Green, blue and friendly, Tobago is happy to be the exception in an age of rampant development
With a glance for orientation toward Bookends a pair of twin rocks jutting up from the Atlantic Ocean just south of Little Tobago Island we back roll off the open pirogue and into a world fully in motion.
My BC empty and my arms at my side, I angle headfirst toward a sea bottom that unrolls beneath me like the paper on a player piano. Gorgonians and soft corals wave to and fro in unison, and a school of chubs shifts alongside me, going with the flow. The current lessens, but only slightly, as the bottom draws near, and I understand why the barrel sponges around me are twisted and squeezed into such exotic, warped shapes they have been sculpted by moving water all the days of their lives.
Kiki Kerr, the stoic PADI professional with PADI Five-Star IDC AquaMarine Dive, had told me that it would be important to descend quickly on this dive; to tarry on the surface would risk us being washed off the site. Built like a cricket player, his head closely shaved, Kiki had remained utterly serious all the way through the briefing. And now I see why; by quickly sinking through the wind-influenced surface current, we have entered a bottom flow that is carrying us directly toward the foundation of Bookends. We aim a bit left, Kiki towing a surface marker every inch of the way, as brain corals and sponges whiz past. Then we cross an undersea ridge and drop into the calm behind the promontory. I add a touch of air to my BC and come to a hover just two feet above a stone-and-gravel bottom. And when I look up, what I see takes my breath away.
It is a hierarchy of predators, being played out level by level.
All around me on the seafloor where distorted water marks an upwelling-fed thermocline newly hatched silversides, as tiny and numerous as snowflakes, are swimming in unison, feeding on microscopic nutrients and trying in vain to avoid the inch-long baitfish making a breakfast of them. Just a few feet up, the baitfish are being consumed, in turn, by chubs, grunts, snapper and wrasse.
And up top, where wave-churned water presents the semblance of clouds or, perhaps, of the view from the bottom of a Maytag washer the real drama is taking place. There, five adult tarpon, their scales as shiny as polished plates of armor, are cruising in circles just beneath the fog of the churning surface. Let one smaller fish get stunned, even for a moment, by the pounding waves, and the nearest tarpon powers up into the white mist, wolfing down the easy pickings. I ease up into their midst, and they automatically make a space for me, as if acknowledging the newest predator on the block. I don't know how to tell them that I like my fish grilled.
Returning to the seafloor, I begin to see the things I'd skipped over when we first arrived. French angelfish are whirling around tube sponges, their bodies like sailboats rounding turns. Filefish, flamboyantly painted and shaped like alien violins, are bobbing methodically through the soft corals. White spotted morays, some as small around as my pinky finger, gape nearsightedly from fissures in the reef. And on the fuzz-covered stony bottom, I find a lettuce leaf nudibranch inching slowly along.
We fin off the site and back into moving water as Kiki signals that we should ascend and do a safety stop.
So soon? I wonder, but then a glance at my dive computer shows that we've been down for better than 45 minutes.
Five minutes later, we are at the surface, putting air into our BCs as the dive boat its design based on that of the island's fishing boats zeros in on our red surface marker. Kiki is looking at me, his face still set and serious.
"Dude," I said. "That absolutely, positively did not suck."
For the first time all day, Kiki smiles.
THANK GOD IT'S FRIDAY
In 1683, while looking for a place to set an adventure story, Daniel Defoe came across a 68-page prospectus for a colony being proposed an ocean away, a land in the sunny reaches of the New World. In it, Capt. John Poyntz painted Tobago as brimming with fruits and virtually begging for cultivation.
Intrigued, Defoe began crafting the first English novel, a tale of a shipwrecked sailor washed ashore on a veritable island Eden, providing everything a person could possibly want except human companionship. He called it The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York. And the book now known simply as Robinson Crusoe became an instant hit with an English public entranced by the lands across the Atlantic.
But the colony Poyntz described, an English colony on the faraway island of Tobago, did not materialize at least not right away. The Dutch, French and Latvian governments were also interested in establishing footholds there, and the island changed hands 22 times more times than any other island in the Caribbean before the British Royal Navy successfully seized and held it in 1814.
Part of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago since 1976, Tobago, even today, shows Poyntz's and Defoe's Edenic portrayals to be largely true. The island's 1,800-foot-high backbone is overgrown with rich and verdant tropical rain forest. Some 210 species of birds from hummingbirds, whose purple, blue and green plumage suggest that they've dressed for Carnival, to crow-size chachalacas and wind-savvy frigatebirds can be found on this 27-mile-long by 7.5-mile-wide island. Virtually every sandy beach here is a maternity ward for sea turtles. Drive along any stretch of Tobago's pristinely surfaced road system and you'll find small boys hawking incredibly sweet, wild balata fruit; an ample bagful costs 5 Trinidad and Tobago dollars (about 83 cents USD). And now, more than 40 years after it was discontinued, the island is gearing up for a return to a livelihood for which it was once famous the cultivation and production of cocoa.
