This autumn was a great opportunity for marine rangers and those with affinity for the sea to gain knowledge and to network with fellow rangers against a fantastic backdrop: The Global Ranger Congress of the Portuguese Ranger Association in the Azores. Our former ERF President, Griffin Ranger project manager Urs Wegmann from Switzerland, was there and shared his impressions.

By Urs Wegmann

A major event was on the agenda in Portugal this autumn. The “Associação Portuguesa de Guardas e Vigilantes da Natureza (APGVN)” organised the Global Ranger Congress for the first time under the motto “Oceans, Climate Change and Biodiversity”. They invited participants to an extraordinary location: the island of Faial in the Azores. The volcanic island lies almost 1700 kilometres from Lisbon, far out in the Atlantic. What a fantastic place for a ranger meeting!

Urs Wegmann on the volcanic ground of Capelinho

The big hello already began at Lisbon airport, where the first delegations met. From here, it takes almost three hours to fly into the middle of the vast Atlantic Ocean. The only runway at Horta Airport is surrounded by the sea to the left, rear and front. After touchdown, the pilot has to hit the brakes immediately. Horta is the largest town on the island of Faial with more than 2000 inhabitants. The harbour is considered the most important stop in the Atlantic for circumnavigators. Everyone paints a colourful picture on the harbour wall. If they don’t, the sailors should be in for big trouble. All the sailors and deep-sea fishermen stop off at the same pub, the Peter Café Sport. It is so famous – for its gin and tonic, among other things – that it even has a Wikipedia entry.

Every Portuguese ranger congress opens with the “Hino dos Vigilantes da Natureza de Portugal“. The event took place in a historic theatre from the early 19th century. The audience, around 150 Rangers from 10 countries, spread out over the ground floor and the boxes on the first floor, and stood up for the anthem. A powerful opening with a goosebump effect. This was followed by the obligatory greetings from ministers and mayors.

Lectures and panel discussions were on the programme for four mornings. These covered an enormous range of topics from the spectrum of ranger activities. The protection of the oceans and marine life was always at the centre of these discussions. This was no coincidence, as the Azores are an important habitat for many marine mammals. Those interested can view the entire programme here.

Excursions and culture

Field trips were organised every afternoon, which for me were the real highlights of this congress. After all, the Azores are an extraordinary habitat for people and nature that you don’t visit on a regular basis. We visited a botanical garden and volcanoes in all their forms. I personally found the walk on new land the most spectacular: the Capelinhos volcano erupted in 1957/58. The whole island of Faial is only 800,000 years old and the result of several volcanic eruptions. The latest addition to Faial is Capelinho. Not even 70 years ago, new soil emerged here from the Atlantic, a blink of an eye in geological terms. Today you can take a relaxing walk on this black, almost completely unvegetated soil. An extraordinary visitor centre under the ground brings the history of the earth closer to those interested.

However, the last “field trip” did not go into the field and was not an official part of the congress. Some participants organised a whale-watching tour with marine biologists. Of course, I couldn’t miss out on that. It was the absolute crowning glory with at least five (or more!) sperm whales spotted and a sea turtle caught. For me as a landlubber from Switzerland, it was also quite emotional to go out in a zodiac almost 20 kilometres into the open Atlantic and know that the sea beneath my bottom is over 1000 metres deep.

A cultural programme was also organised every evening. Whether it was folk dancing, music or a cosy get-together, the exchange and friendship between the rangers was not neglected either. A big thank you to our Portuguese ranger colleagues for this fantastic event!

© all photos by Urs Wegmann