Tobago Cays: An Exercise in Idealism

A turtle swimming lazily along through the anchorage. Kitiara Pascoe photos
A turtle swimming lazily along through the anchorage. Kitiara Pascoe photos
Yachts anchored in Tobago Cays.
Yachts anchored in Tobago Cays.

Swimming with Sea Turtles in Tobago Cays

By Kitiara Pascoe

By the time I reached Union Island in the Caribbean, I’d been sailing for nine months. I left England wearing eight layers with a chilly sea kicking up in my face and seven thousand miles later, I  found it.

I found the reason I left.

When people think of the sea they might think blue. A blanket of blue, an opaque blue or, if you’re British, a grey-blue. The blues change from sediment-rich dirty blue to offshore royal blue and then the tropical, vivid blue of the Caribbean.

But in the Windwards of the West Indies, it’s not until I reach St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) that I see that iconic azure.

I climbed the mast to get a real view of the clear water and my boat.
I climbed the mast to get a real view of the clear water and my boat.

Union Island is the first stop going north in the islands belonging to SVG and although it’s quite tropical, I hurry my stay and leave for neighboring Mayreau within three days. I can’t wait, I can’t dither, I must see them.

Mayreau is a tiny, truly tiny, island with one steep hill up the center. The heat is pushing 32 degrees Celsius but I leave the beach anyway and begin the slow, tiring walk up the single twisting road to the top.

It’s quite by chance that I even know where to go and it’s only a brief meeting with another sailor that I find myself walking around the side of an innocuous church on the summit. A cluster of goats run across the path in front of me, bleating.

I walk quickly across the courtyard and there it is, stretched out like a Disney film scene; Tobago Cays.

Tobago Cays

A labyrinth of reefs, islets and pure sand cays make this place the stuff of postcards and Microsoft wallpapers. Even a scene or two from Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed here.

While Tobago Cays has an impressive reputation, its survival is really down to one thing- it can only be reached by boat and has no cars, no roads, no houses. It’s loved and cherished and looked after.

I leave Mayreau promptly the next morning and sail around the north of the island with the skipper navigating with military precision. Most people motor to the Cays but where’s the fun in that? We sail by the color of the water, so clear are the reefs in the insistent sunshine. We short tack up between the savage reef and the first islet and I’m on edge, one misjudged move and we’ll be wrecked.

As we finally switch the engine on and nose our way into an anchorage, I can barely keep my focus. My eyes are darting everywhere looking for those aged leviathans, those serene creatures, those stone-like wanderers. Tobago Cays isn’t just a piece of idealism, it’s a sea turtle sanctuary.

A shoal of fish over a reef outcrop.
A shoal of fish over a reef outcrop

I drop the anchor in just three meters of water and imagine the keel almost brushing the sand. The water is so clear it may as well not be there at all.

I want to cry at its blue, its perfect, crystalline blue. It’s the blue that dreams are made of.

Swimming with the fishes

No time for weeping at the beauty though, I must see beneath this wonderland. I pull on my shorty wetsuit and snorkel gear; the water is 28 degrees Celsius but after an hour in the water, it can still chill you.

Within five minutes I’m immersed in a sea of obscene clarity. I swim down to the keel bottom and check the depth, planting myself beneath the boat and peering upwards. I love her for bringing me here and give her lead-filled underside a hug.

Immediately past the boat is water too shallow for anchoring and so it’s an easy swim to the first outcrops of the reef. As a nature reserve, no spearfishing, Hawaiian slings or indeed fishing of any kind can take place and so the fish are surprisingly friendly.

I swim straight through a shoal of sergeant major fish and they weave and bloom around my yellowfins, one taking the time to tap on my mask and say hello. I’m in love.

Coral of every shape, size, and color form these outcrops that spring from the flat white sand bottom as suddenly as the New York skyline springs from the Atlantic. Partially hidden around the coral fringes lie huge lobster, unthreatened by humans and laying low for passing food.

Their long feelers poke out from under the rock and give them away. Troops of electric blue fish, no bigger than my thumb, nibble on invisible things and rainbow-colored parrotfish eye me curiously. Trumpetfish, with their slim bodies and trumpet mouths, drift on unseen currents and barely flick a fin. I could spend hours here.

Searching for Turtles in Tobago

As I cruised along the reefs I keep my eyes peeled for signs of turtles and try not to be disappointed when I see none. There are so many anchored boats here, perhaps the whole idea of an anchorage in a turtle watching area is ironic– surely the turtles avoid it like the plague. I fin around the bay in a big circle and content myself with the extraordinary reef fish and the occasional conch crawling surreptitiously along the seabed.

It’s getting into the afternoon and my stomach calls me back to the boat. I swim warily, looking out for dinghies and their treacherous outboards. With my head mostly above the water through the anchorage to check for these dangerous monsters, I almost miss the fellow dreamily swimming below me. So lazy is his stroke that I barely notice him, despite his size. But I catch myself and dive beneath.

The turtle half swims, half drifts along the seabed, pausing to gulp a string of eelgrass. He looks at me casually and continues his slow pace through the water, unperturbed by my presence. I forget oxygen, I forget dinghies, I forget lunch. I drift along with him, keeping my distance but keeping pace. He is nature slowed right d o w n… He even blinks in slow motion.

Eventually, my lungs cramp for air and I allow myself to rise the short two meters to the surface. I swim slowly back to the boat and watch the turtle gliding below. I see people chatting on their yachts, drinking their beers and laughing with their friends and wonder if they realize they’re only meters away from one of the world’s most majestic animals.

It breaks my heart to leave the turtle and I vow to return to the water later that day. The Caribbean is a big place and these pockets of extreme postcard idealism are not as abundant as you would think looking at the brochures. But the places they do exist in are as painful as a broken heart- you will wonder how you could ever return home.

Twenty-six-year-old Kit Pascoe had never sailed until 2013 and was convinced by her partner to set off on a tiny yacht to the tropics from the UK. Almost 10,000 ocean-going miles later and she’s cruised the Caribbean and is now exploring Panama. She is a regular contributor to Yachting Monthly.

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