Diving: An Overview (page 1 of 2)
A detailed overview of recreational diving on Tobago
Tobago offers some of the best diving in the Caribbean. It’s not the best known location, but the diving is world-class. The factors that create the wonderful aquatic conditions are the unique location of Tobago at the southern end of the Lesser Antilles chain of Caribbean islands.
Tobago’s sister island, Trinidad, is located just seven miles (11km) from the coast of South America and lies directly opposite the mouth of Venezuela’s mighty 1,590 mile (2,560km) Orinoco River. The fresh water outflow from the Orinoco is picked up and channelled northward by the Guyana Current, rushing through the 20-mile Columbus Channel between Trinidad and Tobago, and up Tobago’s Atlantic coast.
The seabed surrounding all but the most northern part of Tobago is shallow – the average depth of the Columbus Passage is just 60ft (18m). As the Guyana Current sweeps past the rocky outcrops of the seabed, it creates spectacular drift-diving areas, particularly at the ends of the island.
The nutrient-rich waters of the Orinoco are directly responsible for the wonderfully diverse marine life for which Tobago is famed. The planktonic particles in the water are rich fodder to the sea life and have a dramatic effect on sponge colonies and sea fans in particular. The high nutrient level and strong current combine to produce bizarrely-shaped giant barrel sponges and massive brain coral colonies. In fact, Tobago lays claim to the largest brain coral in the western hemisphere. Located in Speyside’s Kelleston Drain, this massive colony is 10-feet (3m) high by 16-feet (5.3m) wide. Huge specimens like this may make brain coral the most memorable, but the waters are actually home to around 300 different species of coral.
It is vital that all divers are fully aware of the delicate nature of the fragile ecosystems that produce coral. Please take heed of the issues raised in the Conservation section of our articles.
Although the nutrients in the water produce such amazing growth, the Orinoco outflow does reduce visibility. During the height of the wet season (July-September), the Orinoco is prone to flooding and the normally turquoise waters of Tobago’s Atlantic coast can become greenish-yellow, with visibility dropping from a normal 50-80 feet (15-25m) to around 30 feet (10m) in the upper 15-foot or so. This turbidity is a result of algae particles suspended in the water, but these in turn attract a large number of fish. On occasions, two distinct layers are formed. On top, a thick green 15 foot (5m) layer of warm ‘fresh’ water with visibility less than 3 feet (1m). Below, the cooler clear salt water can sometimes provide generous visibility of 60 feet (20m), creating the effect of diving under a canopy. Temperature changes of as much as six degrees can be felt between the two layers. The Caribbean coast is less affected by these conditions, and typical visibility is in the 70-90 feet (20-27m) range, with 100 foot (30m) not uncommon.
Such a rich environment creates an inviting habitat for every kind of sea life. The warm waters of the Caribbean (27-30°C) encourage tropical species, and the colder waters of the Atlantic Ocean are ideal for pelagics. Speyside was once famous for the family of manta rays that regularly took up residence each year, normally between November and June and peaking in January and February. Sadly, they aren’t seen as often these days. These harmless friendly giants aren’t scared of divers at all, but it’s really important to resist the temptation to ride the mantas. Although once considered acceptable, this practice is now condemned because it is believed to cause stress to the mantas.
As a general guide, the Atlantic coast of Tobago features well-developed lush sloping reefs, whereas the Caribbean coast is primarily composed of rocky formations with encrusted sponge and coral growth. Giant barrel, vase and rope sponges attract Angelfish, in particular, and make the reefs a rich variety of texture and colour. The features of the underwater landscape vary enormously. The coast can be divided into several distinct areas. These are fully detailed in the Sites section.
To experience Tobago’s amazing underwater landscape, you must choose a reputable dive service – this is not a destination for DIY diving. You can use your own gear, but you will not be able to hire a boat from any reputable source and just head off and do your own thing. Currents and weather conditions can change rapidly and experienced boat handlers are vital.
The vast majority of accommodation on Tobago is within a short drive of a decent dive shop, so you should have no trouble whether you choose your accommodation first and then a dive service, or the other way around. Many services offer a collection and return service. However, you should avoid the upper stretches of the Caribbean coast (possibly anywhere north of Arnos Vale) if you want to dive, because these locations are just too far from these dive facilities. Trainee or novice divers should probably base themselves along the lower Caribbean coast (Crown Point/Buccoo/Mount Irvine/Black Rock), and advanced divers should consider Speyside. That said, both ends of the island offer excellent diving for every level and it would be wrong to think that the southern/Caribbean end is inferior to the Speyside region.
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