AZORES - the forgotten Galapagos of the Atlantic

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AZORES, the forgotten Galapagos of the Atlantic

by Alice Soccodato PhD

Principal Photographer – Michael AW


Many know of the illustrative Galapagos islands, a hot spot of biodiversity and endemicity in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Charles Darwin elaborated the theory of evolution based on the seven finches and 14 tortoise species of the Galapagos’ 14 islands. But few know about the Azores, which is equally remote and biologically rich like Galapagos, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

The presence of several seamounts and underwater canyons creates deep upwellings, therefore creating productive waters that attract a diverse and expansive range of marine species. Among marine mammals, 28 different species of cetacean can be sighted in the Azorean archipelago, which is approximately one-third of all cetacean species globally, making the Azores a hots spot of cetaction speciation richness in the world. 

Much like its Pacific counterpart, the richness of the Azores is found in the ocean. The islands’ juxtaposed position is optimal for creating a mosaic of communities, composed of species from the deep Mediterranean basin, the West African coast, and also from the Caribbean and West Atlantic thanks to the southern branch of the Gulf Stream. The diverse community of marine life that consists of many endangered species fills the rocky reefs of the Azores, which were once spooning with wildlife.

Despite the decline in wildlife, there are still many flourishing communities such as wrasses, gobies, parrotfishes, groupers, combers, rockfishes, bluefishes, seabreams, chubs, hogfishes, triggerfishes, barracudas, amberjacks, Yellow jacks, as well as giant crabs, lobsters and millions of shrimps hidden in rocky crevices.

Like the Galapagos, the deep water of the Azores harbours pristine kelp forests. Kelp forests are seeing a rapid global decline due to increasing water temperatures, pollution, and the unbalanced food web structure of temperate ecosystems. These Azorean kelps persist despite this due to the clarity of the region’s waters. The kelps are a habitat-forming species on which many other species depend, contributing to the biodiversity of the Azorean waters.

Offshore, the presence of several seamounts and underwater canyons creates deep upwellings, therefore creating productive waters that attract a diverse and expansive range of marine species. Among marine mammals, 28 different species of cetaceans can be sighted in the Azorean archipelago, which is approximately one-third of all cetacean species globally, making the Azores a hot spot of cetacean speciation richness in the world. 


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On an offshore trip during the summer season, it is common to encounter many species of whales and dolphins, including Sperm whales, Fin whales, Sei whales, Bryde’s whales, Pilot whales, Risso’s dolphins, hundreds of Spotted dolphins, Common dolphins, Bottlenose dolphins, and Striped dolphins. Additionally, in the spring, there is a chance one can spot the largest animal on the planet, the Blue whale, migrating towards the Arctic. Occasionally, orcas are seen in passing.

These abundant whale populations that regularly encounter the Azores during their seasonal migrations were decimated by whaling and are now considered endangered. The Sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus, was the most captured great whale in the Azores Archipelago until a hunting ban was established in 1985. Nowadays, the Sperm whale is the most alluring species for whale watchers and is one of the archipelago's principal sources of tourism. Despite this conversion, the whale populations have not yet fully recovered.

Other giants also visit the Azorean waters during the summer season such as the Whale shark, Rhincodon typus. This makes the Azores the only place in Europe where one can swim and dive with the largest fish in the world, which can reach up to 20 metres in length and live more than 100 years. Whale sharks are mostly found around Santa Maria Island, the southernmost island of the archipelago, giving these waters a higher probability of sighting than the Indian Ocean. Whale sharks are typical of tropical and subtropical waters, and are able to go through long migrations, as far as 10,000 kilometres per year, making them one of the ocean’s most widely travelled creatures. Whale sharks lost more than half of their global population in the last 75 years, due to fishing and finning, bycatching, ship collisions, and plastic pollution in the Indo-Pacific region. The whale shark is now listed as endangered in the IUCN Red List of threatened species and protected under UNCLOS, CITES and CMS treaties.

One of the reasons for the high probability of Whale shark sightings in the Azores could be the peculiar feeding strategy of charging through bait balls that are pushed together by tunas in the pelagic realm. Scientists believe whale sharks reach their thermal limit in this area (22°C), and therefore need higher energy requirements to survive. The congregation of whale sharks here contributes to the diversity and uniqueness of marine species in the Azores.

