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Mark Chan on 29/4/2010
Marcus, nearly 20 years ago, it's an interesting article.

Trindade Isl. October 1989
Jose Coltro Jr., Marcus Coltro and Fabio Costa by Marcus Coltro

Trindade – not to be confused with Trinidad & Tobago - is a tiny volcanic island of 13.5 square kilometers located 1,600 miles east of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (20°30'34.72"S 29°19'34.17"E). It is a Brazilian Naval Base staffed by 60 men working in three-month shifts. Every three months Navy rotates half the crew and re-supplies the island. There are two ways to get there: using your own boat and a special permit; or you may apply to a long waiting list to visit the island on a Brazilian Navy ship. Our good friend Bernardo Linhares from Salvador received an invitation from his friend Admiral Jose Aratanha of the Navy, which made the process much faster. Bernardo was unable to go, so he passed the invitation to us. We also invited another friend to come along, Fabio Costa, a biologist from Rio de Janeiro.

We drove from Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro a day before departure and spent the first night on the 75-meter long Admiral Graça Aranha, a ship used for installation and maintenance of buoys and lighthouses. It would be a very long trip to Trindade Island, three to five days on the open sea, depending on weather conditions.

When you will to eat and sleep on a Brazilian Navy ship, you are allowed to stay with the higher rank crew including the Captain only if you have a university degree. If not, you have to sleep and eat with the rest of the crew. The meals are the same but the rooms have no windows or ventilation, except for a few small fans, and the beds are so close to each other that there is not much room to roll over after you lie down. We stayed in the infirmary which is located in the midsection of the ship and is the steadier place since the boat rolls mostly bow to stern (front to rear). The worst place is the bow where the crew's room is located. Do you remember the scene from Titanic where Leonardo di Caprio opens his arms on the bow and yells, "I am the king of the world"? Well, on this ship, the bow pitches up and down rapidly several meters even on a calm sea!

The meals were very good, the dining room was nice and there was even a waiter serving meals. The sailors don't have much to do after the second day at sea - after all how many times can they swab the decks? To avoid getting seasick, Jose, Fabio and I took Dramamine three times a day. Our routine was basically this: wake up, take a Dramamine with breakfast, talk a little and go back to bed. Wake up again, take another Dramamine, have lunch, talk a little and go back to bed. Wake up, take one more Dramamine, have dinner, talk a little and go back to bed. So, between eating and sleeping, all of us - including the crew - gained weight. On one of our attempts to stay awake, we tried to catch floating shells such as Cavolinidae or Janthinidae. I got an old metal bucket, removed the bottom and replaced it with a net. I asked one of the curious sailors watching for a long thin rope and tied it to the bucket. He said the ship was going about 10 knots; I smiled but had no idea what that meant. I thought to myself "10 sounds low". NOW I know that 10 knots is very high speed at sea. It felt like throwing an anchor on the road from a car running at 11.5 mph. The string slipped fast from my hands and we were almost unable to pull the bucket back! When retrieved, it was totally flattened and distorted! And of course, no shells inside what was left of the bucket. After double-checking that all my fingers were still attached to my hand, I gave up and went back to bed.

I think the sea was very calm all the way to Trindade, (I can't recall after taking so much Dramamine). There is no dock for landing and the sea is very rough around the island. Our ship had a helicopter for ferrying supplies to the island; that turned out to be a downside for us because it went too fast: other ships have to use a raft (called "cabrita") running on a cable tied between the ship and shore. That process can take up to three days vs. just 12 hours with the helicopter.

After three long boring days, we arrived in Trindade. We would spend one night in the base's infirmary, which had the only vacant beds. It is not used much by the sailors, so we had to wipe off the dust and spiderwebs, especially in the bathroom. Have I told you how much Jose hates spiders? Well, he used a whole can of bug spray trying to kill spiders the size of my palm in the bathroom. While he was bravely spraying, he did not notice one of the spiders which was already dying behind him. It slowly came down on its silk thread, almost touching his shoulder. He jumped back startled and almost crushed a sailor who was laughing by the door....

The only way to communicate with the mainland was by radio - voice or Morse code. One of the civilians who came with us was there to send messages using Morse code. It was a predecessor to e-mail back then. Nowadays there is a phone booth which is very busy all the time. Cell phones, of course, do not work there. A TV crew came on the same trip to make a short documentary (a lousy one as I found out later).

With little daylight left, we rushed to the beach. Trindade is a volcanic island with fantastic scenery of colored volcanic sand varying from black to orange to bright red. The vegetation also is fantastic - there are 124 species of plants, 11 of them endemic. The most interesting is a prehistoric kind of giant fern which grows on the top of the island, 600 meters above sea level. Some goats also live there, descended from some introduced in 1700 by the expedition which brought English astronomer Edmond Halley on his second Atlantic voyage. The only other animal you see all over the island by the hundreds is the red crab.

The sea around the island is very rich with sharks, manta rays and large schools of fish all year around. Large Green Turtles come to lay eggs and are protected by Brazilian laws. The most common fish is a species of Balistes (triggerfish) called Pufa. Its name comes from the colloquial Portuguese "Por favor me pegue" (Please catch me) and is a voracious species which will eat anything. One of the sailors took a basket, placed a piece of stale bread in it and lowered it into the water. A gazillion fish entered the basket which he pulled up. He then took one of the fish punched it few times with a knife and threw it back into the water. The other fish voraciously attacked it and in a matter of seconds nothing was left - it was like a piranha attack!

We did not bring any scuba equipment as we would not have time to use it. So we snorkeled a bit (very cold water) and found a few common shells. We found more shells on the rocks, such as Nerites, Trochidae, Leucozonia and many other small shells found at the tide line. We used a hand dredge and brought some grit back home. It proved to be very rich, containing several nice small species.

The scenery was really breathtaking but you must be fit to get to some of the places. We had to climb high cliffs covered with loose volcanic rocks but our efforts were rewarded each time we saw a new beach behind a hill.

There is a cemetery on the island containing a few graves - most are empty. In the past sailors were left on the island for more than 3 months. That place was amazing for us, but I imagine being stranded there for more than three months without contact with civilization gets to be a strain. Some committed suicide using a pistol. Others jumped from the cliffs to the sea – where lots of hungry sharks were looking for food.

By the next morning the chopper had already finished unloading the supplies, so it was time to board again and leave for home. At least the weather was nice and the sea calm; three days later we've arrived in Rio.

We took about 200 pictures between regular film and slides, it would be at least 1000 if we had a digital camera!


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