Roatán, Bay Islands, Honduras

Latitude 16.27461°N Longitude 86.59946°W

Sunday, October 27, 2002

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Greetings friends!

We have spent the last eight nights on the idyllic tropical island Roatán, part of the Bay Islands in Honduras. It's been a wonderful holiday-inside-a-holiday.

We stayed a first night at West End, then the rest of the time in West Bay Beach at the Bananarama Resort. Our stay was made all the more special by the warmth and hospitality of the resort owner, Ron Smith. Ron went out of his way to make us feel at home on Roatán, taking us around the island and assisting us in numerous other ways to make our stay as memorable as it was. Ron formely lived in California and Arizona before quitting his job, selling his house and cars, and sinking his life savings into this resort on Roatán, and like many people we've met who have had the courage to leave the conveniences and material trappings of civilization far behind them in order to pursue and live their special dream, we could not help but admire the choice he made, and even, feel a little envious ourselves.

For all its growing popularity among tourists, Roatán was relatively undeveloped (especially the West Bay Beach area), and it seemed to be teeming with business opportunities. Ron was quite candid in sharing with us the details of how he got into the resort, and confirmed that opportunities abounded here. One glorious evening, as Keiko and I had our customary "beer on the pier" watching the sun set into the Carribean, we idly discussed how we'd each feel about leaving the rat race one day and opening up some kind of shop here on the beach at Roatán. We were surprised to find the idea struck a chord in both of us. Perhaps there's hope for us yet.

Along our travels, we have often met people just like us who have had similar careers and families, homes and mortgages - the "full catastrophy!" as Zorba the Greek wryly noted - who have arrived at some remote spot that's just a dot on a map, fallen in love, and never returned home - except for the inevitable final trip to sell off the worldly possessions. Keiko and I sometimes cannot help but wonder whether it is to be our fate, too, to be one of these people, and if so, when and where will be our final destination?

We spent our first night on Roatán in the small town of West End. We got there just at dusk and dropped our packs at the first place we checked, the Sea Breeze Inn. For $25, we got a tiny, hot, room with plenty of mosquitos, las cucurachas, and large spiders which were very effective at grabbing our attention by crawling unseen into our backpacks and jumping out at us when we reached in for something. We felt somewhat compelled to put up our mosquito net over the bed for the first time on the trip.

We walked outside into the warm evening and immediately found ourselves on the sandy road that ran alongside the beach. As the final colours of the spectacular sunset faded into darkness, large sand crabs started to emerge from their holes and cautiously crawl across the sand for their evening scavenging. We explored the West End beach in the twilight of the occasional street lamp until our growing hunger and the scent of grilled seafood diverted us to one of the many beach restaurants. We ate delicious seafood for dinner at Eagle Rays Bar & Grill, a restaurant at the end of a jetty with a huge deck out over the water. The night was a perfect, warm temperature and the tiny waves lapping on the shore lulled us into an after-dinner trance. When a dramatic full moon rose some time later the scene was complete. We knew at that moment that we were really going to enjoy our stay on Roatán.

The next day we walked along the beach from West End to West Bay Beach, to try and decide where to spend the duration of our stay. It was a difficult choice because West End had shops, nice restraurants, bars and nightlife (and was cheaper), while the more expensive West Bay Beach area was more peaceful and had the gorgeous picture-perfect coconut tree lined white sandy beaches, but no shops and only a few restaurants. In the end we decided to go for the great beach so we packed our stuff and moved into the honeymoon suite of Bananarama Resort in West Bay Beach.

One of the main attractions of Roatán is the scuba diving. All three Bay Islands (Utila, Roatán and Guanaja) are ringed by extensive coral reefs which are an extension of the Belizian Barrier Reef, the second largest in the world. Apart from the natural beauty of this location, diving in the Bay Islands is among the cheapest in the world. Bananarama was able to arrange a package for us which worked out to be a little over $20 per tank/dive. With Keiko's recent scuba certification under her belt, we were determined to make the most of the diving opportunities here.

We went diving nearly every day and soon had become friends with the affable Bananarama Dive Shop staff Carl and Bella, and Steve who was doing his Master Diver scuba course. We did reef dives, dives through deep channels with caves, night dives and a wreck dive, which were all marvelous. We saw a seemingly infinite variety of Carribean fish and coral, and on some dives were accompanied by some absolutely huge groupers. But by far and away, the best day of diving was when we did "Mary's Place" and the unique shark dive "Cara Cara" (Face to Face). These two locations were operated by Waihuka Adventure Diving on the east side of the island, and cost $100 per person. But we had no doubt afterwards the dives were worth every cent!

The first dive, Mary's Place, is considered by many locals to be the best site on the island. We dove straight down a coral wall into a deep fissure in the reef lined with black coral, teeming with sea life. We then slowly zigzagged back up through more cracks and caverns until our dive master surprised us by indicating the dive was over. It seemed like only a few minutes had passed, but in reality we were down for almost forty five minutes!

We headed back to the dive shop and prepared ourselves for the next dive - the shark dive - which proved to be one of the scariest things we'd ever done. We were a small group of five divers plus the two Waihuka dive masters Marillio and Antonio. As the boat neared the dive site, Antonio busied himself with a very expensive looking underwater video camera, while Marillio unnerved everyone somewhat by donning steel mesh gloves. (Of course, we were not similarly prepared. In fact, owing to the warmth of the waters around Roatán I had been diving without a wetsuit - but now I was starting to feel distinctly underdressed).

