Atlantic adventure with caverns, wrecks and mantas
Back the 1980s, I was a sailor on a US Navy frigate crossing the North Atlantic as part of a NATO amphibious task force. While operating the radar screen I noticed a blip. Like most Americans I was 'geographically challenged' and I was surprised to see islands in middle of what I thought was empty ocean. The ship’s chief navigator informed me that these were the Azores.
The Azores are a group of volcanic islands located 1,564 km directly west of Lisbon, Portugal. Today they are a mid-ocean refuelling stop for commercial airlines and international shipping and, since the 15th Century, they have been strategically important being slap bang in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Last year I returned with Jill Heinerth and over the span of 20 days explored the diving – we travelled to four of the nine islands in the archipelago.
Diving in the Azores, while not technical diving, is not for beginners. You dive off RIBs in sometimes heavy seas, often with reasonable currents. However, the local operators are extremely professional and very helpful and make it as simple as possible.
Our first island was Terceira, in the centre of the Azores. We took a SATA flight from Boston and landed at Lajes Field which is also a USAF base. In World War Two the British and the US built the airfield to counter the German U-Boat threat. Our first stop was Arria Divers, located in the historic town of Angra do Heroísmo. They took us on a guided dive at a site called Cemitério das Ancoras (aka The Cemetery of Anchors), an underwater field of anchors that have been discarded from 18th and 19th-century ships. This is one of the most iconic dive sites of the Azores.
There are more than 40 discarded anchors of the classic admiralty pattern. For the past 400 years, Angra do Heroismo has been the main safe harbour for Terceira. However, if there was sudden wind direction change from the South East, the ships would have to quickly cut anchor lines or risk floundering on the rocks. The locals nicknamed the wind the 'Carpenters' Wind'. Many ships crashed on the rocks, breaking apart and the heavy beams of wood that drifted ashore were used to build homes. The dive is only a five-minute boat ride from shore and the depth ranges are from 6m (20ft) to 40m (120ft). One of the most interesting dives is a descent along the wall to a depth of 40m (120ft), where you will find a huge anchor in the inverted position.
Close by in an underwater archaeological park is the shipwreck of the SS Lidador. She was sunk in 1878, (another victim to the Carpenter's Wind). The Lidador is an example of the late 19th century transitional, sail-to-steam vessels in trans-Atlantic shipping trade. Diving the Lidador today: the stern propeller is missing but the prop shaft is visible amongst the ballast stones. Moving amidships, the boilers are broken up in a twisted pile of metal. However, even though the wreck is broken up, it is a pretty dive due to the expansive and diverse amount of marine life.
For our last dive on of Terceira, we travelled north to Pria de Victoria to dive with the folks at the Octopus Dive Center. We explored two offshore dive sites - the Coral Canyon and Lost Rocks. These two sites were formed by lava arches formations. The average dive depth is 25m and you see multitudes of pelagic fish including Almaco jacks and Azores chromis. If you look in the crevices you can spot sea stars and Mediterranean slipper lobsters.
After five days on Terceira, we fly west to Graciosa. This was a short stay with one day to dive the shipwreck Terceirense. Like many shipwrecks in the Azores, this ship was wrecked due to nasty winter weather. We experienced some nasty summer weather, but a quick descent below the surging waves to a depth of about 23m (70ft) and we came upon the stern and its prominent propeller. The ship was covered parrotfish and wrasse of multiple species.
After a day hiking to the lava caves of Graciosa (to off gas nitrogen). We flew east for a week of diving on the main island of São Miguel. Immediately after landing we headed over to Villa de Campo Franco and met up with Pedro Piteria, the head instructor/manager of Azores Sub Dive Center. Pedro asked if I liked diving shipwrecks. He clearly had never dived in New Jersey! We headed out for our first taste of one of the gems of the Azores – the wreck of the SS Dori (aka Liberty Ship Edwin L Drake).
The SS Dori is the most popular wreck in the Azores. It was originally a US Liberty Ship named the Edwin L Drake. Liberty ships were mass-produced cargo ships in World War Two. The Dori ran many wartime missions including the D-Day landings. After the war, the ship was sold to a Greek sipping company (who changed the name to the SS Dori). In 1964, she came to a rather ignoble end when she sank due to poor maintenance.
Diving the Dori today, you reach a relatively intact stern at a depth 9m (28ft). She sits on an angle, with the bow at a depth of 20m (60ft). Considered by many as the best dive site on the island of São Miguel, the Dori is part of an underwater archaeological park. As you swim through causeways and corridors, you are surrounded by clouds of colourful reef fish. Heading forward, towards the bow, you can see some of the larger structures of the ship still intact. This is a big ship and you could spend an entire week in the Azores just diving this wreck.
Another must do dive on São Miguel is the Fontes hydrothermal. This is a shallow dive at only 8m, but unique. Due to the underground geological activity, the seafloor emits a stream of bubbles. It is like diving in a sea of seltzer water. The hydrothermal vents also warm the surrounding water by four degrees.
Jill got to dive on the Dori with the folks at Best Spot Dive Center. Bruno Sergio the owner of Best Spot is also a marine biologist. In addition to running a first-rate shop, they are is a PADI Aware facility and is an example of how ecotourism can really work.
Our final Island was Santa Maria the southernmost island in the Azores archipelago. This island is distinct from the rest of the Azores with a more Mediterranean climate with less humidity and a landscape of sandy beaches, soft rolling hills and jagged coastlines.
The diving here is as unique as the island. Diving the marine reserve area of Baixa do Ambrósio (Ambrósio Reef), three miles off the coast, the upwelling current from the deep abyss creates an underwater environment of diverse and abundant marine life. The huge draw is the manta and devil rays. Because of the moderate to strong currents and potential depth, this is a dive for experienced divers only, but it is a diving experience of you will never forget.
In fact, Jill, who has notched up more than10,000 dives, and has dived on every continent of this planet, was deeply impressed with the diving in particular the deveil rays. She said: 'Diving with the mobulas in Santa Maria was one of the highlights of my diving career. I had a solid 90 minutes of devil rays dancing and hovering over my stream of bubbles. Nothing quite matches the moment when you can truly connect with another species and have a close interaction with such a graceful being.'
I too feel the same way about the Azores. While it took 30 years from my time in the Navy to go back, I will return again next summer. After all, it is only a four-hour flight from Boston.
SPECIAL THANKS TO…
Arria Divers http://www.arraiadivers.com/
Octopus Dive Center http://www.octopusportugal.com/
Diving Graciosa Dive Center. http://www.divingraciosa.com/
Azores Sub http://azoressub.com/
Best Spot Dive Center http://www.bestspotazores.com/