2018 Travels 5 - Amazon River Cruise travel blog

Crossing the Ecuador Ceremony

Crossing the Ecuador Ceremony

Crossing the Ecuador Ceremony

Crossing the Ecuador Ceremony

Tobago Island Map

Tobago Island


Today we had another day “at sea” where we observed the ceremony of Crossing the Equator. This ceremony is an initiation rite that commemorates a sailor’s first crossing of the Equator. Equator-crossing ceremonies, typically featuring King Neptune, are also carried out for passengers' on some ocean liners and cruise ships, including ours. Sailors and passengers who have already crossed the Equator are known as Shellbacks, and those who have not are nicknamed as Tadpoles or Pollywogs. A Golden Shellback is a person who has crossed the Equator at the 180th meridian (the International Date Line). If a person crosses the Equator at the Prime Meridian they gain status as a Royal Diamond Shellback (aka Emerald Shellback in the USA).

The ritual is a ceremony presided over by King Neptune (the ancient ruler of the seas) who wears a gold crown and holds a trident. Sitting beside him is his wife Queen Amphitrite. They may be surrounded by a villainous surgeon, a barber, guards and people dressed as bears. The form and make–up of the ceremony is far from standardized, and the cast can include a wide range of characters depending on the experience and imagination of the participants.

The Captain and the Navigator attempt to time the approach of the ship to the Equator for a suitable date and time for the ceremony. In our case, it was 11:00 AM. The proceedings consisted of several phases or ‘acts’. As part of the ritual pollywogs (those who have not previously been initiated) are challenged and regardless of the outcome, are dunked in water to cleanse them of current or previous “sins”. This procedure is intended to cleanse the initiate of the ‘dirt of the North’. Tradition states that seamen had to be cleansed of impurities, both physical and mental. Once completed the pollywog or initiate is designated as a shellback. This cruise changed the rules a bit and made the Captain go through the ritual again even though we all know that he has done this crossing many times before.

Normally, once initiated Shellbacks are presented with a certificate or affidavit to mark their transition from Tadpole to Shellback they are not required to do it again. The certificate is more than decorative. Shellbacks unable to prove their initiation by producing their certificate are usually forcibly dunked again (just to make sure.) Luckily, we were not required to present our certificates as we had records of previous crossings and proved our status as Shellbacks.

The next day we docked and I was a mite disappointed. Our original cruise schedule, provided by the cruise line, had us arriving at Trinidad Island. Instead we are anchored off Tobago Island, which is right across from Trinidad. Close, but no cigar. Sure, had we known ahead of time we could have made arrangements to take a ferry from Tobago to Trinidad, but then they had no tours and we would have to be on our own with very little time on shore. I know three ladies from Trinidad, including a friend’s wife, and I told them that we would be visiting their home island and that soon I’d be able to talk about their island with some experience. Not to happen.

So we took a “sleepy” tour of Tobago and visited its capital, Scarborough. Julieann attempted some shopping of “local” goods only to find the majority of items were made in China. She and a couple of other female friends hired a taxi to find local chocolate and coffee to no avail. The taxi driver made out pretty good with his constant “misdirection”, but the gals came up empty.

So, some history: Tobago is an autonomous island within the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. It is located 22 miles northeast of the mainland of Trinidad and southeast of Grenada, about 99 miles off the coast of northeast Venezuela. According to the earliest English-language source cited in the Oxford English Dictionary, Tobago bore a name that has become the English word tobacco.

Christopher Columbus reportedly first sighted Tobago in 1498, but never stopped here. Subsequently, several powers fought over possession of the island. The original Island Carib population had to defend the island against other Amerindian tribes. Over the ensuing years, the Curonians (Duchy of Courland), Dutch, English, French, Spanish and Swedish had caused Tobago to become a focal point in repeated attempts of colonization, which led to the island having changed hands 33 times, the most in Caribbean history, before the Treaty of Paris ceded it to the British in 1814. When the island again came under British control, another phase of successful sugar-production began. But a severe hurricane in 1847, combined with the collapse of plantation underwriters, marked the end of the sugar trade. In 1889 the island became a ward of Trinidad. Without sugar, the islanders had to grow other crops, planting acres of limes, coconuts and cocoa and exporting their produce to Trinidad. In 1963 Hurricane Flora ravaged Tobago, destroying the villages and crops. A restructuring program followed and attempts were made to diversify the economy. The development of a tourist industry began.

