Derek Chung talks diving in Tobago

Derek Chung has over 30 years of diving expertise. Owner of Undersea Tobago and a former president of the Association of Tobago Dive Operators (ATDO), we talked to him for both our 2008 and 2019 editions for tips and insights into Tobago’s diving scene

Why should people try diving in Tobago?

If you enjoy snorkelling, you should try scuba. Anyone can do it. If you’re 80 years old, as long as you’re in good health, you can learn to scuba dive. Tobago has 10 land-based dive centres which are members of ATDO (Association of Tobago Dive Operators), and most of them are also PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) resorts. As PADI resorts, we all offer diving tuition and diving charters.

What sort of PADI tuition programmes?

We run a SASY (Surface Air Supply Youth) programme, for six- to seven-year-olds, as a nice transition from snorkelling to scuba. From eight and nine years, we offer the Bubblemaker Programme, where more experience is gained in pool-like conditions no deeper than two metres. After that, and for adult learners, we have the Discover Scuba Diving programme or resort introductory course, which takes three hours. Then you start to get into entry level programmes, like Scuba Diver and Open Water Diver, which earn the diver a certification card. There are also advanced diving courses such as deep diving, wreck diving and drift diving.

So, if someone has never been diving before, what do they need to get started?

Try a Discover Scuba Diving course, which provides a diving experience comprising of a short DVD presentation, basic skill development and an instructor guided dive on a shallow coral reef. This course only takes a few hours and is open to anyone over 10 years of age. Don’t worry if you are not a strong swimmer as this isn’t a requirement.

How much does it cost?

  • Discover Scuba Diving PADI course: US$95
  • Single dives trips: US$50–$80
  • Two-dive morning trip for certified divers: US$95 (inclusive of tanks, weights, and taxes), or US$125 (also inclusive of equipment hire). Most also have packages for six or 10 dives
  • Snorkelling trip: starting at US$20.

What are the dive conditions like in Tobago?

Tobago’s diving conditions vary depending on the season. Water temperature averages 81–82°F (27­–28°C) for most of the year and can drop to 79°F (26°C) during January and February. Visibility ranges 10–35m (33–115ft), with the average in the south being 18m (59ft) and 27m (89ft) in the north. It’s important to note that while Tobago has gained a reputation for currents and drift diving, there are many sites with little or no currents which are suitable for novice divers.

The Speyside area, where the water is clearer and the reef more lush, is more suited to intermediate and advanced divers. On the southern end of the island, where we have most hotel accommodation, the water is not quite as clear, but the Caribbean generally has no waves and no current and is more suited to novice and intermediate divers.

Divers adore the reefs off Tobago. Courtesy The Division of Tourism and Transportation.

Tobago’s coastal waters are rich in nutrients brought by the Guyana Current, which produce an abundance of plankton – food for massive shoals of small fry, which in turn feed large fish, such as jacks, barracuda, wahoo, tarpon and tuna. Courtesy The Division of Tourism and Transportation.

How is Tobago different from other Caribbean locations?

Tobago doesn’t have the year-round water clarity of some of our northern Caribbean neighbours due to the influence of the Orinoco River in Venezuela, but it makes our marine life larger and more plentiful. This also gives Tobago greater density and diversity of both coral reefs and marine life, trading a bit of visibility for more nutrient rich waters.

How does Tobago diving differ from diving in Trinidad?

Being located closer to Venezuela, Trinidad’s water clarity is too low to support coral reefs except for isolated patches on the northern coast. This in turn means that there are few fish typically found on coral reefs.

What can people expect to see on a dive?

You’ll find all the colourful Caribbean fish that live on coral reefs together with lots of turtles, which are always a big favourite; nurse sharks, black-tipped reef sharks, hammerhead sharks, moray eels, barracuda, stingrays and eagle rays, possibly manta rays, octopi, batfishes,

Where are some of best dive sites around Tobago?

The Maverick, a car ferry deliberately sunk to make a wreck dive off Mt Irvine, is a great site. Any of the dives on the southern side are really good, including Flying Reef, Diver’s Dream and Diver’s Thirst. And the Speyside area: Blackjack Hole, Keleston Drain (where you can see the world’s largest big brain coral), and Bookends (which is good for tarpon). On the northern coastline, you might see hammerhead sharks at the Sisters rocks.

By skill level:

  • Beginner: Mt Irvine Wall, Arnos Vale Reef
  • Intermediate: Flying Reef, Castara Reef, Keleston Drain, Japanese Gardens
  • Experienced: Maverick Wreck, Diver’s Thirst, Bookends, Picker, Diver’s Dream.
A diver spots a French angelfish at Japanese Gardens, Speyside. Photo by Kadu Pinheiro

A diver spots a French angelfish at Japanese Gardens, Speyside. Photo by Kadu Pinheiro

What’s the best time of year, if any, to go diving?

The best time of year for visibility would be November–May although fish activity remains consistent year round.

So what’s your advice to visitors?

If you haven’t dived before, have a go at the introductory programme. It’s going to take three hours out of your day. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. If you do, it opens up a whole new world of experience. And you can work on getting your licence while you’re here.

Any special precautions people should take to stay safe?

Seek the services of a recognised dive centre, follow their recommendations, keep hydrated, and avoid flying within 12 hours of diving.

About Derek Chung and Undersea Tobago

Photo courtesy Derek Chung

Photo courtesy Derek Chung

I became an instructor in 1987 and began running a dive centre in Tobago, doing more than 12,000 dives over a span of 34 years. Currently, my primary interests lie in shipwrecks and technical diving, and I am the Tobago Museum Trust’s representative for Underwater Cultural Heritage. Undersea Tobago was started by my wife and I, has been located at the Coco Reef since 2000, and is also the preferred dive centre for the Magdalena Grand, the Mt Irvine Bay Resort, Kariwak, and Plantation Beach Villas.

Tobago’s southerly location provides the ingredients for a wonderful combination of rich coral and sponge coverage, together with a density and diversity of marine life surpassing most in the Caribbean. A range of diving opportunities abound with lush coral reefs, rocky reefs with colourful encrusting sponges and coral or fascinating shipwrecks, all of which harbour an abundance of marine life. Tobago’s diving is much more than pretty reef fish, it’s about turtles, sharks, cobias, moray eels, stingrays, eagle rays and mantas, it’s about short nosed batfish, octopi, cornet fish and garden eels, it’s about sharing stories on the dive boat, making friends and enjoying a cold beverage at day’s end.

Undersea Tobago, “where personal attention meets adventure” is located on the Coco Reef Resort’s private beach, and in recognition of service quality is also the preferred dive centre for the Magdalena Grand Beach Resort, the Mount Irvine Bay Resort and Starfish Tobago, along with other properties. A PADI Dive Resort, Undersea Tobago has been providing dive charters and tuition since 1997, introduced nitrox and kids programs to the island, and is the recipient of multiple awards inclusive of TripAdvisor’s Hall of Fame. For attentive service, uncrowded dive sites and true Caribbean experience, dive in with Undersea Tobago.

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