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Fernando de Noronha, an aquarium island.

Fernando de Noronha, Brazil

We leave port in a wreck of a catamaran that actually sails just fine. On board: the captain, the Rasta, the rookie and us. No one else. For once, we’ve been lucky. The Mar de Fora is calm, and so we’ll be able to go to Pedra Seca, the best place to dive in Fernando de Noronha. We are in a heavenly little island an hour away by airplane from the Brazilian coast. Though discovered by Amerigo Vespucci, it was given the name of the capitalist on the expedition. But it’s also true that when Vespucci explored the great continent, he stopped the nonsense and gave it his own name. Explorer, yes, but no dummy.

Here, even though the beaches are as pretty as they are virgin, what’s more even spectacular is under the water. Yesterday, while snorkeling, we saw a few turtles, some rays and a small shark. Today we’re going down to the bottom. The Rasta gave us the brief. The islets we’re going to swim around are two meteorites that fell like lightning and embedded themselves in the ocean’s bottom. According to geologists, however, the truth is that these islets are petrified sand, millions of years old. But, hey, we all like dreams. So we put on the suits and other equipment and can’t help but feel like Bond, James Bond. What are we to do? It’s part of the fun. Prior to getting into the water, a comment about the mission: our goal, as always, is to come back on board without any problems.

We stand in line in front of the gate on the starboard side of the boat. Between the suit, the flippers, the weights and the oxygen tank, the feeling is that of asphyxiation. Outside the water you can barely move. However, after a small jump, everything changes. You sink three feet, not more, and then you float back to the surface. Our inflated jacket keeps us afloat. Zero killed. Ok. Everyone is all right, so we start to empty our individual lifesavers in order to sink. In a second we stop hearing the sound of the waves and enter a different planet. If you want to travel to a different world, you don’t need to go on a rocket. Underwater you feel like a real astronaut. Absolute quiet. You only hear your breathing, as if you were wearing a NASA spacesuit. In fact, the largest swimming pool in the world is used to train cosmonauts.

Fernando de Noronha, Brazil

Now you’re by yourself. Even if you tried you wouldn’t be able to talk with anybody. It’s like a small nightmare where you try to scream and your buddy doesn’t even notice. But it doesn’t matter very much because the feeling of weightlessness has left you mute. You’re flying. Even better, you’re floating in the sky. But it’s not like free fall, when you’re parachute diving. Here you’re sinking slowly, like you were approaching your spaceship. The difference is that you’re not in infinite space, but have entered a different universe. Wherever you look, there’s life, a lot of it, but not like in the forest or the savanna where everyone runs for his life. Here there is a no-aggression pact so you can walk around peacefully. And you’re also part of that peace treaty because hundreds of fish start to surround you, swim above or below you, look at you or ignore you, turn their backs on you or even follow you.

The visibility is so crazy we almost suffer vertigo. The Rasta makes a sign. A hand on his forehead, imitating a fin. Tiburao. Pequenho. A small shark. Bubbles surround Belen. She also has her hand on her forehead, but she opens her arms so much our hearts start to race. We look down a pit and we see not one but two sharks, about six feet long, maybe seven or eight, hiding in a cave. When the rookie arrives, they get nervous and the oldest starts going round and round as if he were in a cage. It may seem unbelievable, but they’re asleep. We let them be.

Fernando de Noronha, Brazil

We keep on flying between arcs and caves, entering through a hole and leaving through another, crossing natural bridges and going down wells. If you look up you can see the spray of the waves breaking against the reef with a force like a storm in an underwater sky. Here, on the other hand, there is no wind, only currents that drag you. We let one of the currents drag us and start doing somersaults, like acrobats without a safety net. Just when we’re thinking there are very few places where you can be as happy as this, the best moment in the whole dive comes. Flying as if she were a living spaceship, almost effortless in spite of her enormous shell, here comes a turtle. She opens and closes her mouth as if she was telling us something and then continues on her way, gliding over our heads. Compared to her, everything we’ve seen until now, the giant ray, the violet lobster, the fish playing soccer with a shell or the lima shark we bumped into, is almost a let down.

Time to go back. We go up slowly, with a de-compression stop 15 feet before surface just in case. The flight is over but the trip goes on. Fifty minutes breathing compressed air is more than enough to leave you euphoric for a while. With a smile on our faces we look into the ocean. From up here nobody would say down there is a planet full of turtles. What do they think every time they put their heads out of the water to breathe?

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