Diving in the Azores- information and tips for underwater exploring

Diving in the Azores- information and tips for underwater exploring

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The Atlantic Ocean is a long water stripe that stretches from pole to pole. It separates the Old World from the New World. But what is in the middle? If you stare at the map, you can see several islands and archipelagos. One of them is the Azores, located on the way between Europe and North America. The islands are quite exotic, but let’s go diving in the Azores and see what is in the underwater world around them!

About the Azores

Let’s take a look at a leather ball. Its surface is normally covered by pieces of leather sewn together. And the sewn place is a bit higher than the rest of the surface.

It is the same with the Earth’s crust. And there is a long “sewn” area between two large plates in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It is called Mid-Atlantic Ridge- one of the longest underwater ridges on our planet.

Yes, this ridge is underwater, but in some places it rises above the surface of the ocean, forming islands or archipelagoes. One of these archipelagoes is the Azores– a group of nine volcanic islands, one of the four archipelagoes of Macaronesia (along with Maderia, Canary Islands, and Cape Verde).

A landscape in the Azores
A landscape in the Azores

Geography of the Azores

The nine islands of the Azores are divided into three groups:

  • Western Azores: Corvo and Flores islands- both of them rising on the North American plate.
  • Central Azores: Faial, Pico, Sao Jorge, Graciosa, and Terceira islands, lying on another “crack” between the Eurasian and the African plates.
  • Eastern Azores: Sao Miguel and Santa Maria, as well as Formigas Reef, again lying on the same “crack” as the Central group. Sao Miguel is the largest of all.

All of them are volcanic, and in fact, they are peaks of one of the tallest mountain systems on the Earth that could be higher than Mt Everest if its foot was on the sea level.

The Azores are an Autonomous Region of Portugal, with Ponta Delgada (on Sao Miguel Island) as its capital. The islands are located in the subtropical geographic zone and are covered by subtropical forests, and farming lands, in combination with rugged terrain with a lot of volcanic formation, including some active volcanoes.

This is above the ocean. But what is below the surface?

The Azores’ underwater world

Steep underwater mountain slopes, and volcanic formations, all of them in relatively warm waters- this is what create the underwater landscape of the Azores. So, you can be sure that there are a lot of different types of diving places- underwater volcanic formations like ancient lava-formed caves, marine wildlife spots, WW2 shipwrecks, and more.

The archipelago is quite isolated, in the middle of the Atlantic, so it is a seasonable stop for some migrating animals, especially whales. Here you can see various species of whales, including the biggest one- the blue whale. And one of the special attractions is the Portuguese man o’war.

The Azores are a favorite stop for whales
The Azores are a favorite stop for whales

Diving in the Azores

So, if you want to dive into the underwater world of the Azores, you can “touch” it by snorkeling. But of course, a better way to do it is by scuba diving. And there are two scuba diving ways- shorter boat tours and longer liveaboard tours. All of them are focused on one or more diving spots and areas.

Diving spots and areas in the Azores

There are about 90 recognized diving spots in the Azores, and some of them are distinguished from the others as “the best” or “the most popular”. All of them can be grouped into 10 diving areas, according to the 9 islands of the archipelago, and some additional reefs, islets, or underwater mountains.

Sao Miguel Island

Sao Miguel is the largest island of the Azores, and there are at least 28 recognized diving sites all around it. Most of them are concentrated near the southern and western coasts of the island. Several of them are more interesting:

  • Ponta da Cozinha. Located near the southern coast of Sao Miguel, in front of Vila Franca. It has amazing topography with canyons and boulders, combined with abundant marine life.
  • SS Dori Shipwreck. This is a wartime ship that played an active role during WW2. It was sunk in 1964, and now is a well-preserved wreck site with a lot of fish schools around it.
  • Formigas and Dollabarat. This site is actually between Sao Miguel and Santa Maria islands, but normally it is reachable from Sao Miguel. It presents two underwater pinnacles and the main attraction here are the mantas and the mobula rays.