We went over the details of the dive. We would all go down to the bottom together and remain in a tight group on a sandy patch with our backs against a coral wall. Marillio would lead the group, and it was expected that pretty soon reef sharks would notice us and approach us with curiosity. Depending on the ensuing state of mind of the divers, and the mood of the sharks, we'd either remain in that spot for the duration of the dive, or else we'd swim out with the sharks, taking a long circuit that would end back at the safe haven of the sandy patch. There would be no steel cages or any other form of protection down there. Antonio's job was to videotape the action. He noticed my lack of wetsuit and remarked (amusingly, I assumed) that if I got bitten by a shark, to please try and do it in full view of the camera as he'd be able to get a lot of money for the video from Discovery Channel. Everyone was laughing and joking on the boat, obviously masking their growing apprehension about what they were about to do.

Finally we arrived at the site and one by one plunged into the water and followed the fixed line down to the bottom, 60 feet below the surface. When I reached the sandy patch the first thing I noticed was Marillio playing with a Nassau grouper that seemed to be as large as he was. He appeared to be tickling it under its gills, which seemed to please the gigantic fish! "How odd!", I thought, and then suddenly I noticed all the sharks!

A group of more than twelve Carribean grey reef sharks, some well over nine feet long, had appeared out of nowhere and were now circling us slowly. My first impression of a shark at that distance were its eyes and its mouth full of sharp teeth. It was just like every photo or documentary of sharks I'd ever seen. Except, of course, this was real and the sharks were just a few feet away from me. At that distance, I could only hope the shark was eyeing me with curiosity rather than hunger. I also noticed each shark had one or two remora attached, again just like in documentaries. I recalled that the remora, or sucker fish, hitches rides by attaching itself to a shark's body via a suction cap on its head, in return for scouring and cleaning the shark's skin. But this was not a documentary I was watching from the safety of a couch, this was Real Life!

By now all our group had descended and collected in a very tight bunch on the bottom. Marillio checked us all carefully and made signs to indicate we should stick close to our buddies and try to breath in and out nice and slowly, nice and slowly, nice and slowly. The latter sign made me smile; I had never seen a diver give instructions to prevent someone hyperventilating under water, but under the circumstances, I conceded it was probably useful advice.

Marillio at that point decided that we were good to go for a bit of a swim around the coral reef. So off we went, everyone sticking a lot closer to their buddies than usual. And the sharks came along too, circling us warily. Every so often, a shark would decide to come in for a closer look at a diver. Countless times I turned my head to see a shark swiftly zeroing in on me, only to turn away at the last possible instant with a powerful flick of its tail. The sharks, getting a little bolder, then started to weave through the group of divers. Several times a shark almost grazed me as it swam by with amazing precision, and I had a crazy urge to reach out and touch its smooth body - an urge that I made sure to repress; who knows how the shark would have responded. At one point there were sharks in front of us, approaching us from behind, to the left and right of us, and above and below. But once we'd overcome our fear, which was effectively to acknowledge the fact that our fate was no longer in our hands, we started to observe close up details about the sharks that only left us with fascination and awe over this fearsome predator. But adrenaline was pumping throughout the dive; at any instant we could have become lunch for these fish, and no one had any doubt about that!

All too soon, we had arrived back at our safe sandy patch and Marillio indicated for us to settle again on the bottom. He had brought some scraps of fish down with him and I wondered if he would attempt to feed them to the sharks. The sharks however now seemed to be acting a little more aggressive and were swimming around Marillio in a very business-like fashion. Marillio later told me he sensed they could smell the fish he had and were getting excited at the prospect of food. Marillio would tempt fate by reaching out and running his (steel mesh protected) hands along their bodies as they flicked by, occasionally even managing to grab a dorsal fin. After a few minutes of witnessing this spectacle Marillio indicated the dive was over and we all started to slowly surface.

As I followed the fixed line upwards, my eyes were fixed far below where the sharks remained, endlessly circling in a tight bunch. Soon they had faded from sight completely and we were back on board the boat in the blazing sunshine. To say we were enthralled with what we'd just done would be a vast understatement. It was hard to believe we'd been in such close company with so many sharks and survived. But despite its foolhardy-appearing charter, the dive was conducted with the utmost professionalism and with experienced dive masters who are extremely familiar with the sharks. In over two years of running that dive there had not been a single incident of attack. (Of course, they told us that after the dive was over!).

While expensive, the dive was a unique experience and we had to resist the urge to do it again. I guess there are just not that many places where you can dive so close to these kinds of sharks in the open sea without becoming their dinner. And even without the sharks (which were obviously the main attraction), the pristine condition of the coral and other huge fish we saw down there made the dive worth it.

All up, we had a fine time on Roatán. While the food and lodging were more expensive than on the mainland, there was plenty to justify it. One evening a local restaurant had an "all you can eat lobster" special for $25, which we indulged in. Quite simply, those locally-caught lobster tails, barbequed over coals and served with garlic butter, were the most succulent we had ever eaten, anywhere. And the kitchen kept on bringing more out until we couldn't fit in any more. That's a treat you don't find very often. We could have easily spent a month here.

Photos: (click on images to see full size)

West Bay BeachPreparing for undersea adventureDaily Roatán ritual: beer on the pier at sunsetThe honeymoon suite at Bananarama ResortKeiko with Cindy of "Cindy's Place" Restaurant
home of "All You Can Eat Lobster!"Catching the water taxi home from West End to West Bay Beach
The shark diveThe shark diveThe shark dive

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