Tobago, Where the Atlantic Meets the Caribbean

Tobago beach scene
beautiful Tobago beach

Sitting just roughly 100 miles off the coast of Venezuela is the 116 square mile island of Tobago, along with her big sister, Trinidad, sitting just 22 miles away. Many people may be familiar with Trinidad, famous for her spectacular Carnival celebration in late winter (the largest in the Caribbean), but fewer are familiar with her little sister, Tobago. For the sake of comparison, Trinidad is about the size of the US state of Delaware, while Tobago is only about 6% of the size of Trinidad and with only 4.5% of the population of Trinidad (2011 census). Tobago is popular with scuba divers and birders alike. Not too many Caribbean destinations can say that. There are a few unique characteristics attributed to Tobago, which explains why both birders and divers enjoy visiting.

Tobago Main Ridge

On land, Tobago claims home to one of the oldest protected rainforests in the world, the Main Ridge Forest Reserve. It was declared a Crown Reserve in 1776, making it the oldest legally protected forest reserve on record established specifically for a conservation purpose. The tropical rainforest Main Ridge runs along two-thirds the width of the island (that’s 18 miles of the islands’ 25 mile length) and overall encompasses approximately 9700 acres (13%) of the islands overall area.

Gilpin Trace
Tobago rainforest

Though this island is not situated directly in the main hurricane belt, it has been occasionally hit by serious hurricanes. In 1963, Hurricane Flora hit Tobago, affecting some of the old growth and tallest trees in the Reserve, yet today still impressively large and tall trees exist. The Main Ridge Forest Reserve is home to many diverse species of mammals, reptiles, snakes, and over 200 species of birds. Six species of hummingbirds regularly breed on Tobago, and one species, the white-tailed sabrewing is being carefully studied on Tobago after it was believed to have been extirpated after Hurricane Flora in 1963 but then rediscovered in 1974 on the island. Serious birders come here to add these numerous bird species to their “collection lists”.

white-tailed sabrewing
white-tailed sabrewing hummingbird

Out in the ocean, on the northeast tip of Tobago is where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea. We hiked up Flagstaff Hill Road from Charlotteville to view this spectacular overlook out to St Giles/ Melville Islands and London Bridge (Rock), depicting the division of the Atlantic to the east and the Caribbean to the west, though to look out it all blends seamlessly as one body water.

Believe it or not, this hike up Flagstaff Hill was ENTIRELY uphill starting from Charlotteville for 2.2 miles to the park at the end of the road. This might not sound too bad, but consider it’s a tropical jungle, and some parts of the road are at a 25% grade!  According to my Garmin, we hiked uphill for almost 1200 ft.  Mind you, this was a paved road (albeit in very poor condition) that we could have driven up (we had a rental car), but then where’s the adventure in that?! Then on the hike back, we had the joy of running downhill to Charlotteville!  

The Orinoco River flows from Venezuela out to the Atlantic Ocean, and then currents carry these waters around Tobago (as well as Trinidad), bringing along nutrients that feed the ocean life. These nutrients support healthy populations of reef fishes and an abundant population of giant clam sponges as well as purportedly the largest brain coral in the Western Hemisphere, coming in at about 10 feet by 15 feet all around! Check out our divemaster next to this giant brain coral!

divemaster next to giant brain coral
largest brain coral in the western hemisphere

We stayed in the town of Speyside on the northern-eastern Atlantic coast and dived from here. While diving also occurs on the Caribbean side of the island, the diving from Speyside is considered to be the island’s leading scuba diving destination. The view of Batteaux Bay is beautiful, looking out to Goat Island and Little Tobago, where the dive sites are primarily located and only a short boat trip from the resort.

We never lacked for reef life to watch. It seemed like no matter what dive site we were at, the water was literally teeming with little fry-fish all over. Honestly, I have never seen so many fry-fish at a destination! I am hopeful that this is a very good sign of reef health. In this picture, fry-fish literally envelop a Spotted drum.

spotted drum surrounded by fry fish

We observed plenty of reef fishes all about, including many Whitespotted filefish, often in pairs. This is likely a mated pair; see how each partner displays a different color phase- one orange phase and the other spotted.  

whitespotted filefish orange and white phases

Schools of Creole wrasse, Brown Chromis (left), Grunts(right) and Damselfish:

Gray, French, and Queen angelfish and Rock beauties. Even juvenile/ intermediate stages of French and Queen angelfish and Rock Beauties!  Note how the juveniles can be much more striking in appearance than the adults in some species.  

aptly named trumpetfish

So many Honeycomb cowfish in varying shades of turquoise, blue, and even this strange white one.  I’ve never seen a white one before; I’m not sure how to explain this color variant. 

Lots of Scorpionfish – venomous and evil looking, this is a well- camouflaged ambush hunter, lying in wait to strike its victim.

spotted scorpionfish

 And we always love seeing the adorable Porcupinefish which seems to be smiling at you.


Smooth trunkfish that seem to be grazing all the time and any which way- sideways, upside down or right side up. 

Banded, Fourspot, Spotfin and Reef butterflyfish with an occasional Longsnout butterflyfish.

And one of my favorite fish to see is the Balloonfish, with these beautiful iridescent eyes.


We also saw several Hawksbill turtles cruising through, a couple of sleeping Nurse sharks, tarpon, and plenty of Caribbean reef lobsters.  

And of course morays- some very large Green morays and several Spotted morays.

One of our most exciting sightings was this large school of Southern sennet (in the barracuda family). This was at a dive site where it seemed the currents were converging and swirling all around us. It was clear that the barracuda had come in for feeding time.   

school of southern sennets

This is one of those families of reef fish that in my diving life, I have noticed a dramatic decline in their abundance, which is why I was so thrilled to see this school. It seems anymore, we only see them, (including Great barracudas) infrequently. I reflect on the first time I saw a school of barracuda, it was around 1986 and I was diving in the Florida Keys. The school swam right up to me, or so it seemed at the time, and as a fairly new diver, I was pretty scared looking at those teeth! Little did I know at the time that would become a cherished memory. I haven’t returned to dive the Keys in a very long time; I can’t imagine there are schools of barracuda seen very often anymore. But if you’ve seen them there, I’d love to hear about it!

It was wonderful to see the healthy reef teeming with life on Tobago’s Atlantic side, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was hoping to see more large pelagics. After all, that’s why we dive in current areas. We did spot a large Southern stingray over a sandy area from a distance on one of our dives. But I was a bit disappointed by not seeing even a single Spotted Eagle ray or Manta ray, like the divers from decades ago used to boast about. Maybe it was a matter of not being in the right spot at the right time, or maybe it is a sign of the times in our oceans.

Have you dived Tobago? Leave a comment and tell us what you saw! What time of year were you there, and were you diving the Atlantic side or the Caribbean side? I’d love to hear your stories!  

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