Located in the Atlantic Ocean, 210 nautical miles from Brazil and just south of the Equator is a small archipelago of islands, the largest of which is Fernando de Noronha (roll the "r" and pronounce "nh" like the Spanish "ñ"). A protected ecological zone since 1988, FDN is an off-the-beaten-path, fantastic place to visit, with world class scuba diving. This is a long report and contains lots of pictures so it may take a while to download completely.
Where the heck is Fernando de Noronha?
Why in the world would you want to go there?
We first heard of Fernando de Noronha, also known as "the Forbidden Island," from Deborah's cousin who had stopped there on a cruise from Portugal. Then, in August of 2001, Undercurrent published an article on diving FDN and we immediately put it on our Life List of places to go see. Although Deborah is now retired, I'm still teaching which limits when we can go on vacations. This year spring break didn't coincide with Easter, so we decided to use the frequent flier miles that we had stacked up on our around the world adventure last year and go to Brazil. Why not?
What about the "Island of the Forbidden," Fernando de Noronha? According to the web site: "Fernando de Noronha is an isolated group of volcanic islands located in the South Equatorial Atlantic at 03° 51' south and 32° 25' west, approximately 215 miles from Cape Sao Roque in the state of Rio Grande do Norte and 340 miles from Recife, Pernambuco. The main islands are the visible parts of a range of submerged mountains . Consisting of 21 islands, islets and rocks of a volcanic origin, the main island has an area of 7.1 square miles, being 6.2 miles long and 2.2 miles at its maximum width. The perimeter measures 37.2 miles. The base of this enormous volcanic formation is 2480 feet below the surface. The main island, from which the group gets its name, makes up 91% of the total area; the islands of Rata, Sela Gineta, Cabeluda and Sao Jose, together with the islets of Leao and Viuva make up the rest. Geological studies indicate that the islands were formed around 2,000,000 years ago.
The climate is tropical, with two well defined seasons: the rainy season from January to August, and the dry season for the rest of the year. The heaviest rains occur between March and July, sometimes reaching almost 8 inches in 24 hours in March and April. October is the driest month, when rainfall will not be greater than 0.36 inch in a 24 hour period. The average temperature is 77° F, with a variation of only 7.4°. The hottest months are January, February and March. The relative humidity varies little from 81.5 % due to the islands characteristics. Average annual sunshine is 3.215 hours per day, with a maximum in November and a minimum in April. In 1988 approximately 70% of the archipelago was declared a National Marine Park, with the goal of preserving the land and marine environment. It is administered by the IBAMA. Towards its goal research projects are being developed, such as: recording native and migratory bird species both marine and land; studying the behavior and reproduction of the spinner dolphin stenella longirostris; the ecology and reproduction of the crustaceans of the upper, middle and lower coast; shark research and the TAMAR PROJECT (marine turtles). These subjects are offered to the tourists each night at the visitors center of the project, near the headquarters of IBAMA. There are various choices of where to stay on the island of Fernando de Noronha. All are typically modest. In all there are 70 inns, classified according to their facilities and tourist infrastructure, and a small hotel. Reservations should be made early, especially for the months of January, February, July and December, as well as for longer holidays. The inns on the island function as boarding houses (breakfast, lunch and dinner), or only with breakfast, charging per night and per person. There is no limit imposed on the length of time a visitor may stay on the island, although this is tied into the Environmental Preservation Tax. This tax, paid upon arrival, progressively increases with the length of the visit; the longer you stay, the more you pay per day! Uniquely, all of the inns of the island are private residences more or less well modified for this type of service, similar to "Bed and Breakfast" accommodations, but offering all 3 meals. This family atmosphere is one of the most distinctive factors of the tourists' stay, making them feel as though they were in their own beach house."
Brazilians often refer to Fernando de Noronha as the "Forbidden Island", not because of any secret activities or, as Waynec put it, "birthplace of the Lambada", but because nearly everything is controlled by the government; limits on population (2,000), limits on numbers of visitors (only 420 on the island at a time), controlled activities (no messing with the resident spinner dolphins), etc. The totalitarian controls keep FDN's reefs and marine resources healthy and make it a great place to visit. In addition to scuba diving, there are surfing, horseback riding, hiking, biking, beach going and just enjoying this beautiful bit of paradise.
