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Scuba Diving

Scuba Diving in 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 island's unique location at the southern end of the Lesser Antilles chain of Caribbean islands results in wonderful aquatic conditions.

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 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. 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 home to around 300 different species of coral.

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 lots 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). Beneath, 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.

Corals on Tobago reef
Grunts on Tobago coral reef

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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 pelagic fish. 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.

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 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.

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 and just head off to do your own thing. Currents and weather conditions can change rapidly and experienced boat handlers are vital.

Most visitor accommodation in Tobago is within a short drive of a decent dive shop. Most dive shops 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 the best dive facilities. Trainee or novice divers should probably base themselves along the lower Caribbean coast (Crown Point/Buccoo/Mount Irvine/Black Rock). Advanced divers may prefer Speyside. That said, both ends of the island offer excellent diving for divers of every level.

When currents are mild (0-1.5 knots), very little effort is required and divers simply go along with the ride, gliding through the underwater scenery while the current does the work. This kind of drift diving is common in Tobago. You don't have to worry about returning to a specific point because the boat travels with you, following the divemaster's marker. The dive can cover a substantial distance; often as much as two kilometres. Several sites frequently experience current of two or three knots, so these demand advanced drift diving techniques.

Sea currents around Tobago vary enormously, with a minimal 0-0.25 knots on the Caribbean coast and upwards of a quarter knot on the Atlantic coast. The Columbus Passage is subject to remarkably fast currents. Further north, locals in Speyside refer to one area as the African Express because of its regular four-knot current. The Guyana Current truly provides Tobago with some of the most exhilarating diving rides in the world.

Hawksbill turtle and diver on Tobago reef
Hawksbill turtle on Tobago coral reef

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If you're expecting millpond conditions, you will be disappointed with Tobago. The Atlantic coast has a light chop all year round. The Caribbean coast is calm during the spring and summer, but can be choppy or rough during the winter months. Be flexible and be prepared for changes if you have previously planned a dive site itinerary with your divemaster.

Although only 10° north of the equator, the cold waters from the Atlantic do mean that the 'winter' water temperatures are a shade cooler than some Caribbean destinations. During these dry months (November-June), you will probably only need a 3mm shortie wetsuit. However, wet season temperatures (July-November) are much cooler at 25-28°C (77-82°F), so a full 3-5mm wetsuit is desirable and a 5mm semi-drysuit even better.

A good suntan lotion or sun block is essential. Some dive centres have specialist boats, but most use open pirogue-style boats. Some of these have small canopies for shade, but others offer no protection at all. The combination of salt spray, wind and the fierce tropical sun are a deadly combination and it is critical. Because you will be near the reefs, please use a biodegradable sun block.

You may be away from shore for a long time, so go fully prepared. Check with the divemaster to see if you will be returning to shore between dives and kit yourself out accordingly. Always carry a supply of bottled water; dehydration is one of the factors that contribute to decompression sickness. Talking of decompression, the Tobago Hyperbaric Facility at Roxborough Tobago, known locally as The Chamber, is manned 24 hours a day.

There is no cave diving in Tobago, but the wreck of the MV Maverick (previously called the MV Scarlet Ibis) just off Mount Irvine on the Caribbean coast is a popular dive spot. This 350-foot (107m) ex-Trinidad-Tobago car ferry was intentionally sunk of Rocky Point in 1997 to create an artificial reef and dive site. It is now well-colonised with fan corals and small hard corals and a large, but friendly, Great Barracuda, not to mention countless schooling fish. The vessel sits in 100 feet (30m) of water, with the top of the wreck at 50 feet (15m).

A smaller vessel, the 80-foot (24m) rig supply boat MV RoundTable, was sunk in December 2003 at the bottom of a sloping reef just a short distance off the Blue Waters Inn in Speyside. This wreck also sits in 100 feet (30m) of water, with the deck at 60 feet (18m).

Tobago's Reefs - Fragile Wonders That Need Your Help

by Dr.Owen Day, Buccoo Reef Trust

Tobago's spectacular underwater world is undoubtedly one of the treasures of this beautiful tropical island, and whether you're a visitor or a resident in Tobago you should make every effort to experience its amazing variety and colour. The number of species found on coral reefs is estimated to be in excess of one million, making them the second most biodiverse habitat on earth after rainforests.