BIRDS OF A FEATHER
I've started my week in sleepy Speyside, a hamlet hugging the coastal road on Tobago's north end. My base of operations is Blue Waters Inn, one of two resorts in Speyside. It's quaint enough that by the second day there, every member of the staff knows my name. At breakfast, the accessory du jour seems to be binoculars, and that's because there are two groups of travelers who favor the inn divers and birders.
Initially, the divers find some amusement in the English and American birders, whom we see clustered around spotting scopes on the roadsides, or peering, shoulder to shoulder, into the shrubbery around the resort. After all, why would anyone travel halfway around the world just to look at a bunch of feathers? But then it dawns on us that we will do exactly the same thing to see a manta or any other marine creature that has so far eluded us. Pretty soon, we're all bringing laptops to dinner so we can show one another what we photographed during the day, and it opens both groups' eyes. Before I know it, the birders are snorkeling, and I start scanning tree lines and noticing birds. I realize that, except for a few shore species and just one of the several species of Tobago hummingbirds, every single avian resident of the island is new to me. And by the end of my second day, I'm shopping for a guide to Southern Caribbean birds.
It's birds that wake me daily, the lullaby of surf outside my window replaced before sunup by what sounds like something large being violently strangled. This, it turns out, is the cry of rufous-vented chachalacas, which are silent most of the time, except at dawn. It's an effective alarm clock, which is just as well. PADI Dive Resort Extra Divers Tobago will be picking me up out front just after breakfast.
From Extra Divers' shop at The Speyside Inn to its dock is about a quarter-mile journey, and the staff manage to kit up the new divers and transfer a boatload of people and gear from point to point seamlessly, a feat that one of the British regulars explains as, "It's in the blood; the manager is Swiss." He and his staff are also at least trilingual, switching easily between English, German and Dutch.
The boat staff is excited because conditions are right to take us out to a site that is dived only occasionally, a place with the unassuming name of Sleeper. It's off the satellite island of Little Tobago, and the first thing I notice when we get in the water is a flamingo tongue cowrie on a piece of wire coral. I point this out to one of the Brits, who seems nonplussed, and in a minute I see why flamingo tongue cowries are as common as sand in Tobago. As I soon learn, so are great Atlantic barracuda, sea turtles, mind-bogglingly ginormous brain corals and just about every kind of moray known to the Caribbean. But near the end of the drift, we find something that does raise a stir a fingerprint Cyphoma, a distant and far rarer cousin to the flamingo tongue, its mantle beautifully extended as it feeds.
After the dive, I inquire about a rental car at Blue Waters Inn. And it's absolutely in the nature of this tranquil, little island that I don't need to worry about taking a taxi to a rental office. The rental-car agent comes to me, we sit down on the veranda with a cup of coffee, I fill out one sheet of paperwork, and then he walks me out to a compact, right-hand-drive SUV.
On my first outing, I discover that, even though Tobago's islandwide speed limit is 50 kph (about 31 mph), it's rarely achievable. It's not that the roads are bad on the contrary, since instituting its annual jazz festival three years ago, Tobago has beautifully resurfaced virtually all of its main roads and widened several key bridges. But topography dictates that the road changes elevation almost as often as it changes direction, and it is changing direction constantly. If you aren't chugging uphill with the four-cylinder engine laboring mightily, you're descending curves that make you feel as if you're flying aerobatics. And in between, you're linking turns; a rare, half-mile straightaway near Scarborough is the only place I ever actually drive at what feels like highway speed.
Midweek, I swap ends of the island, heading down to the south, which has the greatest concentration of both dive operators and resorts. En route, I swing by Argyle Waterfall, where a local guide her hair turbaned in the old Caribbean style walks with me down an easy path to Tobago's most-famous scenic spot. I'm here during dry season, which is great for diving, but has reduced Argyle's famous triple-decker cataract to a modest flow. But the walk, through the grounds of a former cocoa plantation, makes it all worthwhile. My guide shows me cocoa trees and the banana trees planted to provide the cocoa with necessary shade. And when I mention that I have yet to see a blue-crowned motmot (Tobago's signature bird), she keeps her eyes open for them; by the time we've come back from the falls, we've spotted three. To "revive" me after the warm walk, my new friend takes a golf-ball-size sphere of cocoa from her apron pocket and wafts it under my nose; it smells like Christmas morning and Hershey, Pennsylvania, both at the same time.
