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Go with the flow in Tobago

All things move toward Tobago, sometimes at a heart-stopping pace, sometimes on the subtle glance of a warm breeze, but once to the island, this magical potpourri of stories, myths, people, cultures, food, flora and fauna becomes part of the ever-moving fabric of this quiet island’s deep soul.
A parader at Tobago’s month-long Heritage Festival Days in the town of Plymouth.
A parader at Tobago’s month-long Heritage Festival Days in the town of Plymouth.Ty Sawyer
/ Source: Sport Diver Magazine

All things move toward Tobago, sometimes at a heart-stopping pace, sometimes on the subtle glance of a warm breeze, but once to the island, this magical potpourri of stories, myths, people, cultures, food, flora and fauna becomes part of the ever-moving fabric of this quiet island’s deep soul.

The flow. It defines Tobago. Sometimes it’s blue, sometimes green; sometimes it rides along the sound waves of bird song, tumbles in a lovely rush over a waterfall or meanders silently on the humid caress of a breeze in the shadows of the deep forest. Everything moves in Tobago, and everything tells a story. If you listen hard, you will hear voices in the wind, in the creak of a tree, the water, the musical sound of the people as they speak and in the screech or hum or songs of birds brought unnaturally together by the flow. Movement has influenced every bit of Tobago, from sea to sand to the deep green folds of the world’s oldest protected park to the food you find in roadside stalls and the people cooking that food. Tobago has become a microcosm, where cultures have merged, united, come, gone and become part of a jumbled whole, fed constantly by wind, by current, by wanderlust.

I’m caught in the blue flow. I’m being carried in the cradle of the deep. Held in the wide arms of Neptune and poured over a seascape writhing with life. I hardly need to move and barely expend any energy except to try to pause against the current. Only then do I realize that I’m moving at a heart-jumping pace. This is the way it is in Tobago. Underwater, we drift, sometimes at a sprint, sometimes in the subtle movements of an eddy. But always conveyed along boundaryless pathways. It’s almost as if, when you dare lean over the gunwale of the boat to peer through the surface, the sea reaches into the boat, embraces you and takes you on a tour beneath the looking glass. Past giants of the deep. Massive, current-twisted sponges. And more than 300 species of coral, fed and fattened by the rush of nutrients brought all the way from South America, from the outflow of the Orinoco River, and picked up by the Guyana Current, which dashes around the island of Tobago like a massive, moving buffet. And of course, the reefs teem with marine life.

Seascape In Motion
On a dive at Black Jack Hole, off the sleepy village of Speyside, glassy sweepers form halos over the seascape. Fairy basslets and endless streams of Creole wrasse add royal touches of purple and gold. Bulky green morays peer out from their lairs. Stingrays and yellow-headed jawfish hide in the sand patches, and in every nook, cranny and shadow there seems to be a struggle for power and real estate. It’s like rushing past a circus on the express train with your face pressed against the window.

This exhilarating, vibrantly colored abundance is just part of the daily special off the north coast of Tobago, a small 73-square-mile island at the southern end of the eastern Caribbean. Five minutes out of the Speyside Harbor, off Goat Island (which has a house once owned by Ian Fleming, who dreamed up James Bond) and Little Tobago Island, you’ll find versions of this speed-pumped world repeated almost everywhere you could fall off a dive boat, and certainly at the 40 named sites, which should kick-start your underwater love affair with Speyside. And there’s a giant among giants at Kelliston Drain, a site that starts where Black Jack Hole ends. Here, an entire undersea universe has grown around the world’s largest known brain coral, the size of a minivan. I circled this spectacle several times trying to understand its size and put it in perspective, but it’s something that must be experienced. And the rush of abundance doesn’t stop at the reef. Manta rays are common off Speyside, especially in December and January, and they seem to have a special affinity for divers. And sea turtles like it better here than the East Australian Current of Nemo fame.

