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January 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 29, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Manta Lodge / World of Watersports, Tobago

a tiny isle with some of the Caribbean’s best diving

from the January, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

When I told Ben Davison I was headed to Tobago -- that tiny partner of Trinidad, just 50 miles off of Venezuela's coast -- and would do a story on the diving there, he got grumpy. Having been there a couple times, he considered it one of the great Caribbean dive spots, and he loved the island as well. He wanted to return and write an article himself, but there were too many other spots on his wish list; however, Undercurrent readers ought to know about Tobago. "Oh, go ahead, damn it," he told me.

Back-rolling off the 32-foot dive vessel Another into the Coral Gardens at Kelleston Drain, I was in a bubbly mush of seawater caused by an active ocean. But a few feet down, with no current, the vista opened up to a seascape of dozens of large azure vase sponges, up to five feet tall. The dense coral coverage showcased large numbers of colorful tropical fish, as well as the largest brain coral in the world (so they say) that is several centuries old, and 10 feet tall by 16 feet wide -- impressive and incredible! A spotted eagle ray cruised by. Queen, French and gray angelfish abounded in the 84-degree water. Ben was right.

Manta Lodge's AnotherWith luggage in hand, I exited the small Tobago terminal on a balmy September night at 11:30 p.m. Clyde Robinson was holding a sign with my name. Ninety minutes and 26 miles later, over winding and potholed roads, I arrived at Manta Lodge in Speyside, a tiny village on the Atlantic side of the island with a few restaurants, sheep, and a high school. The lodge is base for Sean Robinson's Tobago Dive Experience, and he also operates World of Water Sports on the southern end of the island. Teaching diving at the International School in Trinidad (for free) consumes a lot of his time. Sean's counterpart is his father, Clyde, who has a more practical approach to business, while his son's passion is all things diving. They are both characters of the first order.

Manta Lodge / World of Watersports, TobagoOnly the next morning did I see across the road the beautiful views of Goat Island and Little Tobago Island. In the flowering trees and bushes, hummingbirds zipped crazily. Manta Lodge exudes gracious Caribbean charm and the wear of a salty environment. There is a small pool at the lodge, doubling for training divers and cooling off. With no doors to hinder entry to the reception, dining room and bar area, the openness is welcoming. A mother pooch and her two teenage pups eagerly greet visitors; so does Clyde, who has a ready wave and smile. From Clyde's numerous stories, I gather that the 90s was the heyday for the 22-room lodge, with laughing guests ready to enjoy world-class diving or birding, and recapping their day at the Lodge's Moray Eel bar. In contrast, I was the only guest for four of my fivenight low-season stay. In the middle of the night when the wind blew open my patio door, I felt the lodge's emptiness. However, the soothing sounds of waves gently crashing, birds calling and frogs singing lulled me back to sleep. All rooms face the ocean, and back onto the rainforest. My room was clean and comfortable, with a king and single bed, desk, lounge chair, air conditioner, ceiling fan and plenty of hot water. The lodge needs a lot of repairs and updating, but it has that certain Caribbean charm.

Clyde, gracious to his core, occasionally shifted from his relaxed pace into dance steps of a bygone era as he glided across the floor. He made sure there was a stock of red wine and gin-and-tonics to suit my preferences. He knew I liked fish, so generous tasty portions were presented at most lunches and dinners. Fresh lobster one night was delicious, as were the shrimp another evening. It was a toss-up who would cook breakfast for me -- Clyde or the friendly receptionist, Julia. There was always fresh star fruit and tiny bananas ("silky figs" is the local term) from their trees, accompanying an omelet and toast. The cook only came to prepare my 7 p.m. dinner.

Manta LodgeBut back to the diving. Japanese Gardens touts two of the second-largest brain corals. Some, so old and large, collapse on one side. This site rivals the beauty of the Coral Gardens in carpet-like coverage of corals and sponges. There were two enormous - about eight feet -- coral branching "trees," and schools of dozens of Creole wrasse with their dark purple heads, shading to yellow, then red toward the lower body and tail. Bicolor damselfish outnumbered the other smaller fish, with brown chromis a close second. Looking closely, I spotted several lettuce leaf slugs. We then headed to Kamikaze, a cut between two large boulders, where the current usually rocks. No current, so we leisurely explored the soft yellow corals in a way seldom possible. Martin, my dive guide, said he had not seen it this calm in 10 years. At Cathedral, we slowly finger-walked in the sand, and viewed the skittish and rare giraffe garden eels, with their yellowish bodies and black spots.

