For those of you unfamiliar with Fernando de Noronha, it's a small island (17 square km) off the cost of Brazil, known for being a haven for sea turtles and scuba divers alike. Only 450 tourists are allowed on the island at any given time to preserve the natural habitat. And because the drinking water is shipped to the island and the garbage is shipped off, we had to pay a "Preservation Tax" for each day we were there, making the trip a little pricey but well worth it.
We booked our pousada online, though it seems that most people book it through travel agencies and buy "packages" of excursions on the island. We were welcomed by the tourism agency affiliated with our pousada at the airport, and were ushered to the buses with 2 dozen other people. There seemed to be some confusion as to which pousada we were going to, since everybody seemed to be cataloged by pousadas and only our names were on the list. We were promptly carted to an "optional" video viewing of different scuba/snorkling/tour/boat trips offered by the tourism company. Though we were pressured to do more, we decided to purchase only 2 trips - one scuba excursion and one boat tour of the islands.
We were finally headed to our pousada (which was the best that we have stayed at as of yet, with AC, fridge, nice beds, patio with table and chairs, and all fixtures/lights/plumbing working properly). We walked down the main road for a quick bite to eat after our travels, and walked 15 minutes to the closest beach (Praia do Cachorro). The beach was small, and because it was high tide, there was barely any exposed sand, so we walked back up the stairs to the next beach (Praia do Meio).
We sat and watched the many surfers for a while before deciding to walk further and explore the next beach. Praia da Conceicao had even more surfers and massive waves forming beautiful pipe. We had brought our rental snorkel gear, so we decided to jump in the crystal blue waters. We had to fight past the breaking waves to get to a place calm enough to snorkel, and once we did, we were treated to swim with a school of fish and run in to several sting rays mighty close to shore. In an adventurous mood, we decided to take a different road back to our pousada, and just as it began veering in a different direction and growing steadily steeper, an Australian couple stopped their dune buggy and offered us a ride back into town. This, we learned, was pretty common for tourists on the island. If you didn't have passengers in the back seat of your rental buggy, it was customary to pick up surfers and/or other tourists and give them a lift to the many small vilas (villages) on the island. After that, we headed to a pizza joint, which didn't provide silverware, plates, or napkins because of the environmental implications, so we ate the pizza right off the serving plate. We also caught a local futsal league game on the way there. Erin was excited to see that the set up/officials/rules were identical to those of the league that she started in Adrian.
The next morning, we were picked up at 8 am for scuba diving. We headed out to the boat with 15 other tourists and rode to Ilha da Rata (Island of the Female Rat) for our dive. Each person went down with one scuba instructor,
and we were in the last group, so we got to play in the water and on the boat for about 1.5 hours before our dive.
Here's each of our interpretations of what happened while we were diving:
Everybody got a general scuba lesson on the boat ride over about the equipment we would use, the general communication symbols, and the most important thing... to breathe. I had gone scuba diving once before, so I was pretty comfortable with the idea of breathing underwater. Most instructors spent 5 minutes on the surface with the student breathing compressed air just under water. After I told my instructor that I had gone before, we dove right down, popping our ears as we went to grow accustomed to the 10 m depths. This experience was just as thrilling as the last one. To be able to swim amongst fish, and to witness the ocean not only from above like when snorkeling, but from above, below, to your left, to your right... basically 360 degrees around you in all directions. I saw many different kinds of fish, swam through underwater rock overhangs, got way too close for comfort with a sting ray, touched some of the underwater plants, swam like a mermaid, lifted up a little sand from the bottom to attract certain fish, "flicked" some small plants on the coral that withdrew into little holes to protect themselves, and all around enjoyed my surroundings for the full 35 minutes that passed by in a flash. It was such a serene feeling to be swimming in complete silence other than the sound of your own breathing and the fish picking at the coral. It is so effortless, it feels like you're weightless in space, neither sinking or floating. It was just incredible.
Finally, my time had come. I hopped in the water with one of the 2 instructors that could speak English. I was nervous as hell, thinking about going deep underwater. But I tried to remain calm, because the day before I had felt very comfortable breathing through a tube while snorkeling. I spent a few minutes with the instructor getting used to breathing through the machine. Before I was really ready, she was signaling me to go under. We slowly went under, and went deeper and deeper. She was very good at communicating, which I was thankful for, and we worked our way down slowly. I did not have problems popping my ears, but the closer we got to the bottom, the more scared I got, bringing with it irregular breathing. I didn't think it was possible to have clammy hands underwater, but I'm pretty sure that my instructor knew that I had them (it was common for each instructor to hold the student's hand and/or tank to guide them underwater). I tried to remain calm. The closer we got to the bottom, the more fish and marine life I saw, which was exciting. I also saw other scuba divers, but I was so frazzled that I didn't realize that it was Carolyn and her instructor. Before I knew it, my instructor was deflating my vest and pushing me to the bottom for a photo opportunity with Carolyn. I felt disoriented and like I wanted to speak, but couldn't being that we were underwater and all. All I could do was hold onto my mouthpiece tight to make sure that it didn't come out. Sometimes, it helped to shut my eyes and to just focus on breathing. Shortly after the photo, a giant sting ray came swimming by, and the photographer also conveniently. Before I knew it, my instructor was once again pushing me to the bottom of the ocean on top of a 4 ft sting ray whose barb was sticking out right below my chest. Now I'm sure you've all heard of what happened to the Crocodile Hunter, and I was nearly peeing myself counteracting her downward push. When we finally got away from the sting ray, I relaxed a little more and saw lots of fish. She motioned for my to explore under some of the coral cave things, but I communicated to her that I would rather not. They looked to dark and scary and full of unknown marine life. Time passed by and my mask was getting foggier and filling with a little water. I had previously learned how to alleviate the problem, but I was nervous to do it under water, so I motioned to surface. We had about 5 minutes left, so we went down for a bit longer then came back as the boat was getting ready to leave.