For even more of a rush, we slip around the northeast tip of the island for what a divemaster called “ground zero for adventure-fueled diving.” Here, the flow includes adrenaline, as the Wild West of the Atlantic and the laid-back bliss of the Caribbean Sea meet in a swirling brew off the rocky, uninhabited St. Giles Islands. And it all comes together for a dance of abandon at a site called London Bridge. Beneath the massive rock arch that defines this site, I see tarpon prowling the edges of the white water; wonderfully rich aggregations of marine life, including French, queen and gray angelfish and schools of chromis; snappers that make electric and hungry lunges into clouds of silversides; and corpulent groupers lined up at cleaning stations. The motion of life here, like most of Tobago diving, revels in the cliché: Expect the unexpected. Especially in size, shape and color. Super-sized barracuda, barrel sponges big enough to hide in, small mountains of brain corals and enough vibrant orange elephant ear sponges to make the site seem radioactive.

After all that flurry and buzz, the flow changes instantly when I surface. Air, warm and humid, although much less dense, seems to bring all movement to a terrificly slow amble. A breeze that probably roused to life across the Atlantic swirls around in soft caresses. I can feel the rush of life undersea drip off, and I swear I can feel the hands of my watch begin to slow, trapped in a pace of life above water that lingers in the past. It’s almost as if I’ve been ripped from a thrill ride and put on a surrey to contemplate a life of tropical ease. As the boat returns to the dock, I can see crescents of golden sand framed by palms. In calm bays, small Old Man and the Sea fishing boats lull on the gentle swell. Hillsides conceal small villages. Each curve of the land looks as if it was stolen from images of the Caribbean of 30 years ago. Here, authentic Tobagan culture thrives, a deeply rooted African heritage of storytelling, drums and dancing. But for now, seabirds soar overhead on breezes that flow opposing the Guyana Current. Even while I can still feel the tug of the moving water on my feet and legs, I watch as a young osprey hovers overhead. Cocking its head to look down at me as I ascend the dive ladder into the boat, it banks off toward a more profitable hunting area. The ospreys, along with nearly 100 other bird species, ride the warm airways south each winter from North America to the sultry forests of Tobago.

I leave Speyside and take the windward road south toward Roxborough, where the flow of humanity on the road equals exactly me for several miles. On the way, I stop at one of the dozens of roadside food markets found throughout the island. The market has a small fridge with cold drinks, a rack of chips and cookies, a few essentials and a great view of Little Tobago Island. Dance music surges in and out from a radio hidden in the shade of a back room.

“Where are you from?” asks one of the two girls working here.

“Orlando. In Florida,” I reply then watch as a shimmery hummingbird flits in the front door, realizes all the bright colors aren’t flowers, then zips off.

“You here to look at birds?”

“I’m here to see the birds, the fish, the forest, everything.”

They look at each other, speak in a Creole I don’t understand, giggle, then tell me, “Well, you must go see Papa Bois, in the mountains.” I bite, of course, so they tell me about Papa Bois, the father of the forest. They both assure me they’ve even seen this cloven protector of the Tobago Forest Preserve, and they tell me if I want to see him, I should take the main ridge road through the center of the island and wander down one of the many trails through the forest.

Bonjour Papa
“Just don’t look at his feet,” they warn me. “And always greet him respectfully with bonjour, vieux Papa.” And they tell me, “He protects the trees,” so if I damage one, they emphasize, “he’ll be really peeved.”

So, I take my salt and vinegar chips, water and Ginseng-Up energy soda and head into the Western Hemisphere’s oldest forest preserve to find the mythical, cloven-hoofed Papa Bois. And just like that, Tobago has revealed an adventure. I stop at the Gilpin Trace, a trail that winds down the mountain to the leeward side of the island, ending up at the intriguingly named Bloody Bay.

