A Visit to Fernando de Noronha, Brazil – Above and Below

Two Brothers rocks (Morro Dois Irmaos) - Probably the most iconic view of Fernando de Noronha.
Two Brothers rocks (Morro Dois Irmaos) – Probably the most iconic view of Fernando de Noronha.

Fernando de Noronha, Brazil

We’re drawn to remote islands and have been lucky to visit some beautiful places over the years, but tiny Fernando de Noronha wasn’t on our radar until 2014. At a rum punch party on Bonaire, we met two Brazilian marine biologists whose enthusiastic descriptions of endemic fish species and the “most beautiful beaches in the world”, convinced us to add this UNESCO World Heritage Site to our must-see list. The opportunity to travel there came in 2018 when REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation) scheduled a field survey to count fishes – Ned and I didn’t hesitate to sign on.

Located 350 km off the northeast coast of Brazil, the Archipelago of Fernando de Noronha consists of 21 islands with a total area of only 26 square kilometres  (10 square miles). The National Park, established in 1988, covers about 115 square kilometers, encompassing the seas around the islands and about 60% of the main island, also called Fernando de Noronha. The island is accessible by flights from Recife and Natal. There are pousadas (inns), restaurants, and tour operators, but only enough to service the daily limit of 500 tourists. The nature and environmental use fees, payable on arrival, were said to be steep, but I didn’t find them to be outrageous. I read recently that business interests are pushing hard to develop the islands to create “the next Cancun”. That would inevitably unravel the decades of work invested by conservationists and scientists, to study and protect the bird and turtle nesting sites, and the wild dolphin and shark populations there.

Our group of 13 stayed at Pousada Atoba, a small, friendly B&B. Atlantis Divers picked us up every morning and transported us to the boat for our two-tank dives. They returned us to the pousada in time to drop our cameras off and make the short walk into town for lunch. Atlantis Divers handled all of our logistics and support. They had a most enthusiastic dive team, many of whom had marine science backgrounds, and went the extra mile to introduce us to several local divers and conservation professionals.

Part of the attraction of distant islands is the opportunity to see endemic species, that is, species that exist only in one geographic area. We traveled to Fernando de Noronha for the diving and the chance to see some of the endemics, and we were not disappointed.

An endemic species, the Noronha Wrasse, Thalassoma noronhanum (budião de Noronha)
A Fernando de Noronha endemic species, the Noronha Wrasse, Thalassoma noronhanum (budião de Noronha)

The Fishes of Fernando de Noronha

When preparing for REEF’s survey trips, Dr. Christy Semmens always reviews available scientific literature and species checklists, and communicates with other scientists, before creating survey and study materials for trip participants. As I reviewed a checklist of species from Christy, a species caught my eye – Menephorus sp. What luck! I had been looking for this hybrid of a Coney and a Creolefish for years! Christy advised that the sighting frequency in species checklists from the area was pretty high, so I was hopeful. I became fixated on finding this fish. On our first dive in Fernando de Noronha, Janet Camp pointed one out and I spent most of the dive chasing it around. I needn’t have been so anxious – we ended up seeing many during the week:

Menephorus sp. – the Coney x Creolefish hybrid.
Menephorus sp. – the Coney x Creolefish hybrid.
A Coney, Cephalopholis fulva,
A Coney, Cephalopholis fulva, swims along the wall.

One of the motivations for diving in new areas is the chance to add blenny species to our life lists. One of the first we found was the yet-to-be described blenny in the genus Emblemariopsis.  Endemic to Fernando de Noronha Archipelago, it is closely related to Emblemariopsis signifer. Females and young males of this genus are small and fairly nondescript. The males, decked out in their courting colors and making their little signal jumps are what we usually notice first. The red of his flicking dorsal fin caught my eye:

An undescribed blenny (Emblemariopsis sp.)
An undescribed blenny (Emblemariopsis sp.) displays his colorful dorsal fin.

At one of the sites, Ilha do Meio, we were able to swim into the shallows – prime habitat for some blenny species. We were rewarded with sightings of the Noronha Blenny, Scartella itajobi, another Fernando de Noronha endemic species. Like the closely related Molly Miller blenny, Scartella cristata, it sported the characteristic comb of banded cirri on top of its head:

The Noronha Blenny, closely related the the Molly Miller.
Sometimes our dive site was close enough to shore to hunt for shallow water blennies.
Sometimes our dive site was close enough to shore to hunt for shallow water blennies.

Also found in the shallows were Hairy Blennies; We found a number of large ones in the top inches of a shallow pinnacle. The three species that make up the Hairy Blenny complex are often difficult to tell apart visually:

Masquerader Hairy Blenny, Labrisomus conditus 

The Brazilian species of the Redlip Blenny is Ophioblennius trinitatis. Other than its color, it looks and behaves just like the species we see in the rest of the tropical Western Atlantic:

Redlip Blenny, Ophioblennius trinitatis

The Noronha Cleaner Goby is another endemic:

Noronha cleaner goby, Elacatinus phthirophagus (neón cata-piolho)
Noronha Cleaner Gobies at work.
Noronha Cleaner Gobies at work.

One interesting thing about fishwatching is how a fish may be rarely seen in one geographical region, but relatively common in another. That was the case with the Marbled Grouper. On Fernando de Noronha, we saw quite a few – often multiples on a dive:

Marbled Grouper, Dermatolepis inermis
Marbled Grouper, Dermatolepis inermis

We added a few more species to our life lists:

Brazilian Yellowcheek Wrasse
Brazilian Yellowcheek Wrasse, Halichoeres dimidiatus (budião azul)

Reef Parrotfish, Sparisoma amplum
Reef Parrotfish, Sparisoma amplum (papagaio de recife)

Rocas Gregory, Stegastes rocasensis (saberé de Rocas)

Our fellow fish surveyor, Mike Poe, returned from a dive with a fish he couldn’t identify. It’s a blenny from the genus Starksia, but we don”t know which – maybe S. multilepis?

