Divernet


WHEN HIGH HUMIDITY AND TEMPERATURES SPIKED 35°C in New York last August, the old undertow became a riptide and told me it was time to dive off the soot that clung to my skin like tar paper to a steamy roof. It was wintertime in Brazil, offering happier climes and several dive destinations.
     I concocted a schedule that would include dive sites along the coast and archipelagos offshore. I then set out for Rio de Janeiro on a scuba adventure in the largest country in South America.
     Lively, warm, sunny Rio is a cosmopolitan city with a chaplet of grand hotels and wide avenues, an easily reachable race-track, a cultural centre and great food. Its roughly 7 million people call themselves cariocas and have an argot all their own.
     Its a city of traffic jams, football fields and beaches, with long patterned boulevards where a swirl of stylish humanity gathers, jogs, bikes and power-walks. Rios temperate winter temperatures had brought everyone outdoors.
     Yet gusts in the Atlantic sent high waves rolling onto the coastline and prevented boats leaving the marina. My scuba trips to the nearby islands of Angra dos Reis were cancelled daily. Still, there was Rio to see, and, when the sun dipped behind Sugar Loaf Mountain, I found myself supping lightly at an outdoor cafe (a necessity in a city where dinner is generally consumed after 11pm) and joining the crowds of cariocas at night.
     I then took time out inland to visit the incredible Bonito region and dive its rivers and caverns (see previous pages), before flying 1500 miles north to the craggy, volcanic offshore region of Fernando de Noronha.
     I woke at dawn to the sun winking through the window of my room. Outside, a pinnacle rose straight up like a Chinese jade carving of a mountainside. The archipelago is a Pernambuco state preserve guarded by IBAMA, Brazils federal agency for the environment, which enforces strict regulations on saltwater diving. Fernando de Noronha is renowned among Brazilian divers for the marine life found at reefs surrounding the 21 islands.

rays at hells gate
Boats visit the southern, windward side of the islands during summer when prevailing winds are calmer, and the tranquil leeward side in winter, so any time is good for diving. I signed up with Atlantis Divers at Dos Remedios, a tiny 18th century village, and by noon was on my way to Hells Gate.
     Under water, as if to welcome me to its portals, a spotted eagle ray winged in close enough to have given me the traditional Brazilian welcoming embrace. The usual background for encountering eagle and manta rays is against the islands volcanic rock, which plunges below the waterline. I finned down the algae-coated slope towards fractured bald obsidian blocks, where an octopus put on its camouflage in a vain attempt to hide from my strobes.
     A green moray eel, the size of a wetsuited leg, peeked out of a pile of rocks to see what was causing the ruckus. The ledge bottomed out at 18m, where sting rays lay blanketed in sand. Suddenly I was engulfed by a school of hundreds of silvery grunts, opening and closing ranks around me.
     A marathon diver might do this and the neighbouring site, Hells Hole, in one dive, but we dived them back to back. Schools of grunts, coneys and tangs marked the entrance to the grotto, an ancient lava flow that cooled to a black tortured cavity.
     Inside the velvet darkness, countless sweepers flicked like yellow explosions from an inferno.
     After a days diving and climbing a hill to Forte dos Remedios, which affords views of several stunning beaches below, I didnt succumb to the temptation to sleep but entered the nightlife zone at Ilha do Morro de Fora. The tiny island near the port is home to Caribbean spiny and Spanish lobsters. Out they came from their slots, unfazed by the torches and strobes.
     If only the flying gurnard had been as amiable. It outguessed my every manoeuvre on the sandy bottom, and I ended the dive knackered, without one image of its huge iridescent blue pectoral fins splayed like a splendid fan to show for my efforts.

fish traffic control
I repeated the dive at Hells Hole with Noronha Divers, enjoying almost the same presentation. This time an equal number of yellowfin snapper passed among a school of grunts, in that amazing way that fish have of gracefully managing traffic, without colliding.
     They got themselves sorted out, the grunts remaining at the site, the snappers disappearing into the blue. I could only wonder what the confluence was all about.
     Island-born Antonio Rodrigues, who led this dive, knew exactly where to look for nurse sharks at the North Point site. We found one under an incline and a pair of hawksbill turtles on the grassy slope above. Only green turtles come to the island from December through May to lay their eggs, but the Centre for Conservation and Care of Turtles works toward protecting all species. Our hawksbills were visiting in search of food and unintimidated by the sharks or by us.
     Frequently eluding humans are the spinner dolphins that swim close to shore at Baia dos Golfinhos on average twice a day. IBAMA has placed this sandy bay out of bounds for divers, but dolphin-watch boats visit it, expecting these little guys to appear on cue.
     They didnt, I was told, on the afternoon tours especially, but I spotted a pod from high on the cliff one morning, while on the nature trail which winds along much of the island. The boat wasnt due for an hour, so I suspected that their timing was deliberate.
     I added another hawksbill to my growing list of underwater denizens during a dive with marine biologist Lisandro Alemida. At Middle Island a river of small snappers meandered over and through a labyrinthine mini-tunnel. A school of margates hugged the sandy floor. They spotted us and slowed, keeping pace. We stopped. So did they. When we swam forward, they swam forward. The entire dive could have been spent playing this shadow stratagem, but I was distracted by an octopus, proving that my attention span was shorter than theirs.
     I was on full alert when diving the wreck of Corveta va Ypiranga, a Brazilian Navy vessel that sank to 62m off the western coast of Cabea de Sapata. I had been narked using air when I had first dived the site and, for the first time in 20 years of diving, had aborted the dive.
     This time trimix supplied by Atlantis Divers allowed me bottom time of 15 minutes without having to worry about narcosis. It afforded a quick look at a 2m goliath grouper which lay placidly near the hull on the sandy floor, and at the fly-bridge, a colourful kaleidoscope of encrusting sponges and blackbar soldierfish.
     Yet the largest concentration of both coral and fish were at Two Brothers, where schools of jack, tuna, grunt and soldierfish seemed to fill the water between the small islands. I found myself swimming in a fish chowder with moray eels streaking through it.
     Years ago I would foolishly stifle a yawn when I saw great quantities of reef fish. Yet over the course of 2000 dives globally since then, I have witnessed how over-fishing and pollution have reduced populations. The abundance of marine life here is the measure of success of a preserved environment. Fernando de Noronha was memorable to the last.

