Reef Gliding

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Roatan, Honduras

Cloudy. I couldn’t end the journal there because there is a lot more to it, but in terms of weather, let’s get it done now. Cloudy.

We were here for 2 reasons really. 1, relax and enjoy the beauty of tropical island sunshine and 2, diving. I had planned simply to dive every day, twice a day if possible to see the stunning underwater landscapes and marine life and to build some experience as a diver. Rebecca had decided that she would at least see if the PADI Open Water course could be something she’d look at. Given that number 1 was out of the question, we all turned to Belinda and asked ‘..what the hell are you going to do?’

We’d rented an apartment and had planned to spend 7 days on the island. The place had a kitchen which meant we could avoid some of the costly dining out and buy booze in cost effective measures like domestic bottles of rum, rather than $2 beers at the bars. And it was a great place, a nice elevated balcony with a sea view, high ceilings and comfortable beds.
The safety report for Roatan was much better, not a lot of opportunistic tourist crime, just a few local shena****ns (i.e: murders) involving local business owners, yes, including gringos. Some guy also got shot for hanging out around Coxen Hole too early in the morning with some local women of the night. Coxen Hole is kind of the local commercial district of the island. We were staying in West Bay, the back-packer, diver hang-out full mostly of restaurants, a handful of bars and dive-shops. It was one street which wove it’s way along the waterfront which consisted of two small bays in our immediate area. The bays had reef break just out of the heads and shallow and calm waters leading to a small beach lined with palm trees. Lovely stuff.

We hooked up with ‘Reef Gliders’ dive center and became part of the crew for the eventual 10 nights we spent on Roatan. Mickey, the head Instructor now Dive Master has documented much of the famed reef by means of thousands of photographs of different species of algae, fish, coral, sponges and other marine life. He’s published all of this in a widely referred to photographic journal so needless to say we were probably in some of the best possible hands when it comes to the reef. Plus he’s a jolly, South African guy who’s great fun to be around.

Typically you’ll find exceptional reef 100 or so meters off the shore, around the island; most of this is around 10 to 15 meters depth and eventually ends in a shallower crest or barrier. It drops at this point, sometimes dramatically to hundreds of meters but often at the site we visited down to sandy plateaus at about 30 to 40 meters and beyond.

The water is this rich royal blue colour and visibility is good for 20 to 30 meters. The reef is in an absolutely pristine state of health and appears to be flourishing. Typically and famously for Roatan the reef is composed of narrow crevice formations, overhead environments and arches making a great landscape for diving. It’s littered with barrel sponges anywhere from 2 to 5 hundred years old. Coral fans, and other strands of sea plants like noodley vines. (Sorry Mickey)
But perhaps the most dramatic environment amongst all of that is the reef wall, where like approaching a waterfall from the river above, the land just drops away into royal blue depth. With that feeling of weightlessness you have when diving, it’s an exhilarating experience tumbling over that wall. In some of the dives we’d end up on the sandy plateau at about 30 – 40m. It’s this vast wasteland of thatchy rocks and the occasional barrel sponge where you can see eagle rays and sand rays. It’s kind of ghostly, eerie, and watching the sand slowly fade into the dark blue water horizon is an experience I won’t forget.

Likewise was the dive to the ‘El Aguila’ wreck. We dropped out of the boat, and donned gear in the water. Unlike previous dives we’d jumped in at about 35m at the bottom on which lies the broken 75m hull of the dual-deck cargo ship. This means you descend through blue nothingness until the ghostly image of the ships bow mast emerges through the water. My instant recollection was the cover of a ‘Titanic’ disaster research book my parents had given me a child. Shimmering out of the blue you can then see the hull at a 45 or so degree angle in the sand, battered and broken up by Hurricane Mitch in ’98. It’s an awesome capability to just be able to hover around the parts of wreck, follow the line of the vessel and weave through the broken sections. Peering into the portholes, swimming above the decks and ascending up the bow mast. A truly unforgettable experience.

Additionally I took in my first night dive. During the day we’d seen all assortment of green sea turtles, eagle rays and free-swimming moray eels but the whole bio-diversity changes at night. But it’s a bit nerve-racking too. Obviously your visibility is limited to your torch light so your focus becomes narrower. You need to constantly be looking out for familiar lights of your buddy. The landscapes aren’t as obvious too, with all the undulations in the coral and rocks you lose your sense of orientation. But the beauty of this particular environment is the life. Tiny shrimp dart in front of the torch, and there’s hints of luminescence in the water. We gather on a sandy patch, in a circle, nearly squashing a camouflaged flounder, and turn off our lights. It’s a weird feeling because you’re used to pitch blackness when you’re breathing air normally and the sense of breathing with bubbles becomes stronger, like it was when you first tried scuba. But then your eyes adjust, and then entire ocean is lit up by these phosphorescent trails. It looks like a starry sky on a clear night. Once your eyes adjust you start to see thousands of luminescent drops, left by male ostracods as they swim through the water. The result is what the divers around here call a bioluminescent ‘string of pearls’, and there’s hundreds of them.

Sparks fly off the ends of my hands as I move them through the water, micro-organisms emitting a bioluminescent chemical as they’re disturbed. The whole scene is like something from outer-space. The lights come on and we see an octopus sprawled out flat across the sandy patch, moving one leg after another to get to a lump of rocky reef. As it does, it spreads out across the rock and it’s skin shifts colour, like shaking ink through a bottle of water. I could hardly speak back on surface, all the reservations and anxieties I had about the environment were completely washed away by its stunning beauty.

Meanwhile, Rebecca had endured a stomach upset on only her first day of Open Water training, took the next day off and bounced back under the guidance of Henry, to get her certification in 3 days. Like all divers she’d had a few spazzes working through the clearing mask tasks but smashed the course none-the-less.

At night we’d chill out at the nearby ‘Sundowners’ bar with some of the divers from the shop. It seemed to be the culture here, dive all day, a few chilled beers at night. We wandered up and down the lazy strip sampling the various restaurants, and the famous Taco street vendor. The majority of the islander people are Caracoles from the Cayman Islands and are this unique Afro-British-Caribbean blend. It’s English they’re speaking but it’s so accented it’s near impossible to understand.

West End is certainly a tourist town but it’s nowhere near the scale of nearby West Bay which on the day we visited, was overrun by the loads of cruise ship passengers trotting up and down it’s beaches. The beach itself it absolutely stunning, a typical white sand, turquoise water Caribbean beach but it’s hard to see through the moored boats, nude bathing tourists (pretending to wash their togs), beach vendors, bars
and restaurants. We spent a lunch there, could take about as much as we could and then got the hell out.

Our trip out of Roatan would be to Hondura’s most significant Mayan ruins at Copan. It would take us through San Pedro Sula unfortunately and like getting to La Ceiba would be a full day of travel. I again adorned my Slayer t-shirt and camo shorts and we made our way to the ferry terminal back to the mainland.

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