We hit 800 feet and keep descending, which is about the time Karl Stanley turns off the lights, turns on the Pink Floyd and revolutionizes my impression of the underwater world forever. We're plunging headlong into the 12,000-foot Cayman Trench off Roatan in Stanley's three-person yellow submarine, Idabel, and bioluminescent life forms are swooshing past the viewing portal, thousands of them, a cascading array of fiery objects. It's like riding Halley's Comet through outer space. "Wooooooow," is all I can think to say. "Once you get deep enough, 90 percent of everything is bioluminescent," says Stanley, who's been deeper than 2,000 feet in this thing.
"Wooooooow," I repeat, psychedelically.
The adrenaline rush actually started early this morning, before I'd even stepped inside Stanley's magic sub. I'd signed on for a series of activities that included a 110-foot wreck dive, two fabulous wall dives and, during my surface interval, a zip-line canopy tour through the jungle 70 feet off the ground. Now it's nighttime, and I'm 1,650 feet beneath the ocean surface, with Stanley using a green laser to point out chimera sharks, isopods, fish-eating tunicates and other freaky creatures that never break 1,000 feet.
I hadn't expected all this. It's not like I'm in Costa Rica or Belize, where the multi-sport adventure ethic dictates that an outfitter has you summiting a volcano before breakfast, rafting class-four whitewater by lunch and horseback riding along the beach at sunset. The Bay Islands of Honduras have always been about one thing: diving. Perched on the rim of the Cayman Trench, Roatan, Utila and Guanaja feature fringing reefs that plunge dramatically into the abyss just offshore, forming some of the most dramatic walls anywhere. Diving here, more than anything, fuels the Honduran tourist economy, and it's the singular reason for direct flights into Roatan's teeny airport from metropolises like Miami, Houston, Atlanta and New Orleans.
But that mono-focus is changing. With increasing numbers of visitors, improved tourism infrastructure and resorts offering everything from whitewater paddling to deep-sea exploration, dive trips can be spiced up any number of ways. The following is a Bay Islands adventure sampler, from which to pick and choose.
About 32 miles long and two miles wide, Roatan is the largest of the Bay Islands, with a spine of jungle-covered hills running down the middle and dense mangroves and ironshore cliffs lining its north and south coasts. The island features more than 130 dive sites and more than enough operators vying to ferry you to them. In addition to the resorts sprinkled across the island, there's the languid, party-happy community of West End, where you can't throw a beer bottle without hitting a dive shop or a beach bar.
The north-shore reef forms almost a complete wall, gently sloping about 30 feet from the crest before dropping off. A shallow lagoon less than a half-mile wide separates the reef from shore, and most of the northern sites fall within the Sandy Bay-West End Marine Park, a protected reserve on the northwest end of the island. Drop in almost anywhere along the wall and you'll find a dazzling display of hard and soft corals, although if there's a signature element to the sites here it's this: the monster barrel sponge. OPEC has nothing on the barrels here. Dropping down 60 feet at West End Wall, our divemaster, Ricardo Calderon, spreads his hands wide--the universal sign for "humongous!"--in reference to an obscenely large purple specimen. At six feet tall and nearly that wide around the middle, the thing could easily swallow Calderon whole.
We're not the only ones impressed with the sponge life. One site over, at Herbie's Fantasy, we come across a large hawksbill turtle munching on what was once a fine barrel. This guy is impervious to our obnoxious camera flashes and, when he's done, he languidly flaps toward the surface, silhouetting himself beautifully against the morning sun. Atop the wall at Butcher's Bank the sponges grow amid particularly exquisite clusters of lettuce, elkhorn, maze and pillar coral. Rivers of creole wrasse flow by, and stingrays dart in the sand. Calderon gets a manicure from some blue and white cleaner shrimp stationed next to a white anemone, and I follow suit, allowing the creatures to pick and pluck halfway up my arm. At Barry's Reef the denizens are trickier to spot, but we zero in on them deep inside the fissures, crevices and grottoes carved into the wall: lobsters, morays and king crabs with three-foot arm spans and claws the size of fists.
