Ria Formosa is a protected coastal lagoon in the Algarve region in the south of Portugal, spanning from Quinta do Lago to Manta Rota, east of Tavira. It’s a labyrinth of marshland, canals and islands that spans about 60 kilometres of coastline, covering a total of 18 000 hectares. It is a dynamic system constantly changing with continuous movement of winds, currents and tides.
The lagoon of Ria Formosa is protected from the ocean by five barrier islands (Barreta or Ilha Deserta, Culatra, Armona, Tavira and Cabanas) and two peninsulas (Ancão, also called the Faro island and Cacela). The lagoon lays between the land and is protected from the sea by the islands and peninsulas. In the lagoon, saline ocean water is seasonally fed with freshwater from small streams and rivers, leading to different ranges of salinity depending on season, tide and location.
The lagoon does not just provide stunning landscapes, but also bears a wide range of different habitats: dunes, marshlands, tidal flats, saltpans, freshwater pools, pinewoods and agricultural land. This wide range of different habitats gives rise to an exceptional diversity of the local flora and fauna.
The Ria Formosa protected area is a multiple-use area divided into four zones, three of them allow for sustainable use of marine resources and one of them is a fully protected area where no extraction is allowed.
Why is it important?
Ria Formosa is a mecca for birdwatchers and considered one of the most important areas for aquatic birds in Portugal, hosting about 20.000 birds during the winter. Further, numerous migratory birds pass by the Ria Formosa during their migrations from their northern summer homes to their southern winter homes in the autumn and vice versa in the spring.
Some rather rare species also find food and shelter here and make the Ria Formosa their home, such as the purple swamphen (Prophyrio porphyria). There is also a population of colourful flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) and thanks to great conservation efforts large colonies of white storks (Ciconia ciconia), among hundreds of other bird species.
In the lagoon, we can also find seagrass beds (Cymodocea spp. and Zostera spp.), which are rapidly declining worldwide due to human activites. These flowering plants form vast beds that provide food and shelter for many different species. With loss of the seagrass beds, the species inhabiting them are also at risk. In the Ria Formosa these seagrass beds are largely still intact, giving rise to one of the largest densities of seahorses in the world (Hippocampus guttulatus and H. hippocampus).
Several oceanic species use the shallow and protected waters of the Ria Formosa as a nursing ground. Some are economically valuable such as the gilt-head bream (Sparus aurata), the European seabass (Dicentrarchus labrax), the white seabream (Diplodus sargus) and the shrimp (Penaeus spp.). These species use the lagoon to lay their eggs, hatch and spend the most vulnerable juvenile stages in the sheltered channels and streams. Only later, when less vulnerable, they migrate to the open ocean. The protection of the nursing ground of fished species is an essential step to maintain sustainable fisheries.
This protected area is also a showplace for number of human activities with economic interest such as bivalve culture, fish farming, salt production and sand extraction.
This is an ideal place for families to visit. The paths throughout the reserve have hard surfaces, which can easily accommodate prams and wheelchairs as well. There are also bird hides in the reserve and plenty of good vantage points from which it is possible to observe the bird life in the wild. Head out during low tide, as then many birds are searching for food in the mud.
If you have your snorkelling gear with you, the Ria Formosa has one of the highest seahorse densities in the world, which makes it an ideal spot to observe them in their natural habitat. If you are lucky, you can also spot the common octopus the European common cuttlefish, the black-striped pipefish, the sea hare, just to name a few.
During the summer months, there are numerous companies that provide touristic boat tours through the Ria Formosa Natural Park. Boats leave from mainly from the city of Tavira, Olhão or Faro and they provide a great opportunity to explore the beauties of this park.