Brazil was high on my list as far as exotic destinations go and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to visit the mysterious island of Fernando de Noronha as part of our trip. As an avid scuba diver I couldn’t wait to plunge into the waters surrounding this island, I had read so much about it!
Brazilians, and increasingly foreign scuba divers, flock to Fernando de Noronha, a small, remote group of islands off the Northeastern coast of Brazil. The clear waters around the island are said to be abundant with marine life and the promise of encounters with the relatively elusive Spinner Dolphins was promising. It was well worth the long trip from the USA. It turnt out to be every bit as wonderful a place as I had imagined.
After a few days of sightseeing in the fantastic hustle and bustle of Rio de Janeiro, it was an easy two hour flight to Recife; capital of the State of Pernambuco. The history of Recife and Pernambuco is unique. The contact between native Indians, black slaves and Portuguese settlers was very strong in Pernambuco, and left visible traces in the culture of the region. Also clearly visible is the legacy of the Dutch, who occupied the area for more than 20 years. This mixture of influences made the culture of Pernambuco to be one of the richest in Brazil and the city and surroundings are definitely an interesting place to visit for a few days. Being Dutch myself, I wasn’t too keen on seeing evidence of the colonial exploitations of my ancestors, but I have to say, the architecture they left behind in Olinda was superb.
But, die-hard divers that we are, we mainly came to this part of South America to explore Brazil below the surface and hopefully see the Spinner dolphins. So back to the airport we went for the next leg of the journey. Traveling in this part of the world is much easier than we expected as airports in Brazil are modern and efficient and staff very helpful everywhere you go.
It is a quick one-hour, very scenic hop to Fernando de Noronha by small plane. After being told to sit on the left side of the aircraft we were rewarded with spectacular views of the archipelago. It looked to me like a “mini Galapagos Islands” from the air and this ended up being so true. It is remote, consists mostly of national park, is full of interesting flora and fauna and last but not least the marine life is superb and the animals are not afraid of people. What a blessing to be part of a select crowd to experience this terrific place!
The archipelago consists of 21 islands and islets with the main one; Fernando de Noronha, giving name to the group. the islands are partly a national park specifically because of its unique natural features and scenery. They are home to the largest colonly of pelicans in the South Atlantic and many migratory birds come to rest and feed after their long journey from the Northern Hemisphere. Although it is an amazing place for nature walks and bird watching, divers come for the spectacular marine life; namely the Spinner Dolphins (Stenella longirostris), which are common in Fernando de Noronha. Slender, with a long, thin beak, the Spinner Dolphin has a distinct stripe connecting the long, pointed flippers to the eyes. Every day at dawn, large groups of dolphins (in the hundreds) come into a bay where waters are calm and protected. For non-divers they can be seen from the viewing area in Carreiro da Pedra Bay, known as Baia dos Golfinhos (Dolphin Bay) or by boat trips to the bay. Nobody knows exactly why they make their way into the bay every morning but it is definitly an amazing sight to witness.
In between scuba diving there is plenty to do as well. You can visit one the many gorgeous beaches and enjoy rubbing elbows with the hip and happy Brazilian surfer crowd. Or visit one of the historic sites around the island by rented beach buggy or taxi. Interesting ones include the Fort of Nossa Senhora dos Remedios – a fortress built in 1737 on top of the ruins of a Dutch fort dating back to 1629 and the Church of Nossa Senhora.
My favorite surface interval activity was to soak up the Brazilian culture, music and food at my favorite beach: Boldro. Brazilians are a people made for the beach. You can tell they are in their element and they love to share the beauty of their country with foreigners. I also noticed that most beaches on Fernando usually have no more than a dozen people on them at any given time. They are truly stunning. You can easily while away hours walking along the coast line, every beach is different and surprisingly more beautiful than the last. Don’t be surprised if you are accompanied by a friendly local dogs that will show you the way. Even dogs are happy here!
Dive Sites in Fernando de Noronha
All the sites require open ocean diving. There are at least 17 well known dive sites around the island, and obviously many more that are restricted at one point or another. It is tricky to find out which dive sites will be dived on any certain day as there doesn’t seem to be a fixed nor even a tentative schedule available with either of the dive operators. The whole things seem shrouded in mystery and not being fluent in Portugese doesn’t help. The diving happens to be stricly controlled by the park service to ensure that no site is over dived or the marine life bothered. The park service decides every morning again where the boats can go. It definitely pays to be an early riser and ready for pick-up on time as the first dive boat that is ready to go gets first pick of the dive sites from the authorities. It feels like an amazing race every day!
The marine life is positively stunning. Two species of sea turtles frequent the waters of the archipelago and frequent encounters with green turtles are possible. This species also climbs the beaches of Fernando to lay its eggs between December and May. The other one is the comb turtle, which is a highly threatened species in other parts of Brazil, due to its sought after shiny shells for handicrafts. It is only found in the seas of Noronha and does not go on land.
Morray eels, glassy sweepers, snappers, red soldier fish, sharks, stingrays, tuna, barracuda and even manta rays can be found in these waters. I noticed how healthy the reefs are and just teeming with schools of fish. IBAMA must be doing a good job here and it makes you realize again how damaging overfishing and overdiving is comparing the strict control over this place to others the world over.