Behind the Scenes: The Azores Hope Spot Summit
August 23, 2021
Header image by Nuno Sá
By: Shannon Rake, Hope Spots Program Manager
My name is Shannon Rake and I am the Hope Spots Program Manager for Mission Blue. As many readers of this blog will already know, Hope Spots are special places in the ocean where Mission Blue works with local champions to promote the creation and enforcement of marine protected areas. The Azores is one such Hope Spot and that’s where this story starts, as we arrived there to meet the local champions and get an update on their conservation efforts. The trip would turn out to be unforgettable with the President of the Azores announcing an expansion of the Azorean marine protected area, as well as the opportunity to witness first-hand the cutting edge of local marine science efforts. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
When I told friends I would be away for a work trip to the Azores, most responded with “where is that?” The Azores, a chain of small islands halfway between New York and Portugal, known mostly to Europeans, thankfully still hold that small island charm. While tourism is a major sector of their economy, the islands haven’t been overrun with unsustainable tourism. This was apparent as we landed on Faial Island, looking out the window I noticed the many cows grazing on the green grass above the runway. The island is strikingly green, with various grasses and crops growing abundantly. Each plot is separated by hedges or stone walls. The vineyards in the Azores grow between short walls made of volcanic rock. The black rock absorbs the heat from the sun and radiates it, creating its own microclimate.
The Azores is an oceanic archipelago composed of nine volcanic islands located in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. It is comprised of hydrothermal vents and seamounts, making up part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The complex ecosystem and ocean currents makes the Azores a hot spot for biodiversity. There are more than five hundred species of fish, four hundred species of algae, as well as large baleen whales and other megafauna, endemic seabirds and deep-water corals.
Approximately four miles from the main island of Faial, sits Pico Island. It’s known for producing delicious white wine and of course the rich marine life that surrounds it. Looking across the ocean from Faial, I gazed upon the beautiful cloud formation resembling a soft serve ice cream cone that gently wrapped around the upper half of Pico island. I was excited to be here in the Azores with Dr. Sylvia Earle, for the Azores Hope Spot Summit.
On Faial, we met with our Hope Spot Champions, Dr. Christopher Pham and Carla Damaso, to discuss the plans for the coming days. Holding a PhD in marine science, Dr. Christopher Pham is an assistant researcher at the Okeanos Center, University of the Azores. He is leading a marine litter research group that focuses on understanding the risks of plastic debris for the Azores marine ecosystem. Dr. Pham is a member of various international expert groups who study marine pollution and work at the interface of science and policy.
Dr. Earle and I met Dr. Pham and PhD student Yasmina Rodriguez on Porto Pim Beach, where they explained their work and showed us how they sample microplastics. I am shocked by how much microplastic pollution there is on this beach, as it is located in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, almost 1,000 miles from the nearest country. Dr. Pham and his team have tested the microplastics and have determined that the majority of it comes from other locations around the world, leaving the Azores holding the bag for the negative impacts this microplastic pollution has on their ecosystem. My heart is saddened when Ms. Rodriguez tells me that 90% of the dead fledgling seabirds that they have studied contain microplastics in their digestive systems.
Microplastics is not only being studied at the University of the Azores, but by local children participating in citizen science projects as well. Hope Spot Champion, Carla Damaso, currently oversees environmental education, dissemination and communication of science at the Azores Sea Observatory (OMA). I was able to spend time with Mrs. Damaso at OMA and met the nearly ninety kids enrolled in their education program. Mrs. Damaso, along with Maria Joana Cruz, and their amazing staff showed me a variety of education projects they were working on. One involved having the children sort through collected materials from the beach, separating the organic matter from the plastics and microplastics. They are then further divided by color, where they will use these pieces of plastic to create art projects to help educate others about the impacts of microplastic pollution.
The next day we met up at the dock for a day on the ocean. We were greeted by Norberto Serpa, born and raised on Pico, now living on Faial. He owns Norberto Diver, Actividades Maritimas, an ocean tourism company. Norberto, a short man, with shaggy, sun-kissed and salted hair, whom I would describe as a man of the sea, will be our guide for the day. We will be traveling through the Faial-Pico Channel and into the open ocean where we are hoping to see whales and blue sharks. While not formally educated in marine science, Norberto’s knowledge of the ocean and the animals that live here is unmatched. He’s been working with marine scientists for decades and has witnessed the behavior of marine megafauna as well as small fish and invertebrates. We headed out on two boats with our team, the Oceano Azul Foundation and a film crew provided by the Rolex, to document the day. Rolex is supporting Mission Blue in its goal to create a global network of Hope Spots, through its Perpetual Planet initiative.
While on the open ocean, we took in the gorgeous views of Faial on one side and Pico on the other. After about an hour, we spotted whales. The Azores are one of the world’s largest whale sanctuaries, boasting more than twenty different types of cetaceans. It wasn’t long ago that the Azores were a whaling capital, but thankfully whaling was officially prohibited in 1982, while the ban was fully implemented in 1986. Now, eco-tourism has become one of the main sectors of their economy. As we approached the whales from a distance, the captain asked me, “what do you want to see today?” I really hoped to see sperm whales, as I’ve never seen them in person before. Sure enough, just ahead of us, a pod of four sperm whales swam about, and then another three together about fifty yards away. We were all excited, impatiently waiting for a view of a fluke, some spi hopping or a breach, but they were in relaxation mode. The whales were swimming at the surface, followed by some short dives spanning five or ten minutes. We did, however, have the chance to see something rather unique. The previous night, we met Dr. Ian Kerr, who oversees a project that samples whale blows using a drone called the Snotbot. We were able to see the Snotbot in action, as it sampled the blows of the sperm whales we were watching. They would fly the drone and have it hover above the whales, attempting to collect their samples when the whales exhale. They then share the samples with universities and institutions all working on various types of whale research.
