Lovers on the beach, a lone stroller and two bathers: Fernando de Noronha is a stranger to mass tourism
© Luiz Maximiano

A taste of paradise

  • TEXT ANDRZEJ RYBAK
  • PHOTOS LUIZ MAXIMIANO

Nature is intact and abundant on the island of Fernando de Noronha, Brazil. Islanders and visitors abide by strict rules to keep it that way

Getting to heaven can be a trial. With the only flights to the Brazilian island chain of Fernando de Noronha coming from Recife and Natal, the journey means changing planes in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo, and then again in Recife. Once you arrive, all is forgiven – even at 5am, when it’s still dark and a cold wind is blasting your face – and at the very latest once you’re bumping down the track to Baía dos Golfinhos, dolphin bay, in a buggy. The spectacle begins shortly after sunrise, when hundreds of spinner dolphins swarm into the wide bay from the open sea. The waters churn; time and again, the gray marine mammals shoot skywards, flip and dive back down into the waves. Some of these acrobats, weighing up to 80 kilos, leap three meters into the air, spinning on their own axis as they plummet back into the water. From the cliffs above the bay, two dozen tourists watch the animals through binoculars. The dolphins come in the early morning to relax in the bay after hunting. “This is where they mate, where their young are born,” says oceanographer José Martins. “Nowhere else will you find as many spinner dolphins.”

The archipelago, 360 kilometers off Brazil’s Atlantic coast, is a natural paradise. Thousands upon thousands of migratory and marine birds nest here between the rocks along the bluff. Whales and turtles swim past the island on their yearly migrations. Its bays provide shelter for sharks from ocean predators. Martins came to Fernando de Noronha in 1989, a year after the archipelago and the surrounding ocean was declared a nature reserve. “We do all we can to protect the environment,” says the 50-year-old marine scientist, “below the water, the ecosystem is intact.”

Said to be the world’s most beautiful island: See a 360°-view of Fernando de Noronha. Use the arrow keys or mouse to navigate; for full-screen mode click the right mouse key and select “full screen”. If you’re using a mobile device, navigate with your fin

© Marcio Cabral/360cities.net

 Ecotourism has its price; everything is much more expensive here than it is on the mainland. “We have to transport all our building materials to the island, and food, too,” says Ju Medeiros, co-owner of the Pousada Triboju hotel and a well-known musician whose songs tell of Noronha’s beauty. The intact landscape and unique animal and plant kingdoms are the biggest asset of the large main island, which covers 17 square kilometers. The majority of the roughly 5000 islanders earn their living with gentle tourism, which is controlled by strict rules. The government is endeavoring to stem the flow of new people from the mainland as the island population has more than tripled since 1988.

Newcomers are eligible for a residence permit only after ten years. The number of tourists is also strictly regulated, and they pay an environment tax of 51 reais (12 euros) for each day they stay. Although only four daily flights serve the island, some 450 people come to Fernando de Noronha every day and last year, around 80 000 tourists visited this piece of paradise.

The environmental regulations are very strict: no large hotels, no buildings on the beach. There are no jet skis, the number of cars and boats is restricted, and most of the roads are just sandy tracks. “So far, we have been able to preserve this natural paradise with our tourism revenue,” says Leonardo Bertrand Veras. “We mustn’t let ourselves be swayed by profit and ease the rules, as some people demand.”

On land, in the water and in the air: The species live almost undisturbed. Here: spinner dolphins and brown boobies

On land, in the water and in the air: The species live almost undisturbed. Here: spinner dolphins and brown boobies

© Vianna/gettyimages
Dois Irmãos rock strikes a pose all year round

Dois Irmãos rock strikes a pose all year round

© Bartuccio/SIME/Schapowalow
The surfers come between January and March

The surfers come between January and March

© imago
Smartphones pop up when turtle whisperer Luis Bortolon talks about “his animals”

Smartphones pop up when turtle whisperer Luis Bortolon talks about “his animals”

© Luiz Maximiano

 Veras, a fisheries engineer, came to Noronha in 1990. He hunted with his fishing rod, processed his catch and sold it to the locals, but didn’t earn much. So he turned to tourism and built a shark museum on a plateau in the east of the island. “Sharks have incredible abilities. They can detect tiny electrical currents, they have a great sense of smell, and they can see and hear very well,” Veras explains. “They are not bloodthirsty killers waiting to devour a human being. No one has ever been attacked by sharks in the waters around Fernando de Noronha. “The food supply beneath the waves is clearly plentiful enough.”

We mustn’t let ourselves be swayed by profit

Leonardo Bertrand Veras, shark museum founder

In Baía do Sancho, nurse sharks hunt down the shimmering shoals of silver Brazilian sardinellas in shallow waters. As they flee, the fish sometimes lose their sense of direction and end up on the beach, where the locals happily gather them up: “Sardinha” soup is a local delicacy. For years, Sancho has been considered Brazil’s most beautiful beach, and the website TripAdvisor voted it the best beach in the world. Surrounded by steep cliffs, it is tucked away in a small bay in the northwest of the island. The sand gleams white-gold, the water a clear turquoise, and there is not a human being to be seen. It’s like a Robinson Crusoe movie, almost surreal in its beauty.

The sleepy paradise becomes a hotspot for surfers between January and March, when the waves on Boldró and Cacimba do Padre and the other beaches in the north tower three to five meters high, earning the island its nickname “Brazilian Hawaii.” Fernando de Noronha is hailed as Brazil’s best place to dive. The Noronha Divers’ boat bobs on the waves off the tiny islet of Rata in the northwest, one of roughly 20 dive sites.

José Martins heads the Golfinho Rotador dolphin project

José Martins heads the Golfinho Rotador dolphin project

© Luiz Maximiano
Leonardo Veras has set up a shark museum in the north of the island

Leonardo Veras has set up a shark museum in the north of the island

© Luiz Maximiano
Praia do Sancho in the island’s northwest is widely considered Brazil’s most beautiful beach

Praia do Sancho in the island’s northwest is widely considered Brazil’s most beautiful beach

© Luiz Maximiano

 The island waters are home to around 250 species of fish. Some are hooped, others striped, dotted or have a single large spot, some resemble balloons, while others are flat as pancakes or as long as snakes. Inside a hole in the rock, an eel waits patiently for prey; beneath a ledge, a young nurse shark enjoys forty winks. And swimming everywhere, turtles gaze at the divers with their big round eyes. “There aren’t many places where you can see this many turtles,” says Luís Felipe Bortolon, a biologist working for the Tamar turtle protection program launched in Bahia 35 years ago and working very successfully on Fernando de Noronha since 1984. “In the last breeding season, we counted 266 turtle nests. That was an absolute record for Noronha,” says the 31-year-old blond giant. On Praia do Porto, he examines two green turtles he caught while diving. He measures their shells and checks out the markings on the front fins. Later, he will use this data to track the exact wanderings and growth of the turtles and update the computer records. After this public examination, he lets several excited children help carry the turtles back to the water.

At sunset, all the beaches in the national park close to leave the animals in peace. During the nesting season, from January to July, some beaches close completely, but visitors can accompany the scientists on their nightly patrols and watch the females laying their eggs. “We let tourists see the tiny turtles hatching and running into the ocean,” says Bortolon, a spectacle that never fails to stir a wave of emotion on this island paradise.