Porto Santo is an Island located about 43 kilometres northeast of Madeira Island and is the most northern and eastern point of the Madeira Archipelago. Porto Santo itself is famous for its large sandy beaches and excellent diving.
The islets of Porto Santo were used intensively dating back to the 17th century. Mining of limestone became a very important economic activity. The Islets were also used to make pastures for goats and sheep, plants were extracted for the dyeing and soap-making industry and rabbits were introduced for hunting. Human activity over centuries had a strong negative impact on the local flora and fauna, almost completely deteriorated it. The islets were put under protection because of their great importance as nesting grounds for marine birds, to protect and restore endemic, as well as typical Macaronesian flora and fauna.
The Network of the Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) of Porto Santo consists of the six uninhabited rock islets surrounding Porto Santo: Ilhéu da Cal, Ilhéu das Cenouras, Ilhéu de Cima, Ilhéu de Fora, Ilhéu de Ferro and Ilhéu da Fonte da Areia, as well as the marine waters surrounding Ilhéu de Cima and Ilhéu da Cal. This is a partially protected MPA, where recreational and artisanal fishing are allowed.
Why is it important?
The islets are used by numerous marine and terrestrial bird species. From the birds that use the rich waters for feeding and the rocks for nesting, some of them require special attention, as their population numbers have largely decreased.
The roseate tern (Sterna dougalli) is locally endangered, with less than 100 breeding couples. The local populations of Cory’s shearwater (Calonectris borealis), the Bulwer’s petrel (Bulweria bulwerii), band-rumped storm petrel (also called Madeira storm petrel, Hydrobates) and the Audubon’s shearwater (Puffinus lherminieri baroli) all rated as locally vulnerable. The decline is largely due to introduced mice, as they feed on the eggs or even small hatchlings of nesting birds.
Then there are also some smaller inhabitants that need protection: there are 4 endemic molluscs (Helix subplicata, Caseolus calculus, Caseolus commixtus, Discula turricula) on the rock islets that are all listed as vulnerable by the IUCN.
There are also plants on the islets that can only be found in the Madeira region (i.e. Sideroxylon mirmulans, left, Phagnalon lowei, middle and Chamaemeles coriacea, right) and, like the birds, they’re threatened by introduced species. The biggest threats are the rabbits and mice that feed on the plants and seeds, along with introduced plant species that are better competitors and overgrow the local flora.
Conservation efforts are largely focused on decreasing the impact of the introduced species on the islets and controlling their population sizes.
Although only a small part of the marine area is under protection, the conservation of the landmasses decreased all human activities with a great side effect on the marine environment: crystal clear water and abundant marine life.
A popular dive site is the wreck of the Madeirense, at about 34 meters (for advanced divers!), and of the Pereira d’Eça at 15-30 meters. There are 15-20 dive sites around Porto Santo, many of them around the protected islets Ilhéu da Cal and Ilhéu de Cima. If lucky, you will see some large, emblematic dusky groupers or even a loggerhead turtle. Dive trips can be arranged in the local dive centres in Porto Santo.
For the non-divers, it’s a bit harder to explore. If you want to stay dry you can order this book about the islets around Porto Santo. It gives a good impression about the beauty and explains the importance of the ecosystem. Find the book here: https://issuu.com/parquenaturalmadeira/docs/livroipsanto. Happy reading!