The Algarve coastline is well-known for dolphin watching and the orca is also a regular visitor
It is always a spectacular sight when an orca, one of nature’s most efficient predators, is sighted in Algarve waters. So says André Dias, marine biologist and founder of Wildwatch, a whale and dolphin watching company based in Ferragudo. “We see orcas every year. There is a sighting pattern between May and June, and they also appear more in late summer, in September,” although detecting their presence is somewhat random and unpredictable.
“We have a subpopulation that is identified in the Gulf of Cadiz, which has about 40 elements. There are at least five defined families.” They live between Sagres, Gibraltar and Mauritania, a hunting ground for tuna mainly. “The most robust study on these animals is from 2009 and counted 39 individuals in five groups. Here in the Algarve, we have seen and had more interactions with our boats with a new group that appeared in 2013,” says Dias. “The last time we saw them was in August. This year we had three sightings.”
Male orcas can be up to 10 metres long and weigh between 9 and 10 tonnes. Females measure approximately 8.5 metres and weigh between 6 and 8 tonnes. These warm-blooded mammals can live between 50 and 90 years, although the average life expectancy is around 30 years. Orcas are easy to distinguish due to the black and white colouring of their body. Each individual has a unique pattern, no two are alike, so these markings are useful in many studies to tell the animals apart. Another distinctive feature of orcas is that they live in complex social structures, where the maternal line defines the offspring.
When swimming, they can reach about 40km/h, which is impressive for their size and weight. They can dive up to 300 metres in search of food and travel up to 160 kilometres in a day whilst hunting. Depending on diet and age, they consume up to 10% of their own weight every day and sleep between five and eight hours a day. The brain of the orca is four times larger than a human’s.
Based on observations in captivity and the wild, scientists believe that orcas display a wide range of emotions, such as frustration, anger, fear, joy and even self-consciousness. Another remarkable ability is their echolocation or biosonar, a sophisticated biological aptitude to detect the position or distance of objects in the environment. Contrary to their reputation as “killer whales”, orcas are docile and sociable animals, capable of coexisting with humans.
But there is a lot more to see in the Algarve coast. André Dias highlights the “Sherwood gang”, a family of bottlenose dolphins residing in an area known as Canhão de Portimão (Portimão Cannon). The name is a reference to the outlaws in the story of Robin Hood: “We gave them that nickname because they are always stalking trawlers and fishing vessels; they barely hunt. There were a lot of bottlenose deaths with trawlers but this family figured out how far to go to get the fish without getting caught in the nets,” he explains. “The group has around 60 members and they dominate this entire area. The closest they’ll come to the shore is around 12 miles.” According to the founder of Wildwatch, the Sherwood gang is “used to [watch tours], they come up to the boat and want to play and interact”.
There are also short-beaked common dolphins closer by and they are very used to human presence. “While the bottlenose dolphins have family structures, always live together and compete for territory with other groups, short-beaked dolphins are like a herd. They are gregarious animals,” Dias states. “The short-beaked are more fertile in early autumn. They aim to have their babies in the beginning of summer so they can catch the fatter sardines, since they will be nursing them,” he describes.
As for the quality of the habitat, he reveals that “[after] the last count made of short-beaked dolphins, we know that there’s a balance with the availability of food, which is mainly small pelagics like sardines. From 1986 until today the population has not increased. This is a very rich coastline and it’s able to sustain an extraordinary biodiversity”, he believes.
The son of a trawler master and a former fisherman, Dias says Wildwatch is the realisation of his “concept of contributing to society”. After finishing university, and because he had had experience working with other similar companies, he decided to go for it. “I understood the business because I knew the way things worked at Espaço Talassa, in the Azores, which is my inspiration. We try to be honest. We decided to offer a guarantee of wildlife sightings so that people believe in our service. If conditions aren’t ideal, we cancel the trip,” he assures. “After seeing the animals, people’s hearts and minds are open. That’s why we have an environmental education programme to explain a little more about our coast, where we go for observations. We explain the differences between cetacean species and the threats they face.”
Wildwatch is closed until March, but available for group rentals. To confirm availability, call 282 422 373