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  • Diving Adventures at Utila Lodge in the Bay Islands of Honduras
    In Search of the Biggest Fish in the Sea
    by Rick Frehsee
    A flock of terns and gulls skimmed across the gleaming sea and then stopped, hovering in swirls. Screeching like the birds from that famous Hitchcock movie, they dive bombed into a cloud of silvery minnows that gathered just beneath the surface. The unfortunate minnows were further harassed from below; great schools of Bonita, a small but very quick member of the tuna family, carefully herded the minnows, slashing into them periodically. I could see the boil of Bonita on the surface from the tower of our dive boat, but I knew there were other sea predators as well;jacks, Barracuda, mackerel, Wahoo, sharks and even Manta Rays are regularly observed hunting baitfish in the nutrient-rich blue water off Utila.

    What we were watching was a visual display of the survival of the fittest;a classic food chain or pyramid that began with plankton and progressed to minnows, then Bonita and then on to a cuda or a shark. But, somewhere out here, we hoped to find Mr. Big; I mean Mr. Really Big!

    Suddenly he appeared, announced in such a calm, unemotional voice by Willy, our captain and guide, that he had to repeat it a second time for it to sink in. Theres a Whale Shark. Right theres a Whale Shark, said Willy. As we had rehearsed this during false starts many times before, we were in the water in 30 seconds. Later that day, we found another Whale Shark, and the next day we found two more. Each time we had only precious seconds to take photos and make observations. Some Whale Sharks hang around; the ones we found were on the move and soon outdistanced us mere mortals with our tiny fins. Or, sometimes, they simply sounded, dropping out of view.

    But, what a thrill! Words are not adequate to describe the excitement of swimming with the worlds biggest fish, an ocean monarch that is as big as a boxcar yet moves as gracefully as anything in the sea. There were three primary impressions. Size, of course, was the most obvious; the largest Whale Shark we saw was at least 35 feet long. Next, I was taken by their grace and beauty. They cut a clean, rather lean figure, especially for such sizable creatures, and they are beautifully marked with white, symmetrically-placed spots. Finally, I personally observed that they are more than plankton eaters. Our Whale Sharks were sucking up minnows and the occasional Bonita like oversized vacuum cleaners.

    Scientists dont know much about Whale Sharks because they are so seldom seen. Before 1968, there had only been 68 filed reports of the scientific observation of a Whale Shark. Until this, our most recent trip to Utila, I had seen only two Whale Sharks in 30 years of diving. They have been seen off Utila for a long time. Since the diving boom of the last five years or so, they have been reported about once a week. But, before you head to Utila just to see a Whale Shark, consider that this was our third trip. The first two visits were general; we sampled the reefs on both sides of the island (very good) and took a few memorable U/W photos, including some of a rare fish known as a Northern Stargazer. We loved the island and had a great time here;but saw no Whale Sharks.

    This time we gave up three days of diving the reefs to methodically search for Whale Sharks. We stayed out in blue water, and sometimes high seas, from dawn to dusk. And, we had the best Whale Shark experts in the business with us;Willy Waterhouse, a local fisherman-diver-captain, who runs the 41 foot Sea Sprite dive boat for the Utila Lodge; and Jim Engle, owner-manager-instructor for the Utila Lodge. These two guys can see, smell and hear Whale Sharks;if they are around. The bottom line is, Utila is good, often great diving, and if you are lucky enough to see a whale shark, well, thats a bonus. Actually, the Utila Lodge often searches the blue water between regular dive sites, occasionally finding a Whale Shark.

    Utila is the smallest of the three major Bay Islands of Honduras;and the closest to the mainland. Slower to develop into a bonafide dive destination than either Roatan or Guanaja, Utila is now a real player in Caribbean diving. The island rests on the Central American continental shelf and provides a wonderful diversity of reef types and other marine life.

    There are many great things to see and photograph in Utila waters, actually an encyclopedia of critters. Subjects such as sleeping Nurse Sharks, Sailfin Blennies and grape-like clusters of beautiful and rare Bluebell Tunicates have practically jumped in front of my underwater camera.

    On one day we searched for a seahorse, one of Utilas miniature marvels. Whale Sharks and seahorses have one thing in common: They are both hard to find. Once again, we relied on the experts at the Utila Lodge; Albert, our divemaster on Sea Sprite, knew where there might be several seahorses on one of his secret southern reef sites.

    We located two almost immediately. Seahorses are normally found in calm, shallow water on patch reefs. They hang out on gorgonians or seawhips and can often be found near the base with their tails wrapped around a branch. The creatures we photographed off Utila were orange-brown Longsnout Seahorses.

    Our home away from home on Utila is the cozy, comfortable Utila Lodge. Opened just four and a half years ago, it is a seaside divers retreat at the western end of little East Harbour Town. The charming Caribbean style, oceanfront mainhouse contains the restaurant, bar, kitchen, offices and gift shop. In front there are docks and finger piers for the resort fleet (three modern, 40 to 42 foot mid-size and several smaller dive boats) and guest boats. Behind the mainhouse is an open dock with camera and gear rinse containers and diver storage. Adjacent is a two story wing of only eight guestrooms. Rooms are very comfortable, spacious and nicely furnished, with two beds;one king sized and one twin. Each room has a double sink and shower, private veranda and industrial type air-conditioner with overhead fan. Three delicious meals are served buffetstyle each day in the seaside restaurant.

    There is also a full service dive center, equipment rental service and the Bay Islands College of Diving instructional center for certification and advanced education on the premises. The standard package includes three boat dives daily, two night boat dives each week and unlimited shore diving.

    More like a home than a hotel, the Utila Lodge has been owned and managed since June 1993 by Jim and Kisty Engle. The Engles, Willy, Albert and the rest of the lodge team (which includes the Engles son Shawn and daughter Rebecca) are super cool people who, in addition to providing excellent guest services, are a lot of fun to be around. Their companionship was a large contribution to our Utila dive adventure.

    Above water, the town and island offer the charming and important advantages of a place that is still true to its soul;its a safe, friendly area to visit.

    For Whale Sharks, seahorses, or just simply a visit to a divers paradise, contact the Utila Lodge at Roatan Charter, Inc. (800) 282-8932. Visit the Web site at http://www.roatan.com/utilalodge.asp or e-mail utl@roatan.com.