Exploring the Tobago Cays

The Tobago Cays is one of the better-run marine parks I’ve been to in the Caribbean. And cheap, too! This is probably the cheapest “camping” I’ve done in a park, at $7US for two nights (the fee is $10EC per person per night).

It can get crowded in the high season, but the area behind Horseshoe Reef is large enough for plenty of boats to anchor. If you can get past having neighbors as close as 50′ away, you just might think you’re in the Galapagos or somewhere in the South Pacific.

Looking northeast from atop Petit Bateau. Petit Rameau is on the other side of the channel, and Baradel island to the right. Canouan visible in the distance.

Waiters from the Club Med cruise ship serving champagne in Petit Bateau.

But then you see these guys on the leeward side of Petit Bateau. Hmmm, a new career path for me? They were there from a Club Med cruise ship that stopped nearby.

Sailing into the Tobago Cays

As big as the Tobago Cays are, there are really only two ways to enter due to the fact that it’s all encircled by reefs. And both ways have you going to the wind, so be prepared for a bunch of short tacks if you’re sailing in.

Anchoring is pretty good anywhere behind Horseshoe Reef. You can actually feel your way in quite a ways after the water turns bright turquoise, and you can carry 6 feet in pretty far. The closer you are to the reef, the further you’ll be from the other islands with your dinghy. But you’ll also have less of a fetch for the chop to build up in wind.

When you’re anchored behind Horseshoe Reef you’re looking at Africa…the winds that hit you are from Africa but the reef will protect you from the swell. My first night here, the winds picked up to 15-20 knots and the area behind the reef was a washing machine, moving the boat in every which way. All night long. The winds died down to 10 knots my second day and it wasn’t bad at all. So I guess the moral of the story is, pick some days when the winds are forecast to settle down.

Two-stitch panorama of Baradel, Horseshoe Reef, Petit Tabac, and Jamesby from atop Petit Bateau.

You could in theory anchor behind Petit Bateau or Jamesby islands to hide from the wind. However, the islands in the Tobago Cays are small and there’s not much room if what you’re seeking is shelter from the wind. The channel between Petit Bateau and Petit Rameau can get very congested with boats, and the wind funneling through there creates somewhat of a Venturi, altering the direction and adding some strength. The swell can work its way in there as well if there’s any northerly component.

No matter where you choose to anchor, you can dinghy anywhere else in the Tobago Cays. The rangers do enforce a six-knot speed limit to protect both the turtles and the many swimmers transiting the area. ┬áBut there’s really no reason to be moving the boat around for access. ┬áThere are many good snorkeling areas.

Smallmouth grunts, yellowtail goatfish, striped parrotfish, and brown chromis near Jamesby island. And can you spot the queen angelfish?

I spent some time ashore at both Jamesby and Petit Bateau. Both islands have trails leading to the top starting from the windward side. The views aren’t completely 360-degree panoramic but they’re still more than enough! Petit Bateau is about 140′ high and you’ll get a great view of the reefs and changing color of the water.

Iguana on top of Petit Bateau.

Horseshoe Reef and Petit Tabac.

Jamesby has a cool little beach…just a short, narrow strip of sand with a few coconut trees abutting a tall cliff.

Petit Bateau is like the main little island, if you will. There’s a barbecue hut set up on the windward side, and the leeward side is full of picnic tables and vendors selling t-shirts and such. As I mentioned earlier, I made my visit when throngs of cruise passengers were coming ashore. Good for the local economy though!

The barbecue hut on the windward side of Petit Bateau.

The southwest side of Baradel is roped off and designated as a turtle-watching area. You can take a dinghy to this area, but you either have to leave your dinghy outside, anchored or tied up to the buoys, or bring it inside and beach it before you go swimming.

But you know what’s better? Just swim there from your boat! I did and saw another 5-6 turtles to and from. The furthest you’ll have to swim is about a quarter-mile from anywhere in Horseshoe Reef. I must have seen at least ten different turtles once inside the roped-off area.

sea turtles

Two sea turtles near Baradel island

Sea turtle in the shallow water near Baradel island.

For more information, visit www.tobagocays.org.

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