Whale-watching in Calheta, Madeira

As I wrote recently, I was tipped-off about the beauty of Madeira, especially in terms of whale-watching there. So I stayed in Calheta, located in the south-west of Madeira, where the Lobosonda team organises whale-watching tours. As Madeira itself is a huge volcanic rock protruding high from the Atlantic ocean, there are no slopes falling gently towards the beach.

in the region of Calheta

Au contraire: the cliffs rise almost directly from the waterline to hundreds of meters and then some. From there you can go even higher towards the centre of the island where you find forests in the clouds with numerous waterfalls you can go visit. I did. There, my camera and flimsy tripod fought with gravity on a bridge across a gorge. They lost. It’s another story.

Back to Calheta.

We stayed at the very affordable yet highly comfortable and spacious Bela Vista Apartment overseeing the mountains to the west, giving us almost perfect sunsets. (In all honesty, they gave us no sunset at all, because of the pastoral mountains… does that amount to „almost perfect“? I do not know, there was a cow in the valley below, so that was nice.)

Booking two tours at Lobosonda gave us double the chances of not only seeing dolphins, but also larger whales like sperm whales or fin whales. The whales did not accept to the invitation to be spotted, though, but we saw lots and lots of bottle-nosed dolphins and Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella). The former do not seem to care for whale-watchers so much and just follow their route through the sea, but the Stenellas circle the boat out of curiousity or some other reason. The two trips were on two different boats, too. First the „Stenella“, named after… the Stenellas, a speedboat, and then an old fishing boat.

the Stenella speedboad

Both give two very different experiences. The Stenella is a fast and low boat with which you can easily follow every spotted school of dolphins.

a school of dolphins

The Ribeira Brava on the other hand is a more comfortable ride, gives you a longer line of sight, because you sit higher above the sea level, but you are not as flexible when taking pictures, because if things happen on the other side of the boat than the one you sit on, you actually have to walk over, find a stable seat and then make your images. That doesn’t work, dolphins are fast. Still, it is much more communicative and I would recommend it if you want your trip to be more social and less pragmatically focussed on „getting the shot“.

There are a couple of possible sightings, as I found out. More often than not, you simply see the fins of the animals as they swim towards their destination. That is quite impressive and is obviously also an opportunity for the animals to breathe.

an Atlantic spotted dolphin coming up to breathe.

This kind of behaviour is probably the most common to see, as most other behaviours like diving or jumping are either inappropriate for seeing the animals or simply very quick actions.

dolphins in front of a vista of Calheta

You can get these kinds of shots with almost any kind of camera gear. A 24-70mm (or equivalent) kit lens will go long enough and the f-stop almost does not matter as there will probably be enough light or the ISO does not interfere with the image quality, because you will not get fine details anyway (we should all be concerned with other things than ISO-grain, anyway). A shutter speed of 1/640 should also be sufficient. The picture above, though was shot at 1/1000th of a second at f8, ISO500 and 300mm equivalent. I shot with a fixed shutter speed of 1/1000th, and had ISO and f-stop on automatic, with a +.3 exposure compensation. If I had to do it again, then +.7 or +1 would have been better as I almost always had to up the exposure in Lightroom.

Another kind of image is the underwater shot, which you can get when the dolphins decide to swim by the boat. They have a different kind of quality to them, more abstract, but quite pleasing to the eye, I think.

a dolphin swimming by the boat

This one was at 86mm (equiv.), ISO400, f5.6 (equiv), 1/1250th with +.3 exposure comp in camera.

Then of course you want to get the dolphin in all its glory, jumping, showing its face and smiling, with a sunset in the background yet fully front-lit as if by magic, no less. Good luck with that. I guess I have to come back to Madeira soon to be more lucky. Still I got some nice shots that are similar, but do not expect those to come easy or be fantastic out of the camera with any kind of consistency. Once you realise a dolphin jumps, it’s almost over and I guess you need a lot of experience to figure out how long a dolphin will swim submerged (and how long of a distance it covers) once it has jumped. It’s a numbers-game, really. Every 50 shots there’s a keeper and every 200 shots there’s one I consider really good. Over my total of 1200 shots there was none that I considered „great“, but that’s wildlife, no one said it was gonna be easy.

almost fabulous, but very far away

The shot above sort of has its merits because there is background to include.

Atlantic spotted dolphin gets its face wet

Here there is good sharpness and a great dynamic to the shot, but who wouldn’t want to see its face?

Bottle-nosed dolphins mocking me

This one I like, but it shows an additional calamity: where to point your camera? Will the one below jump soon or should I stay on the one in the top of the frame?

Sparkling!

Here I had a sequence, but at the end of the buffering speed of my automatic drive, i.e. the shot before this one showed almost nothing, and here, the face of the Stenella is already submerged.

now we’re talking!

I do leave you with this almost great shot of a bottle-nosed dolphin, jumping right away from us!