All Photos and Story By Tom Demerly and Jan Mack.
What is left of our oceans? Is it too late to “save” our planet? Does sustainable tourism exist?
Roatan, Honduras is an island 40 miles off the coast of mainland Honduras in the western Caribbean. It is home to the largest barrier reef in the western hemisphere, the Mesoamerican Reef, second largest in the world.
My girlfriend Jan and I went to Roatan to find a place that is quiet and safe, untrampled by tourists and free from the industrial harvest of its resources. We wanted to see if there is anything left.
We found interesting- and disturbing- contrasts.
One 7,858-foot concrete airport runway serves Roatan. It’s large enough to land a Boeing 757 on- barely, and according to some sources, not quite long enough to take it off from. But Delta Airlines operates 757 service to Roatan once a week if weather permits.
The Saturday we flew into Juan Manuel Gálvez International Airport was iffy. Low cloud and driving rain raked the island. It was February 13, 2016.
There is no modern landing approach system for Roatan’s only runway- no runway lights either. If the weather is too bad to land when you get there, you fly back home. The landing is even sketchier since your aircraft has to carry at least enough fuel to fly back to the mainland if it can’t land because of bad weather. During the fifth circle above the airport at 3,000 feet over a barely broken- and thickening- cloud layer our pilot’s announcements became increasingly tense.
“We’re going to try for it.” The pilot announced. Airline passengers are uneasy with terms like “try for it” when it comes to landing a big plane loaded with fuel on a short island runway.
Our huge Boeing caromed onto the end of runway 07/25 right on the ocean’s edge like a fighter onto an aircraft carrier. Brakes screeched hard as the thrust reversers on our twin jet engines shot an eight-foot diameter plume of spray forward of our plane. With only yards of runway left we stopped. We didn’t know when we landed we would need every inch of it for take-off a week later if it were a hot day, which is almost every day in Honduras.
Minutes later a United 737 twin-engine airliner made a similar attempt at getting into Roatan- and failed. He flew back to the mainland. We were the only flight to get onto the island that day. When we left the immigration checks, the airport closed.
They fingerprint you coming into Roatan and take your picture. There have been problems. Problems with people coming to commit fraud, sexual crimes, drug use and trafficking. It isn’t an epidemic though. The island is, based on our experience, safe and friendly. The islanders have built this line of defense against the things that make mainland Honduras, one of the most dangerous places in Central America, unsafe for tourism.
Every islander told us that mainland Honduras milks Roatan tourism as its cash cow but returns little back to the island. Both holiday tourism from the few cruise ships that visit for day trips and slightly more adventurous “eco-tourism” for the SCUBA diver crowd. Jan and I were the later. We imagined ourselves as somehow… “better” or more authentic than the cruisers.
Our base would be Blue Island Divers, a rustic, beautiful dive center on the north coast of Sandy Bay with two cottages on the beach. Eric and Carly White run Blue Island Divers. They’re Texans, with the attendant drawl and pleasant manner. But their easy attitude belies a work ethic that is tireless. Filling SCUBA tanks, fixing plumbing, scheduling dives, maintaining boats, serving drinks, teaching new divers and improving existing ones- all done quietly behind the scenes against a backdrop of relaxed island paradise.
What Carly and Eric have created at Blue Island Divers is a sparkling gem in a vast sea of lesser experiences. Authentic and welcoming, small and quant, this is exactly what we had hoped for- a quiet cabin on a remote beach with tropical birds and roosters for alarm clocks, sunset views and hammocks swaying under jungle palms. It looks like a movie set. Exotic reef fish swim in shallow, crystal water forty steps from where our heads hit the pillow in our cottage. You can walk the beach for kilometers in either direction. The reef sits yards off the beach, creating a calm estuary ideal for swimming, snorkeling, sunning and teaching new divers. In our front yard lies some of the best diving anywhere on earth- a two-minute small boat ride away. Some dives sites you can swim to.
Our beach cabin at Blue Island Divers in Roatan.
