Big animal encounters are always a possibility on the reefs and wrecks of Roatan.
|A school of Atlantic spadefish escorts a diver over the Big Coco seamount between Cayos Cochinos and Roatan.|
On a handful of palm-lined islands a mere 10 miles off the coast of Central America, a peaceful coup led by divers has seized power, hoisting red and white flags above the quiet archipelago. These passionate divers have declared sovereignty over Honduras's Bay Islands, and they're not about to relinquish power.
If it weren't for the Bay Islands' prolific diving, tourism to Honduras would be a mere trickle. But a collection of wrecks, excellent macro photography opportunities, pristine seamounts and the longest barrier reef in the hemisphere have created a raison d'être for tourism in Honduras. Three large islands--Roatan, Utila and Guanaja--plus countless smaller ones, including Cayos Cochinos, Barbareta and Morat--make up this jungly archipelago where divers rule.
While many destinations have their signature dive sites or types of diving, variety is the spice that flavors dive vacations in the Bay Islands. There's literally something for everyone, no matter the skill level, from hard-core wrecks (including the Odyssey, which at press time was slated to become one of the Caribbean's newest), peaceful reefs, exhilarating dolphin encounters and intriguing macro photo ops.
Small things come in big packages at Cayos Cochinos' Toon Town--macro capital of the Bay Islands.
Long, slender Roatan hovers in the Caribbean like a trumpetfish. For divers, all Bay Islands vacations start here, no matter the final destination. Roatan is home to nearly 100 dive sites, excellent, well-established dive resorts and operations, and the most developed tourism infrastructure in the Bay Islands. A handful of small towns and settlements are clustered around Roatan's many sheltered bays, the abundance of which gave these islands their name. The vegetation that blankets the island is becoming thinner, due to a booming real estate business, but there are long stretches of wilderness along Roatan's only paved road that will perhaps never see a bulldozer.
Just off the north shore of Roatan, the fringing reef starts in just 20 feet of water, gradually drops to 40 to 50 feet, then falls almost vertically beyond the limits of recreational scuba. Spur and groove formations provide valleys and swim-throughs. On the south side of the island, the drop-off begins so close to land that you can shore dive the walls that start in just 25 feet of water.
Roatan's Best Dives
Perhaps the best known of Roatan's many dive sites is Mary's Place, marked by deep fissures and swim-throughs in the reef-scape. You may want to take a light, as there are several coral canyons that are cloaked in shadows, and glassy sweepers hang like mercury curtains in the sunlight. Black coral is thick and profuse, and you'll find grouper and giant crabs.
Infrequently visited due to its remote eastern location, Charlie's Choice is a beautiful wall punctuated by fissures, grottoes and ledges. Excellent barrel sponge growth dominates the lip of the wall, and throngs of tropicals, including angels, butterflys and spotted drums, seem thicker here than elsewhere around Roatan.
El Aguila is, at least until the Odyssey goes down, Roatan's biggest and best wreck. She sits upright in 100 feet of water, with the mast rising to about 40 feet below the surface. Huge groupers tend the ship, and lush, terraced hard coral gardens make for a scenic ascent.
The sun begins its rise above Roatan, illuminating a new dive day
Columbus sailed to Guanaja in 1502 during his fourth voyage to the New World. He named the easternmost Bay Island "Isle of Pines" for its dense cover of conifers. Though Columbus wouldn't find pines in such large numbers today, Guanaja still maintains its rugged sylvan look, and hikes through the hillsides can elicit images of wooded New England. Wedge-shaped Guanaja is nine miles long and its main town, Bonacca, is precariously perched on a tiny island off the southern shore of the main island.
In the north, shallow reefs begin in 10 to 20 feet, then slope steeply down to 60 to 80 feet. In the south, the wall starts in 40 feet of water, then drops almost vertically to 120 feet and a narrow shelf before dropping off again into the deep. Guanaja's coral formations are dramatic, and the walls are perforated with caves, canyons and swim-throughs. On any given dive, you can spot anything from cleaner shrimp to snapper and spotted eagle rays. A narrow channel bisects the island and allows access to either side so operators can easily whisk you to the lee side for a nice, calm dive.
Guanaja's Best Dives
The 187-foot Jado Trader is the Bay Islands' signature wreck dive, and for good reason. A deeper wreck, it sits on its side in 90 to 110 feet of water. An enormous green moray will be there to greet you at the bow, and silversides will throw a ticker-tape parade for you in the gaping cargo holds, the safest area to penetrate. Off-gas on the shallow pinnacles surrounding the wreck.
An astounding overhang from 10 to 180 feet, Bayman Bay Drop-off is overgrown with azure vase sponges, red rope sponges and deepwater gorgonians. Explore the many caves packed with glassy sweepers.
Jim's Silver Lode is another perennial Guanaja favorite, a popular feeding station--replete with grouper, yellowtail, barracuda and morays--plus a wall dive that drops into the deep blue with a series of canyons.
If you're looking for the small stuff, head for Cayos Cochinos, but if you're looking for Señor Big, look no farther than the Bay Islands' flattest piece of dry land, Utila. From May through September, hundreds of divers come face to filter-feeder with whale sharks, and come away with incredible photos and memories that last a lifetime. The wall diving here is also quite prolific. And if you're looking for value, Utila is recognized around the world as one of the most affordable places to dive and get certified to dive.
