By Robert Charuk

The Tobago Cays

The Tobago Cays are a group of four small uninhabited islands surrounded by an extensive Horseshoe Reef that acts as a barrier from the sea.  A fifth island lies just outside the reef.  The colors reflected by the shallow water and the reef are simply spectacular.  Without question, it is the jewel of the Caribbean when comparing anchorages.  There is nothing like it anywhere.

[Click on photo for full size image]
Photo by Paul Gravel, SVG Air

Not to be confused with the island of Tobago (which is part of Trinidad), the Tobago Cays are located near the southernmost part of the Grenadine Islands, midway between the islands of St. Vincent and Grenada.

The Horseshoe Reef has a diameter of about two miles and is teeming with corals and tropical fish of every kind.  A snorkeler’s paradise, the water depth averages five to twelve feet.  Under bright sunshine and crystal-clear water, the bright colors provide the perfect conditions for observing marine life at its finest.

The protected waters just behind the reef averages eight to ten feet in depth.  The afternoon sun that shines down on the white sand bottom and clear water turns the entire area bright emerald.  It is really quite spectacular.  On calm days, it is possible to anchor your boat just inside the reef, leaving it as the only obstacle between you and Africa.

There are five uninhabited islands for you to explore.  Each has a beautiful white sand beach that makes for a great place to have a picnic and enjoy the day.  Beach vendors often sell t-shorts and jewelry.  In the evenings, Boat Vendors offer beach barbecues that are well worth attending.  The leeward side of Baradel is protected from the wind and waves and is a favorite spot to anchor.

The Tobago Cays are without question, the Grenadines most popular anchorage.  A survey conducted in 1995 estimated that 14,000 yachtspersons, 25,000 charter boat day-trippers, and 10,000 cruise ship passengers visit the Cays every year.

Tobago Cays Marine Park

It is not common knowledge that until recently, the Cays were the property of the Eustace family of St. Vincent.  They acquired them some 40 years ago from another private owner from the United States.  It took fifteen years of negotiations before the Government of St. Vincent and The Grenadines finally acquired the islands in April, 1999, for US$1.025 million.

In 1987, the Government designated a Conservation Area in the Southern Grenadines, centered on the Tobago Cays.  In 1995, they approved a proposal submitted by the Ministry of Agriculture and Labor for the establishment of the Tobago Cays as a National Marine Park.  Legislation on Marine Parks was enacted in 1997, and regulations were developed the following year.  

The mission of the Tobago Cays Marine Park is to protect, conserve and improve the natural resources of the Tobago Cays.  Further refinement of the mission includes the need to preserve the Tobago Cays Marine Park as a Natural Heritage, for the children of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and for the children of the World.  

False Start

Many public consultations had been conducted and various implementation strategies were considered.  Plans for the management of the Marine Park were made and revised several times.  The hiring of a small staff to form the Tobago Cays Marine Park Management Team and the establishment of an office on Union Island was the first evidence of  implementation of the plan.  Kurt Cordice (BSc. Biological Sci., Minor Psyc., Certified SCUBA/Medic First Aid  Instructor,  Certified Sailing Skipper)  became the first Marine Parks Manager in 1998.  He was responsible for overall project development and management,  environmental research and monitoring, education, intra-governmental and community facilitation, Marine Ranger Trainer, and head of the training program.  Cruising fees were imposed by the Government in 2002 for the purposes of funding the Tobago Cays Marine Park initiative.

Despite this, a visit to the Cays would not have revealed any obvious changes.  The few dinghy moorings were slowly disappearing and there was no visible presence of the Management Team on the Cays themselves.  The lone TCMP boat was laid up in Clifton Harbor for over a year awaiting a simple engine repair.  The wheels finally came off the program last year when Kurt resigned to pursue other interests.

Turmoil In Paradise

Last summer, Robert Barrett, owner of the Palm Island Resort Limited (PIRL), submitted a proposal to Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves for management of the park that appeared to be accepted in principle.  Few details of the proposal were made public and the backroom nature of the deal raised the ire of local residents.  When details were released, it was learned that PIRL planned to build several structures on the islands, to implement the TCMP Management Plan “to the greatest extent possible”, and remit 50% of the profits “after expenses” to the Government.

Uncomfortable with the prospect of losing the Cays to foreign private interests, a community-based non-profit group called the Mayreau Environmental Development Organization (MEDO) submitted a proposal that would keep management of the Cays away from the private sector, focus on environmental preservation, and return   proposal, it lacked the necessary clout needed to derail Government plans.  

