The Wild Blue Under

Our travels in Central America are ending the way they began: in the water. On the second day of our trip, back in mid-January, we snorkeled on the coral reef off the coast of Yucatan, Mexico. For the past few weeks, we’ve been snorkeling at the other end of the same Mesoamerican reef—in the Bay Islands of Roatan and Utila off the north coast of Honduras.

A decade or two ago, these islands were fairly sleepy places, but tourism has boomed in recent years. Now, monstrously big cruise ships and jets from the United States arrive in Roatan several times a week, disgorging vacationers seeking sun, sand, turquoise waters, and inexpensive scuba diving. Smaller Utila is still too remote and resort-less for mass tourism, but it draws a steady stream of 20- and 30-something gringos eager to dive during the day and bar-hop at night.

Although the islands are pricey by Central American standards, they’re cheap for the Caribbean. (We paid $61 a night for a studio with private bathroom, TV, air conditioning, and kitchen during the peak of the high season at the Seabreeze Inn in Roatan, and $43 for an even nicer room at the Lighthouse Hotel in Utila, whereas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, it’s hard to find anything under $100 any time of year.) Despite the recent influx, even Roatan is fairly quiet compared with other Caribbean tourist spots. The main tourist town, West End, still has unpaved roads, and things move at a slow pace.

As for the marine life, it was worth every hot, heavy hour lugging a daypack full of snorkeling gear around the jungles and highlands of Guatemala to finally get to see this. The coral reefs that surround Roatan and Utila, within a few hundred meters of the shore, offer world-class snorkeling: the best we’ve seen outside Australia. Our favorite spot—West Bay Beach on Roatan—may well have the most beautiful reefs accessible from a beach (rather than from a boat) anywhere in this hemisphere.

Mountains and valleys of coral, with crevices and sand-bottomed channels cutting through them. Walls that drop off so steeply into the brilliant blue depths that they give you vertigo to look down. Great boulders of incised brain coral and forests of softly undulating sea fans and fern-like sea whips. Fish in neon blue, yellow, green, silver, orange, black, pink–from a couple of inches long to three or four feet. Great barrel sponges like huge open vases, and smaller sponges that resemble sets of fluffy paint rollers dipped in purple, lilac, or robin’s-egg blue paint. If it weren’t for the beating sun, the sometimes choppy seas, and the need to watch out for passing motor boats, we could lie there and gaze at the ever-changing tableau forever.

We’ve seen so many wonderful things under the waves. Almost every time we went out at West Bay, we encountered one or two hawksbill turtles swimming slowly and gracefully, the mottled patterns of their shells nearly camouflaged against the sun-dappled reef.

We’ve seen lots of fish, including some of our favorites (queen angel fish, butterfly fish, sergeant majors, colorful parrot fish, yellowtail damselfish with their impossibly blue spots, translucent squid that look like they’re swimming backwards, long thin trumpet fish, and triangular trunk fish).

Among new sightings: a large green moray eel swimming on the reef below us (we had only seen moray heads sticking out of crevices before), multicolored spiny lobsters hiding under ledges, midnight and blue parrot fish, a gargantuan (over 3-foot) rainbow parrot fish, indigo hamlets, huge schools of blue tangs that swarmed over the reef munching algae, a scrawled file fish, and a spotted snake-eel (which looks more like a giant fast-moving worm than either an eel or a snake).

Being such fans of the underwater world, we toyed with the idea of learning to dive on the Bay Islands, as so many people do. But when we got here, we learned that it wasn’t as simple as we’d thought.

There is a laundry-list of medical issues (some of which apply to us, such as having asthma, high cholesterol, or a family history of strokes, taking certain medications, or having had ear surgery as a child) that require getting extensive physical and mental exams and doctors’ certifications—which we don’t have the wherewithal to do on these islands—before a dive shop would even let us try scuba.

That’s a pain, but not too disappointing. With so much to see from above on these reefs—and the dive boats happy to take you to the farther ones for a few dollars—there’s plenty of good snorkeling to keep us absorbed.

After spending lots of time under the fierce tropical sun, we’re both as brown as nuts. Melissa is tanner than she’s been since she was a child at the beach, and Chris has freckles in places (ears, toes) that she didn’t even know could freckle. We’re desperately in need of haircuts, quality time with cats, and good Asian food. We’re tired but happy and glad to be heading home soon.

(Author’s note: This post, short and innocuous though it is, apparently didn’t want to get written. I struggled for a few days but couldn’t muster enough inspiration to write it. Then this morning, while sitting on the porch of our waterside hotel, I scribbled most of what follows. At one point I stopped, tucked my folded papers into a book, and went to our room to get the camera so I could take a picture of Melissa. While I was inside, the wind gusted, blew my book off the chair, and knocked the pages out. When I came out of the room, I saw some white sheets of paper floating on the surface of the lagoon. My first thought was that a passing boat had dropped something. Then I looked closer and saw they were MY papers. At the moment I realized that, they began drifting inexorably toward the bottom. I can still seeing them lying there among the sea grass, if I squint the right way.)

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