Santa Maria Island

Santa Maria is the southernmost island in the Azores. It is relatively small, and there are at least 11 diving sites around it. Two of them deserve special attention.

  • Baixa do Ambrosio. It is located not far from Vila do Porto- the main city on the island. And its main attraction is the rich abundance of fish schools, especially barracudas and jacks.
  • Baixa da Maia. This is one of the most beautiful diving spots in the Azores. It is a small reef near the eastern coast of Santa Maria. Again, it is full of fish schools but the topography of the area is more spectacular.
A shipwreck
A shipwreck

Terceira Island

This is the easternmost island of the central Azores group with the UNESCO Heritage Site Angra do Heroismo as its main city. 11 diving spots are recognized around the island, and they also can offer a variety of everything that can be seen underwater around the archipelago. Two of them are most interesting.

  • Lidador Shipwreck. Lidador ship sunk in 1878, about 50 off the coast at Angra do Heroismo. You can’t enter the ship, but you can explore it from outside like a natural underwater “museum”.
  • Cinco Ribeiras. This is an amazing site with interesting topography. It starts with a pool that goes deeper until it reaches a system of caves. The caves are only for experienced divers, but the pool is for people with all levels of diving experience.

Besides these, Terceira is the nearest island to an amazing diving site that is located in the direction of Sao Miguel Island. This is Dom João de Castro Bank seamount, one of the best diving spots in the Azores. It is at the top of an underwater volcano, where you can see some volcanic activity (currently, it is safe).

Sao Jorge Island

This island is one of the “Triangle Islands” along with Pico and Faial. It is noticeable for its form- long and narrow, different from the other islands. Sao Jorge is also known for its fajãs – low flat “wings” of land between the higher volcanic slopes and the ocean.

The island has 10 recognized diving spots, located around it. Two of them are particularly interesting.

  • Ilheu do Topo North and South. This small islet is located in front of the eastern end of Sao Jorge, and the waters north and south of it offer an incredible variety of fish schools and a beautiful topography. However, this area has strong currents and is proper only for experienced divers.
  • Baixa dos Rosais. This is a reef located on the other side of the island, the westernmost tip. In fact, its conditions are like an underwater mountain far from the land. It has strong currents, so again, only experienced divers can go there. But the beauty it reveals is worth diving there.

Pico Island

This island is best known as the place with the highest point in the Azores and the whole of Portugal. It is the second of the “Triangle Islands”. And hiking the volcanic peak of Pico reveals fantastic views of the island and its neighbors.

Mount Pico
Mount Pico

Some of the best diving highlights around Pico Island are whale watching and swimming with blue sharks. There are also about 10 recognized diving sites, and one of them is considered the best:

  • Arcos do Pocinho. This site is notorious for its unique topography. It is formed by underwater lava flows that form a valley. This valley ends with two joined arcs that have given the name of the site. The whole place is home to a great variety of sea animals, including pelagic fish.

Faial Island

Faial is the third of the “Triangle Islands”, located west of Pico. It is known as the “Capital of the Yachts”, due to its main port Horta Marina, a Mid-Atlantic spot for hundreds of yachts. The island is also the place for the most recent major volcanic eruption in the Azores. It was caused by Mt. Capelinho in 1957.

For diving, the island also offers great opportunities for blue sharks watching. There are 10 good diving spots around the island, and several of them are really amazing:

