Tobago's Drift Dives
EXPERIENCE THE DRAMA
Text and Photography by Walt Stearns
Of the many assorted jewels in the Caribbean, the tiny island of Tobago is a true diamond in the rough. Free of large scale industrialization (unlike its larger sister Trinidad), Tobago lolls in an intrinsic grace and beauty.
Roughly 116 square miles in size, the island's densely forested mountains and valleys are reminiscent of islands I have visited in the Indo-Pacific. Like its people, Tobago is warm. The air temperature averages 84 to 86 degrees F in the summer, occasionally dipping into the mid 70s in winter. Light, casual dress is customary.
The sedate physical beauty typical topside gives way to a raw, almost untamed quality underwater. This is most notable around the island's eastern half, where a convoluted stretch of shoreline is ruled by small bays and steep hillsides of volcanic rock that break the surface of the sea. The bottom drops quickly to 100 feet or more around Tobago's small satellite islands and rocky outcroppings. Below the surface is a visually striking realm, full of pinnacles, peaks, cascading slopes and mini-walls laden with myriad soft corals and sponges.
Of course, what would any reef be like without abundant fish life, such as schools of Brown Chromis and Creole Wrasses, swarming from below to feed on the plankton in the upper water column? Mixed within their ranks are Black Durgons, Bogas, small Black Jacks and Rainbow Runners. In addition to these large concentrations of common finny denizens are large Tarpon, Barracuda, mackerel, tuna, turtles and, occasionally, sharks and Manta Rays.
Atlantic Manta Rays (Manta birostris) are rare throughout the rest of the Caribbean and The Bahamas but Tobago has a reputation for face to face meetings with them. However, even during their peak season, between late April and September, an encounter is still a matter of chance.
Tobago's position in the extreme lower, southeastern corner of the Caribbean, below the semi-curved island chain of the Lesser Antilles, is responsible for its profusion of marine life. Along with its larger sister island, Trinidad, to the south, Tobago is part of the South American continental shelf, 70 miles off the eastern coast of Venezuela. The island sits in the pathway of the North Equatorial Current (the prelude to the Gulf Stream, which begins in the lower Caribbean) from the open Atlantic and the Guyana Current, which follows the contours of South America's eastern coast. The latter current brings with it some of the nutrient rich waters of the Orinoco River. As these bodies of waters collide and intermingle, they generate a rich ecosystem for the vigorous sponge, coral and fish communities.
Currents are common here, ranging anywhere from a leisurely one-quarter knot to swifter two to three knots. This has a profound effect on some of its sponge colonies; Giant Barrel Sponges in particular are sculpted into bizarre, convoluted shapes.
Tobago's greatest collection of rock islands and pinnacles ranges between a spot west of the village of Charlotteville in Man-of-War Bay, on the north side, past the island's eastern tip to the Batteaux Bay community of Speyside. Nowhere else in the Caribbean can you find a collection with this magnitude of huge volcanic spires rising from the depths to break the surface.
Starting on the north side are two prominent rock formations, the Sisters and the St. Giles Islands. A little more than a mile offshore, to the west of Charlotteville, the Sisters feature a collection of 50 foot high, round, fat columns of bare rock. Below the surface, their contours are marked by deep clefts and caves. They drop almost straight down to depths of 70 to 80 feet in several places before becoming a steep incline. Midway down, the rocks become a haven for forests of large Black Coral trees and gorgonians.
Closer to shore, the Brothers are a slightly shorter mirror image of the Sisters, with a maximum depth of 75 feet. When the surge is moderate, divers can take a winding path between these stone behemoths, disappearing in the thick schools of baitfish and aerated water, churned from the waves breaking on the rocks overhead.
East of Charlotteville, off Tobago's most northern point, the St. Giles Islands stand like lone sentinels. Home to the largest frigate bird rookery in the Caribbean and a natural rock arch formation called London Bridge, the underwater seascape is equally dramatic, with walls and steep slopes marked by deep clefts covered with corals and sponges.
Owing to their location in the open waters of the Atlantic, most of these summits have great concentrations of Brown Chromis, Creole Wrasse, assorted species of jacks, including Black, Bar and Crevalle, Rainbow Runners and a few Tarpon. Pelagic visitors, such as tuna, Wahoo and billfish (both sailfish and marlin), are also encountered here from time to time.
On the south of the island near Speyside, four large volcanic spires surround Goat and Little Tobago Islands. They are similar to the Sisters and the St. Giles Islands but are smaller. Identified by their shorter rock formations protruding above the water, Sleeper, Bookends, Special and Shark Bank drop steeply at 60 degree angles to 110-145 feet before reaching a sandy plain at the bottom. When large swells roll in from the open sea, the tops are awash with seafoam and aerated water. Depending on the intensity of the surge, divers can often find several large Tarpon hanging below the white cloud formed by the aerated water or midway down the pinnacles slope.