My girlfriend Jan is a new SCUBA diver and I am an old one who hasn’t been underwater in years. We took basic and refresher dive training in Michigan then went to Roatan for her open water certification dives and to explore one of the most renowned dive sites in the world.
Jan is a triathlete who had open water swim anxiety. She ‘s an Ironman finisher. It may seem odd that she was uncomfortable swimming in open water but fears of the unseen live in our minds that way. SCUBA diving is a way to understand what is really below the surface to moderate those fears.
Our dive instructor and dive master at Blue Island Divers is Russell Nicholson, 26, originally from Newmarket, United Kingdom. Nicholson looks the part; short, Errol Flynn beard, curled hair and relaxed eyes that never waver, never suggest alarm or urgency. His voice is a laconic monotone of British accent, always spoken at a volume that politely requests attention rather than loudly demands it. His remarks about a dive site, sea conditions, dangerous sea life and submarine lesson plans are precisely spoken and trimmed of any sensation. There is the slightest hint of Ian Fleming’s James Bond when he suggests we “Just go inside, and have a nice swim-through” at an underwater cavern in 65-feet of ocean that opens over a submarine cliff dropping into a black abyss. No other dive master could have made us confident in such an expedition. Nicholson made it seem almost… pastoral. “We’ll just kip down and have a look, then we’ll decide.”
Russ Nicholson got here after finishing college, sciences and exercise physiology, in England at the height of the recession. With poor job prospects he did what any self-respecting English adventurer does, he traveled the world as a SCUBA instructor.
Dive Instructor Russ Nicholson.
“Egypt was incredible, but the Muslim Brotherhood and the unstable government made things a bit dodgy at times…” From there to Asia, Thailand, Indonesia across the Pacific to Australia where he worked construction for a couple years. Then back on the road of undersea adventure as an expert dive instructor. Nicholson certified over 500 divers and built a reputation as one of the finest dive instructors across that part of the world. Now he sat across from us, our own private instructor and underwater guide.
Drenching rains and ocean gales pummeled the island washing rivulets of thick jungle mud through swollen rivers dumping into the ocean when we arrived. The island wore a dense, brown belt between its beaches and the reefs. Diving was nearly impossible in the salt-water muck upon our arrival.
A short day later as the weather broke we boarded one of Blue Island Divers’ small dive skiffs from their dock and motored over peeling tubes of big waves that looked like the opening of “Hawaii Five-O”. Our boat Captain, Elden, is an islander. To him the sea has road signs on it. To us it was a dangerous tempest. He navigates the waves and reef like a commuter on a cloverleaf with a Garmin.
Elden found passage between a small island and the reef, ducking behind it then out to sea between waves. Once past the reef our dive boat rose and fell with nauseating amplitude. Combined with a grey sky, dark water and threatening rain it was a good day to lose your lunch over the rail. I dry-heaved five times in the attempt.
After Russ administered our pre-dive checklists and Jan and I did a buddy check we did a back roll entry, swam the five-foot rollers on the surface to the reef marker and deflated our buoyancy compensators for the descent.
Everything changed. A vast landscape, varied and perfect, spanned below us as we fell like underwater skydivers to the white sand sea floor. It was calm underwater. Swarms of colorful fish swam easily in relaxed processions over white sugar sand between coral arrangements the size of buildings. Instantly ten or fifteen species were in front of us. As if queued by our entry a peaceful sea turtle flew over the bottom. What was chaotic and stormy on the surface gave way to Roatan’s main paradise- the paradise beneath the waves.
Nothing prepared us for the enormity and splendor of underwater Roatan. It’s shocking. Otherworldly. Only feet below the surface the world changes entirely. No other transition in human experience is as abrupt and dramatic. It takes billions of dollars and decades of technology to fly into outer space. It only takes a few SCUBA lessons to fly into the inner space of underwater Roatan as weightless aquanauts.
We dove on reefs and shipwrecks, to 100-foot depths and searched for fish species, cataloguing them on an underwater slate. Russell planned underwater navigation exercises for us on land, briefed and rehearsed us, then lead our dives and administered tests in underwater compass reading, distance measurement and every aspect of open-water recreational sport diving. We did two and three dives a day.