custard powder
I didnt return directly to Rio, but stopped at Salvador and proceeded 35 miles north to Bahias newest resort zone on the Costa do Saupe, basking in delicious lassitude at SuperClubs Breezes. Scuba excursions are planned for summer (our winter) from there when the sea is calm and the visibility doesnt resemble custard powder in a blender. On the way to the airport, I thought ruefully of the dozens of wrecks in the Bay of All Saints I had missed, but then reflected that this was all the more reason to return to this beautiful location.
     Sexy 60s film star Brigitte Bardot made Buzios an in-place by declaring it her favourite spot. The village, about two hours north-east of Rio de Janeiro, has become a tourist-trap since, yet retains its charm.
     I arranged a dive with Kupeu, owner of Casamar Diving on Rua das Pedras, a ramble of streets that expanded with the whaling and fishing industries and was later reinvented by city planners. Restaurants, chic boutiques, pousadas (B&B guesthouses) and a few dive shops now line the neat alleys cordoned off to traffic.

winter wonderland
I had wanted winter in Brazil and got it, in the form of metre-high swells on the way to the dive site. Still, the old sea legs worked just fine during the 45-minute ride. At Armao dos Buzios I timed a wave and dived into 21C water green with algae.
     Below, sting rays, more than 3m long, their wingspans close to the shoulder-width of the four of us, circled and settled on the pebbled bottom. Huge starfish and translucent grass anemones clung to bare rock. Kupeu found a green turtle between boulders, a sharptail and a spotted snake eel, and a harlequin pipefish as well. There was a particular magic in seeing the whole continuum of underwater life from the northern archipelago to this southern coastal zone.
     Delicately coloured soft corals and sea fans grow in profusion at sites farther to the south, Kupeu told me. Although I planned to spend my three remaining days diving in Buzios, hearing of the rich diversity of marine life that appears on the reefs along the shores at Arraial do Cabo sent me packing and off again to what translates as the little village on the cape.
     Arraial do Cabo has grown considerably since it was named. Today, the district is half working port, half holiday destination.
     Jutting into the Atlantic to the north, the peninsula forms a wide natural harbour that shelters both fishing vessels and oil tankers, which are filled regularly from the Petrobras pipe line under the supervision of IBAMA.
     To the south are 7 miles of breathtakingly pristine white sandy beaches lined with quaint residences and a lovely new hotel.

resurgence current
More than 25 scuba sites circle the peninsula - some are shipwrecks, but most are along the rocky shoreline. Submarine currents, which rise from Patagonia to the south, carry nutrient-rich water to Arraial do Cabo.
     Known as the Resurgence Current, this is a caravanserai for marine life, attracting whales, crustaceans, molluscs and fish. Yet this bounty often brings bad visibility and cold water.
     On each of three dives here, the wealth of plankton seemed to increase, reducing visibility to under a metre. Water temperatures dropped from 17 to 13C. Having cut my dive teeth in the Caribbean, where conditions are the opposite, this was a shock.
     Yet the experienced eyes of both Paulo Lopes of PL Divers and Sanderson of Sandmar Nautica were able to find everything from a seahorse at Ensenada do Forno to a wreck at Ilha dos Franceses.
     Kupeu had been right. There is a diversity of marine life here - if you can see it through pea soup. This area would be worth exploring from April to June.
     As I sat in the taxi to the airport, chatting with the driver, I put my finger on what, apart from the diving and beauty of the landscape, had impressed me about this country. It was the people. They are healthy, good-looking and hospitable, exuding confidence, grace and charm, using their leisure in the open air, genuinely and warmly welcoming a stranger.
     My driver knew no English. My Portuguese consisted of a few words added to rusty Spanish. Still, we understood each other more intuitively than a translator could convey and, at the terminal, he gave me a great bear hug, adding: Boa sorte, good luck on my flight home, and with my life.
     I thank him and reply: Saudades do Brasil. I will miss Brazil.
 
Glassy
Glassy sweepers inside the cavern at Hells Hole, Fernando de Noronha
There
There are many hawksbill turtles in search of tasty morsels
A
A camera-shy octopus makes a rapid exit
Red
Red soldierfish blend into the colourful backdrop of encrusting sponges on the wreck of the Corveta va Ypiranga, a 60m dive at Fernando de Noronha.
There
There were schools of snappers everywhere at Fernando de Noronha
Unfazed
Unfazed by the lights, lobsters crawl out from under their rocks on a night dive