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August 2010    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 25, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Plantation Beach Resort, Honduras

diving on the quiet side of the Bay Islands, in Cayos Cochinos

from the August, 2010 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

I was in a bad mood. Delta had fumbled the luggage transfer at its Atlanta hub but even worse, I was on my short connector flight to La Ceiba, Honduras, in pouring rain and blustery northerly winds. That was the layover point for the next mornings 15-mile boat trip to Cayo Grande, the largest island in the Cayos Cochinos (Hog Islands) archipelago. My mood meter dropped even farther when Plantation Beach Resort manager Roger Remington, who met me and my partner at the bar of La Ceibas Gran Paris Hotel, gave me his weather report. I dont like the looks of it, he said.

Thats the peril of December-January travel to Honduras Bay Islands (Cayos Cochinos are tucked in between them and the countrys northern coast). But the next morning, the rain petered out and the wind turned. As we departed in a big panga from the beach in the nearby village of Sambo Creek, a pod of dolphins surrounded us in the surf zone. The panga captain called it the welcoming committee, and it was a mood changer.

The Main Lodge at Plantation Beach Resort

The Main Lodge at Plantation Beach Resort

Plantation Beach Resort (PBR) is just 25 miles from Roatn but a world apart. You wont find a cruise ship, a disco or even a gift shop. Only a few divers and touring yachties stop off at the only hotel on the postcardperfect jungly island. Cayo Grande has a few hundred residents and some scattered vacation homes, but youll be mostly isolated, unless you take a walk over the hill to the village. Mainly, youll be surrounded by natural beauty overlooking the Caribbean and healthier reefs than the nearby islands. This is no fancy resort: not a lawn in sight and the only TV was never on. Plantation Beach Resort, HondurasI almost expected to see Mary Ann and the Professor coming up the stone walkway.(My apologies if you dont remember Gilligans Island.)

An hour after settling into my hillside cabaa, I, my buddy and our guide were cruising around a coral head at Lions Head when we came upon a hawksbill turtle. I laughed out loud. A pesky damselfish was pecking the big guy on the nose! These days, you have to look for those kinds of scenes to add excitement to dives because as we well-traveled divers know, most creatures throughout the Caribbean that can serve as human food are hooked and cooked long before maturity. But there was plenty of good macro stuff to keep me interested. I found three species of shrimp and a pretty spotted lobster. I eased my finger up to a corkscrew anemone to get it cleaned by a Pederson shrimp but the little critter ignored it. The divemaster tried to show me how its done, but all he got was a noisy crackle from a hidden snapping shrimp. A couple of swim-throughs later -- one filled with glassy sweepers -- I wandered off the low wall to the sand flats, enjoying the yellow goatfish, garden eels and a tiny-eyed flounder. My buddy pointed to a mound of sand erupting like a miniature volcano; it was a southern lugworm blowing out excreted sand. After 60 minutes, I hung at 15 feet, watching a small barracuda herd creole wrasse over the dead elkhorn coral.

The routine is two dives in the morning, with an hour interval spent on the 42- foot dive boat, and an afternoon dive at 2 p.m. The boat is tied to moorings for most dives, adding an occasional drift dive. There are racks for 44 tanks but captain Danny Chacon told me there rarely are more than 10 divers. The dive platform has a big ladder. Crew provides towels and drinking water, and there is a DAN O2 kit on board. No working head and no rinse tank unless you bring a camera on board. The staff loaded our equipment each morning, and rinsed and locked it in the dockside storage room each evening. Air fills were 2,700 to 3,000 psi.

Danny, having worked at PBR for many years, knows the reefs well. Mike Wall, the new lead divemaster, previously worked in Roatn (as has Robin Brigham, the other divemaster) and in the Indo-Pacific. What he lacks in experience he makes up for in enthusiasm. There was no time limit imposed, and most dives lasted about an hour, when I ran low on air. (Nitrox isnt offered.)

