Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tropical foliage - Azores - Açores

In the early days, the conquistadors and other colonisers brought in many tropical plants for consumptive use from the tropical colonies overseas. Due to the volcanic fertile soils, many imported plants and fruits adapted quickly to their new environment. These days, you can find pineapples, lemons, oranges, passion fruits, bananas, tangerines, tea, tobacco and sweet potatoes in the fruit orchards close to the villages. The Yam or Taro plant originates in Southern Asia, and is used in many local dishes. Don’t try to eat it uncooked, the chemical components can cause severe injures to the throat, stomach and intestines.

Endemic flora - Azores - Açores

Sixty-eight species of plants are endemic to the Azores, almost 8% of all species present. Endemic species are species that live in a limited geographical area. They evolved allopathically, which means that they have been geographically isolated for a period of time long enough to evolve into a new species. From these species new subspecies have evolved scattered over the different islands.

Flora - Azores - Açores

The vegetation of the Azores is for a significant part determined by the Atlantic climate. Because the Azores are part of the Atlantic climate system (mild winters and relatively cool summers with heavy rains scattered throughout the year), the vegetation has a constant supply of water and consequently has an elongated growing season. Plants flower all year round and there is no true resting period in the annual cycle of the vegetation. The Azorean flora is not only characterised by the usual Atlantic plant species, but also by Mediterranean, tropical and a wide range of cosmopolitan species.

Many plant species occurring on the islands are exotic and were introduced by the early colonisers as food resources. They thrive well in the warm and humid climate and were able to spread quickly in the absence of their natural enemies. At this moment, 200 out of the 500 plant species present on the islands are exotic. The beautiful ginger plant that originates from the Himalayas out-competes many endemic species plants in their natural habitat and has become a significant threat to the survival of many of them. The Hydrangea was introduced 150 years ago and since it is not grazed by cattle, it was used as a natural border in pastures. The beautiful Blue Trumpet flower was also brought in, just as the Yucca cactus, Canna Indica’s, Optuntia en Agaves. The natural vegetation above 1500 m is a dense laurel-juniper shrub-forest. The islands of Pico, Faial and Terceira have the largest remnants of these unique native forests. This forest ecosystem needs a high amount of precipitation and high air humidity to develop successfully.

Air - Azores - Açores

At increasing altitudes, the temperature drops by 0.6º C with every 100 m. This leads to the condensation of the air’s’ moisture. The condensed moisture forms little drops of water, which in turn forms rain. Under these conditions wet forest or cloud forests have developed on the mountain slopes. From sea level the view on the outskirts of the island is often limited to an altitude of 500m where a long white cloud covers the mountain. The sudden appearance and disappearance of the clouds is a dynamic and fascinating process. Because of the high humidity you can get the impression that you are walking through the wet tropics. The dense vegetation and presence of a variety of incenses contribute to this feeling.

Fog - Azores - Açores

Around the Azores the ocean air is clean and clear. It is a dynamic system, driven by the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. The Azores have a subtropical climate which is characterised by mild winters (>15º C) and comfortable warm summers (~25º C). Around the tops of the mountains you can literally see the weather being formed. What starts out as an innocent little cloud around the mountain slopes can become Europe’s next depression. The night sky is often clear and reveals an overwhelming view of stars flickering over the ocean.

Vulcanisme - Azores - Açores

The Azores were formed by an active volcanic hotspot at the bottom of the ocean on the crevice of three tectonic plates. The islands are the tops of volcanoes that rise from the depths of the ocean and reach up 1000-2000 m above sea level. The Pico Mountain is the highest mountain of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The evidence of volcanic activity from the past can still be seen, smelt, and felt on the different islands. Even quite recently, volcanic eruptions occurred on some of the islands.

The volcanic rock found on the Azores is mainly composed of basaltic lava, which is a common bedrock material of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Powerful volcanic explosions in the region created so called Caldeiras, or craters, that are found scattered over the islands. On the continents, volcanic eruptions are usually followed by earthquakes, but on the oceanic islands this seismographic activity is minimal. However, on the Azores volcanic eruptions are accompanied by severe shocks. In 1998 an earthquake
destroyed many houses on the island of Faial.

A volcano that produces lava with a low viscosity can easily push the lava through its main pipe. What is special about the Azores is the fact that the earths crust in the Azorean plateau is relatively thick. Consequently, the lava has to travel a longer distance to the earth’s surface, which causes changes in its composition. This results in a type of lava that is characterised by a high level of acidity, called trachiet. Trachiet is less fluid than other types of basaltic lava and therefore forms clumps. In order to push the lava through the channels in the earth’s crust an enormous pressure has to be build up. Often the lava crystallises within these channels, causing the pressure to rise even more. After a period of simmering or ‘sleeping’ the volcano has built up enough pressure to push the lava out.
During these eruptions not only the lava is blown out, but also a part of the volcano can explode.

