Fascinating creatures of the deep: Studying whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean
This expedition will take you to the Azores Archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to study whales, dolphins and loggerhead turtles. You will photograph whales and dolphins and record them for local and international monitoring databases as part of a small international team. You will listen to and make recordings of whale and dolphin vocalisations and capture loggerhead turtles in the open ocean for tagging and release. All this in an effort to elucidate the animals’ life histories and migration patterns across the oceans and assist with the formulation of effective conservation strategies. The whole team will be working on a modern catamaran research boat during the day and staying in a comfortable and modern guesthouse at night. Please note that this expedition does not involve any diving or getting in the water at all.
Expedition contribution: £1390 (ca. €1890 | US$2140 | AU$2690) land only per group dates as shown below. Please note: expedition contributions are quoted in £ and the approximate € | US$ | AU$ equivalents. Try the XE currency converter for other currencies and up to date exchange rates.
Dates & meeting point: 4 - 13 April | 15 - 24 April 2016 (10 days). Participants can join for multiple slots (within the periods specified). The meeting point is the town of Horta on Faial Island and participants have to organise their own travel there. More details on this and how to get to Horta are in the . Other dates.
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Boat-based project with nights onshore.
Weather expected during expedition
Mild maritime Mediterranean. The average temperature during the expedition months is 16°C.
Our base is a modern guesthouse-style building with all modern amenities such as a kitchen, lounge, en suite showers & toilets, and research facilities. Accommodation is on a twin-share basis.
Up to 10 team members + 1 local scientists + 1 expedition leader.
Skills & prerequisites required
None. You don't need to be a scientist or have any special qualifications - everyone can take part and there are no age limits whatsoever.
Fitness level required
Most work is boat-based, so you do not need to be particularly fit, but it is important that you are steady on your feet, have reasonable eyesight and have no medical conditions affecting your sense of balance or ability to hold on when the sea is bouncy. We will walk approximately two kilometres to and from the harbour each day.
Team assembly point
Aims & objectives
(1) To photo-identify baleen whales (such as blue, fin, sei, humpback and minke whales) for comparative trans-Atlantic studies
(2) To photo-identify sperm whales, bottlenose and Risso’s dolphins for inclusion in local and international monitoring databases
(3) To tag loggerhead turtles and record environmental data whenever other activities allow
(4) To record sperm whale coda vocalisations for a comparative study of different regional “dialects”
The Azores archipelago is one of the prime whale and dolphin hotspots in the world and around 30% of the world’s known cetacean species have been recorded there. For management purposes, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has included the Azores archipelago in the East Greenland and Iceland stocks, but there is little evidence to support this.
The expedition initiated the first long-term concerted study on baleen whales in the Azores. These animals in particular have not been studied around the Azores and accurate knowledge of the origins of the baleen whales passing the archipelago during April and May will help to determine which stocks they come from and assess more accurately their true numbers (which are often inflated in efforts to set hunting quotas).
The expedition will also continue existing sperm whale, bottlenose and Rissos’s dolphin studies. The sperm whale study is part of a larger migration and social study, and the dolphin study is in the early stages of assessing animal numbers and migratory behaviour around the archipelago. Loggerhead turtles will also be studied and tagged as part of an international research project studying their life history and migration around the Atlantic.
Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus)
Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)
Sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis)
Minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata)
Blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus)
Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus)
Risso’s dolphin (Grampus griseus)
Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)
Loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta)
Other landmark species present: common dolphin, striped dolphin, pilot whale, orca, Cuvier’s beaked whale, Sowerby’s beaked whale.
Breakfast will be between 07:15 and 08:30 with the boat leaving the harbour at around 09:00 and returning between 15:00 and 16:00, depending on weather, sightings and other conditions. On board you will be divided into different activities such as animal spotting, taking photo ID photographs, tracking whales by hydrophone, recording their blow rates, capturing and tagging turtles, measuring water parameters, recording seabirds or boat duties with team members rotating through activities. On a typical day we should spend between 20 minutes and five hours with animals, but there may be days with no animal sightings at all (during a typical slot you can realistically expect to see between four to eight different cetacean species and many more individuals).
