Diving is probably the best form of therapy there is: it is impossible to be tense when one is floating like a feather, with a fish-eye view of the universe. It makes one long for a pair of gills, a means of staying under forever.
It’s a bright, hot October day: the sky an intense blue, the sea deep green. The 55hp Evinrude engine cuts a foaming white swath through the water as we head out toward the open sea. The diminishing coastline is rugged, untouched: we could be Columbus scrutinising a new find, for all the signs of life we can discern.
Half an hour later, five jagged islets rise abruptly from the sea, frozen in a perpetual swirl of foaming water. The small fishing boat rocks and drifts closer as we don our gear. A final check, an affirmative nod, and then it’s over the side and down, down … into the landscape of a dream.
I am scuba diving off The Sisters, a tight cluster of cactus-covered rocks off the northwest coast of Tobago. My diving partner and guide is Finn Rinds, a wiry Dane who is the man behind Man Friday Diving, operating out of the small fishing village of Charlotteville. We descend – weightless, silent – between the walls of a canyon whose sides glisten orange, green, purple. At about 45 feet we level off; above, the surface of the water is opalescent, like the inside of a shell.
Visibility is poor at this time of year: perhaps thirty feet, instead of the normal hundred and thirty. There is a constant swirl of tiny white coral particles, like the miniature snow- flurries in one of those old fashioned paperweights. The surrounding murkiness – the result of rainy-season effluent from Venezuela’s mighty Orinoco River – is cinematic: it evokes a thirties thriller movie, full of fog and mystery.
We drift along through shoals of tiny silver fish, flecks of mercury in martial formation. A sharp gesture causes them to dart away in panic, still in perfect formation. Nearby, a pair of small barracuda cut easily through the gloom, sharp and shining as knives. The surge and flow of the water through the walls of rock is mesmerizing. We move with it: kick and drift, kick and drift – babes in a coral cradle, sung to sleep by the sea.
Emerging, nearly an hour later, conjures up the ghost of T. S. Eliot:
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls, wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
There is that same sense of dislocation, of waking from a gentle dream to harsh reality: the sun, the glare, the hard wooden boat.
Tobago, Trinidad’s sister isle, boasts some of the best diving to be found anywhere. The island is ringed by coral reefs that play host to an incredible wealth of fish, plant and animal species. Coral itself is a form of animal life, made up of countless tiny, carnivorous polyps that feed on even more microscopic animals called zooplancton, which float freely in the water.
Thanks to the nutrient-rich runoff from the Orinoco delta, Tobago’s waters offer the good life to literally hundreds of aquatic species, everything from giant tarpon to tasty crustaceans. Still largely unspoiled, it is a diver’s paradise of stunning seascapes, photogenic fish and, best of all, unending variety. Underwater cliffs, exotic coral gardens, even tunnels for the adventurous – it’s all there, and chances are no-one else is.
That, essentially, is what attracted Finn Rinds to the island. “Tobago is the place with the fewest dive operations in the Caribbean,” he explains. “The main thing about the diving here is that it’s untouched. It’s almost virgin diving, in some areas.”
Wildford “Redman” Melville, a Tobagonian diver who works closely with Rinds, has been diving the north coast of Tobago for almost 20 years, and knows the dive sites like the back of his hand. He speaks of “Paradise“, an underwater amphitheatre into which the diver descends, to look up at the huge tarpon circling above; and of the Starwood Tunnel, where he once pulled the tail of a sleeping nurse shark and got a sharp nip on the rear end for his forwardness. Sea conditions prevented me from doing either of these dives; they remain on my list for the future.
In the absence of such drama, I had to make do with coral, in every shape, size and configuration. Languid coral fans swaying gently in the current; black Lace coral filigreed with tiny white stars; sinuous finger coral more than ten feet high; brain corals, ubiquitous and massive (Tobago boasts the largest recorded brain coral in the world). And sponges: flame orange, lemon yellow, deep purple; vase sponges like giant vulva, six feet across. Diving is the shortest route I know of to another planet.
The reef offers myriad demonstrations in camouflage technique. The stonefish is barely distinguishable from the rock on which it lurks; the elongated trumpetfish sways vertically among the finger coral like one of its branches. Along shallow, sandy bottoms you might find a whitish fish, with yellow markings like flecks of sunshine; darting amidst the colourful sponges are even more colourful denizens of the underwater world.
And in amongst the nooks and crevices are to be found the most intriguing minutiae of all: the shy barber-pole shrimp, biding its time till the next fish swims up to be cleaned of parasites; the spiny lobster scuttling backward into its cave; the moray eel, suggestively opening and closing its razor-toothed jaws; the grouper, sitting sulky-lipped on a rock. This is the magic of diving: that all of these creatures cease to be alien species and become characters in their own right, playing out their own rituals of life and death. I never think of fish as food, when I’m underwater, but rather as equals, or kin. To spear one would be a form of sacrilege.
Charlotteville, near Tobago’s northern tip, gives easy access to both the north-west and the north-east (Speyside) coastlines, as well as to the Giles’ Islands off Tobago’s northernmost tip. This is where the most exciting diving – and fewest tourists – are to be found.
Our excursions take us to a number of dive sites, from the exquisite bonsai-like formations of Japanese Gardens, to the huge boulders and miniature coral volcanoes of Giles’ Island. We see young mantas and spotted eagle rays, sea cucumbers and small transparent squid. We dive through thermoclines (bodies of water several degrees colder than the surrounding mass) so intense that we can see them shimmer, like heat waves on an asphalt road. We drift through gelatinous strings of fish eggs and clouds of miniscule young hatchlings. The emphasis here is on life – exuberant, abundant, self-affirming in its sheer completeness.
Diving is probably the best form of therapy there is: it is impossible to be tense when one is floating like a feather, with a fish-eye view of the universe. It makes one long for a pair of gills, a means of staying under forever. Again, T. S. Eliot (who probably never dived in his life) understood perfectly:
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the depths of silent seas.