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August 2001 Vol. 16, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Fernando de Noronha, Brazil

unique diving, better than Caribbean prices

from the August, 2001 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

Remote. Isolated. A protected marine park. Reasonably inexpensive. The possibilities excited me. Then, when I heard Fernando de Noronha rolling lyrically off the tongues of those who properly pronounce it -- they roll the rs and pronounce the nh as the n in El Nio -- I was hooked. Its the only inhabited island in an archipelago 120 miles off the Brazilian Coast, four degrees south of the equator. Mention it to a Brazilian and youll receive knowing smiles. Mention it to anyone else and expect to answer some questions.

As if its remoteness werent protection enough, its waters and wildlife are well-guarded by the Brazilian government. Development is severely limited. They closely regulate fishing. Its even against the law to dive, snorkel or swim with the resident pod of some thousand spinner dolphins, although you can take a boat tour to see them on or just under the surface. The government regulates the number of tourists on the island, partially through a unique tax system. Pay $65 US/person for a weeks stay, $170 for two weeks, and about $800 for a month. The longer you stay, the more you pay per day. Obviously, the government cares more about preserving the ecological integrity than about expanding the economy. So, not many foreign tourists visit the island and the few who do are mostly Europeans. Most visitors are Brazilian, vacationing from the big cities of Sao Paulo or Rio.

The place to stay is in one of the hundred small pousadas, essentially B&Bs. Most are very comfortable, while a few are first class. After one day at a bad hotel, which has since closed, we moved to Pousada Ze Maria. Fernando de Noronha, BrazilThe owner, Ze Maria, was a kind and generous host, keeping four clean and comfortable rooms in a small wooden house surrounded by lush tropical vegetation with beautiful views of the islands spectacular natural beauty. From the pousadas wrap-around porch, we looked in one direction at a valley with distant hills and the Atlantic Ocean visible in the background. In the other direction, beyond rolling fields, a massive volcanic rock jutted a hundred feet above a lushly forested hillside, towering above us like some huge, prehistoric monolith. The small air-conditioned bedrooms had plenty of closet and drawer space. The large, comfortable, common living room, complete with a well-stocked honor bar, opened into the dining area where we dined with other guests at a large table with Ze Maria sitting at the head. His permanent smile lines and kind eyes set the tone for employees and guests alike. Though he and his staff spoke practically no English -- and we spoke absolutely no Portuguese -- I cant remember ever feeling this level of hospitality anywhere else. (A new pousada, the Dolphin, has a swimming pool with a nearby bar, a sauna, restaurant and English-speaking personnel.)

Resident chef Roberto prepared three elegant meals daily. Brazilian breakfasts featured meats, cheeses, fresh fruit, and coffee. Lunch and dinner were real events, with several main courses served family style. Entrees of fish, beef, or chicken, prepared with succulent and subtle sauces or simply grilled, were complemented by a variety of vegetable and rice concoctions. They provided fresh juices and soft drinks. Beers, bottled mineral water, and liquors were stocked in the honor bar.

Atlantis Divers’ Cat

Atlantis Divers’ Cat

Yet why come to Brazil for the diving? Because its a refreshing change from the Caribbean. Jagged, dramatic boulders, all thoroughly encrusted in extremely colorful sponges, algae, and hard coral, dominate the underwater landscape. On a typical dive, I saw large schools of black margates, Bermuda chub, and smallmouth grunts, as well as conies, barracuda, Spanish hogfish, brown chromis, sergeant majors, parrotfish, stingrays, jacks, spotted goatfish, scrawled filefish, French and queen angelfish, blackbar soldierfish, cocoa damselfish, and long-spined squirrelfish. About half the dives I saw nurse and reef sharks. I spotted several green turtles, spiny and slipper lobsters, banded coral shrimp, several crabs, and octopuses. Other divers saw a couple of manta or mobula rays. The waters are alive, and though there may be fewer species than at many Caribbean dive locations, the quantity of fishes, as well as the average size, far surpassed most Caribbean locations. I have rarely seen so many large schools of chub, and Ive never seen such large schools of grunts. Wide-angle opportunities abound between the beautifully encrusted rock formations and the large schools of fishes, but there were always many small critters and interesting little scenes calling for close-up and macro lenses. Visibility varied from 40 feet to well more than 100 feet, water ran about 82 degrees in May.