You will also have some rest time, for example when you are not on animal spotting watch and there are no animals to be photographed or recorded. Your rest time, however, could be interrupted by frantic activities with all hands on deck, at a moment’s notice. For example when we come across a school of dolphins, which needs to be photographed and recorded, or a turtle, which needs to be caught, measured and tagged.
Once we return to the harbour in the afternoon, you will help with mooring and cleaning the boat, cleaning dishes, entering data collected during the day onto computers back at base, and you will have some time to yourself. Some evenings are free, so bring some books and games, or you can go out for a drink.
On choppy weather days, the boat will stay in the harbour and you will have the option of helping with data entry or resting. There will also be some suggestions for activities around the island (for example hiring a car or a scooter for a drive, going on a tour, or hiking around the volcano), which you can then organise yourself. Out of eight full days spent in Horta on each slot, we have two dedicated shore days for rest and computer work. More such days may occur on each slot, because the weather is unpredictable.
The Azores archipelago is Europe’s westernmost point and part of Portugal. It consists of nine distinct islands, lying on the same latitude as New York and Lisbon, and is around 1,600 kilometres off the coast of Portugal. Lying on the mid-Atlantic ridge, the islands display spectacular volcanic scenery, impressive black lava sea cliffs and, towering above them all, the highest mountain in Portugal on the island of Pico. The volcanic activity continues with bubbling mud pools and hot mineral pools on São Miguel and Teceira islands and you can walk on land that rose from the sea just 50 years ago. The countryside also has a gentler side with large areas of green fields, distinctive hydrangea hedgerows and forests.
The Azores were discovered in 1427 by Portuguese explorers and colonised shortly after by people of mainly Portuguese and Flemish descent. During the 20th century the islands were an important stopover point for undersea communications cables, trans-Atlantic flights and yachtsmen. Today their main income is from agriculture and fishing. Mainstream tourism has all but passed by the islands.
And finally (almost)
Our expeditions are not about playing the primitive, neither are we a military style 'boot-camp'. Our expedition leader and the local scientist will be by your side and we believe strongly that we get the best out of our expedition teams by making them comfortable, safe and well fed. You won’t be living in the lap of luxury, but we will do our best to make you feel comfortable and at home in your working environment, as this is the key to a well-balanced and successful expedition.
And finally (briefing)
For even more details such as activities, staff, accommodation, the assembly point and how to get there, and lots more, please access the expedition briefing by providing your full name and e-mail.
Biosphere Expeditions will never share these details with anyone.
Sign up to this expedition now
Results & achievements
This expedition has collected valuable information on the movements of whales & dolphins around the Azores since 2004 and provided confirmation of previously theorised migratory routes. Prior to Biosphere Expeditions there was virtually no data on any type of cetacean in the Azores during spring. Some highlights have been two blue whales seen in two separate years, indicating that at least some of them use the same migration route. Three humpback whales that were identified by the expedition in the Azores have been re-sighted in the Cape Verde Islands, providing a valuable link as to where individuals passing the Azores breed. Around 500 sperm whales have been identified over the years. There are indications that some of the sperm whales seen during the expedition tend to be present more in the autumn/winter/spring, instead of the summer. This has given rise to a "winter whales" theory, which will be investigated further. Because of results that have been published and disseminated, there is enthusiasm from other biologists to collect more photo-ID of the animals they are watching. Whale watching operators have started to work before the main season to observe the migration of the baleen whales past the islands. The sperm whales that have been re-sighted during Biosphere Expeditions in the spring have created the incentive for future studies that will take place in the winter, via the “Winter Flukes Project”. Finally, a placement programme for local students has built local capacity since 2011.
