This beautiful island, a Biosphere Reserve, offers boundless opportunities to immerse oneself in nature, in its beautiful valleys and forests. Though as I am essentially an ocean-lover, who is inevitably drawn to the water wherever I go, I discover “Oceano”, a small company based in the seaside resort of Valle Gran Rey, who claim to run a sustainable and environmentally-friendly concern, with “respectful whale and dolphin watching”.
We duly arrive at Valle Gran Rey´s small harbour in time to board the ”Ascensión de Señor” a colourful former fishing boat, among a small group of 10 people (the maximum allowed).
As we leave the harbour, our guide Melanie makes sure we understand the rules: no touching or feeding the animals, to be aware of our body weight and to sit accordingly, in order to ensure the vessel´s equilibrium. We´re also told that we can sit at the bow with our feet dangling over the front, though only 4 people at a time. I try to restrain myself but I´m like a child in a sweet shop, unable to resist, so I take my place at the bow whilst the others are politely deliberating.
The dolphins come to play
Only 10 minutes into our trip, and without even finishing the introductory speech, Melanie squeals with delight at having already spotted a small group of dolphins! Forgetting her advice on balancing our body weight, we all excitedly surge to one side to see them, at which point we are reprimanded and told to spread out again.
“This is very special” she beams, never before in her 20 years of whale and dolphin spotting had she seen them so early into the voyage.
On recognising their fins, she tells us that they are resident bottlenose dolphins, and of all the twenty-eight different species that live around the Canary Islands, these are the only protected species.
Some are accompanied by small calves, that following a 2-year pregnancy are taken out to hunt in the very early days by their mothers.
In no time we´re surrounded by schools of dolphins, this time of the spotted variety. The more spots they have, the older they are, and some live until they are seventy years-old. They can swim up to 40 km/hr, and dive to a depth of 150 metres to catch fish.
The dolphins playfully accompany us alongside our boat, in groups of 5 or 6, some displaying their acrobatic skills and leaping metres into the air. Suddenly everyone is transported directly back to their childhood, clapping hands and gasping with delight!
I sit on the bow as the boat pushes out to sea, rising and falling as it navigates the gentle waves with nothing else before me but the ocean, my feet dip in and out of the infinite deep blue waters. I pinch myself, this is one of life´s unique moments for which I am truly thankful.
Oh, and a word of advice: people choosing to sit at the bow will get wet, so appropriate clothing (or as little as possible) is recommended.
We´re so close to the dolphins we can almost touch them, (whilst reminding ourselves that we aren´t allowed to, of course). This wouldn´t happen on a larger boat, we learn, as firstly, you are not so close to sea level, but more importantly, some larger boats create louder engine noise which is harmful to the dolphins´ hearing, scaring them away and eventually, causing deafness to some.
Are we watching the whales, or are they watching us?
Occasionally, the Captain turns off the engine and the boat comes to a stop, leaving us floating out at sea, still under the clear and sunny skies. In a unanimous silence, we soak up the ocean breeze, the warm sunshine enveloping us, the only sounds to be heard being the ocean lapping against the boat and the birds.
A little further out to sea, some whales pop up to see what´s going on, surging slowly from the water, blowing as they surface. They submerge again, disappearing for a while and keeping us all in suspense as to where they´ll appear again, our fingers on the camera triggers. Getting the perfect picture is proving to be tricky!
Suddenly someone shouts “it´s under the boat!” which is followed by gasps and goose bumps all round, as a huge, slow-moving beast, looking more like a giant rock, passes directly underneath our modest fishing boat. Nature can be extremely humbling.
In shallow waters the pilot and Bryde whale varieties are more common, though as we reach a depth of 2,000 to 3,000 metres deep (yes, that´s right, the seas around the Canary Islands reach a depth of up to 4000 metres), there is a possibility of sighting both blue and sperm whales.
Hunting: harnessing the power of teamwork
Melanie points out the amount of birds that surround us, an example of nature´s fascinating teamwork. The shearwater birds seek out their lunch from above, performing perfect dives worthy of Olympic medals down to a depth of 15 metres deep to catch it.
The dolphins can hear the shearwater up to 1 km away, so they know exactly where the food is. They make their way to the scene and carry out the work of sheepdogs, forcing the fish into a huddle, making lunch an easier affair for both birds and dolphins. The average adult dolphin needs around 8kg of fish every day.
Suddenly, our guide shrieks, pointing to the horizon and orders the captain to head out to sea to what seems to be a white water frenzy. It´s further than we imagine, though as we get closer, the mirage reveals itself to be a dense flock of hundreds of birds circling over a large shoal of fish and frantically diving to feast.
The captain turns off the engine right in the middle and we are shrouded in a cloud of birds. I suppose the guide should have known better, as one of them shoots its droppings right onto her information file!
As we turn back towards the port at sunset, there is a shared sensation of peace and tranquillity amongst us, we have had a new, incredible experience, one we will remember forever. And a first-hand reminder of the vulnerability of nature, and the urgent need to preserve our oceans.