With over 350 million years of evolution behind them, coral reefs are truly breath-taking monuments to life's almost infinite variety and complexity. But coral reefs are not just beautiful natural wonders designed to provide people with a relaxing distraction while bobbing around on a boat or with a snorkel. They are a vital part of the ecological fabric and economic activities of small Caribbean islands. They are the backbone of Tobago's two largest industries; tourism and fishing, providing both jobs and food. They also protect the coastline from erosion by breaking ocean swells. They produce the sand on our beaches. In fact, the whole of South-west Tobago rests on ancient coral limestone deposited over hundreds of thousands of years by the tiny coral polyps that make up coral reefs.

Tobago's fringing coral reefs are some of the best in the region, and because of its nutrient-rich coastal waters, they are also home to an impressive abundance of marine life, ranging from the microscopic to the huge. Located close to the South American Continent, Tobago is washed from the south by the Guyana Current which carries nutrients from the Orinoco River. These nutrients produce an abundance of plankton which often gives a green or brown tint to the surface waters during the rainy season (June to December). This plankton is the primary food for a thriving food web of marine life of all shapes and sizes. Much of it ends up as food for the massive shoals of small fry, which in turn feed large predatory fish, such as jacks, barracuda, wahoo, tarpon and tuna. Other large animals frequently seen are sea turtles, reef sharks, hammerhead sharks, groupers, eagle rays and manta rays. The rich waters are also the reason for the massive size of some of the hard corals - such as the giant brain coral off Speyside which is over 6 meters wide - and the huge barrel sponges that can be seen in the Columbus Passage south of Tobago.

Not surprisingly, Tobago is a snorkelling, scuba diving and fishing paradise. For those of you who wish to explore this underwater wilderness, a variety of approaches are available depending on your fitness level and sense of adventure. Scuba diving, snorkelling or a trip on a glass bottom boat at either Buccoo Reef or Speyside will all produce enduring memories. All these activities are rapidly expanding on the island so, whether you are a visitor or resident, please use a reputed tour guide or dive operator and follow our guidelines to ensure that future generations can enjoy Tobago as it is today:

  • Do not walk on reefs as doing so kills coral polyps and prevents regeneration
  • Do not touch or collect anything while snorkelling or scuba diving
  • If scuba diving, control your buoyancy carefully – watch out for your fins
  • If big-game fishing on a charter boat, ask about tag and return
  • Do not leave litter anywhere – even if other people have

A quick summary of some of the best-known reefs and dive sites around Tobago follows below.

Brown chromis and yellow tube sponge
Tobago coral reef

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Buccoo Reef

Buccoo Reef is the largest coral reef in Tobago and was designated a marine park in 1973. Its massive proportions contain a reef system of five reef flats that are separated by deep channels. An associated lagoon, the Bon Accord Lagoon is almost completely enclosed by Sheerbird's Point – also called No Man's Land - and a dense mangrove belt. The gradual change in the fauna and flora from the dense mangrove to the outer reef is a biologist's delight. This reef complex is also more accessible to the non-diver, as snorkelling and glass-bottom boats offer an easy way to observe the many habitats and species it contains. The reef flats have wave-resistant species adapted to turbulent waters, such as Elkhorn Coral, while the reef crests are dominated by the Star Coral. In the deeper Coral Gardens the coral communities change to large colonies of brain coral, Starlet Coral and Star Coral, with many soft corals that sway in the current.

Tragically, the Buccoo Reef is today a shadow of what it once was. A combination of pollution from land run-off and physical damage from reef walking and anchors has degraded much of this once majestic reef. If you chose to visit Buccoo Reef on a glass-bottom boat, please do not accept any plastic shoes you may be offered by the tour operator.

Instead, ask to be taken to deeper parts of the reef, such as Coral Gardens, where you can snorkel and see much more marine life without touching or damaging any live coral. There is hope to restore this magnificent reef and a concerted effort from the community, visitors, business and government can make it happen.

Caribbean Coast

The reefs and dive sites along Tobago's Caribbean coast are some of the most beautiful on the island. The currents are less strong than on the Atlantic coast, and the hard-coral reefs at Arnos Vale and Culloden are some of the best to be seen. The Wreck of the Maverick, sunk in 1997 off Mt Irvine, is invariably abundant in fish life, and close encounters with large barracuda or giant jewfish are not uncommon. The Sister's Rocks is a spectacular dive that consists of a cluster of rock pinnacles which breaks the surface and drops to a depth of 140 feet. This area is the home for large pelagics and a residential population of hammerhead sharks that are usually seen against the open blue waters, while groupers, lobsters and moray eels stay close to the reef.

