Covering around 12sq km of Caribbean seabed between Pigeon Point and Buccoo Bay, Buccoo Reef is Tobago’s largest and most heavily visited collection of corals, from hard stag and elkhorn varieties to waving purple sea fans and peach-coloured fire coral, patrolled by the brilliantly coloured trigger, butterfly, surgeon and parrot fish which thrive here. To the south of the reef is Nylon Pool, a gleaming coralline sandbar forming an appealing metre-deep swimming pool smack in the middle of the sea. It’s said to have been named by Princess Margaret during her stay in the 1950s; she supposedly remarked that the water was as clear as her nylon stockings – nylon had just been invented.
Sadly, however, human interference has taken a devastating toll. Carelessly placed anchors and thoughtless removal of coral souvenirs – not to mention the inevitable pollution – mean that many parts have been terribly damaged, and bear more resemblance to a coral graveyard than a living reef. Buccoo also took a pounding during the years when boat operators handed out plastic shoes to allow visitors to walk on the reef as a part of the glass-bottom boat tour. Large sections have died off completely, leaving white skeletons in their wake, while overfishing has reduced the fish and crustacean populations, and poorly aimed spear guns have ripped chunks from the coral. The situation became so bad that Buccoo was declared a protected national park in 1973, but with scant resources to enforce the law the legal status meant little and the damage continued practically unabated. Today, glass-bottom boat operators are more conscientious, no longer promoting reef walks and anchoring at designated buoys, as well as warning visitors that touching or removing reef matter and shells is illegal. The Buccoo Reef Trust (t 635 2000, w buccooreeftrust.org), meanwhile, is a local NGO working to help preserve the reef and educate boat operators and fishermen about sustainable practices. You can do your bit by standing on the seabed only and refusing to buy any coral trinkets.
Despite the damage, there’s still plenty to see at Buccoo, particularly at outlying areas such as Coral Gardens. You’ll have no difficulty in finding a glass-bottom boat to take you; most leave from Store Bay and, to a lesser degree, Buccoo and Pigeon Point. Two- to three-hour trips cost around US$25, and usually leave at about 11am and 2pm; touts prowl all the main beaches. The tours are often fairly raucous, accompanied by loud music on the way home, but offer a good glimpse of the coral as well as a pretty perspective back over Tobago’s southwest coastline and hilly interior.