POPULATED, NOT POPULOUS
My new digs are at the VHL Tobago Golf and Spa Resort, whose luxurious, villa-surrounded property seems to contrast the natural Tobago until I start noticing things like the signs warning golfers on the PGA-designed Tobago Plantations Golf and Country Club that crocodilian caimans inhabit the water hazards. When I head to the car park, crowds of hummingbirds flit among the appropriately named scarlet-flowered flamboyant trees. Then, when I stroll out onto Pigeon Point one of Tobago's most-beautiful beaches I notice the signs advising guests about nesting loggerhead turtles. Nature, it seems, is never too distant in Tobago.
Also conveniently nearby is World of Watersports, a PADI Five-Star Instructor Development Center that is on-property and just down the cart path from the main hotel. A brief van ride takes us to the dive boat, moored at a dock in the lagoon, and soon we're on our way around the point and down to Flying Reef a dive site named, according to one story, because it is under the flight path to Crown Point International Airport, or (according to another story) because of the flying fish that are dependably scared up by dive boats on the way out.
A third possibility arises after we back roll in the steady current pushes us along on the drift dive like characters in an action-adventure cartoon. Fortunately, everyone on the boat has done drift dives before, so the whole crew is adept at dropping in behind bommies and ridges to come to a momentary hover out of the current.
There is much that requires this attention. A small hawksbill turtle takes one look at the bubble-blowing company and high-fins it for the cover of an eroded coral. When I peek beneath, its eye is less than a foot from my mask, and it stays put, as if to say: "Go away. Can't you see I'm hiding?"
I do, and I begin to notice lizardfish at regular intervals, down in the gulleys out of the current. I begin to look for them, and then see what appears to be an eyeball in the middle of a lump of coral. Closer examination proves it to be a fairly large scorpionfish, and it's so well camouflaged that I practically have to touch it to point it out to my dive buddy.
Two stingrays also cruise by for their cameos, and near the end of the dive I find a juvenile puffer, looking like a large pea with eyes. It swims with the erratic, popcornlike motion of a fish trying to drive underwater photographers mad, so I just watch, choosing to record it with neurological memory, rather than virtual. And when the dive is over, World of Watersports shows me its twist on the traditional Tobago pirogue the boat has a water-level gate in the side. You just grab the boat and slide inside.
That night, I have drinks with Alvin "Dougie" Douglas, owner of PADI Dive Resort Frontier Divers, and Derek Chung, owner of PADI Dive Resort Undersea Tobago, the president and vice president, respectively, of the Association of Tobago Dive Operators. The two sound as if they are from different parts of the world, although Dougie's speech is the rapid-fire patois of a person born on Tobago, while Derek's accent, which seems nearly Scottish, is actually, he tells me, "a Trinidad accent slowed way, way down."
We speak about the advantages and challenges of living and working on an island known for its pristine conditions, both underwater and topside. In the marine environment, the dive operators work well with local fishermen, who have been the stewards of this water for centuries. Topside, they applaud the government's foresight in declaring the rain-forest core of the island a forest reserve, protected in perpetuity against development. Tourism-fostering events, such as the Plymouth Jazz Festival, are proving to be powerful magnets that don't strain natural resources. And it's clear that Tobago is the wonderland element of Trinidad and Tobago a sizable number of tourists on the island are people from Trinidad, taking advantage of their backyard paradise.
To prove the point, Dougie runs me out to Cove Crack the next morning. The site is so close to the shops and restaurants of Crown Point and Scarborough that it seems we barely have time to pull on wetsuits and we're there. But once we roll in, we are in the underwater back-of-beyond. Big, blue lobsters play "Chopsticks" with their antennae from beneath the overhangs. When I find Dougie and two other divers hovering upside down next to a hollow, I peer in and find myself nose to whisker with a nurse shark. A cruise over a sand flat produces yellow-headed jawfish ready to play jack-in-the-box with us. Regular visitors are French angelfish, the largest I've ever seen.
And it's right near the end of the dive that I look up to see a hawksbill turtle, fairly large as hawksbills go, winging directly my way. I let myself drift with the current to see what it'll do, and it does not flee. Instead, it wheels around me, fins in a steep bank, examining me with one large, sage eye. It circles me a second time before it swims away, and even then it pauses and looks my way one more time. It's as if it's telling me: "Come on back. It will still be good. We're being well taken care of here."
I have to believe it's right.
