15 Years Collecting Around São Sebastião, São Paulo, Brazil
by Jose Coltro (December 1997)
Ilha de São Sebastião is the largest island on the Brazilian coast. It has a wonderful, well-preserved tropical rain forest, mountains over 2,000 meters high, hundreds of small, very clear rivers and fantastic waterfalls. The lee side of the island is occupied by the small city of Ilhabela. About 10,000 people live there, except in Brazil's summer, when 30,000 tourists invade the island. No bridge exists; there's only a ferryboat system to transport your car to the island. Few roads are in good condition, most of them dirt roads, including the one that crosses the island. Most people who live on Ilha de São Sebastião, including tourists who have beach houses there, don't want to change the quality of life on the island. It has good facilities -- schools, hospital, supermarkets, shops, very good restaurants and more. But everything is limited to protect the natural environment. No large numbers of non-resident tourists are allowed to visit the island and you won't see huge tourist buses there. It is really a very nice place.
In 1982 Marcus and I made our first shelling trip to Ilha de São Sebastião, driving approximately 210 km from our home in São Paulo. At that time the north part of the São Paulo (State) coast was extremely wild and rather untraveled. On this first trip we found few shells, but on the next trip, the São Sebastião area became our best collecting source. This time we stayed several days on the island; we did our first snorkel on the lee or mainland side, near an islet called Ilha das Cabras. It was a wonderful surprise: under the first rock that we turned we found our first Cypraea zebra L., 1758. In the same day we saw over 75 specimens! It was like a dream come true.
From then on we visited São Sebastião every few weeks, always with our friend Luiz Francisco Viscardi, whose motherinlaw had a nice house on the island. At first we limited our expeditions to the lee side. Then we crossed the island on a very primitive 25-mile road to Castelhanos Bay. The trip was really fantastic -- the kind you keep in a special place in your memories -- through a gorgeous tropical forest, full of birds, orchids, and wild animals, lovely small waterfalls and picturesque mountains. Finally we reached the other side of São Sebastião: A superb view! A very large beach edging a beautiful bay dotted with many small islands, and no people around. The only unpleasant aspect was a small bug, one we call "borrachudo," a larger cousin of Florida's most troublesome insect, the mosquito; but with a good repellent we were able to enjoy the place.
A few years later our base changed from Ilhabela to Luiz Francisco's new house in the city of São Sebastião, on the mainland across from the island. He bought a nice boat and we started to explore the rest of Ilha de São Sebastião. The north side has a few isolated beaches and excellent spots to dive, like the nearby islands of Buzios and Vitoria. Using the boat we began diving frequently and the shells started to appear. We found some really nice Calliostoma depictum Dall, 1927 and another Calliostoma species (cf. C. bullisi Clench and Turner, 1960). Species never found in southern Brazil were here: Cypraea acicularis Gmelin, 1791; Conus regius Gmelin, 1791 and Bursa corrugata ponderosa (Reeve, 1844). New species and subspecies were described from this area: Oliva circinata tostesi Petuch, 1977 and Calliostoma viscardi Quinn, 1992.
In 1991 we started to dredge around the island, trying many places until we found the best spot, near Buzios Island -- its name means, fittingly, "large snail." We dredged many species: the rare Trophon pelseneeri E. A. Smith, 1915 and Typhis cleryi (Petit, 1842) among them. (See Species List of Shells from São Sebastião)
The island is still a wonderful place to look for shells and adventures, too. In spite of progress and the occupation of much of the mainland coast with houses and condominiums, the island has most of its coast unexplored -- 90% of the island is a State Park, preserved just as it was 500 years ago! It is wonderful to have a paradise so close!