Human Journey

Whaler’s Week: Stories From a Whaling Lookout

Gemina Garland-Lewis is a National Geographic Young Explorers Grantee recording the stories of former whalers in the Azores who used 19th century techniques until ending their hunts entirely in the 1980s.

Greetings from my last day in the field! The last six-plus weeks have flown by, as expected. I’ve collected 30 interviews in 9 whaling villages across 3 islands – mostly from the whalers themselves but with a few who worked in other parts of the industry, such as in the factories or as a vigia (lookout). My last interview of my project was with a vigia from São Mateus on Pico, Manuel Machado Bettencourt, age 79. For my final post from the field I’d like to tell some stories that have their setting based on solid ground and not at sea – both of the vigia and the festivities this weekend during Semana dos Baleeiros (Whaler’s Week).

The sailing regatta during Semana dos Baleeiros this year was the biggest year - 32 whaleboats from seven of the nine Azorean islands. No wind and heavy skies made for a much elongated race. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

The term vigia refers both to the actual structure the men worked from as well as the man himself. Perched atop higher points on the island, the buildings consist of a small enclosed space to help protect from the sun and elements, but with a 180 degree window for searching for whales. The binoculars they used were attached to the small chair, and here they would spend their days looking out to sea. When the vigia would spot a whale, he would send off a rocket flare to announce the sighting to his village, and would also keep watch during the hunt to make sure everything was going smoothly.

An refurbished vigia in Capelinhos on the island of Faial. During the winter months it would get quite cold inside for the man working as a lookout, with wind and rain coming through the open window. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Manuel Machado Bettencourt started as a vigia in 1972 and worked at his post until 1981. In his words, vigias were the ones who “brought bread to the whalers” – if they didn’t find the whales and keep a trained eye on them, no one would have money. Even though he was from a family of whalers, he was never interested in that life. He said that when the any of the maneuvers required on the whaleboat during a hunt went wrong, it could be disastrous, and he wasn’t interested in this. He became a vigia later in life when a friend’s stepfather stepped down as a vigia and needed a replacement. During his training he was told “if you want to be a vigia then the first thing you have to do is get your ass out of bed really early.” Sure enough, he would work from just before sunrise to around 5pm, leaving because it would often get foggier higher up where the vigias were situated. If a whale couldn’t be killed before sunset, the whalers would stay out with it all night waiting to kill it in the morning, particularly with big whales. In these circumstances, Manuel Betterncourt would stay in the vigia overnight to have radio contact with the men at sea, just to be sure that everything was alright.

He spoke about the knowledge that they had to have and how the vigias working today for whale watching don’t need to have the same precision. During whaling, a vigia had to distinguish a sperm whale blow from other whale species- even up to 30 miles from shore (about where the horizon lies), so as not to send the whalers out after a species they didn’t hunt. Not only did they need to be positive that it was a sperm whale, but also determine its size from the blow and predict its movements so that it could be followed even when underwater to direct the whalers to it. For vigias today, he says, any old blow will do. Out of all the men I’ve spoken to, he was the first one to regularly use the species names for different whales and dolphins (as I mentioned last week, for the whalers the word “baleia” (whale) meant sperm whale – the other kinds were just “big fish”), showing me that indeed a vigia had different concerns and responsibilities with their knowledge.

Manuel Machado Bettencourt, age 79, was a vigia for nine years in his village of São Mateus on Pico. Back in the day he could spot whales who were 30 miles out to sea - today he says his eyesight is still strong, just not close-up. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

While we was working he said he had to have the same temperament as he did during his interview with me – totally relaxed. He said if you got nervous or flustered you would lose the whales. He had two radios, one was single-channel between him and the boats from his village, and the other was multi-channel so he could talk with other vigias and villages. Sometimes he would switch the station on his multi-channel radio to listen to music – and as a result would sometimes get called out on it by others who could tell he wasn’t listening to the channel they were giving some news on. The radios could bring some bad news as well, which is how he heard of the death of his brother-in-law. For those of you who have been following my posts, you’ll remember the story of Silvino, the man who was taken underwater in the jaws of a whale. In that piece I also mentioned that whaling took the life of Silvino’s brother, who I learned during this interview was also the husband of Manuel Bettencourt’s sister. A vigia would often know of events like these before anyone else, either because of the radio or because they were watching it happen, and would have to decide if they would be the ones to spread the news to their village. Sometimes they would send signals to people with flares, and sometimes they would keep quiet.

Senhora da Lourdes, patron saint of whalers in Lajes do Pico, passes by onlookers from the street and windows bedecked with the most colorful blankets in the house. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

The sound of the flares is jolting, and after hearing many go off yesterday during the procession for Senhora da Lourdes, patron saint of whalers in the village of Lajes do Pico, I can understand why the old whalers I’ve spoken to have such a physical (and emotional) reaction to hearing them. When whale watching was first started in the Azores, the vigias would send out signals for whales just as in the old days, causing the whalers who’d lost their livelihood in the last several years to ask it stop, saying that every time they heard that sound it “played with their heart.” The festival for Senhora da Lourdes has been in place for over one hundred years, after she was first invoked in 1882 by the people of Lajes to safely bring home the whalers they were watching come back to port in high seas. The festival is a sight to behold, on the first day consisting of a procession at sea with all the whaleboats and motor launches, followed on the second day with a mass and procession around the village, and the blessing by the saint of each of the whaleboats. During whaling, the officials of each boat would be the ones to tie their boat’s line around the base of the saint and kiss her feet, today it is a mix of men who are honored with this opportunity. People hang their brightly-colored blankets out of the windows and perch there watching the procession, along with all those who line the streets.

Following tradition in the Senhora da Lourdes ceremony, a man bends to kiss the feet of the saint from the whaleboat he stands in to receive her blessings and protection. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Several of the whalers I’ve spoken with were there for the festivities, some giving me a big smile and a nod and others with absolutely no idea who I was – just the way it goes when you’re working with people in their 90s. For me the festivities of Semana dos Baleeiros were a great way to wrap up my time here, and I look forward to working more with all the stories I’ve accumulated once I get home. Many thanks to all who’ve been involved with this project!

One of the main structures to go up during Semana dos Baleeiros, a wooden harpooner stands poised in an old whaleboat. Semana dos Baleeiros occurs every year during the last week of August. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.


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Gemina is biologist, photographer, and explorer currently based in Boston, MA. She graduated from Colgate University in 2008 with a degree in Biology and Environmental studies, and is currently working on her Masters in Conservation Medicine at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. Gemina was a 2008/09 Thomas J. Watson Fellow, traveling to seven countries to study different cultural attitudes towards whales and whaling. For the last three summers she has worked as a trip leader and photography teacher for National Geographic Student Expeditions, taking high school students to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Italy. Gemina is currently in the Azores for her project as a National Geographic Young Explorer, where she will be recording the stories and images of ex-whalers.
  • Helen Hall

    I enjoyed reading this post. I was born on the island of Faial. My grandfather was a whaler and although he was from Pico he was whaling in Faial, as many whalers from Pico did in the summer, when the volcano at Capelinhos erupted. Neither he nor the family were hurt but soon after he immigrated to Canada.

    I am particularly interested in the role of the vigil, as the eyes and ears of the whalers and the lookout of all.

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