Trinidad and Tobago obtained their independence from the British Empire in 1962 and became a republic in 1976. The population was 60,874 at the 2011 census. The capital, Scarborough, has a population of 17,537. While Trinidad is multiethnic, Tobago's population is primarily of African descent, although with a growing proportion of Trinidadians of East Indian descent and Europeans. Between 2000 and 2011, the population of Tobago grew by 12.55 percent, making it one of the fastest-growing areas of Trinidad and Tobago. Tobago has a land area of approximately 25 miles in length and 6.2 miles in width. It is primarily hilly, mountainous and of volcanic origin. The southwest of the island is flat and consists largely of coralline limestone. The hilly spine of the island is called the Main Ridge. The highest point in Tobago is the 1804 foot Pigeon Peak near Speyside.

The climate is tropical, and the island lies just south of the Atlantic hurricane belt, making it vulnerable to occasional southward-travelling tropical storms. Average rainfall varies between 150 inches on the Main Ridge to less than 49 inches in the southwest. There are two seasons: a wet season between June and December, and a dry season between January and May. Due to its close proximity to the hurricane belt, the island was struck by Hurricane Flora on September 30, 1963. The effects were so severe that they changed the face of Tobago's economy. The hurricane laid waste to the banana, coconut, and cacao plantations that largely sustained the economy, and wreaked considerable damage on the largely pristine tropical rainforest that makes up a large proportion of the interior of the island's northern half. Many of the plantations were subsequently abandoned, and the economy changed direction away from cash crop agriculture and toward tourism. In 2004 Hurricane Ivan, while less severe than Flora, also caused significant damage.

The Tobago Forest Reserve (Main Ridge Reserve) is the oldest protected rain forest in the Western hemisphere and is biodiversity. It was designated a protected Crown reserve on 17 April 1776 and has remained a protected area since. This forested area has great biodiversity, including many species of birds, mammals, frogs, (non-venomous) snakes, butterflies and other invertebrates. It is one of the most approachable areas of rainforest, since it is relatively small and there are government-appointed guides who provide an authoritative guiding service through the forest at a reasonable cost. The guides are knowledgeable about the plants and the animals, and can call down rare and exotic birds from the canopy by imitating their calls. Tobago also has nesting beaches for the leatherback turtle, which come to shore between April and July.

Tobago's main economy is based on tourism, fishing, and government spending, government spending being the largest. Tourism is still a fledgling industry and needs to be developed. The local governing body, The Tobago House of Assembly (THA), employs 62% of the labor force.

Tobago was thought by some to have been the island that inspired Robinson Crusoe, but the book is probably based on some of the experiences of Alexander Selkirk, who was marooned in the Pacific's Juan Fernández Islands. Adding to the confusion, Tobago was the filming location for the Walt Disney movie Swiss Family Robinson. In 1958, Tobago was chosen by the Walt Disney Company as the setting for a film based upon the Johann Wyss novel, Swiss Family Robinson. When producers saw the island for the first time, they "fell instantly in love". The script required animals, which arrived from all around the world, including 8 dogs, 2 giant tortoises, 40 monkeys, 2 elephants, 6 ostriches, 4 zebras, 100 flamingos, 6 hyenas, 2 anacondas, and a tiger. The infamous tree house was constructed in a 200-foot tall tree in the Goldsborough Bay area. After filming, locals convinced Disney, who had intended to remove all evidence of filmmaking, to let the tree house remain, sans interior furnishing. In 1960, the tree house was listed for sale for $9,000, a fraction of its original cost, and became a popular attraction before the structure was destroyed by Hurricane Flora in 1963. The tree still remains, however, and is located on the property of the Roberts Auto Service and Tyre Shop, located in Goldsborough, just off of Windward Road. A local Tobago resident says, "The tree has fallen into obscurity; only a few of the older people knew of its significance. As a matter of fact, not many people know of the film Swiss Family Robinson, much less that it was filmed here in Tobago."

Little Tobago, the small neighboring island, supports some of the best dry forest remaining in Tobago. Little Tobago and St. Giles Island are important seabird nesting colonies, with red-billed tropicbirds, magnificent frigate birds and Audubon's shearwaters, among others.

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