Length of stay: 8 days
Visited: May 2018
Dives logged: 12
Dives to date: 39
Top five dive sites:
- El Aguila Wreck
- Hole in the Wall
- Grape Escape
Tucked away off the northern coast of Central America, Roatan is the largest of the Bay Islands of Honduras and is reputed to be one of the best places in the Caribbean for scuba diving. The coral reef that encircles this quiet island is home to the second largest barrier reef in the world and is often a mere few hundred feet from shore. And while Honduras generally has a bad rap for its high crime stats, Roatan is considered relatively safe and is far removed from the dangerous crimes common on the mainland. With a healthy and diverse coral reef ecosystem, excellent visibility, affordable diving, and pristine sandy beaches, what more could you ask for in a vacation?
We completed our entry-level Open Water scuba diving certification back in March 2016 in Saint Martin. The Open Water course provided a broad overview on how not to be an idiot and how not to die while scuba diving. And with 27 dives under our (weight) belt we were ready to fine-tune some of the finer skills with diving and extend our maximum depth to 30m (or 100ft).
Day 1: The Journey
There are no direct flights from either Toronto or Boston into Roatan. But we were able to coordinate flights and timing to meet up for a layover in Atlanta and then fly together for the second leg of our journey into Roatan. We touched down in Roatan at 1:30p.m island time (they are two hours behind Eastern standard time) and after waiting in line for over an hour to clear customs and immigration (everyone had to get finger printed and their picture taken), we took a shuttle to our accommodations.
There are really two main places tourists stay in Roatan: West Bay and West End. West Bay is the more popular choice with a number of resorts, hotels, and restaurants scattered over a mile of white sandy beaches overlooking calm turquoise waters. West End is considered the quieter, less expensive alternative (with a small beach area). Regardless of where you stay, there are great diving options around both locations.
We opted to stay in West End since it’s better value for your money and is generally less busy. We stayed at a place called Seagrape Plantation Resort, which offers two types of accommodations: a room in their moderately sized hotel or a room in one of five bungalows (or cabanas) overlooking the ocean. Perhaps since we were travelling in low season, but the price differential between the two options wasn’t that high (less than $15 USD each night), so why not treat yo’self? We stayed in the cabana.
When we arrived at our accommodations we took an opportunity to unpack and eat a snack before heading over to the dive shop. Even though Seagrape offers scuba diving packages, we decided to dive with Sun Divers based on their phenomenal reviews and the fact that they cater to smaller groups. They are about a 5 minute walk from our accommodations. We checked in, got fitted for our gear and weights, and went over our dive schedule for the week. We planned to dive twice a day for the next six days while at the same time complete our Advanced Open Water.
Afterwards we walked along the paved strip in the “downtown” area of West End in search for a place to eat an early dinner. We went to a place overlooking the ocean, but turns out they specialized more in drinks than in food. At least it came with a nice view.
We then walked back to our accommodations, threw on our bathing suits, and headed over to the pool for a swim and to watch the sunset.
We pretty much went to bed as soon as we got out of the pool. We couldn’t make it past 8p.m. It was a long day and we wanted to be well rested for our first day of diving the next morning.
Day 2: Open Water Fun Dives
My birthday. We woke up bright and early at 5:30a.m. Because of the time change and with the sun rising so early, this still felt like sleeping in (after all, it was 7:30a.m back home). We spent the (early) morning outside hanging outside in a couple of hammocks by the ocean. At around 7:00a.m we got changed out of our pajamas and headed down to the on-site restaurant for breakfast (which was conveniently included in the price of our visit). Afterwards we returned to our room to change into our bathing suits, lather up on sunscreen, grab our fins, masks, and wetsuits and then head on over to the dive shop.
Given that it’s been nearly a full year since we last went diving, we decided to book two fun dives prior to starting our Advanced Open Water. The first dive is always the most awkward, so it’s good to get that out-of-the-way prior to our starting our next level training. Our instructor over the next few days, Doug, was also set to be our guide for our two fun dives this morning. We were joined by one other diver, Ron, who is also a fellow Canadian. A group of three older ladies (Cheryl, Susan, and Carolyn) were on the same boat as us, but were diving with their own Divemaster.
