When I saw the large group of tiny, uniformed school children waiting to join the same boat tour of the Caroni Swamp and Bird Sanctuary as us, I have to say my heart sank. Having been on trips with such groups in other parts of the world, I imagined loud chatter, rough play fighting and rocking boats. I needn’t have worried! These children were the best-behaved I’ve ever seen. They spent the time while we were waiting for the tour to start sitting quietly filling in the parts of their worksheets that they already knew the answers to. Once on the boat, they kept very still when we stopped to observe the wildlife, remained silent when told to, and asked intelligent questions when given the opportunity. I congratulated one of their teachers on having such well-behaved pupils. She seemed surprised that I was commenting. For her, their behaviour was normal and nothing less would be tolerated! The age of the children? Just five and six years old!
As the only foreigners on the tour, we were given the best seats in the boat – right at the front. I felt guilty, but didn’t refuse as it made for better photo opportunities!
Caroni Swamp and Bird Sanctuary covers forty square kilometres of tidal lagoons, marshland and mangrove forest bordering the Gulf of Paria between the mouths of the Caroni and Madame Espagnole rivers. It is home to 157 bird species, as well as caimans, snakes, opossums, raccoons and countless fish and insects. The area was designated a protected wildlife area in 1953, but poaching and industrial waste pollution are still problems here. Nevertheless, the swamp is a beguiling and peaceful place and well worth a visit.
The best way to visit Caroni Swamp and Bird Sanctuary is on a boat tour. A couple of companies operate such trips. We opted to go with Nanan’s, the longest-established operator with the best reputation. The trips leave every day at 4pm. The departure time is so that visitors get to see the Scarlet Ibis coming in to roost for the night, but the twilight attracts all kinds of biting insects, so a good repellent is a must!
At the start of the tour, our guide gave us plenty of background information on the history of the area and told us all about the wildlife we were likely to see.
As we chugged along through the swamp, the roots of the mangroves gave the place an ‘other-worldly’ feel. We paused to take photos when someone spotted a boa asleep on a branch above our heads, and again when we saw tiny crabs racing up and down the mangroves. We were fascinated to see large black termite nests attached to the trees. Everywhere was lush and verdant. We were tantalised by occasional glimpses of brilliant bright red Scarlet Ibis through the leaves. They were too elusive to photograph, but beautiful, nonetheless.
As we approached Paria Bay and the open sea, the swamp became deeper and wider and we saw lots of large fish jumping up out of the water.
Our guide then found a place to tie the boat up. He cut the engine and we sat in silent awe watching the white egret and the vivid red ibis flying in to roost for the night. What a spectacle! Wave after wave of birds flew in, gradually turning their preferred clump of trees vibrant red and sparkling white. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. We were too far away to get good photos, but it was amazing just to sit and watch one of nature’s miracles. We remained there until the sun set and then returned to our departure point.
The tour lasted two and a half hours in total and was one of the highlights of our time in Trinidad.