Walk into any dive shop throughout Brazil and they'll have a poster of Fernando de Noronha. It's the best place for diving in Brazil, and one of the better spots in the world. Water temperature is a constant 28°C (82°F), and especially in the dry season, underwater visibility approaches almost 30m (100 ft.). Underwater there's a wide variety of stunning sea life: rays of all types (mantas are not uncommon); sea turtles; lemon sharks and reef sharks; clownfish; and large schools of anthias, surgeonfish, parrotfish, and sweetlips. The coral formations are only average, but thanks to the island's volcanic heritage you'll come across numerous caves, including a number of terrific swim-throughs.
The only drawback to diving on Noronha is the tight control. You are not allowed to dive except with one of the island's three dive companies. All three companies have implemented a system in which four divers are shepherded underwater by a dive instructor. Exploring on your own is not possible.
Far and away the best diving outfit on the island is Atlantis Divers, Caixa Postal 20, in Vila Remédios (tel. 081/3619-1371, or in Natal 084/3206-8840; www.atlantisnoronha.com.br); a distant second best is Aguas Claras, Alameda do Boldró s/n (tel. 081/3619-1225; www.aguasclaras-fn.com.br).
For day use, Atlantis has a fleet of custom-built catamarans, all new and specially built for diving. Atlantis also recently inaugurated a live-aboard catamaran -- the Atlantis Voyager, which cruises the best reefs, islands, and wrecks off the Brazilian coast. Aguas Claras uses 12-man open zodiacs or a converted fishing boat.
Atlantis charges R$220 for two dives, plus R$76 to rent a wet suit, BCD (buoyancy control device), and regulator. With the mandatory R$15 IBAMA tax, the total for two dives comes to R$311. Prices at Aguas Claras are comparable. Morning, afternoon, and night dives are offered. If you've never dived, both companies offer one-on-one escorted baptism dives for about R$270 plus IBAMA tax. You can also take a 5-day course to get your PADI diving certificate, for about R$1,000. Atlantis also offers nitrox courses and scooter courses, and for experienced divers, the Atlantis launch is available for custom excursions.
Spinner dolphins congregate on Noronha in numbers virtually unmatched anywhere else. The best (and least obtrusive) way to see them is from the cliff-top lookout above Baía dos Golfinhos (Dolphin Bay). Monday to Saturday from 5:30am until sunset a researcher from the nonprofit Projeto Golfinho Rotador (tel. 081/3619-1846; www.golfinhorotador.org.br) is on hand to answer questions and pass out binoculars between regular 15-minute counts of dolphin activity. Note that from 5:30 to 7am, the Projeto's binoculars are reserved for those who have come on the paid "Mirante de Golfinhos" tour offered by Atalaia Noronha (tel. 081/3619-1328; www.atalaia-noronha.com.br). Cost is R$40. The dolphins usually arrive around 6am and depart between 3 and 5pm on their nightly feeding trip around the island. They're most active around sunrise, when they're just coming off an evening's feeding. In dry season the bay will have between 500 and 1,200 dolphins jumping and spinning about. In the wet season the bay will have between 5 and 300 dolphins. The bay itself is off-limits to all but accredited scientists.
Boat tours now cruise past the edge of Dolphin Bay, hoping to be surrounded by a spinner school coming out for the day. The afternoon tours offer the best odds of spotting dolphins.
Note that on trails within the national park you may be required to register with IBAMA and bring along a local guide. This has long been park policy; it's just never been enforced. Recently, however, the park has mooted plans to outsource the guiding and enforcing to tourism operators (mostly as a way of generating more revenue). A guide isn't really necessary, but if you want one contact ACITUR, the Ecotourism Guides Association of Fernando de Noronha, located at the TAMAR offices on Avenida Boldró (tel. 081/3619-1399), or book one of the tours through LocBuggy (tel. 081/3619-1490; www.locbuggy.com.br) or Atalaia Noronha (tel. 081/3366-6250; www.atalaia-noronha.com.br). If you don't, your best bet is to simply show up at the trail head. Odds are no one will complain.
The Trilha do Capim-açu, which starts near the Dolphin Bay lookout and runs 7km (4 1/4 miles) as far as the lighthouse on Ponta da Sapata, is really not worth taking. The trail runs through dense forest from beginning to end, with only one small viewpoint on the very first ridge. A much better plan is to hike along or above Praia do Leão. The territory is open so you can always see where you're going. More importantly, the beach is wild and beautiful, and the views amazing. If you're happy jumping between rocks, you can also reach the lighthouse on Ponta de Sapata on this route. One other good but tricky trail runs from Enseada da Caieira near the port along the outer coast over a couple of tall rocky headlands to Praia de Atalaia. For an easier hike with worthwhile views, try the 2.5km (1 1/2-mile) walk from the Dolphin Bay Lookout along the cliff top to Baía do Sancho. Another nice walk -- best done at low tide -- goes from Praia do Boldró along the beach east to Praia do Cachorro below Vila Remédios. This 2.5km (1 1/2-mile) walk features nature signs posted by IBAMA, but whatever was on them has long since been erased by the sea.
There aren't any huge long beaches upon which to gallop on Noronha, but there are some good trails, back roads, and shorter beaches to explore. Three people offer horseback riding on the island: Samuel (tel. 081/3619-1141), Ronaldo (tel. 081/3619-1250), and Valter (tel. 081/3619-1764). Going with them is a matter of calling, saying what you're interested in, and seeing what's possible. Cost is around R$35 per hour per person.
Tours depart Porto Santo Antonio at 9am and 3pm for a 3-hour paddle along the island's sheltered coast, with a stop to snorkel at Praia de Conceição. A small motorboat tags along with water and snacks. Cost is R$125. Call Edlene at Remos da Ilha (tel. 081/3619-1914).
In Vila Remédios, Pousada Solymar (tel. 081/3619-1965; www.pousadasolymar.com.br) rents mountain bikes for R$30 per day.
The Brazilian sea turtle conservation organization, Tamar (Av. do Boldró s/n; tel. 081/3619-1171), has a site on Noronha with a shop, small lecture theater, and cafe. It's worth checking in every day or so to see if any turtle nests are about to hatch. Watching hundreds of newly hatched turtles scramble into the surf is an experience not to be missed. The shop is open Monday through Friday from 9am to 11pm, Saturday and Sunday from 9am to 1pm and 3 to 11pm. Nightly nature talks in Portuguese start at 8:30pm.
A number of operators offer organized snorkeling tours. For do-it-yourselfers, Santuário (tel. 081/3619-1247), in the port of Santo Antonio, rents masks and snorkels for R$18 per day for a mask, snorkel, and fins. Baía do Sancho and Baía do Sueste both offer good snorkeling. Tours are also offered by Alquimista Tour (tel. 081/3619-1283; www.alquimistanoronha.com.br).
The surf season in Noronha runs from December to March, the opposite of that in the rest of Brazil. (Outside of this time there are no surfable waves.) Surfing takes place not on the outer shore beaches, which are steep and rocky, but on the sandier beaches facing Brazil's Atlantic coast. The best surf beaches are Cachorro, Cacimba do Padre, Bode, Boldró, Conceição, and Meio. Waves average 2m (6 1/2 ft.), but sometimes reach as high as 5m (17 ft.). Bring your board and the gear you need. There are no surf shops on the island, but Pousada Solymar (tel. 081/3619-1965; www.pousadasolymar.com.br) does rent boards.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.