The nine major Azorean islands and the eight small Formigas extend for more than 600 km (373 mi) and lie in a northwest-southeast direction. The vast extent of the islands defines an immense exclusive economic zone of 1,100,000 km2 (420,000 sq mi). The westernmost point of this area is 3,380 km (2,100 mi) from the North American continent. All of the islands havevolcanic origins, although Santa Maria also has some reef contribution. Mount Pico on Pico Island, at 2,351 m (7,713 ft) in altitude, is the highest in all of Portugal. The Azores are actually the tops of some of the tallest mountains on the planet, as measured from their base at the bottom of the ocean. The archipelago forms the Autonomous Region of Azores, one of the two autonomous regions of Portugal.
Because these once uninhabited, remote islands were settled sporadically over a span of two centuries, their culture, dialect, cuisine and traditions vary considerably from island to island. Farming and fishing are key industries that support the Azorean economy.
The islands were known in the fourteenth century and parts of them can be seen, for example, in the Atlas Catalan. In 1427, one of the captains sailing forHenry the Navigator, possibly Gonçalo Velho, rediscovered the Azores, but this is not certain. A History of the Azores by Thomas Ashe written in 1813 marks the discovery by Joshua Vander Berg of Bruges in Flanders. Vander Berg was said to have landed there during a storm on his way toLisbon. Ashe then claims that the Portuguese left to explore the area and claim it for Portugal shortly after.Although it is commonly said that the archipelago is named after the goshawk (Açor in Portuguese) because it was supposed to be a common bird at the time of discovery, in fact the bird never existed on the islands. Most, however, insist that the name is derived from birds, pointing to a local subspecies of the buzzard (Buteo buteo), as the animal the first explorers erroneously identified as goshawks. The name may also derive from the word Azure, meaning blue color, Italian, which is the color the Islands appear to be from the distance, at sea.