Learning to care

The first time I visited Buccoo Reef in Tobago, I was 13, a precocious teen on holiday with the family. In the early sixties, travel between Trinidad and Tobago by air was still a precious event reserved for the elite or those, like us, having a first-in-a-lifetime experience. That's where the Buccoo Reef trip fitted.

I remember how blue the water was - a blue reserved for the pages of magazines or posters featuring that idyllic Pigeon Point jetty like a finger pointing to the horizonless expanse of bluest blue in our two islands. At the Nylon Pool, we floated as if suspended in sky. I marvelled at the coral, white as bleached bones. I thought then, that was the natural colour of coral. At that time, some 30 years after the marine park was opened (in the 1930s) as we walked in our plastic sandals, we were cautioned not to handle any coral, not to chase the fish. Even then, there were whispers of the decay of the reef, as if touring it was a surreptitious activity, reserved for the privileged few. I did not understand then what parts of the reef were dying, what parts were alive.

Beached bones of the sea

Buccoo Reef has been a long time dying. This notion conveyed a sense of urgency about visiting (before it dead) rather than a need to care for it. And even though the next time we ventured on a Reef tour - when I returned from university in 1973 - it was in a glass-bottomed boat, I had no pleasure in it. I knew by then that the white bones of the sea are signs of death on the reef but very little more.

Twenty years later, in 1990, we were a family with two small children. Our vacation that year took us to the other end of Tobago, Man o War Bay. Our visit to Little Tobago with Kenny Lee on his friend Frank's glass-bottomed boat provided a rare view of reefs at Speyside, around Goat Island and the then famed "biggest brain coral in the world." It opened my eyes to a wonderland that I could never before have imagined.

Precious document, published at the end of years of research

Kenny had recently moved to Tobago to live, and his passion - more than a pastime - was scuba diving and underwater photography. He was intent on working for himself, through photography and selling postcards. Tobago is a picture postcard place; you can't point your camera and take a bad photo. But his underwater photos were magic. Soon the book with his photographs was published.

Underwater photos by ©Kenneth Lee from the book A Guide to the Coral Reefs of Tobago

This definitive publication A Guide to the Coral Reefs of Tobago, by Richard S Laydoo, featured underwater photos by ©Kenneth Lee. It was published by the ©Institute of Marine Affairs.

A Guide to the Coral Reefs of Tobago, written and coordinated by Richard S. Laydoo, was a project of the Institute of Marine Affairs, and featured more than 30 underwater photos by Kenny Lee. It was published in 1991 after some six years of research and surveys. Twenty-five years on, Laydoo's guide remains a definitive text on the reefs of Tobago. It is instructional and informative, but at the same time, readable and a lasting record of Tobago's reefs at the turn of the century.

This Guide is a modest paper-back, 48 pages, with full colour photos and illustrations. The Appendix is a checklist of common reef organisms referred to in the text. The Glossary defines the technical terms; it is a vocabulary familiar to the sixth form biologist.  It was easy to take it for granted that such a guide was simple to conjure into being. It was easy to understand, bringing knowledge to the uninitiated, without conditions or provisos. If you look at the Acknowledgements and Credits, you realise that it takes a community of skills to produce a comprehensive and lasting record such as this: "the village that raises a child!"

It takes a wide cross-section of a national community to publish a book of research and knowledge. It takes a whole island community to protect its marine and on-shore environment.

All along the Caribbean (north) coast of Tobago, accessible reefs can be reached by strong swimmers or snorkelers. But it's best to learn and tour with responsible dive operators.

Apart from the book, the Tobago dive operators and fisherfolk are the repositories for knowledge of these reefs. But how does the ordinary person living in Buccoo or Bacolet, Whim or Golden Lane, come to such knowledge. More importantly how does the Trinbagonian child learn to respect and cherish the sea around as much as the shores he inhabits.

We are told that we learn to care about what we see every day. But it's not that simple. Knowledge and appreciation of the marine environment is a complex affair. We could gaze at the sea for hours every day and still not know what goes on below the waves; or that the white bones of the sea that wash ashore are not signs of life. The young Tobago resident deserves to be as informed about  the health, safety and sustainability of the seas around, as she is about the Main Ridge Reserve, the oldest protected rainforest in the Western Hemisphere.

This book written and compiled by Richard Laydoo over 25 years ago is a good start as an intro to the world underwater. Next should be marine field trips. Next too, the campus of the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) Marine Sciences for which ground was broken at Buccoo. At the very least, let's have a marine sciences research institute in Tobago; let's see our people as scientists and researchers, curators of the splendid seas and fragrant lands to which we are born.


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