Pat Turpin talks Tobago’s beautiful natural environment

Pat Turpin is the president of Environment Tobago, a conservation body established in 1996 to safeguard the environmental future of the island. She explains why Tobago is so special

Tobago lies at the edge of the continental shelf of South America, and is the last outpost of the Andean chain, separated by deep water from the Lesser Antilles. It is an island with flora and fauna more continental than Antillean, yet markedly different from Trinidad.

The centre of the island, consisting of 10,000 hectares of rich rainforest, was preserved in 1765 as the Forest Reserve, making it the first and oldest legally protected area in the western hemisphere.

The biodiversity that we possess is tremendous, particularly in relation to our small land mass. All the major ecosystems exist here: tropical rainforest, mangrove, wetlands (the Buccoo/Bon Accord wetlands were designated a Ramsar site in 2005—a wetland of international importance), lowland forest, coral reef systems and seabird nesting islands.

Each of these systems is blessed with a rich species diversity that includes 210 species of birds, 16 species of lizards, 14 species of frogs (including the endangered Bloody Bay poison frog), 17 species of bats (including the large fish-eating bats), 44 species of coral, three species of endangered sea turtles, over 80 species of tropical reef fish and 21 species of non-venomous snakes. Many of these species are found only in Tobago and considered endemic to the island.

A blue-backed manakin (Trinidad & Tobago). Photo: Faraaz Abdool

A blue-backed manakin (Trinidad & Tobago). Photo: Faraaz Abdool

Bird sanctuaries

The blue-crowned mot-mot, the palm tanager, the copper-rumped hummingbird and the barred antstrike all frequent the Grafton Bird and Wildlife Sanctuary. A walk amongst the bamboo and wildlife on one of its several trails is a relaxing way to spend an afternoon, but the highlight is the feeding of the birds at 8am and 4pm.

At the 12-acre Adventure Farm and Nature Reserve, you can witness the bird feeding frenzy that takes place with the ringing of the garden bell, or stroll along the winding trails watching mot-mots, blue tanagers, hummingbirds, bare-eyed thrush, jacamars and many more.

For birdwatchers, the rainforest is home to the endangered white-tailed sabre-wing hummingbird. Little Tobago (home to the red-billed tropicbird) and St Giles Islands are a must-see; seabirds like the brown booby nest there.

Bon Accord Wetlands

A diverse habitat excellent for birdwatching. Over thirty wetland birds can usually be seen, including ducks, herons, waterfowls and waders. Mangrove vegetation dominates the area. You don’t need a permit to enter, and you can go in on your own vessel. But to ensure the protection of the wetlands and to best appreciate what you see, you should go with a licensed guide.

A Red-billed tropicbird swoops into her nest on the cliffs of Little Tobago. Photo by Rapso Imaging

A Red-billed tropicbird swoops into her nest on the cliffs of Little Tobago. Photo by Rapso Imaging

Little Tobago

This island has been a nature and bird sanctuary since 1926. You can observe a magnificent array of breeding seabirds, including red-billed tropicbirds, boobies, terns, magnificent frigatebirds, while walking through virgin seasonal deciduous forest. Talk to a tour guide in Speyside about organising a trip.

Main Ridge Forest Reserve

The dense, dark forest of the highest range in Tobago is part of the oldest forest reserve in the western hemisphere. The Blue Copper Trail and the Gilpin Trail both showcase the flora and fauna indigenous to Tobago. Nilpin Trail is a much more challenging trek for experienced hikers. A guide is strongly recommended, and most tour operators offer guided tours of these trails. You can also find guides near the trail entrances.

Mount St George River

A river runs through the overgrown ruins of an abandoned nineteenth-century sugar mill. It’s a great getaway spot for a relaxing walk or picnic. At the Tobago Hotel and Tourism Institute compound, the security officer will show you the trail entrance.

Leatherback Turtle Tobago

You can volunteer to help protect Leatherback turtles from poachers by patrolling Turtle Beach with Save our Sea Turtles Tobago (SOS). Courtesy of The Division of Tourism and Transport.


From March to August, endangered and protected giant leatherback turtles come ashore to the place of their birth to dig their nests and lay their eggs. The hatchlings emerge two months later.

Leatherback, hawksbill and green turtles nest all around Tobago. Mating normally takes place from December to April, at sea, between the Brothers and Sisters islands, off Bloody Bay, and St Giles Island in the north. Nesting on the beaches takes place between January and September.

