Tobago Sweet: Exploring the Other Half of T&T

This thing is enormous. It’s the size of my office, easy, and the grooves look like a giant green fingerprint. Or, better yet, like the convolutions of its namesake, a brain. Yet, this monster isn’t even a “big” brain coral, by local standards. A bigger one – the biggest, actually, in the Caribbean, if not the world – is only a couple of hundred yards from here. Still, I kick against the current to get a closer look at the whirls and ridges, but, like that, the current pulls me away.

I turn to scan the drop to my left, up and down, looking for a manta, or even a hammerhead, before swimming to catch up with my buddy. Fortunately, he’s stopped. Kiki, our divemaster, is pointing for him, then me, to look into a coral notch. It’s a green moray, mouthing its cranky, toothy frown at us. Bicolor damsels scurry like a flock of shorebirds along the shelf above us, but we’re focused down below, watching the little monster weave back and forth, until we can’t anymore.

And still no rays. It wasn’t a promise, I guess, but it sounded like good odds. Not that I’m complaining; these things come along when you least expect it, and where you’re not looking. You just keep an eye peeled for the surprise.

So it goes with Tobago, the little sister of the Trinidad & Tobago family. Indeed, it seems that there are surprises everywhere.

Discovering Paradise

Columbus “discovered” Tobago in 1498 and called the island “Bellaforma” in a drive-by naming on his way to South America. Had he stopped, he would have found that the island already had a name, thank you very much. The locals referred to it as “Tovaco,” after the pipe they smoked.

Those locals replaced the locals who replaced the Arawak, who first made the short hop from South America before 300 B.C. By the time the Europeans showed up, this decidedly more belligerent population of Indians had no intention of giving up the island without a fight.

In their defense, the locals were poked. A British warship sailed past the island in 1580, stopping only long enough to plant an English flag. That’s fighting words, even where I come from. Predictably, when the first English settlers arrived in 1625, the Caribs wiped them out. The first Dutch settlers, who arrived in 1628, didn’t fare much better; this time, the locals had the help of the Spanish, which invaded the island from Trinidad with an armada of dugout canoes.

Not to be deterred, King Charles I gifted Tobago in 1641 to his godson, James, the Duke of Courlan – Courlan was more or less Latvia – and he promptly regifted the island to colonists. They settled the island in 1642, creating the town of Plymouth. The Dutch also proved to be surprisingly plucky, founding Lampsinburg, which would become the capital, Scarborough, in 1654. The English blew up Lampsinburg a year later, and the Dutch drove out the Courlaner’s Plymouth settlement three years after that. With that pattern established, the English, French, Dutch and Spanish settled into successive waves of ownership – “boom” and bust cycles, if you will. When the French, English, Dutch or Spanish weren’t in charge, the pirates were. Man O’ War Bay, at Charlotteville, is supposed to be the site of buried pirate treasure. By the time the island was permanently ceded to the English in 1814, Tobago had changed hands 31 times.

Even in the peaceable interludes, all was not peaceful. The English reclaimed the island in 1672 to establish plantations – on the backs of African slave labor – to grow sugar, indigo and cotton. Slaves made up more than 94 percent of the island’s population, and with those odds, slave revolts were an annual affair; Bloody Bay is named after a slave revolt that apparently turned the bay red with blood.

Slaves were emancipated in 1838, and the plantation economy started to slide. Tobago became a British Crown Colony in 1877, and, with the sugar industry on the verge of collapse, it was joined with Trinidad as a political unit in 1888. The country gained independence in 1962 as the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.

Green and Clean

Tobago’s ties to South America aren’t just historical. Until recent geological times, the island itself was part of the continent before drifting off to make its own place in the world. That connection gives the island natural diversity way out of proportion to its size. To be sure, Tobago is something of an ecological wonderland, which is why my fellow diver Kaye is here, she says, as we motor out to Little Tobago.

She’s in Tobago because her husband is an avid birdwatcher, and he’s looking to put a healthy dent in his life list. She’s on the boat because a little bit of that goes a long way. While she’s diving, he’ll be up in the Main Ridge Rainforest Reserve, which straddles the backbone of the island on its northern half. He’s also probably getting rained on every few minutes. They call it a rain forest for a reason.

The reserve, created in 1776, is the oldest in the Western Hemisphere. It was the pet project of British Minister Soame Jenyns, who fought 11 years for its creation. Good thing he was tenacious. Tobago now hosts 123 species of butterflies, 24 species of snakes (none of them poisonous), 17 species of bats, 16 species of lizards, 14 species of frogs, 12 species of mammal, 210 species of birds, and thousands of ferns, trees and flower plants. If he’s living right, Kaye’s husband will check off blue-crowned motmots, white-necked jacobins, black-throated mangoes, purple honeycreepers, bananaquits, white-tailed sabre-wing hummingbirds, blue-backed manakins, collared trogons and Tobago’s national bird, the cocrico, better known as the rufus-vented cachalaca. If he bothers to visit a cacao plantation, he’ll also add orange-winged parrots and green-rumped parrotlets that feed on the nuts in the cacao fruit that would otherwise become chocolate.

Kaye’s not getting as far away from birds as she thinks. Little Tobago’s claim to fame is that it was a bird of paradise sanctuary, founded by Sir Walter Ingram, who brought birds from Papua New Guinea. The birds never did take to the island, and Hurricane Flora in 1963 killed the few that remained, but in the meantime, more than 50 other species fared better, making Little Tobago one of the most important bird colonies in the Caribbean.