Unlike the north side, the south-side reef typically starts at the water's edge and slopes gently to about 35 feet before dropping off, and the wall here is more sculpted with channels, chutes, clefts and canyons. The best example of this, and arguably Roatan's most dramatic dive, is Mary's Place. After receiving instructions from our divemaster, Nelson Zapata, to follow him single file on this dive, we drop down to 30 feet, pop over the wall and descend to 80. We're cruising the wall when Zapata cuts a hard left into a 12-foot-wide crack. We follow him deep inside, and suddenly the reef has swallowed us whole, with sheer walls towering some 40 feet on either side of us, walls thick with tube and barrel sponges, sea fans and coral whips. As we penetrate deeper Zapata points out all kinds of critters--a bearded fire worm, three wobbly filefish, a slithering goldentail moray. We turn left again into an even narrower canyon, a place more dazzling still, but not for the claustrophobic. Zapata tails a big pair of midnight parrots, which lead us somehow to the outer wall again, and we're greeted by the light and a welcoming committee of yellowtail snappers.
At Newman's Wall we plunk down into one of the sandy-bottomed chutes that rib the top of the reef and follow it out to the wall, passing fields of healthy lettuce coral along the way. The giant purple barrel sponge Zapata shows me at 60 feet is absolutely chilling. It's tipped on its side, facing the abyss, and its mouth is horrifically contorted, almost exactly like the mouth in Edvard Munch's The Scream. Less emotionally wrenching sites include Mr. Bud and Missing Link, where the tops of the reef feature exquisite gardens of gorgonians, sea fans and rope sponges, all swaying in the gentle current alongside lovely stands of pillar coral.
The smallest of the three main Bay Islands, Utila has the largest attraction--whale sharks. Your chances of spotting one of these 30-foot behemoths increase dramatically in the spring, when the sharks are migrating off the north shore and slurping up tons of microscopic plankton. Experienced boat captains locate the "boil," that teeming, frenzied mass of fish that inevitably surrounds feeding whale sharks. Slip over the side of the boat with mask and snorkel (scuba diving with the sharks is not allowed), fin up close to the action and witness a demonstration of slow-moving grace and power unlike anything else in the ocean.
Beyond whale sharks, Utila has more than 100 dive sites. To the southeast a seamount called Black Hills towers up from 200-plus feet, its north and south sides dropping off dramatically, its east and west sides gently sloping and covered in sheet corals. Cold-water upwellings force plankton-rich water up the sides of the mount, attracting big schools of jacks and snapper. Off Utila's north side, the Great Wall drops from 15 to 3,000 feet and features contours and ravines rich with hard corals and giant barrel sponges. Off the east side, jagged ironshore formations have created sites like Aquarium, with overhanging ledges, blowholes and chimneys. Tropicals thrive here, along with yellow and southern stingrays on the sandy bottom.
The primary goal of Karl Stanley's forays into the deep is to spot the elusive six-gill shark, a creature that dwells between 1,000 and 5,000 feet. If you choose to boldly go where few divers have gone before, prepare yourself. The VW-sized submersible, which Stanley docks at Half Moon Bay in Roatan's West End, has no bathroom, the temperature at depth drops into the 40s, and you'll be sharing a four-foot-diameter sphere with one other paying customer. Still, the show is well worth it. Glowing hatchet fish and ink-shooting squid appear at about 700 feet. At 1,500 you'll experience visibility like never before. "Only still cave systems have water that's clearer," says Stanley. At 1,650 feet our captain motors about the moonscape and finally parks it on a sandy patch, pointing out a rare, corkscrew-shaped yellow coral growing on the black basalt. "Unlike coral on the reef, it doesn't require photosynthesis," he says. A cat shark swims by, then a pink spotted anglerfish, then a translucent white swimming cucumber. What I notice most is the unique peacefulness here, and Stanley concurs it's born from the knowledge that we'll never run into another human being at this particular dive site.