The air in the rainforest hangs thick and heavy with oxygen, green piled upon green. In 1776, forward-thinking settlers set aside this rainforest on the map with the words “Reserved for wood and rains,” so the island would always have fresh water. The trail parallels a small stream that flows to the sea, the only real movement I notice at first. The stillness and heavy shadow of the forest floor, though, belie a world of motion. Almost all of Tobago’s 400 species of birds and 600 species of butterfly flit, dash, flutter and buzz through the trees. Pretty soon, I’ve slowed down to a mosey and begin to notice as hummingbirds whir in and out of view. In a short span of time, I see rufous-breasted hermits, luminous white-tailed sabrewings and a red-legged honeycreeper, and I even catch a glimpse of a rufous-vented chachalaca, which is just plain fun to say out loud, so I do, in the middle of the forest, alone, amusing myself until I spot the wildly colored collared trogon, which simply takes my breath away. Then it takes flight and is gone. In its place a piece of colored air, a butterfly, circles in a shaft of sunlight, then silently slips away. For a moment everything stills. I say, “Please come out, Papa. Bonjour, vieux Papa. Papa Bois, will you show me your forest?”

I hear the snapping of a twig, then nothing more.

Gang Gang Sara

Soon I’m on the leeward coast, looking over the lovely crescent beach of Bloody Bay. Its sand feels like a cushion underfoot, and I’m the only traveler leaving footprints on the beach. Back in the car, I follow the only road I can down the leeward coast in search of more legends to bend my path and send me off on accidental adventures pushed and prodded by the flow of this moment of my life. I pass Englishman’s Bay, a perfect palm-shaded escape, which hosts a mere handful of beachgoers, and Castara with its fishing boats at the ready for the next morning’s sea venture. Finally, having passed one too many roti stands, I can take it no more and pull over for one of my favorite Caribbean foods. The roti stand is barely bigger than a half-room shack. A large woman fills the interior. The sweet, tangy aroma of curry dances on the breeze. I order a chicken roti, which includes curried meat, peas, potatoes and sauce wrapped in a soft flatbread. There’s no better food on Tobago, or in most of the Caribbean. It’s a true culinary amalgam with roots that reach as far as Africa, India and South America. To eat roti in Tobago is to taste its past and present. I watch the woman cook it fresh. As we chat, she laughs at my attempted rendezvous with Papa Bois and tells me that the story came from Africa to scare children and found a home in the dark woods of fertile island imaginations. Then she tells me that the greatest legend on the island is a true story, the story of Gang Gang Sara, the African witch of Golden Lane. She tells me that Papa Bois is “smoke.” I reply that I’d heard a twig snap when I called for him. She asked how much rum I’d “been taking.”

Gang Gang Sara got caught up in the Tobago flow all the way in Africa, as well, it seems. She got scooped up by a mighty tempest, carried across the ocean and deposited in the hillside village of Les Coteaux, which hasn’t changed that much since her arrival in the 18th century. She met a man named Tom, married him and worked on a nearby plantation. She retained the ability to fly, the story goes, until she ate salt. When her Tom died, she was so heartbroken she climbed to the top of a silk tree to fly back home to Africa, unaware her wings had been clipped by excess salt intake, so she fell to the ground and died. People say she can be seen in trees late at night, trying to fly back to her native land.

When I arrive in Les Coteaux, I feel as if I am the first traveler to see it in decades, but everyone is happy to tell me their versions of the story and give me wrong directions to the gravestones in Golden Lane. After many inquiries and my own imaginative interpretations of the local dialect, which I can barely understand, I eventually find Golden Lane and the two headstones marked Tom and Sara completely by accident. I’ve been touched by the magic of the islands’ whimsical movements and given an unexpected journey into the heart of Tobago.

Flying Reef
Early the next morning, I make my way to Crown Point on the southwest tip of the island. The world’s introduction to Tobago’s unique character begins at the international airport here. But more importantly, the island’s undersea thrill ride starts here, within sight of the airport at a site called, appropriately, Flying Reef.  As in most descents off Tobago, the Guyana Current grabs you in its nurturing arms, and the guided tour begins immediately. All you do is sit back and watch the wide world of fins and gills show. And at Flying Reef, the parade includes crowds of schooling fish. They flow through the water column like colored leaves on a windy fall day. Wide rivers of Creole wrasse wrap and wind over the reef as far as you can see, and sleek southern sennets pour over the seascape like a storm of arrow-shaped sequins. As I drift over the reef, blue chromis part and circle as I pass. With such numbers of fish, it’s easy to imagine that this could be the nexus point for the entire Caribbean population.