  • Baia de Entre Montes. This is a site that is easy to explore, only five minutes by boat from Horta. Although its topography is not so special, its highlight is the rich marine wildlife that includes some very interesting and rare species like octopuses, moray eels, jewel anemones, hermit crabs, and more. 
  • Furnas do Monte da Guia.These are two underwater caves, located southeast of Faial Island, only 10-15 min by boat from Horta. The caves are quite close to each other, so they can be visited in one dive, but only if you are an experienced diver. 
  • Shrimp Cave (Gruta dos Camarões). This is considered one of the best diving spots in the whole of the Azores Archipelago. It is located not far from Furnas do Monte da Guia, and it is only one underwater cave- only one, but really fantastic. As its name suggests, here is the best place in the archipelago to observe narwal shrimps. It is a narrow corridor that ends in a larger chamber with an air pocket. However, it is accessible only by experienced divers.
  • Espalamaca Norte. This is a much easier spot for diving. It is located east of Faial Island, and it is relatively shallow, starting from 6 m and ending at 14 m depth. Probably the most interesting part of it is at the deepest place. There is a sandy floor, and bubbles ascend from the floor to the surface, due to the volcanic activity in the area. And again, all the time you can observe a lot of marine wild species.
Schools of barracudas
Schools of barracudas

These are the best spots near Faial and the other two “Triangle Islands”. But here we should mention two more diving spots that are actually far from Faial, and in general, far from the other islands, although Faial and Pico are the closest islands to these spots.

Condor Seamount

Condor Seamount is located about 17 km (10 miles) away from Faial Island. This is an underwater volcanic mountain, about 1800 m high above the surrounding ocean floor. Its top is relatively flat, but with its 185 m depth under the surface, it is much deeper than most of the other diving spots. So, the floor is inaccessible for non-professional scuba divers.

However, the place is notable for its unique marine wildlife above the bottom. It is the best place on the Earth where you can swim with blue sharks. Another highlight here is whale and dolphin watching, although here this activity is not as popular as in the other spots.

Princess Alice Bank

This is again one of the best diving spots in the Azores. It is a shallow area, something like a “failed island” with a maximum height of 30 m below the surface. It is quite far from the islands of the Azores- about 3 hours by boat from Faial or Pico islands.

Here, far from the land, the currents are stronger. This, combined with the relatively deeper bottom make this spot proper only for experienced divers. And the adventure is worth it. The area is full of sea creatures- from schools of pelagic fish to large whales and friendly dolphins.

Graciosa Island

This is the last, and the smallest island in the Central group of the Azores. The island is lower and flatter than the other islands, only with a large caldera on its eastern part. Here the most interesting places are the beautiful town of Santa Cruz da Graciosa, the hot springs Termas do Carapacho at its eastern end, and the Sulphur Cave (Furna do Enxofre).

There are more than 10 good diving spots around the island, where you can observe a lot of marine species, especially schools of pelagic fish. Most of these spots are not too different than the similar spots on the other island, but two of them deserve special mention.

  • Terceirense Shipwreck. This is an artificial reef, formed by the ship “Terceirense” that sank near the island of Graciosa in 1968. It is located only about 2 min far from Praia and can be easily explored by divers from all levels of experience. 
  • Carapacho Cave. This diving site is located at a group of small islets near the easternmost tip of Graciosa Island, not far from the Carapacho bathing area. This cave is not entirely underwater. In fact, it is like a crack in the volcanic rocks with their bottom immersed in the ocean. 
Underwater cave
Underwater cave

Now, let’s take a look at the two westernmost islands of the Azores- Flores, and Corvo. They are quite separated from the other islands and located farther from Ponta Delgada, so, they remain quite off the beaten. And again, here you can find fantastic views on land and underwater.

Flores Island

Of the two westernmost islands, Flores is the larger one, and its westernmost tip is also the westernmost point of the whole archipelago, and politically, of Europe. Flores Island is known for its fantastic landscapes that include a lot of waterfalls, lakes, and caves. Like the other islands, it is also volcanic and contains a caldera and mountains with steep slopes.

The underwater world around Flores is fantastic too. First, due to its long distance from Ponta Delgada, the water is even more transparent than in the east of the Azores. And there are a lot of diving spots that mostly consist of rock formations, including caves. And again, the marine wildlife everywhere is abundant.