Whether the six-gill will sniff out the pig guts we have tied to an arm jutting before the viewing portal remains to be seen. Stanley admits we might have to wait three hours. We promptly fall asleep. When we awake, the entrails are being devoured by red-eyed shrimp and a kind of swimming fossil called an isopod. Half an hour later our boy shows up, a graceful 12-footer with a big thresher tail and glowing eyes. Yep, six gills on him. We could wait for the shark to actually take the bait, but Stanley says that could take hours more. No dice. We bid farewell and begin our slow ascent.
Hiking Pico Bonito
Fifteen minutes away from Roatan by plane, an emerald peak called Pico Bonito towers above the rainforest on the Honduran mainland. Part of the Nombre de Dios range, this 8,000-foot mountain is the centerpiece of Pico Bonito National Park, a trackless 107,300-hectare chunk of wild, virgin jungle. Twenty different river systems spill from the park's mountains and course through the primeval forests here, creating countless waterfalls and supporting a rich assortment of life.
Hook up with a hiking guide at Pico Bonito Lodge, a charming, environmentally sensitive inn on the park's northern boundary, close to the town of La Ceiba. Melvin Euraque takes me on a nine-mile, up-and-down trek to Unbelievable Falls, a journey that has us weaving between mammoth trees with flaring root systems and scooting across fallen trunks over raging rivers. We hear the glub-glubbing call of the Montezuma oropendola birds. We watch spider monkeys swing and dance through the canopy. We dine on woody-tasting termites ("a good source of protein if you're ever lost in the jungle," insists Euraque), and we follow black rivers of leafcutter ants, which can travel up to four miles away from their colony to gather food. Unbelievable Falls is just that--an unexpected 100-foot cascade that double-drops through a vivid green amphitheater of vegetation. We plunge into the refreshing base pool as brilliant blue morpho butterflies flit about the surface.
Rafting The Cangrejal
The other, more hair-raising way to experience Pico Bonito National Park is to raft the Cangrejal River, a fast-flowing waterway dotted with house-sized boulders. The river forms the northeast boundary of the park, and when the water is high, expect to get as wet as you would on any scuba dive. "This is a class-four river today, folks!" announces Scott, our river pilot with Omega Tours, explaining that rain has swollen the Cangrejal 16 inches higher than the previous day.
We put in just above a rapid called Deep Six, and Scott reviews the proper procedure for retrieving someone who gets tossed from the raft, a not-uncommon experience. "If you're the one who gets saved, the first thing you do when you get back in the raft is give that person a big kiss for saving your life," Scott says. I get to practice my new life-saving skills immediately after Deep Six, when the roaring churn bends our craft in two and catapults both Scott and a beautiful Swiss woman named Celine into the drink. I extend my paddle to Celine, grab hold of her life vest and hoist her aboard, after which she plants a juicy wet one on my cheek. "Sank you!" she says. "Sank you so much!" Ahhhhhhh...
After that we all hang on a little tighter and paddle like maniacs. We rocket through another class-four rapid, then a series of class threes, Scott screaming the whole time, "Yes! This is huge water, guys! Huge!" We portage our way around an especially frightful-looking Zip Lock, but Labyrinth seems no less manageable, and our boat disappears entirely beneath the whitewater for a couple of heart-stopping seconds before spitting us out beyond the rapid. After that the river smooths out for long leisurely stretches between sets. We swim. We leap from the mammoth boulders, and we enjoy the view of El Bejuco Falls, a 300-foot cascade high on the emerald slopes of Pico Bonito.
Water temperatures are typically in the low 80s, but can drop to around 76 degrees in winter. Visibility can reach 100 feet and beyond on good days at some sites.
Year-round temperatures hover in the mid-80s, but can drop to the high 60s. The rainy season runs from October through early January with frequent, brief downpours.
Simple, intimate and comfortable resorts with friendly atmosphere. Meals are usually served buffet-style with beans and rice, fresh fish, barbecued chicken and other Latin American dishes being staples.
Most resorts have their own water filtration or desalination systems, so tap water is safe to drink.
The Honduran lempira is the official currency, but you'll have no problem spending 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. There is a $30 departure tax.
U.S. and Canadian citizens must bring a passport, but don't need a visa.
English is widely spoken.
Roatan has two recompression chambers and Utila has one.
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