On my first day, I was the only diver. On the other days, Martin and I were accompanied by divers from Trinidad, Rick, their dive instructor who Sean had trained, and an experienced diver from England. Tobago, by the way, is a throwback in time, so time is flexible. Yes, my divemaster arrived at 8:30 a.m. as promised, but we had to wait -- and wait -- for the others. Tanks and gear are loaded in a pickup truck for the five-minute ride to the dock. Captain Stilton, who has been with this organization from boyhood, takes great pride in keeping the new dive boat in excellent condition. Oddly, the crew does not deem the ladder safe for divers because it's within inches of the two 140-hp engines. So I exited the water by handing up weights and BC, then had to launch myself into the boat by sheer power, or wait for the sure arm-grasp assist by Silton. Awkward, yes, but getting into the boat was easy and painless.

September often brings slack current to Tobago, which opens areas sometimes impossible to dive because of high waves and unmanageable current. From a hill outside the sleepy town of Charlotte on the island's north end, I gazed at the famous trio of dive sites, Sisters, London Bridge and Giles. Diving there did not happen -- four experienced divers were needed for the trip. I was disappointed, but still had 10 great dives in the Speyside area.

There was only a hint of current at Bookends rather than the common ripping rides. I spotted a few elusive cherub fish, along with a flameback angelfish. Deeper, the strawberry vase sponges were spectacular against a backdrop of sea plumes and yellow tube sponges. Dropping down into a protected "amphitheater," I saw large lobsters that didn't bother to hide. Overhead, silvery tarpon schooled.

One advantage of being a skilled diver with no newbies around is that you may get to dive the serious sites, which I did for two days with Sean. (I want to say here that I did not confess to my Undercurrent mission or try to curry favors, but I've learned that when one scoots off to remote sites lacking PADI Five-Star dive stores coaxing in people to breathe through a regulator at the bottom of a pool, you can find some private dives.) Back-rolling with negative buoyancy at Black Forest, I swooped over a huge area of up to 12-foot-tall bushy black coral on the sloping valley wall. At 158 feet down (yes!), I noticed a slight "narced" feeling; at 163 feet, we began gradually ascending. We stayed deep but never below three minutes to decompression time. The evening before, Sean and I had discussed the importance of knowing one's at-depth air consumption, nitrogen consumption and the relationship to decompression, so this was simply an enjoyable challenge.

At Flying Manta, I was forewarned to stay close to the wall to avoid a current that could suck a diver into the "washing machine" and spit him out at 140 feet. But there the current was less than half a knot, if that, and waves topside were but a foot. Nearly a dozen scorpionfish, secretary blennies and a juvenile burrfish the size and shape of a little fingernail were memorable. These waters have an abundance of nutrients, making them a breeding mecca. At times there were thousands of fry no larger than rice grains, and so many that it could be disorienting. Shimmering water caused by mixed currents affected visibility at times on many dives. The visibility was a cloudy greenish for the first six feet, due to the flow of the Orinoco, the largest river in Venezuela. Below that layer, where it became warmer, the visibility was clearest within 30 feet, but seeable to 80 feet. Further out, around Little Tobago, it was a clear 80-plus feet.

Sean and Clyde RobertsonThe pristine reefs around Goat Island and Little Tobago were most impressive, as were the high density coverage and large variety of colorful hard and soft corals. I have never found diving elsewhere in the Caribbean that can favorably compare. Tropical fish were plentiful: schooling Creole wrasse, bicolor damselfish, harlequin bass, doctorfish, stoplight and princess parrotfish, yellowtail damselfish, trumpetfish, scorpionfish, yellowhead wrasse, black durgon and what seemed like the entire puffer family. Red bearded fireworms up to 12 inches long crept along on most sites. I saw the occasional flamingo tongue and fingerprint cyphoma, while large nurse sharks roamed or rested at many sites, but I only saw one black-tip shark. It was off-season for mantas.

Wanting to get a feel for Tobago's Caribbean diving, I went to the southern end to stay at the relatively upscale Turtle Beach Resort. My room had TV and internet, and it faced the ocean, large circular pool, Jacuzzi and swimup bar. There were about 40 other guests, mostly British. The reasonable allinclusive rate included buffet meals -- plentiful but nothing to brag about -- and drinks, even alcoholic ones. Dress for dinner? Well, hard to pull off for funky divers, but "smart-casual" meant long pants and collared shirts for the men, and tropical-weight dresses were the choice for most women. Local musicians often played. While the hotel has a friendly dive shop, I elected to continue my diving with Sean's World of Watersports.