Our travel agent was Debbie Lanham ( email@example.com ) at Argo World Travel who has been handling our dive vacations for as long as I can remember. We also booked through Sunie Stockler ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) at Stockler Expeditions, who went out of her way to help us.. We flew American Airlines to Miami from LAX, TAM airlines to São Paolo %20 Recife, and then Varig to FDN. Despite the war in Iraq and the current scare over SARS, we didn't have any problems with our flights. I must tell you, Brazil is a long way from Los Angeles; it took almost 30 hours to get there! My bag containing my clothes and dive gear didn't show up when we got to São Paolo! I filled out the paperwork (in Portuguese) and crossed my fingers. Using the internet, I contacted Sunie and she did all the dirty work of contacting TAM and keeping their feet to the fire about my bag while I was able to get on with my vacation. With her help, they found the bag and it arrived two days later. Many thanks.
Note: Americans must have a Brazilian visa in order to enter the country. In a tit-for-tat arrangement, they charge Americans the same visa fee ($100) that the US charges Brazilians applying for a US visa; seems fair. We had to get passport photos and make a trip to the Brazilian Consulate in Los Angeles to fill out the paper work before our trip. You can’t get a visa at the airport!
Some things to know before you go:
Electricity is 220 Volts and they use a two round-pin plug; take an adapter. US dollars, traveler's checks, credit cards are not accepted everywhere on the island and there is no place to exchange dollars. So, bring lots of cash in Brazilian reais for tips, meals, tours, etc. The dollar goes a long way here. Few people speak English, so bring a Brazilian Portuguese phrase book and be prepared to wave your hands a lot. Repeat after me, "eu falo só inglês."
We stayed at the Dolphin Hotel ( http://www.dolphinhotel.tur.br/index.htm ). The accommodations were simple, with en suite bathroom, double bed, a/c, phone, and a TV. Our package included breakfast and lunch, served buffet style. Food was plentiful and good, but not great. For variety, we ate dinner at some of the other pousadas. Another place to stay that looked very nice is Zé Maria, a pousada with separate bungalows. I know, I know…what about the diving? Each day, we did two morning dives with Atlantis Divers ( http://www.atlantisnoronha.com.br/ ). Their boats are well equipped modern catamarans. There were no showers, no camera tables and no rinse tanks for cameras. After lunch we were picked up by Aguas Claras ( http://www.aguasclaras-fn.com.br/ ), the other major dive operation on the island, for two afternoon dives. Aguas Claras' boats are older, slower and kind of funky, but the DM's were good. Most divers in FDN are Brazilian, with a scattering of Europeans and we were a real curiosity as we had brought our own gear. Both Atlantis and Aguas Claras have English speaking DM's. Dives were guided with a DM in the front and behind the group; it is a national park. No gloves or knives are allowed and buddy diving is enforced. The water was a constant 84 degrees with visibility ranging from a low of 50 feet to well over 100 feet. Tanks were the standard Al-80's filled to 3000 psi.
An interesting point about diving in FDN is that the surface interval times were only 30 minutes! The nearest recompression chamber is in Recife, more than 300 miles away. A chamber has been delivered to the island but is awaiting the construction of a building to house it and should be operational within six months.
The fish life is similar to that found in the Caribbean. There are fewer numbers of species, but the fish are bigger and frequently in large schools, such as chubs, margates, yellow stripped grunts, sardines, surgeonfish, and jacks. The barracuda are numerous here, with individuals every few yards and in large schools. We also encountered many nurse sharks, many turtles, two eagle rays and seven reef sharks. Most dives were drift dives and we experienced a great deal of surge, even at depth. In our six days on the island, we did a total of sixteen dives and hit ten different dive sites.
Macaxiera: a sloping boulder wall covered in a low, brown seaweed. We dropped down a did a slow drift along the wall passing a school of Bermuda chubs, large barracuda hovering every few feet, coneys, black durgons, many sargeant majors, a turtle, parrotfish, pairs of very large French angelfish, and a ray.
Buraco das Cabras: a drift dive over a seaweed covered flat bottom with the occasional rock or hole to explore. This is a channel between two small islands and the current can be roaring. There are lobsters, peacock flouders, many, many barracuda, turtles, puddingwives, coneys, a very large goliath grouper. We found an old anchor.
