This is the documentary film about the whale hunters of the Azores Isles. A work that looks for the present viewpoint of an extinct industry, which gave rise to a culture that still exists, both at sea and on land. I want an unique look to be created, from the present, with images of today mainly related to the tourism industry of whale watching and of regattas of azorean whaling boats, a cultural movement unique in the world. For later to reflect on the time and history of azorean past through the memory of men who hunted the whale in the Azores until 1984, with essentially the same techniques described in “Moby Dick” (1851), in wide open boats and with hand thrown harpoons, some of these whalers being still alive. There won’t be people like these anymore.
In the second half of the nineteenth century the Whaling Industry developed in the Azores. Whaling was very important in the economy and culture of the Faial and Pico isles. The most important raw material that was taken from this animal was oil for use in machines and instruments, but also to make soaps, perfumes, makeup products, flour, fats. Instruments, tools and artwork were made of bones. The proliferation of mineral oils and synthetic products derived from oil has replaced the animal oils and other raw materials that were extracted out of this mammal and that economic activity has declined over the years. Still, whaling in the islands did not end until 1984, when it was prohibited by IWC, International Wailing Commission, international treaties.
The art of whaling in the Azores used the most archaic techniques known to man. In boats with seven men, sometimes sailing, sometimes rowing, and throwing harpoons by hand, they set out into the sea when a rocket signal, launched by the watchmen who, at the high points of the isles, spent their days in search of cetaceans breath with their binoculars.
The Azorean whaling boat is a vessel unique in the world, adapted from the american canoes that where aboard the great whaling ships in the nineteenth century. It was developed over the years becoming faster and agile, because the parishes competed with each other: more whales caught meant more money to buy products from outside the islands, these products being inaccessible to the common Azorean, a subsistence farmer.
The Azores are one of the world places where the local whaling tradition and culture have persisted with some pride. Though whales aren’t hunt anymore, most of the whaling heritage has been maintained and restored since 1997 for cultural, touristic and sport purposes, as the whaling boat rowing regattas and sailing are a strong tradition.
In recent years there has also been a great development of whale watching activity, and with the growth in number of companies and people connected to the sea for this purpose, DOP (Department of Oceanography and Fisheries, University of Azores) is creating some mechanisms so that all the touristic whale observations may also contribute to greater scientific knowledge of the movements of animals in the region.
It was in the isles of Pico and Faial where whaling had greater impact, and today is on these isles that the most important whaling boats regattas take place, as well as the largest number of companies linked to whale watching can be found.
The former whalers are disappearing. The last men to hunt whales in the Azores are an older generation that little identifies itself with the younger and their customs; these men have histories, ways of thinking and living, that just don’t disappear completely because several people along time have focused on maintaining these cultural values, through photography, folklore, museums, writing (prose and poetry), especially with the writer Dias de Melo, a native of Pico, that makes us feel the epic scale of hunting in his novels, with detailed descriptions of the life of whalers in the late nineteenth century, first half of the twentieth century.
“(…) At Lajes, (…) the burial procession of a whaler that had dyed at sea was beginning, when the beast was announced from the “High Gallows”. Everyone was compunctious – his wife, the fishermen, the priest, the sacristan, the cross and the boiler – those rough and fraught men were stepping in a ritual way in their suits meant for religious services – and then the paced march stopped instantly and they instantly changed their attitude: the priest stayed alone with his choked Latin and the coffin in the middle of the street, and the others coiled, took along the sacristan down to the beach. Whale! Whale! … They leave a wedding or a funeral in the middle, a contract or an attachment, witnesses and justice, and run desperately to catch the whale. At Cais do Pico and Lajes no one moves away from the beach. They are always waiting for the signal and listening, the men in the fields, the women in the huts. And while they talk, eat or work, deep down inside them the same concern always grinds out. They are so passionate that even this awful smell, which causes nausea and penetrates the food and the cloths, always smells good to them.
– Whale! Whale!
in “As Ilhas Desconhecidas” (“The Unknown Isles”), de Raul Brandão
A documentary work
What I propose myself to do is a documentary film work, a feature film. Only now possible in 2011 for being an exercise on the memory and the passage of time, with the goal of transporting the viewer into the past, to a way of life completely alien to the younger generations. The challenge is to transmit this memory and this image of the past, mainly through the voice of our old whalers and their memories.
In formal terms I commit myself to capture the current trace of whaling culture. A close look, because I am a whalers descendant, but at the same time a foreign look, fascinated by the distance separating the new generations from this extinct reality. Using mainly three types of visual materials: conversations with former whalers, whale watching on the whale-watching boats and the whaling boats regattas. With the images of today, I want the historical path to be mandatorily traversed by the people in the plan within the movie field.
We must show the strength and bravery that pushed these men to sea, risking their lives, chasing the biggest animal there is in the oceans. The aim of the film is to show the way that this culture has run, and what whaling traits and passions still persist through activities that are very dear to the people today.
The idea is to do something that was never done before, an in-depth work that makes the viewer feel the true epic scale of whaling in the Azores, a unique cultural value in Portugal and rare in the world, considering that the techniques used by our whalers were essentially the same used by early Nantucket hunters two hundred years before. Few people realize that the men that inspired “Moby Dick” are not just part of history or archaeology, some of these whalers are still alive, and they are messengers from another world, a reality that no longer exists.
I am interested in remaining human side and the recollection of old whalers who still tell their stories of a past life with one foot on earth and the other at sea, the tradition that persists through the whaling boats races, which the elderly assist with eyes full of passion and longing. Other looks roam the seas now: the tourists on board of the whale watching boats dazzling with the life of cetaceans that were once the life of the whalers.