Roatan skies yielded to sun and calm seas. The surface conditions improved. We became more relaxed and at home in the ocean. Bobbing on the calm surface before and after a dive under warm sun was relaxing. When we surfaced we ate orange slices picked from trees the day before.
The only contrasts came when we were back on land. Roatan is a poor island. People lead a subsistence life working in service industries. When we walked on some of the beaches toward the small tourist area visited by the cruise ships the amount of trash on the beach was disheartening. During some of our dives we collected bits of plastic bags from the reef at depths of 60-feet, deadly plastic bags that could choke a sea turtle or strangle coral.
In a strange irony the deadliest things in the ocean were plastic bags from cruise ship gift shops. The jellyfish, stingrays and sharks posed no threat. The tourist trash was killing things in front of us.
Among its dive attractions Roatan has a population of large Caribbean reef sharks (Carcharhinus perezii). One dive site, “Cara a Cara”, rests on the bottom in 70 feet of water about two miles off the south coast. Cara a Cara is the farthest from shore of hundreds of popular dive sites on Roatan. The sharks gather there. And so do the adventure tourists.
I’ve been a diver on and off almost since I was a teenager. Sharks, big sharks, have only been a rare, distant shadow in the sea that fades into the abyss after we entered the water. I learned sharks didn’t like people. Sharks ran from us. But at Cara a Cara the sharks will return each day if the divers do. The divers descend with a white plastic bucket with a few fish heads in it- not nearly enough for a meal if you’re a nine-foot shark, but enough to tempt them close enough for photography.
We rode a typical open-skiff dive boat packed with divers about two miles out to the dive site. It was rough, waves broke over the bow, we were soaked. One of the other divers, a Frenchman, joked that we looked like the opening scene from “Saving Private Ryan”. He was right.
At the moment I back-rolled off our dive boat I had become a part of the problem. I had become a tourist hoping to grab some snapshots of something that should be regular and natural in the ocean, but is increasingly fleeting, exploited and rare.
Descending the mooring line to Cara a Cara I saw the plan form of a big reef shark below me. Gliding on his pectoral fins, he steered a patient course over the white sand 60 feet down. Circling, weaving, looking, waiting. Then there were two, then six, then twelve- then too many to count. Some were massive, the size of a kayak. None were small. Most were pristine and perfect. One trailed a length of fishing line from a hook gouged into the right corner of his mouth. All of the sharks were, curiously, female. Five of them were pregnant. A hopeful sign.
We landed on the white sand bottom in a natural coral amphitheater at 70 feet. Two rows of divers, me on the end. Russ Nicholson dove with Jan and I on the dive. We brought our own SCUBA tanks and equipment since the shark dive operation’s compressor was broken and they had a reputation for allowing their SCUBA tanks to drain too completely for safe operation. Russ looked after us and the other divers. Only minutes after reaching the bottom Russ had to ascend with two divers whose tanks had become dangerously low on air way too quickly.
One diver ran a large video camera, the dive master on the dive administered the bait bucket and the sharks obliged with a display that reached a crescendo when they spun into a whirling feeding frenzy, sending sand flying into the water and reducing visibility. I was in the middle of a shark feeding frenzy 70-feet under heavy seas two miles off shore.
We swam amongst the sharks. They shared their ocean with us for a few minutes. We took their picture. After about 25 minutes on the bottom the sharks began to slowly drift back to the depths and we began to slowly ascend our buoy line, each party returning to its respective worlds.
I don’t know if what we did at the shark dive was good. Am I part of the problem? Did we somehow alter the sharks’ behavior? Does our diving with them threaten them? My rationalization included a promise that I would tell the story of the Sharks of Roatan Island, and now I have.
If you are a diver, you can see them too for $100 if you think that is a good thing. The dive boat is too crowded and the sea can be rough, but the sharks are nothing short of a miracle. A miracle that I am afraid may last only slightly longer than a perfect sunset on Roatan.
Tom Demerly has written for “Outside” magazine along with a host of others and traveled on all seven continents. He isn’t any good at catching fish though.