The Algarve is known as a top destination for sea-lovers. And it’s not only the beaches, spectacular natural rock formations and the caves that appeal the visitors, but also the ocean wonders including the whales and dolphins of the Algarve.
A wide diversity of sea life inhabits or visits temporarily the Algarvian coast and gives us the opportunity to observe and learn from it. The gems of the crown in the Algarve have to be the whales and dolphins. Marine mammals and other top predators, such as seabirds, choose the south coast of Portugal as their breeding and feeding grounds. But, what does this region hold that is so special for them?
It has been proved that in the Western Algarve there are three areas with an apparently larger concentration of marine mammals: the Portimão Canyon, Caneiros (at Ponta da Piedade, Lagos) and the São Vicente Canyon in Sagres. Underwater canyons are popular hotspots for marine life and the most important for us now is the Portimão Canyon.
The Portimão Canyon is an underwater rift valley located at about 12 miles offshore (south from Praia da Rocha), by the continental shelf border, and in a north-to-south direction. This is an area with sharp sea floor slopes, where depth suddenly drops from 100 meters to 300 meters and goes down to 2000 meters. This formation influences water currents contributing to a phenomenon known as upwelling. The upwelling is yielded in the Algarve by the predominant north winds in the summer that push the surface water (usually nutrient-depleted) towards the south and is replaced by nutrient-rich deep waters that rise to the surface. This phenomenon is a primary driver of ecosystem productivity and, therefore, the starting point of the food chain, producing an increase in plankton. The upwelling occurs in a larger or lesser scale in the other two areas, supporting a complex and rich food chain. At the top of this food chain, species such as whales, dolphins, sharks, turtles, large pelagic fishes and numerous seabirds are found.
The upwelling process is stronger in spring and summer and attracts populations of different species to spend these warmer months in the area. This fact along with the excellent weather and sea conditions (absence of big waves or strong winds most of the days) make this place a fantastic watching destination.
Which are the species we can find in the Algarvian Sea?
Out of the 26 species of cetaceans that may occur in Portuguese waters, 5 are frequently seen in the watching tours of the Western Algarve: common dolphin, bottlenose dolphin, Risso’s dolphin, harbour porpoise and minke whale.
Besides these species, blessed tourists can still have an encounter with animals that occasionally appear in these waters. On a lucky day, you may spot stripped dolphins, killer whales chasing after bluefin tuna schools, pilot whales, humpback whale in its annual north-south migration or fin whale.
Apart from cetaceans, species of large pelagic fish in the Algarve are also reported: sharks (often blue shark and occasionally hammerhead or thresher sharks) and other fish (sunfish, marlins and the eagerly desired tuna). All these species perform remarkable migrations for feeding and reproduction, either crossing the Atlantic or entering and exiting the Mediterranean. That is the reason we may have a potential chance to see them, but not very often and sometimes, in a specific time of the year (such as the case of killer whales).
The 2 most common species found in most of the boat trips are the common and the bottlenose dolphins. Both species are resident in the area, meaning that they live in these waters all year around because they find good conditions.
As for common dolphins, there is a migrant population that comes in the summer from the cold North Atlantic waters and mixes and coexists with the resident “Algarvian common dolphins”. The summer implies reproduction time, so dolphins tend to prefer warmer waters to have their offspring, being the Algarve a good option as a birth place: good water temperature for reproduction and food provided by the Portimão Canyon. Newborns need higher temperatures until they completely develop the layer of blubber around their body that will prevent body temperatures decreasing putting them in risk of death. It is, therefore, the best time to observe a lot of activity and varied group structures: from pods of juvenile males to groups of females with calves, some lonely individuals (more difficult to spot) or even huge pods of over 200 dolphins, all mixed adult males, females, juveniles and calves. You may see them resting, feeding (usually in a spot chasing a school of sardines/mackerel, and very often associated to a group of seabirds that take profit of the situation to catch some fish), looking for prey, travelling, mating, etc. Some days, dolphins are particularly active and sociable and may take the decision to approach the boats themselves and surf the waves.
Bottlenose dolphin is the most popular of the dolphin species, worldwide known as the classic “Flipper”. The population of bottlenose dolphins in the Algarve is resident and they are commonly spotted in family groups. In the Algarvian Sea, there have been two subgroups ecologically differentiated and very territorial. The inshore bottlenose dolphins are very often found within 3 miles off the coast, feeding on shallow waters. The offshore bottlenose dolphins live in deeper waters far from the coast and can be found in the surroundings of the Portimão Canyon. Particularly in the Portimão Canyon area, their connection with the local bottom trawlers is widely known. It is very common to find these groups of dolphins following the trawlers and opportunistically feeding on their catch. In other regions south of Spain, it has even been recorded on film their intentional movement in and out of the trawling bag, for feeding, during the fishing operation. The intelligence of these creatures is underrated!
In the last few years, ecologist movements and scientists from universities have been worried about the effect of the decline of sardine stocks on the dolphin’s population but long-term studies are needed. In the Algarve region, catches of sardine has fallen to less than a quarter of the numbers of the mid-1990s in only 10 years. Local authorities decided to establish some restrictions concerning the catching, landing and marketing of sardines. Nowadays, fishing vessels with surrounding nets need to keep a quota and fishing season goes from May to September. That is why you find the best sardines in the Algarve in the summer months and even the Sardine Festival takes place in Portimão during the month of August.
The touristic season in the Algarve is trying to extend and the boat trip operators are not an exception, although they are more restricted by sea conditions that can be harsh from November until March or April. The watching companies provide sightseeing trips and dolphin safaris to tourists, allowing them to observe these animals in the wild. They use speed-boats or catamarans with a large passenger capacity. A typical trip takes around 1:30–3 hours and a protocol for boat approaching to the animals needs to be followed in order not to disturb them and trying to make the least impact possible. The sighting rate overall is above 90% and the majority of these operational companies offer a quality product that amazes the visitor.
A very positive thing is that every year more and more operators are into educational programs and work with marine biologists on board who will guide the tourists through the sailing and encounters. Their role as a guide is crucial to show not only the amazing biodiversity of the region but also to explain about the impact of human activities on these ecosystems, making a big effort to raise awareness on this special and fragile habitat and its inhabitants.