Boldró Beach, with Morro do Pico behind

 

If a marine paradise exists, this is it, this is it: Fernando de Noronha, a glittering island 200 miles off the Brazilian coast, known as the Emerald of the Atlantic.

The archipelago consists of a lucky twenty-one islands perched atop the mid-Atlantic Range. The exposed islands, only one of which is inhabited, are the summits of extinct volcanoes whose slopes drop two and a half miles to the sea floor. Seen from above, they are but stationary dots on the wide, swirling expanse of the Atlantic between Brazil and Africa. The tallest peak of gray basalt reaches a thousand feet into the clear turquoise sky, visible from thirty miles on a good day. It might have been on such a clear day that Amerigo Vespucci first sighted the archipelago in 1503, only three years after Brazilís discovery. Now, half a millennium later, Fernando de Noronha is being rediscovered.

I arrived by flight from the mainland in the month of September, when the seas are at their calmest and underwater visibility exceeds fifty yards. Given the startling clarity and abundance of underwater life, I felt as if swimming in a 5-story aquarium all to myself.

 


Sunset beyond Peak Hill


T
our packages to the archipelago are common due to Noronhaís remoteness and limited capacity, managed in theory by Brazilís national park service, Ibama. But I decided to wing it, using miles for the Ďdirectí flight from Rio with a stop in Recife, and arrived without a hotel reservation. You pay a mandatory environmental tax at the airport Ė roughly $100 for the first week, the rate rising quickly thereafter Ė which may explain why this is one of the better run Brazilian parks, which usually lack infrastructure and often only exist on paper.

A well managed park Ė including informational signs, a research center with nightly lectures, guided walks on the parkís remoter trails and associated programs studying sea turtles and spinner dolphins Ė doesnít necessarily mean reliable tourist information which, unexpectedly, is still fly-by-night at the airport. I had read about an information kiosk down at the small port on the islandís far side, but no one at the airport could tell me if the mariners there could help me find a landlubber's bed. The woman who collected my environmental tax asked her manager who was of one opinion; the baggage supervisor said the opposite; while the woman representing Varig, the largest Brazilian airline, at least admitted she didnít have a clue. She was kind enough to offer to call up a half dozen of the hotels and inns found in the Brazilian national directory called Quatro Rodas, or Four Wheels, but they were all booked. I had not counted on the annual regatta that sails from Recife, whose preparatory wave would arrive mid-week.

In the end four wheels did the trick, when a kindly policeman pointed out a tour operator, lounging in the shade by his jeep, who gladly showed me a few places. The number of cars used to be severely limited on the island, under a system whereby a rusty old heap had to be exported in order to import a new one, but like much else this sensible constraint has given away to the Development Principle, so that noisy and smoke-belching buggies now clog the islandís lone artery, Brazilís shortest federal highway. And this is not all that has changed. My foreign guidebooks were, although current, all seriously out of date with regards to tourist essentials. For years it was necessary to find a spare room in someoneís home and purchase full room and board, as eating establishments were all but non-existent. But, as I soon learned from my guide (like so many, an imported mainlander from Natal), inns and restaurants have proliferated in recent years and full pension is no longer offered. Jean promptly took me to the new, centrally-located Pousada do Frances, which after negotiation gave me a double bed in a new, dark wood bungalow with cross breezes and a veranda equipped with hammock for just over $100 a night, cash. Charge cards are also relatively new to Noronha.


Bay of Pigs, with one of Two Brothers


F
ortunately I discovered the islandís best kept secret that first night, over a caiparinha at the Cafť das Artes, from a vacationing couple from Salvador. (The husband, a diver, was on his eleventh visit to Noronha.) On the leeward side facing the Americas, one can descend from the islandís only village, Vila dos Remťdios, to Dogís Beach and at low tide continue southwest along a string of pearly beaches, each one more enchanting than the last. It is Noronhaís best solo hike, and passes directly beneath the islandís most dominating outcrop, called Morro do Pico, which helps to orient the newcomer from any corner of the archipelago and whose flashing beacon returned to life during my stay after taking a several year rest. One of the shorter fingernail beaches is named American Beach from the Second World War when GIís tried to turn the island into a granite aircraft carrier, creating much of Noronha's infrastructure including the airport, the large concrete catch basin for the reservoir, some old diesel generators, and even the iron ladder that scales Peak Hill (now rusting and off-bounds). At Cacimba do Padre, or Fatherís Well, the Two Brothers islands tower out of the sea just off the beach, reaching conical points which encourage locals to more salaciously refer to them as the Two Breasts. (At the turn of the year these beaches attract many of Brazilís best surfers.) It was here, with mask, snorkel and flippers, that I discovered the submerged paradise of endless schools of tropical fish and multistoried coral reefs whose colors, while climbing the rock face, grab you like an underwater rainbow. Off of Noronha over 130 species of fish have been identified - as varied as in the Caribbean - including ones with suggestive names such as queen angel fish, butterfly fish, honeycomb cow fish and yellow goat fish.


