Administratively, the islands are a unique case in Brazil of a special "state district" (Portuguese: distrito estadual) that is not part of any municipality and is administered directly by the government of the state of Pernambuco (despite being closer to the state of Rio Grande do Norte). The state district's jurisdiction also includes the very remote Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago, located 625 kilometres (388 mi) northeast of Fernando de Noronha. 70% of the islands' area were established in 1988 as a national maritime park.
In 2001 UNESCO designated it as a World Heritage Site because of the importance of its environment. Its time zone is UTC−02:00 all year round. The local population and travelers can get to Noronha by plane from Recife or Natal. An "environmental preservation" daily fee is charged from tourists upon arrival by Pernambuco State administration, while another fee is paid once to have access to the National Park attractions.
The islands of this archipelago are the visible parts of a range of submerged mountains. It consists of 21 islands, islets and rocks of volcanic origin. The main island has an area of 18 km2 (6.9 sq mi), being 10 km (6.2 mi) long and 3.5 km (2.2 mi) wide at its maximum. The base of this enormous volcanic formation is 756 metres (2,480 ft) below the surface. The volcanic rocks are of variable though mainly silica-undersaturated character with basanite, nephelinite and phonolite among the lava types found. The main island, from which the group gets its name, makes up 91% of the total area; the islands of Rata, Sela Gineta, Cabeluda and São José, together with the islets of Leão and Viúva make up the rest. The central upland of the main island is called the Quixaba.
The United Nations Environment Programme lists 15 possible endemic plant species, including species of the genera Capparis noronhae (2 species), Ceratosanthes noronhae (3 species), Cayaponia noronhae (2 species), Moriordica noronhae, Cereus noronhae, Palicourea noronhae, Guettarda noronhae, Bumelia noronhae, Physalis noronhae, and Ficus noronhae.
The islands have two endemic birds — the Noronha elaenia (Elaenia ridleyana) and the Noronha vireo (Vireo gracilirostris). Both are present on the main island; Noronha vireo is also present on Ilha Rata. In addition there is an endemic subspecie of eared dove Zenaida auriculata noronha. Subfossil remains of an extinct endemic rail have also been found. The archipelago is also an important site for breeding seabirds. An endemic sigmodontine rodent, Noronhomys vespuccii, mentioned by Amerigo Vespucci, is now extinct. The islands have two endemic reptiles, the Noronha wormlizard Amphisbaena ridleyi and the Noronha skink Trachylepis atlantica.