The View From The Author’s Cabana

The View From The Author’s Cabana

The 10-room resort is tucked into a forested creek valley on a cove on Cayo Grande. Some rooms are next to the creek, and a few cabaas are spread along a hillside walkway. Social life is centered in the main lodge, overlooking a small beach and the boat dock. The lodge includes a long room with tables for eating and telling little diver lies, a bar, and a small library with three Paul Humann ID books. Satellite Wi-Fi allows you to surf the net (staff allowed me to use their computer and even borrow a cell phone for a couple of calls to the mainland). But most fun was chatting with an interesting mix of guests; conversation might include English with various accents, Spanish, Portuguese and German. PBR staff stopped by to deal with logistics, or to tell tall ones about wildlife and wilder guests theyve seen. (I heard more about Cameron Diaz than I wanted to know.)

Making Friends With a Hawksbill Turtle

Making Friends With a Hawksbill Turtle

I made three of my 14 dives along Pelican Wall, near the resorts front yard. At Pelican 3, I descended to 85 feet to find longsnout butterflies and blackcap basslets, then eased slowly along and up, checking out the grottos and ledges. I followed a large schoolmaster into a crevice and found a five-foot barracuda, blackened and nose-down, getting car-wash treatment from cleaning gobies. Meanwhile, my partner, scouting the small stuff, pointed out giant tunicates, tube tunicates and a variety of anemones and corallimorphs. Mike, who immediately adapted to my slow, poke-around style, found sea slugs and other critters so small that I needed my magnifier to ID them. He pointed at a spectacular five-inch fish with an ostentatious dorsal fin posed on a tiny ledge -- a male quillfin blenny. Tucked in the sand between coral heads was an unusually large, bright green sea cucumber. I turned around to return to the mooring near the top of the reef at 30 feet, enjoying some healthy coral cover here. A school of brown chromis spilled around a pinnacle, with a cowfish trailing them.

At a site called Hospital, I cruised over the shallows and down to 80 feet for a wall tour, including a hawksbill moving overhead, a couple of big scorpionfish, a large-eye toadfish (seen on a number of dives) and a spotted moray. Nearby, several arrow blennies stood guard at a little nook. Back up in the shallows, lit by bright sun, I watched red band parrots in a spawning rush, then a couple of wrasses did a prolonged, open-jaw face-off, their macho version of territorial shadow-boxing. Mike found a leopard flatworm. Near the mooring, I saw an octopus in the open, shooting black ink clouds for no reason I could determine. It finally pressed itself against coral, changing into camo coloration. I wanted to ask it why it was so upset.

Cayos Cochinos has been a protected preserve since 1993 -- with just local hookand- line fishing -- so the fish life is better than at the bigger Bay Islands. Still, like everywhere in the Caribbean, the reefs are noticeably stressed. I asked Roger, who started at PBR some 15 years ago as a divemaster and has been the manager for several years, why some sites seem relatively healthy and others have heavy algae cover. He pointed out that the healthy reefs are near Cayo Grande (where PBR is located) and some of the smaller cays, and the more stressed reefs are near Cayo Menor, the sister island a couple of miles away. There was a five-year hiatus on diving the Menor sites as part of an ongoing study but it was found that the lack of diving pressure had no effect. The difference remains unexplained. Roger noted that after the five-year period there was some trash on the reefs at Menor because divers werent there to pick it up.

The healthiest -- and most exciting -- sites are the nearby sea mounts. To my disappointment, they were not reachable during my January trip due to bumpy seas, which lowered visibility to 50 feet and limited some site selections. Plantation Beach Resort, HondurasOn an earlier trip to PBR 13 years ago, I made nearly half my dives on the sea mounts and found more pelagics, more schools and more electric diving. I would recommend spring or summer as the better dive seasons here, to dodge the rain (and mainland run-off) and to increase the odds of diving the banks in calm water.

