JBL Expedition Brazil

Ilha Bella – an island paradise in the South Atlantic

After two weeks in the Amazon rainforest and the northern Pantanal, the last stage of the JBL Expedition took the team to a small island off the coast of Brazil near Sao Paulo. Although the island is geographically on a level with the Australian Great Barrier Reef and the South Seas of the Pacific, it does not offer the same “tropical” conditions. The water temperatures in the Brazilian winter (southern hemisphere: winter from June to September) drop for a short while slightly below 18°C, preventing the growth of reef-forming corals. But contrary to the information given in literature on the subject, reef formation can also take place at a minimum temperature of 17°C, as could be proven on the 4th JBL Expedition to South Africa. The extensive coral reefs off the east coast of Africa near Durban (Aliwal Shoal / Protea Banks) exist despite a winter-like minimum temperature of 17°C!

The journey to Ilha Bella is short and simple: from Sao Paulo by hire car or bus to the coast and then a short crossing by ferry to the island lying within sight. On the island accommodation is plentiful, ranging from luxury hotels on the beach to simple lodges in the rainforest, which covers the entire centre of the island. Local diving operators offer diving boats to the surrounding diving areas as well as to the tiny neighbouring islands.

On the morning of 07.05.2009, a one hour journey by fast motorboat brought us to a small island northeast of Ilha Bella. Although the sea was relatively calm, the faces of some team members took on a nice JBL green colour and the fish feeding trials began from the side of the ship already. Towards midday a Brazilian team made up of JBL importers, pet shop retailers, aquarium specialists and the specialist press joined the JBL team. Together they carried out water analyses and light measurements.

With water temperatures of 25 °C, the snorkelers felt comfortable even without wetsuits. In the shallows around the island, huge rocks and individual corals formed small reef formations with a remarkable wealth of fish. An area previously visited on the windward side of the island not only produced seasickness but also showed a dividing line eight metres deep underwater below which visibility dropped to 50 cm.

But on the leeward side the sea was calmer and considerably clearer. There were even turtles in the area, which did not allow themselves to be disturbed by the divers. These were hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata), which, in contrast to the turtles used for soup, have 4 scutes (shield-shapes on the shell) between the eyes. By carefully turning over rocks, it was possible to observe the turtles grazing on the sponges on the underside of the rocks.

In terms of zoological geography, the islands are extremely interesting. They form the southernmost limit of distribution for many Caribbean species, whilst fish from the eastern Atlantic, usually found around the Canary Islands, are also to be seen there. The most beautiful emperor fish of the region were surely the majestic French angel (P. paru) and the rock beauty (H. tricolor), whose main area of distribution is the Caribbean, an impressive 4000 km further north!

The frequently observed spider-crabs (S. seticornis) look deceptively similar to their close cousins from the east Atlantic (S. lanceolatus), and yet are a species of its own. If it had not been for the numerous surgeon fish and butterfly fish (mostly C. striatus), you would have happily taken the underwater scenery with its spiny-cheeked grouper, bream and groupers for a “non-tropical” region. The water analyses brought to light text-book measurements: 440 mg/l calcium and 1260 mg/l magnesium, together with pH 8.0 and a CH of 7 are the absolute classical marine water values of many oceans. The salt content also differed from that of the Caribbean by just one point at the third decimal point (1.023 to 1.024 in the Caribbean).

In the obligatory underwater feeding trials with JBL MariPearls and some food prototypes, the Brazilian members of the team especially were astounded: they could scarcely believe how fast the shy and choosy butterfly fish were to devour the JBL Granulate offered to them.

As the sun set the team separated, with the Brazilians returning by ship to Ilha Bella, whilst the European section of the JBL team got ready for a night dive. Large cushion starfish from the Oreasteridae family, not found in the Caribbean, could now be seen. On the steep walls, covered for many square meters with orange cup coral (Tubastrea coccinea), all the polyps were at last open at dusk. During the day only a few had been open. The turtles, which were active during the day, now lay sleeping on the seabed and night-active crustaceans plucked algae from their shells.

On the otherwise sparsely populated areas of sand, nightlife was beginning to stir: sand dollars (Clypeaster species), buried in the sand during the day, now crawled around using their numerous tube feet, busily hunting for food.

For some team members this was their first night dive and they were relieved that it was taking place under unproblematic conditions (good visibility, no currents, shallow water). Their night-orientation was not particularly well-developed yet and so they had problems finding the boat again in the dark. But once at the surface of the water, everyone could see the well-lit boat and found their way back.

Since no diving was allowed the following day due to the enriched gases in the body still (residual nitrogen de-saturation), the team wanted to visit the island’s inland rainforest. The rocky substrata formed blocks of rock as large as houses, with streams flowing over them in which shrimp and darter characin could be collected. Humming-birds collected in the flowers and frogs with eggs were to be found in the bromeliads.

So the Ilha Bella in the southern tropics was an impressive and extremely varied finale to the 5th JBL Expedition to Brazil. However, there was just one further incident: at the airport employees of the security service were waiting for the team and searched every nook and cranny of their luggage looking for live souvenirs. The Brazilian Nature Protection Agency, IBAMA, had been informed that the members of the expedition wanted to smuggle animals out of the country. However, when nothing illegal had been found, the team were finally allowed to start their flight back to Europe in peace. By the way, JBL chose to fly with TAM Airline, which offers direct flights from Frankfurt to Sao Paulo plus connecting flights at reasonable prices.