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Mission Ocean: The Tobago Cays - A Caribbean Galapagos

by Mission Océan 24 Sep 2018 04:59 UTC
The Tobago Cays, seen from Petit Bateau © Mission Ocean

I've always liked wildlife. I grew up in rural southern England, and my brother and I were forever outside, making a den in a bush in the garden and trying to inspect ants and leaves through a little plastic microscope, or catching tiny transparent shrimps in our fishing net and marvelling at their visible innards. Our bedtime stories included the likes of Gerald Durrell and The Berenstein Bears' Guide to Nature, and we spent many car journeys up to Scotland listening to cassette tapes of The Swiss Family Robinson. My brother became a scientist, and I set off in a boat around the world (with a recording of The Swiss Family Robinson for night watches).

Hurricane season is in full swing in the Caribbean, and we had always planned to make our way gradually south, keeping an eye on the weather until it settled enough to allow us back north again. When Hurricane Isaac set his sights on Martinique, Dominica and Guadeloupe, we decided that we ought to move on from Bequia, around 180km south of Le Marin, where we were having some sun awnings and dinghy chaps fitted. Better to be safe than sorry. We pushed the charmingly vague sailmaker Alick to finish, and pulled up our anchor a few days before Isaac was due to hit the Antilles.

And thus we discovered the Tobago Cays. We had heard rumblings about this little cluster of islands, and had even been told that if we were to make one stop in the Grenadines, it had to be there. Having visited the Florida Keys, Henrique was rather surprised to find something much smaller on the map as we headed past Canouan, but as we pulled in behind the Horseshoe Reef, we were not disappointed. A patchwork of shades of blue opened up before us, pinpointed with turtle fins and heads here and there, popping up to take a look at Contigo and waving hello as we sailed in. We found the anchorage almost empty and, mooring fees duly paid to the Park Rangers, donned masks, fins and snorkels and jumped off the back of the boat. In the couple of meters of crystal clear water that remained beneath our keels, a shoal of yellow and black fish turned to look at us, then swam over with curious gazes, as if trying to figure out where on earth we could have appeared from. All of a sudden, I was six years old again, this time marvelling not at shrimps but at tropical fish.

We swam to the nearby island of Baradal, stopping to observe turtles, eagle rays and a huge puffer fish on our way across. A quick scramble up the rocks gave us an aerial view of the Cays, framed by Baradal's white sandy beach and thick green vegetation (a mix of hardy trees, succulents and cacti). I turned around at a rustle in the bushes and found, to my great surprise, a little tortoise blinking up at me from the path. As we ventured further into the small island, we bumped into several others ambling across the rocks, chewing on a bit of cactus and generally minding their own business. I regretted not having my camera, and when we later returned to try and snap one, there were of course none to be found. When we clambered back on board after the return swim, I found a black bird with a long beak in the galley tucking into some cake crumbs and chirping as if he owned the place.

The next day, we took the kayaks and paddled to Petit Bateau, another of the five small islands that make up the Tobago Cays (together with Petit Rameau, Jamesby and Petit Tabac. The latter is famous for its role in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, playing host to the scene where the shipwrecked Elisabeth Swann sets fire to Jack Sparrow's rum stores in an attempt to be rescued). Another surprise was waiting to dart out from the bushes in an alarming crash of dry leaves: this time, iguanas! Some of them more than a meter long, with saggy necks and cold stares, making us feel like trespassers on some Jurassic island that time had forgotten. A little more venturing around the island brought us to an outdoor kitchen; in season, the local boat boys hold barbecues here for cruisers and charterers.

Later that day, Henrique joined another crew to go snorkelling on the Horseshoe Reef, a sudden drop-off of around 15m that was teeming with fish, lobster and even a couple of small nurse sharks. One of his snorkelling companions claimed to have spotted a reef shark, although there may have been an element of "one-up-manship"...

There was one side of the Tobago Cays which sadly disappointed us when we decided to carry out some research, and those who follow our social media pages will already have seen the photos and results that we shared there. I have decided, however, to make that the subject of a totally separate article. I would rather treasure the memory of the moment when I lifted my head from the pan of wild Bequia mangoes that I was stewing, to see two huge turtles bobbing on a quilt of impossibly turquoise water. I felt like I was living in a postcard.

Hesitating between a tropical storm and a Cat1 hurricane, Isaac eventually passed between Martinique and Dominica a few days later. We ended up riding it out in Carriacou, together with what felt like a rather large percentage of the world's cruising population. We were treated to a fantastic electrical storm overnight that prevented anyone from getting a wink of sleep and saw the Tyrell Bay coffee shops doing a roaring trade the next morning, but besides that felt no real effects. The sea was lumpy and confused for a few days, thwarting our attempts to anchor off the islands south of Carriacou, but eventually settling enough for us to spend a pleasant night in the north. We have fingers and toes crossed that Isaac will be the only hurricane that tries to make landfall in the Caribbean this year, and that maybe we might just squeeze in another trip to the Tobago Cays on our way back up the islands. Maybe this time, the tortoises won't be so camera shy.

Mission Ocean is proud to be supported by: Boero, Doyle Sails Palma, Rotary District 1730, Navigair, OctoMarine, Battery World Service, Victron Energy, Monaco Marine, Aquatabs, Spade Anchors, Plastimo, Furuno France, Pejout Marine Services, Lyvio, Storm Bird, Aethic, Corsica Yacht Services, Astrolabe Expeditions, Asociacion Ondine, AGL Marine, and Sail-Worldcruising.com

Mission Ocean is Laura Beard and Henrique Agostinho. Their three year plus mission is to share their love and respect for the ocean with others, through education and scientific research. Neither is a stranger to the water, so they have combined all their skills and passions in this bold, courageous and inspiring project. Sail-Worldcruising.com is delighted to be with them for the journey of their lifetime. You can also find out more on their Facebook page: www.facebook.com/missionocean06 and Instagram account @missionocean06

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