Ssssssht-pop. In one quick motion all the pressure released from my bottle of beer. It did nothing, however, to relieve the pressure I was feeling. Despite the sun, sand and diving, I was starting to stress.
It was my first visit to Roatan in the Bay Islands, and four days into a six-day trip I still didn't have a story angle. I took a hard swig, then watched the white foam rise up the narrow bottleneck and out over my hand. I contemplated the brown bottle in front of me. Salva Vida - ''lifesaver'' - was stenciled across a white ring buoy. I could use a lifesaver right now, I thought.
I walked to the gazebo at the watery end of the long pier in front of the Coco View resort and plopped down to think in one of the multicolored sling hammocks.
I idly surveyed the waves breaking on the reef and the divers returning from a shore dive, but nothing clicked. I noticed boats returning to the dock, but discarded them. A breeze kicked up and I began to sway.
Peering across the water's edge I noticed empty hammocks starting to stir on guestroom porches. I vaguely considered returning to my own room and the red, green and gold hammock hanging there when it struck me.
Hammocks. That is where my story lay, so to speak.
While hammocks are a favorite way to pass time between dives, there are plenty of things to do for the restless. The Roatan Museum is a great one, and it'll give you insight into the people of the Bay Islands. Located at Anthony's Key Resort, the museum was founded by Roatan's Galindo family, which also owns the resort.
Professionally curated artifacts, documents and photos of Roatan's colorful past are supported by a written chronology of the island's heritage. Many display items came directly from the Galindos and other families still on island today.
When you're done with the museum, explore the Roatan Institute for Marine Science (RIMS), which is next door. RIMS is a working research center that hosts universities and researchers conducting sea studies. RIMS also operates a dolphin research center which also offers dolphin interaction programs for divers and snorkelers, as well as dolphin shows.
Hammocks are as prevalent on Roatan as palm trees and sunburned tourists, and they are not just there as props. In the small villages like Punta Gorda, local children play on them during the day and parents swing away their worries at night. Hammocks are truly a part of Roatan's culture, and that makes them the perfect analogy for its diving.
Like the ubiquitous hammocks, diving can be found all around the island. The close-hugging fringing reef that runs along the north and south sides of the 35-mile-long island provides more than 90 named sites and countless unnamed sites. Many of these are in the Sandy Bay - West End Marine Park on the island's northwest end.
And if hammocks are ingrained in Roatan's laid-back island culture, the diving is even more so. Nearly every divemaster and scuba instructor working on the island is native. There is perhaps only one other island in the entire Caribbean and Central American region - Ambergris Cay in Belize - that even comes close to having so much local talent. Locally bred talent gives the diving true island flavor - easygoing, simple and full of laughs.
It also gives visiting divers great access to years of local knowledge of sites, ocean behavior and critters, knowledge that has been accumulated over the course of decades. Eduardo ''Dal'' Everett is a great example.
Now working for Dockside Divers at Coco View Resort, Dal has three decades of Bay Islands diving experience. He has worked for operators big and small, including Anthony's Key Resort and the Bay Islands Aggressor live-aboard, where he was assistant captain. And although he can recite the procedures for diving a site such as Menagerie from memory without even working at it, his description sounds fun, there is a twinkle in his eye and a childish joy to his voice.
''This place is loaded with fish on the top. Stay on the crest of the wall, so you can keep an eye out for big things in the blue water,'' he says. It comes out sounding like, ''dis place loooohhhhded wit fish on 'a top. Stay onna' cres' a da wall so you keep eye out fo de biiiiiiig tings ina blue whatta.''
His heavily accented English, suprisingly, is not typical of the local population. Despite its ownership by Spanish-speaking Honduras, Roatan is mainly English-speaking thanks to its re-population in the 1800s by Cayman Islanders after the last battle to possess the island as a colony took place between the European powers of the time. Now Spanish is also widely spoken, as are several localized mixes of the two languages with Garifuna - a language that stems from the blending of African and Arawak cultures.
Regardless of the language, Dal's call is exactly right, of course. Menagerie is loaded with chub, grunts and outrageous numbers of blue chromis. Just off the crest of the wall a school of jacks circle, planning brunch, no doubt. We were one dive too early that day to see a large collection of spotted eagle rays that were reported just off the wall there in the afternoon.
Such accuracy is no accident, nor is it particularly unique. The dive staff at the Bay Islands Beach Resort on the north side all but custom-ordered our diving for us. When we asked divemaster Clyde about photographing turtles, he motored the boat right past many prime diving sites to an unnamed site near Turtle Crossing. Clyde was two-for-two on this request. Sea horses? Morays? What would you like to see today?
During a week of diving we work this local knowledge for all it is worth. The island's raggedy coast creates countless little sheltered bays, called bights, which comes from the old Dutch sailor's word for a loop or curve in a rope. The bights are punctuated by dozens of cays, islets and rocky outcroppings. The combination is picturesque and functional, creating diving opportunities for every skill level.
Abutting most of the island, the shallow portion of the reef offers lots of enjoyable shore diving. Just 50 to 150 yards wide, these portions, in most places, soon break off at a depth of 40-60 feet and become angled walls that plunge to about 150 feet. A sandy plateau stretches out from there, but then soon gives way to another deeper set of walls that fall off into the abyss. The walls are the outer, upper edge of the Bonacca Ridge, the seamount from which the Bay Islands are formed.