Speyside

Japanese Gardens, Black Jack Hole, Kelleston Drain, Bookends and St. Giles are some of the varied and beautiful dives off the North-eastern coast of Tobago. These dives are mainly for advanced divers, where conflicting currents create a playground for mantas, barracuda, and tarpon, while others offer more gentle drifts along sloping reef covered with hard corals, sponges, sea fans and sea plumes. Multitudes of damselfish, blue chromis, creole wrasse, angelfish, butterfly fish, and parrotfish add infinite colour, under the permanent gaze of roaming Jacks, snappers and barracuda. Manta rays are frequent visitors.

Columbus Passage

Diver's Dream, Diver's Thirst, Flying Reef and Cove Reef are some of the dive sites located in the Columbus Passage, one of the top drift-diving locations in the Caribbean. These sites have strong currents that flow in a westerly direction, which sweep past the islands at speeds ranging from a leisurely half-knot to a blistering 4 knots. This constant water movement sculpts sea fans and giant barrel sponges into strange shapes. Turtles, eagle rays and reef sharks are usually seen on these exhilarating dives.

Diving on coral reef in Tobago
Scuba diving in Tobago

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Uncertain Future

While Tobago is fortunate to have some very good reefs, the situation is by no means assured. In the Caribbean it is estimated that over 23% of coral reefs have already have been destroyed and 33% are considered at high risk. Globally, some experts predict that coral reefs will have disappeared by the end of this century. Other scientists are less pessimistic, and believe that solutions exist, but that these will require a concerted effort on the part of governments, private sector and the public. Tourism has a big role to play in this battle to save the coral reefs. So, what are the problems, you may ask, and what can I do to help?

The main cause of coral death in Tobago and the Caribbean is pollution from the land. The biggest culprits are poorly treated sewage, domestic grey water, agricultural runoff, fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, chemicals, etc… As a visitor to Tobago, what you can do is find out what happens to the waste water where you are staying and make it known to the manager of your hotel/guest house that you are concerned. Increasingly, hotels choose to comply with environmental certification schemes, such as Green Globe 21, Biosphere Hotels and ISO 14000. This is a positive trend and visitors need to play an active role in encouraging it - so don't be embarrassed, make enquiries and make demands!

The second most important threat to Caribbean reefs is over-fishing, which can have dramatic effects on the delicate ecological balance of coral reefs. Removing too many herbivorous fish for instance, such as parrotfish and surgeonfish, allows seaweeds to proliferate and starve the living corals of sunlight – this has caused the demise of many Caribbean reefs. Conch, lobster and grouper are species that are particularly vulnerable to over-fishing and are already becoming scarcer on Tobago's inshore reefs. As there is no legal minimum size limit, it is up to the fishermen and the consumers (you) to act responsibly and only select mature animals. Mature groupers, generally speaking, must be over 35 cm, conch must have shells with a flared lip, and lobsters must have a carapace (that's the large single piece of shell around the head and legs) over 9cm long. Marine turtles, including the Green, Hawksbill and the enormous Leatherback, are frequent visitors to Tobago's shores but sadly are still killed for their meat. This activity is not only illegal but is threatening the survival of these critically endangered species. The efforts of local pressure groups and beach patrols are helping the situation but are not sufficient to stop determined poachers. If you see any turtles being killed or hurt contact Save Our Seaturtles (SOS) on (868)+1(868) 328-7351 or the Department of Forestry on 639 CARE or the Buccoo Reef Trust.

Education and awareness campaigns for communities, school children and visitors are essential for the survival of coral reefs. The Buccoo Reef Trust (BRT) is a non-profit company registered in Trinidad and Tobago that was specifically created to assist government and communities in addressing the threats facing Tobago's marine environment and to explore opportunities for the sustainable development of marine tourism, fishing and aquaculture in the Southern Caribbean region.

