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Scuba diving or Snorkeling with the sicklefin devil rays off Pico Island in The Azores will be worth the long boat ride out.
All images by Chris Vyvyan Robinson
Imagine looking down into the Atlantic’s infinite blue to witness groups of these enormous sicklefin devil rays circle below you, just to have one of them come up to you to have a look at what you are and why you are visiting their blue home.
As a scuba diver, you will descend on the anchor line and arrive on the pinnacle to witness schools of barracuda, amberjack, wahoo, tuna and some larger than life stingrays while witnessing the devil rays from the bottom. As a snorkeler, you will hang out on the surface and have a full day of playing with these charismatic and curious giants.
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Princess Alice Bank
Princess Alice Bank is a submerged seamount located 50nm (93km) southwest off Pico Island situated on the lush Azorean archipelago.
The seamount was discovered by Prince Albert the 1st, the adventurous Prince of Monaco on 9 July 1896 on their oceanographic campaign. Prince Albert named the seamount Princess Alice after the vessel they discovered it on The Princess Alice and his second wife, who was also named Princess Alice. With a seamount coming up from 2000m and a minimum depth of 29m, this bank attracts an abundance of biodiversity which makes it a well-known fishing area, in addition to being a very popular dive site in the Atlantic Ocean today.
Diving with Sickle-fin Devil Rays
For reasons which remain unknown, sicklefin devil rays migrate in large groups to Princess Alice bank from July to September. These rays can reach a disc span (overall length) of 3.7m which helps them reach depths of up to 2000m. They are one of the ocean’s deepest divers thanks to a complex network of blood vessels that keeps their brain functioning at temperatures as low as 4°C (39°F). The rays come up to the surface like clockwork to heat up and do a few synchronized circles for divers and snorkelers before returning to the group to make their next journey into the dark depths of the Atlantic, where they feed off planktonic crustaceans, krill, and even small fish.
When the rays surface, they ascend in groups as small as five or as large as 80! Just like their manta family members, they are highly intelligent and social animals which make them amazing dive buddies.
Diving Princess Alice Bank: What It’s Like
The Princess Alice trip is a full day at sea. Briefings and gear preparations will begin the afternoon before the trip.
The day begins at 06:30 am. The boat is loaded, a final gear check is done and off you go to where the sky meet the sea. During the 2½ hour boat ride to the bank, you will witness a miscellany of life and cetacean sightings ranging from various dolphin species, sperm whales, baleen whales, sharks, and turtles! The journey is more like an oceanic safari rather than simply a long ride out to sea.
Upon arrival (around 9:30-10:00am), a tactical procedure is followed to drop and hook the anchor at the bottom. Once the anchor is secure, the scuba divers will get ready to enter the water while the snorkelers are already in the water and witnessing the marvel of the enchanting sicklefin devil rays.
Following the divemaster down the anchor line, you will arrive at the pinnacle at a maximum depth of 40m. While being down there, you may see some larger-than-life stingrays, groups of devil rays circling and dancing up to the surface to warm up before they make their next dive down to the abyss of the Atlantic ocean. Keep an eye out for schools of barracuda, almaco jack, tuna, and wahoos!
To avoid deco, time spent at 40m is about 15 minutes. It will be up to the divemaster to decide when to make a slow ascent back up the anchor line as they have years of experience with reading the ever-changing currents and conditions at the bottom. As you slowly make your way back up the anchor line, you can hang in the blue and witness the flying devil rays around you. These devil rays love to show curiosity towards divers and it can easily turn into one of your most memorable ocean encounters to date.
Once your 45-minute dive is over, it’s time to return to the boat, have something to eat, and enjoy a drink while tanks change over. During this surface interval, it’s worth appreciating the total isolation, lack of phone signal, and absence of land while being on a boat with a bunch of happy divers!
The second dive will depend on the conditions and current at the bottom. If the conditions are not favorable, you will spend the second dive hanging on the anchor line while effortlessly witnessing large schools of fish and devil rays circling for one last time.
As soon as the second dive is over, it is time to pull the anchor and head home on a boat full of tired, salty, and content divers. Yes, a nap on the way home sounds good, but try to keep your eyes open and alert. Who knows, there might be more ocean wildlife making an appearance on the way back to land.
At 3:00pm, you’ll start seeing the islands on the horizon. The boat is usually back by 4:00pm and then it’s time to rinse your dive gear and head to the nearby local bar to share a few stories, photos, and beers.
A day diving or snorkeling offshore in the open blue is always a day well spent. Being one of the most popular dive sites in The Atlantic, Princess Alice is not a dive to skip on your bucket list!
Good to Know
Experienced scuba divers only. If you are interested in experiencing Princess Alice on scuba, you will need to show your advanced certification and a logbook with 50+ logged dives. The reason being is that you will need to be comfortable with your buoyancy control and have the confidence to deal with strong and unexpected currents.
But snorkelers are welcome, too. If you do not have an advanced certification along with 50+ logged dives, you can snorkel. There is always a guide to take care of snorkelers.
Pay attention to the briefing. Briefings are held on the day before the trip as it starts early in the morning, there are a lot of safety measures for both scuba divers and snorkelers, giving your full attention is essential.
Along with booking the Princess Alice dive, it is mandatory to join a check dive before the Princess Alice trip. This is to ensure that you are comfortable with your weight system, dive gear, and new elements. This is also a good way for your divemaster to get to know you as a diver.
Don’t forget the essentials. Remember your sunblock, enough water, and main essentials. It is a full day at sea.
If you can, take seasickness precautions, especially if you haven’t been on a boat in a while
If you go…
Dive with: CW Azores has an amazing and welcoming team of divemasters and skippers, you can be sure that you are in good hands when deciding to go with this company.
Stay at: Hotel Caravelas for a close walk to the dive center and the town, breakfast included. Or, with a little bit of an uphill walk, stay at Rainbow Guesthouse for a quiet and homely environment with enough privacy, breakfast also included.