A Cruise to Some Little-Known Brazilian Islands: Fernando de Noronha and St. Peter and St. Paul Rocks, by Ted Cookson

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by Ted Cookson
Published in May 2005

St. Peter and St. Paul Rocks, Brazilian equatorial islands, 33-second video clip
Masked booby flying in the South Atlantic Ocean off Brazil, 120-second video clip

In March 2005 I sailed on the 382-passenger Silversea cruise ship MV Silver Shadow from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Lisbon, Portugal.  In the Western Hemisphere my cruise ship was to call at the ports of Salvador and Natal in northeastern Brazil as well as the small Brazilian archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, which lies at latitude 3.85 S. and longitude 32.42 W., some 214 miles (345 km) off the coast of Brazil.  In the Eastern Hemisphere my repositioning cruise was also to include calls at the following ports:  Dakar, Senegal; Tenerife, Canary Islands; and Funchal, Madeira.

For the first six days the Silver Shadow kept to the published cruise itinerary.  But on March 13 at 7 a.m. when the ship arrived at Fernando de Noronha we encountered a six-foot (two-meter) northeasterly swell. 

The smaller Hapag-Lloyd cruise ship MV Bremen, which had been lying at anchor off Fernando de Noronha since the previous day, was able to disembark its passengers onto the island on the morning of March 13 via the fleet of inflatable Zodiacs which it carries on board. 

Unfortunately, however, the six-foot (two-meter) swell was sufficient to prevent Silver Shadow passengers from disembarking safely into the ship's tenders or onto a trawler.  Many of the ship's 284 passengers (the vessel was only three-quarters full) had signed up for three-hour "Archipelago by Trawler" excursions that were to have included an opportunity for swimming.  These tours had to be cancelled.

Rather than commencing disembarkation procedures, the Silver Shadow instead made a two-hour counter-clockwise circumnavigation of the island.  Captain Emanuele Chiesa also announced that, in consolation, he would deviate from the planned transatlantic route in order to view the seldom-visited mid-Atlantic rocks of St. Peter and St. Paul at about 9 a.m. on the morning of March 14. 

Of course most passengers were disappointed not to be able to set foot on Fernando de Noronha.  However, I had already flown to Fernando de Noronha in February 2001 prior to a previous cruise I had taken on MV Silver Shadow from Rio de Janeiro on Cape Town via Ascension and St. Helena in March 2001.  So I was not as disturbed as were the other passengers; and, in fact, I welcomed the opportunity to trade a second visit to Fernando de Noronha for a chance to sail by and photograph St. Peter and St. Paul Rocks.

Originally called Ilha da Quaresma, or Lent Island, Fernando de Noronha was probably first sighted by the Portuguese expedition to Brazil led by Fernao de Loronha in 1501-1502.  However, as Amerigo Vespucci, who traveled to Brazil with a Portuguese expedition in 1503, was the first person to describe the archipelago, he is often credited with its discovery.

Between 1534 and 1737 Fernando de Noronha changed hands between the English, French, Dutch and Portuguese a number of times.  Finally in about 1770 Vila dos Remedios, the first permanent Portuguese settlement, was established.  Brazil's independence in the nineteenth century had little impact on the archipelago.  In the first half of the twentieth century the English, the French and the Italians all had some involvement with the island in connection with transatlantic cable communications.  The island also served as a prison for many years.

The U. S. built an airfield on Fernando de Noronha during World War II.  This was one of a chain of airfields which stretched from Florida all the way to Egypt via South America and Central Africa.  Aircraft were flown from the U. S. to North Africa by this circuitous route in order to support the Allied war effort.  U. S. troops remained on the island from 1942 to 1945.  Later, NASA maintained a missile tracking station there from 1957 to 1962.  

Of the 21 islands in the Fernando de Noronha Archipelago, which is of volcanic origin, only the main island is inhabited.  The total land area of the archipelago is 10 square miles (26 square km); and the highest peak, Morro do Pico, reaches 1,053 feet (321 meters).  There is a permanent population of about 1,300.  The few historical sites of interest to the tourist include a Portuguese-built fort and a church in the hamlet of Vila dos Remedios.  Nowadays there is daily air service to Fernando de Noronha (airport code FEN) from Recife, Brazil via Boeing 737 jet.  

During the five centuries since its discovery, some 95% of Fernando de Noronha's native vegetation and trees was destroyed.  The marine national park which was declared in 1989 set aside about 70% of the archipelago as a sanctuary.  Today Fernando de Noronha is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Due to the existence of the marine national park, cruise ships such as Silver Shadow now can only lie at anchor off the northwest coast of the island. 

No more than 480 tourists are allowed on the island at any one time.  An environmental preservation tax is imposed on island visitors by the state government.  Interestingly, this tax escalates the longer one remains on the island! 

With an average annual water temperature of 75 F. (24 C.) and underwater visibility of up to 131 feet (40 meters), diving has become Fernando de Noronha's primary tourist attraction.  The archipelago boasts white sandy beaches lapped by waters untainted by silt from Brazilian rivers.  There are 230 species of fish and 15 varieties of coral in the archipelago.  Dolphins, stingrays, whales, five types of sharks and two species of marine tortoise all inhabit the archipelago. 

