Seventy feet under the Caribbean Sea, in the waters off Roatan, Honduras, we sit on the sandy clearing, our backs to a tall bank of coral. With our chunky oxygen tanks and regulators, we are alien invaders: heavy, ungraceful. Our bubbles rise up through the turquoise depths towards the glinting sunlight that pierces the water column high above us. Herded, we divers sit still, hands close to bodies, scanning the blue. Waiting.
The dive master takes the lid off a bucket weighted with chunks of bonito. Cloudy water wafts out. It takes just a minute, maybe less. Soon, a dozen six- to nine-foot-long Caribbean reef sharks are circling us, sleek as torpedoes, fast as quicksilver, graceful as cats.
Horrifyingly, two of them are sporting big, ugly hooks, which dangle from their mouths. Although sustainable fishing practices are in place in many parts of Roatan, to help preserve the island’s rich marine biodiversity, humans mean danger for the sharks. But the sharks pose no danger to us: we watch, entranced, as these beautiful fish swim around us. When the bucket contents are gone, they disappear.
Afterwards, on the dive boat, we snack on local watermelon and papaya, daydreaming about our next dives.
A DIVER’S PARADISE
Roatan, the largest of the seven Bay Islands of Honduras, lies off the north coast of the Honduran mainland. Situated on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef – second in sheer size and biodiversity only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – it’s a place where you can power your way through a diver’s bucket list in one sun-drenched week. Roatan’s crystal-clear waters are home to barrel sponges the size of wine barrels, as well as a wish list of marine life: sharks, sea turtles, eagle and manta rays, grouper, eels, and dolphins.
While dolphins are endemic to the region, if you want a sure thing, Anthony’s Key Resort on Sandy Bay, has resident dolphins. Technically a captive population, they live in a huge lagoon with natural fringing reef, beds of sea grass and regular access to the open sea. They choose to return “home” because that’s where the food is. Anthony’s Key offers dolphin dives and snorkelling, as well as a week-long Dolphin Scuba Camp for kids.
Besides wildlife, Roatan boasts jaw-dropping drift dives, canyon dives, deep dives and wreck diving. One of the most memorable of the handful of wrecks is El Aguila, a 75-metre-long cargo ship that rests approximately 110 feet down.
As we descended in search of El Aguila’s secrets, the water turned progressively deeper hues of green, until we could no longer see the surface or the sunlight. Eventually, the hulking mass of the wreck emerged into focus. Colourful reef fish grazed in coral gardens. As we sank further below, the coral disappeared and large Nassau groupers floated like balloons.
As I am not a fan of deep dives, I started my mantra: “Stay calm, stay calm, stay calm…what the hell?!” A six-foot-long green moray eel is not what you want to see making an excited beeline towards you, at depth. Alarmed, my husband and I retreated. This hadn’t been covered in the pre-dive talk.
The moray chose not to follow us, and instead headed for our dive master, who was kneeling on the sand, helping a student diver fix her mask. The moray snaked around his legs, its face lingering near his head. He paused to look at it, then went back to his student. It hovered, eventually returning to the wreck, undulating through the water like a long green scarf. (Afterwards, on the boat, the dive master said the eel had started approaching people a few months before, presumably because someone from one of the other dive shops had started feeding him.)
As for El Aguila herself, she’s a beautiful wreck, with swim throughs and scores of wildlife, from solitary squirrelfish and eels, to schools of baitfish and decorative soft coral.
With so much going on under the surface, topside attractions might pale by comparison, right? Not really.
If you want to lounge in the sun, head to humming West Bay. While resort-heavy, the beaches are public, and for a nominal fee you can rent a lounger and access a resort swimming pool. (Mind you, you could save yourself the trip and just stay at a West Bay resort like the Mayan Princess Beach & Dive Resort, which has its own onsite dive shop). Swim out to the reef and snorkel, or rent a stand-up paddleboard. Or, grab a cerveza and munch on a plata tipical at one of the beachside restaurants.
West End is home to the island’s restaurant row, where you can spend a little or a lot. West End also hosts several of the island’s dive shops, including Hammerhead Dive Center, a new operation known for its valet approach to diving (small groups, personalized service, no “cattle boats” jam-packed with divers).
Adventure seekers can zipline at Gumbalimba Park, taking in panoramic views of the
rainforest canopy and sea. Afterwards, enjoy a cold drink by the pool or walk to the monkey forest, where free-roaming capuchins may descend on you from the trees. (Literally: I had two monkeys stalk, then jump onto me. Fun, but also a bit scary.) Because Gumbalimba is a mainstay for cruise ship day-trippers, check online and visit on a non-cruise ship day, as the park is best enjoyed when quiet – the monkeys are friendliest then, too.
Sundowners on the beach are the best way to cap the day. You may be tempted to sign up for a night dive, but the smart money’s on piña coladas chased by local snapper and plantain chips. You’ve got a full day in the water
Major airlines fly into Roatan via Miami and Houston, while Sunwing flies direct from Toronto during the high season (into April). Book a shark dive through Waihuka Dive Center, which operates out of Coxen Hole. Coxen Hole is worth a daytime visit for cut-rate souvenirs and delicious street food, but is best avoided at night. Although Roatan is generally safe for tourists, ask resort desk staff what areas to avoid after dark, take cabs rather than walking after dark, and avoid flashing expensive watches, jewelry or cameras.by