This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by ePublishing Partners, now available on Google Arts & Culture
In 2001, UNESCO designated it as a World Heritage Site because of the importance of its environment.
On this hike, you’ll see many of the natural wonders Fernando de Noronha has to offer. The trail winds through the island’s unique tropical ecosystem and ends at a lookout point over a bay ringed by beautiful beaches and studded with dramatic sea stacks.
There, you can catch glimpses of spinning dolphins at play.
Boardwalks on the island protect native plants from trampling and erosion. Guides offer binoculars to visitors, so they can keep a respectful distance from wildlife and fragile coastlines.
Many beaches in the archipelago have strict rules to protect marine life. Swimming is not allowed on this beach so that visitors will not disturb the dolphins.
On other shores, visitors must not enter the water wearing sunscreen or insect repellent as these chemical substances rinse off and cause pollution. In some areas, particularly near coral reefs, swimmers, snorkelers, and divers must be skilled enough so they can navigate without touching the fragile ocean floor.
Spinner dolphins, like all dolphins, are marine mammals, meaning they breathe air and have to live young. Dolphins are highly social, intelligent creatures. They usually live in family groups, and communicate using sound and body language.
Dolphins are famous for being curious and sometimes even playful with human swimmers and divers. These spinner dolphins prefer warm, shallow waters—that is, in areas where humans can easily observe their athletic, playful behavior both from the water and from shore.
The islands lie just a few degrees south of the Equator and receive abundant sunshine year-round. A warm ocean surface current, fueled by the trade winds, crosses the tropical Atlantic Ocean from Africa to Noronha, bringing even more warmth to the island and its waters.
And, tropical cyclones (hurricanes) are almost nonexistent south of the equator, making for seas that surround the islands unusually warm and tranquil for the tropics.
Fernando de Noronha has been a leader in the trend of “eco-tourism,” or tourism directed toward the natural environment and wildlife observation. The islands attract both tourists and professional biologists who come for a rare chance to observe wildlife up close, especially marine wildlife.
Spinner dolphins get their name from their habit of leaping acrobatically in the air and twirling while aloft—up to seven spins per second. Some biologists speculate that the dolphins spin to rid themselves of skin parasites.
It’s also possible that these highly intelligent and social creatures leap and twirl as communication or play.
This popular dive features dramatic volcanic-rock formations. Lava flows generated the arches, nooks, underwater caves of the sea floor in this area. These varied forms, from enormous caves to tiny cracks and crevices, provide habitats for equally varied marine life.
At Fernando de Noronha critical habitat is preserved and protected for the profoundly endangered hawksbill sea turtle. These relatively small sea turtles prefer to stay in shallow water, where they feed on sponges.
They are known to be fond of caves and nooks, like those abundant in Pedras Secas. Outside protected areas, hawksbill turtles are still hunted for their meat, eggs, and beautiful shells.
Sea caves, underwater grottoes, and other complex shapes on the seafloor present a challenge to divers. Humans often find it surprisingly difficult to navigate in the three-dimensional underwater environment, and dark tunnels only increase the difficulty.
However, the rock formations in Pedras Secas are shallow and light-filled, presenting a relatively safe challenge for professional and amateur divers alike.
The volcanic rock of Fernando de Noronha is relatively young—between 1 and 12 million years old. It is still rough and irregular, forming jagged, dramatic shapes that have not yet been worn smooth by erosion.
While the dark basaltic rock looks may look forbidding to you, an abundance of marine organisms have adapted to it.
The waters around Fernando de Noronha are famous for diving and snorkeling because of the endless variety of rock formations, reefs, and sandy sea floors. Additionally, the waters are crystal-clear and soothingly warm.
This combination of diverse habitats, steady temperatures, and bountiful energy in the form of sunlight creates high biodiversity, or the total number of species living in a single area. Biodiversity is not only exciting for human visitors—it also helps an ecosystem stay strong in the face of changes.
School of fish
The sheltered lagoons, the complex shape of the sea floor, and the warm, shallow waters of the reefs around Fernando de Noronha are ideal nurseries for juvenile fish.
Unlike the Caribbean to the north, the southern Atlantic Ocean has very few islands or shallow areas where fish can breed, so the Noronha archipelago provides a critical safe haven from the open ocean. This is a school of horse-eye jack, a large fish popular with sport fishers.
The entire Fernando de Noronha archipelago is the very top of a single underwater volcanic mountain that rises 700 meters (2,300 ft.) from the surrounding sea floor.
Scientists believe that the 21 islands (one major island and 20 smaller, uninhabited islets) were once joined as a single mass that has since been broken apart by erosion.
The waters around Fernando de Noronha are famously clear, allowing sunlight to penetrate up to a depth of 50 meters (160 ft.). Many coral polyps, the tiny animals that make up coral reefs, house photosynthetic algae within their tissues.
The algae use photosynthesis to turn sunlight into food, which they then share with the coral, strengthening both organisms in a relationship called symbiosis. The clear water and abundant sunshine allow for a particularly rich coral reef environment that extends into unusually deep water.
Praia da Cacimba do Padre
The beaches along the island’s north coast have been described as some of the most beautiful in Brazil—a nation well known for its love of sea and sand.
They feature white sand, dramatic sea stacks and rock formations, and large waves for surfing and play. Beaches are often seen as places for fun, but they also serve as unique habitats for wildlife.
The calmer waters of the northern and eastern island shores create beautiful, white sand beaches. The brilliant white sand on Noronha’s beaches comes not from the dark volcanic rocks that make up the island but the white calcium carbonate shells that make up the surrounding coral reefs.