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Many tuna species found are in the Azores - skipjacks, yellowfins, and the highly endangered, bluefin tunas, victims of widespread habitat loss in the Atlantic Ocean. This loss is the largest among all the pelagic marine species to date.

Whilst rare elsewhere in the world,  in the idyllic seascape of feeding activity in the Azores, it is common to see Sicklefin devil rays, Mobula tarapacana, predictably. Sicklefin devil rays are mostly found aggregating in large groups of tens of individuals at two specific seamounts from June to October, the Princess Alice bank, located 100 kilometres south of Pico Island, and the Ambrosio seamount, located seven kilometres northwest of Santa Maria Island. The Sicklefin devil ray is highly endangered and is protected under the IUCN Red List, CITES, and CMS. It is one of the largest devil ray species, attaining a maximum size of at least 370 cm disc width with a circum-global but patchy distribution in temperate, subtropical, and tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Little is known about its biology and ecology, although based on other Mobula species, the Sicklefin devil ray is inferred to be ovoviviparous and produces only one pup every one to three years within a lifespan of 20 years. Therefore, the Sicklefin devil ray is slow to recover from overfishing. Increasing international trade in gill plates has led to the expansion of largely unregulated and unmonitored devil ray fisheries worldwide, which is not beneficial regarding their slow population growth. This species’ gill plates are reported to sell for up to US$360 per kg.

Consequently, the global population of the Sicklefin devil ray has decreased by 80% over the past 40 years, with a further population reduction suspected by 2050 due to ongoing demand for high-value products. This condition is heartbreaking, especially for the few intrepid divers who have interacted with these amazing creatures in Ambrosio. They circle you near the surface and investigate you by looking into your mask.

To add to the frame already full of iconic megafauna such as Whale sharks, tunas, devil rays, whales and dolphins, there is a tornado of curious resident amberjacks and barracudas, a few wahoo wondering at the surface, and the occasional Blue sharks, Mako and Hammerhead sharks.

All this makes the Ambrosio seamount and the Azores islands the dream site for divers and marine photographers worldwide. However, despite its incredible richness and uniqueness, the area of Ambrosio seamount and most of the Azorean waters are not protected. There is tension between the local fisheries who wish to continue fishing in the area, and local tourist operators who would like the area of the seamount protected both because of its unique natural heritage and the presence of endangered species. These tourist operators also advocate that if managed correctly, the Ambrosio could become a jewel for the Azores. Additionally, Santa Maria Island, the south eastern-most island of the Azores, is the best Atlantic aggregation spot for the Sicklefin devil ray giving the island the potential to create a whole economy based on one species, similar to the Hammerheads of the Galapagos Islands or the bull sharks of Cabo Pulmo - one of the oldest and largest marine protected areas in the world.

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Could this be the case for the Azores?  Preserving at least 30% of the natural ecosystem is a global target both on land and in the sea due to the extremely fast depauperating of species (SDG14). Ocean resources are the only ones that are difficult to monitor and enforce, and therefore protect. Despite being remote islands with low population numbers and no industrial activities, sadly the Azores do not host pristine habitats anymore. This is recognized by high-level international scientific studies, including the National Geographic Pristine Seas where local inhabitants and recurrent visitors witnessed firsthand how much biomass and diversity has changed in the last 20 years. The few ‘regulated areas’ that exist now do not furnish any of the functions of a true Marine Protected Area, which are much too small. Such as increased biomass and diversity of the area spill over into non-MPA waters and simply benefit the local fisheries. Furthermore, these MPAs are not enforced by local authorities.

Additionally, foreign industrial fisheries harvest the Azorean waters and decimate the diverse population of sea life and are met with no serious intervention from the local government. Furthermore, fishing boats and recreational boats fish regularly in MPAs and even harvest protected species such as bluefin tunas, sharks, undersized fish species, limpets and balanids, lobsters, and in off-season dolphins as well. This is due to the low skills and competencies as well as the low economic status of the unmanaged recreational and professional fishery, which causes them to believe that whatever they catch from the ocean is acceptable and of no long-term damage.