Noronhas three dive operators share the same dock. Atlantis Divers, Agua Claris, and Noronha Divers each run two-tank morning and afternoon trips and travel any night with enough guests. If one has the stamina, four to five dives a day are possible. All the operators provide aluminum 80s and Nitrox on request. Both Agua Claris and Noronha divers can accommodate Trimix fills, using either twin-80s or big, fat, steel 96s rigged with dual regulator valves. They required c-cards as well as a signature on standard liability waivers, then youre off to dive, with no checkout required. (The waivers were in English and the guides spoke enough English so I always knew the drill.)

I dived one day with Agua Claris and though their older, wooden boats were without heads or camera rinse tanks and sport flimsy ladders, I had a great day of diving. Although the boat could hold a dozen divers, there were only seven. All Noronha dive operators require buddy diving, so I buddied with Caio Borghoff, an instructor, who proved to be an excellent diveguide and companion.

My other dives were with Atlantis Divers, which has two new, well-maintained, roomy catamarans, each with a head, camera rinse, and two solid ladders. Their boats hold about two dozen divers and a half dozen staff. Diving is in small groups, avoiding a cattle-boat feel. The staff is helpful, friendly, and competent, calling roll by name to insure all divers are aboard. When one guest got seasick, they returned to port to drop her off between dives. While sometimes the water was calm and flat, other times there was a moderate current or surge. Whenever the plan called for a trip to turbulent waters, the crew generally offered an alternative at a calm and sheltered site. The guides kept divers of similar skills together, planning the dives carefully so no one had to wait long to be picked up. Buddies could stray from the group, but they strictly prohibited solo diving. They point out any interesting critters they find along the way.

Pedras Secas (or Dry Rocks) was a drift dive among colorful boulders strewn along a jagged underwater cliff. Swells of 4-6 feet created a surge as deep as 40 feet. Here, thousands of smallmouth grunts congregated with other species, all milling about amid dramatic piles of sponge-encrusted boulders that formed a labyrinth of pathways, making this a very special dive.

At Cabeo da Sapata, the entire dive took place around one pinnacle. At the bottom of the rock -- about 110 feet deep -- several 6-8 foot reef sharks patrolled the depths, warily maintaining their distance. I shot images of colorful rocks and clouds of grunts and chub, looking up the rock face toward the sun above. Slowly I circled the rock as I ascended, passing fish and critters along the way. I finished the dive near the pinnacles peak, where the sun highlighted huge clouds of grunts, chub, parrotfish, conies, and angelfish rocking in the surge. At the surface, the water boiled from the force of the crashing waves. The boat pulled up a few fin kicks from the rock, allowing an easy and effortless end to the dive.

Another classic Noronha dive is deep and not for everyone. The wreck of the Corveta lies upright in the sand at 200+ feet, with the deck at 185 feet. It can be dived on air or Trimix, depending on ones training. Guests diving air used special steel tanks fitted with dual valves for redundant first stages. Atlantis Divers supplied a ScubaPro first and second stage for backup so each diver had two independent reg sets. Highly trained technical divers escorted two or three divers at a time. While bottom time is only 15 minutes, I stayed down 45 minutes to complete decompression. On my first dive to the Corveta, I saw a huge Jewfish -- a.k.a. Goliath Grouper -- hanging around the bow-mounted 40-millimeter deck gun. After he posed for several shots with the wreck and my guide in the background, I took a quick tour of the pilothouse. The ship radios microphone still dangled on its coiled cord, tempting me to radio the boat for a few more tanks so I could extend our stay. The wreck was covered in red and orange encrusting growths and swarming with brown chromis and blackbar soldierfish. The 15 minutes went all too quickly, although it was not difficult to use up an entire roll of 36 exposures in the brief time.