Pedras Secas II: this great dive spot consists of two rocks that stick up out of a flat bottom on the windward side of Fernando in open water. It was much rougher on this side and not for those who get seasick easily. There is a tunnel and swim through with all of the surfaces covered with colorful sponges and some coral. In the main chamber were six nurse sharks resting on ledges or swimming above the divers. A vast school of sardines ebbed and flowed around the rocks as the occasional jack flew through the school feeding. Under the ledges were schools of margates and grunts. We also found both spiny and slipper lobsters in holes. Two turtles allowed up close observation, seemingly unconcerned about the divers. A large green moray eel was pointed out at the end of the dive by the DM. The barracuda kept us company and followed the divers as they passed through their territories.
Pedras Secas I: next to PS II and similar in topography, there is a large tunnel here filled with lobsters and crabs that feeds into a large depression whose upper levels are punctuated with windows and arches. Schools of chubs, margates, grunts, and sardines drifted back and forth with the surge. Out of the depression and up on the flat bottom, a baby reef shark made a fleeting appearance. Schools of blue surgeonfish moved across the rocks feeding on the bottom. On one of the three dives we did at this spot, we spent nearly the whole dive looking for a yellow frogfish that had been seen there the previous week. We didn't find it, but had a wonderful time looking. I found a octopus hiding in his lair with the shells of his past dinners littering the surrounding rocks. At the end of the dive, we were treated to a school of 38 barracuda.
Caverna de Sapata: this site is on the lee side and is a wall dive culminating in a huge cavern that is big enough to park a 747. The walls of the cavern are covered in encrusting pink, red and brown sponges with the occasional hole containing lobsters. We saw nurse sharks out swimming, a ray cruising down the wall above us, reef sharks, a grouper, and a green moray.
Laje 2 Irmãos: this is a boulder reef off shore at 60 feet covered in encrusting sponges and corals. Here were slipper lobsters, reef sharks, coneys, and an eagle ray. We counted five reef sharks on one dive and also saw green morays, and many barracuda. We had seen a number of the spinner dolphins on the way to this dive site. During the dive we could hear them communicate with each other, but did not see them.
Cabeço do Submarido: pinnacle on the windward side of the island. Lots of fishlife here, schools of surgeonfish, margates, squirrelfish, lobsters, eels, crabs, turtles. The rockwalls are covered in some sort of green algae and my wife said it was like taking a walk in the mountains. Did I mention the barracuda everywhere?
Cargara Fundas: a deep valley along a wall. Schools of the usual suspects, but no barracuda!????
Cabeço da Sapata: the DM asked us if we would dive to 40 meters and we said sure. She only took four divers and the other DM to this site. Off the end of the island are two basaltic pinnacles that reach almost to the surface. We had well over 100 feet of visibility here. The rocks were only partially covered with the encrusting sponges and the volcanic geology was clearly in evidence, similar to the Devil's Post Pile at Mammouth. We descended down the wall to a sandy bottom and entered a narrow tunnel at 135 feet (not a good place to have trouble with your gear). The tunnel was about 30 feet long with only room enough for one diver and no where to turn around. Coming out the other end, we started our multilevel ascent and crossed over to the second pinnacle. The DM pointed out a large green moray, we spotted an eagle ray above us and were joined by three turtles. A very, very nice dive.
Corvetta: this is the wreck of a Brazilian navy corvette that struck one of the pinnacles at Cabeço da Sapata and sank in 200 feet of seawater. It's 185 feet to the deck. Atlantis Divers will take you to this site if you are experienced enough and Nitrox certified. It is a planned decompression dive and not for everyone. They use steel 120's rigged with double regulators. You only get 15 minutes on the wreck and have to decompress at ten foot intervals, ending with breathing pure oxygen at 15 feet for at total dive time of 45 minutes. We did not do this site.
Iuias: off the windward side of the island is a reef consisting of house size boulders covered in sponges and some coral and algae. We found the largest goliath grouper we have ever seen hiding in a crevase. Two nurse sharks, two trumpetfish (rare here?) and a soapfish topped the list of finds. There are many fish on this site and many colorful sponges. And…did I mention the barracuda?
Fernando de Noronha is an off the beaten path, world class dive location that is unknown to most American divers. When you have tired of the usual Caribbean dive locations or just want to experience something new, put FDN on your list of places to go. We're glad we made the trip.