Farther up the leeward coast, the boat passes dozens of bays and coves, each of which was probably favored by a pirate as a hideout during the 17th century when the black flag ruled the island. I imagine treasure hidden in the shade of the dense jungle that crowds the sandy shoreline at each of the redoubts. But the real hidden bounty along this coast comes small and strange. At Englishman’s Bay, the current quiets and macro life appears in abundance. Go slow. I barely explore 50 feet of reef here, but find a profusion of banded coral shrimp, lizardfish, Pederson and spotted cleaner shrimp, squat anemone shrimp, juvenile filefish, rough file clams and delicate purple tunicates. And a wondrous collection of nudibranchs. I’ve never seen a tasseled nudibranch until now, but find two. A grape-cluster nudibranch roams a patch of hydroids; a gold-line sea goddess prowls a sponge; and a blue-tinged lettuce leaf slug meanders over an algae-covered rock.

Dozens of Lilliputian communities dominate life among the rope sponges, encrusting the corals and gorgonians of Scotch Rocks, Castara and other coastal sites.

Between dives, I get lost, but I’m probably charmed by the same spell that has brought sailors, immigrants from around the globe, man, bird and myth. Over and over again, I look for a waterfall and find an old fort. I look for a fishing village and find a famous water wheel. After a while, I just fall into the expect-the-unexpected groove above the water like I do beneath, and suddenly it doesn’t matter because everywhere I go, one of the friendly locals is willing to tell me about some other place I should see. After a while I just think of it as Tobago’s great circle of adventure. That once you drift, fly, sail, wander or wake up in this enchanted isle, you become absorbed as one excursion simply leads to the next journey. And that’s how I find the parade.

I wander into the town of Plymouth quite by accident. I am searching for Highland Falls and have made several wrong turns. And as they say, adventure happens when things go wrong. The streets of Plymouth are full of adventure on this day. For the entire week of my stay, I’d seen signs for Tobago’s month-long Heritage Days celebration.

So, I asked around.

“They’re in a different place each night,” I was told.


“Oh, here and there. Here and there. You never know. I think they tell on the radio.”

So, I have listened all week. Nothing. Then I take a wrong turn.

And before me, the main street of Plymouth ripples. Scores of people wander up and down, carried by waves of sound full of deep bass that I can feel in my feet. Rum flows from bottles over ice, old men dance, women and girls dance, children dance. Impromptu roti stalls, other food stalls and ice cream stalls crowd each corner. And then, announced by steel drums and African drums and timpani, comes a river of Carnival-clad revelers in colors, textures and visions that showcase the deep cultural mix that swirls through the blood of Tobago’s people. Mocko-jumbies, feather-clad Indians, costumed locals of every hue and costumes that defy logic. I get caught up and carried along, following the course of the parade through the high street, past the mysterious 1783 tombstone of Betty Stiven. It reads: She was a mother without knowing it and a wife without letting her husband know it except by her kind indulgences to him. I ponder the line that has mystified far more intelligent people than I, then I get drawn back into the river of people.

The entire flux pours into the parade grounds of Fort James, built in 1768 by the British to protect nearby Great Courland Bay. Each of the costumed groups gets on stage to act out the meaning of their costumes.

The entire town and much of the island crowd the fort, and the party lasts well into the star-filled night, until the coolest breeze of early morning sends people indoors. And offshore the great Guyana Current continues on its path without fanfare, feeding the legions of critters on reefs so thick with marine life that the experience of diving them is spoken of with reverence in dive shops and bragged about among the blue-savvy travelers.

At the far end of the eastern sweep of the Caribbean, all things flow toward Tobago. From winds born in Africa to food first tasted in the kitchens of India, from water whose life began in the impenetrable jungles of Venezuela to birds that encompass the globe. Tobago sits in its happy position as a global cultural crossroads, and at the same time it’s an edge-of-the-earth nature-lover’s nirvana that remains largely undiscovered, uncrowded and lost in the fold of time.