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Research in the remote islands of Brazil

Atualizado: 4 de jul. de 2020

By Fernanda Imperatrice Colabuono

The oceanic islands of Brazil are not well known by the majority of people, despite the fact that they hold significant strategic, economic, and scientific importance. They harbor a rich diversity of life, including endemic species – species that can only exist there. Two of those islands, Fernando de Noronha and Abrolhos, are inhabited and/or used for tourism purposes, with some restrictions. Three other island regions, The Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago, Rocas Atoll, and Trindade Island are still little known remote places with restricted access. During my doctorate at the Oceanographic Institute of the University of São Paulo, I had the opportunity to join scientific expeditions to these three places, through a research project with the objective of studying the persistent organic pollutants occurring in remote places.

Fig.1.Location of the Brazilian islands and oceanic archipelagos and distance from the nearest capitals. Source: Almeida, F.F.M. (2006).

Photo: Fernanda Colabuono.

Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago is located about 1100 km (680 miles) from the coast of the Rio Grande do Norte state, almost midway between Brazil and Africa. These are the only Brazilian oceanic islands located in the Northern hemisphere. The trip from the state capital, Natal, to the Archipelago was a three day journey made in a fishing boat. I went there in March 2009, and I distinctly remember arriving to Natal's Harbor to meet the vessel that was to carry three other researchers, the crew, and myself; upon seeing the boat, it was hard to believe that we would cross nearly half of the Atlantic ocean in that way! Of course everything was fine, and we were neither the first nor the last group of researchers to make this journey.

Photo: Fernanda Colabuono

The fisherman were experienced, and the seas were in our favor. When we were close to the Archipelago, we could see a group of tiny rocky islands. Those are, in fact, peaks of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which extends all the way through the Atlantic Ocean, from Antarctica to the Arctic.

When we landed on Belmonte Island, the main island of the Archipelago and where the research station is, we could see that birds occupied all areas on the island with nests or resting spots. These hosts of the Archipelago, which welcome all visitors with strong pecking, are known as Boobies. Space is a limiting factor for these birds, so they always try to protect their territories, even amongst their own species.

Photo: Fernanda Colabuono

Rocas Atoll, also located near the Equatorial Line, is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful and preserved places on Earth, thanks to the courage and perseverance of the people that work and care for that spot. By the way, those are the two main qualities that one must have to work in environmental conservancy. In the beginning of 2010, I spent around 20 days acquiring samples on the atoll, collecting plastic pieces around the island. Plastic waste arrives daily from different places, probably from other islands, the continent, and passing ships, and they accumulate on the atoll beaches. It's impressive that human actions can impact such remote places, sometimes places that we don't even know exist.

My last expedition was to Trindade Island, in January 2012. Located around 1200 km (750 miles) from the continental coast, it is the biggest of the three islands and is part of the Vitoria-Trindade seamount chain. The island hosts several species of birds, invertebrates, fish, and diverse flora, and it is an important destination for sea turtle reproduction. Since the island's discovery hundreds of years ago, the Trindade Island has been visited by illustrious personalities, such as the astronomer Edmond Halley, and the naturalist James Cook. Consequently, the island also suffers from the impact of human actions, such as the introduction of exotic animals, which has changed the environment and caused negative effects that can still be seen today. Nowadays, the island is the location for the Oceanographic Station of Trindade Island, a scientific station run by the Brazilian Navy, which is used by researchers from all over.

Photo: Fernanda Colabuono.

By being a part of these expeditions, I was given an incredible opportunity to get to know these different ecosystems, experience the local's lives, observe the behavior of the animals, and gain knowledge through experience, just as naturalists did decades and decades ago.

To spend time, even if brief, in places where you need to adapt to such unique environments, so different from the ones we are used to, was a deeply personal experience of developing self-knowledge, detachment, and learning to overcome.

In this age of technology, it's become usual to not be able to communicate with the “external world.” You have to deal with the fact that you won't know about your friends and family for a while – and they won't know about you. To spend a month showering only in seawater, or having no “real” toilet to use may seem a little odd, but one can adapt. Some of these experiences may sound scary, but they become pleasant and can even be missed.

The feeling I had when visiting these places, where nature is the dominating force, is that man is only a visitor; we don't belong and we were not invited. My intention is not to be negative, but rather to show how strong Nature's presence is in places where humankind has not imposed itself as much. These are places that belong to the fauna and flora that have adapted to inhabit there. It would be great to maintain these islands as they are for the benefit of the great diversity of fish, birds, plants and other unique organisms that call these remote places home.


About Fernanda Colabuono:

Fernanda Imperatrice Colabuono is a biologist that has been working with seabirds since 2001. She is enrolled in a post-doctorate program in the Oceanographic Institute of the University of São Paulo, where she conducts ecological and conservation research on Antarctic birds, using pollutants and stable isotopes as ecological and environmental tracers.

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