My first day on Roatan, Honduras, took a turn for the macabre at a tranquil spot called Dolphin's Den, just off Pollytilly Bight about midway up the island's north coast. It's a calm, shallow dive site where neophyte divers learn open-water skills and the more advanced explore the site's eponymous three-chamber cavern. Yet despite its welcoming conditions and pleasant name, Dolphin's Den has a haunted history.
During the summer of 2007, a pod of 13 bottlenose dolphins swam into the cavern, where they became trapped and drowned. No one knows exactly why, but the most common theory holds that the dolphins followed a school of silversides into the cave and then got disoriented in the thick cloud of baitfish. The dolphin's echolocation noises normally a tool for navigation and communication ricocheted off of the tight cavern walls, confusing the animals further.
"It must have been complete pandemonium," explained Gillian Notton, veterinarian and co-owner of the PADI Five-Star Gold Palm Resort Subway Watersports.
When I arrived four months later, there were just a few remaining bones; souvenir seekers and the strong currents had carried away the rest. As we prepared for the dive, the dive instructor remarked that "a lot of people have taken bones from this place, but I don't touch them out of respect for the animals."
We kicked along the 15-foot-deep wall past a phalanx of sergeant majors and a pair of stout French angelfish that seemed more fearless than friendly. The wall closed in on itself like an upside-down V funneling into a dark cave at 40 feet. In the anteroom I swam past the cavern's first ossified sign that things had not gone well here, a beak in the sand. Nearby, a single T-shaped vertebra had been picked clean. A likely suspect, a well-fed king crab, clung to the wall behind it.
I swam through a passage doglegging into the second chamber a wide room with a surprisingly large area on the surface to breathe. A perfectly intact dolphin skull sat in the sediment. The exit wasn't far, and the dolphins could have easily taken breaths at the surface. I struggled to understand how they could have died in here. Later I spoke to Alvin Jackson, owner of Native Sons dive shop, who, when he discovered a similar tragedy at the site in the early '90s, explained, "I've been in there with so many fish it dazzles the equilibrium. There are millions in front of your eyes screwing things up. I'm supposed to be a little smarter than the dolphin, and I was having a hard time."
The second chamber continued into a hollow that felt cramped with just two divers. A pair of skulls rested in the corner, the beaks crossing like bones on the Jolly Roger while a third watched over with a hollow stare. I eased through the passageway and into an explosion of life in the open water.
A flurry of damselfish, purple with sharp yellow Mohawks, sped around barrel sponges. Parrotfish chomped on the reef. Back at the boat we reflected on the event.
"Dolphins are smart animals," the divemaster said. "You'd think they'd learn. I guess if there aren't any survivors, there is no one to learn the lesson."
Christopher Columbus sighted Roatán in 1502, and it has been attracting visitors ever since. For centuries, the 33-mile-long banana-shaped island was a well-known pirate haunt, so idyllic many buccaneers (and other wayward sailors) shed their transient ways to become full-time residents. Today it's the diving that draws travelers; the island sits on the southern reaches of the 340-mile Mesoamerican (Belize) Barrier Reef, the world's second-largest, and is home to more than 150 species of coral and 300 species of fish, including the world's largest, the whale shark.
As my water taxi pulled into a bar called Hole in the Wall on the south side of the island in a hamlet called Jonesville, I quickly discovered that wandering sailors still have trouble pulling up anchor once in Roatán's waters.
We tied up at the bar-side dock, and I walked across the worn wooden deck covered by a corrugated metal roof to the order counter. Phrases like "Life sucks except here" and "Dwayne is a conch schucker" graffitied the back wall. It's this kind of end-of-the-road watering hole where a wrong turn can put you in the right place. Just ask owner Bob Lee, a 67-year-old with a grizzled white beard and baked-potato skin, who sat with a group of older expats drinking rum punch and trying to stay cool in the sticky air.
Given the group of committed drinkers on tap this Wednesday afternoon, it appeared that Bob had perfected the rum punch, so I ordered one. Bob warmed to my arrival after I introduced myself to his pet scarlet macaw and this member of Roatán's most colorful expat community began telling its story of genesis.
California 18 years ago, Bob cracked the hull of his overloaded trimaran, washed up in Roatán and never left.
"I haven't worn shoes in 15 years," he boasted.
He opened the watering hole 10 years ago as a "place for outlaws to hang out." Today Bob's scuttled ship sits beneath the bar, and Hole in the Wall could just as easily be called Wreck Under the Deck.
"Sometimes boats sink," chimed Yvonne Cameron, a spry 63-year-old whose bright pink lipstick matched both her shirt and her personality.
She and her husband Don, 70, bought retirement land down here 12 years ago. Last November Don had his own nautical mishap.
