Princess Alice

and her Devil Rays

Sicklefin Devil Rays
Photo by Martijn Schouten

Some History,

Princess Alice bank is a submerged seamount that is located 50nmi (93km) southwest of Pico Island. The seamount was discovered on 9 July 1896 and was named after the oceanographic campaign of Albert the 1st, Prince of Monaco whose research vessel was named: The Princess Alice. Prince Albert the 1st named the vessel after his second wife Princess Alice. With a minimum depth of 29metres, a seamount coming up from 2000m and an abundance of biodiversity it is a well-known fishing area, in addition to being a very popular diving spot in the Atlantic Ocean!

Photo By: Martijn Schouten

The Day,

It is 05:30am, my alarm shrieks me awake after it felt like I had just fallen asleep. As I stretch for the snooze button to try and bargain an extra 5minutes of sleep with time, it strikes me the same way it does when I wake up on Christmas morning or on my Birthday…IT’S PRINCESS ALICE DAY! I shake off the knot of excitement in my belly, wash my face and brush my teeth, grab my bag that I packed the night before and take a quiet ten-minute walk to work through a sleepy Madalena.

Its 06:30am, the boat is packed and we are doing a triple check with the clients to make sure that they didn’t forget anything, most of them have this notion to leave their weight belts behind. As we leave the harbour we bid a sleepy Pico and civilization farewell, the clients are getting settled for a two and a half hour boat journey and us dive masters release a sigh of relief, talk some nonsense, take a few photos of the gorgeous sunrise, send out some last text messages (mostly photos of the sunrise) before losing phone signal, and settle down to enjoy a content and sometimes bumpy boat ride out to sea.

Bye Bye Pico!
Photo by: Chris Vyvyan Robinson

It is 09:30/10:00am and we have arrived! You’d expect to see a rock on the surface, perhaps a clear landmark or indication that you have arrived at THE Princess Alice bank…but, all that you see is a buoy and the blue Atlantic Ocean stretching for miles without end.

With numb bums, full bladders and the unfortunate seasick patient or two we get up to have a stretch while tying up on the buoy or dropping the anchor. Out of the blue comes these olive green shapes and on a flat day, you can see their wingtips breaking the surface of the ocean, the sicklefin devil rays come up to the surface to warm up and grace us with their presence. The whole atmosphere on the boat lifts with “Awww” “WOW!” “Oh my gosh!” it’s a whole episode of gushing and goshing and shrieking and squealing from the clients, it is also rewarding to us as it reminds us why we chose to live this crazy lifestyle.

Photo by: Chris Vyvyan Robinson

While the scuba divers are eagerly getting ready to jump in and explore the seamount, I already have the snorkelers in the water, hanging on a line in order to prevent Princess Alice’s ripping and impulsive current kidnapping them into the Atlantic and have them end up somewhere on the coast of the USA.

These rays are truly enchanting, with a disc span (overall length) of 3,7meters they can reach depths of up to 2000m. They are one of the oceans deepest divers thanks to a complex network of blood vessels which keeps their brain functioning at temperatures as low as 4 degrees Celsius! They come up to the surface like clockwork to heat up and do a few synchronized circles for us like it has been planned and rehearsed with each one of them in place. Some of them come to say hi and have a look at us 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!

You can see here in this close up why they are called devil rays.
Photo by: Chris Vyvyan Robinson

When they surface they come up in groups as small as 5 or as large as 80! Just like their manta family members, they are highly intelligent and social animals which make them amazing dive buddies! When they head back down to the depths we can either stay entertained by watching the scuba divers dangle on the line in the current like a Tibetan prayer flag in the wind or when some of the pelagic fish from below decide to come up to the surface it’s also quite a sight to behold! Princess Alice is home to schools of Tuna, Barracuda, Wahoo, Amber Jacks, a resident stingray and the list can go on and on.

Photo by: Martijn Schouten
a School of Barracuda and some devil rays
Photo by: Chris Vyvyan-Robinson

It is 13:00, time to head home. With sunburnt faces, relieved seasick patients sleeping on carefully packed life jackets, the Devil Rays wave us off with their wingtips. As the boat gets on a plane we scratch for the leftover juice boxes in the cooler box, settle on the floor next to the console of the boat, dangling our feet over the pontoon and head home tired and curious about what the agenda and the ocean have in store for us the next day.

Photo by: Chris Vyvyan-Robinson

Good to know:

  • The company I work with is called CW Azores, they run these trips off Pico Island, The Azores.
  • If you are interested in scuba diving Princess Alice, you will need an advanced open water certification with 50+ logged dives.
  • Pay attention to your divemaster when he/she is doing the briefing, it’s a big day and your safety is in their hands.
  • If you are not scuba certified you do not need to miss out on the fun! Experiencing Princess Alice on snorkel is just amazing, you might not be able to see the bottom but the devil rays are very social and interactive which will make it an unforgettable day!
  • If you are prone to seasickness or you are not sure about it, go to the local pharmacy and get yourself some seasick tablets or ask the dive centre on the day before the trip if they have any.
  • Don’t forget to bring water or more water than needed, do not underestimate how much diving and being at sea can dehydrate you. Fruit, muffins, juice and sandwiches are provided for the trip but you are most welcome to bring your own food too!
  • And lastly, Please don’t forget your sunblock!