So birds are everywhere, you get that. Kaye, for her part, is more excited about the sea turtle she saw the previous day, and that the dive crew said also appeared this morning, right along the beach where our boat departed. Tobago hosts a small resident population of green and hawksbill turtles – small, in part because the turtles were once a staple of the traditional diet – but it’s also a leatherback nursery. Between March and June, giant female leatherbacks visit the northern side of the island to lay their eggs and launch a new generation.

Steel Pans and Traditions

While Trinidad presents itself as more polished and cosmopolitan, Tobago holds a little tighter to its African-Caribbean roots. If Tobago may seem a little rough around the edges, it’s not a bad thing.

Understanding the Tobagoan culture starts at its music, including steel pan and tambrin. Steel pan, the national instrument of T&T that was created from repurposed English oil drums in the 1930s, plays the soundtrack to the legendary Sunday-night street party, “Sunday School,” in Crown Point and the Plymouth Jazz Festival, held every April. It’s also the country’s best-known cultural export.

Conversely, the beat of tambrin, the Tobagoan tambourine, keeps time with the island’s folk traditions. Originally created by slaves who were trying to replace their confiscated drums, the tambrin would be the national instrument of Tobago if it weren’t for steel pan.

It’s the accompaniment to the bele dances that, according to tradition, invoke the spirits of dead ancestors when white rum is poured on the road. Obviously, parts of the island’s traditional African folklore still flourish, and they’re displayed during processions, boat christenings, net blessings, wakes and, in particular, during Tobago’s annual Heritage Festival in late summer.

If culture immersion isn’t up your alley, just go golfing, mountain biking, horseback riding, fishing, kite sailing or sea kayaking instead. Or sightseeing, shopping and eating. Crown Point is the “touristy” area, with the airport, big hotels and local beaches, such as Pigeon Point Beach. It’s also crowded with restaurants, where you’ll find international cuisine, plus Tobagoan specialties such as jerk chicken, coconut fish, dasheen root, cassava pone, coocoo and black cake, washed down with sorrel drink. There are also plenty of vegetarian options, given the island’s large populations of Hindus and Rastafarians. If you trend toward the spicy, you’ll enjoy the local pepper sauce; remember, though, a little dab will do you. The same can probably be said for the island’s local rums, fruit wines and ginger beer.

Scarborough, the island’s capital since the 1760s, is a market town of about 25,000 – nearly half Tobago’s population. Overlooking the town is Fort King George, one of the island’s best-preserved historical monuments. It was built in 1777 and remained a military garrison until 1854. These days, it’s home to the Tobago Museum, which boasts the country’s largest display of Amerindian artifacts and other records of Tobago’s history. If you’re up for some beach time, visit Bacolet Bay Beach, where the movie “Swiss Family Robinson” was filmed and where the Beatles frolicked during the ’60s.

The Drift of Diving

But I’m here to dive, and so I will. I’ve picked a good place. Tobago’s reefs share the luck of being in just the right place. The island is near enough, but not too close, to the outflow of the Orinoco River in Venezuela, and to where the Atlantic and Caribbean meet, that its waters are rich in nutrients, which means it’s rich in marine life but with spectacular visibility. As a result, these waters are home to more than 300 species of hard coral, fishes and sponges, and a variety of larger marine life, including whales, sharks, dolphins and squid.

So that’s the setup, as our captain shuts down the engines in a notch of the island, at a spot called Black Jack Hole. We’re literally surrounded by dive sites, even though we’re only a few minutes from Speyside. The Bookends are right over there, at those two rocks jutting out of the sea. Japanese Gardens is right behind us, off Goat Island, one island closer to shore. St. Giles Rock Islands, with its best-known advanced site, London Bridges, are right around the northern point of the mainland, such as it is. Indeed, dives abound for all skill levels, depending on the whims of the waves and the dive crew.

The plan is to drift along this edge of the island, hugging the reefs where they drop off into the deep blue haze. It’s a gentle current, more like a sightseeing train than an express locomotive, so I can pick out scores of angelfish, parrotfish, wrasses, blue chromis, sea fans, sea plumes, star corals and barrel sponges that we pass by. I’m having less luck seeing one of the giant rays, in spite of Speyside’s former nickname of “Manta City,” but I can deal with the trade.

Speyside may be Tobago’s diving capital, but that doesn’t mean there are no other options. Buccoo (BOO-coo) Reef, just around the Southern tip of Tobago from Crown Point, is a 10-acre (4-hectare) marine park formed in 1973, between Pigeon Point and Buccoo Bay. Its centerpiece is the Nylon Pool, a still lagoon created by a sandbar that forms a natural, meter-deep “swimming pool” in the middle of the sea.

Arnos Vale Reef, further up the northern side of the island at Arnos Vale Bay, is made up of large boulders and spur-and-groove reefs covered by hard and soft corals. As a breeding area, it attracts predators, including jacks and barracudas. Even farther up is a series of pinnacles called The Sisters, a hang-out spot for hammerheads.

For wreck divers, the most obvious site is the MV Maverick, sunk in 1997 as a dive site at 100 feet (30 m) in Mount Irvine Bay. It was originally called the Scarlet Ibis and served as the first roll-on/roll-off ferry between Trinidad and Tobago. Since then, it’s become a focal point for marine life, with jacks, barracuda, gorgonians, hydroids and sponges calling it home. Nearby, at Mount Irvine Reef, you can still see cannons and coral-encrusted wood from the wreck of a Dutch East India Company ship that sunk in the shallows. But you’ve got to look pretty closely.

That’s the secret to enjoying Tobago. With a rich history, fascinating culture and exciting diving, visiting this island is sure to be a dive vacation you’ll remember. Just prepare to be surprised.

By Greg Laslo
Photos by Barry and Ruth Guimbellot