The very strange shortnose batfish

CARIBBEAN DIVING CAN BE LIKE A WELL-BEHAVED SCHOOLGIRL - all safe, no surprises. And then there is the Orinoco current. The alco-pop of the Caribbean turns the schoolgirl into a raucous, high-on sugar and spirit-fuelled teenager hell-bent on causing chaos. And I mean chaos that comes with a big smile!
In the way of the Orinoco flow is the island of Tobago, the sort of lush tropical island of which honeymooners dream. Yet below the water is a maelstrom of unpredictable currents that both force-feed the islands corals and give the diving opportunities a kick that few other places can find.
Of course, its not all high-speed drifts and big ocean surges. There are plenty of places with calm, shallow waters that provide relaxing diving with plenty of marine life to find. So I went to discover them both, using a liveaboard run by the Peter Hughes Dancer Fleet.
The itinerary kicks off at Scarborough and winds its way up the Caribbean side of the island before turning and running down the Atlantic side, giving guests an opportunity to sample all that Tobago offers.
We started diving close to the airport at Flying Reef, so named because it is near the islands runway and is often swept by currents. However, it is a shallow dive, designed to test gear, skills and introduce visitors to drift-diving.
Things calmed down after that as the liveaboard moved round into the Caribbean Sea. In Mount Irvine Bay we dived Mount Irvine Wall, an easy, life-filled drop-off with lots to see.
I busied myself searching for flamingo tongues. These are diminutive, delicately coloured crustaceans that I had thought quite rare until, only 10 minutes into the dive, I had already seen 20. They feed on gorgonian seafans and branching corals, damaging them quite badly in some cases.
So I took up another challenge to find a related crustacean - the fingerprint Cyphoma. This has the same shape as the tongue, but its markings are more like a fingerprint. They are much rarer. In 10 minutes I saw only 10. I gave up searching for things after that.

THE MAVERICK IS TOBAGOS MOST DIVED WRECK. It was intentionally sunk in the 90s, hence the macho name. Not even a warship can pull off a name like that - and the Maverick was originally a rather bland inter-island ferry called the Scarlet Ibis. Now thats a ferry name!
Anyway, Maverick is bearing under- water fruit pretty well and is liberally festooned in soft and hard corals.
A huge sponge grows where the captain used to stand, and snapper congregate where deckhands once worked.
At the seabed an octopus resides in a split in the hull, and under the rudder it is possible to find shortnose batfish.
These are possibly the weirdest fish ever to walk on the Earth - and walk is what they do.
Next stop was Bloody Bay, not to be confused with the Caymans version, but the jumping-off point for the exposed Sisters Rocks. There are five altogether, grouped in a two and a three and exposed to the battering winds and currents that wash around this piece of the Caribbean. There are several sites here, none deeper than 30m.
The surface was rough territory and the idea was for negative entries in order to get out of the maelstrom.
The challenging conditions are a signature of Tobago. If the surface conditions arent out to get you, the currents beneath are. From Sisters Rocks the conditions became a whole lot more fun to dive in (and thats Fun with a capital... oh forget it!). The currents come from both the Caribbean and Atlantic, and the two bodies of water get on like drunks in a taxi queue on a Friday night.
The Sisters group is not particularly well visited because of its exposed position, but offers oceanic visibility that takes your breath away.
My first dive on Sisters One was rough on the surface, but there was no current below, only a little surge. The same conditions were felt at a pinnacle known as the Quarry, a sister that only just made the surface. The surge around here was intense, with white water breaking across her constantly.
We rolled off the boat and headed for the seabed. I attained neutral buoyancy just above a beautiful barrel sponge and kicked away towards CNN, the dive master (yes, thats his name).
We circumnavigated the rock, rising from around 30m to view the numerous barrel sponges (with resident cleaner shrimps); disturbed a myriad moray; and gave the pairs of French and queen angelfish something to follow.
Towards the end of the dive I sat in the swell zone watching the waves crash across the surface forming clouds of bubbles. It was spectacular. Then a tank-bang from CNN drew my attention. At first I thought he wanted to get me away from the danger zone, but he had seen a couple of turtles on the back side of the pinnacle to which we were heading. It was a great way to finish a superb dive.
From the Sisters we moved into the rowdy zone around Giles Island, where Atlantic and Caribbean meet. The surface and underwater conditions can be extremely turbulent, but they were both manageable, although the name of the first site, known as Washaroo, does indicate just how bad they get.
Here you find one of Tobagos favourites, London Bridge, a rock archway that breaks the surface. The dive starts over a pleasant reef with the ubiquitous barrel sponges, many of which had resident golden featherstars.
Soon the rocky seabed narrowed as it ran into the archway. Conditions have to be good to swim through the gap, but it is a spectacular scene, especially with the crash of the waves above reverberating through your body.
Speyside is the islands diving metropolis, as bustling as it gets on an idyllic Caribbean island. Here we dived numerous sites, always in current, always exciting. Tarpon Bowl is one of the best. This enclosed indentation is home to a shoal of silversides and their grim reapers - the tarpon. Waves crash over the rocks and the tarpon make full use of the stunning effect by gobbling up as many of the silversides as possible.
Diving at 5m just below the surge is an awesome experience, only for those with outstanding buoyancy control.
The last dive was the best, however.
I dropped into a sheltered bay, sorted myself out and before I knew what was happening the current had picked me up and carried me along the reef slope.
I had to find a gap between two rocks barely wide enough for me to fit through. If I missed it, Id be washed out into the Atlantic and would have to surface immediately. Luckily, I found the gap and finned hard to get through.
The current grabbed me and dragged me - cat-through-a-hedge style - into the canyon and slammed me into a rock in the middle. I saw it coming, but had the choice of belting it with my camera or my elbow.
The audible and involuntary ouch I screamed through my regulator says enough - no way was I going to damage the camera!
I was spat out the other end of the canyon with a huge, beaming smile across my face. It was pure adrenaline fun that no amusement park can deliver. The sort of parachute-jumping, downhill mountain-bike-racing fun that means you have to change your underwear afterwards. The dive couldnt get any better, but it did.

THE CURRENT CEASED AS QUICKLY as it had started and we headed up the coral slope into shallow water. Motley - the dive master - searched around the bases of the soft coral trees that sprouted redwood-style from the sandy seabed, and we all did the same.
I found a couple of lettuce sea slugs, some flamingo tongues and fingerprint Cyphomas. Then, as I photographed my second lettuce, Motley caught my attention and beckoned me over.
He was pointing towards a piece of sponge-covered stick at the base of a large soft coral.
There, hidden almost completely, was a crimson seahorse - the first I had ever seen under water.
For excitement, Tobago kicks all the other Caribbean Islands into touch. It is not a place for newcomers, but for experienced divers looking for a new challenge it will plaster a smile across your face that will take weeks to fade.

Flamingo tongue on a sea fan - theyre not that rare in Tobago.
a hawksbill turtle seen under the hull of the Maverick wreck
a diver photographs the wreck
A rough-headed blenny in fire coral
Moray eels are everywhere.
Diver within London Bridge.


GETTING THERE: BA, Virgin Atlantic and BWIA fly into Trinidad and Tobago. BA has the most convenient timetable from London.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: There are several dive centres in the Speyside area and some in the Scarborough area. The Peter Hughes liveaboard Wind Dancer runs from Scarborough on weekly itineraries,
WHEN TO GO: Diving is available year round but water temperature varies from 3mm shortie in summer to 7mm wetsuit or drysuit in winter.
PRICES: Around £1500 for a weeks liveaboard, including flight.