Explore Alcatrazes Archipelago, find out where it is located, why visit, how to practice sustainable tourism in these islands and much more!
Imagine yourself visiting a practically untouched place that has been closed for tourism for 30 years? Just 35 km away from the continent, the Alcatrazes Archipelago enchants with its cliffs, a population of approximately 10,000 birds and an incredible biodiversity of marine life.
Since December 2018, when it opened for boat tours and scuba diving, Alcatrazes has been an example of ecotourism and sustainable tourism. In this article, you will find all the information you need about this place, from where it is, how to get there, why it is worth visiting, why it is known as the “Brazilian Galapagos” and much more. Let’s go?
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All about the Alcatrazes Archipelago
The Alcatrazes Archipelago Wildlife Refuge is about 35 km away from São Sebastião and Ilhabela, on the northern coast of the state of São Paulo.
Where is Alcatrazes on the map:
As visiting dates and number of tourists are limited, first you need to book the tour with one of the operators authorized by ICMBio. In the case of Maremar Turismo, the company that offered us this experience, they have departures from Praia Preta in the center of São Sebastião and from Maremar’s base in Ilhabela.
The journey between the mainland and the islands can take from 1 to almost 4 hours, depending on the vessel used and the weather.
Alcatrazes was not always an island. During the last glacial period, it was a mountain connected to the continent in the middle of the Atlantic Forest. With the ice melting about 15 thousand years ago, the sea level rose and isolated the place, transforming it into the archipelago we know today.
The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago known for having inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. This is because in this isolated place there are several endemic species, which means, they can only be found there. The mechanisms of evolution that gave rise to the exclusive fauna of Alcatrazes are the same ones that Darwin observed in the Galapagos, in 1835.
The isolation caused by the rise in sea level meant that the local species of fauna and flora no longer had contact with the continent, this forced an adaptation and even extinction of some of them.
A good example of adaptation is the Alcatrazes lancehead (Bothrops alcatraz). With the extinction of small rodents on the island – their main food, they started to eat cockroaches and centipedes. The drop in calorie consumption forced a reduction in size and even the composition of the venom of these snakes was altered.
The name has its origins in the Arabic word Alcatraz, which means “the diver”, it was inspired by the atobá birds, due to their skills in seeking food by entering the sea.
This is one of the few places where we can follow nature without major human-caused impacts and with a great diversity of birds and fish. If you are in love with whales and dolphins, enjoy diving, birdwatching, or simply want to connect with nature and learn about it, the Alcatrazes Refuge is for you!
The past of Alcatrazes
With colorful targets on the rocky slopes, Alcatrazes has a history of conflict.
Since the 1980s, the Navy has chosen the island as a place for military exercises, such as cannon firing. Taking into account the fact that it is uninhabited and due to the distance from the base in Rio de Janeiro.
The practice of these shots was always the reason for protests and lawsuits, as they caused a lot of damage to the unique biodiversity of the place. On the other hand, the limited access of fishermen helped, in part, to its preservation.
It was from 1989 that the visits of researchers intensified in order to demonstrate the importance of preserving the archipelago. Through studies and a proposal for the creation of a National Marine Park in Alcatrazes, the fight for awareness began.
Even with a fire in 2004 that consumed 20 hectares of the island due to cannon fire, it was only in 2013 that the Navy relented. The creation of the park would be authorized by them, if they could migrate their military exercises to Sapata Island, which would remain outside the protected area.
It was in 2016 that the Alcatrazes Archipelago Wildlife Refuge was created and had its protection extended to the entire area of the archipelago, except for Sapata Island.
Under the supervision of the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio) unified with the Tupinambás Ecological Station (Esec Tupinambás) and the Navy council, ecological tourism in the archipelago was regulated and the opening for public visitation was finally authorized at the end of 2018.
The importance of Alcatrazes for the environment
The strategic position of Alcatrazes and its abundance in food, make the archipelago a mandatory stop for migratory species and home to many others. The 70,000 hectares of marine conservation area that shelter the islands, has something around 1,300 species of flora and fauna.
With 170 hectares, the main island (Ilha de Alcatrazes), is the largest cradle of seabirds in Brazil. There are more than 100 species and a population of around 10 thousand individuals, with the two largest populations being Atobá and Fragata.
Not to mention the underwater species that include corals, fish, sea turtles, dolphins, manta rays and even whales.
The Alcatrazes archipelago is full of curiosities, ranging from data about the wild animals that inhabit it to a caiçara (local) legend about the “Curse of Alcatrazes“. Check it out!
- The archipelago is formed by five larger islands, four smaller islands and five slabs (submerged formations composed of rocky shores);
- Its highest point is the Boa Vista Peak (or Alcatrazes), 316 meters high. It resembles the Sugar Loaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro;
- Bats are the only mammalian animals present in the archipelago;
- In it, there is a variety of marine animals superior to any other place in Brazil, including Fernando de Noronha;
- About 1,300 species of flora and fauna were registered in 2019, 93 of which are considered to be threatened with extinction;
- Alcatrazes is the largest breeding site for birds on the coast of Brazil and the largest nest of fragatas in the South Atlantic;
- As the sea level rose and isolated the archipelago, the fauna that existed there became extinct or adapted, originating 20 endemic species, including the Alcatrazes serpent and frog.
