Nature fascinates me since I can remember and most of my childhood was spent in the woods right next to my house, exploring what it had to offer. That curiosity for the natural world was important to define what would become my professional activity. Today I’m a wildlife biologist and nature photographer, always eager to learn about and photograph new locations and new species.
I’ve always heard amazing things about the Azores and it was in my bucket list for a while. The Azores is an archipelago of volcanic origin, isolated in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. This characteristic allowed the development of a unique fauna and flora, which together with the geological features resulted in the incredible and unique nature, nowhere else found in the world. With so many islands to choose from, I thought I should start from the most obvious destination, the biggest and most diverse island, São Miguel. So, I start preparing my one week trip.
When the plane landed was already late night, but I had a mission to accomplish: explore and photograph as much as I could this amazing place. The next morning, I woke up quite early and left to the Sete Cidades lagoon. After passing the village, I followed a small road that follows the lagoon. Being in a crater of volcano is something special and even if it’s a dormant one you feel small and humble. After just a few minutes I realized that the grassy fields right by the lagoon were full of birds, some searching for food in the ground, others singing in the trees.
The most common bird in this location was the Azorean chaffinch, a subspecies of the common chaffinch, that can only be found in the archipelago. Finally, after some time waiting for an opportunity and with some patience and persistence, one of the birds approached me and I was able to take some photos. When I shoot wildlife I like to include part of the habitat they leave in, contextualizing the image and giving information about the biology of the species.
Later a European robin also came close and I posed for a close-up image:
Some hours had passed and I moved on to the famous Boca do Inferno Viewpoint, because I wanted to make some landscape photos there during sunset. I have to confess, this place is incredible, the landscape is overwhelming and it makes you question if it’s reality or just a dream. I’m sure no one gets indifferent to the amazing view of the Sete Cidades lagoon, but I wanted something different and so I pointed my camera in the opposite way. The view to the lagoon has been photographed thousands of times and it’s difficult to get something original. As the sun approached the horizon, one of the hills was lit by the soft golden light of the sunset, highlighting the shape and textures of that beautiful scene.
I’d planned for the next day to photograph the Lagoa do Fogo (Fire Lagoon) at sunrise. The road to get there is steep and tortuous, but without any question it was worth it. When I arrived, a thick layer of fog prevented any glimpse of the lagoon. I waited all morning patiently for the weather to improve and, although sometimes for brief moments the fog cleared a bit, the weather never was favourable for photography. I went back at sunset, in an attempt to get an image of the lagoon with a “burning sky”. One hour before sunset there I was, preparing the tripod and the camera and after having everything ready I waited and waited until the light was at its best. Although the sky didn’t light up with the colours I was expecting, I think the contrast between the blue colours of the lagoon, the greens of the vegetation and the golden light that illuminated part of the mountains gives life to the image.
One of the main reasons why I wanted to visit the Azores so badly was the possibility of doing whale watching, something I’d been dreaming for many years. The ocean was calm when we set sail in direction to the horizon and contrary to what I was expecting, it didn’t take long until the first animals appeared. A group of bottlenose dolphins followed us for several minutes, right by our side, continuously jumping out of the water, almost as they were greeting us. It was a magical moment I will never forget. Later we saw common dolphins, that like the bottlenose dolphins are extremely curious animals and they also approached the boat. We were sailing around all morning hoping to see more animals, but it was when we were about to return to the island that something unexpected happened! A sperm whale appeared out of nowhere, expelled water through the blowhole, and dived back into the depths of the ocean, slamming its fluke in the water. Sperm whales are animals with great ability of diving at great depths, up to 3000 meters, for an extraordinary 90 minutes, which makes observing them at the surface a real challenge. Everything happened very fast and I wasn’t able to get any decent image, but this was undoubtedly the highlight of the trip.
After a delicious lunch at the capital, I decided to visit the biggest laurel forest of the island, hoping to see the Azores bullfinch. This bird is an endemic species of São Miguel island, which means it doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world and its distribution is restricted to this forest. Not long ago this species was considered as “Critically Endangered”, but thanks to conservation efforts now it’s considered as “Vulnerable”. The afternoon was gloomy and the dense vegetation prevented light to reach the ground. These conditions are usually horrible for wildlife photography and although I didn’t take any decent shot of the Azores bullfinch, I was lucky enough to see a few birds. What a privilege!
After several kilometres of dense forest, I reached an open area, a viewpoint from where I could see the highest mountain of the island (1105 m), known as Pico da Vara. The whether was cloudy and the top of the mountain was touching the clouds, which together with the linear shapes of the steep slopes, provided an excellent opportunity to make a simplistic black and white photograph.
By the last day of the trip, my body was tired, but the mind was motivated and sharp. This day was dedicated to a hike that started in a very small village, Faial da Terra, heading right into the forest. As I drifted away from civilization, I started being swallowed by the high and steep hills covered with dense vegetation, while a small stream of crystal-clear water meandered along the way. When I finally reached my destination, a beautiful waterfall made my jaw drop. I consider this hike to be one of the most beautiful I have ever done and believe me, I have done many.
Before the day ended, I still had time for a quick stop in the northwest coast of the island. The landscape I had in front of my eyes was dominated by high cliffs that precipitated on black rock beaches of volcanic origin, contrasting with the blue ocean. For this photograph, I opted for a long exposure to smooth out the movement of the water and convey what I was feeling at the moment: tranquillity.
I will never forget this trip. The experiences I lived during this week resulted in unique memories and photos I have always wanted to take. I still have 8 islands to visit in the future and I can just imagine what photographic adventures are waiting for me.
This guest post was submitted by Daniel Santos. To see more of his work, please visit his website.