Alcatrazes is a Brazilian archipelago, located some 35 km south of São Sebastião, in the northern coast of the State of São Paulo, one hour away by boat, approximately. It is protected by the largest marine integral conservation unit of Brazil after the Abrolhos Marine National Park.
The name of the archipelago comes from a bird which forms its second largest bird population, with some three thousand tspecimens: the brown bobby, which is also known as "alcatraz", a word that in Arabic means "the diver", due to its ability of diving into the sea to capture fishes or squids.
The islands are believed to present their very current format since at least 2.5 million years ago. However, during the last glacial period (in between 85 thousand and 15 thousand years ago), the sea water was receded in such a way that the archipelago was actually a mountain still connected to the continent.Alcatrazes is formed by five main islands. The biggest one is known as Alcatrazes Island (2.5 km long with an area of 170 hectares (420 acres)) and the other ones are called da Sapata, do Paredão, do Porto (or do Farol) and do Sul. There are also four unnamed islets; five lajes (Dupla, Singela, do Paredão, do Farol and Negra); and two placers (Nordeste and Sudeste). Its depth can reach 50 m. Its total oceanic coverage is of 67,000 hectares (170,000 acres).The highest point of the archipelago is the Boa Vista (or dos Alcatrazes) Peak, 316 m high. Another peak is do Oratório at 154 m. The islands' faces are marked by rocky, steep walls that can reach up to 200 metres (660 ft) in height. Between the southern and eastern arms of the main island is the Saco do Funil, the most protected part of the island and the place where the Brazilian Navy used to practice shooting (see details in the "History" section below).The Farol Island, also known as Porto Island, has a 7m tall lighthouse (hence its name; "farol" is Portuguese for lighthouse).
Alcatrazes possesses rich fauna and flora; by December 2019, 1,3 thousand species had been registered there, 93 of which were deemed endangered and 20 were endemic, including the Bothrops alcatraz, the Scinax alcatraz and the true frog Cycloramphus faustoi. Other endemic species yet to be discovered are believed to exist there, including a species of coral snake which two only known individuals were lost during the fire at the Instituto Butantan.Such occurrence of endemism lead the archipelago to be nicknamed "the Galápagos of Brazil" by some researchers, who believe Charles Darwin would have come to the same conclusions he came to in the Equatorian archipelago had he studied the fauna of Alcatrazes. As described in the sub-section "Geology" above, the islands were for tens of thousands of years linked to the continent, which provided easy access to the place for several species. As the waters rose again and the mountains returned to their island status, the animals that were stranded there either died or adapted and evolved, giving birth to all those unique species.On the main island there is the world's biggest cluster of frigatebirds' nests, with a gathering of 6,000 individuals. Some 10,000 birds live in the archipelago, with over 100 different confirmed species, including endangered ones like the American oystercatcher and the South American tern.In the waters surrounding the archipelago, several species live among the grooved brain corals, including 400 species of invertebrates and between 200 and 250 species of fish, a number superior to anywhere else in Brazil, including the much bigger Fernando de Noronha archipelago, with 150 species. The place is also visited by cetaceans. The not so long but also not so short distance between island and continent combined with the fact that it is located in a transition zone of warm tropical waters to colder subtropical ones make for the big diversity of fishes.The sea around the islands wouldn't receive much attention until the 1990s, because diving was not yet regarded as a true scientific tool in Brazil. It was in the archipelago that such reality began to change.Beside the Navy exercises, another threat to the local ecosystem is the sea pollution, be it from chemical dejects (which contaminate the plankton and, consequently, the whole food chain involved with it) or incorrectly disposed waste. The invasive orange cup coral is another risk to the local fauna. They were first detected in 2011 and, since then, they are monitored and removed so they do not become a plague, although its eradication is no longer considered possible to achieve.
2,5 million years ago, Alcatrazes was a mountain covered and surrounded with Atlantic Forest, and not an island. For around 65 thousand years one could simply walk from where today lies the municipality of São Sebastião to Alcatrazes.Due to that, archeological remains indicate Alcatrazes was visited by pre-Columbian peoples. Its first known visitors, the tupinambás, named the place "Uraritã" ("land of birds").
After Brazil's colonization by the Portuguese, Alcatrazes's first mention comes from 1530, on Pero Lopes de Souza's diary. Souza was one of the leaders of the first Portuguese expedition assembled to take over the new colony. Back then, the main island served as a stock-up point for their fleet. Explorers would collect fish and wood before proceeding to Southern Brazil.In the 18th century, the main island was used by fishermen and caiçaras for fisingh, shelter and guano extraction, the latter a valuable fertilizer.The first scientific expedition took place in 1912, under the leadership of Hermann Luederwalt. Scientists would only go there more often from the 1980s on. It was only then that the island's fauna and flora started to become known.
