Azores: Protecting the treasures of the deep

Feature story - April 27, 2006
After months of confronting whalers and pirates, some might envy the crew aboard the next leg of Defending Our Oceans who are heading to the beautiful Azores in the mid-Atlantic. The Azores are home to creatures such as sperm whales - immortalized in Moby Dick - and the territory of the ever-fascinating giant squid. But such deep sea life may not be around for long unless we can protect it from threats such as bottom trawling.

Despite the beautiful surrounds, there won't be much time for sun on the deck - we are working with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the University of the Azores (UAC) to research amazing deep sea habitats which are particularly threatened by destructive fishing practices.

The waters around the Azores are home to some stunning marine life and habitats, including vast mountains under the sea known as seamounts (the 9 Azorean islands themselves are in fact mountain peaks of the giant mid-Atlantic ridge), giant squid and up to 26 different types of whales and dolphins; including the legendary sperm whale.


For this leg of the expedition, the Esperanza has been equipped with state of the art monitoring equipment, including a remote operating vehicle (ROV) which can shoot video down to a depth of 300m, and a drop camera capable of reaching depths of 1,000 metres - giant squid territory! The ship will become part of the ongoing UAC research program intended to establish greater scientific knowledge of the importance of deep-sea habitats and marine life.

Whale photo ID

Also on board will be a sperm whale researcher from IFAW who will continue their programme of monitoring and documenting the populations in the area. The Esperanza now has a hydrophone and specially developed computer software to acoustically detect sperm whales. Photographic documentation of whales will also help to add to the regional photo-id catalogue, which is managed by IFAW.

Deep sea habitats are particularly vulnerable to destructive fishing practices, such as bottom trawling, because the marine life on and around them are usually very slow to grow and mature. Bottom trawling can turn once thriving deep-sea oases into bare, broken and empty deserts, before scientists can even begin to understand the value of what is there.

Ending the destruction

In December 2005 the Azorean government achieved their aim of securing a European ban on bottom trawling in its waters, after two years of protest. This joint Greenpeace, IFAW, UAC expedition will make the case for a global moratorium on high seas bottom trawling. And not only that, it supports the wider aim of our most ambitious ship expedition ever, to push for a properly enforced global network of marine reserves.

So stay tuned for some amazing images, fascinating whale photos, and fingers and tentacles crossed for some giant squid... make sure you're signed up as an Ocean Defender to stay up to date!