If you've been dreaming of diving with manta rays and whale sharks but are less enthused by long flights to megafauna hotspots like Fiji, Bali or the Maldives, then cast your eyes to the offshore sites in the Azores. This chain of Portuguese islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean quietly hosts all the big-ticket animals, from majestic manta rays to wondrous whale sharks and even mako sharks. The top dive sites here rarely disappoint, and for divers, the Azores is a genuine 'hidden gem' - who knew there were mantas and whale sharks in European waters? If you can only manage a week off from work for your next dive holiday but still crave big fish action, jump on a short-haul flight and dive the offshore sites in the Azores...
The Wild and Wonderful Azores Archipelago
First things first, where are the Azores? The Azores are a Portuguese archipelago composed of nine volcanic islands that sit atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the middle of the great, wide-open Atlantic Ocean at the point where three tectonic plates intersect - a place known as the Azores Triple Junction.
The submerged seamounts and volcanic islands provide navigational aids for megafauna crossing between Africa and the Caribbean. When you dive the offshore sites in the Azores, you can come face-to-face with some large pelagics.
The Formigas Islets, meaning the 'Islets of the Ants', are also sometimes referred to as the Formigas Bank. From the surface, they appear as a group of uninhabited rocky outcroppings, but beneath these rocks lies a thriving ecosystem. The bank sits around thirty nautical miles off the south-east coast of Sao Miguel Island in the eastern part of the archipelago. Its denizens include devil rays, Galapagos sharks and, if you're lucky, the occasional smooth hammerhead shark.
When you dive the offshore sites in the Azores, keep an eye glued to the blue to scan for the big stuff, as giant mantas and whale sharks can be spotted cruising among the plateaus and pinnacles. However, the currents can be tricky at times, and with cooler waters than other megafauna hotspots, having a reasonable level of diving experience is advised so you can get the most from your dives.
Less than a mile from Formigas Bank, Dollaborat Reef is another must-dive offshore site in the Azores. Dollaborat is far from the mainland and prone to strong currents, therefore is only suited for advanced divers, but for those with the required experience, it's a thrilling dive site.
This site can be explored on the same trip to dive Formigas Bank and promises large dusky groupers and barred hogfish circling around the pinnacle. Cast your eyes into the blue as amberjack and wahoo dart by in pursuit of prey. Much like neighbouring Formigas Bank, there's a good chance of seeing mobulas and mantas gliding silently by, as well as Galapagos sharks, tuna and turtles.
Known locally as Baixa do Ambrosio, Ambrosio Reef also sits in the eastern portion of the Azores, closest to the island of Santa Maria. The reef is often vaunted as the best place in the Azores for manta and mobula sightings. Thanks to its topography and location, is more accessible for divers with less experience compared to Formigas Bank and Dollaborat Reef.
Less experienced divers can hang out in the shallows near the anchor point and let the big animals come to them. Meanwhile, more experienced divers can descend to deeper waters to seek out huge stingrays, Almaco jacks and, if very lucky, the possibility of spotting a mola mola or mako shark.
When you're not venturing out to dive the offshore sites in the Azores, Santa Maria has plenty of shallow rocky reefs, underwater archways, caves and even a World War II wreck to explore...