  • Galo Cave. This is the most popular diving site on Flores Island. It is a large cave on the ocean coast, with only the bottom underwater. The cave is so spacious that you can enter inside by boat. And one of the cave’s best attractions is the waterfall that falls directly into the ocean from the top of the cave.
  • Amigo Reef. This site (in English- “Friend Reef”) is located on the eastern side of Flores Island, about 15 min boat ride from Santa Cruz. It is submerged underwater between 15 and 45 m. Its shallower part is proper for divers with all levels of experience, but the deeper part is only for experienced divers. 
  • Morro Reef is more adventurous than the “friendlier” Amigo Reef. Although its shallowest part is only 6 m below the surface, its location of almost 2 km south of Flores Island makes it exposed to strong currents. For this reason, it is not proper for non-experienced divers.
Moray eel
Moray eel

Corvo Island

This is the smallest island of the Azores and the least populated one. There is only one town on Corvo, called Vila do Corvo, with only about 400 inhabitants. The rest of the island is a green paradise. And its most magnificent feature is the giant caldera on its northern half.

Corvo offers fantastic landscapes on land, and due to its isolation, it is breathtaking underwater too. In fact, here is the best-preserved marine life in the whole of the archipelago. And as you can expect, there are a lot of diving spots. Among them, these are the most popular:

  • Dusky Grouper Passageway (Caneiro dos Meros). This is the most popular diving spot on Corvo Island. It is located south of the island, about 150 m from the coast. Despite the closeness, the ocean bottom descends steeply down to a sandy floor at about 40-45 m. And as the name of the site suggests, this is the home of Dusky Groupers. 
  • Moldinho Reef (Pedra do Atlas) is located northeast of Corvo Island, at about 15 min boat ride from Vila do Corvo. Its depth varies from only 4 m to 45 m below the surface, and in general, it is only for experienced divers due to the strong currents in the area. And the best thing you can see here is the rich variety of pelagic fish.
  • Gamela. This diving site is located on the southern coast of Corvo Island, very close to Dusky Groupers Passageway. The area is abundant in marine life, especially pelagic fish. It has a diverse terrain, including small flat places with two small underwater caves. Gamela is proper for divers with all levels of experience.
  • Buraco Reef. This diving site is again on the southern coast of Corvo Island, not far from the other two sites mentioned above, at about 5 min boat ride from Vila do Corvo. Its name “Buraco” means “Hole” in English, and it is due to a small cave (hole) in the reef. The depth here is between 7 and 25 m and it is proper for all levels of diving experience.
Dusky Grouper
Dusky Grouper

So, these are the most beautiful diving spots in the Azores. And there are two normal ways to explore them.

Diving resorts and centers

This is the first way. You arrive by plane to Ponta Delgada and choose one or more resorts with diving centers. Here you can join a PADI scuba diving course and can go on a short boat ride to some of the diving spots.

Check for the Azores PADI diving courses!

This way is cheaper but more limited. You can visit only the nearby dive sites. And these resorts are located mainly on San Miguel Island. There are also some on Santa Maria, Terceira, Pico, Sao Jorge, and Faial.

There are no diving centers on Graciosa, Flores, and Corvo, but you can still find several hotels and local boats to the diving sites nearby.

However, there is another way you can try- liveaboard.

Liveaboard tours in the Azores

By liveaboard, you can literally go on an expedition around all of the islands of the archipelago except Flores and Corvo, including one of the best diving spots- the Princess Alice Bank. Currently, there are only a few liveaboards in the Azores, and one of them is the best. This is “Water and Wind”.

Check for liveaboard availabilities in the Azores!

Water and Wind Liveaboard

This is a relatively small catamaran with only 4 cabins for 8 guests. There are indoor and outdoor dining areas, where guests can enjoy their meals according to their preferences. In addition, there is a hammock for relaxing or stargazing at the night.

Water and Wind
Water and Wind

The Water and Wind boat is well-designed for divers. Its tours always include a scuba diving instructor. The boat departs from Ponta Delgada every week and offers the same 7-nights/8 days route that includes sites like Terceira Island, Formigas, Dollabarat, and Princess Alice Bank, as well as the islands from the middle group.

Check for availabilities in Water and Wind!

Other liveaboards in the Azores include Dive Cruise Narobla and Saildive.

