From sharks to turtles and the small stuff too – MELISSA HOBSON pits east against west while checking out whether the nutrient-rich Orinoco River really does mean better diving in Toba…
THE AIRPORT SEEMED TO BE VIBRATING to the sound of steel drums, and I was assailed by noise, colour, dancers, drummers and crowds. Carnival – two days of revelling across Trinidad & Tobago – was just a couple of weeks away.
I was heading to Speyside, on Tobago’s eastern – and Atlantic – side. Having had recent bad weather, I’d be sticking to sites close to shore before heading west to compare the east with the Caribbean side of the island.
We came across an enormous turtle as soon as we landed at Coral Gardens. It wasn’t bothered by our proximity and sat next to us for a while before stirring itself and absently paddling away.
Later, while intent on watching an enormous porcupinefish, we almost missed two more big turtles and a small blacktip reef shark cautiously investigating our group from a distance.
As well as sharks and turtles, Coral Gardens is home to the largest and oldest brain coral ever documented. Having only ever seen small colonies before, I wasn’t prepared for quite how massive it would be. At an impressive 3m tall and around 5m wide, it towered over me.
Yet, while its epic size was spectacular, it would have been even more impressive before the major bleaching that affected it in 2010.
Cathedral, more sheltered from the rough Atlantic, was on the whole a quiet dive: a few angelfish, boxfish and purple creole wrasse going about their business, as well as a couple of camera-shy spotted drum dancing out of the way of our lenses.
The next morning I woke early to howling winds battering the roof. When the boat pulled away from shore, the inky sky was almost indistinguishable from the island’s dark silhouette.
Thanks to boisterous, Hokusai-worthy waves, my giant-stride entry was far from elegant. Put bluntly, I was hurled unceremoniously from the boat.
Yet the drift-dive on Runway was fairly calm. There were lots of pretty French angelfish, and their delicate markings, incongruous against their sullen downturned mouths, made them seem like stroppy teenagers dressed for a prom.
AS WE GLIDED ALONG in the current, we spotted a pair of banded coral shrimp, their white antennae giving away their hiding place inside a barrel sponge, and a humongous, beady-eyed spiny lobster.
Later, we came across a grim great barracuda eyeballing us. Not long after it had vanished, another barracuda – or perhaps the same one – circled us, its eyes locked on us warily. Its silver back faded into the distance, but I felt sure that it was still nearby, keeping us in check.
The landscape had changed dramatically by this point, because we had left Runway and swum through two other dive-sites: Bookends and Alps.
You could see where the Alps name came from, a landscape of towering rocks.
During our safety-stop, an enormous tarpon swam right past us, then another, and another. For the next three minutes, silver flashes darted this way and that as the tarpons seemed almost to envelop us.
At the end of our stop we were thrown about as huge waves pulled us towards the surface. We managed to hang on until our three minutes were up before being dragged up to ride the crashing waves.
Reboarding the boat was eventful. The skipper tried to steer it close enough for us to clamber on-board while the current dragged us away. A “helpful” wave slammed me into the ladder and I scrambled aboard, narrowly avoiding a lost fin.
JAPANESE GARDENS looked as you might expect it to look – a landscape of soft coral wafting like a mermaid’s hair, and outcrops of fan coral resembling bonsai trees. We averaged about 13m, so there was plenty of colour, life and abundant corals on the sandy beds, with parrotfish, angelfish, triggerfish, boxfish and cowfish all around.
About halfway through the dive, the current picked up, and we emptied our BCs as we approached Kamikaze Cut. Any air in our jackets could mean being dragged up by the current and an early end to our dive.
Glued to the seabed, we soared towards two large boulders and through a fissure between the two. It was an exhilarating end to a peaceful, picturesque dive.
Thankfully, by the next morning the winds had subsided, the sea was flatter and the sun finally made an appearance. I hoped this would be a good omen, because today was a significant milestone – my 100th dive would be celebrated with a drift at Black Jack Hole.
At our deepest point, around 25m, the water was an electric blue, and light erupted from the surface. Without a close eye on your computer, it would have been easy to follow a fish much deeper than intended as the reef dropped away.
We kept the shallower part of the reef on our left as we flew along, glancing into crevices, taking pictures and generally enjoying the expanse of orange and green fan-coral peppered with brain-coral formations. It resembled the school scene from Finding Nemo, with life bustling in every direction. Apart from the angel, butterfly, surgeon, trigger, box, trumpet, parrot and sergeant-major fish there was a great barracuda watching us from above, an immense spiny lobster, a menacing green moray and a giant, rather unsociable porcupinefish. We blinked, and our 45 minutes in this diver’s playground were up.
My time at Speyside was up too.
I was moving to Le Grand Courlan Hotel to experience Tobago’s Western shore, and hoped that the Caribbean would be more tranquil than the Atlantic. But would calmer seas yield as much life?
I arrived just in time for the manager’s weekly cocktail party, and was surprised by a huge cake ahead of my birthday the following week – very thoughtful.
The next morning, a vivid rainbow arced across the sulking sky. I liked the western side of Tobago already!
