Sunday, November 21, 2010

Tobago Cays

November 19th - 21st

our dinghy and a long sandy beachTobago Cays, so much here I don’t know where to begin. The Cays (pronounced Keys) have lived up to their reputation and then some. We’ve spent 3 days here and if it weren’t for running low on water and food we’d stay for many more days. I don’t know if it’s partly because the boys were going through a bout of homesickness before or maybe it was the days languishing in pleasant, but commercial Bequia or is it just the stunning beauty, so accessible and with so much variety? Whatever it is, it took not even a half hour after we picked up our mooring for Austin to declare that this was the best place yet. By far. And he hadn’t gone more than 10 feet from the boat. And it just kept getting better from there.

The Tobago Cays are a small cluster of low islands of volcanic rock, perched on the doorstep to the Atlantic Ocean. They are surrounded by clear, turquoise water, long meandering stretches of white sand and many coral reefs. The Cays are fairly unique in this area as most islands are steep and drop off quickly beneath the sea leaving behind few sandy beaches and many sharp rocky shore lines. The local government has wisely designated this area as a marine park and have imposed strict rules to help preserve the natural beauty. The lack of fishing or harvesting of conch or other shellfish has allowed the reef ecosystem to begin to rebound. There are also many turtles in the area who take advantage of the grasses that grow in the shallow water. These too are protected from harvesting and their primary feeding areas are marked off “safe zones” where boats can’t anchor and only dinghies (at low speed) and snorkelers are allowed.

Obviously a destination like this is highly desirable. However, the Cays have several defenses which help keep it pristine. First, it’s primary natural defense is that they are hard to get too. The passages into the Cays are littered with reefs and shoals just waiting to claim an inattentive skipper. This also means that cruise ships can’t just anchor off and unload hundreds of guests. The second defense is with the regulations keeping a lid on how much and what kind of commercial enterprises are allowed to operate in the park. No business is allowed to keep guests overnight on land (only charter boats can stay overnight). All business operators are licensed and must be local. Beach BBQ’s (a very popular attraction) are highly regulated and can only be performed by a local vendor. I don’t know if this is in the regulations or not but all the vendors, cruising around in their colorful boats, are very friendly, helpful and not at all pushy. Though they are persistent. They’ll show up every day offering fresh bread, t-shirts, fish, lobster, ice or cold beer. And some offer their beach BBQ’s which are definitely worth trying.

The first day there we decide to pick up a mooring. This puts us within swimming distance of the turtle sanctuary and sandy beach. Within minutes Austin and Aidan have put on their snorkeling gear and are checking out the scenery around our boat. Apparently there were all kinds of fish and a couple big schools that swam by. I think I heard the words, “best day ever” more than once. The rest of us get the boat settled and into our swimming gear as quickly as we can. It’s only a quick dinghy ride to the beach, passing no fewer than 3 turtles on the way.
The water, once away from the few turbulent feet right at the beach, was very clear. Swimming in water that was about 10 feet deep we could dive down and coast along with schools of colourful fish or inspect a long lost anchor or peak at the little eyes poking out from the queen conchs. Aidan and Carla swam together and watched Green Turtles glide below feeding on sea grass. Austin had mastered his snorkel by this point and was frequently diving to the bottom gliding right along with the sea creatures. Using a dolphin kick with his hands by his sides, Austin was so gentle that most of the creatures were not frightened when he swam by.

Later in the afternoon Austin and I decided to explore one of the small coral reefs on the other side of the beach. Getting out there was a little more challenging as there was more wave action so we had to swim a bit harder. However, once out there we were well rewarded for our efforts. We swam among boulders of brain coral, watched the large turtles feed 10 feet below us, discovered Caribbean Lobsters in their spy holes under rocks and danced with millions of multi-coloured reef fish as the swells pushed us first one way then pulled us back the other. We all crashed early that night with exhausted smiles.

threatening skies

The next day the weather wasn’t so great. Some rain and overcast skies. The wind had also picked up. Blowing steadily from the North East at 12 - 15 knots (22 - 27 Km/h). Between the wind and the unpleasant weather about 1/2 the boats took off. In the afternoon Austin and I took a trip back to the little island and went exploring. The trail starts at the sandy beach but quickly leaves the sand behind. Most of the trail is on packed dirt and volcanic rock surrounded by small trees, 4 to 10 foot tall cactus and tall grasses. Nearly everywhere we went, there were many trails, we found large iguanas either peering down at us from the branches, guarding a trail or scampering off through the underbrush. We even ran into a tortoise making it’s slow way down the hill.
looking south

We repeated a similar trek on one of the other islands the next morning, this time bringing Carla, Aidan (who wasn’t feeling well the day before) and Aaron. The vegetation on this island was quite different. More types of trees, different types of cactus and a lot more long grass. We also found the place where they host the beach BBQ’s. We’ll have to try that next time for sure.

We also made an obligatory trip over to Petit Tabac, the little island that sits off in the distance where they shot several scenes from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. The trip was challenging. Crossing the channel, we were thoroughly soaked by the time we landed, having threaded our way through reefs between rocks just under the surface. Breaking waves crashing on the rocks that were above the surface was tricky and nerve wracking but we made it in one piece, avoiding swamping our outboard. The island wasn’t all that impressive. The water wasn’t very clear so the snorkeling wasn’t that great (though the reefs were expansive so we may just have not been in the best spot). Aidan and I tried to walk around the island with Aaron but the Atlantic side is covered in sharp broken volcanic rock so we aborted through the small forest (which was think with mosquitos).

Here is a list of things we saw at the reefs over 3 days that we were able to identify.
West Indian Sea Egg
Variegated Urchin
Rock-Boring Urchin
Queen Conch
Southern Stingray (juvenile)
Needle fish
Green Turtle
Caribbean Lobster
Common Octopus
Fairy Basslet
Netted Barren Sponge
Sea Walnut
Many, many, many fish. So many different kinds I don’t know how we’ll ever get good at identifying them

And while hiking on land:

We saw thousands more things that we had no idea what they were other than, “wow, look at that blue fish with the pink stripe and the black spot” or “hey, look at that funny blob of brown with eyes”. Each time we thought it would be easy to look these things up in our reef creatures guide books (with full colour photos) but there are just too many variations on most things. What looked unique to us would often have many variations taking several pages in the book.

We just can’t wait to get back.

More pictures like this here.


  1. Carla, I love your do. You are starting to look like a real island girl! Love, Grampa

  2. Joanie here . . . WooooooW !!! 6:30 am in Moncton after nearly 24 hrs of snow . . . I'm loving this virtual trip I'm sharing wtih you guys !! oxoxoxoxo

  3. You actually saw an octopus?? Wow . . . they are so shy. Where was it? What was it doing? Keep up the great explorations . . . can't wait for you to take me on a giant explore.