Two dolphins from the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences will swim out for a romp on the sand flat.
After seven straight days of nearly constant sea-churning storms, there was enough sand suspended in the water over the wreck of the Odyssey to form a good-sized beach. I ducked my head under a passing wave, looking for the ship that was supposed to be directly underneath me and found nothing but a thick haze.
When I did make my way to the bow of the freighter, I found the length of the 300-foot ship extending beyond the limited visibility. I kicked over the bow and followed the starboard side rail toward the stern, slowly kicking over the cargo hold, which yawned open underneath me like a rectangular canyon, deep and wide. "Wow," I thought. "That is big."
Not the most profound insight, I realize, but one that's likely to occur repeatedly to anyone diving the Bay Islands of Honduras. It's all huge here: the whale sharks of Utila, the crack in the reef at Mary's Place on Roatan, Guanaja's Jado Trader, the reef sharks at Roatan's Cara a Cara Point.
The Bay Islands have long been noted for the great variety of dive experiences they offer. They've got wrecks, walls, reefs and animal encounters. But when a destination touts its variety, it's sometimes because it doesn't have a signature attraction, the singular reason a diver might use a week of hard-earned vacation time to spend it there. If you're looking for that special something in the Bay Islands, it helps to think differently. In fact, think big.
The vast majority of reefline around Roatan lies close offshore and follows the contours of the island's coastline. Cara a Cara Point, however, juts out at a right angle from the south shore like a long handle to the island. Cara a Cara means "face to face," and at the tip of the point, the reef lies face-to-face with the vast depth of the channel that separates Roatan from mainland Honduras. Thanks to this proximity to deep water, the point is a favorite hangout of Caribbean reef sharks, and is now the site of the island's first shark encounter.
For the most part, the dive drill is standard Caribbean-shark-encounter: Descend on a mooring line to a sand flat at 70 feet and kneel there while eight to 20 sharks are joined by opportunistic feeders including Nassau groupers and horse-eye jacks circling the bait bucket. There are a couple of elements, however, that set this shark dive apart. One is the setting: The feeding area is surrounded by a thriving reef that rises from the sand to create picturesque shark-photo backdrops. The other is the unorthodox feeding drill: After 30 minutes or so of watching the four- to eight-foot sharks patiently swim around the bait bucket, the divemaster pops the lid off the bucket and heaves it onto the sand. The sharks attack quickly, making short work of the bait in a brief but explosive tangle of fins and tails. When you see the divemaster pick up the bucket, get ready to make use of your camera's autodrive.
At Cara a Cara Point, you can expect between eight and 20 toothy guests to show up for their regular meal.
Swimming with Atlantic bottlenose dolphins is like playing with kids--really fast, powerful, graceful kids who may be smarter than you. The dolphin program, run by the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences, allows you to get in touch with your inner child by cavorting with the friendly cetaceans in 60 feet of water off the north side of Roatan. From Anthony's Key Resort, six divers at a time are taken just outside the reef to spend half an hour watching and interacting with a pair of dolphins. The trained animals swoop around and among their visitors, showing off their superior swimming skills and offering the best chance you may ever have to come mask-to-bottlenose with one of the ocean's most endearing creatures.
UTILA: WHALE SHARKS
While whale sharks aren't quite as abundant as inexpensive dive certifications on Utila, the westernmost of the Bay Islands is still at the top of the list of Caribbean whale shark hot spots. The biggest fish in the sea congregate around the banks north of the island and may be encountered any time of the year, though the sightings occur most dependably March-May and August-October. The stately giants can grow to 50 feet in length, but pose no threat--they make a living by gulping up plankton, not divers.
GUANAJA: JADO TRADER
After being sunk for diving in 1987, the Jado Trader was for years the signature wreck of the Bay Islands. While it may no longer be the biggest wreck around, it still boasts an impressive crew of fish including dozens of Nassau, black and tiger groupers, schools of horse-eye jacks and fat green morays. The 187-foot freighter lies on its starboard side in 110 feet of water and is well-encrusted from stem to stern. You can penetrate its bridge and open cargo holds, but avoid penetrating farther in search of the shy, enormous goliath grouper that lives within. Keep an eye on the water column above the Jado Trader to spot the hammerheads that sometimes visit the wreck.
Local legend holds that after a fire ravaged this container ship, a Bible was found intact inside the ship, sitting on a table, untouched by the flames that destroyed everything around it. Maybe it was God's plan, then, that the 300-foot ship should be blessed with an afterlife as an artificial reef and prime attraction for divers. Sunk in November of 2002, the Odyssey hasn't had enough bottom time to collect much growth. But that's OK, because the most impressive thing about this wreck is its enormous size. Start at the mast, which rises to within 40 feet of the surface. If there are divers on the wreck already, they'll appear tiny, dwarfed by the colossal scale of the Odyssey. Make your way down to the top of the bow at 70 feet. Swim through the bow hatch and into the cavernous cargo hold. You'll find the stern resting on the sand at 120 feet and the ship's massive superstructure rising above you. Swim up and around the structure with its intact stairwells, and you'll find barracuda, jacks and parrotfish exploring the still-developing artificial reef as you make your ascent.
