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Abrolhos—An Eye-Opener

Abrolhos—An Eye-Opener

 Abrolhos​—An Eye-Opener


IN THE 16th century, sailors near the coral reefs off the coast of the state of Bahia, Brazil, alerted fellow sailors: “Abra os olhos!” (Keep your eyes open!) Tradition has it that this much-repeated warning became the name of a group of five small islands in the region​—the Abrolhos archipelago.

Abrolhos is located in the South Atlantic, only 50 miles [80 km] from the coastal towns of Caravelas and Alcobaça. However, it is surrounded and isolated by coral reefs. Uncharted reefs as well as violent Atlantic storms would have been enough to deter most sailors from venturing into these waters were it not for a big economic attraction, the humpback whale.

Hunting and Watching Humpbacks

The whales of Abrolhos became a major source of income for coastal fishing towns during the 19th century. After attending a special Mass at which a local priest blessed their boats, hunters would row or sail over to the archipelago in small open vessels. How did they manage to kill such a massive creature? They took advantage of the whale’s maternal instincts. Whalers would first harpoon a whale calf and then use it as a decoy to bring the mother within range. The whales they killed were towed back to the mainland so that their valuable oil could be extracted in one of Caravelas’ six whale-processing factories.

However, with the collapse of the local whale-oil market in the mid-19th century, the whaling industry went into decline. By the 20th century, after being hunted for decades, the humpback had practically abandoned Abrolhos as a breeding ground. As a result, whaling around the islands finally ground to a halt. The last time a whale was harpooned there was in 1929.

A new chapter in the history of Abrolhos began in 1983 when the archipelago’s five islands and the Abrolhos reef​—a total area of 350 square miles [910 sq km]—​were declared a marine national park. Little had been heard of the whales for 50 years, but in 1987, researchers reported whale sightings in the park’s waters and decided to investigate further. They were amazed to discover that the humpbacks were once again breeding around the islands.

News of the whales’ return along with the growing reputation of Abrolhos as a lost paradise began to attract small numbers of visitors. On one bright summer morning,  a certain family boarded a small fishing boat in Caravelas and headed for Abrolhos, a six-hour journey. This is how one of them described his visit to the islands.

A Wall of Big Hats

“As Manoel, our boatman, negotiated his way through the Reef of Walls, I understood why early Portuguese sailors feared these waters. Multicolored coral columns​—up to 60 feet [20 m] high and 150 feet [50 m] wide near the surface—​loom up from the seabed. Because of their inverted cone shape, they have been dubbed big hats by the locals. Underwater, many of these columns have merged to form immense arches and corridors and even ten-mile-long [20-kilometer-long] walls that broach the surface as reef platforms. These are the walls of the Reef of Walls.

“After we left the reef behind us, Abrolhos appeared on the horizon. From a distance the five islands look like colossal door wedges floating in the ocean. Geologists have suggested that in the distant past, the pressure of rising lava forced these huge slabs up from the ocean floor. As a result, the islands all have similar topography​—a steep cliff jutting out of the water on their southeastern side and a gentle slope tapering into a narrow beach on the southwestern side.

“We could now make out the lighthouse and a straggling line of two-story dwellings on the largest island, Santa Bárbara. The staff from the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) as well as the Brazilian Marines who live on the island depend on a supply boat that arrives every two weeks. It is easy to imagine that its arrival is also eagerly awaited by the local goat population​—the islanders’ emergency food reserve. No boarding houses, hotels, bars, or restaurants are allowed. Tourists who want to stay overnight have to endure sleeping on boats moored around the islands.

“As Manoel carefully dropped anchor, keeping an eye out for the coral reef, two IBAMA wardens boarded our boat and explained some of the park’s rules. Tourists visit only the two islands Siriba and Redonda, follow marked trails, and are always accompanied by a warden. There is no fishing and no souvenir taking​—not even a pebble off the beach.  Whale watching is also strictly regulated. No more than three boats may approach the whales, and they may not move in closer than 300 feet [100 m]. If a whale draws near a boat, the engine must be switched off and only turned on again when the whale surfaces. Boats must leave the area if a whale shows any signs of distress.”

Eye-Catching Bird Population

“Birds thrive here. The tropic bird, the masked booby, the brown booby, the magnificent frigate bird, and the sooty tern all have breeding colonies on Abrolhos.

