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August 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 24, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Laguna Beach Resort, Utila, Honduras

dive with a little bit of luck, patience, or both

from the August, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

The good things in life don’t always come easy, especially when you’re searching for big fish on a Caribbean dive. But it can happen, even while diving in Utila, I was surprised to find out when I visited in April. The owner of my local dive shop had warned me beforehand that she had been to Utila five times and had never seen a whale shark. And I had read Undercurrent’s mixed reader reviews and Ben Davison’s 2003 article in which he rued the tattered coral and limited fish life. So obviously Utila diving can be a crapshoot - - but I got lucky. I had some good dives, many with healthy coral and plentiful reef fish, and even a few whale sharks.

You may chalk it up to luck, but I think my trip turned out well because of an optimistic attitude and my determination to see the best marine life Utila had to offer. Besides, I think neighboring Roatan is too overrun with concrete and cruise ships, so this quiet, seven-mile-long island is a more pleasant alternative. After multiple dive trips to many Caribbean islands, I saw plenty of personal firsts here. Truth is, you can’t sit back and hope the critters come to you; you have to seek them out.

A Bungalow at Laguna Beach Resort

A Bungalow at Laguna Beach Resort

Take my 8 a.m. shore dive along the Laguna Beach wall, 100 yards off the resort’s beach. I had squeezed out a 72-minute dive using less than 2,000 psi and, with a rising sun, I was treated to the Caribbean commoners: redband parrotfish, yellow goatfish, hogfish, squirrelfish, tangs and schoolmasters. Laguna Beach Resort, Utila, HondurasBut toward dive’s end, approaching the sandy shallows near the dock, a pair of spotted gray-winged little boxcars with snouts and tails flitted past me; prehistoric-looking flying gurnards rooting in the sand. Then a yellowfin mojarra swam by slowly before vanishing into the green shallows. With 900 psi left, I wasn’t done yet. After a 45- minute surface interval, I stepped back in and trailed behind my snorkeling spouse. A queen angelfish, rock beauty, butter hamlet, a tube-dwelling secretary blenny, a pop-eyed porcupinefish and giant hermit crabs digging in the sand kept me entertained.

While the dive staff didn’t make much of an effort to show me the best of Utila underwater, local boat captain Wagner “Waggy” Whitefield chased down the big fish. We were headed back to the dock after the last dive of the day when Waggy got word that a whale shark had been spotted nearby. Off we sped to catch the action. At least a halfdozen of the huge fish were there, so all boats on the scene were able to put their snorkelers in the water. Camera in hand and finning as fast as I could, I got up close to one of the most magnificent fish in the sea.

I flew from Atlanta on a non-stop to Roatan, then hopped a puddle-jumper to Utila’s little airstrip. The plane was so tiny that the pilot asked one of the five passengers to sit in the co-pilot’s empty seat; our bags had to be boated over later that night. A mini-bus met me at the airport and drove me through the narrow, winding streets of Eastern Harbor, the island’s only town, then one of Laguna Beach’s dive boats took me on a brief ride to the resort. Managers Soledad Segura and Matias Lardizabal, transplants from Argentina, welcomed me at the dock. Over Port Royal beers and mid-afternoon pizza, Soledad gave a resort orientation in broken English. Breakfast started at 7 a.m.; boats left for a two-tank dive at 8. Lunch was 20 minutes after the boat gets back. Then a one-tank dive at 2 p.m., plus a drop-off dive if requested. Dinner at 7 p.m., or an hour later after the two weekly night dives.

The resort accommodates about 40 guests in rustic, air-conditioned Honduran pine bungalows on a sandy peninsula alongside a lagoon. The resort was only half full and incredibly quiet. My cabana had a super-firm king bed, a shelf stretching along the entire back wall, perfect for my camera gear, but only one outlet (US voltage) in the bedroom and a second next to the bathroom sink. I watched sunsets from my small private dock and deck. Plenty of pegs inside and on the porch to hang gear, open shelves for storage, a closet, and an electronically locked safe. The roomy shower stall was clean, with a closing door on the no-paperwaste toilet. Don’t drink the tap water; instead, bring back filtered water and ice from the clubhouse. The wood lodge had a circular bar underneath a vaulted ceiling, dining areas on three sides and pool table upstairs in an airy alcove. Wooden paddles hang on the walls, decorated by dive groups visiting Utila over the years. One from ReefNet was decorated with a great barracuda and proclaimed that the team had identified over 300 fish species during their 2002 trip.

The dive shop’s own orientation was given by its pleasant young American manager, Angie Sims. Experienced divers are excused from hand-holding. During the first check-out dive off the shop’s dock, Angie said with my prior solo-diving experience, I could do drop-off and shore dives on my own. After the boat ride to Big Rock, we dropped to the reef 20 feet below. After some check-out drills, Kiwi divemaster Nick Blackwell led the way while Waggy stayed aboard to follow our bubbles. Nick let me linger as far behind as needed for photos, so I put the “patience is a virtue” motto into practice. Soon I had unpredicted sightings, such as a rosy razorfish and a white grouper. A variegated urchin made a silly picture, having hoisted a thick, jaunty cap of debris on top of itself. Secretary blennies, yellowline arrow crab, and flamingo tongue were present on every other dive.

