It took us a few hours of patient waiting and searching for the smooth hammerheads off the north cliffs of Faial island in the Azores. However, when these shy sharks finally decided to come out to play it was all worth it. Snorkeling with smooth hammerheads in the Azores is not just a case of jumping in the water and interacting with them. As snorkelers, we had to get to know each other first, build some trust, and then observe respectful limits with the sharks. Just one heartbeat out of rhythm or one fin kick too fast and they would shoot right back into the blue.
Underwater riches in the Azores
Pico and Faial Islands are well-known for diving with sicklefin devil rays, along with a miscellany of pelagic fish species at Princess Alice Bank. Divers may also get encounters with blue and mako sharks off Condor and Azores Banks. However, there’s another under-the-radar and little-known marine event you don’t want to miss: snorkeling with juvenile hammerheads off the north cliffs of Faial island.
Snorkeling with the hammerheads
Traveling via RIB, the hammerhead site is about a 15- to 20-minute boat ride from Pico Island. As you approach the site, you can often see over 20 dorsal fins patrolling the surface close to the cliffs and it’s easy to imagine yourself surrounded by a shiver of juvenile smooth hammerhead sharks.
Interactions with these sharks happen only on snorkel, as scuba diving is disruptive due to movement, noise, and bubbles. Although smooth hammerheads are one of the larger hammerhead species, these juveniles are only 3 to 6.5 feet (1 to 2 m) long and are not used to interacting with other species, let alone humans.
Just like on many shark dives, the operators will use some chum to help attract the hammerheads to the boat. Once it seems like they are willing to stay and interact, the divemaster will enter the water first to analyze the sharks’ behavior. Then, at most, two snorkelers at a time can enter and interact with the hammerheads. Snorkelers will rotate if there are more people on board, and interactions can last from a few minutes to an hour. The water temperature during this time of year (from July through September) is around 77 F (24 to 25 C), so a 5 mm wetsuit should keep you warm enough.
Prepare for the open blue upon entering the water. The sharks will circle on the surface all the way down to a maximum depth of 33 feet (10 m). At the start, the hammerheads may keep a distance until they warm up to you, when they may come within arm’s reach. Of course, touching the sharks is not allowed.
The open blue water makes for amazing contrast against the hammerheads, and photographers can make some mesmerizing shots. Bear in mind that the sound of the shutter could make your subject skittish and it could shoot off into the blue. However, most of the time curiosity and the chum slick will bring it right back up to the surface.
This is an amazing experience, but these hammerheads are still wild animals and snorkelers must respect their terms and behavioral patterns. A divemaster will remain in the water to ensure that there is no chasing, grabbing or disturbing the sharks’ personal boundaries.
Making it happen
The Azores, a Portuguese archipelago, sits 930 miles (1496 km) off the coast of Lisbon and 2,400 miles (3862 km) off the east coast of America. There are nine lush volcanic islands, spread over 370 miles (595 km) in the middle of the North Atlantic.
The best time to visit the Azores is from July until September, during the peak months to experience some pristine diving. This is when it’s most likely to see the juvenile smooth hammerheads. Since bigger predators such as blue sharks, mako sharks, and hammerheads are more active during this period, juvenile smooth hammerheads seek shelter in the 82 to 98-foot (25 to 30 m) shallows against the north cliffs of Faial island.
As amazing as this experience can be, dive companies do not sell it as an exclusive trip. However, you can still make it happen upon request at one of the eight various dive centers between Pico and Faial. The dive operators will be happy to take you along with an experienced skipper and divemaster.
You’ll want a sturdy pair of sea legs, as you can be out on the water for an indefinite time — up to a full day at sea. You must also have a decent amount of experience and comfort on snorkel and water skills as you need to be prepared and comfortable with not having the bottom in sight. Those with determination, a spirit for adventure and a desire to experience something unique will find the effort to snorkel with smooth hammerheads in the Azores to be well equal to the reward.
Story by Monique Schouten
Images by Martijn Schouten