The Buccoo Reef Trust is actively undertaking and fund-raising for education, research and outreach programmes that will help ensure the survival of Tobago's precious marine resources. We have managed to obtain support from corporate sponsors as well as philanthropic foundations, but we need more help. If you are interested in finding out more about what we do and how you can help, either as a volunteer or through a donation, visit our website at www.buccooreeftrust.org.tt or call us on +1(868) 635-2000. We are always happy to meet concerned visitors and can provide you with information about the islands marine life – so contact us and drop in.

Buccoo Reef Trust

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Telephone:+1(868) 635-2000

Scuba Dive Shops & Services in Tobago

There are a very limited number of reputable dive shops on Tobago. Selecting the right dive service is important, both for your own safety and that of others. Choosing a professional dive shop minimises the inherent risks of scuba diving to perfectly acceptable levels. It is one area where cutting corners to save a few dollars can have serious life-threatening potential.

It is important to note that all the dive shops mentioned are very small businesses. Most only have a single qualified divemaster. It is strongly recommended that you book well in advance, particularly if you intend visiting Tobago during the popular high-season months of January through March.

Region 1:  CROWN POINT
Frontier Divers
Sandy Point Beach Club
Frontier Divers are one of Tobago's oldest and most established dive operations. Owner, Alvin 'Big Dougie' Douglas has a good reputation for helpful, friendly service. The dive shop is based at the Sandy Point Beach Club in Crown Point.
Ocean Experience
Pigeon Point Road
Ocean Experience is a dive, snorkelling and fishing tackle shop in Crown Point's Pigeon Point Road. In addition to the retail side, they offer limited dive services, primarily in association with deep sea fishing.
R & Sea Diver's Company
Shepherd's Inn, Old Store Bay Road
R & Sea Divers have become one of Tobago's most professional, reliable and most highly regarded dive services under the ownership and management of Wendy Austin. They have an absolutely first class safety record and offer all PADI courses up to and including dive master.
Tobago Reef Masters
Pigeon Point Heritage Centre
Tobago Reef Masters are based at the Pigeon Point Heritage Park, with a sub-office at the Tropikist Beach Hotel in Crown Point. They are owned and managed by the same team that operates Tobago Dive Experience at the Manta Lodge in Speyside.
Undersea Tobago
Coco Reef Resort, Crown Point
Based at the Coco Reef Resort in Crown Point, Derek Chung has built Undersea Tobago to be one of Tobago's premier dive services. They have an absolutely impeccable safety record and are a great choice for those wishing to learn scuba diving.
Region 2:  LOWER CARIBBEAN
Black Rock Divers
Grafton Beach, Stonehaven Bay, Black Rock
When Extra Divers closed their southern branch, manager Markus Baumgartner decided to continue operations trading as Black Rock Divers. Markus had gained an excellent reputation and brings the same standards to his own business.
Coco Motion
Mt.Irvine Bay
Coco Motion is a 31-foot cigarette-hulled offshore powerboats. Owners, Marlon and Rachel offer coastal tours of Tobago with snorkelling, private charters and scuba diving services in association with Undersea Tobago.
Region 3:  UPPER CARIBBEAN
Wild Turtle Scuba Club
Castara
Richard Louis operates Wild Turtle Dive Safari from Little Bay in Castara. He was previously based at the Rex Turtle Beach hotel and before that, at Pigeon Point. Richie is well-established and experienced and a popular choice with visiting divers.
Region 4:  NORTH END
Blue Waters Dive'n
Batteaux Bay, Speyside
The Blue Waters Dive'n service is part of the Blue Waters Inn in Speyside. The dive shop previously operated from the same premises, but under independent management, as Aquamarine.
ERIC
16 Campbelton Road, Charlotteville
The Environmental Research Institute Charlotteville (ERIC) is small not-for-profit organisation that offers divers the opportunity to engage in marine conservation research through science tourism and voluntourism activities.
Extra Divers
Speyside Inn, Speyside
Extra Divers are part of a large German dive operation. They closed their Crown Point branch in recent years and now concentrate all dive services from their own small hotel, Speyside Inn.
Spencer's Underwater Adventures
Speyside
Kern Spencer of Spencer's Underwater Adventure is based in Speyside and specialises in small parties of up to 5 divers. He has been a certified Padi Instructor since 2001.
Tobago Dive Experience
Manta Lodge, Speyside
Tobago Dive Experience are one of Tobago's original dive services. They have a very mixed reputation and caution is advised.