Ocean Happy Places: Fernando de Noronha Archipelago National Marine Park, Brazil

Location: Fernando de Noronha Archipelago, Pernambuco,  Brazil
Far off shore of the northern coast of Brazil hides Fernando de Noronha archipelago, a truly striking tropical heaven of sheer cliffs raising out from the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. No wonder why it became a UNESCO World Heritage site more nearly 15 years ago. As you fly over Fernando de Noronha appears the fascinating shape of the island jutting rock and highest point, the Morro do Pico followed by stunning scenery of turquoise blue waters and white sand stretches. They are home to some of the finest beaches and best surfing in Brazil .
The long and narrow island of Fernando de Noronha presents a wide variety of landscapes: rugged cliffs, long smooth withe sandy beaches along the western coastline. On the east side you will find extensive sand dunes, hidden protected coves and the charming colonial atmosphere of its main settlement, with paved cobblestone streets meandering up and down. Fernando de Noronha breathtaking ocean scenic landscape is beyond beautiful, a close idea of what Paradise probably looks like!
You also realize that the island is still largely underpopulated, no outrageous tourism development here. The relative isolation from the mainland, the limits on visitors and the preservation make Fernando de Noronha an expensive destination. But the “happy few” will be well rewarded by the delights of this island paradise and its fascinating underwater world.

The vibe is definitely very laid back on the island. Fernando De Noronha is a popular destination for Brazilians and many newly weds, a safe oasis to hang out with your lover or your family. No huge bulky resort buildings here, accommodations is mainly provided by family run guest houses called “Posadas“! It actually feels like every single family on the island owns a Posada and is a part of the local tourism industry. The community and municipality as well as the Marine Park work together to provide a nice relax atmosphere without troublemakers. A 7km road, the Transoronha Highway, Brazil’s shortest highway, runs across the island, flanked all the way by a impressive no ending footpath to go for a run or stroll. A unique bus line is available to travel form one pointe to the other but most tourists tend to rent  buggies to access remote beaches on wobbling on dirt roads.
Walking, hiking, cycling or with a buggy  there are many ways to get around and reach amazing breathtaking sites. Beautiful beaches relatively free of people also offer world class waves for you to enjoy awesome surfing. Conceicao Beach, the Cacimba do Padre Beach and the Santo Antonio Port Bay just to name a few. Porcos Bay or the Praia Sancho Beach are protected bays and provide great snorkelling with turtles.
The archipelago has a stable human population of about 3,000 inhabitants, concentrated on the principal island, and a small transient population of tourists and researchers. With its interesting landscape, pleasant climate, and morning visitations by the resident dolphins, Fernando de Noronha Island is considered by many as Brazil’s most beautiful island. Tourism began in the 1970’s, and currently there are daily flights to the island from Natal and Recife. However, the total number of tourists on the island is subjected to limits, and visitors must pay a daily “environment” tax, which increases incrementally as the visit progresses.

Fernando de Noronha Archipelago National Marine Park and Atol das Rocas Reserve
Atol das Rocas was the first site designated as a Brazilian Marine Protected Area (1979). As a Biological Reserve, the only human activity allowed there is scientific research (Kikuchi 1999).
Fernando de Noronha is an archipelago of 21 islands, islets and rocky outcrops in the Atlantic Ocean, 545 km/220miles away from the coast of the Brazilian State of Pernambuco. These islands are formed of the peaks of a submerged mountain chain, part of the South Atlantic submarine ridge which rises 4,000m from the ocean bed. The National Marine Park was established in 1988 by the the IBAMA, the Brazilian Institute for Environmental Preservation. Approximately 70% of the island archipelago is national parkland and belongs to the Federal Government, development is not allowed. The rest is an Environmentally Protected Area (APA) a of protected area with a special zoning system and very restricted development.
In 2001 Fernando de Noronha was declared a UNESCO World Heritage . Site because of the importance of its environment. It is a IUCN Category II NATIONAL PARK a protected area managed mainly for ecosystem protection and recreation.
The marine park is responsible for the preservation of the flora, fauna, marine life, natural resources and historical sites of this area and to promote scientific research and environmental education.Particular importance is paid to the protection of the Aruana and Hawksbill turtles and the Rotador dolphins, native to this area.

