Roatan and the other Bay Islands of Honduras provide a rare opportunity to see endangered whale sharks, play with dolphins and swim along spectacular coral reefs.
Technology and ecotourism have made the world one big happy oyster for scubanauts. They wander the globe, an inquisitive fleet of underwater voyeurs, peering beneath outcrops of rock and coral, and gliding through shoals of garishly colored fish from Indonesia to the Red Sea and here, to the Bay Islands of Honduras.
Roatan is the largest of the Bay Islands and an obligatory wish list destination for those of us who explore the world underwater. This little archipelago, 67 assorted islands and cays, spotted among spectacular coral reefs, enjoys mythic status among the wetsuit set as one of the world’s prime diving locales. It’s why I, and a cheery handful of other dive aficionados, have made our way on a steamy afternoon from Roatan’s airport to the rustic open-air lounge of Anthony’s Key Resort.
Soon, we’re sipping an icy rum concoction in the warm Caribbean breeze, while a slim young islander named Yolanda presents her well-rehearsed divers’ orientation briefing. This is a necessary rite among all the local resorts, to review safety rules and, ultimately, to survey the crowd and size up everyone’s diving experience.
Snorkelers need no credentials, other than common sense. But scuba divers must be certified through an approved course of training. Instruction is available throughout the Bay Islands — most of it sanctioned by PADI, the Professional Association of Dive Instructors — and practically all of the local training facilities include a program for re-educating scuba divers like me, who, despite the well-worn certification cards buried in our wallets, haven’t strapped on scuba gear in years.
The biosphere of the adjacent Great Maya Reef supports practically all marine species known in the Caribbean. The “fringing reefs” surrounding the islands border part of a vast chasm, the Cayman Trench, and create a submarine neighborhood that mixes residents from both deep and shallow habitats. These critters range in size from microscopic phytoplankton to the massive whale shark — Rhyncodon typus — the world’s largest fish. This unique creature, supposedly a local denizen is one of the main attractions that lured me to Roatan.
I’ve always been charmed by the shark — this primordial ancestor of nearly all vertebrate species — one of our planet’s most successful inhabitants. And, for sheer majesty, the immense, incongruously polka-dotted whale shark is the most astonishing member of this ancient family. The waters around the Bay Islands of Honduras are one of its most robust habitats.
I grab fins and dive mask at Anthony’s and board a little outboard skiff for Bailey’s Key, just offshore. Within minutes, I’m free diving in crystal clear water, face-to-face with a well-fed barracuda, then plunging down among brain corals and skittering tangs and damselfish.
The south end of Bailey’s Key is the home of Anthony’s pampered family of bottlenose dolphins, and within an hour I’m snorkeling with them. At one point, a feisty 3-year-old named Bobby lets me grab onto his latex-smooth trunk behind the dorsal fin, and we take a high speed ride across his netted enclosure.
Like the dolphins, a few above-water inhabitants of Roatan have also been gently corralled for the edification of tourists. Gumba Limba Park near the west end features a flashy array of native birds — parrots, toucans and other riotously overdressed tropical birds. You can glide through it (actually above it) on one of those ever-popular canopy tours, suspended by a harness from wire rope stretched between the treetops.
The south shore of the island, near the town of French Harbour, features an iguana farm by the main highway. If you’ve never mingled with three-foot lizards, these surprisingly large Central American reptiles can be a little disturbing. But, like the whale shark, there’s nothing dangerous about the iguanas.
The only truly scary wildlife on Roatan are the aggressive drivers and unpredictable pedestrians on the road through Coxen Hole, the Bay Islands’ funky little capital. My minivan makes its way between trucks and scooters, dodging children and old ladies carrying incongruous black umbrellas for shade. At one well-stocked arts and crafts shop, I spend the requisite $100 on T-shirts, and a couple of Pre-Columbian art and pottery replicas, locally knows as Yaba Ding Dings.
I soon trade the dusty clutter of Coxen Hole for the quiet mangrove lagoon of Coco View Resort, where’d I’ve arranged to continue my aquatic re-orientation. Coco View is another diver-dedicated resort, more sedate than Anthony’s, but constructed in the same “upscale rustic” style, with airy wooden bungalows built over crystal clear water. Here, an instructor works me through a comprehensive open water diving refresher course. She outfits me with a buoyancy compensator, regulator, computer console, tank, 3,000 cu. ft. of compressed air, and down we go, along the lush coral wall of Newman’s Reef.