Our boat captain and guide took us over to Southern part of the island on account of the calm water. Our guide went over the dive plan before we geared up to roll over the side of the boat. This idiot forgot to rinse the soap from my mask and as I was rolling over into the water, it all dribbled into my eyes. Big time. It took a couple of clumsy minutes to clear my vision. And after trying to carefully wash my eyes out with salt water (without losing my contact lenses), I’m not sure what stung more – the soap or the salt (or my pride).
Once my vision started to clear we descended down into the deep blue. The visibility was excellent. The first part of the dive was a little uneventful as we hovered quite shallowly along the cliff wall that runs parallel to the shore. After spending the first 10 minutes or so here (and trying to remember how to properly control our buoyancy) we headed down to deeper waters and to better territory.
We had a curious turtle meander around us throughout the dive. We also saw lobsters, various crabs, a slug, a sea-through jelly fish, and (my personal favourite) a smooth trunkfish. There was also a good variety of healthy looking coral.
Flowers Bay Wall
After surfacing, we rehydrated and munched on some pineapple. For our second dive, we dove at another site situated along the southeastern side of island. There wasn’t an abundance of fish at this site, but there sure was an abundance of lobsters (we spotted a nest that contained at least four or five of them). The topography along this wall dive was phenomenal and featured a great variety of soft and hard corals.
One we returned back to solid land it was lunch o’clock. We headed down the road to the Argentinian Grill to eat some food along the beachfront. We made the mistake of also ordering a cerveza (K tried a local beer while I went straight for a piña colada) – partially because we were pretty tired from diving, but mostly because we had to read through two chapters of materials in a couple of hours for our Advanced Open Water.
The Advanced Open Water certification is designed to fine-tune your diving knowledge and skills and consists of five adventure dives. Two of these dives are required – Deep and Underwater Navigation. For our remaining three adventure dives, we picked Peak Performance Buoyancy, Drift Diving, and Wreck Diving. Other options included Underwater Photography, Fish Identification, Dry Suit Diving, and Night Diving.
We headed back to the dive shop for 3:30pm and spent the remainder of the afternoon with Doug going over the knowledge review for our first two adventure dives scheduled for tomorrow morning.
By the time we left Sun Divers it was around 5p.m. We headed back to our accommodations for a proper nap. What? Diving and being out in the sun all day can be exhausting. So naturally by the time we awoke from our beauty sleep we were famished again. We walked along the beachfront and settled on a lovely place called the Beach House.
Day 3: AOW – #1 Peak Performance Buoyancy & #2 Drift Diving
We woke up this morning at 5:30a.m again and spent the morning by the pool enjoying the sunrise while getting a head start on our required readings for the day. We headed down for breakfast at our usual time and afterwards walked over to the dive shop.
The Peak Performance Buoyancy is probably the most useful and important course we took as part of our Advanced Open Water. We’re actually quite surprised it’s not a requirement. Because it probably should be. This dive was all business and skills heavy. The focus of this adventure dive is all around breathing and buoyancy control. You know, the skill that prevents you from flailing around like an idiot and burning through your air.
We descended on a sand patch and went through a series of skills to test our balance in the water. We first practiced hovering where you sit cross-legged and use your breath to float up and down. I struggled quite a bit with this one and kept tipping forward and/or hitting the bottom. Our instructor then spent the next 10 minutes or so playing around with my weights. In the end we just moved on to the next skill where we practiced balancing horizontally and then upside down. Doug then placed weights on the bottom of the sand patch and we had to use our regulator to tip them over while balancing upside down. That was interesting and required multiple repetitions. Afterwards we went through the various types of fin kicks: flutter versus frog.
Then came the skills involving the hoop. This was probably my favourite part. I’m surprised I didn’t guzzle my air through all the underwater laughter than ensued. We first had to swim normally through the hoop without touching any of the sides. This was easy enough. But then things went backwards. Literally. We had to swim upside down through the hoop. This required multiple repetitions. And then, as if that wasn’t hard enough, we had to swim over the hoop, flip over and then swim backwards through the hoop. If we struggled to swim upside down the first time, you can only imagine our struggles with this other rendition through the hoop. I pretty much ended up rolling around in the sand while trying to keep my regulator from falling out from laughing so hard. It was honestly a lot of fun. And super helpful despite our struggles.
