- Tobago's Reefs
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 breathtaking 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 snorkeling, 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, snorkeling 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 this kills coral polyps and prevents regeneration
• Do not touch or collect anything while snorkeling 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
Here is a quick summary of some of the best known reefs and dive sites around Tobago.
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 snorkeling 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.
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.
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.
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 island's 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.