05.03.2011 - 12.03.2011 30 °C
The Bay Islands are found in the Caribbean Sea, just off the coast of Honduras. With an hour-and-a-half ride on a passenger ferry, we left La Ceiba to arrive in Utila around sunset. There are three main islands that make up the Bay Islands: Roatan is the largest island and is more of a resort destination; Utila is the third largest island of the Bay Islands, only about a quarter of the size of Roatan, but is the area where backpackers stay and boasts countless dive shops; the final island of Guanaja is rarely visited and remains a haven only for the very wealthy. These islands are found at the south end of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, which is the second largest barrier reef in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. For many years fishing has been the main industry and food supply for the local people, but with an increasing population and tourism turning into the future for the islands, sustenance fishing is becoming a problem with waning fish stock for the main tourist draw –diving. There are more than sixty dive sites in the area with flourishing bright coral and marine life, including the elusive Whale Sharks that feed on krill in the area from March to April.
Utila has one main road that runs parallel to the ocean with many restaurants and accommodation options. Dive shops sit along the water’s edge with their own piers and dive boats. Immediately after stepping off the pier from the ferry, dive shop touts swarm tourists aggressively, trying to draw you to their shop. Most shops offer free accommodation in their dorms if you take a dive course or a discount at any of the nearby hotels. After a ten-hour journey we were tired and ready to settle in for the night, so we allowed one tout to take us to Parrot’s Dive Shop and set us up in a private room at the Bay View Hotel. The hotel is directly on the water with its own pier and picnic area, and the clean large rooms include a small fridge. We dropped our bags and then went to sign up for our dives the following day.
I have been very lucky to have quite a few dives under my belt, but have always wanted to get my Advanced Open Water dive ticket. While I have done all the dives without restriction thus far, technically you are not allowed to dive deeper than 18 meters without the advanced ticket. Utila is known as the cheapest place to dive in the world and seemed like the perfect opportunity to complete my course, which gave me five skill dives and two extra fun dives. Our time in Utila was spent primarily diving, every day.
On my first day of diving, I did a wreck dive where 30 meters down the Halliburton sunk twelve years prior. With coral growing from its sides, it is a unique experience to watch the steel deteriorating and the once manned ship turned into a home for sea life.
The second dive that day was a navigation dive where I learned to use a compass underwater and by counting fin-kicks and paying attention to the compass reading, had to make a perfect square and triangle swim that returned me back to the original location. It is easy to get lost in the great expanse of blue and so knowing to find your way back to the boat or back to a reference point is very important.
My third dive that day was a night dive. I have never been diving in such pitch-black conditions. Submerging into the dark waters with only a flashlight, you find a world of sleeping fish and nocturnal creatures that are hard to find during the day. Large lobsters scurry along the ocean floor, numerous shrimp climb over the corals, and a large and nearly translucent octopus showed off its tentacles as it squirmed away from our bright lights. After viewing these creatures, we turned off the flashlights and swam in perfect darkness only to witness the beautiful phenomenon of phosphorescent lighting up around every movement made. Waving our arms and fins sparked little lights all around us as if we were orchestrating a light symphony.
The following day I completed a deep dive, going down to 30 meters and testing how nitrogen narcosis affects me. At these depths enough nitrogen enters your blood stream that many people get a feeling of being inebriated. Rising only slightly from these depths will make the drunken feeling go away, but this experience could be dangerous as divers loose sense of direction and often stop adhering to safety rules. We did a test on land, touching our nose and then touching the number one on a board, then back to our nose and back to the number two, all the way to twenty. This test was timed on land and then re-administered underwater to see how much slower thinking becomes with the effects of nitrogen narcosis. While the effect was not great for me, I was about 10 seconds slower. At this depth colours look very different, so we viewed colours and saw them change at these depths. We also took a bottle full of air down with us and saw it completely compress. We filled the bottle with air at the 30meter depth and upon re-surfacing the bottle had expanded so that the top just exploded off (a neat little physics experiment to show what can happen to your lungs if you hold your breath on ascent).
After these five dives I became a certified advanced diver! The following day I had my final two fun dives that Andrew joined in on. The dives were beautiful and allowed us to see the beautiful corals and fish of the area.
The highlight of the day actually happened between our two dives while waiting out our surface interval on the boat. The captain of the boat spotted a disturbance in the water where many fish were feeding, and then suddenly we circled to find ourselves right beside a whale shark! Quickly throwing on our snorkeling gear, we slipped into the water and had the amazing opportunity of swimming with the rarely seen enormous creature. The whale shark is a filter-feeding shark and the largest fish in the ocean, growing as large as 12.65 meters and weighing more than 36 tones. These sharks live up to seventy years. While it is a shark, it is named a “whale shark” appropriately due to its incredible whale-like size and filter-feeding. There is little known about whale sharks as they dive to incredible depths with only brief surface intervals. Biologists are still not certain of their numbers or exact migratory patterns, but for two brief months they feed between Utila and Roatan and the lucky few have a once in a life time chance to see and swim with them. We were on a boat with a dive master who had never seen one in months of diving these waters, but there we were three days in Utila with this sighting. When the whale shark swam off, we clambered back on board and circled the area again, only to spot the creature again. We were able to jump in and swim with it three times before other dive boats came to the area. It was an incredible experience.
A video of our beautiful Whale Shark sighting
After seven dives in three days I needed a day off from the water and we spent the next two days walking around Utila. One day we went all the way to the east of the island and the next day all the way west, exploring the small beaches, sunbathing and watching the beautiful sunsets.
After five days on Utila, we signed up with Captain Morgan’s Dive Shop, which is the only shop that takes you out to stay on the small Cays and dive the north side of Utila’s waters. Utila has a series of smaller islands or Cays that are found on the North West side of the island, only a twenty minute boat ride away. We came to Jewel Cay to find a tiny island with only one little sidewalk stretching from one end to the other. It is possible to walk from one end of the island and back within ten minutes, yet there are 500 people that live here. Jewel Cay has one school, four tiny restaurants and four tiny stores, but it has five churches. Everyone knows everyone on the island and the small community is a beautiful and peaceful place to spend a few days. We spent the first day sunbathing on the pier and enjoying a quiet piece of paradise.
We went diving the following day to see some North dive sites. Again, we saw beautiful aquatic life but the surface interval between dives proved to be the highlight once again. As we cruised from one dive site to the next we were joined by nearly 100 Spinner Dolphins, frolicking in the wake of our boat. Laying on the bow and reaching down, the dolphins played and jumped, letting as brush our fingers against their sleek bodies. All around us the dolphins leaped and spun in the air happily, putting on a show for our awestruck dive boat, living up to their name.
Today we awoke to rain and are waiting for a boat to take us back to Utila for the night before we head back to the mainland tomorrow morning. We will travel back to La Ceiba and venture to the jungle lodge run by Omega Tours, known for incredible white-water rafting and canopy zip-lines. We plan on spending a couple days in the jungle before making our way out of Honduras and into Nicaragua.
We send love to friends and family and hope everyone is doing well back home.
Ana and Andrew