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22 Apr - A Discourse on Fernando de Noronha

RRS Ernest Shackleton Diary

Position @ 1200 UTC - 3 hours: 4°23' South. 033°01' West, some 40 miles South of Fernando de Noronha.
Next destination: Grimsby, England.
ETA: 7 May 2001, 0635BST.
Distance to go: 4005.8 nautical miles.
Total Distance Sailed: 30,324.8 nautical miles (Since departing Hull, England on 19 October 2000).

Current weather:
Wind: ESE Force 5.
Barometric pressure: 1012.2 mb
Sea state: Moderate.
Air temperature: 30.5°C.
Sea temperature: 28.5°C.
Last weather observation sent from RRS Ernest Shackleton

This week has seen RRS Ernest Shackleton continue the long journey back to the UK. At 1200 last Sunday the ship was some 40 miles off Tramadai, Brazil. On Saturday 21 April, nearly one week later, we were passing Recife and still running up the coast of Brazil, proving what a large country it is. However, by Saturday evening the ship was heading out into deep sea and towards Europe.

The weather has been very good throughout with the odd tropical shower, sometimes heavy, but never lasting long and drying out is a quick process.

Whilst in such good conditions there is the chance to catch up on painting and maintenance on the outside decks and this has been going on all week. With fairly calm seas whilst following the Brazilian coastline there has been little spray coming onboard.

This is also the time when we run extra drills to ensure that we all know what to do in the various types of emergency that can arise. This week we have had two such drills. The first on Tuesday covered cross flooding, fuel shut off valves, fire control panels on the Bridge and emergency steering. Forthcoming events:   Continue north, enjoy the weather.  Prepare for North Sea Operations !

John Harper watching Ray Davis use the Emergency Steering. Click on image to enlarge Chief Officer John Harper watching Ray Davis use the Emergency Steering.

The stretcher party. Click on image to enlarge Whilst this is going on the medical party are practising first aid and recovery methods. Wendy Scott, as the patient, being carried in the stretcher. Dave Bailey, Catering Officer, is on the left and John Clancy, Steward, is on the right.

Thursday saw another exercise, this time looking at the Emergency Generator and how to operate it, the Emergency Fire Pump and where it can be started from and finally the Oil Spill Response Kit, what it contains and how to use correctly in the event of an oil spill.

Chief Officer John Harper with the Oil Spill Kit. Click on image to enlarge Chief Officer John Harper explaining the contents of the Oil Spill Kit.

The Dentist, Wendy Scott, has been busy seeing the ships Officers and Crew for a check up this week, in between painting orange lines on the Deck!

Now that the vessel is heading out into the open water of the Atlantic the sea conditions have changed and we are now in moderate seas. Later this afternoon we shall pass our last landfall for a while, the Island of Fernando de Noronha, a small island off Brazil that is full of interesting wildlife. At present we have boobies flying along with us, performing spectacular high dives into the sea to catch fish.

FERNANDO DE NORONHA - a short biography.

Fernando de Noronha web site, including webcam

Fernando de Noronha is an isolated group of volcanic islands located in the South Equatorial Atlantic at 03°51' South and 32°25' West, approximately 215 miles from Cape Sao Roque in the state of Rio Grande do Norte and 340 miles from Recife, Pernambuco. The main islands are the visible parts of a range of submerged mountains. Consisting of 21 islands, islets and rocks of a volcanic origin, the main island has an area of 7.1 square miles, being 6.2 miles long and 2.2 miles at its maximum width. The perimeter measures 37.2 miles. The base of this enormous volcanic formation is 2480 feet below the surface. The main island, from which the group gets its name, makes up 91% of the total area; the islands of Rata, Sela Gineta, Cabeluda and Sao Jose, together with the islets of Leao and Viuva make up the rest. Geological studies indicate that the islands were formed around 2,000,000 years ago. 