Scientific reports and publications for this expedition are on the reports & publications page. As far as we are aware, Biosphere Expeditions is the only organisation in the world that has a direct and transparent link between the work done by citizen scientists and an expedition report. Each expedition year is matched by an expedition report for that year, which deals with the two main areas that expedition participants contribute to: funding and data collection. Chapter 1 of each report, written by Biosphere Expeditions, reviews the expedition logistics and publishes an expedition budget, which shows in a clear and transparent way income and expenditure for each expedition and the percentage of income spent on the project. Chapter 2 onwards, written by the expedition scientist, shows who collected what data, how they were analysed, what the conclusions were, as well as the conservation recommendations and actions flowing from this, and what future expeditions should do. In this way, each expedition comes full circle for its participants.
Awards & accolades
|This expedition was honoured in the "Top Ten Outdoor Pursuits" list in the Independent on Sunday.|
|This expedition was also honoured in the "Best Ten Wildlife Holidays in Europe" list in the Guardian.|
This expedition was also honoured on Islands magazine Voluntourism Blue List where it won the "Best in Sustainable Travel" award.
Sperm whale vocalisations
Pilot whale vocalisations
Bottlenose dolphin vocalisations
Common dolphin vocalisations
Risso's dolphin vocalisations
Die Azoren - Leben auf Vulkangestein mitten im Atlantik
Radio programme on Azores with some coverage of the expedition
|Blog by Patty Tse, expedition team member from Hong Kong
View blog 2.09 Mb
|Blog by Pere Morera, research assisting on the project
View blog 400 Kb
|High time to sea
View article 325.79 Kb
|Biosphere wins travel award
View article 119.96 Kb
|Trip to change your world
View article 78.06 Kb
|Ich bin dann mal im Einsatz
View article 1.33 Mb
Herren der Keksausstecher
View article 359.28 Kb
|Qual für Wal?
View article 524.69 Kb
|A vida selvagem que mergulha nos Açores
“Research teams from Biosphere Expeditions will enable cetacean research in the Azores to increase in scope and quality, thus increasing our knowledge of the whales and dolphins that are resident or passing through. This information will enable us to get a clearer picture of the migration patterns and behaviour of the animals and thus assess the threats they face from the modern world. I can confidently say that without Biosphere Expeditions, this research could not take place.”
Lisa Steiner, local scientist, Azores.
"My uncle used to work as a look-out for the whaling industry, spotting whales for the whalers and he taught me how to spot them. With whaling now banned around the Azores, I can do this job of spotting whales for Biosphere Expeditions and its research teams. It's a great way to use my skills, keeping them alive for future generations and helping the whales."
Miguel Vargas, Cedros, Faial Island, Azores.
"I was very sad to leave. My expectations regarding animals and the research work were 100% fulfilled, but the thing that made it extra special for me was the genuinely friendly and relaxed atmosphere between everyone on the expedition. The group gelled really well right from the start despite our very diverse ages, backgrounds and languages!"
Jörg Maubach, 48.
"Very worthwhile work. This is an expedition for people who genuinely care about the creatures that they are studying. Thank you for helping me find Eric (a whale!) It was very special."
Alison Dooley, 44.
"It was one of my most exciting travels I've had for years. And perfectly planned! Thank you very much!"
Sigrid Egert Merkle, 38.
Feedback from team members about their experiences and reasons for coming (on/from various expeditions).
“A fantastic two weeks with good company. Thanks to everyone for making it both relaxing and enjoyable. I’ve learnt lots and seen some fantastic whales and dolphins”
Ayesha Chibb, 28.
“Oh my gosh! I think for the first time I’m speechless… This expedition has been so many things I can’t even begin to describe, but I’m going away with so much passion and enthusiasm to do more to help nature and this planet and its amazing life! I saw so many wonderful creatures of the deep but seeing the blue whale (and about 10 times with some flukes) was the highlight. My respect for this animal and the work that Biosphere Expeditions does for research & conservation is beyond words”
Deborah True, 36.