Sancho Bay with resting birds

The hike's wonders were just beginning, for at the end of Cacimba do Padre you clamber over only one more rocky outcrop to enter the proper park, via the Bay of Pigs. (No sly reference to GI’s or Cuba intended.) Here, and at the next beach called Sancho Bay, one steps into a magical world literally carved out of time, for both beaches are surrounded by cliff faces filled with lesser noddies, red-footed boobies and frigatebirds, whose shrieks echo from wall to wall. While all sandy white beaches are generally pristine and litter-free, on the park side everything seems intensified, including the vibrant green of the hanging jungle, the dark brown of the indigenous gameleira (or Noronha fig tree) whose buttress roots dangle down, and the dazzling aquamarine of the sea. Both beaches are cited by Quatro Rodas as among the most compelling attractions in Brazil, with Sancho Bay touted as the country’s most highly rated beach - no small potatoes in such a beach-crazed country. Luckily access is difficult, via an old iron ladder that snakes up a crevice in the tall escarpment.


Sancho Bay in morning

One morning, after watching the sun rise over the adjacent Dolphins’ Bay, I walked over to Sancho Bay along the cliff top and slipped down the crevice to the beach where most footprints had been washed clean by high tide and an overnight rain. As the sun levered over the scalloped cliffs, dappling half the beach and bay with light, I couldn’t believe my fortune and, stripped naked, cavorted like a dolphin in the warm waters until an early starter fisherman rounded the point.


Bird and swimmer, Bay of Pigs


T
he white-belly spinner dolphins are a lot more graceful, it goes without saying, even when returning en masse from an overnight feeding. Maybe it was the early morning cries of the long white-tailed tropicbird, or the dawnís softly rising breeze, but the sight of over six hundred dolphins entering the bay in repetitive arcs, as they surfaced in groups for air like so many submerged paddle wheels, was an unforgettable experience for me. They comprise the largest and oldest known school of dolphins on earth, which reaches back to before French invaders referred to their prize as Dolphin Island. Outside of Hawaii this is the only known year-round habitat and breeding ground for spinner dolphins, meriting a research program whose research assistants count the returning dolphins through binoculars every day. To distract us from the tally, individual dolphins occasionally explode out of the water and, after an Olympic pirouette, crash into the bay on their backs, creating a pattern of bubbles which, it is believed, sends news flashes to neighbors.


Researcher at Dolphin Bay

The island’s other preservation program is part of Brazil’s laudable Tamar Project, established several decades ago to preserve and protect the breeding grounds of the country’s many threatened sea turtles. (Nightly park lectures are given in the Tamar Project’s local headquarters and span from turtles to dolphins to the island’s five types of non-aggressive sharks: with so many fish around, who needs human meat?) On the island’s windward side, in the protected Southeast Bay, is where you can snorkel among the four foot long green turtles, who call the bay home year-round and especially during the hatching season from December to June, when several beaches are closed at night for their protection. (During which time groups with flashlights and park guides can watch mother turtles lay eggs in hastily dug sand pits.) Also encountered are the more compact and endangered hawksbill turtles, that breed in Africa and think nothing of crossing the Atlantic, here at its narrowest. The park ranger encouraged me to leave my belongings out in the open by the rental shed and, despite the bay’s choppy conditions, I chanced upon a handful of both of these gliding aristocratic beasts while snorkeling.


Caracas Point, windward side

Fernando de Noronha must be the safest place in all of Brazil for native and visitor alike. The day I rented a cheap (and decrepit) mountain bike, I was assured I could leave it anywhere unlocked, as no one would steal it, and was told the same thing when leaving essentials, including my digital camera, on any beach while going for a swim or a snorkel. There has only been one recorded robbery in recent history, and that was by a love-struck local who held up the tiny Banco Real for its risible petty cash. A swarm of detectives descended on the island from the mainland (the bank assault providing a good excuse for a junket), but is was only when an alert tourist developed his roll of film locally that the case was cracked. The visitor had snapped a picture of the island’s lone bank just at the height of the crime, and captured the moped and licence plate of the perpetrator, who promptly confessed. All of this was recounted to me at the end of a morning-long, solitary excursion by horseback to the park’s remote easterly point, as we were approaching the ex-con’s small farm with my guide Miguel (originally from Recife). It was a crime of passion, according to Miguel, with no lasting guilt and only minimal punishment, which didn’t deter me from commenting just as we arrived, "Well, I hope he’s repented."