As we were ascending we spotted a turtle. Once we rose to the surface we did a post-dive buoyancy check to make sure we were properly weighted. You basically let all the air out of your BCD and hold a normal breath. The idea is that if you have the correct amount of weight, you should hover eye level in the water.
West End Wall
For our drift dive we headed to the southern tip of the island. We practiced a negative entry into the water where as soon as you hit the water you start swimming downwards headfirst. Usually you descend vertically with your fins down and head up. I had some issues with this since I didn’t release all the excess air in my BCD. So basically I’m kicking downwards while my fins are partially out of the water flailing around. Not my most graceful moment. I eventually found the dump valve to release the excess air and swam down headfirst.
The dive itself was skills light and fun heavy. There was little to no current. Except at the end where there was a mix of super warm and super cold currents / flows of water. It was actually pretty trippy.
The dive site was beautiful and we saw a nice variety of fish.
When we were ascending we got to practice inflating a Surface Marker Buoy (SMB), which is an inflatable sausage-type buoy used when ascending to signal to boats that divers are below. Doug first provided a demonstration, surfaced to let out the air and then come back down to let us each practice inflating it.
Similar to yesterday, we had a couple of hours to take a break and eat some lunch, before having to return to the dive shop to go over the knowledge review for our next two adventure dives. This time no cervezas. Instead we just went back to our room to eat some snacks and to finish our readings without distraction.
By the time we finished up at the dive shop it was around 5p.m and we were famished. We walked down the strip for a place to eat and stumbled upon a Mexican place called the Cannibal Cafe. We ended up running into that same group of older ladies at the restaurant that we shared a boat with on our first day of diving and joined them for dinner.
Day 4: AOW – #3 Deep Dive & #4 Underwater Navigation
Similar to yesterday, we woke up this morning bright and early and spent the morning lounging by the pool area reading more materials for our Advanced Open Water. After scarfing down some breakfast, we headed over to the dive shop. In preparation for our Underwater Navigation adventure dive, we first practiced navigating with a compass on the beach to familiarize ourselves with how to hold and read it before heading in the water.
Hole in the Wall
We started with our deep dive. We descended near the top of the reef and followed the wall down and down to a maximum depth of around 90-100 feet. The deeper you go, the darker and bluer it becomes. This is simply because water absorbs colour. And the first colours to “disappear” are the reds, oranges, and yellows. Blue is the last to disappear, which is why as the deeper you go, the more blue everything looks. To demonstrate the effects of depths on colours, Doug brought down a bag of Doritos and took it out for us to see the contrast in the appearance of the red bag on the surface and when we neared our maximum depth.
Despite the loss of colours at a deeper depth, this wall dive was gorgeous. Sure, we had to check on our air and depth more frequently (since the air becomes more dense at deeper depths, you tend to guzzle it faster the deeper you go), but we saw an interesting array of creatures and critters – including this massive crab underneath a ledge at around 90ft. This site also features a number of swim through opportunities through coral covered canyons. Doug led us through two moderately lengthy swim throughs.
Our second dive was more skills heavy. The first half of the dive we practiced our navigation skills with a compass. Doug put a line down that we had to swim parallel to and count our kick cycles. That was easy enough. Then we had to practice with the compass going in a straight line and then returning followed by going in a square. I navigated first with the compass while K clung to my BCD and used our fin cycles to determine when to turn. For K’s turn with the compass, I struggled a bit with the flutter kicks (I really don’t like them) so Doug ended up taking over and assisted with K as he navigated with the compass.
The second half of the dive was more of a fun dive – but we had to pay more attention to our surroundings since we were required to navigate our way back to the boat. Doug led us away from the sand path from where we practiced with the compass, and when we turned around we then had to lead Doug back to the boat. Between the two of us (and a massive puffer fish that we used as a point of interest) we managed to find the boat again. Success!
