Insiders Guide to the Bay Islands of Honduras
Text and Photography by Rick Frehsee
The Bay Islands of Honduras are three mid-sized islands and 60-odd small islets and keys that string out into the Caribbean like teardrops falling off the face of Central America.
Skin Diver Magazine has been providing details and information on Bay Islands diving for more than 20 years; our first annual special section on the area appeared in 1982. For the special feature in this issue we interviewed a select group of local divemasters and decided to use their words--not ours. Many of the fondest memories we have of the Bay Islands have come from conversations with these divemasters--all colorful and unforgettable characters. Most are island-born, nearly all have been diving for 20 years or more and most are legends on their own turf.
We only regret we could not deliver their words in true "island speak" a sing-song Caribbean dialect that often sounds more like a hymn than conversation. Imagine the inflection, add body language and a wry smile, and hear Tino, "Tarzan" "Doc," the Gomez brothers and all the others talk about their favorite dive sites in our first, true Insider's Guide to Bay Islands Diving.
FRED LITTON HAYES:
Everyone on Utila knows Fred, but they know him as "Tarzan," the island's most famous diver. Fred describes himself as "the oldest diver in the Bay Islands." Now in his early 5Os, diving has kept him fit and trim despite a pen-chant for local beer. Born on Utila, Fred started freediving when he was only six years old and began scuba diving 26 years ago. Fred was the first dive guide on Utila, but he has never been certified. When we asked him why, he replied, "Ain't nothin' dey can show me."
Fred mentioned two of his favorite dive sites, Pumpkin Hill
, a striated reef where you can find "lots of big fish, even today," and Morgan's Bank
, where he grew up diving for lobster and conch, "enough to sink a boat." But we couldn't resist his telling of early Whale Shark encounters, sightings that continue today.
"Back in the '50s, all that I knew was that they were big sharks. The biggest one was a 40 footer we called Old Tom. I don't know how many there were back then, we never hung around to count. We thought we would be eaten--hell, we thought they'd eat the boat? Fred snorkeled with a Whale Shark for the first time just five years ago, a fish that he says swims "with the grace of God."
Willy is the main boat captain at the Utila Lodge. He was born on Utila and grew up boating and fishing. He remembers trying to start a small boat engine with a pull cord when he was only four or five years old. He started fishing from a dory in the open ocean at the age of eight and piloting dive boats in the early 1970s, as soon as the first divers began to show up on the island. If there is a Whale Shark around, Willy will find it. One of his favorite dive sites is Turtle Harbor
, on Utila's north side.
"Here is a wall that is as big and wild as they come. It's only 20 feet deep at the top and then all of a sudden, zoom--a sheer drop. There's a slot between two huge pinnacles that will point the way. According to the charts, it's 1,600 feet deep directly off that wall. We often see triggerfish, groupers, schools of jacks, even turtles. Once, we saw a Marlin swim by. You might see anything along that wall, it's the edge of the world!"
Wagner is the head boat captain for Utila's Laguna Beach Resort. He was born on Utila and grew up making a living spearfishing, diving for lobster and conch and, later on, crewing on a shrimp boat. He has worked at Utila Watersports, the sister company of the Laguna Beach Resort, since he was 20 years old. He and Willy Waterhouse are probably the two best boat captains in the Bay Islands. His favorite dive site is Blackish Point
on the ocean side of Utila.
"You might see anything here, this site sits on the edge of the big drop-off. It's 25 feet to the top of the reef, which drops to a 70 foot wall. The wall has cuts, six blind caverns in all, and there are yellow, orange and red tube sponges--the biggest is six feet long. Here you can see Nurse Sharks, lobsters, Dog-tooth Snappers, even turtles and Jewfish. On one special dive, our guests snorkeled with a large school of tuna mixed in with a school of more than 40 Manta Rays!"
