On January 8, Manta Divers from Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Arizona and Sweden started their journey to Roatan Honduras for a week of diving and fun. We Midwesterners, flying from Chicago O’Hare, were leaving the biggest snow storm of the season, with 10+ inch accumulations and the threat of approaching arctic temperatures. The time could not have been better!
Landing for our connection in Atlanta, we were shocked when the pilot announced the temperature as 16F. (Wait, he must have said 60F!) As we made our way through the jet way, it became clear that the cold weather was indeed following us. Fortunately, we were continuing our travel south and surely warmer temps! In Atlanta, we hooked up with the rest of Team Manta from their far flung homes. Roatan greeted us with light rain, but at least it was a warmer 77F. We happily jumped unto the boat that would take us to the Islet that is home to the CoCo View resort. By the time we arrived at the resort and unpacked our gear, we had missed the departure of the required orientation dive, so it was off to the bar for our welcome rum punch and a little exploration of the property.
The resort has 26 ocean view rooms, 12 cabanas, and 4 over-the-water bungalows, so that no matter your accommodations, guests enjoy fabulous views of the water, and are lulled to sleep and awakened by the soft sound of waves lapping the shore and the shush of palm fronds in the breeze. The bar had a computer with a fast internet connection, WIFI if you had your own computer, a chess table and a ping pong area. In the dining area, the place mats featured drawings of the dive sites we were going to be visiting during the week.
Sunday morning, we were awakened by a whipping wind and rain that apparently followed us down from the Midwest. This inappropriate weather did not dampen our resolve to get out and dive, however, and after a brief talk covering the week’s planned events (informative lecture, happy hour, picnic on the beach) and rules of the marine park, we headed out to gear up and get wet. The purpose of the orientation dive is to familiarize the divers with the house reef and procedures for the night dive. We were all required to show that we were able to flood and clear our masks and remove and replace our regulators. The latter skill was demonstrated on a daily basis as the hams I was diving with loved to have smiling underwater pictures!
Once the orientation dive was complete, we headed to lunch followed by our first of many boat dives for the coming week. Due to the lack of sun and persistent rain, the visibility was a mere 30ft at the surface, increasing to 50-60ft at depth. Although the surface water temperature was usually only 77F, the water at depth was always a comfortable 81F. Felix, the newest diver in the group, was thoroughly spoiled on the first dive, with the divemaster, Mark pointing out seahorses, squid, lobster and an invasive lionfish. Mark proved to be an excellent dive guide, always able to point out neat creatures on each dive. By the end of the week, it was clear that lionfish are well in their way to establishing themselves on the reef of the Roatan marine park. Hopefully, measures will be put into place to try to lessen their population. After the first dive boat dive and surface interval, guests have the option of a “drop off’ dive, in which the dive starts on Newman’s wall, or on CoCo wall and the diver makes his way back to the resort and exits via the sand channel by the dining area. This is a good way to familiarize yourself with the house reef in anticipation of night diving. The House reef features the Prince Albert, a sizable wreck that is open enough to see what residents are hanging out inside. If you venture toward the neighboring Fantasy Island resort, there is a wrecked plane that is home to several very active and photogenic hermit crabs. Navigating one’s way back to the resort is simple, as there is an easy to follow line with floating markers as a guide. As divers get to what some would consider the “boring” part of the dive, the shallow turtle grass, they may be treated to an octopus or squid, as I was both during the day and at night.
In addition to the almost commonly spotted seahorses, we were treated to a toadfish sighting while diving at a site called Calvin’s Crack. A highlight for me was spotting a sizable pipefish on the dive site Valley of Kings. As the week progressed we enjoyed more and more sun and warmth, and with that increased visibility, so it was luck for us that we went to Mary’s Place, one of Roatan’s “must dive” sites, on our last day. It features a long fissure through the reef that may be navigated at most any depth, 90-40ft, so even those not comfortable with deeper dives will be able to experience the beauty of this long swim-through. I was happy to see many indigo hamlets and many varieties of brittle stars on each dive. The corals looked quite healthy in spite of both natural and human caused pressures, such as hurricanes, earthquakes and pollution. We were lucky to have convinced our divemaster to take us to Anka’s reef to look at the damaged caused by the May 28, 2009 earthquake, which reached 7.1 on the Richter scale. He was reluctant to take us to the site, as a huge chunk of the reef was sheared off, leaving a wall devoid of life. We explained that since many of us are scientists, it would be interesting to us, and besides, we had spent a week viewing some of the most colorful reefs around, so this would be a unique experience. The large reef section appeared to have been cut off as if it was a piece of cake. What remained was a perfect cross section revealing the layers and layers of reef growth. According to NOAA, under pristine conditions, a coral reef grows at a rate of 20 meters (66 ft.) every 1,000 years. That means that at our planned depth, we were looking at reef layers that dated back to the time of the first Crusades! Around the bend from the devastated part of the reef, was the healthy ocean habitat I remembered, sitting as if nothing had happened.
Most of the group also dared to go on the shark dive. We were transported by boat to Waihuka Adventure Divers for a short orientation, then to the site called “Cara a Cara,” or Face to Face. The boat hooked to a mooring in about 65 ft of water. As we pulled ourselves down the line in the ripping current, we could already see the sharks starting to come in. When we got to the bottom, quickly swam for the protection of a coral wall. This not only gave us something to hold onto, but prevented any shark wanting to approach us from behind. At first, we all just stood or knelt as the sharks, all females, swam around in front of us. After a while, we were allowed to swim a bit with the sharks. This was hampered somewhat by the current, but it did make for some really good pictures. We were called back to our positions in front of the coral wall, and the dive master tossed out the bucket with a few fish scraps inside. The sharks clearly knew that their treat was inside and knocked the bucket repeatedly to dislodge the cover. Once the cover was off, the sharks swarmed in for a snack, some diving head first into the bucket. A couple of large grouper hung in with the sharks to get a snack as well. As soon as the bucket was empty, the sharks disappeared. We searched briefly for shark teeth, and then it was time to ascend. Taking part in this type of shark dive is of course not as thrilling as encountering sharks “naturally,” but it was a chance to get some really close-up photos of theses often elusive creatures.
Our trip to Roatan was filled with thrilling creature sightings and plenty of laughs in spite of the somewhat uncooperative weather. Roatan's reefs are still teeming with critters big and small to satisfy the thrill seekers and photographers. I thought the CoCo View staff did a great job guiding us on dives, feeding us, and accommodating our needs, and the price was right! I would definitely recommend them.