THE MAVERICK WAS AN inter-island ferry until 20 years ago – now it’s a shipwreck. As on Speyside there had been strong winds, so conditions were murky. Starting at the wreck’s deepest point – around 30m – we circled, slowly ascending with each loop.
As we did so, we took in the sergeant-majorfish, a passing school of almaco jack and a pair of sting rays swimming lazily under the boat. The bow was collapsing but the portholes gave a sneak peak into the disarray inside.
When we were getting close to no-deco time we ascended slowly through the gloomy grey waters.
Between dives, we moored between boats so overloaded with pelicans that it was a wonder they could still float, and pondered how awful they would be to clean (the boats, not the pelicans).
At claw-shaped rock formation Mount Irvin Wall the plan was to weave round each “claw” hunting for macro subjects. As the occupants of three other boats had had the same idea, I took care to commit my guide’s fins to memory.
The coral wasn’t particularly colourful but there was lots to see. The waters around Tobago are incredibly rich in nutrients, thanks to the Guyana current that carries with it nutrients from the Orinoco river.
This was reflected in the reef, which was packed with life. I know I shouldn’t write lists but it does give an idea of the variety – bicolour damselfish everywhere; blue-striped grunt; four-eye butterflyfish; spotted trunkfish; spotlight parrotfish; trumpetfish; spiny lobster; yellowtail snapper; blue-headed wrasse; French angelfish; grey angelfish; almost neon queen angelfish; ocean surgeonfish; sergeant-majors; squirrelfish; blue chromis; spotfin butterflyfish; a lone great barracuda; and a red-spotted moray, chomping at us from its hidey-hole.
Just before we ascended, we spotted a huge stonefish lurking in the slightly muddied waters. While we strained to make out the edge of its camouflage against the rock, it got fed up, flapped its purple wings and settled further away.
Next morning the boat took it easy through the shallows as we lazed around on deck. Sunshine oozed down like melted butter.
Once we hit deeper waters, it became a rough ride. We bounced into the air and slammed down with each wave.
WE HAD INTENDED TO VISIT Castara Bay but, because of the surprisingly turbulent conditions, changed course for some shallow reef dives at Arnos Vale, moving from north to south.
Like Mount Irvin Wall, these sites teemed with life – so many colourful and diverse fish and crustaceans but this time I’ll content myself with mentioning the sea-fans and star and brain coral. But a small, navy fish did keep catching my eye, its shimmering blue dots calling to mind the rainbow fish from childhood stories.
It was a yellowfin damselfish, the juveniles with many more and brighter dots and the adults almost black, with fewer spots and a yellow tail.
One tiny juvenile in particular appeared bedecked with jewels.
Gliding over the reef, not far above the sandy bed, I did a double-take to see a round eye staring back at me. An octopus was squeezed tightly into a crevice in the rock below, hoping to go unnoticed.
We hadn’t seen many lionfish to date but there were several present. And during the safety stop on our second dive we spotted a gigantic green moray free-swimming well below us. It undulated through the water, snapping its jaws.
On the way home, we passed the guesthouse in which one of the divers was staying. To surprise his family, he jumped ship and paddled home.
It was only when we returned to the dive-shop to find his bemused wife and kids waiting for him that we realised that his surprise had backfired!
I had enjoyed the abundance of smaller reef fish at Arnos Grove, but was hoping to end my trip with the big stuff at the renowned site Divers’ Dream.
It was a risk; heavily affected by currents, harsh conditions can quickly turn this intermediate drift into Divers’ Nightmare.
Recent conditions had been so rough that we couldn’t be sure that it would be possible to dive the site until we reached it. We were just in time, but if it became too rough we would have to escape to the top of the plateau rather than the surrounding deeper waters.
The current was strong, and I finned with all my might just to stay still. If it remained this powerful it would be a miserable dive but luckily it didn’t.
We were able to slip out of the current just before a nurse shark slipped into view, and I anchored myself to a rock to watch it swim by.
We peered into the blue, and a turtle appeared in our peripheral vision before suddenly vanishing. I blinked, and it reappeared. Looking more closely as it swam past, we realised that it was a different animal; this was a large green turtle with gnarly barnacles on its back.
At the end of our dive we glanced around in the hope of one final surprise. No such luck, but still, what could have been a nightmare had turned out to be a dream dive after all.
Back at Grand Courlan, I ended my afternoon at the resort’s weekly sunset yoga class, followed by a relaxing full-body massage.
ON MY FINAL DAY, I headed to Pigeon Point for a paddle-boarding lesson with Duane from Stand Up Paddle Tobago. He taught me the basics on the sand before pushing our boards into the ocean. Trying to stand on a gently rolling ocean was a strange sensation and, initially, my legs turned to jelly.
I soon gained confidence, however, and as I paddled along, the sun setting over the ocean, I reflected on my week.
The rough conditions had meant some difficult dives, and some sites missed altogether. That said, I hadn’t been disappointed by the big stuff, and had been surprised by the variety and abundance of reef fish nurtured by the nutrient-rich waters.
I could only hope that my next visit would bring better weather!
Appeared in DIVER June 2017