Caribbean diving in Honduras

by Rob Tiller

Yesterday Sally and I returned to Raleigh after a week of scuba diving in Roatan, Honduras. We explored the second longest barrier reef in the world and were overcome by the incredible beauty under the water. It was intoxicating: thousands of luminous fish, enormous sea turtles, exquisite sea horses, exotic invertebrates, and vast coral structures in rainbow colors, I highly recommend it, though I hope not too many people go, particularly if they’re careless divers. The reef is ancient but fragile, still teeming with life, but threatened by human activity.

We stayed at CoCo View Resort, an establishment designed for divers. There’s no casino, no television, and little in the way of shopping or other entertainment. The focus is scuba. The hotel is on a small island that’s a short swim from the edge of the reef, and a number if prime locations are within a ten-minute boat ride. They have convenient, well-organized lockers a few steps from the boat docks, and the boats are well set up for diving. Our captain, known as Gringo, and divemaster, Mark, were friendly, knowledgeable, and hard-working. They took us on four boat dives a day, and most nights we went on an additional dive off the shore. My total of dives for the week was 24, while Sally did 21. This meant that most of our time was either preparing to dive, diving, and preparing to dive again, with short intervals for eating and sleeping. I did manage to sneak in a bit of reading and a couple of naps in the hammock on our balcony that overlooked the bright green water of the bay.

Personal highlights included ten sea turtles in one day, including one that I spotted while swimming in for a close look at a pair of queen angelfish. We saw almost as many sea horses in one day, several scorpion fish, and four species of eels. On one night dive we saw three octopuses, including one that we watched for several minutes as it changed colors and shapes in a brilliant attempt to camouflage itself against various backgrounds. On our last day we saw our first ever squids, a pair that hovered near us for a couple of minutes, than swam almost close enough to touch.

There were also, unfortunately, lionfish in greater abundance than we’ve previously seen. This fast-multiplying invasive species is disrupting reef ecosystems across the Caribbean. Mark had a license to kill these destructive predators, and at one point executed six in two minutes. Another time, after an execution, he offered the remains to a spotted eel, which emerged from its hole for the snack. Mark confirmed that the lionfish seemed to have cut into the populations of other creatures. I wondered if the lack of sharks and rays (we saw only one southern sting ray) was a consequence.

We went with a group of about a dozen other divers organized by Dan P. and Down Under Surf and Scuba. Most of the other divers were very experienced. We learned more about diving and new species from them, and enjoyed their company. The vibe was friendly and relaxed.

It was fantastic to swim with large schools of small, brightly colored fish, and also to hunt for hidden treasures — well camouflaged and bizarre creatures. As the week went on, I found it more and more satisfying to focus directly on the coral. The variety of structures was remarkable. There were species that resembled various plants and ones that looked like rocky organisms. Late in the trip, I used my flashlight to inspect the coral at 70 feet, and discovered that species I’d first taken to be dull gray or brown were quite colorful — burgundy, lime, mauve.

And as I spent more hours underwater, I felt more peaceful, less distracted, more focussed. There were only a couple of painful moments. I got stung by fire coral on my hand, which felt like a burn, and stung by an unseen creature on my lip, which felt like a wasp. But mostly I felt deeply happy. I wondered, as we prepared to leave, whether, with more time, I’d keep getting better at looking at tiny things, and enjoy them even more.