“Which one is more like us, whales or dolphins?”, asked a pale Gabriel still convalescing from seasickness. We had just come back of a whale watching trip, where we had seen large pods of sperm whales and bottlenose dolphins swimming off the coast of São Miguel. Right up to the moment when Gabriel puked all over his shoes, the captain was explaining that their babies, despite living in the water and looking nothing like us, are also breastfed.
Read about the other eight Azorean islands here.
We sat down for lunch, and Jules asked the waiter for a pen. As Gabriel and I craned our necks, she drew a tree on a napkin. – “All species come from the same big trunk but, as time passes, each one evolves into different branches”, she explained. After quickly scanning the neighbouring tables for someone that looked like an adept of this instead of this, I turned my attention back to the tree. After some googling on her phone, Jules perched humans, whales, and dolphins atop branches. – “Now we can count tree forks to see if we’re closer to whales or to dolphins!”, she concluded.
– “One… two… three… four! Four forks from us to the whales”, concluded a fully recovered Gabriel. “And it’s the same thing for dolphins. They’re both nagging distant cousins we only see on Christmas!”, I added.
Much like the other Azorean islands, São Miguel has more animals than people, so it was the perfect setting to turn Jules’ tree into a competition. “Let’s see who can find the weirdest, most distant animal!”, I proposed. Jules quickly snatched my camera and browsed through the pictures from our whale watching outing.
“Ah, here it is”, she chirped while showing us a picture of a bird. We had seen that unmistakable crooked beak before, it belonged to a Cory’s shearwater. Jules placed it on the tree and, after counting the five forks that separate birds from mammals, Gabriel and I reluctantly conceded the lead.
The next day, I went for a run shortly after sunrise. Hoping that I would spot some exotic animal and pilfer first place, I took a camera with me. “The early bird catches the worm”, I said to myself, trying to rationalise the somewhat shifty tactic. No luck though, as I only encountered fellow mammals roaming the fields. “How can you keep your head buried in the grass with such a magnificent view behind you?”, I asked to a blasé horse.
Back in the house, I fessed up my failed plot. Apparently I was not the only one, as Jules had caught Gabriel red-handed looking for critters in the garden. Back together, we resumed our search through the island’s many parks and reserves, but with no luck. The many dears, frogs and ducks, plus the occasional cat, were all five branches or less from us. We seemed to be stuck in our version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
Finally, success! At a beach, Gabriel saw something shing in the distance and darted to investigate. When we caught up, he was keeping a respectable distance from his finding. We had seen a Portuguese man o’ war before, at Santa Maria, and Gabriel knew they were poisonous.
– “Gabriel, you won! Man o’war are six branches away from us!”, told Jules. Gabriel did not seem too thrilled with his victory and kept instead staring as his dead finding withering under the noon sun.
– “Why did it wash ashore?”, he asked.
– “Because they can’t swim”, I replied. “They use this transparent top as a sail to drift around, and sometimes the wind pushes them against the shore”.
– “Did it feel pain?”, he insisted. “No, it doesn’t have a central nervous system like we and all the other animals we’ve seen today have”, reassured Jules. “It’s actually not even a single animal but a colony, like a coral”.
We sat in that beach for a while, next to the weirdest animal we had managed to find. Our exercise in separation had created proximity instead.
You can find high resolution versions of these photographs (and many others that did not fit this text) here, under a Creative Commons license (meaning that you can use them freely but are required to credit the author).