The resort itself has changed little over the years. There are a couple of newer cabaas, rooms 10 and 12, which I would definitely recommend. Some rooms are spread out but others are close to the lodge. They are plain but spacious and airy, with 24-hour electricity, overhead fan, hotwater shower and a resident gecko. The new ones have a great view from their terraces. Dont expect maintenance standards of the Cancn El Presidente -- our roof leaked during a heavy downpour but we were quickly moved to a room next door.

In addition to the Caribbean Three-Rs -- rum, romance and relaxation -- activities include hiking, kayaking, snorkeling or watching the birds outside my front door. A nice walk leads up along the creek to the islands 500-foot-high point and a lighthouse view of all the surrounding islands. If you pass local folks, you may hear some Garifuna language as well as Spanish. A PBR staffer helped me find a pink boa constrictor in a tree a short way down the trail; he seemed to know which branches those snakes favor. Its a subspecies endemic to the island, and the subject of one of my nicest topside photos. I found the PBR staff competent and helpful. When my luggage was lost, they loaned me a shortie, BC and fins, and arranged almost free delivery of my luggage to the island by taxi and then on the next boat coming over.

Each meal is served as a plentiful buffet and is pretty good for a remote place. Compliments to the kitchen staff led to smiles and discussions of tomorrows possibilities. Theres no menu but you can make your requests by email before you arrive. I requested fresh fish and local dishes (called tipico in Honduras), and after some initial complaining, got it. Breakfasts always included fresh fruit and eggs, with pancakes or thick Central American tortillas, and usually bacon. Good coffee was available early. Lunches usually included red beans and rice, with meat or fish, a couple of times with fried green plantains. Dinners were similar. Lunch ends with cookies, dinner with homemade cake or pie. The small bar had plenty of liquor and Honduran beer but dont expect any fancy drinks. In fact, guests often just pull beer from the cooler and mark their own tabs. Potable water is always available, including in the rooms. There were usually a couple other guests from the U.S., Canada or Honduras visiting at dinner and talking over Salva Vida beers. Roger says January is a slow month. If there were a dozen guests and half of them were on the dive boat, the place would have a livelier feel.

Snorkeling is decent in the turtle grass and in-shore corals right off the resort dock but you can do better with a walk or kayak nearby, especially near Pelican Point, in-shore of the Bay Islands Aggressor mooring. You can also make shore dives at night, though Pelican Wall makes a better night dive.

Its hard to get from the U.S. to the island in a day, so PBR arranges a hotel stay in La Ceiba. You can use it as more than a layover: La Ceiba is the gateway to some great day-excursions in the rain forest, incredible birding, monkeys and crocs, or a couple hours of whitewater rafting on the nearby Congrejal River. On this trip, I spent four days in the area with an excellent naturalist guide. A boat tour of the Cuero y Salado wetlands provided outstanding birding and close-up howler monkey troops. Another day, I enjoyed a rainforest hike to a 300-foot waterfall in Pico Bonito National Park. And I met nice people everywhere in Honduras; the few times I approached a stranger and asked to use their cell phone, I was never turned down.

If you like getting off divings interstates for the less-traveled roads, Plantation Beach Resort might be worth looking at. Its good diving, a comfortable, laid-back environment and very easy on the budget.

-- M.A.

Plantation Beach Resort, HondurasDivers Compass: I paid $625, double occupancy, ($540 plus 16 percent tax) for five days of diving, hotel and all-inclusive meals; this is 10 percent off the rack rate, which I requested by email . . . Extras: $80 for the round-trip boat trip from La Ceiba, $10 park fee, the bar bill (beer is $3) and tips for the boat and hotel staff . . . In La Ceiba, I stayed at Gran Paris in the center of town and paid $43 for a nice double room; PBR can get you 20 percent off . . . To take land excursions near La Ceiba, contact La Moskitia Ecoaventuras, run by Jorge Salaverri, an excellent, bilingual naturalist guide, at www.lamoskitia.hn . . . Most international flights are to San Pedro Sula, then take a short plane hop on Islea ($60 each way) to La Ceiba or a three-hour van or bus ride . . . Website: www.plantationbeachresort.com

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