Waves push small particles to the shoreline and deposit them in relatively calm, shallow sheltered areas.
Harder, steeper rocks along the coast stick out from the flat sand and form sea stacks. Sea stacks and other rock formations create sheltered areas and tide pools that are home to crabs, lobster, sea stars, sea urchins, and other small animals that would otherwise be battered by waves.
Many tide pools along Noronha’s coast are protected to prevent trampling by visitors.
While much of Noronha’s richness lies offshore, the island’s land also supports diverse ecosystems. The big island is partially covered with Atlantic rain forest, as well as the only saltwater mangrove forest in the southern Atlantic.
Mangroves, whose roots form a dense tangle, create oases of shady, still water that act as nurseries for many fish and shellfish.
Many corals grow around islands, forming ring-like structures called atolls. The circle of coral creates a sheltered, shallow lagoon between the coral and the shoreline. Coral atolls protect beaches and seashores from pounding waves and storms.
This protects not only the forest habitat onshore, but also marine habitats inside the lagoon. The landward and the seaward sides of the coral atoll structure provide two different types of habitats, each with a unique set of species.
School of fish
Coral reefs often grow in cliff-like structures, creating microhabitats for an enormous variety of species. Ground-hugging fish such as flounder and some sharks find places to hide along the sandy bottom; clownfish, shrimp, and parrotfish swim in and among the coral structures while hunters, like the barracuda, patrol the open water near the top.
Every depth of the cliff hosts a different set of species. Biologists compare coral reefs to tropical rainforests. Both are layered systems of habitats that support some of the greatest biodiversity on Earth.
Despite the tranquil scenery, the food chain is very much a part of life in Fernando de Noronha. The barracuda, a large, fast, fearsome-looking predator, hunts fish among the coral reefs. The island’s waters also support a large population of sharks and rays, including reef sharks, nurse sharks, and lemon sharks.
Tourist guides boast that Noronha’s sharks are unusually docile, and even friendly, to swimmers and divers, because of the abundance of fish prey.
Coral are classified as either soft or hard. All corals are animals, and individuals are known as polyps. Hard coral polyps form tough calcium carbonate shells from dissolved minerals in seawater. Over thousands of years, millions of individual shells build up to form the structure of the coral reef.
Soft coral, though they are often found on reefs, do not form shells. The polyps often grow in colonies to form swaying, plant-like structures like the ones seen here. All coral polyps have a mouth surrounded by tiny tentacles, which reach out to grab floating bits of food from the water.
Atol das Rocas
This coral atoll, or ring-shaped reef, lies near, but not directly adjacent to, the island of Fernando de Noronha. This atoll no longer has an island at its center—the volcanic rock was worn away by the ocean.
The tough, resilient coral remains, forming an open, circular lagoon in the center of a low, circular island. The land itself was formed by bits of coral and coral sand building up into sandbars and beaches due to wave action. Atol das Rocas’s isolated position makes it an ideal for many marine species.
Many sea birds prefer to nest and breed on isolated islands where there are no predatory land animals, such as mammals or snakes, and the isolated Atol das Rocas provides such a safe haven. Unfortunately, humans have accidentally or intentionally introduced species such as rats, cats, and pigs to many once-isolated islands, endangering native species.
Luckily, Atol das Rocas is small and economically unimportant to humans, so no species were brought there. The atoll has been preserved as an important sea-bird habitat.
Many sea birds, such as the terns settled here, undertake enormous migrations, crossing thousands of miles. Arctic terns famously fly from the Arctic to the Antarctic every year, crossing almost the entire planet. Albatross may spend years at sea, soaring on their enormous wings.
But even these strong birds need rest, and they usually seek isolated, predator-free islands to recuperate from life at sea. The isolated Atol das Rocas can host as many as 150,000 individual birds nesting, feeding, or simply resting.
Nesting and Territory
Many bird colonies are very crowded and can host dozens of species. Each individual stakes out a tiny claim, sometimes barely bigger than the bird itself, and defends its territory from intruders.
Most birds stay in pairs to raise their chicks—one partner guards the nest, while the other hunts for food at sea. Birds identify their partner among the thousands of individuals by the sound of their call.
Buraco do Inferno
The “Devil’s Hole” is an unusual coastal feature called a blowhole. Blowholes only exist in a few locations around the world. Their unique geology generates blasting jets of water that shoot up through holes due to wave action.
Though the violent eruptions often keep wildlife away, blowholes are definitely entertaining for human visitors.
The Devil’s Hole
A blowhole develops when a coastal sea cave has a small vent, crack, or hole in its ceiling. When waves enter the cave, the energy forces the water back into the cave and up through the vent. The water moves with greater speed and force as the space gets smaller.
Eventually it wears a hole up through the ceiling and out through the land above. The result is a powerful jet of water erupting from the roof of the cave.
Blowholes are not just geologically rare—they only “erupt” when conditions are just right. The wave must enter the sea cave at the right angle, flowing directly into the mouth, where there is no escape except for upwards through the vent.
Blowholes erupt most spectacularly during high tides and storms that generate big waves. When the tides are low or the waters are calm, some blowholes may not erupt, but waves can still trap air inside the cave and shoot it up through the vent in an invisible, roaring blast.
The islands of Fernando de Noronha are made primarily of basalt and phonolite, which are solidified lava. Basalt and phonolite come from thin, runny lava that flows smoothly across Earth’s surface and cools very quickly in the open air.
As the lava rapidly cools, it shrinks, often forming vertical cracks or joints, which easily erode into steep cliffs, like those seen here. Wave action further erodes the cracked rocks into narrow sea caves.