Twenty-four species of marine birds are also to be found.  I was captivated by the scores of masked boobies (Sula dactylatra) which followed the Silver Shadow on March 13 as the ship circumnavigated and then sailed away from Fernando de Noronha. 

The family Sulidae contains nine species of boobies and gannets.  Both boobies and gannets are conspicuous at sea due to their large size, high flight and spectacular diving habits.  Both boobies and gannets have long pointed bills, webbed feet and pointed wings.  Although resembling a gannet superficially, the masked booby's head is completely white and the coloration resembles a black face mask.  In addition, the masked booby is broader than the gannet, and there is a more extensive trailing edge to the wings of the former. 

Early mariners, who found that boobies exhibited no fear of humans, killed them easily for food.  Because these birds appeared tame, they were called boobies after the Spanish word bobo which means "stupid." 

With a length of 34 inches (86 cm) and a width of 60 inches (152 cm), the masked booby is the largest and heaviest of the boobies.  According to the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region by John Bull and John Farrand, Jr., published in New York in 1994 by Alfred A. Knopf, the masked booby is "a stocky white seabird with a black tail, black tips and trailing edges to the wings."  It bears a pinkish or orange bill; and during the breeding season the booby exhibits a patch of bare, bluish skin at the base of the bill.

Preferring deep water for fishing, the booby executes near-vertical plunge-dives in search of flying fish and/or squid.  In fact, boobies are seldom found in regions where flying fish and squid are not plentiful.  I found that a booby would often let out a squawk similar to that of a duck prior to plunging deep into the Atlantic as if it were a vertical torpedo.  Other boobies, upon hearing the squawking, would plunge into the ocean nearby.  Peter Harrison in Seabirds of the World  A Photographic Guide, published in London in 1996 by Christopher Helm Ltd., mentions that the masked booby, which is pantropical, is a colonial breeder on islands, including the south Atlantic islands of Fernando de Noronha and Ascension Island where it normally lays two chalky, pale blue eggs in a shallow depression.

The Field Guide to the Birds of North America, third edition, published in Washington, DC in 1999 by the National Geographic Society, points out that the masked booby breeds as far north as Florida's Dry Tortugas.  This booby is also sighted rarely in the Gulf Stream as far north as the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  The bird is seen only occasionally in the Gulf of Mexico during the summer.  The masked booby is loosely gregarious at sea but is said not to follow ships usually.  In fact, the many masked boobies which accompanied us on March 13 were no longer in evidence the following day.

At 9 a.m. on March 14 the Silver Shadow arrived one mile (1.6 km) off St. Peter and St. Paul Rocks, which lie at latitude 0.93 N. and longitude 29.35 W., more than 496 miles (800 km) off the coast of Brazil.  These equatorial Brazilian islands, composed of mylonitic peridotite, are of volcanic origin.  The island group, some 820 feet (250 meters) wide and with a maximum height of 64 feet (19.5 meters), is the peak of a submarine mountain which extends 13,123 feet (4,000 meters) down to the sea bed below. 

St. Peter and St. Paul Rocks are of interest primarily because they are so far offshore in the equatorial Atlantic Ocean.  These isolated islands represent one of the very few places where a mid-oceanic ridge attains a height which is above sea level.  In effect, these mid-Atlantic rocks serve as an oasis for marine life within an otherwise deep water environment. 

There is no source of fresh water on the rocks other than rain, and the islands themselves are devoid of vegetation with the exception of two types of algae.  But the marine flora and fauna provide a significant food source for the seabirds which reside and breed there.  A 1971 biological survey by Smith et al.* showed that the brown booby (Sula leucogaster), the brown noddy (Anous stolidus) and the black noddy (Anous minutus) all breed on these rocks and that these birds' eggs are sometimes eaten by crabs (Grapsus grapsus), which occur there in large numbers.  Incidentally, all three of these birds are also said to breed on Ascension Island.

While it appears that scientists, amateur radio enthusiasts and Brazilian military personnel may have been the only visitors to St. Peter and St. Paul Rocks in recent years, interestingly, these isolated islands were also visited by Charles Darwin in HMS Beagle in 1860 and by H. N. Moseley in HMS Challenger in 1879.  Both naturalists reported seeing vast numbers of sea birds during those nineteenth century calls.  However, multitudes of sea birds are no longer in evidence today.  This may be due to human interference on the islands.  A lighthouse, a radio tower, a house and a shed have been constructed on one of the islands.  There is also a wooden stairway running down to a small dock area. 

The decline in bird life may also be due to extensive fishing in the area by boats from Brazil.  During my short visit I spotted three fishing boats working off these rocks.  Captain Chiese of the Silver Shadow remarked that he was surprised to see such small fishing boats operating so far from the continent of South America.

* Additional internet reference used in preparation of this article:

ABOUT TED COOKSON:  Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world!  He has also visited 307 of the 315 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club).  A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi.  Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at:  Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301.  Fax 2359-1199.  E-mail:  ept@link.net.  Web site:  www.eptours.com


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