A Tale of 7 Azorean Nights

Phil Wood

Pico Island, The Azores

New Horizons – no longer Azores Virgins.  Not what you think, but now that I have your attention, I can tell you that NHDC has just returned from its first trip to the Azorean island of Pico, one thousand miles out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. 

It is fair to say that everyone was taken aback by the landscape as we arrived on the island.  Dominated by the dormant volcano of Mount Pico (2351 metres high), the island has mile upon mile of volcanic lava dry stone walls protecting the grape vines, lava fields stretching out into the ocean and picturesque coastal villages, formally used for commercial whaling, although this stopped in 1985.

Host for the week was Twin Peaks Diving Centre owned by Gary and Lyndsey Fell, originally from the North West of England but now based on Pico during the Summer.  Our base was the harbour town of Madalena on the North West corner of the island overlooking the strait to the adjacent island of Faial.  It was clear when we arrived however that the weather would limit the diving on the North side of the island due to a large Atlantic swell from the North West and white breakers crashing over the harbour wall.

After getting kit together at the dive centre in Santo Antonio, we had our first experience of Azorean diving at the ex-whaling village of Sao Roque, diving the area known as Cais Valho (translated as ‘Old Quay’).  This was a tour around a lava seascape in waters with 20+ metres visibility and temperatures of 22 degrees C.  Moray eels hiding in the rocky crevasses, Barracuda out hunting and Tuna were spotted.  The swell in the harbour made for some interesting entries and exits, some more graceful than others, but everyone enjoyed the diving.  This was to be repeated at our second site at Santo Antonio, just outside the dive centre.  The dive took us through underwater arches and into a series of collapsed sink holes, forming lagoons into which the surf crashed. A spectacular site.  Exiting the dive was even more challenging due to the rising surge but with care, patience and help from Gary everyone had a great first day.

With the Northerly surge continuing into day 2 we had the opportunity to drive around the island coast road to Calheta de Nesquim, a picturesque harbour dominated by a church and whaling museum.  In much calmer conditions on the South side of the island, two dives were completed around the volcanic lava outcrops.  Numerous large octopus in the rocks were spotted and Tuna out in the blue.  The surface interval was taken at a small local cafe which served fantastic coffees and local pastries, popular with locals and divers alike.

Day 3 and the decision was taken to split into a shore based and boat diving groups.  The shore based group again dived the South side of the island at Aldeia da Fonte.  Lava fingers extending out from the shore provided diving similar to the previous day, although the general consensus was that it was even better and Trevor reported seeing a juvenile Hammerhead shark.  Meanwhile the boat divers headed out from Madalena towards the adjacent island of Faial, through some big swell and crashing waves.  Once in the lee of Faial however the conditions improved at the site of Monte Guia.  This is a limestone outcrop which has some spectacular underwater topography and caves.  The group entered a cathedral sized cavern that was capable of taking 3 or 4 divers side by side with room to spare.  By torchlight the sides of the cave were covered with white and orange algae.  The cave runs right through the headland of Monte Guia but we turned around after about 50 metres to be taken back out into the blue by a gentle surge.  There was a glimpse of a large, free swimming Mediterranean Moray as we finished the dive and clambered back onto the boat. 

It was now time to find some metal (a wreck) for John so the boat was moved back into the channel and the swell.  This had two effects, firstly it was impossible to get a shot line onto the wreck, despite 3 attempts and 1 hour of trying.  Secondly, Alan had the very sudden urge to go ‘chumming’ in order to attract fish.  A new series called ‘Chumming with Alan’ is about to be commissioned by Azores TV.  An alternative site of Gruttas de Faial was quickly selected and another wall dive, with a small wreck, was completed.

Days 4 and 5 had the 2 groups of divers completing dives at Aldeia do Fonte, Sao Mateus and Sao Ceatano on the South side.  These small harbours with local facilities make shore diving very relaxing and ideal for all levels of recreational divers, new Open Water through to those with Deep qualifications.  Tuna, Barracuda, Stingrays, Octopus and Giant Scorpion fish were all spotted at these sites, also some very colourful but elusive crabs. 

With the diving done, what else was there to do on Pico.  Lots has it happens.  Alan, Clare and Keith climbed Mount Pico, a group enjoyed an excursion of whale watching (Sperm whales and Risso’s dolphins), all had a tour of the island and National Park lakes with misty views of Mount Pico, and tour of the Lava tubes.  We should also mention Malcolm and Mike (our non-divers on the trip) who spent their time sketching the local attractions and walking the island routes.

So what about the seven Azorean Nights ?  These usually started with pre-dinner drinks in one of the rooms (thanks to hosts Eileen & Wendy, Jane and Malcolm, Trevor and Catherine…..and anyone I have forgotten) followed by dinner at a selection of restaurants (Ancoradouro, Parisiana, My Sweet Pico, Ramo Steakhouse and more).  Dinner was usually followed by a trip to the ice cream cabin on the corner of the harbour and a late night beer at the Dark Bar on the way to the hotel.

Other highlights :

  • Azores moonshine spirit provided by the locals
  • M & M’s Pizza, a chocoholics overload
  • The mysterious Azorean frogs, heard but rarely seen
  • 300+ dives for Wendy and Jane, congratulations
  • 480+ and 580+ dives for Trevor and Brian respectively

Our thanks to the dive team and guides at Twin Peaks, Gary, Lyndsey, Tom, JJ, Richard, Luis and others.

See you next time.  Obrigada!