PHOTO: PIOTR ANDREWS

“Who in their right mind would risk the destruction of an asset that costs nothing to create, requires no maintenance, and cannot be replaced?”

In part two of an investigation into the proposed Marriott resort at Mt Irvine’s Rocky Point, Mark Meredith reports on surfing tourism, and an alternative plan which safeguards that sport, diving, birding, turtles and archeological treasures, all synonymous with the Tobago Tourism Agency’s own tagline – Beyond Ordinary. The original Trinidad Sunday Express article can be viewed at the bottom of the page

“Epic tube time” on Mt Irvine’s famous wave, on its day rated in the world’s top 10 PHOTO: PIOTR ANDREWS

“This is where it begins. The ride of your life. Mt Irvine at size. You have to make the drop – now! One second you’re sitting still on your board, the next you spin, take two strokes and catch the wave. From zero to full velocity, in a heartbeat. 

“You are blinded by spray blowing up the wave. This is the dance. There is no thought, no time, nothing but total focus to make that drop. The sound is like a 747 on your shoulder.  Your entire being is in that moment. You are mainlining exhilaration. This is pure stoke!”

– Dave Achong, founding President of the Surfing Association of Trinidad & Tobago

The powerful northern Atlantic swells begin their journey far from Mt Irvine in the icy months of winter. From November to May they surge remorselessly southwards, impacting the rocky peninsulas and sheltered bays of Caribbean coastlines.

While hurricanes, which develop from June to October in warm southern Atlantic latitudes, head west, generating massive swells that impact both the Atlantic and Caribbean Sea simultaneously. For much of the year, our coastlines are governed by the intense forces these oceanic upheavals bring.

At Mt Irvine’s Rocky Point, a rare and wonderful accident of geological and oceanic topography combines to form the perfect wave generated by these swells. It’s a wave which surfers have travelled from all over the world to ride for decades.

The unique topography of the deep reef off Mt Irvine channels the ocean surge into an area that brings the swells from depths of hundreds of feet gradually rising onto the point, groomed and sculpted by tides, currents and winds onto reef levels of 90 feet rising to just 10 feet.

The wave breaks to the right in a flawless line that peels above the contours of the coral reef for 200 to 300 yards without sectioning, creating glassy walls of curling water from six feet to 30 feet, at speeds of 40 to 50 mph, providing what is known as “epic tube time”: riding on lightweight surfboards through a kaleidoscopic tunnel of pulsating sound and light.

Surfing has been an integral part of the Mt Irvine environment since the late 1960’s when an American serviceman saw the “perfect point wave” and told colleagues in Puerto Rico. 

Visiting yachties in the early 70s talked up the point wave and word hit the American surf scene, attracting travelling surfers escaping the Vietnam draft. By 1971 the public beach facilities at Mt Irvine were completed and the location became the home of T&T surfing.

One of those early local pioneers was Dave Achong, founding president of the T&T Surf Association. He has surfed Mt Irvine for almost 50 years.

“One of the unique qualities of this magnificent wave spot is that on its day it compares to the best right point breaks on the planet, and is ranked in the top ten. This wave is on nearly every surfer’s bucket list,” he enthuses, listing numerous magazines worldwide who have featured Mt Irvine’s wave. 

Achong is unequivocal about the importance of the wave to Tobago’s tourism economy and the threats posed to the coral reefs which form the wave by the Marriott’s massive earthworks that would take place directly above them.

He says from his 40 years experience in the construction industry the developers’ mitigation and construction plans in the CEC application are “seriously flawed and it will be a disaster if attempted”.

“It will lead to the siltation of the shallow, mid level and deep reef systems and their irreversible destruction, leaving behind a despoiled shoreline and beach areas that will be forever torpid and dirty, a death trap for all coastal marine life, including turtles. 

“Who in their right mind would risk the destruction of an asset that costs nothing to create, requires no maintenance, and cannot be replaced?”

Dave Achong, founding President of the T&T Surf Association, with son Keith

Achong reels off a list of at least four dozen countries whose nationals have surfed the wave with him: Namibia to Nicaragua, Barbados to Belgium, Argentina to Australia. He’s adamant that the wave is vital to the local economy.

Emphasising the foreign and domestic exchange earnings from surfing, families of surfers, long-stay surfers, their lodging, including meals, vehicle hire and tours, he says: “This is not chump change. This is expenditure that has supported the villages of Buccoo, Pleasant Prospect and Black Rock for 45 years.”

Achong points out that with surfing now an Olympic sport, Mt Irvine provides the finest training ground to breed T&T’s future Olympians with an unbeatable wave, an advantage few other countries have.

Exhilaration etched on the face of this surfer as he experiences Mt irvine’s famous wave PHOTO: PIOTR ANDREWS

Mt Irvine’s coral reefs which form the wave are part of Tobago’s most extensive inshore reef system, an important attraction in their own right, the Mt Irvine Wall and Extension being well known dive sites.

Families with snorkelers of all ages venture out from Mt Irvine’s public beach to explore this accessible wonderland, while the scuba divers who travel to Tobago and Mt Irvine provide valuable, high-end tourism revenue for the island’s dive operators.

One of these, Undersea Tobago’s Derek Chung, told us of his worries about pollution and sedimentation from the development’s construction and operational phases. But he supports the Marriott if it addresses all his concerns. He believes it presents “an opportunity to set new industry standards in reducing negative environmental impacts”.

