“A LMOST THERE,”

Scuba Diving - - Gear Bag -

the driver says, as our van climbs the fi­nal hill above Spey­side. In­stead of de­scend­ing to­ward the town and our re­sort, how­ever, we abruptly swing into a night­club park­ing lot.

Sigh. Af­ter a full day’s flight fol­lowed by a two-hour-long twist­ing, stom­ach-wrench­ing drive along the At­lantic coast of Tobago, I am far more likely to fall asleep on the bar than in­dulge in a lo­cal beer. I turn grog­gily to­ward our en­thu­si­as­tic driver, and he re­as­sur­ingly says, “Best view on the is­land.” OK, then — that, I can han­dle. I grab my cam­era and fol­low as the bar owner leads us past the club to his home. He swings the door open to re­veal a mod­est liv­ing space with a ma­jor bonus: a gi­gan­tic porch with a mil­lion-dol­lar view. Bat­teaux Bay, which holds many of Tobago’s most fa­mous dive sites, lies be­fore me, dot­ted with lush green islets.

I’m speech­less. The scene re­sem­bles a set­ting half a world away.

CUR­RENT EVENTS

Early the next morn­ing, I board the boat, filled with op­ti­mism. With a full night of sleep un­der my belt, I am ready to en­joy the div­ing that this is­land is fa­mous for. Tobago’s reefs are bathed in nu­tri­ents from the South Equa­to­rial Cur­rent and the Guiana Cur­rent, which in­cludes the out­flow of Venezuela’s Orinoco River, and they are said to be un­like any­thing else in this hemi­sphere. Be­tween the hearsay and the view from the day be­fore, it’s all I can do to re­main in my seat dur­ing the dive brief­ing. We’re headed for Kelle­ston Drain, a coral gar­den ad­ja­cent to Lit­tle Tobago. As the di­ve­mas­ter scans the site, he ges­tures to­ward a small rock with a dis­tinct wake on one side. “By the way,” he says, “there might be a lit­tle cur­rent.”

Dur­ing our de­scent, the ocean floor is shut­tling past in a blur of red and yel­low sponges and orange cup co­rals. The blast of color and life sur­round­ing us is like noth­ing I’ve seen in the Car­ib­bean. I work to shoot the stun­ning dis­play in the cur­rent, watch­ing with jeal­ous an­noy­ance as a large hawks­bill turtle put­ters lazily by.

Sea­horses peep­ing from the fans, blennies gap­ing from the coral, cowries crawl­ing on the sponges — there are in­cred­i­ble photo ops ev­ery­where I look. Too soon, the di­ve­mas­ter ges­tures to­ward a huge brain coral in the dis­tance, said to be one of the largest in the world. It’s com­ing rapidly closer, closer — OK, it’s right un­der me — and I tuck be­hind it for a few min­utes to in­ves­ti­gate the be­he­moth be­fore as­cend­ing.

It’s prophetic that I’ve seen a mas­sive coral on my first dive, as I soon re­al­ize that — thanks to a one-two punch of calo­ries and water move­ment — the marine life in Tobago tends to be su­per­size. On a dive on Book­ends, a twinned

set of rocks with a cut be­tween, a pair of huge tar­pon vo­ra­ciously pa­trols in the surf zone. Bar­rel sponges that I could eas­ily curl into lit­ter the seafloor, and a thigh-size green mo­ray swims un­afraid across the reef. Black­jack Hole — where the water teems with baby fish so tiny, they al­most look like par­tic­u­late — also show­cases the as­ton­ish­ing ben­e­fits of Tobago’s unique, nu­tri­ent-rich cur­rent. Look­ing up, I see black­jacks hunt­ing among the aqua waves. Look­ing down, I ad­mire streams of snap­per and wrasse weav­ing past mul­ti­hued sponges so torqued by cur­rent that they’re a chal­lenge to rec­og­nize.

Once I’m ac­cli­mated, my guide be­gins tak­ing me farther afield, at last get­ting me to the fa­mous site I’ve been wait­ing for. The Sis­ters, a clus­ter of tiny off­shore islets renowned for manta ray en­coun­ters, may well be Tobago’s most fa­mous dive site. Days be­fore my ar­rival, a lucky group of divers was pestered by a large manta for two suc­ces­sive dives, so as I stride into the swell, I cock­ily ready my cam­era and pre­pare to be equally hounded. I’m hounded, all right — by green and hawks­bill turtles, by my com­puter when I try to ex­tend my dive as long as pos­si­ble — but there are no man­tas to be seen. Scor­pi­onfish, oc­to­puses and clus­ters of huge lob­sters are tucked into ev­ery sponge­and coral-cov­ered crevice, though, so I have plenty to dis­tract my­self with un­til I as­cend.

SPE­CIAL GUEST

The shel­tered sites on the Car­ib­bean side of Tobago of­fer a respite from cur­rent, though they’re no less ex­cit­ing. The Mav­er­ick, a car ferry that was pur­pose- sunk in 1997, is awash in Indo- Pa­cific- cal­iber hues, sponge and cup co­rals clouded by a swirling school of sweep­ers. And at nearby Mount Irvine, I’m mar­veling at an ar­ray of nudi­branchs, cowries and blennies when I no­tice the guide ges­tur­ing wildly. I turn and come face to face with the manta I’d hoped for so fer­vently the day be­fore. A 10-foot-wide beauty, the first manta I’ve ever seen on this side of the planet, in­spects me care­fully, cir­cling slowly be­fore tip­ping her wings in farewell.

Ja­panese Gar­dens is the ideal fi­nale to my visit. As I de­scend and drift along, the water seems to be get­ting bluer and clearer by the sec­ond. Sponge is lay­ered upon sponge, with tons of gor­goni­ans in be­tween, a riot of color that passes by in a mul­ti­knot haze. The fi sh here seem es­pe­cially cocky, their mo­tions bear­ing a slightly mock­ing Sun­day-walk-in-the-park ap­pear­ance — schools of grunts weave in­dif­fer­ently around us, and an­gelfish flit lazily from coral to coral.

The cur­rent speeds up, sig­nal­ing that we are ap­proach­ing Kamikaze Cut, a nar­row chan­nel lined by cup co­rals. We tuck in and whiz through the pas­sage, peer­ing un­der the ledges on the other side to dis­cover a nurse shark rest­ing in the lee of the flow. As it dawns on me that I will be rest­ing soon as well, I feel a pang of sad­ness and re­al­ize how much I have grown to love the swift cur­rents and ri­otous hues of Tobago.

MORE TO EX­PLORE

Our driver picks me up early on our de­par­ture day, and I re­quest a quick re­turn trip to the night­club. I stand with him at the edge of the bal­cony look­ing out at the de­cep­tively placid bay, my legs still twitch­ing from daily work­outs.

I tell him about my week and how stunned I’ve been by the col­ors, the large marine crea­tures, the den­sity of life. He smiles and says: “Did I tell you? I was a di­ve­mas­ter here years ago. I once found a for­est of black coral not far from here — a huge for­est! — in just 20 me­ters of water. There is so much here that is fed by the cur­rent, so much that is undis­cov­ered. You should come back some­day and just ex­plore.”

I know I will.

Clock­wise from top: South­ern sen­nets hover in stiff cur­rent, awaiting prey; col­or­ful cowries are abun­dant here; Tobago’s sponge and coral den­sity is among the Car­ib­bean’s high­est.

From left: The Mav­er­ick is a haven for col­or­ful in­ver­te­brates and fish; a sea­horse peeps out of its coral-en­crusted lair.

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