“Thank you so much for the wonderful hospitality and brilliant experience. It was a real learning curve but I think we cracked it in the end!”
Peter Hochstätter, 63.
“A fantastic 2 weeks with good company. Thanks to everyone for making it both relaxing and enjoyable. I’ve learnt lots and seen some fantastic whales and dolphins.”
“….absolutely brilliant – this has to be the best ever Biosphere experience! Very impressed by – well everything ……”
"Thanks for the wonderful time. It was even better than I hoped it was going to be. I’ll be back…”
“This expedition has been a great experience for me. I never thought I’d see and learn so much in just under 2 weeks.”
“Many thanks for a truly wonderful experience. It far exceeded my expectations and it was brilliant to be involved.”
“Thanks everyone for making the last two weeks 2 weeks that I will never forget. It has been an amazing experience and everybody I have met have been the best…”
“A total of more than one thousand animals in sight days – much more than we expected and hoped for.”
Expedition diary / blog
See what's gone on during past expeditions via the expedition diary and blog.
Frequently asked questions
What's the accommodation like and how do I get to the assembly point?
A description of the accommodation and some pictures are in the . All participants organise their own travel to the assembly point, which is an easy to find place in-country, and exact instructions on how to get there at what time are in the . > more
Is it just young people roughing it, i.e. will it be for me or am I too old/young/unfit?
A common misconception is that conservation expeditions are full of youngsters roughing it and boozing. With Biosphere Expeditions nothing could be further from the truth! Our typical participant is in his/her mid-30s to late 70s (average age 42.3, spread six months to 87 years). It is rare to have fewer than five nationalities, typically from Europe, North America and Australasia, on the expedition, all united by the common interest in wildlife, wilderness and conservation. If you would like details who is already signed up, then just get in touch. > more
Do I need special skills or fitness?
Apart from the ability to communicate in English and a diving qualification for our diving expeditions, there are no special skills (biological or otherwise) required to join our expeditions, and there are no age limits whatsoever. If you have special needs, please contact us to find out about the suitability of the experience of your choice. > more
How good does my English have to be?
If, with the help of a dictionary and a little patience, you can understand what we are talking about here, then don't worry - you'll be fine.
Will I be safe?
Yes. Although we are not in the business of controlling nature and expect you to take some responsibilities, safety is our top priority. Our three key watchwords are ‘safety, science, satisfaction’ - in that order. We always have emergency procedures and backup systems in place. Biosphere Expeditions has an excellent safety record with no serious accidents, long-lasting injuries or let alone deaths since its foundation in 1999. > more
Can people under 18 attend?
Yes, because there are no (upper or lower) age restrictions. With their parents' consent they can also come by themselves.
How do I sign up and when do I pay?
Signing up is easy: Use the and pay a deposit of £300; the full balance will be due four weeks before the start of the expedition. If you don't want to sign up online, you can also download paper forms to fax or snail-mail.
What's included and what's not included?
Once you have made it to the assembly point and we’re on our way, we pay for everything apart from the obvious such as personal souvenirs, luxury drinks, phone calls home, etc. (and in many places we go to there's no need for money anyway ;). Travel arrangements to the assembly point are for you to make and pay for. Additional costs may include passport, visa and airport fees, your personal gear and preparations, and travel insurance, but not much more. There are certainly no hidden fees from our end.
Where does my money go?
On average at least two-thirds of your contribution will benefit the project directly and locally, the rest will go towards administrative back-up, as well as researching and setting up new expeditions. Within six to twelve months after your expedition you will receive an expedition report with full details on how your expedition contribution was spent on running the expedition and supporting its research work. We can put as much as two-thirds into the project, because we are a non-profit/charitable research and conservation organisation, not a large scale tourism business, which means that we can keep expensive overhead costs to a minimum. We also do very little advertising and costly marketing, concentrating instead on press, media and research publication work. > more
> more FAQs and detailed answers in text and video format are on the FAQ page