The Desert Islands are a small group of islands that is part of the larger Madeira archipelago. The three small islands are located about 25 kilometers southeast of Madeira. They form a North to South chain with Chão Islet being the northernmost and smallest island, followed by Deserta Grande (yes, it’s the largest) and Bugio. The marine protected area (MPA) includes the marine area surrounding the islands up to 100 meter depth.
The islands consist mainly of rocks with little fertile soil. In the past, several attempts have been made to colonize the Desertas, but failed due to the lack of a permanent water source making agriculture impossible. The islands have a few research stations and Deserta Grande has a little house where wardens stay permanently and scientists use it temporarily to monitor the islands.
This MPA is divided in two zones, a partially protected zone and a ‘strict’ partially protected zone. In this strict zone, recreational fishing is prohibited and commercial fishing is extremely limited and regulated, allowing only one or two fishing gears. In the partially protected zone, commercial and recreational fishing are permitted. Diving can only be practiced in the partially protected zone.
Why is it important?
The name Desert Islands reveals a lot about what it appears to be at first sight: barren, arid and empty. But if you take a closer look there is more to these islands: several rare and endemic species occur here.
The islands are home to different species of marine birds, including the largest colony of Bulwer’s petrel (Bulweria bulwerii, middle) in the Atlantic and the only known population in the world of the Desertas petrel (Pterodroma deserta), making it an endemic bird species.
Deserta Grande also has its own spider species; the Deserta Grande wolf spider (Hogna ingens) that can reach an impressive 12 centimeter leg span. Other animals include feral goats, rabbits and rodents brought from the mainland by early voyagers.
The Desertas have approximately 200 plant species, about 30% of them endemic to Madeira and two of them are exclusive to Deserta Grande: Sinapidendron sempervivifolium and Musschia isambertoi. The biggest threats to the local flora are the goats and mice. With efforts being made to control their populations, the natural local flora seems to be recovering little by little.
The main objective of the MPA is the protection of the small colony of Mediterranean monk seals (Monachus monachus, bottom). The IUCN lists the Mediterranean monk seal as endangered, with less than 700 individuals estimated worldwide. Around Madeira the seals used to be abundant but were hunted by colonizers for their fur and their oil, and later by fishermen to reduce competition for resources. In modern times the main threat is overfishing and habitat loss due to coastal development. By the 1980’s the colony was reduced to only eight (!) seals that found refugee on the Desertas Islands by adapting a new behavior: instead of breeding on beaches they had their pups in caves, usually only accessible through underwater entries. Due to great conservation efforts by the Madeira Natural Park the population has now grown to 30-35 individuals.
There are several companies offering day trips to Deserta Grande. It is a full day trip but well worth it. The chances are high that you will see dolphins, pilot whales or even Bryde’s whales on your way. Once you get closer to Deserta Grande (the only place where the Boats are allowed to anchor) you might get a glimpse of the monk seals. Bring you mask and snorkel, as the clear waters make for a perfect dive.
A smaller boat will bring you to the island where you can follow a path (stay on the path to not disturb the fragile fauna and flora) and a nature warden will be there to answer your questions. But be aware: the ocean can get rough at times, so if you are prone to seasickness make sure to go on a day when the sea is calm.