Kingdom of the Corals

If you think the corals and creatures in Finding Nemo were stunning, wait till you see the reefs off Tobago. The names alone are colorful enough: Obeah Man Point, Shark Bank, Scotch on Rocks, Gin and Tonic, Japanese Gardens, London Bridge, Lucifer’s Bay, Ketchup Reef, Snap, Crackle, Pop’

More than 50 dive sites ranging in level from easy to expert await the diving enthusiast’from fringing reefs and bank reefs to patch reefs, rock outcrops, rock pillars and rock headlands. Because Tobago’s waters are so rich with nutrients, millions of marine creatures live off the plankton and polyps, while others, like sharks and turtles, pass through at certain times of the year. Shoals of blue wrasses, damselfish, blue chromis and gaudy parrotfish are the most prevalent on all the reefs, along with spotfin butterflyfish, trumpet fish and angelfish. The corals are almost as varied and interesting, and include the feared fire coral, as well as the fan, tube, brain, great star and elkhorn corals. Many corals are colorful themselves, ranging from red through orange to white. Poised purposefully between the corals are sea whips, fans, molluscs, sea urchins, anemones, sponges and sea weeds.

The rich waters are also the reason for the massive size of some of the hard corals, like the giant brain coral off Speyside, which is more than 18 feet (six meters) wide. Huge barrel sponges also sprout in the Columbus Passage south of Tobago.

The sea grass itself is also home to the tiniest of creatures, which are now the subject of research for many scientists. These include seahorses, often found hooked onto the base of sea rods or plumes close to a sandy bed. The largest recorded was about 5.5 inches (14 centimeters) on Cove Reef and the smallest just about the size of the tip of your little finger on Kelleston Drain. They can also be seen on Mt Irvine Wall and Kariwak Reef.

And that’s just the small fry. The big boys of the blue include sharks, turtles, rays and eels. Between December and May in the Speyside region, whale sharks are often seen on early morning dives. Mesmerizing, with amazing grace for a creature so huge, whale sharks do not appreciate divers popping up in front of them. And well, you really don’t want to upset these guys by touching or riding them.

The same goes for the other species, such as tiger, bull, nurse, reef, blacktip, hammerhead and lemon sharks. The stingray also comes in different varieties: southern, roughtail, lesser electric ray, spotted eagle ray (with a tail three times as long as its head), and the biggest of them all, the manta ray. Your best chance to swim with a manta is an early morning dive off Speyside in Black Jack Hole.

The big fish off Tobago feed on the infinite shoals of small fry, and these include jacks, barracuda, wahoo, tarpon and tuna.

The wreck of the Maverick, which was sunk in 1997 off Mt Irvine, offers close encounters with large barracuda and giant jewfish. The Sisters (on the Caribbean coast) consist of a cluster of rock pinnacles that breaks the surface and drops to a mind-boggling depth of 140 feet (42.6 meters). Strictly for advanced divers, please. This area is home of a residential population of hammerhead sharks.

Other sites for expert divers include Flying Manta, London Bridge, Diver’s Dream and Diver’s Thirst. The conflicting currents in these areas create a playground for mantas, barracuda and tarpon. Beginners may want to stick to Flying Reef, Mt Irvine Wall, Arnos Vale, Englishman’s Bay, Black Jack Hole and King’s Bay.

The Columbus Passage is one of the top drift-diving locations in the Caribbean. Here the sites have strong currents that flow in a westerly direction. This constant water movement sculpts sea fans and giant barrel sponges into unusual shapes. Turtles, eagle rays and reef sharks are usually seen on these dives.

Of course, when you enter their world, there’s always the risk of getting on the wrong side of some creatures. The usual suspects in cases of injury are poisonous sponges, jellyfish, Portuguese man-o-war, puffer fish, fire coral, bristle worms, stingrays, sharks, moray eels, sea urchins, scorpion fish and barracudas. The best way to deal with any injury is to wash the wound with saltwater (not fresh water); apply vinegar and cortisone cream. Once you employ professional dive operators, they should be able to provide the required treatment and medical attention.

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