Swimming with dolphins makes you think of far flung places like New Zealand and Mexico, but not so much Europe. Dolphins and whales are found in their hundreds off the coast of Portugal, on the tiny group of islands called the Azores.
The Azores has a vast range of oceanic life ranging from whales and dolphins, with Pico island offering manta and mobula rays on the Princess Alice sea mount. I had chosen Sao Miguel island, one of Europe’s most westerly islands, as I had many places I wanted to see here. My blog about the land adventures on Sao Miguel island is here.
I was on Sao Miguel for just one week but high winds had hampered the first boat trip. My first experience with the dolphins was more than halfway through the week by the time the winds had calmed. Futurismo are a large company operating out of the port running whale and dolphins tours (on big boats ) and swimming with dolphins (smaller boats). They are running services twice a day and mostly these are booked out in advance.
Thankfully I had booked in advance for two tours. However a word of warning. After the first trip was cancelled due weather they did not make an attempt to put me on another tour later in the week. This could have been a disaster as the rest of the week was booked out. Thankfully I got a slot on the Saturday also. It may be best to book a few trips and you can cancel one to avoid disappointment.
As they say, managing expectations is key here. I thought swimming with dolphins would be an easy experience where they drop you into the sea and the dolphins are just swimming around you in a dream like sequence.
It is far from that. These are fully wild animals, that are never fed or touched by humans, so the experience with them would be very short lived. These animals had places to go and tuna to catch.
We jumped on the rib boat in Ponta Delgada, which must be Europe’s most westerly port come to think of it. It has seats like a saddle on a rocket ship for good reason. The boat moves pretty dam fast and I could only focus on holding on. My Seafrogs underwater camera gear was in one hand and I was holding on tight with the other hand. The boat was getting some air over the waves and landing with a smack. Hence why they say the tour is not suitable for people who have back problems or pregnant women.
On the first trip we spotted a group of common dolphins not far from the port. Our group was not the only one, as the whale watching boat and another 2 ribs were joining us all looking for the same thing. We were the only boat of swimmers entering the water, everyone else was watching from onboard. It was an unlucky day as the dolphins were busy doing their dolphin thing.
Buzzing along at high speed to their next location. Their marine biologist told us they were “travelling” so it would be difficult to see them on this day. The captain watches where the group goes and speeds up ahead of them and throws you in the water to see if they pass by you. They did but very far away and they weren’t that interested. Literally after a few minutes you would climb back into the rib and they would follow the group again to try again.
This was all a bit of a frantic experience, as they make sure you are sitting on the edge of the rib and then yell which direction to get in. It was a bit overwhelming the first time you get dropped into the ocean. There was no land to be seen and of course the ocean is such a vast, deep blue. In seconds you are separated from the boat and trying to keep your eyes open for large animals approaching you. Remembering to breathe and press camera buttons almost went out the window.
The second experience a few days later was better. This time it was just our boat searching which I am sure helped the situation. It is incredible how the middle of the atlantic ocean can be so calm sometimes.
This time the dolphins were not travelling so they seemed a lot more interested. The Captain followed a group and again had us sit on the side of the boat getting our masks and snorkels ready. This group of dolphins was huge.
I will never forget the feeling of sitting on the side of the boat while 20 fins approach you and then you are told to “go go go”. They tell you which direction they are approaching from and you slip into the water fast and keep your head down watching. Mostly they will always pass under the water and not over but often the instinct is to look up. For a second it was nothing and all I could see was the light dancing through the surface making disco lights.
All of a sudden, they emerged… maybe 12 at a time. I started clicking away but instinctly stopped as one broke off the from group and headed right for me. ? You’d want to be a stone not to feel a slight bit of fear as these animals approach you head on. They are big, bigger than me , they weigh approx 150-200kg.
I softened as they came closer. Their faces so curious and friendly looking, their demeanour was pure fun. It was like having a golden retriever approaching you! They honestly look like they are having so much craic just travelling along together. As a group, they moved so speedily through the water, creating bubbles and jumping over the surface. One approached me head on to investigate, which the Gopro camera picked up.
This guy got really close as he passed by, I could have reached out and touched him. The camera burst out a load of shots and I captured the moment where he passed right beside me. It was over in seconds. You can watch my quick video below.