“As we clambered over Siriba’s rocky shoreline on the first day of our visit, Jordan, an IBAMA researcher, pointed out nests of boobies and red-billed tropics. The booby is happy to nest on open ground, but the red-billed tropic prefers rocky crevices, which offer protection against strong gusts of wind that could easily throw it off balance.

“The star of the bird population is without a doubt the frigate bird, which is about the size of a hen. During the mating season, the male’s eye-catching throat pouch turns bright red and swells to the size of a football. Paradoxically, the frigate depends on the sea but is afraid of water. It has little preening oil for its feathers, so it cannot dive for fish without getting waterlogged.

“What the frigate bird lacks in waterproofing it makes up for in flying ability. With an impressive seven-foot [2 m] wingspan, it catches warm air currents and remains almost motionless in the air, while keeping an eye open for its reluctant fishing partner, the booby. As soon as the booby makes a catch, the frigate swoops down and attacks with its long hooked bill, sometimes snatching the fish right out of the booby’s beak. If the terrified booby drops its catch, the frigate plunges down and skillfully retrieves it before it hits the water. What if the booby swallows the fish first? The bullying frigate has even been known to pursue the booby and force it to regurgitate its meal!”

The Underwater Scene

“Day two of our visit was spent exploring underwater. Water temperature in the archipelago never drops below 75 degrees Fahrenheit [24°C], and visibility can be up to 50 feet [15 m]. No expensive diving equipment is necessary to explore the calm, shallow waters near the islands. A snorkel, a mask, and flippers are all you need. As the sun floods into this underwater world, it  reflects off the shoals of fish, the green, lilac, and yellow corals, and the red sponges and algae. We are bathed in multicolored light. Although the number of coral species is small in comparison with other tropical reefs, some are found only here.

“The strikingly blue waters around the island are teeming with over 160 species of fish. There are creatures of all different shapes and sizes: the occasional loggerhead turtle, the French angelfish, the surgeonfish, the needlefish, the parrot fish, the huge sea bass, and the moray eel. The fish are so tame that they literally eat out of your hand, and when the food is gone, they gently nibble your fingers, searching for more.”

A Comeback

“On the afternoon of our third day in the archipelago, we headed back to Caravelas with mixed feelings. I was enchanted with Abrolhos but disappointed because we had not yet sighted a single whale. However, when we had been under way for about 30 minutes, Manoel suddenly exclaimed: ‘Whale ahoy! Whale ahoy!’ Three humpback whales​—two adults and a calf—​had appeared about 700 feet [200 m] away. We could clearly make out the white underside of their huge flippers. Perhaps curious, one drew closer and swam alongside us for a few minutes. I could not believe my eyes as the whale breached. It raised its huge body halfway out of the water and then crashed down on its back. It created a huge furrow in the ocean! As the islands dwindled in the distance behind us, we could still see the whales’ tail fins as well as occasional spouts of spray shooting up from the surface. We were happy to see that the humpback was making a comeback.”

Uncertain Future

The threat from whale hunters may be gone, but other threats remain. It would be unrealistic to think that these islands can be kept isolated from environmental problems. One oceanographer put it this way: ‘It is not enough to preserve an archipelago and restrict access to it if everything around it is being destroyed.’

Many scientists believe that a rise in global temperatures is responsible for a whitening of the Reef of Walls, a sign that its tiny algae are disappearing. It seems inevitable that mainland deforestation and soil erosion, which increase the amount of silt that rivers take out to sea, will eventually affect the islands’ corals. And, of course, as the number of visitors increases annually, conservationists will have to remain vigilant to prevent Abrolhos from falling victim to its own unspoiled beauty.

So far, however, none of these clouds on Abrolhos’ horizon have cast a shadow on its pristine beauty​—its awesome acrobatic whales, fascinating bird life, and unique corals. Nearly 500 years after its discovery, Abrolhos is still an eye-opener. Visiting it is a feast for the eyes and an unforgettable experience.

[Map on page 15]

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[Map on page 15]

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Santa Bárbara



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The Abrolhos lighthouse, built in 1861

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Frigate bird

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Brain coral

[Credit Line]

Enrico Marcovaldi/Abrolhos Turismo

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French angelfish

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Masked booby

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[Credit Line]

Foto da ilha: Maristela Colucci

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Moray eel

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Red-billed tropic bird

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A humpback and calf