CARIBBEAN SPECIAL – TOBAGO
It’s not that big an island but it has a whole lot of diving going on. Following her experiences in south Tobago in October, LISA COLLINS prepares to head north to dive with pioneer Sean Robinson – but first, some unfinished business…
IT WAS OUR LAST NIGHT in the south. Plantation Beach Villas are surrounded by beautiful flowers, plants and trees that attract many different species of birds. As we sat on the deck enjoying a sundowner, hummingbirds would hover, drinking nectar.
Mango trees are everywhere on the island and we had only to reach out to pick ripe ones for tomorrow’s breakfast.
The villas are located on a beach where hawksbill, green and leatherback turtles nest from January to September. Manager Sean had arranged for Hans Tours to call us if any were spotted nesting that night. SOS Turtles helps with their conservation and protection, and Hans brings along paying guests to help fund the volunteer programme.
We finally succumbed to our beds, thinking we were out of luck, but at 12.40 the phone rang. A large leatherback was laying eggs on the next beach along.
We were picked up and led to where the SOS volunteers were guarding her. I had never seen a leatherback before. We had missed the egg-laying but watched as she spent almost an hour shifting sand over the nest with her huge flippers. Lights are not allowed as they can confuse the turtles, which use moonlight to return to the ocean.
After a bit of a lie-in, we started our journey north to dive with Sean Robinson of Tobago Dive Experience, staying at one of the cottages his wife Kat manages as part of Tobago Dive Specialists.
We stopped at many amazing viewpoints along the way, passing waterfalls, climbing over rainforest-clad peaks and spotting many different birds before arriving in the picturesque fishing village of Speyside.
Sean arrived on Tobago more than 30 years ago from his native Trinidad, setting up three dive-centres and pioneering diving on the island. He built and owned Manta Inn in Speyside before selling it in 2014 when he married Kat.
The couple, in the process of extending the dive-centre and building new apartments for guests next door to their home, welcomed us like old friends. Kat showed us to our cottage, set on a hill overlooking the sea.
Because of the lack of beachfront development Sean told us that the reefs were healthy even close to shore. Most of the 40 dive-sites between the village and Goat Island, where Ian Fleming had hidden away while writing Bond novels, and bird sanctuary Little Tobago, are five to 15 minutes’ boat-ride away.
Speyside is known for its visits from oceanic manta rays. They are not seasonal, said Sean, but pass through year-round, and could appear at any of the sites. We would keep our fingers crossed.
The plume of the Orinoco river is carried up past Speyside on the Guyana current, full of nutrients that attract pelagic marine life and produce healthy reefs with larger-than-average fish.
THE SEAS WERE SLIGHTLY CHOPPY as we headed out to Bookends the next day. The two rocks that give the site its name rose from the water, waves crashing against them, just beyond Little Tobago. Sean said he had chosen the site because two rare angelfish could sometimes be found there.
Because of surface currents, Sean directed us to make a negative entry. The water, as in the south, was more green than blue, with visibility of 15-20m. There was no visible sign of the Orinoco flow, and I wondered if it passed further out to sea, or perhaps was more dissipated in the north than it had been in the south.
The sand bottom was interspersed with reef, and giant sponges and soft coral met us at 29m. We had dropped right onto a small patch where several of the rare fish darted about. Sean excitedly gave us the signal for cherub angelfish by pulling the string of an imaginary bow and arrow.
This vibrant little fish is one of only seven Caribbean angelfish species, and is not often seen because it’s so small.
We moved on slowly up the slope with the current, and followed Sean through a cut between two rocks, passing several pale giant sponges with unusual appendages, evidence that the current is consistently strong.
Curving to the right of the largest one, we dropped into a natural rock amphitheatre with a sand floor around 40m long and 25m wide, at a depth of 14m. The surge was quite strong, and we could see the waves crashing on the rocks above. The sand had been stirred up, reducing visibility to 10-12m.
We were rocked back and forth as we swam around the rocks, looking at lobsters under the ledges, finding a big green moray and keeping an eye out for the tarpon that are often found here.
