The Bay Islands. Utila. The backpacking, diving mecca of Honduras. It’s cheap, it’s lively, and it actually does offer some amazing diving. It also offers the rare and fleeting opportunity to see whale sharks, the largest fish in the world. Obviously we were going to go.
You can get there in a day from Copan, no worries. Second time’s a charm, when we actually woke up to our 5:30 a.m. alarms. There’s a Transportes Casasola bus that leaves from a bus by the stream in Copan at 6 a.m. This will cost 140 L and take you as far as San Pedro Sula’s massive, shiny bus terminal. Here, options are abound for buses to La Ceiba. We hopped on one in very questionable condition that, amazingly, made it all of the way to our destination (for 115 L). From here, there are endless taxis jumping at the chance to drive you out to Muelle de Cabotaje, where the ferry for Utila (and the other popular Bay Island destination, Roatán) leave from. The ferry to the island is what hurts the most, coming in at 542 L (about $28) each. There are two boats that make the trip to and from the island. They look almost identical, but have one very important difference: one is dual-hull, and one is not. The ocean gets pretty damn rocky, and if you’re prone to seasickness (particularly if you get the single-hull boat) definitely take some tablets with you and sit outside.
The trip takes about an hour. When we arrived, a group of pamphlet-carting reps tried to rope us in to their hotel and their dive school. Utila is known as one of the cheapest places in Central America to learn to dive and, while the course prices are not drastically different than neighbouring areas (about 280 USD for an Open Water or Advanced Open Water course), you do end up saving a lot of money because of all of the perks they offer with the course. Most dive schools will offer free or discounted accommodation, throw in a couple of meals, and also toss in some free dives. This makes booking accommodation ahead of time, or with an unaffiliated hotel, a less than budget friendly choice. Given that we didn’t know how much we’d be diving or where we wanted to stay, we ended up wandering a fair distance down the main street of Utila before we stumbled upon Parrot’s Dive Shop. We could get a very cheap room in a (sort of) nearby hotel, and we’d struck out so far, so we decided to give it a go. We returned the next day to hear their sales pitch on diving. Tim and a couple we had met in El Salvador were thinking about doing a dive course. Both Tim and I have our open water, but there are certain dives that require an advanced diving certification, so he was thinking about doing his advanced. After hearing what the course entails and the dives we would get to do, my interest definitely piqued. When Tim said it sounded like exactly what I needed right now to learn some new skills in diving, I couldn’t help but agree with him. I was mainly choking on the price. We were offered the course (normally $289) for $279, including four nights of discounted accommodation, a breakfast, and two free dives when the course was finished (roughly $80 of value-added perks). When Tim suggested he get me the course as an early birthday present, I was completely surprised and stoked. It’d be a fun adventure to do the course together, and I wouldn’t have been able to swing it otherwise.
For anyone who has done an Open Water course, you know there is a rather mind-numbing amount of “class” involved. To get your advanced, it involves a lot more fun (a.k.a diving) and a lot less school. You need to complete five dives, and only need to do the chapter review questions for the applicable chapters. Our plan was to do our deep dive and our navigation dive the first day, and do our buoyancy control, wreck dive, and night dive on the second day.
Utila is basically surrounded by dive sites on all sides. The weather is the main factor deciding where you will go, as when the wind picks up the north side of the island is pretty tricky to get to. The north side offers dramatic coral walls, steep drop-offs, and the open ocean – which comes with the opportunity to potentially, maybe, possibly see whale sharks off the boat between dives. It takes significantly longer to get to than the south side. The south side is a bit less dramatic, but tends to have more of an abundance of sea life, and the coral (to me, at least) appeared more intricate, delicate, and beautiful.
The first day, we headed around to the north side of the island for our first dive: our deep dive. An open water diver’s recommended depth limit is 18 metres. Today we would dive down to 30. My problematic ears have gotten increasingly better with equalising, so the depth didn’t prove to be an issue. We dropped down from the boat and made our way towards the edge of the massive coral wall. Utila is perched on the edge of a continental shelf, which means that the walls, in places, are essentially no-bottom. They are hundreds of metres high, so for all intents and purposes, they have no bottom. The cherry on the top of our dive was spotting a sea turtle. It was so relaxed, so calm, and so powerful as it made its way effortlessly throughout the water. It reached its flippers out to balance against the coral as it investigated food sources. It seemed impossible to believe this turtle would, at some point, need to return to surface to catch a breath of air.
When we were almost at the boat, we got the signal to hurry up and out of the water. The captain of the boat, Rudy, had spotted another boat which had spotted whale sharks. We hauled ourselves and our gear into the boat and, pulses quickening, headed off towards the boat on the horizon. You can’t dive with whale sharks off Utila; only snorkelling is allowed. The crew informed us that if we were successful in our pursuit, and actually managed to snorkel with the whale sharks, there would be a 300 L mandatory tip to the driver. (And then asked if everyone was on board with this. We were.) We came up to circles of jumping fish above the water, the tell-tale sign that whale sharks were feeding below the surface. As soon as we arrived, the fish stopped; the whales had moved on. We followed them, flippers and masks on, perched on the side of the boat, ready to jump in, but our chase was fruitless. Every time we arrived at the scene of the monstrous fish, they would run away, and eventually we called it a miss. Disappointed, but excited that they were at least in the area, we completed our second dive for the day and then headed home in the sunshine.
The following days were filled with more diving, far too many rum and lemonades from the best bar on the island (Skidrow), and lots and lots of key lime pie. Advanced diving certs in hand, we paid our rather exorbitant ferry fair (this time we got the dual-hull) and headed back to the main land of Honduras.