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Thursday, January 28, 2016

Whaling Museum - Canical, Madeira Island

Guys, I am almost at the end of my Madeira trip. 

I promise. 

 BUT FIRST I have a confession. 
I may be the only person who walks around a whaling museum and takes notes.

Tongue rubs with Kela, a beluga whale at the Mystic Aquarium where I interned and volunteered

 Lets chalk it up to blog research, and a slight obsession with cetaceans.  Or we can say a slight obsession with marine mammals that was only fueled further by interning at an aquarium (doesn't everyone grow up wanting to be Flipper's trainer?)

Whaling Museum and views of Canical

My love for whales and some free time on the eastern part of the island brought is to the whaling museum.  While I prefer to see whales out on a boat in their natural environment (or with my hand in their mouth at an aquarium) the whaling museum was a great way to learn about the amazing whaling history of the Portuguese islands.  For whatever reason, I find the whaling history of islands like the Azores and Madeira (similar histories) fascinating and I wanted to share some of the details with you all. (Disclaimer: This will be a bit of a history lesson and a bit about the town of Canical- read on if that is what you are here for).

32 d 44 ' 9 " N       16 d 14 ' 26 " W

Opening Times:
Tuesdays to Sundays: Open from 10H30 to 18H00
Closed on Mondays and Public Holidays.

Museu da Baleia
R. da Pedra da Eira, Canical, Madeira 
Tel.: +351 291 961 858

(Includes an audio tour set)
Adults: 10 euros 
Children: 5 euros 

entrance to the whaling museum
The whaling museum (Museu da Baleia) is on the east part of the island, a quick ride (10 km) past the airport in a town called Canical. It looks back on Madeiras whaling history and how it has changed over the years. 
The museum was once a small tribute to Madeira's whaling history, until it was upgraded and moved into a new building in 2012.  According to my tour book, it can probably be described as the best museum dedicated to whaling .

The museum is divided into two sections, the first being a walk through Madeira's whaling history and a secondly, a segment about cetaceans.  There are 3d films, various stations, and audio tour devices available.  You can spend as much time at each exhibit as you like. 

Sperm Whale Photograph

The whales hunted around the island of Madeira were mostly Sperm Whales. Sperm whales were hunted due to their abundance, and the fact that they were easiest to retrieve after a hunt due to their floating carcass' (sorry guys, this is one straight forward history lesson).

Full grown sperm whales can reach 18 meters and weigh up to 50 tons. There are usually 12 females in a unit and males tend to abandon these units and join with other males.   The sperm whale can dive the deepest, and stay underwater the longest, holding their breath for more than an hour. They also have the largest brain of any living creature found on earth.
(You can read more about the sperm whales here  and other whales of Madeira here)  

The first whaling operations in Madeira started in about 1941 with hand thrown harpoons on wooden boats with sails and oars. A hemp rope attached the harpoon to the boat, and the harpoon was hand thrown from the boat.  The picture below was a "to scale" replica comparing the size of the whales hunted to the size of the fishing boats used.

To Scale comparison of the sperm whales and fishing boats
To spot the whales, lookout posts were established, first on Porto Moniz (northwest coast) in 1940 and then later on the east coast of Madeira. Men in the lookout posts on shore looked for the water spray from the whales blowhole while it caught a breath at the surface, and would signal to the boats in the harbor via white smoke or a white sheet. 

diorama showing the hunt
In 1948, support launches like tugboats were used to support small fishing vessels by towing in the whale carcass. Motors were also introduced into the whaling industry as a way to maneuver the vessels, as well as to provide a barrier of sound when driving whales closer to the shoreline. A harpoon canyon was eventually introduced and replaced hand thrown harpoons. 

diorama showing the whales being brought up to process
Steam winches were also introduced to haul in the carcass from the coves. While imagining the sequence sounds grotesque and horrific, the Portuguese made sure to use every part of the whale possible. The oil (two types), blubber and meat went into a pressure cooker, and the bones and flesh were ground into a flour. Bones and teeth that were too hard to grind were used to create art, jewelry, and instruments. 

The whaling industry continued from 1941 until 1981.  The end of the whaling in 1981 was a voluntary stop in whaling on Madeira Island. One of the most amazing statistics is that throughout the 40 year whaling history of Madeira Island, not a single Madeiran Whaler died. The industry simple stopped when the demand for whale meet fell.  Soon after, ecotourism started to develop. Islands like the Azores and Madeira are very successful in using whale conservation via whale watching and educational tours to protect the species and boost their tourism. An industry where profit was made harvesting whales and then again protecting the same species. 

While we didn't have time to go whale watching, there are several companies that operate whale watching tours and one of the highly rated guides can be found here 

Whale (and dolphin) Watching in Madeira 

Common species to observe in Madeira:
Bryde's Whale - April to October
Sperm whale - All year but mainly from March to September
Short-finned Pilot whale - All year but mainly November to April
Common Bottlenose dolphin  - All year but greater number from Mars to October
Short-beaked Common dolphin  - December to May
Atlantic Spotted dolphin  - All year but mostly from Mars to November

After a trip to the whaling museum, we decided to check out the rest of East Madeira before heading back to the airport to hop on a plane to Azores, and then back to the Arctic home.

Views from Ponta de Sao Lourenco

We drove to the most eastern point of the island, Ponta de Sao Lourenco to see the vantage point from the eastern shore. This is about as far as you can go by car, but hiking trails will take you out to the actual most eastern tip. After a few pictures and moments in the Madeira sun, we drove into the town of Machico for lunch before our flight.

Book a running tour or hiking tour here

Views from Ponta de Sao Lourenco
Detailed streets of Machico
Stray dogs on the streets of Machico

Machico was your typical quaint coastal Madeiran town, with beautifully detailed cobble streets, tons of stray dogs, and quaint restaurants. One of the biggest things I notice when I travel is how different we treat animals in the United States vs other countries. There were more (unaltered) stray dogs and cats roaming around this island than I could count. It was common to see a local kicking at or shoeing away a stray dog looking for scraps or attention around the island. 

Overall, Machico was a beautiful little town with amazing views and quaint restaurants. Eastern Madeira seemed much quieter than other parts of the islands, and you will not find many tourists in this area. Whaling Museum, Canical, and a trip to Machico, it was savoring a few last moments of Madeira before heading home.


  1. this is AMAZING! that first picture is my fave!!!


    1. It just may be my favorite too ;) Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Awww! I would love to pet a Beluga whale! She's so cute - and she has the same name as me ;)

    xo, Kela /

    1. I was so lucky to be able to. And it is a beautiful name!


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