"He was doing a delivery from Key West to Cancún and " Yvonne paused for effect, "it sunk."
"Well, there's a lot that happened in between," Don countered.
He wore an enormous mutton-chop beard that looked very impressive in a 19th-century-president kind of way, but seemed swelteringly impractical given the humidity. Before the trip, Don explained, the owner of the powerboat upgraded the motor but not the propeller shaft. Halfway through the 30-hour trip, the shaft snapped. Then a storm hit, bringing 35-knot winds and 12-foot seas. The Coast Guard towed the powerboat toward Florida until it was inundated and had to be cut loose.
"The sad part is," Don said with a smile, "we lost all the Christmas presents."
I drank another rum punch and asked Bob if it was possible to reach the bar by some other transportation than boat.
"No," he replied proudly. "It's nice not having a road."
While that might hold true for Jonesville, divers have been following the path to Roatán since the '60s. Some of the first dedicated dive resorts sprung up at this Caribbean outpost. It has steadfastly retained its edge-of-the-earth atmosphere and has only recently been discovered by general tourists. In the face of such growth, the Roatán Marine Park has emerged as an environmental advocate. To protect its famous reefs, local police began patrolling the eight miles of protected coastline in 2005. Today the park runs three boats and is looking to expand its protective reach along another 12 miles of coastline. As a result the fish stocks are bigger thanks to diver activity and park patrols.
After three quiet days in the middle of the island at Turquoise Bay Dive and Beach Resort in Milton Bight, I headed to the West End and Las Rocas Resort.
Las Rocas Resort, a cozy 18-bungalow property, is a stone's throw from the waterline. The food is as good as expected from an Italian-run operation, and my favorite dish was the king crab linguine that I ate for dinner thrice. The dive shop has a laid-back familial feel with friendly instructors and a wide deck perfect for wasting time talking about fish (we had plenty to talk about) and an eagle.
On my second day at Las Rocas I dove El Aguila (the eagle) wreck. Most sites on the island only allow one boat at a time, to eliminate crowds, but a site like this one can support multiple boats. And though I'm a divemaster with several hundred dives, El Aguila was my first wreck dive. I hit the water and quickly descended to 110 feet, where I was able to penetrate the stern of the wreck. Then along came another first the room started to spin as the loopy effects of nitrogen narcosis worked their way through my senses. In my altered state, I began to appreciate the symbolism of the wreck: a man-made object that in its demise serves nature. Too frequently it's the other way around. I enjoyed the ride for a few minutes and then swam up into sobriety.
As I ascended, I watched a baby king crab forage for food along the mast, and at 50 feet we slipped over to the coral wall where I came across my third first of the dive, an enormous midnight parrotfish. At the safety stop, a school of Creole wrasse dozens thick swarmed around me. When I hit the surface, rain pelted down. I couldn't help thinking that life is much more pleasant underwater.
After my dive at Dolphin's Den, I was looking for a more upbeat dolphin experience, which led me to Anthony's Key Resort in Sandy Bay. The resort has several trained bottlenose dolphins that clients can dive with in the open ocean.
Before we headed out to the dive site, divemaster Alston Brooks introduced us to the team. Paya, the 450-pound dominant male, swam up to us as we stood on the dock above his pen and waved his beak. White blotches scarred his nose and pectoral fins, signs of recent scuffles with two other males, Ritchie and Hector, who darted around the pen behind him.
"They get along for the most part," explained Alston, "but when they get around the females "
On the way out, the trainers joined us in another boat and the three dolphins swam alongside. Eldon Bolton, director of the resort's Roatán Institute of Marine Sciences, noted that the dolphins have had countless opportunities to escape, and don't.
"They are well fed and well cared for. Dolphins are social animals and this is their pod. Sometimes they swim away, but they come back to the group."
After we jumped off the boat and sank a few feet, a dolphin cut through the cloud of bubbles like a silver torpedo. He rocketed into the blue with his buddies, the three of them playing and exploring like dogs off the leash at the park. We descended to the sandy bottom and waited for their return.
Ten minutes later one of the dolphins zoomed over my shoulder, inches from my face. As the dolphins circled I tried petting them, but they seemed to enjoy staying just beyond my reach. Only when I feigned disinterest did they get close enough for me to touch them, their skin like soft rubber.
Then they started to dig, burying their rostrums into the fine sand in search of food. This hunt was more sleuth work than a chase, far different from the action-packed pursuit that must have driven that pod into Dolphin's Den after the silversides. This one had a happier ending. One of the dolphins unearthed a flounder, typical prey in the wild. The dolphin snapped at lunch, but the flatfish flapped under a nearby rock. The flounder got away safely, but the dolphin did too.
