São Pedro and São Paulo Archipelago

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Arquipélago de São Pedro e São Paulo
São Pedro and São Paulo Archipelago

The archipelago of São Pedro e São Paulo is a group of small rocky islands located in the central part of the equatorial Atlantic Ocean, 627 kilometers from the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, 986 kilometers from the nearest point of the continent and 1010 km from Natal, in the state of Rio Grande do Norte.

It was declared as part of the Brazilian territory, according to IBGE belonging to the state of Pernambuco, although it is closer to the state of Rio Grande do Norte.

In 1998, the scientific station on Belmonte Island was inaugurated, initiating the São Pedro and São Paulo Archipelago Program (Proarquipélago) under the administration of the Secretariat of the Interministerial Commission for Marine Resources (SECIRM).

The permanent presence of scientists at the scientific station is necessary to prove the habitability of the archipelago, which is essential to obtain its international recognition as Brazilian territory.

Eventually, expeditionary radio amateurs supported by the armed forces make international contacts via HF radio and satellite, reinforcing the Brazilian presence in the region.

It was popularly called “Penedo de São Pedro e São Paulo” or “Rochedo de São Pedro e São Paulo”, but nowadays it is officially called “Arquipélago de São Pedro e São Paulo”.

The exposed rock is peridotite and serpentinized peridotite, probably originated from a tectonized megamullion, being the only worldwide exposure of the abyssal mantle above sea level.

The Archipelago is in the active process of uplift with annual uplift rate of 0.7 mm.

Morfologia Abissal em torno do Arquipélago de São Pedro e São Paulo
Abyssal morphology around the São Pedro and São Paulo Archipelago

Location of the Archipelago of São Pedro and São Paulo

Mapa do Arquipélago de São Pedro e São Paulo
Mapa do Arquipélago de São Pedro e São Paulo

The São Pedro e São Paulo Archipelago is located in the equatorial region of the Atlantic Ocean, N00º55.1′, W29º20.7′, approximately 1010 kilometers to the ENE of the city of Natal, in the state of Rio Grande do Norte (RN).

Map of the Archipelago of São Pedro and São Paulo
Map of the Archipelago of São Pedro and São Paulo

The total emerged area is approximately 13,000 m² at a maximum altitude of 18 meters. It consists of five major islands and numerous rocks, being one of the most inhospitable places in the country.

The 5 largest islands of the São Pedro and São Paulo Archipelago

  • Belmonte Island (Southwest): 5,380 m²
  • Challenger Island (São Paulo, Southeast): 3,000 m²
  • Northeast Island (São Pedro, Northeast): 1,440 m²
  • Cabral Island (Northwest, Northwest): 1,170 m²
  • South Island (South): 943 m²

None of the cliffs has drinking water. Only the largest island has sparse vegetation.

Ilhas do Arquipélago de São Pedro e São Paulo
Ilhas do Arquipélago de São Pedro e São Paulo

The cliffs are home to several species of seabirds (Anous minutus, Anous stolidus and Sula leucogaster, for example), which cover them with their droppings, forming guano, a type of natural organic fertilizer.

Other species that can be related are crabs (such as Grapsus grapsus) and various types of insects and spiders.

History of the Archipelago of São Pedro and São Paulo

Darwin’s Way, in the center, the archipelago.

Archipelago of São Pedro e São Paulo
Archipelago of São Pedro e São Paulo

The rocks were discovered accidentally by Portuguese navigators when the Armada of April 20, 1511, composed of six caravels, under the command of Captain Major Garcia de Noronha, bound for India, recorded its first shipwreck there (according to the Book of Armadas, only two of its vessels reached their destination).

Sailing in the open sea, in a closed night, the roar of the waves was suddenly heard, and before any action could be taken, the “São Pedro”, under the command of Captain Manuel de Castro Alcoforado, was stranded on one of the rocks, with the bottoms open.

The crew was rescued by another caravel of the same squadron, the “São Paulo”, and the episode gave the name to the rocks.