Until the 1980s, the Brazilian Navy had to sail to Puerto Rico to carry out shooting sessions with its ships. The elevated costs of such trips prompted the military to search for a proper place at the Brazilian coast. They eventually came up with three potential archipelagos: Alcatrazes, Fernando de Noronha and Abrolhos. Alcatrazes was ultimately chosen due to the lower anticipated environmental impact and its proximity to Rio de Janeiro, where the fleet is kept moored.The shots, however, caused considerable environmental damage, motivating a number of lawsuits willing to cease them, although some researchers admit that the military presence helped protect the islands from fishermen.In 1989, environmentalists concerned with the damage started to promote visits to the islands to gather as much information as possible and show the extension of the damage the Navy was causing. In doing so, they expected to convince the military to stop. Until then, the last registered trip to the archipelago dated from 1920.At that time, the Navy promised to carry out studies of their own to determine the impact of the shots in the local ecosystem and the analysis confirmed the damage. In the meantime, then congressman Fábio Feldmann proposed a law that created the Marine National Park of Alcatrazes in 1990. The shooting exercises continued and were only interrupted between 1991 and 1998 by a court decision. In 1998, environmentalists protested with the help of Greenpeace right at one of the targets before one more exercise was carried out.In 2004, one shot caused a wildfire that consumed 20 hectares of the main island's plants, which gave a new momentum to Feldmann's proposal, but it wasn't until 2013 that the Navy finally agreed with the creation of a park, as long as the Sapata Island (with an area of 4 hectares), to the northeast of the main island, was excluded from the park so they could keep firing there. The Navy sustains that the exercises are "essential to the training of the troops and the alignment of the cannons of the fleet", and that Alcatrazes is the only proper place for such trainings. Since then, and after an environmental impact assessment conducted by a joint team of researchers from the Environment and Defence Ministries, the exercises take place only once per year.
Status and preservation
When the Navy took over the place in the 1980s, visitation to the island was forbidden. Diving, even for leisure purposes, was also forbidden until 2016; it would only be allowed for special purposes, such as researching. Transgressors could be charged by the Navy with fines ranging from R$40 to R$2,200, or by ICMBio, with fines ranging from R$700 to R$100,000.Since 1987, a small part of the island was, in theory, protected by the federal government in the form of the Tupinambás Ecological Station, although there was no personnel or resources in the archipelago to prevent it from being harmed and although that particular area was not hit by the Navy fires.In March 2012, the deputy mayor of São Sebastião, Wagner Teixeira (PV) was caught committing illegal fishing near the Paredão Island. He was at his personal boat with five more men, and didn't stop until his engine ran out of oil, even with the coast guard on his tail with the sirens on. He was carrying 116 kg of fish, including endangered species, and stated he wasn't aware of the prohibition of fishing in that area. In a later interview, he said the he only ran out of fuel after he agreed to return to the continent with the inspectors. He also said he wasn't aware the area was protected and that he always fought for the archipelago's preservation.In 2016, Alcatrazes received Wild Life Refuge status and had its protection area increased so the whole archipelago is included (except for the Sapata Island, as explained in the sub-section "Navy exercises" above), totalizing 673 km2 – a size met with criticism by some environmentalists, who predict too high a cost to watch over the whole area. Fishing and deforesting remain forbidden, but at that time boat rides and diving were planned to be opened to the public, according to criteria to be defined in a management plan.In September 2017, it was determined that the waters surrounding the islands would be, indeed, opened for boat rides and diving, but docking at the islands would not be an option due to the lack of beaches and other safe places for that. Visitations, which were to be exclusively promoted by companies authorized by ICMBio, were expected to begin in 2018, with the year of 2017 reserved to the preparation for the activities (registration of companies, trainings and issuing of licenses). A 60-foot boat would be installed at the island and would stay there all time to facilitate research and protection. Some researchers support touristic visitation to the archipelago, sustaining that the constant presence of people may discourage illegal fishermen.In December, Alcatrazes was finally opened to the public for free-of-cost visitation. One year later, around a thousand people had dived in its waters, with an average 50 people/day (the local infrastructure supports up to 200 hundred a day). By then, it was estimated that tourism in the archipelago generated R$2,5 million (another source reports R$4 million). Besides, the number of transgressions registered by ICMBio inside the area dropped from 2017's 98 to 4 in 2019.Also in December 2019, new activities were authorized, such as night diving and overnight stays. In May 2020, ICMBio established a set of rules and prohibitions to be followed by touristic companies and visitors alike.