Others, who also cherish the gifts the blue ocean brings to this area of Tobago, don’t believe a development of this magnitude in this area makes that possible. They have ideas they say are more suited to Tobago’s unique attractions and visitor appeal.

BEYOND ORDINARYRocky Point Heritage Park & Back Bay Nature Reserve

Those who swim, surf, snorkel, dive and walk around Mt Irvine’s Rocky Point and Back Bay will tell you that this rugged, untamed stretch of Caribbean coastline is special, “sacred ground”, way beyond ordinary.

“Beyond Ordinary” is Tobago Tourism Agency’s (TTA) own tagline, luring would-be visitors to the sister isle, promising something much more uplifting and soul-cleansing than another large hotel on a beach.

Visit Tobago “Where unspoilt traditions, untouched natural beauty and undiscovered gems merge to create the idyllic Caribbean escape,” TTA assure.

At their webinar last November it was stated: “Biodiversity is vital for tourism, and is a direct attraction at the heart of unspoilt Tobago’s nature-based tourism products – such as wildlife watching, scuba diving or exploring stunning tropical landscapes”.

Postage stamp, circa 1938, celebrating the “stunning tropical landscape”
of Mt Irvine

The NGO Rocky Point Foundation (RPF) is taking TTA at their word by promoting a Rocky Point Heritage Park & Back Bay Nature Reserve, the antithesis of the Marriott plan.

RPF takes as its starting point the peninsula’s significant Amerindian history, and location of Fort Monk, built in 1680. 

The Tobago Heritage Conservation Society (THCS) told the Sunday Express of the importance of the heritage site. The fort has coral stone walls in a horseshoe layout, with earth embankments that housed a battery of six canons.

There is a two storey powder magazine incorporating a barrel-vaulted magazine store, with a dressed stone lintel above the door and rifle-holes with brick detailing Amerindian archaeological remains.

In 1986 Dr Arie Boomert, an archeologist and Senior Research Fellow at UWI, presented an exhaustive report on the archaeology of Tobago.

Boomert wrote, “Rocky Point fort represents the late 17th century Courlander Fort and as such it should form the oldest historical monument in the entire Trinidad and Tobago, and makes the structure highly significant and requiring serious consideration”.

THCS told us the developers’ plans “did not make adequate allowance for preserving the Fort structures in a suitable setting”. They said the site needed “full archeological recording”.

They concluded: “Heritage Assets at Rocky Point are “highly significant” and as such should be listed, protected and conserved.”

RPF has applied to the National Trust for the property to be listed, thereby securing statutory protection.

Part of the remains of Fort Monk, built in 1680, making it possibly the oldest structure in all of T&T

A replica Amerindian Village for Rocky Point is proposed by RPF, with footpaths allowing visitors to walk through the village, immersing themselves in a historic culture which once existed there. 

“Visitors will be able to take guided tours of the village with trained and knowledgeable guides,” says their website saverockypoint.com

The Rocky Point Museum would include all Tobago history, Amerindian through settlers and slavery. They plan Archeological and Settlers tours, with guided walks to the fort.

At Rocky Point Fort they plan to beautify the area, identify and protect the remaining structures while preserving as much of the natural forest as possible, while affording visitors the reward of breathtaking views.

Back Bay Nature Reserve “will offer a myriad of eco-activities and attractions that will highlight the untouched virgin environment that Back Bay offers”. This will include hiking and biking trails, turtle watching and birdwatching. 

RPF’s plan for a heritage park and nature reserve at Rocky Point

Faraaz Abdool, a Trinidadian photographer and writer on birds, who leads birding tours in T&T and abroad, told us Rocky Point contained many species found across forested areas on the island. What made it special is that it’s one of the most accessible and reliable locations to see the blue-backed manakin. The endemic manakin is a major birding attraction.

The stunning blue-backed manakin, endemic to Tobago and top birding attraction for enthusiasts, best seen at Rocky Point
PHOTO: FARAAZ ABDOOL

Park activities would be facilitated through a Back Bay Visitor Centre, with trained and knowledgeable staff, say RPF. They also envision a cafe/restaurant in the centre. They are looking for corporate sponsors to help them fulfil their overall vision.

Sea turtle protection NGO SOS Tobago, who with the Forestry Division have monitored Back Bay’s leatherback and hawksbill nesting sites for 20 years, are keen to work with RPF on turtle ecotourism, providing educational tours.

“Part of the value of Back Bay as a nesting beach and research site is that it is relatively easily accessible and yet there are no artificial lights, no built development,” said SOS founder Tanya Clovis. “Maintaining the beach in as natural a state as possible would be key to maintaining its value.

“We want to see the whole area become a park and conservation site, incorporating and highlighting the rich archeological, cultural and natural heritage of Rocky Point.”

Leatherback turtles, above, and hawksbill turtles use the dark, unspoiled beach of Back Bay to nest. PHOTO: MARK MEREDITH

But it wouldn’t be the first plan for a park there.

In 1998 a $26 million Rocky Point Coastal Park plan was drawn up by Stanley Beard, Advisor to the Minister of Tobago Development. The project, essentially similar but more ambitious than RPF’s plan, was given Cabinet approval in 2014. That ministry was closed in 2015 and the project died.

Beard wants RPF’s plan to succeed where his failed: “It will serve both the resident and visitor populations equitably and more sustainably, while protecting, conserving and exploiting the diverse richness of all that this site contributes. 

“Tobagonians must unite, learn to recognise and appreciate the gifts of nature that abound here in Tobago. Not hurriedly part, trade or give away our God-given patrimony for the proverbial 30 pieces of silver.”

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