The Park management
Fernando de Noronha National Park is for sure an interesting, very successful, well run Marine Protected Area. Development is controlled through the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA). What makes it so special is a strong commitment from the government along with the community and marine conservation institutions in its management. Here MPA is not just a designation, you can really feel that people actually care. Sustainable tourism is the islands biggest source of revenue, but in its preservation efforts, the government controls development and tourist flow.
The number of people allowed on the islands at any one time can not exceed 460 visitors. Currently there are daily flights to the island from Natal and Recife, however available plane seats are limited, which is critical. All visitors must pay a quite expensive daily an Environmental Preservation Tax that increases progressively with the length of the visit.
In addition to the limitations imposed on tourism, two research organizations, the Rotator Dolphins Project (spinner dolphin project) on one side and the Tamar Project (a marine turtle nesting project) in the conjunction with IBAMA (Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis) are involved in managing the park as well as monitoring ecological impact on the archipelago.

Locals and tourists are requested to respect the rules from the park. They are actually really well implemented in a really nice and effective way. The following activities, for example, are not allowed: Swimming or diving with the dolphins, bringing in animals or plants to the island or collecting plants, corals, or any part/s of living organisms on the island, walking over reefs in Atalaia and Leao beaches and Sueste bay, using sun block in certain natural tidal pools, entering the water on non-licensed vehicles, diving without the supervision of a registered dive company, entering areas marked as restricted to name a few.
In some designated beaches like Caieira-Atalaia, you will not be allowed in the tidal pool if you are wearing sunblock to prevent its pollution and preserve the fragile shallow ecosystem, a remarkable diversity of creatures: Lobsters, Octopuses, numerous juveniles of various fish species and even the possibility of baby sharks. You will be only allowed in the pool for 25 minutes and this amazing experience is strictly limited to 100 per day. In Sueste bay for example, it is mandatory to wear a life vest when snorkelling (even if you are the best free divers in the world) to avoid visitors stepping on corals and removing sand bottom. Some monitored areas can actually be closed to the public during certain seasons, or accessible by footpaths that can only be walked in company of an authorized guide.
Park guides and inspectors are making sure you will be following rules. But here is the thing, they do it with a very friendly and educative approach! Their idea is: the more locals and visitors understand how special this environment is and how lucky they are to be able to enjoy it, the more they will be keen to respect it.

Local resident education: The island environmental institutions, like Projeto Golfino Rotador and Projeto Tamar are really committed to providing local kids with an significant environmental education. It is actually part of their objectives to educate the local community for environmental conservation, to empower adolescents-islanders to work in ecotourism, leading environmental teams towards future sustainable tourism practices. And indeed all positions in the tourism industry of Fernandho de Noronha ares actually filled by brazilians and mainly with island local staff. No foreigners dive instructors here, the policy is to invest in educating the local community so it can take care of its own patrimony.

Marine Life
Geographically speaking the Fernando de Noronha is the tip of a submarine volcanic formation. Many endemic species are inhabiting its waters which appear to have a nice and fairly healthy marine ecosystem. A diverse resident fauna is present such as parrotfishes, Sargent majors, angelfishes, triggerfishes, morays eels, groupers, as well as octopuses and lobsters! Schooling barracudas, stingrays, eagle rays can also be sighted with frequency. These highly productive waters also provide feeding ground for species such as yellow fin tuna, billfish, whale sharks, cetaceans like pilot whales or humpback whale and of course sharks and marine turtles as they migrate to the Eastern Atlantic coast of Africa. Fernando de Noronha is also an insular nursery area for lemon sharks and nurse sharks. But Caribbean reef shark and tiger sharks can be occasionally be spotted too.

Activity – Spinner Dolphins sighting & Projeto Golfinho Rotador
Fernandho de Noronha is famous for an exceptional population of resident spinner dolphin gathering nearly every single day of the year in the Bay of Dolphins – Baia dos Golfinhos. Set your alarm clock and from the view point of ” Mirante dos Golfinhos” you will be able to enjoy an incredible gathering of sometimes over 1000 spinner dolphins in the early sunshine. With their magnificent leaps and aerial acrobatics they are a major attraction! Every day, at dawn, the dolphins come into the bay to rest and mate and, in the afternoon, they go out to sea in search of food. They can also and often be spotted easily by boat. However no diving with the colony is permitted in the bay. Fernando de Noronha is one of the few places in the world where there are breeding colonies of spinner dolphins. The fact that they can be peacefully observed in their natural environment is a real treat. Projeto Golfinho Rotador has been monitoring them since 1990. They established guidelines, set rules and regulations to ensure the protection of Spinner Dolphins. For example during the spawning months of January and July, visitors are prohibited from visiting Leao and Sancho beaches between 6PM and 6AM.The project oversees research programs and promotes awareness about dolphins among visitors as well as the locals. Training courses in ecotourism and the preservation of the archipelago are also conducted, especially aimed at the youth of these islands.