We returned to the dive shop at around 1p.m and headed back to our accommodations to eat some snacks. Since we finished reading the final chapter for our remaining adventure dive earlier in the morning, we could take a longer nap. We headed back down to the dive shop at around 3:30p.m to go over the final knowledge review quiz.
Afterwards we walked down the strip and ate at a Mediterranean place called Por Que No and watched the sun dip below the horizon on the water.
Day 5: Advanced Open Water Certified
It rained overnight. Since all the pool chairs were damp from the rain, we just hung out on our porch in the morning. All signs of the rain were long gone by the time we went down for breakfast at 7a.m. When we arrived at the dive shop we got our pictures taken for our new Advanced Open Water cards.
El Aguila Wreck
Our final adventure dive was a wreck dive. Since this dive wasn’t skills heavy, we were joined by two other divers – Ron (from our first day of diving) and Jill (a wonderfully pleasant British lady who has been living in Roatan for the past 18 months), and a Divemaster in training – Randy (also another fellow Canadian).
We descended at the reef and gradually swam deeper towards the bow of the ship. It was extremely menacing how the ship just materializes out of the blue the closer you get. El Aguila is 75m (or 230ft) long old cargo boat that ran aground near the neighbouring island Utila. The ship was then towed and re-sunk at 110ft near the reef around the north shore of Roatan. In 1998 Hurricane Mitch swirled through and broke the El Aguila into three pieces.
We started at the bow of the ship and worked away to the stern. The skills component involved Doug pointing out things from the ship and asking if it poised as a potential hazard. We then had to signal whether it was safe or not.
For the second part of the dive we swam back to the reef. And honestly, it’s hard to say which was better: the wreck or the reef. Doug pointed out an elusive toadfish. We also saw a massive grouper and a turtle. Another one of our favourite aspects of this dive was this elaborately lengthy and beautiful canyon we got to swim through. Exiting out was a little dicey and involved us coming up quite shallow (around 8ft). We quickly submerged back to a slightly deeper depth of around 25-30ft.
As we were surfacing, Doug let me practice inflating the SMB again. Sure, I might have floated up a bit too much when filling the SMB up with air, but I did fully inflate it. And I didn’t drop the reel. Nailed it. We are now Advanced Open Water certified!
In between dives our boat captain took us over to the mangroves. When we were ready to get back into the water, we headed over to a shallower site which featured nice mounds of corals and a large sandy patch towards the end. Doug pointed out a seahorse. We also saw a spotted moray eel, a giant grouper in a canyon, and a massive puffer fish. The visibility was excellent.
We got back to the dive shop at around lunch time. And this time we didn’t have to head back over in a couple of hours to go over any knowledge review quizzes. We returned to our room for a shower and a nap. We then spent the remainder of the afternoon hanging out in the pool and lounging by the pool area. We returned to the Cannibal Cafe for dinner (and ordered way to much food).
Day 6: More Diving (with Doug) and Dolphins
We stuck to our morning routine of waking up early, lounging out by the pool, eating an early breakfast and then heading over to the dive shop. We were pleasantly surprised to see that we would be diving again with Doug and Jill. We were also joined by another Divemaster in training – Laurent.
As we’re pulling up to the mooring line, our boat captain tell us to hold off on gearing up because he spotted a boat out on the horizon. And apparently boats never go out in the deep blue … unless there’s something out there. So we race over to the other boat and we were pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a school of wild dolphins jumping near the bow of the boat. We grabbed our fins and face masks and rolled off the side of the boat. We couldn’t really see them at first. All I saw was blue – blue everywhere. But we sure could hear these clicking noises underwater. We swam back to the boat and went a little more towards them. This time when we rolled back into the water we caught a good glimpse of a few of them. I’m not going to lie, it was pretty incredible but also incredibly terrifying all at the same time. The fact that everything around you was blue and that there are these large creatures with dorsal fins racing towards you is pretty frightening. It certainly was an epic start to our day. And as we were heading back to the mooring line we also caught a glimpse of a flying fish.