As Sean signalled for us to follow him out of the bowl to the shallows, a huge fish approached out of the murky water. As soon as the tarpon spotted us it turned away, showing us how formidably fast it can swim.
WE SURFACED in choppy water to find Lappy, the boat captain, waiting to pick us up, and moved into the lee of Little Tobago, just off the tiny beach and jetty used for bird-watching tours.
Our second dive was to be at Coral Gardens, famed for having the world’s largest brain coral. Located in the channel between Little Tobago and Goat Island, it was a little more protected than Bookends.
We descended to the coral-strewn bottom at 23m, a riot of yellow, green and red sponges, bright orange tubastraea cup coral and hard coral blocks, interspersed with wide sandy runways, quite different to the south.
The visibility was better at around 20m and the reef looked very healthy, with no signs of coral-bleaching. A yellow-fin tuna sped past us. We came across a sting ray resting in the sand, then Sean spotted an octopus sitting upright away from the reef on a sandy patch.
Shortly afterwards, Sean stopped and held out his arm. He was pointing at a coral block covered in brain coral, which dwarfed us as I attempted to get it all into my camera frame. It was impressive that something so large seemed to be thriving healthily.
The next day we were to dive with main dive-guide Tooley, who was full of fun, energy and the love of diving.
Sean was taking out a young couple on their first open-water dives. Andrea and Jaime were Colombian but lived in Florida. Jaime explained that he was a scientist on assignment in Trinidad and Andrea, a singer-songwriter, was over for a visit. She had been persuaded to visit Tobago to learn to dive with him and was pretty nervous, but Sean soon put her at ease with his funny stories.
Many dive-sites in Speyside are suitable for both beginners and more experienced divers, but we headed to Japanese Gardens, in front of Goat Island, to see the black coral which, unusually for the Caribbean, grows there.
Black coral, pale in colour but named after its black skeleton, is usually found very deep in Caribbean waters, but in the north of Tobago it can be found just beyond 30m. We went to 35m.
This beautiful site was brimful of orange tubastraea coral, its colour vibrant against the green water. The site is named after its many sea-whips, thought to resemble Japanese bonsai trees.
We had even better visibility with the less-turbid water. The current picked up considerably as we came up the reef and around a bend in the rock cliff and through a small fissure called Kamikaze Cut, before it spat us out near some small overhangs where nurse sharks often sleep.
Later Tooley told us that the current usually runs high through the cut, always making for an exhilarating dive.
Back on the boat, we watched Sean surface with Andrea and Jaime. I could see a huge smile on Jaime’s face and Andrea, her eyes as wide as saucers, was almost in tears. “I have no words,” she kept saying – quite something for a songwriter to be rendered speechless.
She couldn’t wait for the next dive, and if Sean hadn’t reminded them of the need to de-gas I’m sure she and Jaime would have grabbed fresh tanks and dived straight back down.
LAPPY DROPPED US OFF at a mooring buoy which we followed down to the Roundhouse, a 24m tugboat purposely sunk in 2003 at the bottom of a sloping reef between Batteaux Bay and Speyside’s main bay.
The wreck sits upright on the sandy bottom at 30m, with the top of the wheelhouse at 20m, though I could hardly see it for the schooling fish circling it.
They parted to let me through, then took up formation again.
I dropped slightly to see Tooley inside the wheelhouse, pretending to steer the boat. The deck and wheelhouse were carpeted in sponges and soft corals, though the aluminium hull was not so covered, as the metal doesn’t suit coral.
After 10 minutes Tooley led us away from the wreck and up a sandy slope where we met Sean, Andrea and Jaime in the shallows. We spent the rest of the hour mooching around the reef, finding more painted lobsters, so many grey and French angelfish I lost count, white-spotted and giant morays and a young hawksbill turtle. Andrea was still lost for words on the boat, and Jaime was grinning from ear to ear.
Kat provides a small lunchtime menu at the dive-shop, including lionfish ceviche and sandwiches. Culling of the invasive species takes place throughout the Caribbean, with divemasters undertaking the PADI speciality course and actively spearfishing to remove any lionfish they see at dive-sites.
To dispose of them they have become a regular on Caribbean menus, which at the same time reduces consumption of other local species.
