2000-10 Bay Islands Dive Guide
By Michael Lawrence
Last year my fiancé (now my wife) accompanied me on a whirlwind tour of the Bay Islands of Honduras. She had never even been snorkeling, but after two days of hanging around the ocean, watching divers laughing and telling stories and getting a sense of the level of fun, she couldn’t resist. Within the first five days she had played with Bottlenose Dolphins, seen a Whale Shark and several reef sharks, had swum with a massive Ocean Sunfish (Mola Mola) and taken a peek over the edge of a wall into the abyss. It transformed her vision of life.
There are few destinations able to dependably fulfill these kinds of dreams. Of those Caribbean destinations that can deliver, the Bay Islands of Honduras ranks at the top of the list.
Roatan, Guanaja, Utila, the Cayos Cochinos Islands—these names have become legendary in dive travel circles. The reason is multifaceted. The strengths of the Bay Islands include pleasing tropical climates and surroundings, vertical walls and shallow reefs. There is a better than average opportunity for encountering Whale Sharks, Manta Rays and other large marine life. The islands host multiple professional—yet very personal—dive operations, a resort atmosphere that is a reflection of both the culture and the natural life of the islands and the company of unassuming and interesting people.
The Bay Islands are just off the north coast of mainland Honduras, south of the Yucatan Peninsula of southern Mexico. Unlike many of the more popular Caribbean dive destinations, the Bay Islands are rugged and thickly jungled with high, rough-hewn hills. Despite this, there are few rivers to degrade visibility and water quality, so all islands boast superb dive conditions year-round. The marine life varies greatly, and the area has one of the broadest varieties of hard and soft corals in the Caribbean. Precipitous walls surround the islands, but not to the exclusion of fine shallow reefs.
The walls are striking spectacles that feature deep fissures running perpendicular to the wall itself. The face of the wall is adorned with a striking variety of sponges, including massive barrel sponges, Azure Vase Sponges, Elephant Ear Sponges and a variety of rope and tube sponges. There are also many unusual creatures such as seahorses and Black and White Crinoids, especially around Guanaja.
The islands, while becoming well-known to traveling divers, still account for less than 10 percent of total dive travel. This is due to the relatively new status of the Bay Islands as a dive destination. It wasn’t until the early ’90s that most areas received electricity. Jet travel was not possible until the mid-1990s, when Roatan expanded its runway, and travel to the smaller islands is still accomplished either by small plane or boat. This gives the Bay Islands an envious quality. While they have one foot in the modern world, the other foot stands firmly planted in tradition. As a result, travelers may enjoy the benefits of both. Resorts range from being technologically advanced, with cable television and modern communications, to reflecting the old world of the Bay Islands.
The Bay Islands transferred ownership from the English to the Spanish multiple times from the 1600s to the 1800s. With a mix of influences including the native Indian and Carib tribes, African slaves, the English and the Spanish, the culture is rich and diversified.
The Bay Islands consists of three primary islands—Roatan, Guanaja, Utila—and three smaller islands, Helene, Barbareta and Morat. In addition, there are more than 60 smaller cays including the famed Cayos Cochinos group. It doesn’t matter where divers visit, all share a sense of relaxation and comfort with varying degrees of isolation.
Roatan, between Utila to the west and Guanaja to the east, is the most modern, most populated and most developed island in the group. It has a good road system by island standards (meaning many of the roads are paved), a jetport capable of handling 767s and 737s, island-wide electrical power and an array of modern resorts. Contrasting with these contemporary resorts is the funky, backpack feel of West End, a community on Halfmoon Bay on the west side of Roatan. There you can find families of both tourists and locals intermingling with the pierced, backpacking and hitch-hiking neo-Euro crowd. There are some great, though unassuming local dive shops, quaint stores, funky, fun bars and, of course, very inexpensive accommodations and food.
Roatan features a wealth of dive potential. Highly convoluted walls surround the island, walls capped by massive coral structures spreading into shallow reefs. The island is 30 miles long (seldom exceeding a mile in width), so there are a wealth of impressive wall sites. You can swim with dolphins in the open ocean, and the west end seems to have a number of Whale Shark sightings. Another site on the south side features nearly a dozen huge Black Groupers. On my first dive, I never even saw the wall. There was just too much to do under the boat. Another plus is the number of sites that allow shore diving, an unusual bonus for the Bay Islands.
The second largest of the Bay Islands, Guanaja embodies the old style of the islands. All transportation is accomplished by boat; there is not a single road on the island. There are three small settlements, the largest of which is Bonacca Town, a water community where every home is built on stilts anchored in two tiny, virtually submerged cays. There are two resorts on the island, one on the north side and one on the south side. Travel to Guanaja by air, and one arrives on a crushed coral runway where the “terminal” is a tiny wood shack serving snacks and drinks while you await your water transport.
Diving on the north coast features ancient lava flows including some extensive lava caverns. The reefs climb nearly to the surface and then drop, only to rise up and then continue dropping again into extremely deep water. It is an unusual system covered with huge Azure Vase Sponges, in addition to Black Corals and other invertebrates. Big fish life such as Black Groupers are common. On the south coast you will find shallow fringing reefs gradually dropping into deeper water. Caverns, gullies and reef fissures are common features.
On Utila, you will encounter an atmosphere similar to some of the famous, but originally obscure, corners of the world for travelers. There are just a few dirt roads running through the heart of East Harbour with only a slightly larger number of cars and trucks. Most locals utilize four-wheeled, all-terrain vehicles, but the vast majority of travel around the island is via water. The interior is largely marshland, but the island does have long stretches of deserted beaches.
Nightlife is focused around a few unique bars in East Harbour such as the Bar in the Bush, accessible whenever the owner decides to open it; the Tree-Tanic, a tree house shaped like a ship; or the Jade Seahorse, with its art covered walls, much of it bric-a-brac. Two dozen dive shops are mostly found along the main street. There are two very well-organized resorts on the island, one in East Harbour and one just minutes away by boat.
The island is small and divers can easily access every side of it. Diving the north and south sides are very different. The south fronts on the continental shelf leading to the Honduran mainland and the dive sites tend to be somewhat shallower. The sun-drenched appearance of these coral and sponge adorned reefs is very different from the north side, where the walls plummet and bigger animals abound. Utila is well-known for sightings of Whale Sharks, found by searching for the boil of water at the surface where Whale Sharks feed on masses of small baitfish corralled together by schools of fast-moving Bonita. It takes relatively calm waters to find the boil, but the captains around Utila really know their business.
The most isolated and least developed of all the Bay Islands, this group of some 50 mostly uninhabited islets and cays is primarily the domain of local fishermen. There are only two islands with substantial villages, Cochinos Grande and Cochinos Pequenos. This is an exhibition of basic Bay Islands attitude and culture. The fishermen use small traditional Bay Islands boats called cayucos adorned with single triangular sails.
The Cayos Cochinos are well-known for their wealth and variety of macro life found on shallow reefs surrounding the islands. Many rare types of tunicates and nudibranchs are discovered here with regularity. Look for frogfish and seahorses along with some rather obscure tropical fish. Offshore are banking reefs, seamounts, pinnacles and standard coral reefs. This is the more remote side of Bay Islands diving. There is one dedicated dive resort, and the islands are also visited on a regular basis via the fleet of live-aboards serving the area.
If you are looking for a taste of the old-style Caribbean—awe-inspiring wall diving, rich marine environment, a combination of quiet island life, a friendly attitude and a degree of cultural diversity—the Bay Islands fit the bill in fine fashion.