THE SUN BEATS DOWN relentlessly from a clear blue sky, and as the hours pass the smell of rotten fish-bait becomes unbearable. Our RIB suddenly feels tiny right out there in the middle of the waves of the vast Atlantic Ocean.
At last we get a liberating call from another RIB nearby – we have a shark!
The night before, when I arrived at the dive centre in the Azores, I had filled out the registration forms and been asked to meet next morning for a check-dive. So at 8.15 I have my dive-gear packed in a box and my camera system assembled. I feel quite relaxed, even though it’s my first dive in the Azores, because when the plan says check-dive, it usually means a cosy dive without any hazardous challenges.
However, when all the divers have arrived Andy, a German dive-guide, suggests that we skip the check-dive and head for open sea in a RIB with a group of divers from the Czech Republic to dive with blue sharks. My relaxed check-dive feeling vanishes, to be replaced by nervous anticipation.
When we have carried all our equipment onto the RIB, we still need to get three big buckets of chum. This shark-bait consists of a foul mix of old tuna-blood, tuna-heads and other fish leftovers.
After about an hour we arrive at the dive-spot and start to prepare the chum. We put the tuna-heads in a plastic basket, which we lower to a depth of about 5m. Then Andy stirs the soup of leftovers and starts to pour it overboard in small portions, so that there is always a delightful smell of shark snacks around our RIB.
But the hours pass and nothing happens. Our chum supply is slowly disappearing.
Andy has radio contact with a RIB from another dive-centre that’s going through the same motions, rocking in the waves with zero sightings of sharks.
We have also run out of human snacks and the sun is merciless over the minuscule RIB in the middle of the mighty Atlantic Ocean. Andy apologises and reminds us that when dealing with nature there are no guarantees.
OUR LAST CHANCE OF SEEING any sharks today is to head back to the harbour, get something to eat and fill the chum-buckets again. Maybe Lady Luck will smile on us before the sun goes down. Two of the Czech guys and I are ready to try a second trip.
All day I have been sitting on the edge of my seat in the RIB, staring into the water in hope of seeing a shark coming towards the surface to get a bite of our luxury chum.
But as the hours fly by the excitement is replaced by doubt, and my optimism evaporates in the hot rays of the sun.
After another hour of chumming with no sightings of even the tiniest shark, I try to cheer myself up by remembering that tomorrow is another day.
Then out of the blue comes the liberating call from the other RIB nearby: We have a shark!
My first reaction is to get over there ASAP. But when the other RIB is from a different dive centre the custom is to wait until it has had its dives and the last diver is back on board before any of us enters the water. More waiting.
At least now we can sit and enjoy the view of a beautiful blue shark just a few metres below the clear blue surface.
At last it’s our turn to gear up, glide slowly down into the water and start the dive. It’s hard to describe the joy I feel when I’m at last hanging 5m under the RIB and enjoying the sight of not one, but two lovely and laid-back blue sharks.
At first the pair are most interested in the latest delivery of chum from our RIB, but after munching away for a while they start to show more interest in us, and come quite close. At no time do they seem afraid or aggressive.
Every now and then they come really close, and I’m guessing that they might be curious about their own reflections in the shiny dome-port on my camera.
AFTER A GOOD 70 MINUTES the sun begins to sink close to the horizon, and we leave our two blue friends alone in the fading light below the surface and climb back into the RIB.
Before we have even taken off our masks everybody is chatting, smiling and laughing about the fantastic climax to what has been a very long day at sea.
The Azores consist of nine islands about 930 miles from Portugal’s coast and about 2500 miles from North America. They lie on top of the meeting point of the European, African and American tectonic plates, which means depths of more than 1km.
This geographical position also means that cold nutrition-rich water from the north is mixed with warm water carried up and around the islands by the Gulf Stream. In springtime the mix of cold and warm water results in an explosion of nutrients, which attracts some of the biggest animals around – Brydes and fin whales and also blue whales.
These baleen whales are only around the Azores during the krill food festival in the spring months.
Year-round residents are sperm whales, which have teeth and hunt bigger prey than krill. They are designed to dive as deep as 1km or more in search of giant squid.
Diving or snorkelling with sperm whales is not allowed as it might disturb them while they gather strength at the surface before their next deep hunt. But every week in high season, whale-watching trips are arranged. The highlight is almost always the moment when the whales dive and flip their enormous tails above the water, generally resulting in a standing ovation from the audience.