Tooley told us that it would be on the menu the following evening on our last night, when we were invited with Andrea and Jaime to enjoy food, rum and a touch of “lymin’’’ on Sean and Kat’s deck.
TOOLEY HAD HIS SPEAR with him the next morning as we set off for TDE Special, named for the often unexpected marine life that could be found there.
The water was calmer now, and we skipped over slight swells, heading past Little Tobago to a small group of rocks that barely broke the surface. Descending next to the knife-edge volcanic ridge encrusted with coral, we could see the Atlantic pounding the rocks above.
At 20m we came to a slope with a mixture of sand and coral reef, another riot of colour but more tubastraea covering than any other site we had seen.
Tooley started gesticulating wildly. He had spotted another cherub angelfish but also an even rarer flameback angelfish, found only in the southern Caribbean and northern Brazil. Sweeping his hand over his hair, he showed us the sign to signify the bright golden sweep of colour going from the tiny fish’s face over its back, a contrast to its vivid blue body.
Sean had advised us not to swim over these fish if we saw them, because they would hide in the reef. Forgetting myself in my excitement, I did exactly that. Whoosh! They were gone.
Signalling my apologies, we moved away and waited for them to return.
I couldn’t believe my luck when, about 10m away, I spotted another group of them darting about. I got the attention
of the other divers, and we succeeded in approaching slowly from the sides to watch them.
A vivid, almost fluorescent queen angelfish next to a giant sponge spent a good few seconds checking me out. Mateusz delighted in finding many tiny critters – arrow-crabs, cleaner shrimp,
a tiny unusual crab in a sponge, several different boxer crabs, one with bright blue eggs, and another with yellow claws and yellow eggs. It really was a special dive.
OUR FINAL DIVE WAS AT Curry & Coconut, named for the sauce in which Sean and Tooley love to cook lobster. We had seen only a few lionfish on previous dives but here we found quite a number, mainly because the site is less dived than others.
We happily explored the reef-encrusted submerged pinnacle at 27m as Tooley speared lionfish, keeping them in a homemade container for protection from their poisonous spines.
I rejoined Sean, who signalled for me to turn as I was enveloped in a school of the biggest rainbow runners I have seen.
Jaime, feeling bold on his last dive of the open-water course, was exploring by himself, while Andrea kept close to Sean.
Spotting him hovering neutrally over the reef, I swam over to see what he had seen. A painted lobster was hiding under a rock, its 50cm-long antennae waving about. As I came in to photograph it I saw, higher up the reef slope, a green moray that was so fat it looked positively comical. Jaime’s eyes widened as I pointed it out to him.
Back at the dive-centre Tooley emptied his container – he had caught 24 fish on that 45-minute dive!
To the soft sound of Andrea’s latest album playing on her phone (Busca y Encuentra by Andrea Del Pilar, find it on Spotify or Amazon) we enjoyed fresh, well-flavoured and delicious lionfish ceviche and blackened lionfish, cooked expertly by Kat.
Sitting on the deck overlooking the ocean, a full moon casting a silver reflection over the water, I was sure I saw a manta’s wingtips fluttering at the surface.
Maybe it was real – Sean had told us that mantas could often be seen close to shore from their deck – or perhaps it was one too many rum punches.
GETTING THERE: BA flies direct from London Gatwick with a short stop in Antigua. Thomas Cook flies from Manchester between November and March.
CAR HIRE: Sheppy’s Auto Rental, Tobago car rental Website
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Sean Robinson’s Tobago Dive Experience. Plantation Beach Villas.
WHEN TO GO: Year round. Tobago is well south of the hurricane belt. Rainy season from June to November means slightly more frequent showers and occasional overcast days. Air temperatures are 29-32°C year-round, with sea temperatures a few degrees cooler. Trade winds provide a cooling sea breeze.
MONEY: Trinidad & Tobago dollar.
PRICES: Return flights from £420pp. Dive & accommodation packages arranged through Tobago Dive Specialist cost from £670pp (two sharing) for seven nights’ self-catering, 10 boat-dives and airport transfers. The turtle-nesting experience cost £30 for two.
VISITOR Information: Visit Tobago Government Website