A blenny from the genus Starksia.

Another fish on our wishlist was the Streamer Wrasse (Clepticus brasiliensis), also called the Brazilian Creole Wrasse. In 2000, C. brasiliensis was described as a different species from the Caribbean’s C. parrae.  On our last visit to Bermuda, our friend Judie Clee was very excited that their Clepticus may soon be classified as an endemic too, so I had looked up that 2000 paper and noted the dramatic images of the Brazilian species.

Naturally, this was one of the first species we asked our dive guides about. They said we’d see them for sure, but as the week wore on and the seas remained a bit too rough for diving the eastern side of the island, they decided to try a site down at the southwestern end of the main island. At Caverna da Sapata, we saw small groups of juveniles that look just like the Caribbean’s C. parrae, so hopes were high as we drifted among the boulders and along the wall…and there they were – just a few – but we saw them! They were very pale, the blues very muted compared to the Caribbean species. Back on the boat, one of our dive guides said they call them “ghost fish” – indeed, their local name is “budião fantasma”, translated to ghost wrasse.

Brazilian Creole Wrasse, aka, Streamer Wrasse
Brazilian Creole Wrasse, aka, Streamer Wrasse, Clepticus brasiliensis (budião fantasma)

Along the wall at Caverna da Sapata, we also added the Twostripe Puffer, Canthigaster figueiredoi, which was a new fish sighting for me. A number of our surveyors saw the Topsail Chub,  Kyphosus cinerascens, which was not on the fish checklists we studied. The local naturalists felt it was a range extension because they had noticed them on previous dives but didn’t think they were the same as the other chubs they were seeing.

Twostripe Puffer, Canthigaster figueiredoi

Getting into the spirit of the hunt, our guides began suggesting dives where they knew we could see species we hadn’t yet encountered on this trip. We went for Giraffe Garden Eels but also saw the most beautiful jawfishes – previously considered to be the same jawfish as the one in Caribbean, Opistognathus aurifrons, but now considered, though not yet formally described, to be an endemic.

Yellowhead Jawfish, Opistognathus sp.

Every dive trip has at least one fish that has us all whooping and chicken dancing underwater. On our second to last day, half our group returned to the boat with the news that they had seen a “field” of the Brazilian Razorfish. We completely missed them. Conversely, most in our group had seen the Brazilian Creole Wrasse on the first dive but the other group had missed those. So in the spirit of “wrasses for everyone”, we agreed to repeat the same two dives the next day.

The “field of razorfishes” was not an exaggeration.  There had to have been thousands out over the sand. Most were picking plankton, but many of the brightly marked males were chasing females, and chasing other males that threatened to steal females from their harem. It was a fitting last dive for an enchanting week.

Brazilian Razorfish, Xyrichtys incandescens (curuá fogo)

Fernando de Noronha above water

Because divers need a day to off-gas before flying, we always have a day built in at the end of our trip to pack and indulge in a little sightseeing. I wish we’d built another day or two into this trip. I would have snorkeled at some of the other beaches and hiked a little.

Visitors are permitted to walk the wrack line and wade at Baia do Sueste.

Atlantis Divers arranged for a local tour company to take us on a sort of half day “best of” Fernando de Noronha tour. Our first stop was Baia do Suest. I wandered too close to the dunes and managed to get myself called out by the ranger with a whistle. They are serious about protecting the habitat so I deserved it.

Visitors are permitted to walk the wrack line and wade at Baia do Sueste.
Beautiful Baia do Sueste had a bonus attraction for the waders…baby sharks!

Hustling myself back down to the shore, I noticed several waders pointing at the water…Baby sharks! About a half meter long, there were about a dozen cruising the surf zone. This bay is a refuge for them. I could have stood in the ankle deep water for hours just watching them cruise back and forth.

We were permitted to wade into the shallows of Baia do Sueste to see the baby sharks.
We were permitted to wade into the shallows of Baia do Sueste to see the baby sharks.
Baby sharks find refuge in the shallows of Baia do Sueste
Baby sharks find refuge in the shallows of Baia do Sueste

Moving on, we drove to Baia do Sancho. Actually, we drove to the tourist welcome center with an entrance to a very long boardwalk that leads to the top of a cliff overlooking Baia do Sancho. If you want to actually go to the beach, you have to climb down an iron ladder – maybe 30-40 meters down? The allure of the beach was strong but Ned pointed out that I’d have to climb back up the same ladder – I decided to pass.

A pleasant hike led to this stunning view of Baia do Sancho.
A pleasant hike led to this stunning view of Baia do Sancho.

Ned and I opted to hang out on the boardwalk near the observation point while several braver members of our group made the climb down to the beach (and back up). We amused ourselves by watching the birds and the cutest little rodents, Rock Cavys:

Rock Cavy munching down on grass, along the path to Baia do Sancho.
Rock Cavy munching down on grass, along the path to Baia do Sancho.
The trees along to hike to Baia do Sancho were full of birds, including Red Footed Boobies.

Fernando de Norohna isn’t necessarily easy to reach, and the prices for accommodations, food and diving are high, though in our minds could be higher, because if that’s what it takes to sustain and protect this beautiful place, we are all for it. We were privileged to have had the opportunity to see it.

Our happy fish surveyors from REEF, hosted by wonderful Atlantis Divers.