Whale watching in the Azores: how to choose the most responsible tour provider

The Azores have absolutely become a hot topic recently and seem to be the place everybody wants to go! They’re also one of the best places in the world to go whale watching. But which is the best tour provider for whale watching in the Azores?

Well, all over the world, ethical whale watching can be difficult to come by and especially in places where marine life is so abundant, we need to make sure we are really choosing the tours that are best for the cetaceans and their well-being. We’ve been vetting tours, hotels and companies for their sustainability practices for years now, and have been sharing information on how to find the best ethical wildlife experiences with you all, since we first started our blog and social media.

This guide aims to help you choose the best ethical whale watching tour in the Azores, to suit your budget and itinerary, so that you can have the best time without worrying you’ve made the wrong choice.

This guide may contain affiliate links. This means that if you click on a link, I may make a small commission at no additional cost to you – in fact, these links are often discounted, so it’s the best of both worlds!

A humpback tail breaching from a distance. This was taken while whale watching in the Azores.
A humpback tail breaching

Table of Contents

What makes a marine tour ethical?

It’s really not that complex. Marine tours that are ethical should:

💚 Respect the space of the animals and maintain a safe and comfortable distance, so that the animals do not feel stressed or crowded

💚 Explain the ethics of watching marine life to tourists, and encourage them to stay quiet, so as not to disturb the animals

💚 Ideally support conservation efforts, such as removing netting from oceans, recording behaviour of cetaceans and other marine animals for research projects

💚 Allow wildlife to approach on their own terms, without pursuing or harassing wildlife for the sake of tourist photos

💚 Make clear to tourists that sightings of wildlife animals can never be guaranteed and that there is always a risk you may see nothing

💚 Take every possible measure to protect the surrounding environment, such as reducing pollution and striving to be as eco-friendly as possible

Marine tours that are ethical should NEVER:

❌ Crowd the wildlife in any way. If they see other boats around an animals, they should leave or maintain a distance still further away to observe from a distance with which the animal is comfortable

❌ Feed the animals. Humans should not interfere with the animals’ behaviour in any way or encourage them to become dependent on human interaction

❌ Chase the animals or follow them closely. This can cause stress to marine life and sometimes injury.

❌ Guarantee animal sightings. Wild animals are wild and as such, it’s impossible to know for certain where they will be at any given time.

❌ Litter the oceans – this one seems fairly self-explanatory!

Sources: Alchemy, Green Fins, Blue Flag

A black sand beach in the Azores. There are rocks on the beach and the sand is grey/black.
Black sand beaches in the Azores

Whale watching in the Azores

The Azores is currently considered Europe’s leading whale watching destination. What makes it so fantastic is that you can actually see certain species of whales (sperm whales) and dolphins throughout the year. This means that even if you go outside of peak season, there’s still a high probability you will see some kind of cetacean!

What’s interesting about whale watching in the Azores specifically is that the conservation and ethical tourism efforts are largely championed by ex-whalers, i.e. fishermen who used to hunt and kill whales for food and sport. Whale hunting was previously an extremely lucrative business in the Azores, but when the islands were forced to give up their whaling practices through pressure from environmental groups and from mainland Portugal, those who had previously profited had to find new ways to sustain themselves.

Once they realised how much money lay in whale watching as a tourism activity, focus quickly shifted to eco-tourism, education and much-needed conservation. Nowadays, whale watching in the Azores is some of the most ethical and sustainable whale watching in the world, though of course, it’s still vitally important to choose the right provider so you can be 100% certain.

Sustainable tourism in the Azores

The Azores consider themselves a global leader in sustainable tourism and from what we saw, they honestly are! Here are some ways they live up to this accolade:

🌱 They take conservation extremely seriously and invest heavily into things like marine conservation, which is exactly what makes them such a great place to go whale watching

🌱 They are investing heavily in renewable energy. The Azores use hydroelectric, solar, wind power and geothermal to power the islands. Each island of the Azores has their own self-sustaining system and nowadays around 40% of their energy is renewable.

🌱 They now hold an Earth Check certificate as a sustainable tourism destination from the Global Sustainable Tourism Council

If you want to find out more about sustainable tourism in the Azores, check out our full guide here.

An islet of the coast of Sao Miguel island in the Azores. The islet is a rocky peak.

FAQs about whale watching in the Azores

When is the best time to go whale watching in the Azores?

The Azores is a year-round whale watching destination, which means that you have a chance to see cetaceans no matter when you go. This is because sperm whales and dolphins reside full time in the waters of the Azores, so even though your chance may be slim, there is a possibility you could spot these cetaceans at any time of year.

The Azores main whale watching season runs from April to October, and some of the most exciting sightings typically occur towards the end of April, when blue whales and fin whales migrate through the waters of the archipelago.

At this time of year, the weather in the Azores is generally lovely, though fair warning, the weather in the Azores is always a little temperamental (read our full guide to handling the weather here!).

Which island is best for whale watching in the Azores?

That really depends! Technically, you can see whales from any of the islands in the Azores, since they’re all based in the same body of water, however whale watching tours are not offered from every Azorean island.

The best islands for whale watching in the Azores are typically considered to be:

São Miguel – the largest island in the Azores and the one with the largest choice of tour providers

Terceira – the Azores’ second largest island

Faial – often considered the best island for whale watching in the Azores by locals, but a little harder to get to than the others

Pico – the island where ethical whale watching in the Azores first began

If you’re still deciding which island(s) in the Azores you’d like to visit, check out our breakdown of each island here!