Turtles can be seen at Englishman’s Bay, Turtle Beach and Stonehaven Bay. Turtle-watching with accompanying tour guides is regularly available in the Grafton, Turtle Beach, Courland Bay area from March to August. These beaches are protected, however, so you must go with a certified nature guide. A great resource is SOS (Save Our Sea Turtles) Tobago, the turtle protection group. Learn more about SOS Tobago and turtle-watching in Tobago here

Argyle Waterfall. Courtesy The Division of Tourism and Transportation

Three levels, each having a pool, make Argyle Waterfall a delight. The trail passes through a wonderland of wild orchids and majestic trees.
Courtesy The Division of Tourism and Transportation


For trekkers, there are many beautiful waterfalls in the island. After a trek through forested slopes and along muddy riverbeds, the refreshing chill of a waterfall shower is delicious. On the windward coast, the triple-tier Argyle Waterfall, near Roxborough, with its beautiful cascading system, is the most accessible, and local guides are on hand.

Rainbow Waterfall, off the Windward Road in Glassborough, is a forty-minute hike along the riverbed, so be prepared to get wet, especially in the rainy season.

On the leeward coast, the single-stream fall of Castara Waterfall is well worth the twenty-minute trek, and is the perfect spot for a picnic.

Parlatuvier Waterfall is a much more difficult hike, passing through undisturbed natural habitats teeming with wildlife; you can climb up the waterfall to bathing pools higher up.

Diving in Tobago. Photo by Stephen Broadbridge

Diving amongst the coral in Tobago. Photo by Stephen Broadbridge


For scuba divers, the coral reefs are the marine equivalent of a rainforest in terms of biodiversity richness. Buccoo Reef, which is over 10,000 years old, Kilgwyn Flying Reef, Culloden Reef, Speyside (home to the largest and oldest brain coral in the world) and Charlotteville Reef (where manta rays can be seen from March to August) are wonderful locations.

Safety tips

When visiting the rainforest, wetlands and other natural ecosystems, use a knowledgeable, reliable guide; wear good walking shoes; don’t touch anything you are unfamiliar with; use mosquito repellent and travel in groups.

Keep Tobago beautiful

Reef walking damages coral, and it is illegal to take coral off the reefs. The possession of turtle shell jewellery and conch is also illegal. The government of Trinidad and Tobago is a signatory to the CITES convention prohibiting the sale and purchase of endangered species.

Visitors are asked to leave only their footprints and not their litter in our natural resource areas. During the dry season, please be careful with cigarette butts.

We are the guardians and caretakers of our environment. We invite you to experience Tobago’s immense natural beauty, to take home with you visual images and experiences that will remain with you and enrich your lives. As an environmentalist, I am often amazed and appreciative of the abundance of nature that surrounds me on a daily basis. I feel that conservation and preservation of our natural resources, so vital to human life, is a lifetime responsibility for all. To the residents of Tobago, this is a special place that we consider our natural heritage. We wish to pass it on intact to future generations.
– Pat Turpin

Some eco-tour operators

  • AJM Tours, T: 639-0610/8918, W: Argyle Falls, Main Ridge Forest Reserve, Buccoo Reef, Little Tobago, bird watching
  • Frankie’s Tours, T: 631-0369, W: Bird watching, Little Tobago Bird Sanctuary, Main Ridge Forest Reserve
  • Hews Tours, T: 639-9058, W: Bird watching tours, Main Ridge Forest Reserve, Little Tobago Bird Sanctuary
  • Jungle Tours, T: 759-1070, W: Argyle Waterfall, rainforest treks, bird watching, Little Tobago
  • Peter Cox Nature Tours, T: 751-5822, W: Little Tobago Bird Sanctuary, Argyle Falls, Main Ridge Forest Reserve, Bon Accord Wetlands, turtle watching
  • Rooks Nature Tours, T: 631-1630, W:, E: Main Ridge Rainforest Reserve, Little Tobago Bird Sanctuary, Hillsborough Dam, Buccoo Marsh and Grafton Bird Sanctuary
  • Ted’s Sunshine Tours Tobago, T: 639-0547/639-0697, W: Little Tobago Bird Sanctuary, Buccoo Reef, rainforest tours
  • Trinidad and Tobago Sightseeing Tours, T: 628-1051 • W: Main Ridge Forest Reserve, Argyle Waterfall, Grafton Bird Sanctuary, Buccoo Marsh, Little Tobago Bird Sanctuary.

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