In the shadow of a shipwreck, the 120-foot Prince Albert, covered with sea growth and teeming with grumpy little damselfish, I re-experience the familiar sensations of equalizing my ear pressure, and neutralizing buoyancy. Listening to my own breath, I follow the delicate movements of a 3-inch golden seahorse (the locals call him Fred) along his gaudy reef habitat.
A couple of dives later I’m off in search of much larger quarry. My whale shark is waiting among the seamounts off Utila, Roatán’s westernmost island neighbor.
What scuba diving is to the Bay Islands, whale shark gazing is to Utila. Upwelling currents in the waters surrounding the Bay Islands provide the ideal medium for its complex reef system. Those reefs also help lure larger pelagic fish, like the whale shark, closer inshore — which means within the reach of tourists.
Over the last few years, these mellow giants have become choice targets for eco-tourists. But their movements and feeding habits are erratic enough to make any attempted encounter a hit-or-miss proposition. On Utila, I meet up with a cheery Australian marine biologist Luke Tipple, one of the acknowledged local shark experts. If anyone can find a whale shark, they say, it’s Luke.
Tipple has an encyclopedic knowledge of “while shacks” (that’s the Australian pronunciation), and he’s one of several scientists who are genuinely alarmed by all this whale shark chasing. Poaching was declared taboo by the Honduran Government in 1999 and the World Conservation Union has red-tagged this animal as a “vulnerable” species.
Conservationists like Tipple are crucial to protecting whale sharks from what might be their worst natural enemy: inquisitive, well-intentioned humans. There are established enforceable guidelines for safe, non-invasive whale shark encounters.
Spotting a whale shark in the wild involves scanning the water’s surface for evidence of a “boil,” the frenzied feeding of a school of bonito, who surround and corral their prey — small fish and squid. If you’re lucky, a whale shark, cruising below, will rise to harvest the miniscule organisms stirred up by this melee.
After an early morning dive through the spectacular forest atop a seamount named Black Hills, five of us gather on deck to search for signs of a “boil.” A mounting northerly breeze isn’t helping. The light wind chop obscures any surface fish activity. Our skipper is a veteran shark-spotter named Albert. He noses the boat toward shore, than back to sea, probing for a sighting. The whitecaps increase again, and the tension on board is palpable. Suddenly Albert jams the throttle forward and we’re pounding northward through the swells.
“There’s something going on over there,” he shouts from the fly bridge, and Tipple quickly orders everyone into free-diving gear — fins, mask and snorkel.
Snorkelling?! I’m crestfallen. What about all the scuba training I’ve been doing? Tipple is unsympathetic. Rule number one for whale shark encounters is: free-diving only. The sharks are usually close to the surface anyway, and scuba gear has a way of emboldening divers to get too close to the creatures. So we gather like kids at a pool party, our fins dangling over the stern. And we wait.
A pair of seabirds reel overhead. They see something below, but there’s still no evidence of the bonito frenzy, no swarm of minuscule sea life. Then it happens. A shadow, the size of our boat, suddenly looms behind our stern.
Inside my head, I cue the Jaws theme music. Almost in unison, we pop our masks on, and slide gingerly, feet first, into the water. The shadow glides silently past, maybe thirty feet beneath us, a massive if distant presence readily distinguishable by the tidy pattern of white dots that are the whale shark’s calling card.
The tail swings slowly side to side, and the great creature heads deep before any of us can react short of muffled “wow’s” inside the mouthpieces of our snorkels.
Someone manages to snap a picture, but the shark sounds into the deep as quickly as it materialized. I rotate underwater, peering into limitless Windex blue for one more sighting, a dorsal fin, the telltale spots. Nothing. One last, desperate 360 degree pivot, straining my eyes for anything and then I climb back up the boarding ladder, half thrilled over the sighting of the world’s largest fish, and half-dejected that I couldn’t have spent more time with it. “Give it another go mate,” Tipple consoles, “maybe tomorrow.”
Tomorrow dawns, unfortunately, to a villainous little squall. Spin drift stirs up froth that would make spotting a battleship difficult. With a deadline closing in and a ticket to the mainland in my pocket, I realize my half-realized shark hunt is over — for now anyway. Tipple sees me off: “Patience, mate … there are plenty more ‘while shacks’ in your future.”
Copyright © Jim Cornfield / 2013 Singular Communications, LLC.