According to the last IUCN global assessment of sharks and rays, 33% of chondrichthyan species are threatened by extinction. Portugal is currently the 3rd country for the biggest shark fishery in Europe and the 2nd major exporter of shark meat (WWF PT report 2021). Considering the current marine tourism interest for shark and ray diving in the Azores, especially in Pico and Faial and Santa Maria Islands, the overfishing and lack of regulation regarding the marine protected areas of the Azores is worth regulating.  As determined by a Research paper by Cisneros-Montemayor et al., 2017, the global shark diving industry generates $314 million per year (data from 2017), directly supporting 10,000 jobs. This is expected to double within the next 20 years, generating more than $780 million per year. By comparison, the landed value of global shark fisheries is currently $630 million and has been in decline for most of the past decade, as a consequence of overfishing.

Endangered and regulated species are regularly smuggled inside the boats and retrieved at night when no one is at the port. Currently, the local fishermen are provided with free fuel, and their boats are not monitored. When fisheries act illegally, the Government is also a perpetrator of such illegal activities for aiding these fisheries. Sightings of boats fishing illegally, even if reported, photographed, or filmed, have no consequences for the offenders. In contrast, a tourist operator must pay a yearly licence to access these areas and if they forget to announce a trip, they are punished with a hefty fine.

We only have one ocean and we all depend on it for the homeostasis of the planet and for its resources. Science already gave good reasons for decision-makers to act. What we need as a civil society is to inspire greater care for our planet and share it with other living beings.


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About the Azores

The Azores is a subtropical archipelago formed by nine islands, located between 37.8 and 41.8 N and 25.8 and 31.8W crossing the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It is the most isolated archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, situated 1,600 km west of mainland Portugal and 3,500 km from the eastern coast of the United States of America. The islands were discovered and settled by the Portuguese at the beginning of the 15th century, however, the official date of the discovery of the Azores is in 1427 by the Portuguese explorer, Diogo de Silves, who first discovered the islands of Santa Maria and São Miguel. However, recent archaeological discoveries set back the human occupation of the Azores Islands 700 years earlier than the onset of Portuguese settlement by the Norse Vikings.

Historically, the Azores have always been a contended land because of their strategic importance for mariners to use as a stepping stone to progress down the coast of West Africa and as a point of resupply for ships travelling back from the East Indies and those on their way to the Americas, and more recently for the richness of their waters in terms of marine resources. On land, the Azores did not host any large animals but were home to the number of endemic insects, reptiles, plants and nesting birds, which were greatly reduced by the later introduction of cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens and many other animals, along with grain, grapevines and sugar cane to help the settlement of the new landers. Therefore, the landscape was profoundly transformed, even with the introduction of wood trees such as Cryptomeria from Japan and Eucalyptus from Australia, and non-indigenous flowers that cover the islands nowadays. In the sea, vibrant colonies of monk seal Monachus monachus were extirpated by the fishermen who used to capture them in the caves where they were resting, as documented by the Portuguese naturalist Gaspar Frutuoso (1522 - 1591). At present, the only population of seals remaining is at the Portuguese territory of Desertas Islands, Archipelago of Madeira. Also, for centuries the traditional land-based whaling decimated the abundant whale populations regularly encountering the islands during their seasonal migrations.

The Azorean myth is that when human beings moved to the islands, they brought with them their sins. Their sins bring ghostly figures down from the top of the mountain: the eruption of the volcano. Indeed, the islands are still very active with continuous seismic movements and recent eruptions from the volcanoes. Some of these events recently formed new land on the ocean, visible on Faial Island.

Some claim that the Azores is the Galapagos of the Atlantic. Indeed, they share the same recent volcanic origin, the same remoteness, the same unexpected discovery and incredible marine wildlife in the time being. As the Galapagos were named after the giant tortoises’ endemic of the islands, the Azores were named after some birds sighted by the first settlers, believed to be goshawks Accipiter gentilis (Azor), but turned out to be common buzzards Buteo buteo rothschildi (Milhafre).

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