Swimming 850 metres from a small dingy to a tropical shore flanked by big swell seemed logical until the halfway point.
From the boat, the green and white calm of Ilha de São José seemed attainable, even without a surfboard. Closer to shore it became apparent that judging swell from the backside is like measuring snow depth without a pole - not recommended unless you know the terrain.
But here in Fernando de Noronha, the water bewitches and sometimes commitment - no matter how blind - is the only way through the unknown. I kicked onto the curved backside of a wave and plunged into chaos, popping up close to the white sand beach minus a layer of skin on my sunburned hip. There wasn't anyone around to herald my arrival as no roads accessed the beach and my ungraceful water approach clearly wasn't common practice with the locals.
This was rural Brazil - an isolated part of a remote chain of islands situated some 354 kilometres off the mainland's northern coast. Seeing the sights requires a mix of ladder climbing, deep water swimming, cliff scaling and dingy wave riding - a voyaging ninja's skill set that you either have or pretend to have.
I had arrived on the islands from Ecuador by plane to meet up with friends who recently sailed across from South Africa. Hugh Patterson and Bryson Robertson of Vancouver were two years into a three-year global circumnavigation with an altruistic slant. Avid surfers, the pair, along with Bryson's brother Ryan, were documenting the presence of plastics and non-biodegradable detritus in the ocean through their organization, Ocean Gybe Global Research and Outreach Expedition. Fernando de Noronha, in all its pristine glory, was next on their hit list and apparently a relief after the strange, inbred curiosities of their last island hopping experience on St. Helena and Ascension, which sit midway between the Horn of Africa and South America.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Fernando de Noronha is the Atlantic version of the Galapagos, without the hype. A fertile chain of islands left mostly untouched by the rapacious tourism market, the region is carefully guarded by the Brazilian government's environmental department, which caps the number of visitors at 400 at any given time. It is home to the Fernando de Noronha National Marine Park, considered one of the most important ecological sanctuaries on the planet.
The majority of visitors are Brazilian, though the 21 islands are popular with the international sailing set - a trend that reaches back to 1501 when they were first discovered by a Portuguese Sephardi Jewish explorer, Fernão de Noronha. A few centuries of tug of war between the Dutch, French and Portuguese led Portugal to fortify their claim in the 1700s, so today among thick wild grasses overlooking prime ocean vistas rest the remains of the São Pedro do Boldró, Sto. Antônio, and N.Sª da Conceição fortresses.
No large hotels or high end abodes mar Fernando's coast line - in fact only one privately run hotel can be found on the main island, The Dolphin. The rest are pousadas, simple, clean family-run bed and breakfasts that offer a place to put one's head after a day of scuba diving, surfing, and snorkeling, which is all that is needed come sundown.
A chance encounter with a 20-year-old Brazilian marine biology student later that day led to an afternoon of aruanã turtle tagging in a bay popular with sharks for the very same reason. The slow swimming reptiles were visible every few feet and like the mermaids of yore, were hypnotizing to watch. It would have been easy to leave the confines of the bay and swim out to sea on the tail of a hard-shelled friend, but our new Brazilian buddy was quick to grab an ankle whenever we went awry.
After three turtles tagged and a quick rinse in a torrential rainstorm, we made our way back to Khalula, the Ocean Gybe sailboat, for roast chicken and mashed mystery root picked up at a roadside stand.
Later that night we lay hot on the foredeck of Khalula in a sheltered cove, licking greasy fingers and guessing at stars. Above the boat's noisy rigging the Austral Triangle, Sirius and the Southern Cross hung low in the sky, dimmed only by light from neighbouring planets. Without a manmade glimmer in sight the skyward views were endless from our midnight perspective, a primitive reminder that new horizons aren't always paramount to new perspectives - they just help us see the familiar with new eyes.
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