MISSION BLUE

A WHALE CAFE IN THE AZORES

Through its Perpetual Planet initiative, Rolex is supporting ocean conservation non-profit Mission Blue in its goal to create a global network of Hope Spots, areas that deserve protection as they are home to vital marine ecosystems.
THE AZORES

LUSH SEASCAPE OF THE ARCHIPELAGO

The Azores define the word remote. Considered the most western part of Europe, this self-governing region of Portugal in the mid-North Atlantic was first discovered by Portuguese navigators in the 15th century and even received an unplanned visit by Christopher Columbus on his return voyage from America, courtesy of a violent storm.

Comprised of nine major islands, the Azores Archipelago neighbours the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a series of volcanoes that constitute the largest feature of the Atlantic seafloor. But the Archipelago is special in ways beyond its extreme location and history of seafarers’ tales. The area’s unique set of oceanographic features have given rise to a richly diverse ecosystem that Mission Blue is working to protect through the establishment of a Hope Spot, an area that deserves full legal marine protection

Key to the programme is the empowerment of local people to make change by creating a global wave of community support for ocean conservation.

THE AZORES

AN OCEAN PIT-STOP

The Azores provide nothing less than a cafe in the North Atlantic for migratory animals. They teem with cetaceans such as whales that find rich feeding grounds in the area’s concealed seamounts studded with lush gardens of sponges and cold-water corals. They also enjoy a hint of warmer waters provided by the North Atlantic Gyre (a circular ocean current) via the south-eastern branch of the Gulf Stream. Here, the ocean is divided into deep eastern and western basins that host hydrothermal vent ecosystems. Importantly, it is also believed that the seamounts may act as “stepping stones” connecting fauna in the Mediterranean with those in the North Atlantic.

But this deep-sea ecosystem is under pressure from human activities such as fishing, coastal construction, maritime transport and agriculture, as well as contaminating compounds, underwater noise and marine litter. By supporting local people and the Regional Government, Mission Blue hopes to help alleviate this degradation of the environment.

THE AZORES

A MAGNET FOR LIFE

Sylvia Earle, the legendary marine explorer and founder of Mission Blue, calls the Azores a “magnet” for life. “It really is a magical place. Launching the Azores as a Hope Spot is so logical – just ask the whales. They know how special this place is. This used to be a place where whales were killed and now people are making a living by respecting the whales and having people come out and visit them as fellow citizens of the planet.”

Launching the Azores as a Hope Spot is so logical – just ask the whales.Sylvia Earle

Azoreans understand the value of a healthy marine environment. Some have already turned to ecotourism to make a living, encouraging people to go whale watching or diving to experience an underwater jacuzzi from the hot bubbles escaping the hydrothermal vents.

There is much to see. There are some 25 species of cetaceans (whales, porpoises, dolphins), four sea turtles, 560 species of fish, more than 400 species of algae and a few thousand invertebrates alongside endemic species such as the Monteiro’s storm petrel, cold-water coral and the blue wrasse. And those are just the ones that have been inventoried.

THE AZORES

A LARGER ZONE OF PROTECTION

The Regional Government has always been concerned about conservation of its marine resources, imposing fish quotas and licence regulations. It even went as far as closing a traditional fishing ground, the Condor Seamount, to fisheries after collaborating with scientists, local fishers and tourist operators.

In the 1980s, the government established several small, dispersed Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). In 2019, it went further. In collaboration with the Oceano Azul Foundation and the Waitt Institute, it announced the Blue Azores programme, with the goal of creating a network of fully protected MPAs covering 15 per cent of the Azorean Sea. To accomplish this, they are developing innovative studies and approaches, contributing to the sustainable management of fisheries, supporting scientific processes and implementing a ‘blue literacy’ programme for schools, among other activities.

Each Hope Spot has a Champion who represents the area and is involved in its work. Christopher Pham, the Azores Champion, is a research associate at the Okeanos research centre of the University of the Azores specializing in deep-sea ecosystems and plastic pollution. He is deeply committed to this extraordinary place. “The Azores really offer a unique set of characteristics,” he says. “This is a really important place for a lot of migratory animals. It’s a pit-stop for those large cetaceans.”

Mission Blue

SAVING THE OCEANS, A HOPE SPOT AT A TIME

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Launched in 2009, Mission Blue’s aim is to create a global network of Hope Spots, which are ecologically important areas of the oceans considered vital to the preservation of species, or places where communities rely on a healthy marine environment to survive. So far, Mission Blue has created more than 130 Hope Spots around the world. Key to the programme is the empowerment of local people to make change.

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Perpetual Planet

Environment

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