Azores diving and exploring tips

So, how to prepare for a diving adventure in the Azores? Here are some important tips that can help.

Seasons

There are two main seasons in the Azores. Both of them have their pros and cons, but in general, one of these seasons is preferable.

Warm season

It is from April to October. This is the summertime and the high season in the Azores. The weather is humid and hot, there are more local festivals, and this is also the time for whale watching, mainly in April and May. There are also many more transportation options to and from the Azores, as well as between the islands.

But since this is the tourist season, the prices are high, and in July and August, it can be crowded at some sites. Besides, you can find it difficult to book a hotel.

Cold season

This is the rest of the year- between November and March. And this is the winter season. Although there is no snow on the islands (except on some of the highest peaks, sometimes), this is also the rainy season. In other words, the weather is usually not so good. And transportation between the islands is much more limited.

So, the cold season is also the “adventure” season. No crowds, almost no tourists, enough places for accommodation, and lower prices. In addition, this is the best time to enjoy thermal baths.

Mountains, slopes, pastures, and seacoast
Mountains, slopes, pastures, and seacoast

Diving skills and requirements

The Azores are located in the middle of the Atlantic, in the open ocean, full of currents from various directions. At the same time, the islands are volcanic, with steep slopes underwater. For this reason, many diving sites are proper only for experienced divers.

Yes, you can still find some easier diving sites for beginners, but some of the most beautiful ones are only for higher diving skills.

Fortunately, there are several good PADI scuba diving courses that you can choose. Some of them are only for beginners, and others are for more professional diving goals. Also, some of the courses are just a few hours long, but there is also a 4-days course. Finally, you receive a necessary certificate and you would be ready to try some of the more difficult diving spots (of course, for the most difficult ones just one course is not enough, but you need a long-time experience).

How to reach the Azores

The Azores archipelago is an autonomous region of Portugal and a part of the country. The capital is Ponta Delgada, located on Sao Miguel Island. And this is the entry point for exploring the archipelago.

Ponta Delgada is reachable (normally) only by air. There are regular flights to the main city in the Azores from Lisbon. But you can also fly from some big cities in the world- London, New York, Boston, and Toronto. Also, Ponta Delgada has connections to some of the other Macaronesian archipelagos- Maderia and Canary Islands.

Check for transport options to the Azores!

The Azores can be reached also by water, but only if you join a cruise (some cruise lines stop in the Azores too). Otherwise, you can arrive there only by private yacht or on a cargo ship.

Local transportation

Once you arrive in Ponta Delgada, you have enough options to explore the city, the whole island of Sao Miguel, and the whole archipelago, especially in the high season. You can rent a car, a scooter, or a bike, or you can travel by taxi.

And if you want to leave Sao Miguel, there are regular ferries that connect the islands of the whole archipelago. They are arranged by Atlanticoline and this is the best (and cheapest) way to explore the other islands of the Azores. There are also local flights, which are faster but much more expensive.

These are the “normal” transportation options in the Azores. Apart from them, you can travel by private yacht, by liveaboard, or by cargo ship.

Visiting a caldera in the Azores
Visiting a caldera in the Azores

Accommodation

There are not too many hotels in the Azores, that’s why it is advisable to book in advance for the high season. Apart from the hotels, you can also find some guesthouses, homestays, and even some campsites.

Check the Azores accommodation on Booking!

Check the Azores accommodation on Agoda!

So, once you arrange your transportation, your accommodation, and the whole itineraries, including your diving adventures, you can enjoy this exotic place on the Earth in full. There are also a lot of on-land places to visit, and a lot of cultural attractions you can try. And if you combine your diving in the Azores with the on-land experience, you can enjoy a really fantastic and unforgettable journey.

Take a look at this video for more impressions from the Azores:

Check some travel books about the Azores:

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A guide for diving in the Azores- general information, the best diving spots, liveaboard, and some travel tips. A guide for diving in the Azores- general information, the best diving spots, liveaboard, and some travel tips.

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