Activity – Sighting or swimming with Turtles & Projeto Tamar
The National Centre for Conservation and Sea Turtle Management of Brazil or TAMAR was set up to ensure the protection of and to monitor the sea turtle population in the area. The project keeps track of female turtles, their eggs and reproductive environment and has been monitoring the population of the turtles since 1984. The aruana turtles frequent the beaches of Leao and Sancho. In November, during the mating season they can be seen on the surface of the water, while during the rainy season of December to May the females swim to the beaches at night where they lay their eggs to incubate. One of the most spectacular sights is to observe the birth and first swim to sea of the baby turtles.The hawksbill turtles are a highly endangered species as their shell is much desired for making jewelry and other ornamental pieces. These turtles who visit Fernando de Noronha to feed and grow can often be observed while diving. Two species of turtles are protected by the National Marine Reserve of Fernando de Noronha: The giant Green turtles and hawksbill turtles. The TAMAR Project has been monitoring areas of major concentrations of these turtles in the archipelago since 1984. Green turtles actually come to mate in november in Sueste Bay and from december to july, the females land Leão and Sancho beaches during the night to lay their eggs, who will then start their 50 days incubation period, before the hatching journey begins. In the marine reserve, it is also possible to observe young and adult hawksbill turtles, a highly endangered species. The hawksbill turtles use the archipelago only as a growing and feeding place. Their origin and their migratory routes are still unknown by the researchers at this time.

Centro De Visitantes of Vila do Boldro – Environmental interpretive centre
One of the highlight of Fernando de Noronha National park is, without a doubt, the Centro De Visitantes of Vila do Boldro, an amazing open air Marine interpretive centre! This remarkably well design entertaining area is free of access and features educational panels and beautiful sized sculptures of turtles, dolphins, fish, sea mammals or mock ups of the baby turtle eggs. There, you will also find information about monitored hikes, turtle hatching, trails, and opening times for monitored beaches.
ThisCentro De Visitantes is smart and fun , a great educational space, we feel every Marine Protected Area should have! The place is also home to the outstanding Auditorium. Every evenings its opens its doors to offer free exhibitions of environmental videos and thematic lectures, organized alternatively by Projeto Tamar (about Turtles), Projeto Golfinho (about Dolphins) or by the Park (about sharks or the Marine Protected Area itself). Usually a documentary is shown first, followed by a marine biologist exciting presentation! The Auditorium is an open space, visitors are free to get in and out at any time and stay for all or part of the show. During those fascinating presentation you learn a lot about this unique archipelago ecosystem and therefore come to appreciate how lucky you actually are to get to enjoy the beauties it has to offer!
Note that at the present time nearly all presentations as well as tourist or institutional websites are only available in Portuguese.

Shark Museum
There is also a very interesting Shark Museum in Fernandho de Noronha close to the harbour of Port Santo Antonio.

Diving
Scuba diving here is among the best in South America. There are about 20 dive sites here, offering a great variety of underwater landscapes, wrecks, walls, arches, and unusual rock formations habitat for an amazing array of marine life. The waters around Noronha can be calm or at times quite choppy. This can sometimes limit the dive sites that you can dive on a particular day. Some of the good dive sites here are around the Ressurecta Island, Sapata Cavern, Suesto Bay, Pedras Secas and the Porto Santo Antonio.
– Visibility: The visibility ranges from spectacular 120 feet visibility in clear blue water in the winter months (April through November) to about 50 feet in the summer months (December to March)
– Current: Current can vary significantly depending on the season and the site and side of the island you are diving. You should expect some strong current diving sometimes.
– Water temperature: is about 80F all year round.  A 3mm shorty is usually fine, but many people were wearing 5mm full suits as well.
– Dive Operations: 3 dive operations on Fernando de Noronha are offering instruction, discovery dives for beginners, guiding, nitrox and tec diving: Aguas Claras , Atlantis Divers , Noronha Divers. Most of the times there will be at least one person speaking english in the dive center. The down side of the diving: dive operations use big boats and take divers of different level of abilities. So the common practice is to organize the dives for large groups. Sometimes divers might end up piling all over each other, especially when beginner groups doing discovery dives are diving the same site at that time. A lot of divers in a small area scares the fish and can significantly alter the enjoyment of your experience. It is possible to work around it. If you are an experience diver, find other divers of your abilities and try to request a divermaster for the group with the possibility to enter in the water before the beginners jump in. Make sure they take in account where you have been diving previously, as they tend to only privilege the needs for new or the largest amount of divers. As a rule of thumb to enjoy quality dive time, always check where you are going, how many people are in your group, their level, and how the operation is organizing the dives .

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