Go with the Flow in Tobago
The Innovative Drift Diving
by Walt Stearns, Jun. 1997
We were drifting with the current less than a stone's throw from the rocky shoreline of Little Tobago Island. As we moved steadily along at about one-half knot, the vibrant reef with its luxuriant concentrations of huge soft corals and sponges was striking. There were all types of octocorals; searods and seaplumes as much as seven feet tall and broad, deep water gorgonian fans in dark browns. With each minute the scenery seemed to get better. Intermixed among the thickets of soft corals were numerous branching tube and rope sponges. Long winding ropes stretched everywhere in bright yellow, deep red, jade green, purple and lavender. Orange Elephant Ear Sponges, either solitary or interlaced with some of the larger gorgonians, were also highly apparent. Among this wide range of colonial critters were numerous Giant Barrel Sponges, sculpted into weird, convoluted shapes by the current.
Darting up from the reef's sloping bottom to cash in on the bounty delivered by the moving waters were thousands of Brown Chromis and Creole Wrasses, resembling clouds of locusts blackening the sky. Mixed in their ranks were small schools of Black Jacks, Black Durgons and Rainbow Runners. Visibility was well in the 70 to 80 foot range.
Other Caribbean destinations may claim to offer awesome drift diving but these claims pale compared to Tobago's incredible drifts.
Most divers venture to Tobago with the hopes of seeing Atlantic Manta Rays (Manta birostris). A rare find throughout the rest of the Caribbean and The Bahamas, Mantas occur fairly dependably in Tobago, making them the island's most publicized diving attractions. However, these delta winged, stealth bombers are most prevalent around the island's northeastern end during late April and into September.
The Mantas and the prolific nature of Tobago's reefs are the direct outcome of the island's unique location. It is nestled in the extreme southeastern corner of the Caribbean, 70 miles off the coast of South America. It is right in the path of two oceanic currents; the North Equatorial Current (the prelude to the Gulf Stream, which begins in the lower Caribbean) and the Guyana Current. This latter current follows the contours of South America's eastern coast and brings with it some of the nutrient rich effluent from the Orinoco River. As these two bodies of waters collide and intermingle with one another, they create and support a rich ecosystem.
Tobago's currents travel anywhere from a gentle one-quarter knot to a fast, steady clip of two to three knots, flowing between Tobago and some of its satellites, Little Tobago, Goat Island and the St. Giles Islands. This is also where the most stunning seascapes and magnificent coral gardens can be found, including the Caribbean's largest single Brain Coral. The secret to enjoying the inspiring spectacle and thrill of Tobago's diving is to simply 'go with the flow.' All dives are conducted as drifts, with a divemaster trailing a float ball to mark the group's location.
Tobago's northeastern region, near the small community of Speyside, on Batteaux Bay, is the center of the island's finest diving and offers a wealth of top sites. Illustrating what even one drift can encompass is a site known as Keleston Drain, off Little Tobago Island and facing Batteaux Bay. Running parallel to the island, the dive starts on a 50 foot reef flat adjoining a mini wall that drops to 120 feet for a distance of 100 yards. Like most of the sites in the region, the terrain offers incredibly thick collections of sponges and soft corals. If you enjoy seeing adult Queen Angelfish, you'll be in paradise; it's not uncommon to see three to five grazing together in the corals.
About midpoint, the top of the reef crest gives way to a large, slightly sloping plateau rising from 60 feet to roughly 25. At 45 feet, divers will find one of the region's super large heads of Boulder Brain Coral (Colpophylia natans). Resembling Houston's Astro Dome, this magnificent coral (a staggering 12 by 16 feet across and 8 feet high) is regarded as the largest specimen ever recorded in the West Indies.
Beyond the coral head, the reef turns into a mini wall, descending from 35 feet to a sand floor at 80. The top of the wall could have been named the Yellow Brick Road for its abundance of one to two foot tall Yellow Tube Sponges (Aplysina fistularis). Farther on the reef makes a slight turn outward, becoming a site called Manta City, so named for the Manta Rays found here when the season is in full swing (April to September). Here, the reef's bottom becomes a steep slope from a maximum depth of 75 feet to its upper plateau, 12 feet from the surface. From Keleston Drain to this point is roughly 360 yards. When the current is in gear, doing most of the work, a diver can cover that distance in 40 minutes without difficulty.
Owing to the geography of the island and the nature of the diving (one to four sites are covered per drift), a diver making three dives a day for three days could see 19 to 22 sites. What's more, dramatic reefs and mini walls are not the only things Tobago has to offer; there are also pinnacle dives.
From Goat and Little Tobago Island all the way around the St. Giles to Culloden Bay on the northwest side are dozens of impressive volcanic spires. Their summits break the surface and the marine topography is one of rocky slopes laden with forests of soft corals, sponges and, of course, plenty of fish life.
Most of these sites offer great concentrations of finny denizens. In addition to the more typically encountered clouds of Brown Chromis, Creole Fish, assorted species of jacks (including Black, Bar and Crevalle), Rainbow Runners and a few large resident Tarpon, these summits are also frequently visited by pelagics such as mantas, turtles, sharks, tuna, large Mackerel and big Barracuda.
The island of Tobago lolls in the seductive grace of intrinsic beauty, both above and below the water. There are steep mountains with dense, forested hillsides and valleys. The air temperature ranges from 84 to 86°F in the summer, occasionally dipping into the 70s during the winter months. Dress need only be light and casual. The people are warm and friendly, with a penchant for good times, apparent in the numerous carnivals and music festivals that take place annually. Soft spoken with a gentle air, English is the official language. The air-conditioned accommodations in various establishments are clean, roomy and quite comfortable. U.S. currency and most major credit cards are widely accepted. Cab fare to Speyside typically runs about $35 dollars (U.S.), rental cars are also readily available.
Tobago requires a valid passport for entry as well as a return ticket. The primary airline servicing the island is BWIA, with regular flights from Miami, New York's JFK, Toronto, Canada, London, Frankfurt and Zurich, with a short stop at either Antigua, Barbados or Trinidad (depending on the route). There is a Miami to Tobago flight every Saturday and Thursday. The departure taxes and security fees total $85 Trinidad & Tobago ($15 U.S.) and are collected at the airport.
Experience Tobago's drifts and you'll want to return, again and again!
Tobago's great drift dives have touched off a new Drift Certificate Program. Working with the Tobago Department of Tourism (TIDCO), the island's dive operators are presenting visiting divers with a free, specially signed document commemorating their drift dive experience. Printed on decorative parchment-type paper, the certificate is suitable for framing. It is awarded to those who enjoy at least eight of Tobago's drifts.