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17 Nov - Across the Equator

Date:  Sunday 17 November 2002
Position @ 1200 (UTC): 15° 00'S 036° 48'W - running down the coast of Brazil
Next destination: Montevideo
ETA: 23rd November 2002 at 2100z
Distance to go: 1629.9 NM
Total Distance Sailed this Season: 4696.0 NM

Wind:  ENE x 20 kts
Barometric pressure:  1016.7 mb
Sea state: Slight
Air temperature:  28.5°C.
Sea temperature: 25.8°C.

Crossing the line - by Gavin Francis, Ships Doctor

This week RRS Ernest Shackleton crossed The Line.......

If, like me, you have never had the opportunity to be initiated into seamen’s lingo, you might not appreciate the importance of this event. Maybe I wish I didn’t either....

The week started off gently enough. We had our last sight of land during daylight in the northern hemisphere, Ilha Fogo of the Cape Verde archipelago. The air was thick with tropical heat as we passed it – a colossal active volcano looming over us through the haze. Those on board who’ve made this trip before ( most of ‘em!) say that it’s even more impressive on a clear day. We sailed on into the evening, and off the coast of Senegal I noticed that the birds who’d been hitching a lift with us were all gone. Maybe they were given a hint that King Neptune’s Court was about to be convened!

For the uninitiated, King Neptune’s Court is convened on the crossing of the Equator, in order to “try” all those on board who are unable to provide documentary evidence that they’ve already made it over “The Line”.

King Neptune is accompanied by his wife, Queen Amphitrite, and this was noted in The Faerie Queene written in 1590 by Edmund Spenser:

First came great Neptune with his threeforked mace,
That rules the seas and makes them rise or fall;
His dewy locks did drop with brine apace,
Under his diadem imperial:
And by his side his Queen coronal,
Fair Amphitrite, most divinely fair,
Whose ivory shoulders were covered all,
As with a rope, with her own silver hair,
And decked with pearls, which th' Indian seas for her prepare.
These marched far afore the other crew.

On a ship, that is. Preparations begin days in advance, with top-secret planning and costume-making “meetings” in the bar going on late into the night. There are a lot of costumes to prepare; King Neptune is traditionally accompanied by his wife and The Judge in court. Helping the King to apprehend the victims were 4 “policemen”, and helping to administer any “sentences” are the “medical team” (don’t ask....)

There were 7 of us to be “tried”, and we were advised to find hiding places early on. The “Police” would be after us. We had to be on our guard all week against answering suspicious-sounding questions, as lists of “charges” were being drawn up.

We crossed the equator in the early hours of Thursday morning – but we were given a morning’s grace to case out our hiding places.

The Captain greets King Neptune - Click to enlarge
At 1pm the Captain greeted King Neptune on board
Click to enlarge

I didn’t see it of course, curled up as I was (and sweating it out) underneath the floor hatch in the fo’c’sle. Chris (3rd mate) and I were not there very long when we were rumbled, but we were ready with a fully loaded Super-Soaker! A valiant attempt was made to blast our way to the deck, but like rats in a trap, there was no way out. We had to go and pay our respects to The King.

Some of the others found much better hiding places; locked into the stationery cupboard, underneath the potato-cleaner in the galley, hiding behind the control panel on the Bridge. One by one they too were all brought to The Court.

The Court of King Neptune - Click to enlarge

Above: The Court of King Neptune, with the King (Tracy Macaskill), the Queen (a very fetching Neil Sullivan) and The Judge (Craig Paice). Click the image for a larger version.

Appeals are all in vain. One or two resourceful defendants even produced letters detailing why they were unfit to stand trial. Neptune, needless to say, was unimpressed. After pronouncing judgement, the victims are treated to some “medicine” (mmmm – Tabasco and chillies?) and then have a few buckets of fermenting slops poured over them. But then it’s all over, and we were all presented with a certificate which will be looked after very carefully – it’s the only guarantee against being a victim again!

All is well at the end - Click to enlarge
After the event, everyone still alive and well!
Click to enlarge

Late on Wednesday night we passed Fernando de Noronha (also in the northern hemisphere!), and now we’re moving down the coast of Brazil. The weather has been fantastic and we’ve been treated to some magnificent sunsets. The Monkey Island on top of the Bridge offers the best views; the light shifting gradually around a 360 degree horizon.

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 molluscs, 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.

There have been other reasons to be out on deck. Chris Handy (3rd Officer) has spotted a UFO, and this was videotaped by Malcolm Inch (2nd Engineer) who then treated us all to a home video of it (for those interested, he’s holding the copyright…) and some of us have been out watching the birds. Groups of up to ten “boobies” have been following the ship on and off for a few days. These birds look very similar to gannets, and hover in the eddies around the ship before plunging into the sea. Sometimes when a bird slices into the water a shoal of flying fish erupts from the surface – an amazing sight!

These will become fewer and fewer as we move into colder waters – and this time next week we’ll be in Montevideo!

Sunset over Brazil - Click to enlarge
Sunset over Brazil
Click to enlarge

As Gavin mentions above the Ernest Shackleton is due into Montevideo on Saturday 23rd November. Whilst in Montevideo there will be a crew change and the current crew will be departing the vessel for home and leave on Sunday evening. My thanks to Gaving for the Crossing the Line article.

Next weeks web page may be a day or two late in production due to the crew change.

17th November 2002