Nick changed tanks for everyone and passed out sweet dessert squares and cookies; each diver had an assigned water cup to fill from a big cooler. Briefings were clear and Nick showed some ribald and juvenile Kiwi humor with his dive signs (e.g., scratching at his crotch to sign “crab”), making up for the lack of a whiteboard or site drawings. It was easy to get the gist anyway. Sites were shallow 30- to 100-foot wall dives with a sandy or grooved ledge on top, and few swim-throughs or caves. Only one dive had any current, so it was easy diving even for the inexperienced.

Yes, the fish population is low. Large schools are rare, reef fish swam as isolated individuals. Overfishing has taken a toll. So I shifted gears to look for life I might otherwise ignore. At Big Rock, I photographed delicate blue bell tunicates and a rare blue-striped lizardfish. As Nick and crew ambled on, I lingered to shoot a fat, red longsnout seahorse. However, soft corals (especially knobby and porous sea rods with feathery polyps extended) and hard coral were healthy and create a charming seascape. Mainly variations of beige, they’re not the vibrant neons of South Pacific and Indian Ocean corals, but they’re healthy. Bring a 5-mil in the spring -- water temps in April ranged from 82 to a chilly 73 degrees.

The dive center and dock face the lagoon. Drying rooms, showers, and camera and gear rinse tubs were steps away from each other on the wharf. It’s only a four-minute walk to here from the most distant bungalow. Crew rinsed and hung regulators and BCDs each evening and set them up every morning. Rinse tanks were refilled then too. Two roomy 36-foot Newtons had dual-entry stern ladders, suncovers, and heads. Each was rated to hold 23 divers, but divers were split up between two boats, so I never dived with more than 10 people, and oftentimes many people skipped dives if the water got too chilly.

In contrast to the top-notch dive operation, so-so maintenance keeps the resort out of the luxury class. Light fixtures along pathways often lacked bulbs, and wiring hung exposed. Beach trash was not swept up daily. Garbage cans at the outdoor bar could stay half-filled with food and liquor bottles for days. Laguna Beach Resort, Utila, HondurasDrawshades in my room were inoperable. The power could go out at any time and there was no backup generator. And bring DEET: like other Bay Islands, Utila is plagued by no-see-ums and mosquitoes on calm days.

Sleepy though it is, Utila is worth an afternoon’s exploration. You can go on horseback, trotting the island’s seven-mile length. Or take the resort boat to Utila Town, where pedestrians and golf carts mix with small cars packed to the gills with entire families. Smells of grilling chicken wafted through the air at the open market, packed with locals. Another highlight: a walking tour through the colorfully decorated Jade Seahorse enclave of bungalows, restaurant and open-air bar just off the main drag, where steps and arches are inlaid in rainbow mosaics of tiles, stones and pieces of mirror.

Meals tasted like they were prepared with love by Mom: nothing fancy, but delicious. Each meal featured just one main course, served buffet-style, but it always hit the spot. A typical day had omelets and waffles on the warming trays for breakfast, grilled hotdogs and burgers at the outdoor bar for lunch, tender chicken and rice with coconut milk for dinner. Resort and dive staff mingled with guests, often eating at the bar alongside the rest of us. Kitchen staff smiled ear to ear at us, as we bussed our own dishes.

Besides that first swim with the whale sharks, the surprises continued almost daily. On the morning after, more whale sharks were spotted so I made three more jumps. At the afternoon dive at the aptly named Pretty Bush (lots of tawny soft coral moving like stalks of grain in a wheat field), I saw a bandtail puffer. On the night dive, three wire coral shrimp posed leisurely for my camera. I also came away with shots of rough box, decorator and teardrop crabs, red night shrimp and a large-eye toadfish fully out of its hole. On the way back from a morning dive, Nick spotted what looked like a black garbage bag floating in a shallow bay. My dive buddies shouted, “Manta!” We snorkeled with it to our heart’s content. I got some great movies of the huge creature -- eight feet, wing to wing -- doing graceful backward loops over and over.

Of course, I can’t guarantee you would have the same sightings I did, and many readers report disappointing diving, but it seems like I timed my trip just right. With a double-helping of whale shark encounters and plenty of macro photo-ops, I had my share of interesting encounters. If you’re a diver with an optimistic outlook and the patience to look beyond where those missing schools of fish used to swim, you could come away with a delightful Caribbean dive trip.

-- S.P.

Laguna Beach Resort, Utila, HondurasDiver’s Compass: My seven-night, double-occupancy stay with all meals, airport transfers and a diver/non-diver package came to $2,600; for surface intervals, there are bicycles, (broken) kayaks, horseback riding, golf carts and four-wheelers, and the resort’s boat takes guests to and from town daily . . . Free wireless connection is available in the main lodge . . . Dive gear can be rented, but nothing major purchased . . . There is a daily $4 reef fee and Honduran exit tax of $40 per person . . . Direct flights to Roatan run through Houston and Atlanta, but Saturday is the only day flights arrive and depart Utila; contact Utila Resorts, the hotel’s U.S. office, to book flights by calling 800-668-8452 . . . Honduras is subject to hurricanes from June through November, and the rainy season is October through February . . . U.S. dollars and credit cards accepted . . . AC current is same as in USA . . . Laguna Beach Resort’s Web site: www.utila.com.

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