Picture Perfect

By David Lugg

If you have ever flown into Faro airport during daylight hours, then undoubtably you would have cast your eye over the Ria Formosa Natural Park. Covering over 170 km2, the park is essentially a tidal lagoon comprised of islands, canals and salt marshes, and has been a vitally important ecosystem for thousands of years.

The salt marshes are packed with grasses and shrubs that play an essential role in the ‘nutrient cycle’ that delivers organic matter to the marine-life food chain. They also play an important role for humans too, as can be seen in the patchwork of salt pans that stretch along the coast. Indeed, five Roman salting tanks have been found near to Cacela Velha where fish from the Algarve were salted and preserved.

But the Ria Formosa offers far more than meets the eye. When you dig a little deeper you begin to understand why it was recently voted one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal. Unquestionably, the best way to learn about the park is with a local guide and the only way to truly see it up close is by boat. I headed to Faro and acquired the services of Carlos from Iseacharter and we set off by speedboat to begin my Ria Formosa education.

Carlos advises me that the Ria Formosa offers many assets. On a commercial scale, the waters are perfect for farming shellfish – it is estimated that the area produces around 85% of the nation’s oysters. But oysters are also natural water filters and offers benefits to other species. For example, an area of the lagoon is being used to increase the number of seahorses as, sadly, as many as 90% have disappeared due to illegal fishing (for the Asian medicine market) and destruction of habitat.

We soon arrive at one of the five beautiful islands – Ilha da Culatra. It is home to around 800 people, most of whom rely upon fishing as a means of income. Its isolated location gives it a timeless charm and life bobs along slowly, much like the scores of little fishing boats that adorn its harbour. Mercifully, there are no cars so walking is the only option, but it doesn’t take long before you reach the soft white sands of its magnificent beach. It is as wild as it is wonderful.

The Ria Formosa is also an important breeding ground and migratory stopping point for many thousands of aquatic birds. We are careful to respect their space, but Carlos points out spoonbills, herons, oystercatchers, egrets and flamingos. Over 200 bird species have been identified and its calm, clear waters are a perfect means of shelter and sustenance. With a little luck (and the right season), it is possible to see eagles, kites, owls, ospreys, bee-eaters and my personal favourite, the rather exotic-looking hoopoe.

We move on to Ilha da Barreta, or as it is romantically known to many, Ilha Deserta (Deserted Island). Not only is it the most southerly located beach in Portugal, but it is one of the most beautiful. It is easy to see why the island attracts a regular yachting crowd as it has echoes of the Caribbean, with fine white sand and crystal-clear waters. Ilha da Barreta is 7km of largely unspoilt beach perfection.

Before we head back, I am intrigued to learn more about one final creature that inhabits this magical stretch of the Algarve – the Common Chameleon (Chamaeleo Chamaeleon). Despite its name, it is not easy to find. This particular species is located only in the Algarve. Its tongue is half the length of its body and it has the ability to change colour depending on its surroundings. Alas, I don’t spot one today, but it is heartening to know that the Ria Formosa is a breeding ground for these magical animals.

As humans, we are prone to destroying the natural habitats of so many of our fellow creatures. But protected areas such as the Ria Formosa instil hope that we can co-exist happily. I urge you to take a trip to this wonderful lagoon as it might just provide you with a much-needed sense of optimism.

Iseacharter offer a range of boats from catamarans to speedboats and can provide crews and guides.




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