Tooley, my dive guide, picked me up in his truck and drove 15 minutes to the dive shop at the fancy Magdalena Resort. The park-like drive into the resort was enhanced by Tooley stopping to point out at least a dozen unique birds. After picking up Marvin (who would serve as captain), tanks and gear, another 15 minutes brought us to Pigeon Point and its 38-foot fiberglass boat (a little elbow grease would do wonders to spiff up this craft) with tank holders in the center, and friendly to handicapped divers with a drop-down side entry. From there, it was only several minutes to our dive sites. I was the only diver. Snacks of cookies and crackers were available during surface intervals, as was bottled water, same as at Speyside.

Manta Lodge / World of Watersports, TobagoFor the first dive on this side, we moored onto the MV Maverick, which rests at 100 feet (other dives were around 60 feet). It was the only place we encountered much current, so I grasped a rope Marvin dangled from the boat and he pulled me onto the bow for descent. As we slowly finned its three decks, I wondered whether this intentionally-sunk ferry was worth the effort. But then ascending from the dark bottom deck into light, it looked as if someone had decorated the railings for the holidays with white blossoms of hydroids and corals. Cobias swam by, as did queen angels; schooling jacks were in the distance. Returning to the boat, I removed my weights and tank, then entered the boat on my belly, with Marvin's hefty assist.

The large rocks of the nearby Mount Irvine Wall formed narrow swim-through canyons. The area had so much to see that sometimes I didn't know where to focus. After I saw the queen and French angel juveniles and a spotted drum, I knew it would be a good dive. Tooley and I took a very slow pace. Inside one crevice, we watched a black mantis first stick his head around a rock; patience won out as he eventually emerged. A green moray resided deeper in the crevice, and a spiny spotted lobster peered out from nearby. A rock beauty added nice contrast to the splotched brownish oyster toadfish. We watched two small crab in a mating mode, with one of them, presumably the male, rising up and weaving on his legs while he waved his claws. The female responded with some waving of her own. Emerging from the wall canyon, we were met by hundreds of Creole wrasse. After the dive, Marvin dropped me off at Turtle Beach Resort and transported my gear to the shop, where they washed and stored it for the next day.

At the Extension, a three-foot Spanish mackerel curiously approached. Dozens of silvery boga schooled above. A Caribbean king crab that seemed comparable in size to an Alaskan king crab walked upside down on the ceiling of a reef shelf. In the open, a porcupinefish made a beeline toward me, stopping a foot away to stare. I waited a few minutes to see who was going to move first. I gave in, and the puffer slowly came alongside and swam with me for a few more minutes. Rounding out the special sightings here were juvenile vieja, flame scallops and the golden hamlet, not often reported in this part of the Caribbean.

My last dive in Tobago was a lark. We went to Dutchman's Beach Reef in Mount Irvine Bay. While Marvin scrubbed the barnacles off the boat's bottom, Tooley and I went treasure hunting in the sand near the two protruding canon barrels of a 19th-century warship wreck. Our fanning the sand revealed two old encrusted bottles, lots of ballast and some pieces of unidentifiable metal. I took time around the site to enjoy an octopus in a hole and a female lancer dragonet.

Atlantic-side diving is spectacular, the Caribbean side much less so with regards to corals, sponges and visibility. However, the treasures of fish and critter sightings in Mount Irvine Bay were well worth a few days of exploration. Tobago is forested and tropical; humidity was high, with air temperatures in the mid-80s. According to Sean, the driest time of year with the clearest waters and highest visibility is March through May. This is also the time for some of the strongest currents and mantas, too. I hit it at slack tide so that no dive sites were out of bounds due to current and waves. Tobago is below the hurricane belt, so it's a good autumn alternative to the Caymans, the Bahamas and Belize.

-- J.D.

Manta Lodge / World of Watersports, TobagoDivers Compass: My Tobago package was arranged through Sausan Shalah at Maduro Dive; e-mail her at Sausan@maduro.com . . . My package of 5 nights and 8 dives with Manta Lodge/Tobago Dive Experience, including breakfast and transfers, was $1,056; two extra dives added $90 . . . Dinners ranged from $25 to $50, lunch averaged $12, cocktails $7, beer $2.50, and bottled water $1.50 . . . Three all-inclusive nights at Turtle Beach Resort cost $489, while four dives with World of Watersports was $187 . . . My travel time from St. Louis to Tobago, via Houston and Trinidad, was a little over 12 hours, and returning took 14 hours; it cost me $695 roundtrip . . . Flight time from Trinidad to Tobago is 20 minutes, and flights are frequent; they have their own small waiting area, but there are no facilities past security . . . There is a hyperbaric chamber in Roxborough, 20 minutes from Speyside and 40 minutes from the Crown Point area . . . Websites: Manta Lodge: www.mantalodge.com ; World of Watersports: www.ronalddowlath.com/wow ; Turtle Beach Resort: www.rexresorts.com/tobago.html ; an overall helpful site is www.mytobago.info

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