After a while, we said goodbye to the sperm whales and headed towards Pico to try and find blue sharks. Recent research has shown that the Azores serve as an important breeding ground and nursery for blue sharks. Blue sharks are listed as near threatened by the IUCN. Blue sharks are between 6-10 feet in length and weigh between 200-400 pounds. They have slender bodies which allow them to swim at speeds of up to fifty miles per hour. Blue sharks are only protected by fixed quotas, which is unfortunate, as they only offer limited protection. Many still suffer from bycatch, beyond the fixed quota. Dr. Pham says, “Scientists don’t fully understand the extent of mortality and what it represents at the population level.” The shark fin trade is also a great threat. There is a current conservation campaign attempting to convince the seven Portuguese airlines to stop transporting shark fins, reducing the hunting of blue sharks. In addition, there is a threat to the blue sharks from the international fishing fleet. As part of the European Union agreement, European fishing fleets are authorized to operate within an exclusive economic zone, outside a buffer zone, one hundred nautical miles from the coast.
With all the threats facing blue sharks, I was excited to have the honor to witness them in person. Initially, only Sylvia and the film crew would get in the water. It wouldn’t be until after lunch that everyone else would be able to get in the water and experience the sharks. In a stroke of good luck, Norberto radioed our captain and they decided I could join Sylvia in the water. I was thrilled, grabbed my mask, snorkel and fins, and off I went. I entered the ocean calmly and quietly, as I didn’t want to disturb the sharks. I was surrounded by a sapphire blue color that cannot be explained unless a person has been in the deep ocean. The sun’s rays pierced through the water, giving it an illuminated radiance. I slowly came upon the sharks. They were smaller than I had imagined. Docile and curious, they swam around checking us out. A few locals had referred to them as “dogs of the sea” which I immediately understood. One of the sharks swam right underneath me, as if to greet me and say hi. At no time was I scared, as I have the greatest respect for sharks, apex predators, but “humans aren’t on their menu” as Sylvia always says. Before I knew it, I was being called back to the boat, I didn’t want to leave. After I exited the water, I did a little dance on the swim platform of the boat, smiling ear to ear. I didn’t know it then but the sharks would end up leaving the area and we wouldn’t be able to come back after lunch, so I was grateful for the experience.
Filming continued as we headed back to Faial, we laid on the deck of the boat and took in our unbelievable day. We had about an hour to shower and change before heading to the launch party of the Azor drift-cam, a cost-effective video system for the rapid appraisal of benthic habitats and democratize deep-sea exploration. The Azor drift-cam came from the need to explore the deep ocean without having access to ROVs and submersibles, which can be very expensive. In addition to the ingenuity of the partners collaborating on this project, is the amazing fact that it was built with off-the-shelf parts for around $15,000. They have openly shared the plans so that others can replicate it and use it anywhere in the world. Making marine science and research accessible to all is vital, and a formula we hope more will follow. After all, we have a very short window of opportunity to address climate change and protect the ocean. It’s all hands on deck.
The next morning we attended the public launch of the Hope Spot. At that ceremony, to much applause, Azorean President José Manuel Bolieiro announced his commitment to protect an additional 15% of the Azorean waters as no take, bringing the total protection to 20%. This big step leaves only 10% more protection needed to protect 30% of Portugal’s ocean territory by 2030, a goal to which many countries have committed.
The Hope Spot launch was a resounding success and was followed by an interview of President Bolieiro and Dr. Earle by Portuguese National TV and lunch. As lunch concluded, an exchange of best wishes and elbow bumps were given, all in consideration of being safe with Covid protocol. The President invited us back next year, re-affirming his commitment to protect the marine environment. Everyone at Mission Blue celebrated this giant leap forward and congratulated the commitment President Bolieiro has made, not only for the Azorean people, but for the world.
Later that evening, I accompanied Sylvia to Vulcão dos Capelinhos where she was being filmed as part of the Rolex Perpetual Planet initiative. The film crew was set up on a bluff, surrounded by cliffs shooting out of the ocean, remnants of the last eruption from 1957-1958. Down below on the beach, is an area called Porto do Comprido. I learned that this area was previously a whaling station, home to more than twenty boats. Hundreds of feet above us on the top of the mountain, sits a building that was used as a whaling lookout. When the lookout would witness whale blows in the distance, he would shoot a flare into the air, signaling for all of the whalers to quickly board their boats and head out to sea. There is a natural ocean pool guarded by volcanic rock on three sides that was once used to bring the dead whales to shore. It has since been converted as a swimming area used by locals and tourists. The black volcanic rock provides a natural heating system, making the water a bit warmer than other areas on the island. I was able to sneak away for a quick swim. As I walked down the hill towards the Capelo natural swimming pool, I kept thinking about the whales and what this area would have looked like when whaling was in its prime. I would be sharing the same waters that had previously run red with whale blood. I jumped into the refreshing crystal blue water and all that remained of the past was a sign that highlighted the area’s previous life. As I bobbed in the waves, I gave a peace offering, a blessing for the whales, for all living creatures. I extended a heartfelt apology for our past actions and what we did to harm the whales and for the harm still being done to them in some places around the world. We as a society have come so far, yet there is still so much work to be done. It is beyond time we make peace with nature.
We concluded our evening at dinner with our champions, Dr. Pham and Mrs. Damaso. Together we celebrated our incredible week and the progress we made.
We were beyond grateful for all of the hard work that our champions and partners put into hosting us during this Hope Spot Summit and for all of the amazing work they continue to do for the ocean. Our goodbyes were heavy, as it’s never enough time, but we knew we would be back. We also knew that the Azorean marine environment is in good hands.