In addition to the four pinnacles surrounding both Goat and Little Tobago Island, the entire region facing the small Batteaux Bay community of Speyside, marks the heart of Tobago's finest dive sites.
Decorating the contours of these two little islands, which drop at steep angles to as great as 140 feet, are flourishing octocorals of every kind, such as searods, seaplumes and Deep Water Seafans. Their dark chocolate hues are intermixed with tube sponges in yellow, orange and purple. Like serpents sprouting from Medusa's head, long winding rope sponges in deep red, purple, green and lavender are in sharp contrast to the numerous bright Orange Elephant Ear Sponges.
The unique and adventurous nature of Tobagos great drift dives has launched a new Drift Certificate Program, sponsored by the islands dive operators and the Tobago Department of Tourism (TIDCO). Upon completion of the program, divers are presented with a specially printed and signed document (on decorative parchment-type paper, suitable for framing). To obtain this absolutely free certificate, divers need only complete at least eight of Tobagos drifts; a rather easy thing to do, even in a few days.
Black Jack Hole is a good choice for a starting point. Similar to most sites in this region, it is dominated by incredibly thick sponges and soft corals, as well as giant Brain Corals (seven to eight feet across) covering a steep grade starting in 15 foot shallows and dropping to 120 feet. Drifting in a westerly direction, divers come to Keleston Drain, on the edge of a 50 foot deep reef flat.
Divers then cover a distance of 100 yards before encountering a large plateau with a slight slope rising from 60 feet to roughly 25. Along the way, numbers of adult Queen Angelfish are visible. It is almost routine to see groups of three to five grazing together in the corals. At 45 feet, midway along the gentle slope, is the largest single specimen of Boulder Brain Coral (Colpophylia natans) ever recorded in the West Indies, measuring a staggering 12 by 16 feet across with a profile of 8 feet.
Beyond this magnificent coral, the reef switches back into a mini wall that starts at 35 feet and drops to a sandfloor at 80. Fringing the top of the wall is Yellow Brick Road, named for the conglomeration of one to two foot Yellow Tube Sponges (Aplysina fistularis) that spans a couple hundred feet. When the wall turns slightly outward you're at Manta City, named for its frequent Manta Ray sightings when the season is in full swing. Here, the reefs bottom changes to a steep slope from a maximum depth of 75 feet to its upper plateau 12 feet from the surface. From the beginning of Keleston Drain to this point is roughly 360 yards. When the current is ripping, a diver could easily cover that distance in 40 minutes.
The secret behind enjoying each sites thrilling spectacle is to go with the flow and let the current do the work. In addition to carrying a whistle on your buoyancy compensator, I recommend carrying a secondary emergency signaling device such as an inflatable signaling device and/or a Dive-Alert.
Little Tobagos shorefront reef is a prominent, 300 yard stretch of sloping drop-off running parallel to its western shore. Named Cathedral, this reef takes over where Manta City leaves off, going from 30 feet to a maximum of 80 feet in the sand, the 60 to 80 degree angle creating a mini-wall of sorts. Although not as dense with small fish life, the site is rich with sponge and soft coral growth.
Tobago offers diving year-round. Water temperatures generally average in the low 80s (degrees F) with visibility customarily from 70 to 90 feet. The only time of concern is when the Orinoco River in Venezuela reaches its height during the rainy season (July through September), pushing the fringing edge of this mighty tributary all the way up to Tobagos southern coast. When this occurs, expect visibilities of 30 to 40 feet, primarily in the top 40 feet of water.
For diving, the boat most favored by Tobago dive operations is the pirogue, an elongated rowboat typically 28 to 36 feet in length, with a high, sharp entry at the bow, a deep rounded bottom and low freeboard midship. When it comes to comfortable handling over large oceanic swells and choppy seas, this French Creole longboat is one of the best for the job.
A New Wreck
Making sure Tobago has all its bases covered as a diving destination, TIDCO and the Tobago Dive Operators Association created a new wreck site this year. Measuring 350 feet in length, the former trans-island ferry, the Scarlet Ibis lies on an even keel at a depth of 100 feet, with her superstructure coming within 56 feet of the surface. The entrance to this massive vessels car loading deck at 83 feet looks like the opening to the Holland Tunnel. In Tobagos nutrient rich waters the Scarlet Ibis is sure to develop some pretty spectacular plumage and I am sure Ill be coming back to see it.