motors in the beginning. The pursuit of the whales could last for hours or even days. When they finally approached the animals, they would throw their handmade harpoons to try to pierce the lungs, that would fill with water and kill the whale. It was easier to transport the dead body of a whale than one still alive. Then on land, the whales were opened to proceed to melting their meat and taking advantage of all the parts.
What to do with the dead whales?
The islanders who went to the American boats in the beginning of the whaling times were mostly young boys, underage. They learned to hunt, but not only. They were taught how to melt the meat that was transformed in oil and how to take the liquid called spermaceti from the huge head.
The oil from the sperm whales was mostly used for lighting fuel, lubricant for various types of machinery, antioxidant, tanner for leather and the production of soap and detergents. The spermaceti was sold for cosmetic products and pharmaceutics, whereas the meat was for animal food and bones were for fertilisers. The oil from the liver of the whale was for vitamins A and D. The oil was in great majority sent to the US, England and Germany. Grey amber (sold at a high price) was a famous perfume fixer and the jaw bone was used for whaling art, as well as the teeth. You can still find this art around the islands, in the museums for example. Some shop might sell ancient art made with these bones. From the sperm whale, every part was used.
Why whale hunting ended
Because of whaling, there was a great concern about the status of the whales populations globally. Some species have been hunted so much that they were near extinction, still facing big threats today. In the Azores, the peak of the whaling times was 1896 - 1949, with about 12,000 whales killed. After that period, whaling began to decline in the archipelago because of different reasons such as:
- Migration of Azoreans to the United States and Canada;
- Change of sector: whalers began to fish for the tuna industry;
- Lack of markets for the whale oil;
- Discovery of substitute products;
- Pressure from the ecologist organisations like Cousteau Foundation, Greenpeace or International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) to protect cetaceans;
- Portugal’s adhesion to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), in Washington in 1974 and the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats in Bern in 1981.
Portugal was one of the first countries to put an end to this barbaric practice. The whaling industry was finally shut down in the decade of 1980. However, the traditions and the heritage of this time period are kept alive. Old whaling boats were converted to racing boats and museums such as Museu dos Baleeiros in Pico Island, or also Fábrica da Baleia in Faial island were created. The economic impact of this activity was big, mostly for Pico Island, where whaling is a huge part of the population’s culture. It was there that the last sperm whale was killed, in 1987, when hunting whales was already forbidden by the International Whaling Commission.
Nowadays, whale watching is the new sustainable activity that attracts lots of travellers contributing to the local economy with millions of euros every year.