They first appeared on a Spanish map of 1513 by the navigator Juan da Nova Castello and later, in 1529, on another by the Portuguese navigator Diego Ribero.

The first recorded landing on the rocks was that of the Frenchman Bouvet du Losier (1738), followed by that of the American Amasa Delano, in command of the “Perseverance” (1803) and by the British George Criton, aboard the “HMS Rhin”.

Underwater morphology around the São Pedro and São Paulo Archipelago
Underwater morphology

Its most famous visitor, however, was Charles Darwin, who landed there on the morning of February 16, 1832, on the first leg of his voyage around the world, aboard the “HMS Beagle”.

The first photographs of the cliffs were taken by the crew of the Scotia on a trip to Antarctica in 1902. A little later, in 1911, the crew of the Deutschland began a study of them. They were also visited by the Irishman Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874-1922) on board the Quest in 1921 (“Shackleton-Rowett 1921-1922” expedition).

Other illustrious visitors were Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral, who moored there with the “Lusitânia” in 1922, for refueling with the Portuguese Navy cruiser “República”.

In 1930, the Brazilian Navy ship “Belmonte” installed the first lighthouse, a mission that took a year to complete. An earthquake would partially destroy this lighthouse in 1933 and the current lighthouse was only inaugurated in 1995.

At the time of World War II, the area was visited by American vessels and, in the 1960s, by foreign scientists. Brazil only began to occupy the cliffs permanently in 1996.

On the night of May 31 to June 1, 2009, a plane crash with Air France flight 447, which left Rio de Janeiro for Paris, occurred in the vicinity of the archipelago, causing the death of the 228 people who were on board the plane.

Brazilian Navy in São Pedro and São Paulo Archipelago

Although inhospitable to human life, the recent interest in the archipelago resulted from Brazil’s signing of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which in item 3 of article 121, states: “Rocks which, by themselves, are not suitable for human habitation or economic life should not have an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) or continental shelf.”

Although the archipelago has always been the object of research to determine its fishing resources, as well as the physical-chemical and biological parameters of its waters, as well as to collect meteorological data, in 1995 the Brazilian Navy began the construction of a new lighthouse there, aiming to reduce the incidence of shipwrecks in those waters, due to the poor visibility of the rocks, which have a maximum altitude of 18 meters, permanently beaten by the waves.

The original lighthouse had been started on Belmonte islet in 1930 by the crew of the Belmonte, under the command of Commander Álvaro Nogueira da Gama.

The work was interrupted by the outbreak of the 1930 Revolution, only to be completed in 1931, only to be destroyed, probably by a tectonic tremor, in 1933, and abandoned.

The current lighthouse is located on the southwestern rock. It is automatic, built in fiberglass, with a circular section of one meter in diameter and six meters high.

At the time, studies were also initiated for the construction of a building that would serve as a base for a research group that would be involved with oceanographic research and the environment of the rocks, establishing the so-called Archipelago Program.

With the support of the Navy, four trips were made to the Archipelago, studying physical-environmental, topographical, bird behavior, and other aspects, resulting in the implementation of the Scientific Station of the São Pedro and São Paulo Archipelago (ECASPSP), inaugurated in 1998.

There, in a wooden building of 45 square meters, teams of four scientists and researchers take turns every 15 days, with the support of the Brazilian Navy.

The facilities consist of a kitchen, a dining room, a communications center, a bedroom for four people, a bathroom and a balcony. The roof has photovoltaic panels to generate electricity.

A short distance away is a shelter for the generators and batteries, seawater desalination equipment and another shelter for oxygen and gas cylinders. A walkway connects the base to the embarkation point, served by a davit. The base’s scientific equipment includes a tide gauge.

On June 5 and 6, 2006, the research station was partially destroyed by a strong sea wave. However, reconstruction of the station was immediately resumed on the basis of the new structure.

History and Geography of the São Pedro and São Paulo Archipelago

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