 


Vila dos Remédios cemetery


I
n a quirk of history, Fernando de Noronha has most often served as a penal colony, first by the Portuguese Colony, then by the Brazilian Republic, and finally by the military dictatorship trying to muzzle and hide its political prisoners. It didnít start out that way, for after its early discovery the island was abandoned by the Portuguese to pirates and adventurers, and then to the French and Dutch (often one and the same)to fight over as a launching pad for attacks on northeastern Brazil, which was conquered and run for nearly a generation by the Dutch. The Portuguese Crown clearly had a lot on its hands, a tiny seafaring nation trying to settle a huge colony already the size of the continental United States. So it wasnít until 1737 that the Portuguese finally drove off the French and built nearly a dozen forts to hold claim to the strategic site on the sea lanes to Africa and Europe. The forts served their purpose over the next century and, after Brazilian independence in the early 19th century, were allowed to crumble - as so much does in the Torrid Zone.  (Remťdios Fort, the best preserved, offers a riveting view of the color-melt sunset.)


St. Peter's Chapel

In the end the island itself was treated as a fortress, whose only purpose over two centuries was to maroon criminals. It was during this time that Noronha was almost entirely de-forested to deny the prisoners any logs from which to make escape rafts. (Amerigo Vespucci had originally commented on the island’s ‘infinite’ trees.) Today the woods are slowly recuperating, the archipelago a continuation of the Northeast’s semi-arid agreste ecosystem.

Another colonial era absurdity was easier to reverse. An 1817 edict banning women from the island was rescinded when reports of rampant homosexuality reached the Portuguese Crown.


Couple at Dog's Bar


Hidden in the bush up behind Tamarís Visitor Center I stumbled upon evidence of the islandís first concerted development effort. There, a handful of Quonset huts built in the Forties by American GIís can be found, which are still in use despite having long passed their expiry date. Here, among the rusty hangers, is the mess hall of the old American base (which served for decades as the Esmeralda Hotel, the islandís only) and, for the sharp-eyed, red American-style fire hydrants imported from Philadelphia poke out from the low vegetation.

Following the Americansí departure in the early Sixties, the Brazilian military stayed on until 1988 when the park was established and the archipelago ceded to civilian control. To this day there are no local elections, as the island is run by an administrator appointed by the governor of Pernambuco, and you can palpably feel the patriarchical heritage of Brazilís poor Northeast region, where crimes of passion have been common (and excused) for generations. Although Noronha's natural charm stems from its relative inaccessibility and limited capacity, the Administrator has been steadily increasing the maximum number of visitors permitted on the island has progressively risen from one hundred at the parkís creation to over a thousand currently, including the 700-tourist capacity cruise ships from Recife, only half of whose passengers typically bother to set foot on sand or rock. But other constraints still exist. In order to attend the growth in tourism, the islandís population has doubled to three thousand in recent years, pressuring resources. After a year's drought the reservoir was looking more like a large, ragged pool table, forcing the islandís water needs to be met by a solitary and expensive desalination plant.


Sunset from Fort Our Lady of Remedies

Tourism is also impacting marine life. During one of the Visitor Center’s nightly lectures in Portuguese, standing room only, the Park Superintendent asked if any of had been nibbled at by a sergeant fish, mistaking a mole for a submerged tasty morsel. Only then did I recall just such an attack whose motivation now became clear to me. People are feeding the aquarium fish who are getting conditioned for the hunt – on the backs of unsuspecting tourists.


House off BR-363

I
have never bothered to get my diving certificate, which meant that I needed to sign up at Noronha Divers for a half-day Ďbaptismí dive, during which I would be accompanied by an instructor for the descent. When I told Brand„
o, their dreadlocked leader, that I had been on a handful of dives before, he decided to take me down himself with next to no ceremony on the leeward side of Rata Island. That is, once equipped and bobbing in the placid sea we descended forthwith into the slippery, pinging netherworld. Brand„o still felt the need to hold onto my outstretched arm most of the time, to straighten out the various kinks in my horizontal posture, and to ask if I was AOK with the hand signal that in Brazil usually means something profane, but I couldnít have been more fortunate in the choice of underwater instructor. First we swam so close to a big flapping sting ray that I instinctively recoiled to remain beyond of the whip of its tail. Then we swam among a school of the most docile and friendly looking barracuda Iíve encountered. And Brand„o kindly stuck my head into a small cave by the sandy bottom, where I paid my respects to the most brilliantly green moray eel the size of a boa constrictor. When we finally surfaced after the most thrilling dive of my life, my first words were "Brand„o, youíre the man!"

Later, as an afterthought, I asked him how far down we had gone and was surprised by his reply, "Oh, nineteen or so meters." The water had been so clear, the sunís rays so close, that I would have guessed a third of that.

"But donít tell anyone else," he cautioned with a smile.

 

 

 


Last moments on Conception Beach