THE TWIN-ISLAND REPUBLIC of Trinidad & Tobago is as far south as you can get in the Caribbean.
It lies just off the coast of Venezuela, closer to South America than any of its Caribbean neighbours.
Although the two islands are linked politically, economically and geographically, they could hardly be more different. Trinidad is an industrial and commercial hub, sustained predominantly by the oil and gas industry, with a multi-ethnic population of 1.3 million.
The smaller Tobago, some 50 miles north-east, is a laid-back, rainforest-covered, volcanic island, with a population of only 170,000.
Under water, there is a similar contrast. Trinidad suffers from low salinity and excessive silting because of its proximity to the Orinoco river. Coral cannot grow in such conditions, and diving is limited to the northern tip.
Tobago, on the other hand, is fed by the nutrient-rich Guyana current from the south, which supports considerable underwater diversity.
This tiny island promised a lot both above and below the water, and I had just a week to explore it.
Flying into Tobago can be relatively painless – or it can be a little more complicated. At the time of writing Monarch had a direct flight twice a week. Other airlines such as BA and Virgin have more regular schedules that involve stops in Trinidad and in some cases other Caribbean islands.
I flew in via Trinidad and the transfer and short hop were not too onerous. Landing in Tobago as the sun was setting, we looked down on the hotels, green golf courses and long white sandy beaches that dominate the southern half of the island.
In the distance I could see the sharp pinnacles of the jungle-covered main ridge in the north-east that forms the island’s spine. Pigeon Peak, the highest point, is only 550m above sea level but it’s still impressive.
The journey from the airport to Speyside, my first destination on this whistlestop tour, was fascinating. We drove along the eastern coast from the capital Scarborough, the darkness punctuated every few miles by tiny villages and the aromas from roadside restaurants and bars.
It’s a small island but the winding “Windward Road” meant that the journey took about 90 minutes.
Suddenly we were there at a pretty hotel, waves lapping up on the beach and the sounds of the jungle in the background. Get me into the water!
In the morning I noted the view – a large bay, a couple of smaller islands offshore, a few little hotels, and some beachside restaurants.
We drove the short distance to the jetty, jumped onto the dive-boat and motored out towards Goat Island.

THE DIVE BRIEF ON THE WAY wasn’t exactly vague but it was non-committal. Big sponges, gorgonians, pelagics and plenty of action were guaranteed, but there was also that element of what we “might” see. I know marine animals don’t read the script, but the emphasis was definitely on uncertainty. Exciting!
We cruised past Goat Island, dominated by the beautifully located but rather dilapidated house once owned by Bond writer Ian Fleming, and on towards the southern end of Little Tobago Island. I was aware that Tobago is known for strong currents, but I love drift-diving.
Our host Sean Robinson, who has been running diving operations in Tobago for longer than most, advised: “If you feel the current, put up your safety sausage or you’ll end up in Africa.”
On that encouraging note, we did a quick pre-dive safety check and fell backwards into the water.
Sean’s sense of direction might have been slightly awry, but his sentiment wasn’t misplaced. We were immediately whisked away on a ride worthy of any theme park, but one on which the scenery was far more impressive. The water was strangely green (it changed the next day), but the marine life was spectacular.
The site was called Black Jack Hole, so I was not surprised to see significant numbers of that species in residence. As the undulating ridges sped past, I was struck by the density of marine life.
Crayfish and morays peered from every crevice. Barrel sponges of breath-taking size and quantity drew near and receded.
I counted at least four species of angelfish (there are six in Tobago) as well as nurse sharks, rays and a plethora of other species.
Over the next couple of days Speyside grew better and better. Green turtles were commonplace, but we also saw a leatherback on two occasions.
At the top of the island, the nutrient-rich Guyana current mixes with the North Atlantic Equatorial to create ideal conditions for mantas, and the rays are frequent visitors to the area.
Bookends, a few miles south, consists of two pinnacles. Diving between them provides a grand entrance to a dive that ends in a natural amphitheatre – a fish-bowl – where many species seem to congregate. Grand Canyon, Cathedral and Batteaux Bay are all Speyside sites worthy of mention, but deserving special recognition is Japanese Gardens.
I was fortunate to dive this twice. During the day it was good, but at night it was incredible.
The dive starts off as a gentle drift among beautiful coral formations. Huge morays swim freely at night, hunting among the rocks, accompanied by octopus, squid and other night predators.
Spiny and slipper lobsters give themselves away, their eyes reflecting in the torchlight. At the end of the dive you lose the shelter provided by the island and the current picks up again.
This is a good time to end the night dive, but during the day you can just carry on and continue into Kamikaze Cut, another adventure for thrill-seekers.