This is how the caldeiras and crater lakes on the islands were created. One can imagine that the volcano of Faial was once much higher than the Pico volcano. Its caldeira is located at an altitude of 1100m. The Pico Alte has not yet build up enough pressure to explode, being much younger than the volcanoes on the other islands. The Pico volcano has been inactive for many years. Only at the top, where small clouds of steam escape through tiny crevices, one can feel the warmth of the volcano. This simmering volcano could wake up again.
All of the islands except Corvo and Santa Maria have hot springs and sulphate springs. On Graciosa (Carapacho) and São Miguel (Furnas), health centres (Spas) have been built in order to benefit from these mineral springs.

Climate - Azores - Açores

The Azores are situated in a climatologically high-pressure area. As a result, the weather pattern is significantly different from that of the mainland of Europe and is generally more gentle (subtropical). Even though the Azores are situated at the same latitude as countries such as Greece, Portugal and Spain, the humid sea climate is strikingly different from the Mediterranean climate.

The islands are covered by green and flowering plants throughout the year. Different plant species alternate their flowering period over the seasons. During winter, many calla’s and amaryllises can be found while in summer, flowering ginger plants occur all over the islands. The patterns found in the vegetation are a result of severe rain showers which occur throughout the year, with a peak in the months of January and February. Towards the west end of the archipelago the amount of precipitation increases. Yearly, the westerly island of Flores receives twice as much rainfall as the easterly São Miguel.

The average air temperature between May and September is 25 °C. Night-time temperatures during this season rarely drop lower than 18 ºC. The average winter temperature is 16 degrees and frost has only been recorded at altitudes higher than 2000 m above sea level. During summer, sea surface temperature steadily rises to about 25 degrees.

Pico - Azores - Açores

The Azores are divided into three island groups. The island of Pico, the second largest island of the archipelago, is situated in the Central Group in the immediate vicinity of the islands of Faial, São Jorge, Graciosa and Terceira. Pico is primarily an enormous volcano, Pico-Alte, which is Portugal’s highest mountain, standing at 2351m. The geological backbone of the volcano stretches out far to the east where many volcanoes are closely linked at an altitude of 800-1100 m above sea level. Hidden in the valleys between these volcanoes you can find small lakes surrounded by heaths and dense cloud forests.
Closer to the coast, the small villages breathe a Mediterranean atmosphere. Surrounding the villages, you will see typical, staged terraces where the local people grow vegetables, wine grapes and other fruits and graze their cattle. But it is the ocean surrounding Pico that is the most fascinating wonder of the Azores. These waters are the unique habitat of more than 25 species of whales and dolphins (pagina water- cetacean species).

The Azores archipelago - Azores - Açores

Situated on the Mid-Atlantic ridge, in the middle of the deep blue Atlantic Ocean, lie the nine islands which form the Azorean archipelago. In the 15th century, the early Portuguese pioneers accidentally discovered the Azores in their search for the “Promised Land”. They had sailed over 1500 km from the port of Lisbon when they mistakenly took Buzzards for Hawks hovering over the Atlantic Ocean. Translated to Portuguese, Hawk means ‘Açores’, which became the name of the newly discovered land.

From the depths of the ocean, the Azores rise far above sea level. These incredible islands are surrounded by a mystical haze, which encloses their astonishing mountain landscapes, peaceful valleys, wide variety of exotic and endemic plants and its magical volcanic craters and lakes.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Diving - Underwater - Azores - Açores

Scuba diving is among the best in the world, despite (or because!) the cold Atlantic conditions. Yet, the Azores are rated as the new discovery in the diving business. Most diving locations guarante an encounter with the big fishes of the Atlantic and offer spectacular lava formations.
We frequently observe large schools of makreles (e.g. Trachinotus ovatus, Trachurus picturatus), barakudas (Sphyraena viridensis), yellow-fin tuna (Thunnus albacares) and trigger fish (Balister carolinensis). Common sting rays (Taeniura grabata) grow to an enormous size in these waters and even spectacular encounters with large mantas (Manta birostris) are not uncommon.

The underwater scenery alters between basaltic rock formations with canyons and caves and open sand flats. Each little cave or rock can be home to a variety of large and small marine animals, such as moray eels, octupus, lobster, spiral tube worms, sea urchins and sea spiders. Night diving is spectacular and amazingly easy at selected sheltered spots along the coast.
During night dives we can see the dazzling colours of hugh swarms of small shrimps, as well as nudibranchs, Alicia mirabilis anemonees, and, depending on the time of the year, also biolumines-cent plankton (causing the so-called ocean glow).

Monday, March 3, 2008

A pastoral way of life - Azores - Açores

Azoreans are very proud of their islands and they are always ready to welcome visitors. As members of the European Union, they have built an infrastructure which facilitates that aim. Nevertheless, visitors can still feel that they have been plunged into a kind of dream world that reflects an unspoiled, peaceful, pastoral way of life which is difficult to find elsewhere nowadays.

Pineapples - Azores - Açores

Sao Miguel is also an important producer of pineapples. I suppose because we live in a mainly tropical country (Mexico) that happily produces pineapples ... But how could anyone consider the Azores tropical, being located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean? We learned the answer when we visited a pineapple 'plantation' and discovered it was inside a greenhouse! In fact, they have a different house for each stage of the plant's life, and it takes two years for a pineapple to be ready to eat! We then understood why a slice of that fruit, for dessert, might cost as much as three Euros!