A field of cows in the Azores
Views of the Azores

Do you need to pre-book your whale watching tour in the Azores?

Yes, you do.

The whale watching tours in the Azores sell out daily, especially during peak season, so it is best to pre-book to avoid disappointment, although you should be able to book quite close to the date of departure and still get a slot.

Are all of the whale watching tours in the Azores ethical?

Though the Azorean government tries very hard to implement principles of sustainability into its tour providers, and encourages ethical wildlife tourism, unfortunately the answer to this question is no.

There are still tour providers in the Azores who guarantee animal sightings (despite sustainability commitments) and crowd the animals.

Thankfully in the Azores, this is not as common as it is elsewhere, but it’s still important to research carefully to avoid ending up with one of these providers and feed the demand for them. The more we encourage sustainable providers, the better they will do.

Lucky for you, we’ve done a lot of that research for you! Here are the best whale watching tours we’d recommend for each of the four islands we mentioned above.

Is whale watching in the Azores expensive?

Of all of the activities you can do in the Azores, whale watching will probably set you back the most, however compared with the cost of a whale watching tour elsewhere in the world, prices of whale watching tours in the Azores are extremely competitive.

You can expect to pay between £50-100 ($75-150 USD) depending on the tour you choose and duration of the trip. Most tours will be around 3 hours and include raincoats and guides.

Best whale watching tours in São Miguel

The iconic black and white archways of Ponta Delgada. The architecture is very monochrome
The unique architecture of Ponta Delgada

Having taken a whale watching tour with Terra Azul, they are the number one whale watching tour company we would recommend. They are EXTREMELY clear on their sustainability practices, and held multiple certifications as an ethical marine tour practitioner. While on board the boat, we were accompanied by a tour guide giving commentary, and a marine researcher, who monitored the animals and their behaviour.

Additionally, whenever we came near to whales, we would stop a safe distance away and if there were other boats, we would go way back. This didn’t impact our visibility at all, as the tour guides are great at finding angles so everyone can see without crowding the whales. We were able to see humpbacks breaching, and lots of dolphins.

A second company who we didn’t try ourselves, but who also come highly recommended are Azores Adventures Futurismo. They hold sustainable certifications and have very clear sustainability practices surrounding whale watching, They also do offer a second tour if you don’t get to see any cetaceans on your trip. Bear in mind that you will only be offered this tour if you see absolutely nothing, including dolphins.

You can book either of these two tours via the link below.

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Best whale watching tours in Terceira

We could only find one tour provider in Terceira that met our full ethical standards for whale watching, and that was Picos de Aventura. Unfortunately all other providers used very questionable language and guaranteed sightings.

As mentioned above, this is concerning from an ethical standpoint, as it calls into question the methods they are using to guarantee the whereabouts of wild animals. It’s not an absolute certainty, but companies that state ‘guaranteed sightings’ of wildlife sometimes use unethical practices such as feeding animals (baiting) or chasing and pursuing animals for the sake of a sighting.

We prefer therefore to recommend only Picos de Aventura, which has a full sustainability policy and does not guarantee any sightings, though they do state that they have a 99% success rate at seeing cetaceans on their tours. You can book them below.

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Best whale watching tours in Faial

A poster showing various different types of whales and dolphins you can spot in the Azores
The different cetaceans you can spot in the Azores

In Faial (and Pico), Naturalist – Science and Tourism offer science-based whale and dolphin watching tours departing from the main town of Horta. The tours are super informative and perfect for those who want to know a lot about the animals they may see, as well as different bird species and various flora around the island of Faial.

The team are all researchers and field biologists so they really know their stuff, and want to encourage tourists to the Azores to learn more with them to better their experience. You can book them via the banner below!

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Best whale watching tours in Pico

As the island where ethical whale watching in the Azores all started, it’s no surprise that Pico has a fantastic choice of ethical tour providers. We wouldn’t hesitate to book a tour with Aqua Açores, for example, who list their guidelines for responsible whale watching on the very first page of their site in a way that leaves no room for confusion!

Additionally, Azores Adventures Futurismo, who also operate out of São Miguel, also have tours from Pico. Book either of these two tours below:

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Top tips for whale watching in the Azores

Whale watching in the Azores can be a wet, wild and windy affair. It’s bound to be a fun ride, and there’s a high chance you’ll see some amazing whales and dolphins while you’re out there, but you definitely need to be well-prepared for the elements and for the animals. Here are our top tips to enjoy your visit!

  • Take a pair of binoculars with you if you want the best sightings and, if you are keen to get great photos, a telephoto camera lens
  • Wear lots of warm layers – even if the temperature on land is warm, it’ll get breezy out at sea and you’ll be grateful for it! Most tour providers will give you heavy duty raincoats but it’s best to take your own just in case
  • A raincoat is also always a good idea!
  • You’ll want to take suncream and plenty of water with you as well. The sun can be deceiving in the Atlantic, since it’s usually quite cold. Make sure you pick a suncream that is reef safe and doesn’t contain any chemicals on savethereef,org.
  • If you get sea sick, you may want to consider anti-sickness pills, as the boats can be a little rough and it’s a while before you’re back to shore. The boat captains are well-equipped at dealing with sickness, and most boats have on-board buckets etc. but it’s best avoided if possible.

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    Written by Emma

    Emma

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