- Among the migratory species that pass through the archipelago are the humpback whale and the magellanic penguin;
- According to Vagner Gonçalves, from Gonçalves Turismo, there is a legend that Alcatrazes Island was cursed because it had its shape constantly changed and it made boatmen lose their nautical reference. The curse would only end when a couple of caiçaras (locals from São Sebastião) took 7 couples of black animals to the island as a sacrifice. This was done and so she assumed her current form.
Tourism in Alcatrazes
Types of tourist activities carried out at the refuge:
Diving in Alcatrazes
One of the most coveted activities is diving in Alcatrazes. Altogether there are 10 points with different characteristics and depths that house a natural aquarium with several marine species.
Among the main attractions underwater are corals (including brain coral), sea turtles, hammerhead sharks, angel sharks, rapeseed rays and manta rays.
Bird watching in Alcatrazes
Birdwatching is a type of tourism aimed at literally watching the birds, in a recreational way.
With over 100 species of birds, among visitors and residents, Alcatrazes definitely is one of the perfect destinations for this tour.
Whale and dolphin watching in Alcatrazes
On the ride to Alcatrazes Refuge, the emotion that is already guaranteed to all virtually untouched nature, it may be even greater with the observation of cetaceans (whales and dolphins).
Between the months from June to August, which is the migratory period of some birds and whales, the dolphins can be spotted at any time.
Altogether, 10 species of whales and dolphins have been recorded in the region, with emphasis on the humpback whale, known for its shows when jumping out of the water. Among dolphins, highlights for the Spotted Atlantic and porpoise, the most endangered.
We made the trip to Refúgio de Alcatrazes at the invitation of Maremar Turismo, a company authorized by ICMBio for both on-board visits and scuba diving, and additionally offers 13 other options for tours around Ilhabela.
Your vessel “Descubra Alcatrazes” (Discover Alcatrazes), developed especially for these activities, is equipped with a bathroom and holds up to 29 people. This capacity is reduced to 12 people in the case of diving.
As it is a high-speed boat, sailing time is approximately one hour.
The visit on board costs R$600* and lasts almost 9 hours. The dive lasts about 7 hours and costs R$1050 (2 cylinders and ballast included). Both departures depart at 8 am from Maremar Base in Ilhabela and 8:30 am from Praia Preta in São Sebastião downtown.
Values per person include divine wraps (vegan option), soda, fruit, juice, masks and snorkel.
The minimum age to participate in the tours is 6 years old for a visit on board and 12 years old for diving.
Prevention measures during the pandemic
It is always good to remember that we are still in a pandemic and all care is welcome. Among the measures taken by Maremar are:
- Mandatory use of a mask during the entire stay in the equipment;
- Daily sanitization of equipment;
- Hand sanitizer for collective use.
Rules, restrictions and recommendations for the practice of sustainable tourism in the refuge
To tourism in Alcatrazes be carried out ethically and responsibly, some measures were adopted, such as:
- Only the authorized vessels and professionals trained by ICMBio Alcatrazes can work in the region;
- It is not allowed to land on the island;
- It is not allowed to use plastics and disposables on the tours;
- At least one biology professional must be on board in order to provide environmental education to visitors;
- The use of drones is not allowed as they can disturb the birds.
Tourists play an important role in preserving destinations like this. Would you like to know how to contribute?
- Require only authorized operators;
- During diving and snorkeling, do not use the selfie stick or chase marine animals;
- The chemical components greatly affect marine fauna, especially the brain corals, which are very sensitive. Therefore, apply sunscreen (preferably biodegradable) during shipment to allow time for the skin to absorb it until you arrive at your destination. This way, you won’t contaminate the water during snorkeling or diving.
- Any waste, even if organic, must be returned with the tour and disposed off properly.
What to bring to Alcatrazes
Some items can make a difference in your experience. Find below a list of what to take to Alcatrazes:
- Protective mask against COVID;
- Medicine for seasickness (if necessary);
- Biodegradable sunscreen;
- Windbreaker and waterproof jacket;
- Microfiber towel (in addition to its fast drying, it takes up much less space than the traditional one);
- Swimwear and a change of clothes for the return;
- Long-sleeve shirt with UV protection;
- Neoprene for snorkeling and/or diving (Water is usually cold);
- Elastic, or band to hold the hair;
- Photo camera (GoPro for underwater use).
Observation tourism carried out here is a great ally in the preservation of wildlife. With more vessels frequenting the place, travelers become vigilant for the good. Let’s be part of it? =)
* Mentioned prices were collected in April 2023 for reference only and are subject to change.
Note: This trip was at the invitation of Maremar Tourism, but do not worry, all opinions expressed here are sincere and reflect our experience on site, which by the way was really wonderful and it made me feel proud of seeing such a beautiful project like this happening in Brazil.