The climate is tropical, with two well defined seasons: the rainy season from January to August, and the dry season for the rest of the year. The heaviest rains occur between March and July, sometimes reaching almost 8 inches in 24 hours in March and April. October is the driest month, when rainfall will not be greater than 0.36 inch in a 24 hour period. The average temperature is 77°F, with a variation of only 7.4°. The hottest months are January, February and March. The relative humidity varies little from 81.5 % due to the islands characteristics. Average annual sunshine is 3.215 hours per day, with a maximum in November and a minimum in April.


The land vegetation of the islands is made up mostly of vines and bushes with a few species of trees, principally represented by the Nyctaginaceae, Bignoniaceae, Anacardiaceae, Rubiaceae and Euphorbiaceae. There are also a great number of bushes and herbs not native to the island. Most noted among the bushes is the wild bean Capparis cynophallophora and the burra leiteira Sapium scleratum (native), that produces a caustic sap capable of causing serious burns on men and animals. Among the herbs are noted the jitiranas Ipomea spp. and Merremia spp., which are harmful climbing vines. Besides these, some fruit trees have been introduced on the island, such as the papaya, cashew, banana, tamarind, caja, guava, graviola, etc.

Various ornamental species have been introduced also, such as the almond Terminalia catappa, the royal poinciana Tebebuia impectiginosa , caraiba and serratifolia, the jasmin manga Plumeria alba, the eucalyptus, the coconut palm, in small numbers, and the carnauba Copernica prunifera, appear rarely.


Compared to the Brazilian coastline, there is not a great variety of aquatic plants on Fernando de Noronha. This emphasizes the uniqueness of the marine ecosystem of these islands, to which few species have been able to adapt. Perhaps it is due to the lack of nutrients basic to the growth of these algae, since warm currents poor in organic material are characteristic of Fernando de Noronha.


As occurs on other isolated oceanic systems, the land fauna of the Archipelago Fernando de Noronha presents an exuberant bird life, much richer than the vertebrate groups such as amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, which are represented by only a few species.

The archipelago is home to the largest bird breeding colonies of all the islands of the Tropical South Atlantic. Among the species found here are the viuvinha Anus minutis, which builds it's nest in the trees and on the cliffs of the islands, using algae collected from the surface of the waters; the viuvinha grande anus stolidus; the trinta-reis-de-manto-negro Sterna fuscata; the viuvinha branca Gygis alba, a pure white bird which lays its eggs in the forks of tree branches; the mumbebos Sula dactylatra, the brown mumbebos Sula leucogaster, the red footed mumbebos Sula sula; the catraia Fragata magnificans and the red beak rabo-de-junco Phaethon aethereus (both of these are noted for their extremely long tail feathers).

Inland there are a few land birds, such as the sebito Vireo gracilirostis; the cocoruta Elainia spectabilis and the pomba avoante Zenaida auriculata noronha. As for the reptiles, there are two species of turtles: the aruana or green turtle Chelonia mydas, which uses the islands as its area of reproduction and feeding (herbivorous) and the young individuals of the Eretmochelys imbricata which use the islands for feeding and growth. Likewise, there are two species of lizards: mabuia Mabuya maculata (native) and the teju Tupinambis teguxim, which was introduced to feed on the rats, but prefers other prey such as the eggs and young of birds and turtles.


The Archipelago Fernando de Noronha hosts ecologic sites ideal for an exuberant marine animal life, due to its geographic location far from the continent and well within the path of the Southern Equatorial Current, as well as the nature of its climate, a fact clearly proven in various experiments. Over the years separate studies have discovered 168 families of mollusks, 72 species of crustaceans, and a large quantity of ornamental fish both native and migratory.

In 1988 approximately 70% of the archipelago was declared a National Marine Park, with the goal of preserving the land and marine environment. It is administered by the IBAMA. Towards its goal research projects are being developed, such as: recording native and migratory bird species both marine and land; studying the behaviour and reproduction of the golfinho rotador Stenella longirostris; the ecology and reproduction of the crustaceans of the upper, middle and lower coast; shark research and the TAMAR PROJECT (marine turtles). These subjects are offered to the tourists each night at the visitors center of the project, nearby the headquarters of IBAMA.