We got back from the scuba trip at about 12:30, and there was still lots of day light and so much to explore. So we grabbed our boards and paddle ball and headed to a new beach (Praia do Boldro).
The waves were massive. On average at least 6 ft tall breaking reasonably close to shore. We recently learned that in order to bodyboard with large waves you need to wear fins...so although our rental fins were twice as long as bodyboarding fins...we decided to put on our snorkel fins and give it a shot. Once out in the water a huge perfect wave came and I (Erin) decided to go for it. I caught it perfectly and headed straight down the wave. Big mistake! With large waves, it's important to ride the pipe (or along the wave) while with smaller waves it's possible to ride straight towards shore. After 5 seconds of pleasure, the wave crashed over me, flipping me underwater and all around before I had time to hold my breath. It tossed me around like a rag doll and it was one of the scariest experiences of my life. I held my breath as long as I could and kept hoping to find the surface. Finally I did, and to my surprise, my body board was still attached but I had lost a fin. Luckily, Carolyn had not caught the wave (she just watched in horror as I got sucked under), and was able to snag my rental fin on her way back to shore to make sure I was okay. I later learned from other surfers that Fernando has some of the biggest waves in Brazil, and decided to be more cautious from then on.
After a quick game of paddle ball to calm my nerves, we decided to explore and try to make it to the next beach. We got to the rocky point and saw Praia dos Americanos,
but we had to turn back because the tide was too high to get around the point safely. We decided to get on the road to get to the next beach, and caught a ride with a surfer to Praia do Cacimbo do Padre, the biggest surfer beach in Fernando. We sat mesmerized by the dozen surfers/bodyboarders catching/riding/flipping off of/doing tricks from/and bailing on perfect waves. We came to the beach to watch the sunset, but part of the island was still to the west of us, blocking the view. Just before sundown, we began to walk back to the pousada, catching another ride with another surfer dude, and called it a day.
The next day, we had a boat tour scheduled for the afternoon, so we killed time in the morning by playing in the waves (and playing paddle ball of course) in the closest beach. During our boat tour, we came across a group of dolphins, and took some great videos and pictures.
The dolphins in Fernando are known as spinning dolphins (apparently used to communicate with each other). They literally jump out of the water and spin (not flip) before landing back in the water. A group accompanied our boat for a good five minutes within a couple feet of the hull where we were sitting. We rode the boat west, seeing some of the beaches we had explored the previous day from the sea, and stopped at Baia do Sancho. This is considered one of the most beautiful beaches in Brazil, and our boat stopped for 45 minutes for us to snorkel.
That night, we spent a couple of hours trying to find a dune buggy to rent, but most were in use as the island was full of tourists. We ended up renting the neighbor's 1991 buggy for the standard price of R$120/day. By the way, in small towns in Brazil, you can rent buggies, surf boards, snorkels, or just about anything without leaving a credit card or showing an ID, etc...
The next day, we drove to the far end of the island to see the dolphins enter the Baia dos Golfinhos.
Apparently, 300 - 2000 dolphins enter the bay each day to rest after a night full of feeding at high sea. We saw many, though from very far away, but we did see lots of lizards up close. We then went to Praia da Atalaia, which is restricted to 100 visitors per day (you have to wait in line while they let 25 people go at a time while the tide is right). We were the second car in line thanks to our dawn dolphin watching, and after playing in Enseada da Sueste nearby for a couple of hours, the IBAMA (Brazilian Environmental Agency) allowed us to go.
Praia da Atalaia has a roughly 2 ft deep (max) pool that tourists are allowed to snorkel in. You are not allowed to walk or sit or touch the bottom as to not disturb the marine life and coral in the pool. The pool forms at every low tide. It was beautiful to see the rock barrier between the ocean and the pool. We saw a variety of fish, eel, and coral in the calmest of waters. It was amazing.
After lunch, we continued to take advantage of the dune buggy, and visited Praia do Sancho (by land this time).
We were surprised to learn that you had to climb down 2 ladders and a switchback path to get down the 150 ft cliff to the beach. It was worth it, though, as we got to do more snorkeling and paddle ball as the sun was setting. This time, we got to see a sea turtle swimming (or flying underwater)... it was incredible! Before the sun set, we scurried back up the cliff onto a mile long trail to Baia dos Golfinhos to watch the sunset from the west-most point of the island.
On our last day there, we packed our things up in the morning, and set out for a hike on the one part of the island that we hadn't explored. The sign said that visitors were only allowed with an IBAMA guide, but we couldn't miss out on seeing the last bit of the island on our last day, so we decided to play the old "I don't speak Portuguese card" and risk it. Turned out to be fine, we even ran across other people on the trail, and we got some great footage of the ocean and rocky coastlines.
We made it all the way to the port on the other side of the island, and we were hoping to catch a ride back to our pousada. Tourists were lacking on that side of the island, however, so we sped walked in the noon sun to get back before the bus picked us up for the airport. We had just enough time to split the largest bowl of acai I'd ever seen (1L) before we left.
After the usual airport confusion (even more so since we had an extra line to "check out" of the island and ensure we'd paid the tax for each day we were there), we were on a plane back to Natal.
Fernando de Noronha, marketed as "Every Brazilian's Dream Vacation" and "The Hawaii of Brazil". Tell you what, it didn't disappoint. On the 1-hour flight from Natal, the pilot allowed each of the passengers to come up to the cockpit to have a look. I never thought that I would be able to do that after 9/11, but I guess there aren't too many terrorist plots targeting the island paradise. The pilot also circled over the island, so I was able to get some great arial shots.