Looking for whales, finding dolphins | DW Travel | DW | 04.01.2019
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Looking for whales, finding dolphins

Hardly anywhere else on Earth is as good for whale watching as the Canary Islands in the Atlantic. DW reporter Christina Deicke went on board to get a glimpse of these marine giants in their natural habitat.

Gran Canaria: People on board of the Spirit of the Sea

The yellow flag is a kind of seal of approval: only those who have a whale-watching permit can hoist it

A hundred pairs of eyes stare at the water. We've been underway on the "Spirit of the Sea" for just under half an hour, looking for whales, but so far there's not a whale in sight. The trip is supposed to last for two hours. It started in Puerto Rico in the south of Gran Canaria, the third largest of the seven Canary Islands. There are lots of families with children on board, hoping, as I am, to see a whale up close.

The Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of Africa are one of the best spots in the world for that, because these marine mammals linger here all year round, preferably southwest of the islands, where they're protected from the wind. There's plenty of food here: the trade winds provide favorable currents and transport plankton to the area. 

The coasts also drop off steeply, which is good for whales, as they find their food in deep water. Sperm whales feed on the giant squid that live there. Of about 90 known species of whale, 33 have so far been sighted off the Canaries. Biologists say that could be a record. 

Take the pills!

At some point I'm sure I've seen the black back of a whale in the tumult of the waves, but all that staring seems to have played tricks on my eyes - it was nothing.  

As the trip began, crew member Regina Heiligers asked for patience: "We don't know when or whether we'll see anything. After all, these are wild animals and this is the ocean, not a dolphinarium." And she's said anyone who feels seasick should ask for a bag in advance.

The sea looks quiet, but the boat is really rocking. I feel like I'm on a roller coaster and I'm glad I took along seasickness pills. After just ten minutes, the first child throws up.

Close to nature

Skipper Ivan López takes the binoculars in his hand and looks for circling birds or the spouts whales produce from their blowholes when they exhale. He's been taking tourists about 15 kilometers out into the sea for 13 years: "I love all animals, but not as pets in captivity. They should live free in the wild."

Skipper Ivan López searches the sea with his binoculars

Skipper Ivan López keeps an eye on the situation: "This is definitely better than an office job," he says.

The marine wildlife around the Canaries also fascinates Javier Zaera from Venezuela. He came to Gran Canaria as a sailing and surfing instructor. In the early 1990s he began to offer whale watching trips, the first on the island to do so. 

It's not just about business for him. His crew members report every whale sighting, the species and number of animals seen, and the location to the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of Las Palmas. In that way, they contribute to research. They often free sea turtles that have become entangled in plastic.

Javier Zaera in front of his ship Spirit of the Sea: which he had specially built for his trips

Javier Zaera in front of the "Spirit of the Sea," which he had specially built for his trips

Whale watching is popular 

Javier is by far no longer the only one on Gran Canaria who offers whale watching trips. On the neighboring island of Tenerife an especially large number of providers compete for customers and put each other under pressure to succeed. The whales are virtually pursued and encircled. 

The Canaries have had strict whale watching regulations since 1996, but Javier says nobody checks to see if they are adhered to. According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, whale tourism generates a turnover of 1,75 billion euros annually worldwide. Thirteen million people take whale watching tours. 

Happiness at sea

On the boat, the excitement grows. "Thrilling, isn't it?" asks a Dutch woman with her son on her lap. "Yes," I answer. But where are the whales? We have sun, wind, and the deep blue sea — but no whales.  

Now Skipper Ivan takes his microphone and announces, "Ladies and gentlemen, in the far distance we can now see a whale's spout." I search the horizon frantically: where, where? Then I see a vertical streak above the water. It disappears immediately. So that's a whale - unfortunately, very far away indeed.  We head towards it.

A girl holds her tight at the reling while dolphins are swimming around the ship.

Hold tight and capture the moment: Surrounded by dolphins, the passengers are thrilled.

And suddenly the sea around the boat is set in motion. Dolphins are zipping through the water in front of, next to, and behind us, jumping out of the sparkling waves. There's cheering on board, cries of astonishment; fingers point to the smooth gray bodies. "We're in luck," Ivan calls enthusiastically into the microphone. "It's a dolphin pod, with about 600 animals."  

Everyone takes pictures like mad — not so easy when you have to grip the railing with one hand the whole time. The swell of the sea is now stronger than near the coast.

Fascinated, I watch the aquatic mammals. They swim in pairs and groups, shoot upwards, dive down, and seem cheerful and somehow excited. Seeing dolphins close up in their natural habitat does something to me - I feel happy, and that seems to be true of the others on board as well.

Two dolphins close: one is jumping, the other one is sliding under water

Like whales, dolphins are cetaceans: they belong to the subgroup toothed whales

Unfortunately, it's over all too soon. "Dolphins are protected and it's not allowed to stay near them for more than 20 minutes," Ivan tells us. "So we have to turn back in five minutes." 

Water on deck — don't panic! 

I want to use those five minutes to photograph from the lower deck. I sway down the stairs. Here it's flooded. A wave sloshes over the prow. I'm almost up to my ankles in water. "Tsunami, tsunami," Ivan calls before every stronger swell. He sounds cheerful, so I'm not worried either. 

But this definitely feels adventurous: people lurch, children shriek, my camera knocks against a pole, I make my way to a seat. A boy bends over the railing for minutes. "It's a bit unsettled today," says Regina as she fearlessly hands out sick bags,  "But after all, this is the Atlantic!"

Enthusiastically, I totter ashore when we reach port. I haven't seen any whales, but I've been close! If I'm on Gran Canaria again, I'll have another go. Incidentally, if you see neither whales nor dolphins on this trip — which they say happens rarely — you get another trip free of charge.


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