A PERFECT SEND-OFF
My last dive in Roatán took me to West End Wall. The site marks the place both where the northern and southern coasts, and their corresponding currents, intersect. Because of the steep seascape and moving water, the site contains a menagerie of life and offered the perfect send-off.
As we explored the shallower depths, a school of hundreds of turquoise and purple Creole wrasse enveloped me, followed shortly by a smaller, but still ample, school of chub. We picked up a tail a 3-foot barracuda as we moved from the wall to the coral gardens, and the snaggle-toothed predator followed for the rest of the dive. Two ocean triggerfish meandered above a batwing coral crab, a creature which in name and appearance (rich brown body with white spots and brilliant yellow eyes) belongs in comic books. The dive was exhilarating, and when we hit the surface, the divemaster, who was heading to the mainland the next day said, "That really got me fired up on diving again. I don't want to go."
He wasn't the only one.
At 9 the next morning, my last on Roatán, I paid a second visit to Alvin Jackson at his dive shop in West End.
A bear of a man with salt-and-pepper hair, Jackson offers courses to locals for only the cost of material in hopes of getting more of them involved in diving. In this case it seemed to have worked: After half an hour with Jackson, a boy strolled away carrying an Open Water instruction book. The boy already had a job at a gift shop, but wanted to work in the spectacular underwater world that draws nearly a quarter million visitors to Roatán annually.
"I grew up spearing fish and lobster," Jackson recalled as we sat on the shop's porch steps. "I didn't see one reason why I wouldn't become a divemaster."
His passion for the ocean has driven him to open his own dive shop and become the only islander on the marine park's board of directors. With Roatán quickly moving from an obscure diver's outpost to major tourist destination, Jackson knows the important role the locals will play in shaping the island's future.
"I was offered an olive branch by Anthony's Key Resort," he explained, referring to his early days as a dive professional, "so I'm offering the same thing."
Yet, despite the development, the island's small-town charm is still inescapable. While Jackson spun stories of dolphins and whale sharks, a 20-something English expat, drawn to Roatán for the diving, stopped by to sell homemade carrot cake. Suddenly we were eating a fresh-baked breakfast for $1.50, and Jackson was speaking cheerfully about the future of both the island and the boy who had inquired about work.
"By the look on his face and the fact that he showed up here bright and early, when you come back, you might see him as an instructor."
Special thanks to Anthony's Key Resort (anthonyskey.com), Las Rocas Resort (lasrocasresort.com), Native Sons Dive Shop (nativesonsroatan.com), Roatán Marine Park (roatanmarinepark.com), PADI Five-Star Gold Palm Resort Subway Watersports (subwaywatersports .com) and Turquoise Bay Dive & Beach Resort (turquoisebayresort.com).
Fantasy Island Beach Resort and CoCo View Resort
Like all great dive destinations, Roatán offers a wide variety of adventures. You'll find excellent diving around the entire island. And like on the north and west coasts, there is a wonderful congregation of world-class dive sites within five to 30 minutes of both Fantasy Island Beach Resort and its neighbor, CoCo View Resort, on the island's southern coast. Both have been dedicated dive resorts for years and have top-notch PADI Dive Centers. Fantasy Island is renowned for its 24/7 dive gazebo that drops you onto an airplane wreck and the Prince Albert wreck, and for its silky beach, water sports and custom-island-made dive boat fleet. CoCo View, which sits across the channel from Fantasy Island, keeps divers coming back for its walk-in wall dive CoCo View Wall and its laid-back atmosphere and calming waterside rooms. Both resorts are strategically situated for quick boat access to such world-class descents as Mary's Place, an essential dive experience, and Calvin's Crack. And they offer all-inclusive options, so all you need to do is show up, jump in and explore some of the scores of dive sites that make Roatán's southern shore so alluring.
The Guide to Roatán Average water temperature: 78-83°F
What to wear: 3/2 mm fullsuit or shorter average
Visibility: 85 feet
When to go: year-round, March-April and August-September for whale sharks
Must Do Karl Stanley offers dives to 1,500 feet in his homemade submarine in search of the sixgill shark for $1,500.
Must Dive West End Wall: A sheer wall with healthy coral and lots of marine life, including eagle rays.
Mary's Place: A crack in the reef created during prehistoric volcanic activity is home to an abundance of life, including coral, sponges and seahorses.
Dolphin's Den: Spend a whole dive exploring the maze of shallow, cavelike swim-throughs.
Spooky Channel: A deep channel, linking a lagoon with an outer reef, starts shallow but reaches a depth of 90 feet.
Hole in the Wall: A sandy chute takes you down the wall to an opening 100 feet down.
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California Innovations Rolling Cooler: A leakproof liner, easy-access lid, detachable personal cooler and shoulder strap make this rolling cooler a must-have. californiainnovations.com