Scuba Diving in the Bay Islands

Along with the Maya ruins at Copán in western Honduras, the only other tourist site in the country that seems remotely popular with foreigners is the Bay Islands. Strung out at the south-eastern end of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the islands are world-famous for diving, snorkelling, and relaxing on the beach. Roatán is the largest and most developed (and therefore the most expensive); while to the west, Utila is cheaper and more ‘rustic’. The islands’ history of conquest, colonisation, piracy, and immigration has given them an unusual society – this is probably the only place in Honduras where you’ll hear English spoken (on several occasions I was chided by the locals for speaking to them in Spanish, claiming that English is their mother tongue; and many locals claim an ancestry going back to the first British settlers). From Garifunas to Creoles to expat North Americans, the islands don’t feel like the rest of Latin America. Utila has become one of the cheapest places in the world to dive, so it’s to there that I head first. And I can see immediately how tourism (especially diving) is the island’s main earner as soon as I get off the boat. At the end of the dock, on the one main road through the one main town, are hordes of touts, all shouting at the disembarking tourists, waving posters, and thrusting flyers into people’s hands. And they’re all advertising dive shops – not one hotel or guesthouse, no restaurants or tour guides. Just diving. And with accommodation included with the diving at every shop, most people stay in the same place that they dive (so who needs accommodation?). Not wanting to base my decision on where to spend a large amount of money on a potentially-dangerous activity on a five-minute conversation in the rain, I squeeze through the throng and take a tuk-tuk to a cheap hotel. Utila may have once been a sleepy Caribbean island, but it’s a major tourist destination now – as especially evidenced by the constant, noisy tide of motorcycles, quad bikes, golf carts, and pickup trucks, all going way too fast down narrow roads that were clearly not designed for those kinds of vehicles. utila Several more days of rain gives me plenty of time to choose between the dozen or so dive shops, all of which charge identical prices. And in the process, to decide to go all the way and do my Advanced Open Water certification. With the entire course lasting only two days, covering all the dive sites that I want to visit, coming with two free dives at the end, and costing not much more than three days of regular diving, the sheer value-for-money makes it silly not to do it. Besides, my experiences with various dive shops around the world (including in places like Thailand, Indonesia, Belize, and Mexico), where my lack of experience and possible inability to even do the dive in question has been met with nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders, a smile, and a nod by the relaxed divemaster, has made me consider that perhaps, not only could I do with more training, but I need the certificate, if only in order to avoid the dodgy places. The kinds of dive shops that don’t mind whether you have the appropriate level of certification or not tend to be the kinds that are, shall we say, relaxed. And there’s a fine line between ‘relaxed’ and ‘not giving a toss about anything’ (which can be a potentially-dangerous attitude when you’re 30 metres underwater and something goes wrong); so having the advanced certification means that I can avoid those ‘casual’ places, and go with the dive shops who do require the necessary experience (and who hopefully will have a similarly-stringent attitude to everything else). Having chosen a dive shop, I start the course the next day at 8, with a French instructor, and fellow students from Germany and Australia. And it’s immediately obvious that the word ‘advanced’ in the title isn’t being used in its strictest sense – it may be a little more advanced than what I’ve done before, but all of the information is fairly straightforward. Unlike the Open Water course, there’s hardly any classroom time, there are no tests, and the most difficult part of the course is reading the appropriate chapters from an enormous book each night, and completing the multiple choice questions for the following morning’s review. And understanding everyone’s different accents, of course. Of the five dives that you have to do, two (underwater navigation and deep diving) are compulsory, and the other three are optional. Except everyone (including me) takes the advice of the instructor and picks the same three – a wreck dive, a night dive, and a buoyancy dive. The wreck dive is first, and it’s a short trip from the dock to the put-in, where the water’s so clear I can see almost all the way down. The wreck isn’t that big, or that deep, and it’s less than 20 years old; but it’s fun to swim through the passages and compartments, and interesting to see how quickly nature reclaims everything – including schools of colourful angel fish swimming around the