Click here if you cant see the video below.
The second group then passed by, which was bigger, maybe 15 all travelling alongside each other. Another smashing shot. It was so incredible to be in the same environment as these stunning creatures. They have such a fun energy about them and us humans seem to be interesting to them. I was over the moon to have witnessed this, emotional and overwhelmingly incredible experience. It is over before you know it. I found myself staring back into the deep blue ocean.
As they attempted to drop us in again (everyone had already had a good turn) but they will give you a few try’s. The rib pulled in front of the group and the dolphins and instantly the animals took a detour. The captain said “we must respect that decision, they no longer are interested in us and we must end the tour”. I understand and admire this as it keeps the relationship very wild and respectful. Thankfully we all got a great view of them!
Underwater Photography Gear
The gear I carried onboard to the Azores was likely more than the average tourist. Having the XT4 and the Sea Frogs underwater housing, which carried my 18-55 mm lens, I was expecting to capture some beautiful things in these waters so well known for its sea life! This was not the first outing for my Seafrogs housing but proved to be one of the most exciting!
Seafrogs housing, is something I can come to trust very much as it has a built in alarm in case any water is detected within the housing during your swim. I had debated over the other brands but the Seafrogs housing is a lot more affordable compared to the other brands.
Seafrogs have given me a discount code to pass on to you guys if you do want to make the jump to underwater photography before a trip like this! There is no payment involved for me to say this. I purchased the Seafrogs housing myself and reached out to them regarding a discount for any new customers. So I am delighted to offer a 5% discount code by promo code “Fio5”, which will work on Seafrogs (https://seafrogs.com.hk/), SaltedLine (https://www.saltedline.com/), SaltedLine EU (https://www.saltedlineeurope.com/). If you are in the EU like me, make sure you use the EU site to avoid any import duties.
On top of the Seafrogs frame, I had a Gopro mounted to capture video as well. Quick tip for anyone wanting to have their settings correct before getting in. It is not as dark as you would think. The dolphins were moving slower that day and It was a sunny so the light was strong. I actually could have done with a faster shutter speed. From an XT4 perspective, I would go minimum 250ss (or higher if they are travelling) if you can and have your ISO ready to move when you hit the water.
Crucial beforehand checks include covering the Seafrogs dome in water replant. Fog inserts are vital! Keep it out of the sun so it doesn’t heat up too much. Due to the different temperatures inside and outside the water you can get fogging. Thankfully the fog inserts did the trick here. For the XT4 making sure your focus is on continuous as there is no way to change this once the camera is inside the house! I always do a seal test the night before and place the camera inside the housing then. Don’t put the camera into the house just after you’ve had a shower as the extra moisture in the rooms will affect the dome.
I’m using the Gopro 9, which has beautiful quality for underwater video like this. Make sure you also cover the Gopro in water replant. I use RainX , but folks, make sure you use the plastic Rain X for plastic and the glass Rain x for glass. The glass Rain X will eat into the plastic ?. If you dont have Rain X just lick the lens… wait what? EUW! This really works. Ideal settings are 1080p or 4K and 60 frames per second so you can slow it down later.
Also, you want high speed shutter firing and not single shot! Since the experience can be so frantic and you will likely be concentrating on your mask and snorkel, its best to have as much ready as possible before hitting the water. The first time I forgot to hit record on the GoPro and didn’t take any photos. Once they tell you to get yourself ready on the side of the boat, hit record then! Then forget about it.
Mask & snorkel
Bringing your own snorkel and mask ( defog it before you go) is a great idea, as most of the swimmers lost time in the water fiddling with these on the side of the boat. Wetsuits are provided and the water temp was balmy (for me) at 24 degrees. I didn’t feel cold at all dropping into the water a few times. This experience with Futurismo is smoothing I would absolutely do again. Each tour has a captain and a marine biologist.
Futurismo are very knowledgeable about the species and their habits. Once you are aware it can be disappointing if it doesn’t work out the first time. They really do their best to get you to see the animals and seem just as disappointed if you don’t. So book a few times and see how it goes! I realise I was extremely lucky with the photo and also with the experience itself.
If I was to go back to the Azores I would go to Pico island and take the 3 hour boat trip to the Princess Alice Sea mount. I would like to think this is for Divers who are interested in spending more time under water than over!