Born in Guatemala, Tino has spent most of his life in Honduras and the Bay Islands. He is a local diving legend. Charming and articulate, Tino has worked for most of the dive resorts on Roatan and Guanaja at one time or another and is given credit for discovering or popularizing many of the dive sites around both islands. Tino currently operates Tino's Diving Services and Ecotours in Sandy Bay, where he specializes in custom dive trips and treks to the Mosquito Coast. When I asked him why he recently shaved off his trademark leprechaun beard, he told me "Mon, you gotta give your woman a dif-ferent man once in a while." One of his favorite dive sites is Halfmoon Bay Wall
"This is a corner of the reef where you can find three zones: the wall, which the site is most famous for, with 15 or 20 healthy bushes of Black Coral in 100 feet of water; the west section, where there is a tunnel through the reef that comes out at 70 feet on the wall; and the top of the reef. Here, the shallows are beautiful, with a sand bottom reflecting the sunlight and with lots of fish--groupers almost big enough to swallow you!"
Hank is the dive operations manager at the Fantasy Island Beach Resort. Born on the east end of Roatan, he has been diving for 21 years and has been a certified instructor for nine. He continues to dive four to five times a day. I doubt if anyone knows half of Roatan's dive sites better than Hank. Normally he's a humble guy, but I sparked Hank's ego when I asked him how many dives he's made. "Oh Lord, mon, I don't know. How many dives did Tino say he made? I made that many dives, too!" Hank chose Valley of the Kings
as one of his favorite sites.
"Right below the boat is a big sandy chute that runs to a coral ridge that juts out from the wall. It's only about 25 to 28 feet deep at the top of the wall. That ridge has a cleft on the left hand side that is absolutely amazing. It's decorated with so many gorgonians and huge sponges it looks like an undersea garden. Sometimes I just hover there thinking--that's what it must look like in heaven!"
"Doc" (he wouldn't tell us his real first name) arrived in Roatan 28 years ago and has rarely left the island since. He has earned his nickname from an encyclopedic knowledge of engineering, natural history, marine archaeology and recreational and com-mercial diving. He is an avid marine conservationist and the Bay Islands' best spokesperson on the subject. He is also a professional consultant to the Wildlife Conservation Society. Doc is the project director for the famous and newly reopened Mary's Place
, a site he can monitor from his island home.
"I first dived Mary's Place
in the early 1970s. Back then it was known as Shark Alley; sharks were always coming around the wall to feed. A huge section of the reef has broken away from the main wall, probably owing to an earthquake, and slid down the talus slope to a position 20 feet lower. A crevice, sometimes wide and sometimes narrow, separates this huge mountain of coral from the wall. The swim-through, which is only open to divers who are island-qualified, is decorated with fans and sponges and often filled with fish."
THE GOMEZ BROTHERS:
If you think nearly everyone on the dive dock at CoCo View Dive Resort is named Gomez, you're not far from wrong. Pictured in this article are Alex, Marcos, Osmond and Tulio Gomez (all brothers) and "Tio" (uncle) Edgar Gomez. Edgar works as a boat captain, the brothers are divemasters; they have been at CoCo View from 5 to 15 years. Fortunately, the Gomez brothers all agreed that Forty Foot Point
is one of their very favorite dive sites.
"Forty Foot Point
is only five minutes from our dock. The name tells you the wall begins in 40 feet of water. It's a huge wall with lots of big barrel sponges and gorgonians with orange, yellow and black rope sponges hanging from underhangs. You can go either way on the wall for as far as you want to go. This is our lucky dive site: twice we saw a Whale Shark here, once a Hammerhead and once a school of Manta Rays!"
Dennis' smile lights up the dock at Anthony's Key, where he is the resort's senior dive guide. Dennis has no idea how many dives he has made; he quit logging them after the first 50, 20 years ago. Since then he has averaged 17 to 18 dives per week without interruption. "Tuk-Tuk" as he is known by everyone at the dock, has been a certified dive instructor since 1979; he is one of the genuinely nicest, kindest persons you will ever meet.
Dennis selected a comparatively new dive site--El Aguila
shipwreck, recently sunk by Anthony's Key two minutes from the resort.
is fast becoming one of our island's main dive attractions. This wreck is huge and sits upright on the bottom next to the coral wall. What we got here is a lot of fishes; there's a big Green Moray that hangs out around the bow. You can swim inside the wheelhouse, swim into the engine room and see the engines in there. Every diver each week gets a chance to dive the wreck and most of them ask to go back."