Utila has perhaps the most diverse diving geography of the Bay Islands, with fringing reefs, impressive walls and submerged seamounts. Reefs in the south start in 20 feet of water, then gently slope away to 200 feet. In the north, the reef drops off abruptly from 25 feet to more than 1,000. Dome-shaped seamounts rise from the depths to 45 feet below the waves, attracting pelagics-- including schools of jacks and sea turtles.
Utila's Best Dives
If it's whale sharks you want, you've got a great chance of spotting one on the boat ride to Willy's Hole in the Turtle Harbor Marine Reserve. The wall dive starts in just 15 feet of water and slopes down to about 75, where you'll find swim-throughs and a cavern.
The dive protocol at Black Hills is simple--drop down into the depths, then work your way up the pinnacle to its tip at 35 feet. You're sure to see jacks and other pelagic fish. Cross your fingers, and you may be lucky enough to glimpse a whale shark or hammerhead in the blue.
The 300-ton oil rig supply-boat Halliburton 211 (211 represents its length in feet) was sunk in 1998 as an artificial reef, but there's nothing fake about the marine life you'll find on this dive, including thick aggregations of snapper that hang out under the hull.
Closest to the Honduran mainland, Cayos Cochinos are the remotest Bay Islands in many respects. Laws against raising pigs led to illicit farming on the "Hog Islands" centuries ago, hence their name. The hog trade has been replaced by sustainable tourism, and when divers want to find a place where they can truly get away from it all, they find it here. Unless you're staying in the islands' only resort or visiting on a live-aboard or full-day dive trip, you'll never enjoy the place.
The islands and all the reefs within a five-mile radius are protected by national biological reserve management and the Honduran navy. The largest of the islands--Cochinos Grande and Cochinos Pequeño--are surrounded by small sandy cays, submerged seamounts and fringing reefs that are among the healthiest in the Bay Islands, starting in as little as five feet of water. There are also classic vertical walls that drop from 20 to 100 feet, and some of the most exciting diving takes place on seamounts where tiny tropicals mingle with wandering pelagics.
Cayos Cochinos' Best Dives
If macro is the name of the game off Cayos Cochinos, Toon Town is its stadium. Slowing down and looking closely will pay off with an unbelievable array of small critters--bluebell tunicate clumps the size of grapefruits, arrow crabs, anemones and flamingo tongues, just to name a few. Bring a light, even in late afternoon.
Trade the macro kit for the wide-angle lens and head to Pelican Wall, where a terraced wall is shot through with grottoes and cracks, and hazed by schooling fish and colorful tropicals.
A seamount the size of three football fields called The Garden swarms with juvenile fish and tons of critters, including bluebell tunicates, snails and anemones. Depths here range from 35 feet to beyond recreational limits, but the really good stuff is at about 80 to 90 feet.
Way out in the blue toward Roatan are Big Coco and Little Coco, prolific seamounts that rise from the depths and come within about 30 feet of the surface. They are covered in an undulating field of gorgonians and soft corals, sea fans, all in light browns and pastel purples, and barrel sponges. Lobsters crawl around in the fissures in the seamount, thick clouds of juvenile creole wrasse hang like purple curtains above and schools of horse-eye jacks hang out in the shallows, creating excellent silhouette photo ops. You'll also find curious barracuda, schools of Atlantic spadefish and brooding scorpionfish.
Bay Islands Travel Savvy
GETTING THERE Grupo Taca is Central America's largest carrier, serving Roatan (RTB) from New Orleans, Miami and Houston. American Airlines serves Roatan from its Miami hub, and Continental Airlines from Houston. You may need to connect through San Pedro Sula and/or La Ceiba on the mainland when flying to Roatan. From Roatan, it's puddle jumpers to Utila and Guanaja. Guests at Cayos Cochinos' only resort are typically shuttled by boat from La Ceiba.
DEPARTURE TAX You'll be hit with a $25 tax upon departure, not to mention a $2 fee for security.
DOCUMENTS U.S. and Canadian citizens must bring a passport, but need not worry about visas.
MONEY Though the Honduran lempira may be the official currency, you'll have no problem shelling out U.S. dollars. Bring enough cash to cover incidentals and to tip the boat crew or hotel staff. The live-aboards will let you charge your gratuities at the end of the cruise.
TIME The Bay Islands are on Central Time--but do not observe daylight saving time.
WATER Tap water is generally not considered safe in Honduras, but many resorts have filtration systems and you'll have no problem finding bottled water.
WEATHER Year-round temperatures hover in the mid-80Fs but may drop to the high 60Fs after a rain. The rainy season runs from October through early January with frequent, brief downpours.
Bay Islands Dive Drill
LAND-BASED OPTIONS The Bay Islands have their fair share of the Caribbean's best land-based dive operations, and you can't go wrong with most of them. With a few exceptions, expect your dive operation to stick with sites around its island. Occasionally, however, day boats may run to sites at the seamounts near Cayos, or to Barbareta or Morat off the east coast of Roatan.
LIVE-ABOARDS For the largest variety of sites and diving experiences, hop on the Bay Islands Aggressor IV, which in a week can cover all the best sites of Roatan, Barbareta, Guanaja, Utila, Cayos Cochinos, and the Bay Islands' famous seamounts.
RESORT LIFE Expect simple, intimate and comfortable resorts with friendly atmosphere. Most resorts have their own water filtration or desalination systems, so the tap water is safe to drink.
WATER CONDITIONS Water temperatures are typically in the low 80Fs, but can drop to around 76F in winter. Visibility can reach 100 feet and beyond on good days at some sites, but the norm is more like 50 to 80 feet.
Bay Islands Dive Site Map