The Selvagem islands are a Portuguese nature reserve about 160 nautical miles from Madeira, consisting of Selvagem Grande and Pequena. They are home to birds, geckos and lizards. Given its protected status, the remoteness and limited fresh water sources, it is inhabited only by a few park rangers and scientists conducting research on its wildlife, a Portuguese family and a small Portuguese navy detachment.
The Exodus crew had been looking forward to this stopover for a long time. One of our reasons for sailing is that you can go off the beaten track and see places and things not many people get to see.
The trip to the islands was fast and rough as usual. Typical Madame Atlantic. Reducing the jib’s sail surface became a substantial work out. We actually had to winch her in. This cast some serious doubt on our intention to visit this very unique place, only reachable by boat or helicopter. The Savage islands have one small bay where you can anchor. It has a rocky bottom and offers protection from the northerly winds. If conditions are too rough, anchoring becomes impossible. Feeling despondent that our plan would not work out, we decided to radio the island to check if there was any chance on safe anchorage. The naval police responded quite quickly with great news. Inside the small bay the conditions were favorable for anchorage. There was a sandy spot between their dinghy and supply boat buoy and the coastline opposing their office. We could take our time to anchor and were welcome ashore whenever we felt ready. They would set up a stroll around the island the next day. All good news! As we entered the small bay the sea became flat as a mirror. The big swells and howling wind seemed a figment of our imagination.
Anchoring was no easy feat as the small patch of sand was very difficult to spot. But our own ‘captain fantastic’ (or is it captain fin-tastic?) jumped in his fins and mask to verify our Rocna was anchored securely. We lifted the dinghy in the water and went on shore patrol, looking for the savages of the savage islands. We were checked in by the naval police and introduced to the handful of people that rotate on the island. There are always two park rangers and three naval police. If and how many researchers are present depends on the science projects that are running at that specific time. In the meantime Gitane had discovered the resident lizards and dogs. She made friends with the latter, but found no better game than chasing the lizards. We quietly hoped that the lizards were not an endangered species that would suffer a stroke from the sheer trauma of meeting our active 5 year old! The next day after lunch one of the park rangers would take us on a guided tour around the island.
At night we heard the same type of women’s cackling as we did in Camara de Lobos. But this time the sound was hugely amplified. There seemed to be thousands of melodious voices and strange guttural sounds around us, mixed with a teut teut teutereut concert. How bizar…
Our morning was spent snorkeling in the bay. There was quite a bit of fish life: red striped wrasses, puffer fish, sea spiders, sea urchins assorted, and various other fish common to Madeiran and Canary waters.
Fishing was prohibited as there were some cases of ciguatera (a type of parasite/ worm that settles in game fish intestine and can make humans gravely ill). On shore big black crabs with bright red pinchers quickly clambered away and crawled over the rocks into the crevices as soon as they saw us approach.
After lunch we went to shore for our tour of the island. We were welcomed by Carolina, the director of the reserve. She was going to be our guide. This friendly Madeiran lady first came to the Selvagens at the age of 13, on sailing holiday with her father. Carolina immediately fell in love with the place and had found her calling. She wanted to be a park ranger to treasure and protect precarious and endangered species. Her shift changes every three weeks. The fresh rangers are brought to the islands along with fresh supplies by motor boat from Madeira. The old ones get sent back along with the trash on the provisioning boat. They first get a break and then serve duty at various spots on Madeira.
Carolina confirmed if we were all good walkers and let us choose between the short or long route. Curious as we were we went for the long route. Gitane had found a new friend to chat to and happily marched the whole trail holding Carolina’s hand.
Selvagem Grande is famous for one specific type of bird: the Cory’s Shearwater. They look like a brown variation of seagull and make a very special sound when courting, like a bunch of women having a tea party. Aha, mystery solved! On the island there is currently a population of 15 000 breeding pairs. It is their favorite breeding ground, and has been so for centuries. Every hole, nook, crevice, cranny has a nest inside. Two stones stacked together, reserved for Mister Shearwater and his wife Cory! Carolina magically pulled birds from their hiding places like rabbits out of a hat! The birds are very docile. You can easily pry them out of their nest and pet them. Or kill them for their fat and feathers. And that is exactly what happened from the Middle Ages on till the 1900s. Because these birds do not have the instinct to bite or scratch humans when they come too close they were an easy prey. Adding to that, the Shearwaters have an inbuilt homing-device. Once weened, the youngsters fly away from their nest into the great wide open. Some even as far as Mozambique. But seven years later their biological clock starts ticking like a time bomb. They rush many thousand miles back to reproduce in the same place where they once came from. The lacks of defense instinct combined with their predictable nesting habit, made that thousands of birds would be clubbed in one go. A true genocide, year after year, nearly wiping the species out. Luckily other sources for fat were discovered and the demand for Shearwater down pillows plummeted. Moreover, the Selvagens have been protected by a Portuguese family since the 1960s and were made a nature reserve at a later stage, giving the Cory’s Shearwaters the chance to recover to a healthy number of 30 000.
We walked around the island, admiring the views and discovering other endemic species. Under the stones marking the trail, geckos unique to the island take a break from the scorching sun. Lizards could be found everywhere. Clearly they were not endangered (relief!) and their natural enemies did not yet discover the Selvagens. Carolina pointed out Berthelot’s pipit hopping in the local fynbos. Later on, she lifted some stones in the fence and performed another magic trick. This time out came two brooding Bulwer’s petrels. The nests were marked by numbers, as part of ongoing research. She led us up the mountain flank to show us the tiny fresh water source in the mountain, the only one on the island. The lack of fresh water was the main reason why settlers did not succeed. Overlooking the plain she related that some of the settlers had tried to introduce goats, cows and rabbits to the islands so that passing sailors could stock up on fresh meat. The goats and cows withered on the dry land, but the rabbits thrived especially as they did not have a natural enemy. This formidable ravenous rabbit colony destroyed all the vegetation. They were forcefully evicted. Another genocide on this seemingly peaceful island. A bit further, Arno found several pieces of exploded artillery ordinance. The island was once used as a training ground for the Portuguese military. Clearly they did not have to pick up the pieces after practice. Listening to all these stories it became clear that the only savages on the savage islands are the humans that tried to domesticate it.
The hike and guided tour was really great for all of us. We felt very privileged to get a private tour by the director, who made us feel very welcome, who inspired by her passion for nature conservation and who happily shared part of her life as park ranger with us.
After two beautiful nights in this unique place, the time had come to lift anchor and sail the remaining 135 nm to the Canaries. The wind was blowing between 15 and 23 knots, making big waves. Nothing new there. Less than 24h later we reached our destination.