Today Fernando de Noronha is a model of environmental preservation, existing side by side with small scale tourist activities, which are limited by the existing facilities. Permanent works built by the ONG's and Foundations, contribute to the perfecting of the conversational policies.


Many controversies surround the discovery of Fernando de Noronha. The map of the area sent in November, 1502 to Ercole d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, shows the archipelago as the "Ilha da Quaresma" (Isle of Lent). From this it was supposed that knowledge of the existence of the island dated from the expeditions which passed near them during Lent in 1500, 1501, or 1502. The Viscount of Santarem attributed the discovery to Gaspar de Lemos, the captain of the supply ship in Cabral's fleet, sent back to Portugal in 1500 with the news of the discovery of Santa Cruz (Brazil). However, Gaspar's ship did not pass through the area of Fernando de Noronha during Lent; rather, after sailing the coast of Brazil and cutting brazilwood, Gaspar could have sighted the archipelago on June 24, the day of the festival of St. John, whose name he could have given to the island

Duarte Leite, after lengthy research, attributed the discovery of the island to the 1501-1502 expedition, whose command mistakenly attributed ownership of the island to Fernao de Loronha. Portuguese historian Jaime Cortesao infers there must have been another expedition to Brazil in 1502-1503, an expedition unknown except for a few clear remains. This would explain the questions as to the mention of the island on maps of the period. This expedition would have been under the command of Fernao de Loronha, who, by this account, personally began the taming of the land he received as payment for the Brazilwood he brought back from Brazil. It is in the course of this voyage that, according to Duarte Leite, Fernao de Loronha he would have discovered the archipelago named for him.

Differing opinions aside, what is certain is that the first to describe the island was Americo Vespucci, who travelled in the expedition of Goncalo Coelho in 1502-1503. By the Decree of February 16, 1504, Dom Manuel I granted Fernao de Loronha the archipelago, making this the first hereditary land grant in Brazil. This system of land grants was later inaugurated on the mainland of Brazil between 1534-1536, when Dom Joao III established no less than 14 such grants along the coast in favour of twelve grantees. The descendants of Loronha continued to receive title to possession of the island by royal decree until his great-great-grandson, Joao Pereira Pestana in 1692.

In 1534, the Fernando de Noronha Archipelago was invaded by the English, and from 1556 until 1612, it was held by the French. In 1612, Claudio de Abbeville, a Capuchin missionary, landed on the island and found one Portuguese and seventeen Indian men and women who had been banished from mainland Pernambuco.

In 1628, Noronha was invaded by the Dutch, who were displaced two years later by the expedition commanded by Rui Calaza Borges according to the January 14, 1630 order of Mathias de Albuquerque. In 1635, the Dutch, under the command of Admiral Cornelis Cornelizoon Jol, attacked the island again and occupied it for nineteen years. During this period, the island was used by the Dutch as a site for a treatment and convalescence base for its troops, a third of whom in Pernambuco suffered from diseases such as scurvy and dysentery. The Island became known as Pavonia, in honour of Michiel de Pauw, one of the directors of the Dutch West Indies Company. In 1646, the Dutch built a small fort on the high ground at the site of the later Forte de Nossa Senhora dos Remedios (Fort of Our Lady of Medicines).

The Royal Writ of September 7, 1696 ordered the island occupied and garrisoned and the best sites selected for fortification to avoid the constant invasions. However, this order was not obeyed and the Atlantic territory continued at the mercy of invaders.

On September 24, 1700, by order of a Royal Writ, the Capitania of Fernando de Noronha reverted to the crown and became part of the Capitania of Pernambuco. Finding it uninhabited and completely abandoned in 1736, the French East Indies Company took the island and renamed it Isle Dauphine.

In 1737, at the order of Governor Henrique Luis Pereira Freire, 250 police led by Lt. Col. Joao Lobo de Lacerda decisively occupied the island without resistance. To frustrate further attacks by the French, the forts of Nossa Senhora dos Remedios, Nossa Senhora de Conceicao and Santo Antonio were constructed.