Dive operations manager for the Bay Islands Beach Resort, Gustavo was born in La Ceiba, Honduras, and has lived on Roatan for 17 years. He started diving when he was 14 and has been in the dive business for 12 years. In 1992 he became a certified divemaster. Gustavo's quiet, low key exterior soon gives way to a sly sense of humor. His favorite dive site is Spooky Channel
"We're blessed here, one of our very best dive sites is right off the resort beach. Spooky Channel
is both beautiful and mysterious. It's an amazing channel through the reef that forms an undersea canyon; it's so big inside you can easily spend your whole dive just looking around in that huge canyon. Sections of it form narrow swim-throughs; in other places it's 100 feet wide, maybe more. The coral above you runs nearly to the surface and forms overhangs that nearly knit together. Inside, you feel like you're flying. Some of our divers call it The Cathedral--why not? It's open on Sundays, too!"
Thirty-two years ago, when Ben was 13 years old, he met some tourists who were in Roatan to snorkel and dive. He was fascinated by their forays under the water and it wasn't long before he was in the shallows looking through a glass bottomed bucket. "It took me a year to get snorkeling equipment and another year to try scuba. I haven't stopped diving since."
Ben's history with dive operations in Roatan goes back to the very beginning, when he lived with the family that opened Spyglass Hill. Later, he was a divemaster at CoCo View and then Romeo's. Finally, he got the chance to open his own operation, Ben's Dive Resort on Roatan's northeast side. He is credited with having discovered and named many of the area's dive sites and no one knows this part of the island better.
"My favorite dive" says Ben, "is just about 10 minutes from here. It's called Verde Grande
and it's a tunnel that starts inside the reef. You go into it where it's about 30 to 40 feet deep and about 35 feet wide. The first part is about 60 feet long. The light shines down through the top, making a green glow. Big schools of Silversides, Tarpon, octopus, lobsters and crabs are all around. At the reefline a second tunnel begins, which runs for about 30 feet before it opens onto the deep blue.
"We find dolphin skeletons inside the tunnel sometimes and one time, a Whale Shark carcass. There's so much there, you can spend your whole dive inside, just moving slow, taking it easy. I love that dive."
Peter has worked at Posada Del Sol Resort for six years; he is now their dive operations manager. He was born in La Ceiba on the north coast of Honduras and has been on Guanaja since he was seven years old. Before becoming a divemaster in 1993, Peter worked as a commercial lobster diver for three and a half years, a dangerous job he was glad to change for a recreational diving career.
Peter selected the Jado Trader
, Guanaja's premier shipwreck dive, as one of his favorites. "This 120 foot long, nearly intact island freighter lies on its starboard side in 110 feet of water. We have been feeding fish here for a long time, so there are normally about 40 groupers on the wreck--some are 65 to 70 pounds--and a huge Green Moray, five feet long. The cargo hold is usually filled with clouds of Silversides. In the late afternoon we have been seeing a 10 foot Hammerhead and Bull Sharks, too. There's also a 450 pound Jewfish--shy--but chance encounters are possible. Once the Jewfish came out of the cargo hold and ate a one gallon bag of baitfish in a single gulp!"
Raul is the dive operations manager at the Bayman Bay Club; he has been with BBC for five years. He was born in Savannah Bight, a local village on the coast of Guanaja, and grew up diving and fishing the island's reefs. He is a certified instructor who knows all of Guanaja's 40 plus dive sites in great detail.
is a series of ancient coral blocks laced with unbelievable undersea caverns and swim-throughs. There is a mooring line that leads to the entrance at 60 feet, a crack 15 feet wide leading to a maze of caverns. Inside are schools of Copper Sweepers and, sometimes, a huge Green Moray. Often we find lobsters and big King Crabs inside and occasionally there are Nurse Sharks lying on the bottom. After about a three minute swim, we come to a cave that extends back 50 feet or more. The inside of the cave is covered with tufts of pillow lava. That shows you the volcanic struggle these islands have gone through."