When I was not diving, I visited several exquisite sparsely peopled beaches. Transportation around the island is by small cars, like golf carts, which rent for $30/day. For another $30 you can get a driver. My wife spent most of her days either relaxing and reading at the pousada, or touring the island with a driver to take photographs. The scenery is spectacular, with rugged volcanic rock formations, tropical forests, gorgeous beaches and scenic mountains. Shopping is limited and the nightlife is nonexistent, so restaurant hopping is the entertainment. While I found it difficult to leave the wonderful fare and hospitality of Ze Maria, I enjoyed the Tartarugao Boldro with its excellent steak and seafood dishes, served on flaming platters. Fernando de Noronha, BrazilI also enjoyed the Restaurante Ecologico, known for its lobster and octopus. At the Restaurante E Bar Visual, a short walk up the hill from the little shopping area just above the dock, chef and owner Elda prepares tasty octopus, fish, and chicken dishes. Try a side order of her macaxeira, a dish similar to but much tastier than French fries.

Bring plenty of cash. Few businesses take credit cards (those that do prefer VISA). Travelers checks and cash are unobtainable if you run out. I never leave cash in hotel rooms, going as far as to take it underwater with me in an old, gutted, Ikelite Mini-C flashlight housing -- my underwater wallet. One day, after grabbing a bite to eat at Eldas Restaurante E Bar Visual, I headed off to catch the afternoon dive. Once underwater, I remembered I had left my trusty old Mini-C on the bar! The next morning, I knocked on Eldas door -- she lives in rooms adjacent to her restaurant -- and when she saw me she immediately produced my missing flashlight, complete with its precious contents. Thats just how the people are on Fernando. The staff at Ze Maria even mailed my wife a T-shirt she had inadvertently left there, without even being asked.

After eight days, I concluded that Fernando de Noronha was even more beautiful than the sound of its name. Unspoiled natural beauty abounds both above and below the surface of the water. It is a very special and timeless place, reminiscent in ways of some less commercialized islands in the Caribbean -- say, for example, the north side of Tobago -- but with its own charms. With its excellent diving, exceptional hospitality, and exquisite food, Noronha has won my heart.

-- P.K.

Fernando de Noronha, BrazilDivers Compass: Sunie at Grand Tours and Travel, Inc.,(800)591- 2955; (954) 472-7163; e-mail: stocklers@yahoo.com) can arrange air, accommodations, diving and offers packages. She is intimately familiar with Noronha. Complete dive packages, with five nights at the Dolphin Hotel -- including airfare from U.S. cities, meals and diving -- runs $1,600 to $1,800, depending upon your home port ... If you choose to do it yourself, the two tank boat dives costs less than $45; a night dive is $35 and a Corveta dive is under $100. We paid $70/day/double for a room and three meals at Ze Maria. From most US cities the Travelocity.com website has airfares to Recife Brazil at $600-$650 ... I flew a code-share on Delta, then a short flight on an Air Nordeste/Varig to Fernando. Extra baggage can be costly, especially on the small plane between Recife to Noronha. Ask for extra allowance -- it helped for me ... Pousada Ze Maria, Pousada Morena, and Pousada Solar dos Ventos have good accommodations. Atlantis and Agua Claris both have technical dive instruction. Atlantis is acquiring several rebreathers and will offer instruction and rentals. More details at www.atlantisnoronha.com ... No E-6 processing on the island, but there is a one-hour color print processing ... Year-round daytime temps run in the mid to upper 80s, 70s at night ... December and January can be too rough to dive ... Nearest chamber is on the mainland, though they expect to have one on the island in 2002 ... You must have a visa to enter Brazil. Download an application and instructions from www.brasilemb.org or call (202)238-2828.

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