In a time when we’re all supposed to be worried about global warming, and in particular about sea level rise caused by melting Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, I found myself wishing if I could remember where the sea level was in the various places around the world where I once lived. But it wasn’t something to which I ever paid any attention. So I have no recollection of where the sea level used to be, 50 or 60 years ago, and so can’t say whether it’s been rising as predicted.
But last night I remembered a little island in Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara bay. Back in about 1958, my father worked in Rio de Janeiro, and we lived in Niteroi, across the bay from Rio. And he also owned a little clinker-built sailing boat which he kept at the yacht club on the north shore of the Saco de São Francisco. And so one day, while sailing in the Saco, we stopped off at the little Ilha dos Amores not far from the south shore.
I have a peculiarly vivid recollection of this event, perhaps because the Ilha was the smallest island I had ever set foot on. My recollection of it was that it was a small granite outcrop, barely ten yards across, and two three feet above the water, with a few small, scrubby plants growing on it, and yet equipped with its own tiny beach. We got out of the boat, and wandered about on it briefly. But there was nothing to see, and so after a few minutes we set off again, never to return.
But here was, at last, a distinct and clear memory of the sea level on one day at one single place in the world. And today I used Google Maps to search for the islet again. Perhaps it had been swallowed up by the rising seas?
But it was still there (right). And rather than having grown smaller, it seemed to have grown bigger. Instead of being 10 yards across, it was about 40 metres – 4 times bigger than I remember it.
There’s a simple explanation for the discrepancy. Back in 1958, we must have visited it at high tide. For Guanabara Bay is a tidal basin, and the waters in it are always rising and falling by 5 or 6 feet (2 metres). Almost certainly my father only took his yacht out when the tide was high. The photo above must have been snapped at low tide.
I found this morning another view of the island, by Diego Baravelli, possibly from 2017, which gives a better idea of its contours:
And what this little island tells me is that sea levels haven’t risen appreciably in Guanabara Bay over the 60 years since I last set foot upon it. In fact, if anything, it looks to me like sea levels may even have been falling. So what’s there to worry about? I’d have felt differently if the islet had vanished beneath the waves.
I also wondered why it was called the Isle of the Lovers. And I suspect that’s because it’s exactly what it was. It’s about 200 metres from the nearest beach, and would have been easy to row or even swim to. So probably dozens of Rositas and Ronaldos would have done exactly that, far from any prying, censorious eyes. And perhaps they’d even have brought with them a few cans of beer, and a barbecue on which to grill a kebab, and of course lots of cigarettes.
The Saco de São Francisco, if not the Isla dos Amores, is visible in the panoramic view below. In the foreground is the district of Botafogo, where my mother taught at the British School.