Travel Wildlife

Dolphin watching in Madeira

Madeira is 750 miles away from mainland Portugal. It was ‘discovered’ by two Portuguese explorers in the 1400s, colonised at the beginning of the century and got rich on the sugar trade which gave way to the Madeira wine industry.

The island was seized by the British Empire during the Napoleonic Wars but it was a ‘friendly occupation’ with no damage done. Both world wars were fought around Madeira which affected their trade routes for imports and exports but they recovered soon after WW2 ended.

Madeira has six distinct climate zones, which was confusing for me as before I went as I couldn’t work on what it was going to be. Anyway, even though I went in November, it was a lovely at sea level in Funchal even if it was a bit damper in the levadas. When I arrived at my hotel after two flights, they gave me some sweet wine which helped send me off to sleep.

In the morning I got up and had a shower, my blood pressure must have been low because I felt really faint. I slipped out of the shower with my ankle hitting the ledge and it was really painful. It swelled up immediately and when I walked out of the bedroom I felt so faint that my vision went black. Luckily I didn’t faint but it was time to get some food.

I got the shuttle into Funchal as I was supposed to be going on a whale-watching trip that I’d booked. Anyway, I couldn’t find the office and it turned out that it didn’t really exist after I got tourist information to call them. Luckily, there are loads of tours that go out so I booked onto one of those.

The trip was over three hours on a catamaran which is great in theory, apart from walking around on the rope flooring with a stuffed ankle which at this point was massive. Anyway, I made friends with a Polish guy called Filip who I hung out with for the remainder of my time in Madeira.


We sat on the rope and chatted, with me stumbling around all over the shop. It was a fantastic trip and I got some ‘lifers’, notably two pilot whales as well as a plethora of other types of dolphin.

Pilot whales
Pilot whales, iStock

Pilot whales are the second largest dolphin after the orca. Pilot whales are not thought to be endangered. They are highly intelligent and usually spend time in deeper waters which is why they’re less often seen. There are two different species, the short and the long finned but difficult to tell apart – I have no idea which species I saw. Some Japanese people eat their meat.

Dolphin while jumping in the deep blue sea
Bottlenose dolphin, iStock


We also saw bottlenose dolphins as well as common dolphins which surrounded our boat and played with the waves it created. Always such a privileged experience to be in the company of a dolphin. I’m excited for the day that we will be able to talk to them, although I dread the tales of human cruelty and idiocy in our oceans which, in reality, belong to them.

Common dolphins can be either short-beaked or long-beaked and a third subspecies may also be added in time. It is, of course, the bottlenose dolphin that is often seen in aquariums and films. A practice that I hope will be outlawed when incarceration is clearly is so traumatic for such intelligent species.

Screen Shot 2018-01-20 at 13.37.48
Dolphin watching in Madeira

They should be studied, but this is something that can and is done in the wild every day by marine biologists. In the wake of the disturbing film Blackfish, about an orca that killed several people, public opinion is turning.

Maybe catch and release aquariums (not including bigger creatures) like they have in Scotland could be the way forward to showcase some of our incredible aquatic species for a short time before returning them to the wild, but only if they can survive in those circumstances.

After our marvellous trip, Filip insisted that I went to the pharmacy to get something for my foot. The woman gave me an ankle support and ibuprofen gel and then we went to get some food. Despite the pain, it was well worth going on that trip, seeing so many kinds of dolphins AND making a friend.





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