There is a large animal that I have never seen except on TV. The mythical blue whale has stayed hidden every single time I've been out on the high seas. Over the years, we have encountered everything from sperm whales to killer whales and humpback whales on our travels, but the giant of the sea has been difficult to find. Although blue whales are found in all the world's oceans, the probability of meeting a blue whale is small. Worldwide, there are believed to be between 10 and 000 blue whales left. Although the species has recovered in recent years, it is still considered highly endangered. A bit like finding a needle in a haystack. However, Madeira is one of the places that the whales pass during spring and autumn. Maybe we would be lucky enough to see the giant of the sea this time?
There are plenty of whale watching companies in Madeira, but for me there is one thing that is important when meeting wild animals: It must be the animals who decide how we meet, not us humans. We should not disturb the wild animals, but we are the ones who have to adapt and let the animals themselves discover us. We finally booked the company Lobo probe in Calheta after reading their conditions and approach to whale watching. Through a "spotter" who monitors the whales from land, they see what the whales are doing and can decide if it is appropriate to approach the animals. Do they hunt? Are they resting? Do they just swim by? The spotter decides where the boat goes and whether we can meet the whales.
One thing we hadn't anticipated when we booked our whale watching was the weather. Just a few days before we were to go to Madeira, an email arrived from Lobosonda. Due to the weather, our whale watching tour could no longer depart from Calheta on the southern coast, but had to depart from Porto Moniz, on the northern coast instead. We also couldn't go on the boat we had booked, but we would have to go RIB instead. Lots of changes simply. Should we cancel? The weather would look the same on the entire southern coast, so it didn't feel like a good idea to rebook to another whale watching tour. We didn't have that many days to choose from, so we took the tour on the north side of the island instead.
The northern coast of Madeira is more dramatic and steeper than the southern coast and the road down to the port of Porto Moniz was at least as winding as Lombard street in San Francisco. It is no wonder that there is a helipad in the middle of Porto Moniz. In terms of distance, it is not many minutes by helicopter to the hospital in Funchal, but driving an ambulance along these roads takes hours.
Our RIB Stenella was bobbing in the small harbor and the strong winds blowing on the south coast were literally blown away. The sea was calm and the sun was shining. It was going to be a lovely day at sea. We soon saw our captain, paddling a SUP heading out to the boat to bring it in to the quayside. Now we would soon be out at sea and meet the blue whales! That the statistics say that there is a 0,4% chance of seeing a blue whale off Madeira during the spring, was not something that I took into account. The anticipation was high! We should at least see a dolphin or maybe one of the sperm whales that live here all year round off the coast of Madeira.
With us on the trip, in addition to the captain, we also had a marine biologist. On land, the spotter stood scouting to guide us correctly. Lifejackets on, everyone jumped in the boat and it was off.
Big, rolling waves met us as we got further out to sea, but the RIB glided over the waves as if it had never done anything else. It barely rocked as we blasted out at full speed from shore. No risk of seasickness today. We quickly passed a large sea turtle at the surface, which quickly dived as we passed. Understandable. We drove just as fast to get out to sea quickly.
We aimed for a deep sea edge a few kilometers out to sea, where the whales often tend to be to feed. Madeira's coast disappeared further and further away. It is easy to understand that Madeira is usually called "Europe's Hawaii" when you see the island from the sea. This green, steep, folded volcanic coast looks like it was made for a Jurassic Park shoot.
We slowed down. Our captain climbed onto the roof of the RIB and scouted and was constantly on the phone with the spotter. Where were the whales? The sun was shining relentlessly and even though I had slathered myself in SPF 30, I regretted not having a cap. It was absolutely bubbling in my forehead from all the sun. What a rookie mistake.
We went around and everyone on the boat helped scout. It was sometimes difficult to see any longer distance, as the large rolling waves obscured the view. We went on. Had our spotter seen anything? Our marine biologist kept telling us about the sea at Madeira and what we could see, but for most of the trip she stood on the edge of the RIB and scouted as well. Sometimes it looked like fins on the horizon, but it was always just wave edges. Wasn't a hungry whale around today?
We drove on again and suddenly made a 180-degree turn towards something lying in the water. It looked like a turtle caught in a net. We approached cautiously. Suddenly the marine biologist began to laugh. It wasn't a turtle in distress, it was a floating backpack. We pick up the backpack and take it ashore. All rubbish found on the whale watching tours is taken care of. The ocean needs all the help it can get to keep it clean and we all have an important role in not just ignoring the litter. Our captain shakes out the backpack and finds some small baby crabs. The backpack has been a perfect place for the little crabs to grow up, well protected from larger predators. The crabs climb around on our hands for a while before they are allowed to return to the sea again.
We were nearing the end of our two hour boat ride and our marine biologist informed us dejectedly that unfortunately we couldn't find any dolphins or whales today. Maybe it was simply too perfect weather today. The blue whales may have thought that the sun was burning a little too strongly today. Much like my red forehead felt this day.
We headed in towards the black pebble beach at Ribeira da Janela. The sharp cliffs and the turquoise sea with the coast of Madeira in salt ice were like taken from Game of Thrones. It reminded a lot of Reynisfjara in Iceland with the narrow rocks in the sea and the black beach. Seabirds circled in the air and the waves crashed loudly against the steep cliffs. You can't help but love Madeira when you see this coast.
We approached the port again. Although we didn't see any whales today, there were still many wonderful things to be happy about with today's turn. I got to ride a RIB for the first time (and I loved it!), we had great weather (which my bright red forehead showed afterwards for almost two weeks) and we got to see the beautiful black beach at Ribeira da Janela. No shame, right? I'll just have to save the blue whales for the next time I come to Madeira. Luckily there is always something to look forward to in this life!
Things to consider when booking whale watching
In Madeira there are several boat trips that are classed as whale watching, but the companies have no policy regarding their responsibility regarding the meeting with the whales and rather seem to see the tours as an opportunity to sail the catamaran and make money from the tourists ordering drinks at the bar. I would definitely book Lobosonda again, although on this particular trip we didn't see any whales. They were extremely professional all the way from booking to boat trip and have trained marine biologists as guides - which not many others have. As a band-aid for not seeing a whale, we were given a discount coupon if we wanted to try again. I'll save it for the next time we go to Madeira, because it's not a matter of IF we go to Madeira again - it's rather WHEN we go to Madeira again.
There are whales and dolphins in the sea off Madeira all year round, but during the period we were here (February/March), there is the least chance of seeing whales (84% chance according to Lobosonda). During the summer and autumn, however, it is almost certain that you will see either dolphins or whales.
Do you want to read more?
Check out my page about Madeira or my Portugal-page.
- We booked whale watching with Lobo probe, which usually departs from the port of Calheta.
- Want to read more about what our marine biologist at Lobosonda blogged about our trip? Look into theirs blog. Maybe not their most exciting day on the lake 🙂
- Do you want to know which whales you can see in different months in Madeira? Look into Lobosonda's statistics page.
- Our favorite places to see whales are in Australia, New Zealand and Canada - read more about our experiences at The world's best whale watching - here you will find the whales.
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[…] We went whale watching, but didn't see a single whale. Were we unlucky, or are there worse opportunities to see whales in Madeira? Read more about our whale watching here. […]