wheelhouse, and a moray eel curled up in a coral-encrusted toilet. The Wreck of the Halliburton In the afternoon, the next dive is the underwater navigation dive, where I get to use a compass for the first time in decades. And to do so means I actually have to pay attention this time, rather than just following the divemaster and gawping at the pretty fishes. In addition to feeling quite chuffed that I don’t get totally disorientated (and only get slightly lost), one of Utila’s resident whale sharks (that pass by the island regularly on their constant worldwide migrations) is spotted by the captain on the way back. The divemaster explains that, as the captain has to stop for us to jump in the water and check out the shark, he’s going to charge us each for the ‘favour’. After much looking through the binoculars and scanning for movements on the surface of the water, the captain finally gives the signal, and we all pile in, in one large, clumsy splash. To see a small, grey, shark-shaped blur slowly disappearing into the inky distance. After less than a minute, it’s gone. And as soon as we all slop back on to the boat, the captain’s right there (having abandoned the wheel), asking for his cash. It’s the fastest money I’ve spent in a long time… The following morning (at an unreasonably-early 6 AM) is the deep dive. Which, bizarrely, starts with a test on the dock, where the instructor makes each student touch the numbers 1 to 20 (which are randomly arranged on a plastic slate), interspersing the number-pointing with nose-touching (our noses, not his). It all becomes clearer after we’ve gone down 30 metres, along a wall on the northern side of the island. As the wall drops down hundreds of metres below us, disappearing into darkness, we hover around, while the instructor goes round each student and has them repeat the test. At depths below 30 metres (although it varies from person to person), the human body can be affected by nitrogen narcosis, a condition caused by the anaesthetic effects of certain gases at high pressure – it produces symptoms a little like being drunk (which I’m sure you’re all familiar with), or inhaling nitrous oxide aka laughing gas (which I’m sure none of you are familiar with). None of the other divers look intoxicated (although it’s difficult to tell when you’re all bobbing about in the water, and maybe I’m too intoxicated to notice); but being ‘narced’ has clearly had an effect on our mental faculties. Every one of us takes longer to do the test than on the surface – for me, the numbers that I had only just studied a short time before (and should’ve remembered some of their positions) have moved (or, in some cases, disappeared). And some of them take what seems like an eternity to finally appear in my vision. Finding those numbers, and remembering to touch my nose in between, is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do while diving. Normally, I just focus on breathing and swimming (and that’s difficult enough). A Spotted Eagle Ray on the Deep Dive In the afternoon, it’s the peak performance buoyancy dive. My least favourite, and yet most needed dive. Ever seen scuba divers effortlessly gliding through the water like fishes, with nothing more than a gentle flap of their fins? Well, that’s not me. So I actually pay attention to all the instructor’s information about weights and breathing and so forth. And at the end, I manage to swim upside-down through the hoops and knock over the small weights with my nose, along with my fellow students. Although our attempt to make a human pyramid for a photo falls flat (literally and metaphorically), probably due to the clumsy fool on the top. And due to the idiot who decided to put me on the top. An Attempt at a Human Pyramid Come nightfall, and it’s the last dive of the course. Having done only two night dives in my life (in Australia and Belize), this is probably the most novel experience of the course for me. And an enjoyable one, as night dives feel more like floating through outer space than Earth’s water. And because most of the fish active during the day are asleep at night (and vice versa), night dives often have more unusual creatures that you don’t normally see in the day. Which in this case includes bioluminescence – after turning off our torches and flapping our arms in front of us, the black water explodes in scintillations of green sparks, a phosphorescence caused by microscopic plankton in the water. The fun and interesting (and very worthwhile) course ends officially later that evening, as the instructor takes our photos and prints off our temporary PADI cards. And just to show that, even in the more serious places, diving is pretty relaxed all over the world, the instructor chooses to take our pictures in the bar next to the dive shop. So every time I show anyone my advanced diving card in the future, they’ll know immediately how serious and professional I am by the slightly drunk smile on my sunburnt face, and the collection of beer bottles and rum glasses strewn over the background…


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