Land of the Giants

By Ethan Gordon

A bolt of lightning splits the thick air above the Venezuelan rain forest. Monkeys scream and exotic birds take shelter as they await a familiar event. Through the thick canopy of trees the rain begins to fall, a few drops at first, and then a torrential downpour. The deluge of water sweeps through the dense jungle. Thousands of tributaries combine their strength to form the great Orinoco River, which cuts through the rugged Venezuelan terrain and eventually spills into a far corner of the Caribbean sea . . .

Meanwhile, from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, the Guyana current pushes northwest along the coast, across the Orinoco's delta, straight for the shores of Tobago. There, billions of hungry mouths wait to feed on nutrients that seeped from deep within the forest's core. Divers from around the world gather in these nutrient rich waters to take in one of the most breathtaking ecosystems the Caribbean has to offer.

An impressive array of marine life thrives on this influx of nutrients. Corals and sponges grow to immense size here. In fact, the largest brain coral in the Caribbean is found at a dive site appropriately named Coral Gardens. Groves of giant barrel sponges are commonplace and gorgonians like you wouldn't believe grow in this nutrient-loaded water.

As if the abundance of nutrients weren't enough, the current sweeps the island constantly, providing the marine life with a continuous supply of food and divers with out-of-this-world drift diving. Dive sites like Diver's Dream are quintessential drift dives, with an impressive geography of canyons and shelves to fly through. In some places the bottom is made up of coral, in others the volcanic rock provides sponges and gorgonians with a solid base from which to grow so the scenery changes around every bend.

In contrast to drift diving's breakneck pace, places like Mount Irvine Wall are loaded with incredible macro life. On just one dive, I found three different species of nudibranchs, juvenile high-hats and spotted drums, not to mention gobies and blennies of all shapes and sizes.

Not interested in the small stuff? Then the remains of the Scarlet Ibis, a 350-foot island ferry that was sunk in 1997, is for you. The depth ranges between 60 to 100 feet, which makes this dive good for neophytes and experts alike. Although the wreck itself is fun to explore, the highlight of the dive is the gigantic resident Jewfish, Jacob, who greets divers as they descend and insists on leading the tour himself.

The current-borne nutrients don't just provide nourishment to the stationary filter feeders-huge clouds of chromis, creoles, and boga fill the water column at just about every dive site, completely blocking out the light at times. Flying fish are also plentiful in Tobago, in fact, they're a local favorite-for breakfast! The Ocean Triggerfish, found here in large numbers, are an unusual sight swimming in ghost-like schools along the reef. And a colorful assortment of angelfish, parrotfish, and wrasses swarm the reef everywhere you look.

Of course, the circle of life is in full swing here, as the abundance of small fish brings in its share of large predators. Golden Hammerheads, jacks, tarpon, barracuda, and dolphin take advantage of this smorgasbord. If you're lucky, you might even see Whale Sharks and Mantas.

The people of Tobago are among the friendliest in the Caribbean and will greet you warmly wherever you go. At one point we stopped to ask some people in another car for directions. After they told us where to go, they took it upon themselves to wait for us at every intersection, just to make sure we found our way. I even spoke to one traveler who was stranded with a flat tire, but not for long. The locals immediately jumped to action, changing the tire and leading the way to the nearest repair shop to have the flat fixed.

Topside, Tobago is covered in lush tropical vegetation. Huge ferns, groves of bamboo, and a large variety of palm trees dapple the slopes in a rich green hues. The western end is hilly, but the eastern end is dominated by steep slopes and twisty roads, which make driving a unique experience. (In Tobago they drive on the left side with the wheel on the right.) Scenic bays and deserted beaches appear around nearly every bend in the rock. It only takes an hour to drive the length of the island, so exploring is easy and rewarding. One of the highlights topside is Argyle Falls. With just a short, easy hike you'll be at the base of the impressive falls, and for more adventurous types, there's a challenging trail to take you to the top.

Another worthwhile stop is at Fort King George. From there you'll overlook the city of Scarborough and have a commanding view of the Caribbean, as the British colonists must have enjoyed years ago.

Whether you're into daredevil drift diving, or slowly searching for nudibranchs, Tobago is an ideal destination. Both above and below the water you will be mesmerized by brilliant colors and incredible creatures. And that nutrient-rich water is probably good for your skin, too.