Last November, nearly 1,000 residents traveled by boat to Mayreau in protest.  For a sleepy community in a quiet part of the world, this was a major event!  

A new organization, “Friends of the Tobago Cays” (FOTC), was formed to support MEDO’s plan and channel dissatisfaction at the Government.  In the first 36 hours, their petition raised nearly 1,000 signatures.  Numerous news articles and letters followed, and the story soon reached Internet travel forums.

The  “Friends” kept up their pressure on the government, who continued to show no signs of straying from the original plan, despite the level of public outcry.  Things continued to heat up over the winter months and angry words were spoken on the topic.  Vincentians were not happy and the Government remained firm.

Reviewing some of the details of the PIRL proposal made for some very uncomfortable reading.  PIRL planned to build a dock, a Visitor’s Center, a windmill, and Ranger Station on one of the islands.  Anyone familiar with the Cays understands that a significant part of their attraction is the uninhabited Islands.  Build structures on them and you destroy the very thing that made them special in the first place.  The close proximity of the Palm Island Resort lead one to believe that the real intent was to use the Cays for the commercial benefit of that Resort. 

Concept sketches of some ideas PIRL has for the Cays
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The ongoing saga was extensively covered in a number of places on the Internet.  Chris Doyle wrote some excellent articles for Caribbean Compass:

Reversal of Fortune

By spring 2004, it was beginning to look like the plan was going to proceed, despite the levels of opposition.  Then, in a surprise move in early May, Robert Barrett and PIRL withdrew their proposal.  Prime Minister Gonsalves was hopping mad, and in a terse public statement, he admonished the local dissenters and vowed to proceed with the PIRL plan, but under Government supervision.

On this surface, this appeared to be good news, in that the FOTC had won the battle to keep the management of the Cays out of the hands of Mr. Barrett and the private sector.  It is still uncertain if the Government will actually go through with the PIRL plan, one that the FOTC opposes so strongly.

[Click on photo for full size image]
Photo by Tony Da Silva, Quick Print

Negotiations continue between the Government and the FOTC.  It will likely take some time before the Government moves on this.  Given the lack of public support for their current plan, they will want to get it right.  It is unlikely that they will actually implement the PIRL plan themselves, given their previous track record and continued levels of opposition.  Fortunately, public pressure continues from FOTC to make the right choices.

[Click on photo for full size image]
Photo by Paul Gravel, SVG Air

The Prime Suspect Thinks...

Having visited the Cays frequently, I have a small list of ideas that I would like to see implemented over time.  Again, these are only a few ideas from an outsider:

  • The primary focus right now should be to ensure adequate funding is in place to implement the goals that have been laid out.  Without money, nothing gets done, and this has been a problem for several years.

  • Get TCMP Marine Rangers on the water with a visible presence as soon as possible.  I am confident that their presence will make a huge difference, and many concerns about use and access will disappear once the Rangers are there in person.

  • The Government must apply to have the Tobago Cays added to the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) World Heritage List under the Natural criteria.

  • Re-install the mooring balls on the dinghy moorings.  There are only 4 balls left, and I am certain there are anchors for at least a dozen more on the bottom.

  • The Boat Vendors are now regulated through the Southern Grenadines Water Taxi Association.  The TCMP should recognize this organization and bring them under the management and control of the park.  It should be possible to train them in Search and Rescue and use their skills and assets to enhance public safety.

  • Decide once and for all if beach barbecues should be allowed on the islands.  If so, then establish tight guidelines on their use and enforce them.  Some form of  basic facilities are required to conduct them properly.  Given that there is a ban on construction of permanent structures, it would be worth examining the possibility of visibly attractive, portable, and ecologically-friendly fire pits, picnic tables, and garbage bins.  This is standard issue in National Parks worldwide, why not here?  Sanctioning the barbecues does open up another topic - washroom facilities - which requires the dreaded permanent structures.  Lots of room for discussion here...

  • The Cays do not require fixed moorings for visiting yachts.  Not today, not ever.  There is plenty of sand bottom to anchor boats without disturbing the fragile reef systems.

  • Begin the discussion now on overboard discharge.  There will be many views on this, and I think we need to start changing those views before some politician steps in and makes up our mind for us - we may not like the results.  The boating community needs to appear more proactive on this. 

The Future

The Tobago Cays are without question, a treasure that needs to be protected and preserved for the enjoyment of future generations.  The Government of St. Vincent and The Grenadines has an important decision to make on its future.  Fortunately, there is sufficient public exposure, at both the local and international level, to keep them honest and hold them accountable.  Lets hope this is enough.

Last Updated: July 1, 2004
Copyright © 2004