Touring Faial

On Wednesday, we rented a car and headed out to explore Faial. It was a sunny morning, so the first stop was Caldeira do Cabeço Gordo, the volcano in the centre of Faial. The crater is believed to have been formed 410 000 years ago, and was shortened by 980 feet in a further eruption 1000 years ago – long enough ago for the entire crater to become covered in lush vegetation. In it’s current form, the crater is approximately 400m deep and 2km in diameter. Most hikers come here to walk the 6.7km trail that takes you around the ridge of the crater – it is not a difficult trail, and has only a 200m change in elevation over the course of the hike. There is also a trail that takes you to the bottom of the crater, but you need a guide to do it. After looking down into the crater from all sides, I have no desire to make that particular trek!

After a leisurely lunch, we drove to the western tip of Faial to check out the Farol dos Capelinhos . Opened in 1903, this lighthouse once stood at the westernmost point of land on Faial. On September 27th, 1957, however, an underwater volcano started to erupt about 1km off the tip of the island. The following description is from a report about the eruption, written in November 1957:

“On September 29th the intensity increased and became highly explosive. The jets of ash (sand and dust) frequently reached 800 meters and occasionally rose to more than 1200. The water vapor column reached 3 or 4 km in height and exceptionally even higher. during a month. The amount of ash emitted was so much that it formed an islet 800 meters in diameter and 100 meters high (above sea level) at a point where the depth was previously 70 meters. There fell, near the lighthouse of Capelinhos and Port of Comprido, some stones weighing up to 30 kg. The cloud was dragged by the wind and as a result, ash fell 20 km away from the volcanic chimney. On land it has depended on the direction of the wind. When it blew strongly from the west, on the 6th and 7th of October, there was panic in the towns of Canto and Norte Pequeno (parish of Capelo) which are about 3 km from the volcano. The populations were then evacuated. Due to the dust spread in the air (which greatly increased the condensation of water droplets), rainfall in the region increased more than ten times, from 70 mm to more than 700 [mm] per month. The torrential rain that fell was another disastrous factor in the region. On October 29th the islet was submerged and the activity seemed to have ended. However, in recent days it has renewed, and it is not foreseeable for now whether it will be possible to reach the previous level of violence again. (…) The stones thrown by the volcano fell on the buildings of the Capelinhos lighthouse, piercing the roofs and floors and breaking glass, sanitary ware and some furniture. The lighthouse had to be turned off during the eruption and personnel were evacuated. The ongoing repair work also had to be suspended. Ash and rainwater entered through holes in the roofs and windows and accumulated in almost every room, damaging the floors and interior paintings. The outer enclosure was also filled with more than 1 m of sand.”

Agarez, Ricardo (2007), SIPA (ed.), Farol da Ponta dos Capelinhos (IPA.00026312/PT072002020034) (in Portuguese), Lisbon, Portugal: SIPA – Sistema de Informação para o Património Arquitectónico, retrieved June 9th, 2024. Translation by Google Translate.

In November and December, the ongoing eruption died down enough for the local government to begin repair works on the lighthouse. In March 1958, however, renewed eruptions (possibly a secondary eruption) moved the centre of activity 500m closer to the lighthouse, sending even more stones and ash over the lighthouse. Rocks weighing between 10 and 300kg fell on the buildings, destroying roofs and walls. In a single night, almost 2m of ash blanketed the site, weighing almost 2000kg per cubic meter of rock. At this point, the lighthouse was abandoned, and no further repairs were attempted.

Meanwhile, the volcanic eruptions continued until October 1958. Over 300 houses were destroyed in neighbouring villages, resulting in the emigration of about 2000 people – many to Canada and the US. The new island that had emerged slowly became linked to Faial proper – in total, 2.4km2 of land had been created. Even if the lighthouse had been repaired, it was no longer on the western tip of the island!

When you visit the lighthouse today, you follow a path across a dusty, rocky section of land that feels like it should be on the moon. The winds whip the dust into dirt devils, and throw stones against your back and legs as you duck your head to try to keep the sand out of your face. A museum/visitor’s centre was created in front of the lighthouse in 2008 – the architect chose to bury it in the ground so as not to detract from the stark atmosphere of the landscape.

The museum provides a geological and social history of the eruption, featuring photos and videos taken at the time. Many of the photos show groups of people standing and watching the eruptions – adults posing in groups, and children climbing and playing in the ash. While it is probably just the fashion of the era, everyone seems to be dressed up – men in jackets and trousers, and women in skirts and low heels. One can imagine that – despite it’s ferocity – the eruption would have been a huge draw for visitors, from the Azores or even Europe. Even now, almost 70 years later, it is awe-inspiring to think that all of the land west of the lighthouse was created over the course of one year. If you had the opportunity to see it all in action, how could you pass that up?

We finished our long day with a drive along the south coast, stopping at a few viewpoints to admire the rocky, volcanic cliffs that make up most of the island. With the Capelhinos in mind, these islands seem even more spectacular, although it is impressive what a few hundred years of erosion and plant growth can do for a place!