SPEYSIDE DOES HAVE SOME less hair-raising dive-sites. On shallower dives there is an abundant macro “stew” that is a delight. At the Aquarium, closer to the beach, yellow-headed jawfish can be found in great numbers, dancing around their holes in the sand with impunity.
Other species well worth looking out for are the flameback angelfish and the giraffe garden eel, which is indigenous to Tobago and Brazil.
After a couple of days it was time to move on. We travelled anti-clockwise around the island, heading towards the Caribbean side. At the northern tip are the London Bridge and St Giles Island dive-sites.
The former is a natural arch, hence the name, which creates a narrow passageway through the rock down to the seabed 30m below. It’s a great dive, but conditions need to be right.

THE SAME IS TRUE OF THE OTHER SITES on this northern coast. St Giles bears the full brunt of the Atlantic surge (we could feel it at 20m down at London Bridge) and diving it is not always possible.
Moving further round we arrived at Charlotteville, a quiet fishing village with sandy beaches and a population of a few hundred people. This area has to be on the to-do list for divers in Tobago, mainly because of the Sisters, a group of five pinnacles that protrude from the surface a few miles south of the village.
Pretty unspectacular on the surface, beneath it the pinnacles present a series of peaks and canyons rich in marine life.
For some reason the site is also said to be habitually visited by scalloped and great hammerheads. There are still plenty of amazing sponges there, but the eco-system is slightly different, with an increase in soft and whip corals and a change in the density of some fish species.
As we headed south down the western coastline, the diving changed again. The increase in human settlement inevitably impacts on the marine environment. There were fewer fish and sponges and more silt, but still some very good diving.
Just south of Plymouth is one of Tobago’s two wreck-sites, the mv Maverick. Lying in 33m this was an 85m car ferry deliberately sunk in 1997 in an area that would otherwise be a pretty barren stretch of coastline.
I wasn’t expecting much, but did I get a surprise! Growth on the wreck is substantial, particularly of soft corals, their brilliant white feeding polyps coating it like a blanket of snow.
Hard corals are also starting to compete for space and fish have populated much of the Maverick. Pairs of French angelfish cruise the sides while the stern area of the car deck is frequented by large, shark-like cobia as they hunt the shoals of silversides that hide there.
This is a brilliant wreck dive, especially for the underwater photographer.
Some of the reefs further inshore and towards the south-western corner of the island were less impressive when compared with the drift-diving in the north – more like standard Caribbean diving. Visibility was reduced as well, a reflection of the proximity to Trinidad.

THE REEFS STILL HAD a lot of life, however, and the potential to find critters made macro photography a possibility. Keep your eyes peeled for short-nosed batfish on dives around Mount Irvine.
As you round the southern tip of the island, things start to change again. Divers’ Thirst in particular is worth a visit, with the potential to see eagle rays and blacktip sharks and thousands of barrel sponges. The increase in pelagics and sponges coincides with the return of the currents.
The southern tip is also the location of the remains of the ss Kioto, a British merchantman sunk in 1942 by the U-boat U514, as well as Cove Ledge, where once again the prevailing current sets the scene and everything changes.
Tobago is all about change and contrast. You don’t get the regular serving of coral reefs dive after dive that you do in some Caribbean islands; in fact you rarely know what you’re going to get.
The island is diverse above and below the surface, with a vibrant culture and wonderful history. Exciting and unpredictable, it challenges expectations of divers who think they know it all.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE Monarch Airlines flies direct to Tobago twice weekly, and BA and Virgin fly there indirectly.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION On Speyside David Jones stayed at Manta Lodge, diving with Tobago Dive Experience. Charlotteville offers mainly cottages and apartments and Shark Shacks offers accommodation and dive packages. In the south towards Crown Point he dived with Underwater Tobago, and on the Atlantic side of the southern tip he stayed at the Magdelena Grand and dived with Tobago Dive Experience.
WEATHER Tobago is theoretically outside of the hurricane belt, so year-round.
CURRENCY Trinidad & Tobago dollars (TTD).
PRICES Oonasdivers offers seven nights at Blue Waters Inn on Speyside for £1365pp or at the Toucan Inn at Pigeon Point on the other side of the island for £1010, including flights, transfers, B&B accommodation (two sharing) and five days’ diving. A split tour would cost around £1190 pp, www.oonasdivers.com
VISITOR INFORMATION www.gotrinidadandtobago.com