The church of N. S. dos Remedios, a landmark of the re-population of the island, was completed in 1772. About this time, the first prisoners were sent to the island. Initially, prisoners were sent only occasionally, but this development prompted preventive measures which profoundly altered the island environment. Vegetative cover was destroyed and trees were felled to prevent escapes and to eliminate hiding places for inmates; and, non-native species were introduced to the island. Consequences of these changes remain visible today.

In 1739, the forts of Sao Joao Batista dos Dois Irmaos and Sao Joaquim do Sueste. By the Royal Writ of August 16, 1755, Angola came to contribute the annual sum of $4,000,000 to cover the expenses of the fort of Fernando de Noronha, a subsidy which continued until the eve of the proclamation of the independence of Brasil. In 1789, the Portuguese government planned to install an agricultural colony on the island, hoping to make it less dependent on the royal treasury. But this idea was not accepted by the then-governor of Pernambuco, Dom Thomas Jose de Melo.

In 1837, on the occasion of Pernambuco's republican revolution, the provisional government directed Capt. Jose de Barros Falcao de Lacerda to demolish the fortifications of the island and to return its prisoners to the mainland. In 1822, Col. Luis de Moura Accioli assumed command of Fernando de Noronha and the island continued as a part of Pernambuco, its internal affairs administered by Pernambuco's Ministry of War. In 1865, regulations governing the island were promulgated and in 1877, the administration and custody of the island was transferred to the Ministry of Justice. In 1865, Emperor Pedro II signed new orders governing the island.

After the proclamation of the Republic, Baron de Lucena was offered the Ministry of Justice, but demanded as a condition of his acceptance of the post that Fernando de Noronha be returned to the control of Pernambuco. Thus, the island was returned to Pernambuco by Decree 1.371 of November 14, 1891.

In 1897, the government of Pernambuco took control of the penitentiary at Fernando de Noronha and converted it to use as a state prison. It remained under state control until 1938, when Brazil's federal Ministry of Justice paid CR$ 2,000,000. for it and converted the island to use as a political prison and penal colony.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the English arrived to provide technical cooperation in telegraphy (The South American Company). Later the French came with the French cable and the Italians with Intalcable. In 1942, during World War II, the archipelago was made a Federal Territory, and political and ordinary prisoners were sent to the prison there.

In 1943, a new federal decree called for administration of the archipelago, which had been in the Ministry of War, by a Governor of the Federal Territory of Fernando de Noronha. On August 23, 1943, Col. Tristao de Alencar Araripe became the first governor of the new Federal Territory. Noronha was administered by the Brazilian army until 1981, by the Brazilian air force until 1986 and by the High Command of the Armed Forces until 1987. Most of the infrastructure on the island, including the airport, roads, schools, and hospital, date from this period of military administration. Agreements between Brazil and the United States allowed for the stationing of Americans on the archipelago from 1942 to 1945 (the Second World War) and from 1957 to 1962 (satellite tracking station operated by the U. S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration).

In 1987, the Federal Territory entered into a period of civilian administration by the Ministry of the Interior. This period, the only civilian administration in the history of the Federal Territory, lasted until 1988, when the new Constitution of Brazil reannexed the archipelago to the State of Pernambuco. Now, it is administered as a State District by a General Administrator appointed by the governor of Pernambuco and approved by its state legislature.

Today, Fernando de Noronha survives on tourism, restricted by the limitations of its delicate ecosystem, and traditional fishing, the catch being returned to the island for local consumption. In addition to the historical interest noted above, the archipelago has been the subject of the attention of various scientists dedicated to the study of its flora, fauna, geology, etc. One of the earliest works was published over 100 years ago by Pocock (1890). Later works have been published by Bjornberg (1954), Lopes e Alvarenga (1955), Almeida (1958), and Paiva (1967), among others.

In December, 1995, the constitution of the archipelago was promulgated, and in March, 1996, the first election was held for the District Council, a representative forum which is the local government for the archipelago.

Forthcoming events: Cross the Equator on Monday 23rd April.

The next page will be written on the 29th April 2001 and should be published on the 30th April 2001.


Weekly diary entries