Little Tobago – Cliffs, Cacti and a Colony of Seabirds

It sits on the map, lonesome, a jagged, maple leaf-shaped rock on the western edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Little Tobago. Even smaller and more primeval than the mainland. Virtually unchanged since the Ice Age, it’s a much-subscribed breeding ground for seabirds such as the red-billed tropic bird, the brown booby, brown noddy, sotty and bridled terns. Surrounded by abundant fish and wind thermals, Little Tobago is the ultimate all-inclusive hotel for seabirds this side of the ocean. You can also see red-footed boobies and magnificent frigatebirds, which breed on Goat Island and St Giles.

In 1909, one Sir William Ingram brought 45 bird of paradise chicks from New Guinea to Little Tobago, to save it from extinction. The bird’s feathers were high in demand as plumage and they were being poached to extinction. The birds survived on the island for quite a few decades’they were filmed by a National Geographic crew in 1958’until 1963 when a hurricane hit. No birds of paradise have been sighted since. Little Tobago was bequeathed to the Trinidad and Tobago government as a bird sanctuary in perpetuity by Sir William’s family.

The trip out alone’about 20 minutes by glass-bottom boat from Speyside’ is a preview to what will feel like an episode of Nat Geo. On a clear day, underwater visibility can be 80 feet, and the reefs off Speyside are something to behold. The Japanese Gardens are a popular playground for mantas, barracuda, and tarpon, while Angel Reef is a carnival of damselfish, blue chromis, creole wrasse, angelfish, butterfly fish, and parrotfish. Your guide will also point out the abandoned beach house on a smaller island, Goat Island, which once belonged to Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond series.

From the water Little Tobago gives no indication of what awaits on the other side. You may wonder what all the fuss is about as you climb the well-trodden trail up to what was once the resident caretaker’s house. If your eyes are sharp, you will spot quite a few of the 45 native species’the blue-grey tanager, tropical kingbird, brown-crested and Venezuelan flycatcher, yellow-bellied elaenia and tropical mockingbird.

And then, you get to the top; you walk to the lookout point and your heart stops. This is why Little Tobago was featured in David Attenborough’s BBC wildlife series The Trials of Life. Dozens of brown boobies, magnificent frigate birds and red-billed tropicbirds soar and swoop on the thermals above the ocean. A red-billed tropic bird dives into the sea, a second later rising with a fish in its mouth. A few seconds later a magnificent frigate bird lunges and grabs the booby by its legs, flips it upside down and shakes the fish out from its stomach, then dives and grabs the fish as it falls.

Giant cacti, some as tall as 10 feet bend in the strong breeze. Despite the sharp thorns, the red-billed tropic bird hauls itself in among the cacti and makes its nest. These birds can’t walk since their incredibly short legs are designed for landing in the water. All four toes are connected by a web and their legs are located quite far back on their body. They crash land on the edge of the cliff, then drag themselves to a nice spot. These birds have no predators on the island so you will come across nests with just a chick, or a mother and a chick. Don’t be surprised if they peer back at you curiously. Indeed, we are the interlopers on their rock in the ocean.

Need to know:

It’s best to go to Little Tobago on a calm, sunny day. If it’s raining, the jetty can be slippery. In any event, be careful on the jetty, which can be mossy in places. Carry a large bottle of drinking water since there is none on the island. Wear trainers or comfortable shoes as the terrain can be tricky in parts.

It’s best to go with a knowledgeable guide (look up local naturalists Newton George www.newtongeorge.com or David Rooks (Tel. 868-352-1222, 631-1630), who have scopes and can point out the many birds cleverly camouflaged in the trees.

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