When staying on the volcanic island of Pico, boat-diving offers a wide range of world-class diving. But there is also the possibility of hopping on a truck and driving for half an hour on winding roads through lush volcanic flora to experience a different variety of coast dives.
ONE DAY I DECIDE to do a truck-dive at a site called Calheta, which has easy access to the water. Gearing up and briefing is on a big parking lot complete with benches and toilets.
You can either walk down some stairs straight into the water or do a 2m-high giant stride. I find myself in about 5m depth, and sink slowly, enjoying the visibility of around 20-30m.
A small octopus dances along the rock pier in search of food, changing its colours right in front of my mask.
When we dive a little further out, I have to tell my buddy to slow down, to have a better chance of taking in the beautiful scenery ahead. For as far as I can see, sun-rays are dancing over the lava-rock landscape, creating spectacular patterns on the seabed and rocks.
As soon as a small cloud glides in front of the sun it’s as if everything freezes. In an instant the cloud drifts away from the sun and thousands of small fish are in motion, speeding through the rays that penetrate the water column like laser beams.
Deeper down, we come to a huge lava tunnel called the Arch. A school of fish scatters lazily as we enter.
We swim out at the opposite end of the tunnel and descend to 35m, where the plan is to see some fan corals that live there. Because of the depth we don’t stay long before heading for shallower water. I prefer this as there is more life, and the sun has more power closer to the surface.
For the second dive I have chosen to switch the wide-angle lens on my camera for a macro lens. We dive no deeper than 15m, as this is where most of the small stuff is usually found.
I’m surprised by the number of lobsters I find in the cracks between the rocks, as well as moray eels, scorpionfish and blennies welcoming us to their wet world.
It’s a lovely day, and I take advantage of the napping opportunities in the truck on the way back to the dive-centre.
Frank Wirth opened Pico Sport back in 1996, so he knows what his divers want. His passion has always been to preserve and protect nature, especially marine life, and he works on nature-conservation projects too.
His attitude can be felt throughout the dive-centre, where you quickly get the impression that everyone has a healthy respect for the ocean and its inhabitants. A BBC Natural History Unit film crew is using it as a base while I’m there, working on a new series of Oceans.
We’re soon at it again – hanging off a boat waiting and staring eagerly in all directions, and a bit nervous that we might have run out of luck.
This time we have sailed for four-and-a-half hours from Pico into the never-ending Atlantic. I have hung onto other ropes like this in other parts of the world, looking for some big pelagic that never joins the party.
This time, however, my fears are unfounded and I don’t have to wait long before a single mobula ray flies in out of the blue. It doesn’t come that close, but it circles us for a good 25 minutes.
It’s impressive that it looks as if it’s barely moving, yet is impossible to follow for more than 30 seconds.
THE TRIPS TO SEE the mobula rays take place in a boat similar to a mini-liveaboard. Between the two dives, Andy our guide briefs us about the rays. Mobulas are related to the mantas, largest of the ray species. They too have two fins by the mouth, which from the surface look like devil horns.
Despite a wingspan of up to 5m the mobula is known to jump acrobatically out of the water in what looks like a display of pure joy.
On our second dive the current has picked up a little, so four safety ropes are fixed under the boat. It may sound a little uncomfortable to be clicked onto a rope, but it’s really easy and gives us the freedom to hang in the current without having to concentrate on not drifting away from the boat.
After about 10 minutes, six mobulas come up to greet us, and even though I’m not on the closest rope, in the fantastic visibility I can easily see them cruising around in the sunbeams.
After our second dive we head back to Pico, and while I sit and enjoy some (very sweet) Portuguese candy, I smile at the memory of all the creatures great and small I have seen this week in the Azores.
GETTING THERE: A number of airlines such as SATA and TAP fly to the Azores from the UK, usually via Portugal.
DIVING: Pico Sport, www.pico-sport.com
ACCOMMODATION: Choose from guest-houses, hotels, apartments and camping – Pico Sports can help.
WHEN TO GO: The season runs from June to the end of September, when the water is warmest and the visibility at its best. The climate is subtropical and water temperature rarely exceeds 25°C in summer, so a 5-7mm wetsuit with hood is recommendable. The air is about the same temperature as the water. Blue sharks are spotted all summer but the best chances are between July and October.
LANGUAGE: Portuguese but everyone speaks English.
PRICES: Return flights London – Pico from £295. Basic accommodation starts from 30 euros a night. Pico Sport charges 45 euros per dive (55 euros for a night or cave dive) or 399 euros for a 10-dive package.
VISITOR INFORMATION: www.visitazores.com