Special thanks to AquaMarine Dive (www.aquamarinedive.com), Association of Tobago Dive Operators (tobagoscubadiving.com), Blue Waters Inn (bluewatersinn.com), Cheryl Andrews Marketing (cherylandrewsmarketing.com), Extra Divers Tobago (dive-adventure.de), Tobago Frontier Divers (frontierdiverstt.com), Tobago House of Assembly (tha.gov.tt), Trinidad and Tobago Tourism (gotrinidadandtobago.com), VHL Tobago Golf and Spa Resort, and World of Watersports (worldofwatersports.com).
Get grounded in Tobago history at The Tobago Museum, housed in the former Barrack Guard House at Fort King George and check the nearby cannon for the broad arrow, time-honored symbol of property of the British Crown. Explore the cliff-top setting of Fort James, the oldest settlement in Tobago. Visit the village of Plymouth, and see if you can figure out the epigraph on the Mystery Tombstone. Hire a guide and take a hike to the triple-tiered Argyle Waterfall and don't forget your board shorts or swimsuit for a dip when you get there. Arrange for a birding tour at the very least you want to spot the blue-crowned motmot, which locals call "the money bird," because "it lives in the banks" (it's also on the TTD $5 bill). Walk the beach late in the day at Parlatuvier Bay and have a look at the colorful fishing boats beached at the west end most have Bible verses painted on their bulkheads. Stop by a roadside fruit stand for a sack of mandarin-orangelike portugals or the incredibly sweet balatas. Visit the Tobago Forest Reserve for an idea of what the island was like when Columbus sailed by in 1498. And if it's Carnival or any other holiday season, stop in for a drink and pub grub at Bar Code in Scarborough; the bar hosts some of the best new musicians in the Caribbean.
The Guide to Tobago
Average Water Temperature: 77-82ºF, by season
Average Viz: 50-80 feet
What to Wear: dive skin or shorty to 3 mm fullsuit
When to Go: year-round, but visibility is typically best in the January-July dry season
Have a Bite Among the Branches: After your morning dives, stop for lunch at Jemma's Seaview Kitchen in Speyside. The Caribbean-Creole meals, served family-style, are worth driving the length of the island for, and your table you are up in a tree will have a beautiful view of Little Tobago. And if you're diving in the afternoon, your divemaster will heartily approve of your restaurant choice; Jemma's does not serve alcohol.
Bookends: A drift-and-drop-in dive, Bookends is at its best when tarpon are feeding in the surf zone on the island side of this site, just off Little Tobago.
Divers Thirst: This south-end drift is a favorite with divemasters because it dependably serves up sharks (nurse and blacktip), lobsters and green morays.
Outer Sisters Rocks: A longish boat ride proves worthwhile when the signature visitors are on this deep (120 feet possible) site; this is the best place in Tobago to spot mantas.
Cove Crack: A drift dive with enough nooks and crannies for you to stop in a lee and have a look at some of the macro life, this is a great dive for spotting turtles.
MV Maverick: This former interisland ferry once ran between Trinidad and Tobago. Placed on a 100-foot bottom just north of Buccoo by the Association of Tobago Dive Operators, it sports more than a decade of growth and provides a nice contrast to the typical Tobago drift.
If you're diving in the morning, reach for a Tobago Bennie Bar, the sesame-seed-crunch candy bar that is synonymous with the island. Try the large size
12 to a pack.
Rigged & Ready
SIGG Water Bottle: Reduce environmental waste design your own reusable and lightweight Swiss-engineered water bottle. mysigg.com
THE ASSOCIATION OF TOBAGO DIVE OPERATORS
ATDO is a confederation of Tobago dive charter operators (ATDO PADI centers are notated in the Tobago Listings), most of which offer PADI instruction and certification, and work together to protect and preserve Tobago's underwater environment. Although each ATDO operator is affiliated with a specific hotel or resort, all are open (space permitting) to walk-in divers. Speyside operators tend to concentrate on the north, while south-end operators often dive the length of the island.
Association of Tobago Dive Operators
Tobago House of Assembly
Trinidad and Tobago Tourism
AquaMarine Dive (ATDO)
Adventure Eco-Divers (ATDO)
Extra Divers Tobago (ATDO)
Manta Dive and Watersport Center (ATDO)
R&Sea Diver's Company (ATDO)
Scuba Adventure Safari (ATDO)
Tobago Dive Experience (ATDO)
Undersea Tobago (ATDO)
World of Watersports (ATDO)
Blue Waters Inn
VHL Tobago Golf and Spa Resort
Peter Hughes' Wind Dancer