This Abandoned Island Near Rio Could Be in Store for a Miraculous Comeback

Fellows 2015

By Ariel Schwartz

September 29, 2015

Also published by Business Insider

Ilha Seca is the closest island to Rio, but humans have barely touched it in the last half century, leaving it overgrown with weeds and dotted with crumbling buildings.

Now it's newsworthy, thanks to the 2016 Olympics sailing competition, which will happen in the surrounding Guanabara Bay.

The Bay has been making headlines for its water, which is so dirty in some areas that it contains the same concentration of viruses you would expect to find in raw sewage. 

During a recent visit to Rio, ecologist Sergio Ricardo took me to Ilha Seca, where he dreams of creating an eco-resort and breeding ground for fish species that are dying in the polluted water. 

Below, my journey on the island.

Ilha Seca is surrounded by oil industry ships. But not all of the gargantuan bay is that polluted, and environmental activists have big hopes for its future.

It's right off the coast of Rio. But most Rio residents don't even know that the island is there, according to Ricardo.

The island is barren, with tall windswept grasses and abandoned buildings. But Ricardo is working with four local universities to turn it into an eco-paradise. In the 1950s, Texaco used Ilha Seca to store oil in giant drums.

By the 1960s, it was abandoned. The island is now about to be turned over from the Brazilian federal government to the local Ministry of Fishing.

Though washed-up trash is rampant on the island, Ricardo says that the surrounding water is fairly clean.

Ricardo has big dreams for the numerous abandoned buildings on the 2,500 square meter island.

There will be a school for local fisherman to learn the tools of trade, he hopes, along with a place for them to stay overnight.

Lots of fishermen already stay overnight on the island. The current in the bay often brings them there.

During my visit, I came across some fishermen who had let the current take them to the island.

Though they lived in Rio, they hadn't heard about Ilha Seca until they drifted there that day.

In Ricardo's vision, tourists will also have a place to stay on the island.

He imagines that researchers working in the bay may also want to stay the night once in awhile.

One of the buildings will be converted into a restaurant that will serve fish from the bay.

All of the structures will be solar-powered.

The giant oil drums from Texaco are covered in overgrown plant matter, but still intact.

After testing the drums to make sure they're clean, Ricardo wants to fill them with water and breed fish, including crabs.

Eventually, the fish will be tossed back in the bay to repopulate it.

There is no construction timeline yet, but the government has discussed using pollution fines from offshore oil operations (there are many near Ilha Seca) to fund Ricardo's plan. For now, it's still a dream.

Ariel Schwartz reported from Brazil as part of a fellowship with the International Reporting Project (IRP).