Seventeen years of bottom time have transformed Guanaja's Jado Trader from steel hulk to thriving reef.
ROATAN: PRINCE ALBERT
On the south side of Roatan, the wreck of the Prince Albert is accessible as a shore dive from CoCo View Resort. After more than 15 years on the bottom, the island freighter sports a thick coat of sponges and soft corals and hosts an array of reef fishes. Resting upright at 85 feet on a sloping sand bottom, the 140-foot wreck is frequently visited by eagle rays. Peek into the dark recesses of the wreck to find schools of silversides drifting together in perfect unison, and search the deck for seahorses. After exploring the wreck, check out the colony of garden eels nearby. The Prince Albert is also a popular night dive, when octopuses skulk around the wreck and morays come out to hunt.
ROATAN: MARY'S PLACE
Eons ago, the island shelf on the south side of Roatan was violently ripped apart by tectonic forces, splitting a huge section of the reef away from the main wall. The legacy of that ancient cataclysm is Mary's Place, the most popular dive site on Roatan. The main attraction at Mary's Place is the deep crack, which in places is as wide as 12 feet and as deep as 100. If you like wall diving, you'll double your pleasure by swimming between two vertical walls spectacularly decorated with rope and tube sponges, seafans and black coral. At various times during the day, sunlight streams into the crevice, illuminating the jewel colors of the reef with stained-glass brilliance. At other times, indirect light creates dancing shadows and an eerie mood in the dark canyon. Bring a light to check under ledges for fat lobsters and dozing nurse sharks.
UTILA: BLACK HILLS
Off the southern shore of Utila, an underwater mountain rises from the seafloor, stopping just 35 feet short of breaking the surface and becoming an island. Drop down deep over the side of the seamount at Black Hills to start your dive and then work your way around and back toward the top at one of the fishiest dive sites in the Bay Islands. Cold upwellings from the depths force plankton-rich water up the sides of the seamount, which in turn attracts enormous schools of jacks and other pelagic species. Two sides of the mount drop sharply beyond recreational depths while the other two feature gentler slopes covered with hard corals and big sponges. Like many seamounts, Black Hills acts as a magnet for open-ocean species, so keep your eyes on the blue to spot hammerheads and the occasional whale shark.
ROATAN: HALF MOON BAY WALL
One of the Bay Islands' most colorful dives, Half Moon Bay Wall marks the site of a prehistoric river valley. Now under water, the ancient canyon wall plunges from 20 feet to beyond 150 feet. Schools of creole wrasse flow constantly over the drop-off while lazy groupers hang in the current. Look for a tunnel that empties onto the wall at 70 feet among forests of deepwater fans and tube, rope and vase sponges. Here you'll find barracuda, turtles and eagle rays patrolling the wall.
UTILA: WILLY'S HOLE
This wall on the north side of Utila drops vertically past recreational diving depths, but not before opening up into an expansive cavern. This cavern is the "hole" referenced in the name, but not the only reason to seek out this classic site. Start the dive by following any of four twisting sand channels from the top of the reef at 20 feet down to a sandy bottom at 50 feet, which then leads to the wall. The sand flat is a great place to search out flounder, stingrays and jawfish among boulders of brain and star coral and stands of elkhorn and pillar coral. Continue to the drop-off, and you'll find the cavern at 70 feet, packed with the shimmering, potbellied bodies of hundreds of glassy sweepers.
WEST BAY CANOPY TOUR
If you're looking to balance your underwater thrills with a little topside adventure, and the idea of being suspended by your crotch 50 feet off the ground doesn't bother you, check out Roatan's latest topside offering, a rainforest canopy tour. After your guide straps your harness around you and gives you a pair of gloves with thick leather palms, you'll be hooked onto a pulley on a thick steel cable. Then you can zip from one high tree platform to the next at speeds controlled only by your grip on the cable. You'll start at the top of the mountain above West Bay and continue on a series of 11 cables all the way down to sea level, speeding through the treetops and catching stunning vistas of the island's north shore through breaks in the canopy. Don't expect a scholarly presentation on the native wildlife, because this tour is all about the thrill of the ride--and what a ride it is. Price: $40.
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.
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.
Money Matters > The Honduran lempira is the official currency, but 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. There is a $25 departure tax, and a $2 fee for security.
Documents > U.S. and Canadian citizens must bring a passport, but don't need a visa.
Language > English is widely spoken, but you may want to take this opportunity to practice your Español.
Time > Central Time--same as Chicago or Houston. The islands do not observe daylight savings time.
Live-aboards > Bay Islands Aggressor IV, www.aggressor.com.
Tourism > Bay Islands Tourism, www.bayislandstourism.com.
For More Info > For detailed information on Bay Islands dive operators, comprehensive travel guides, special dive deals and recent trip reports submitted by users, click on TripFinder at the top of our home page, www.scubadiving.com.