Once we attached to the mooring line we started our dive for real this time. The dive site featured a mix between nice coral formations and sandy patches. Normally we hover around the reef, but for this dive, we saw more action in the sand. There were a bunch of garden eels poking their heads out of the sand. Jill pointed out a spotted eagle ray in the distance. And Doug managed to find this weird-looking seahorse type of creature.
For our surface interval, our boat captain took us to a shallow spot near the remains of a plane wreck. This plane crashed further south and was later towed here closer to the shore. We grabbed our fins and mask (and underwater camera) and scoped it out.
Our second dive site was located right in our own backyard at Seagrape Plantation Resort. And when we descended we saw another type of wreck – the remains of an old sunken dive boat.
This site featured a lovely display of soft and hard corals. And the wildlife viewing was phenomenal. We saw a large barracuda, lobsters, drum fish, parrot fish, angel fish, and a bunch of other aquatic life that we are unable to name (maybe we should have chosen the fish identification adventure dive). The dive started along the wall, which levels off into a variety of gorgeous canyons covered in corals. And the real selling point of this site was that towards the end it gets quite shallow. So we could continue looking around during our safety stop.
Once we got back to the dive shop we hung around for a bit and chatted with the Divemasters in training. We then returned to our room to change out of our bathing suits before heading back out for lunch. We returned to the Argentinian Grill due to its close proximity to the beach and the fact that it offered decent vegetarian options.
For the remainder of the afternoon we lounged outside by the pool area. We headed out a bit later for dinner and ate at a pizzeria overlooking the ocean.
Day 7: Final Day of Diving
We were spoiled all week with excellent dive sites, having a wonderful and attentive guide, and diving with a smaller group of experienced divers. But in order to appreciate the good, you have to deal with the not so good sometimes. Our guide, Mauricio, was lovely, but we dove with a bunch of space cadets. I’m surprised they didn’t kill us or themselves with their underwater shenanigans.
We were joined by Randy again and a group of three (American) divers whose movements were a bit sporadic and all over the place. After a few too many bump-ins (mostly when our guide was trying to point something out), we decided to keep some space between us. This worked out particularly well towards the end of our dive when our guide led us through a swim through. Sand was being kicked up left right and centre, so we merely followed at a distance. It wasn’t just their flailing around that was troublesome. One of them didn’t understand how to use his dive computer. Another one kept regularly going deeper than the rest of the group. And the other one was so into taking pictures with his go pro that he wasn’t paying attention to the surrounding reef and how close he was getting to it.
The dive itself was fun though. The site is aptly named and features a nice variety of sea creatures and critters. We saw an eel, crab, shrimp, a sea lettuce slug, scorpion fish, a starfish, and the usual suspects.
Our boat captain took us back to the mangroves during our surface interval where we munched on pineapple and watermelon while enjoying the view and beautiful weather.
We were the first ones to hit the water. And this time we didn’t waste any time and descended right away to take advantage of more time we could spend underwater (last dive we both surfaced with over half a tank). This dive site was brimming with aquatic life. Very early on we came across two squids.
We also passed by a couple of turtles throughout our dive who were just hanging around on the reef.
Towards the end of the dive we started to hear this feverish beeping sound. Turns out one of these idiots exceeded their no-decompression limit – which is the amount of time a diver can stay at a given depth to avoid decompression sickness (i.e. when nitrogen bubbles / the bends can potentially start to form and kill you). Since the other two divers were running low on air (probably from all their thrashing around), the Divemaster in training surfaced with them. But K and I signalled to our guide that we still had over half a tank remaining, so we stayed down with our guide and other diver who was required to make a decompression stop. Given that the reef was quite shallow we got to continue exploring. So in the end, maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing diving with this group as we got to extend our dive time by an additional 12 minutes on our last dive (for a total of 72 minutes).
We grabbed dinner at our favourite restaurant from the trip – the Cannibal Cafe. Afterwards we hung out by the pool area and watched the stars.
Day 7: The Departure
We stuck to our usual routine of waking up early, lounging outside by the pool, and then heading down for breakfast at 7a.m. We even also walked over to the dive shop at our usual time to pick up our dive gear and say our goodbyes. When we returned to our room we threw on our bathing suits for a final dip in the pool.
We left for the airport at around 11:30a.m. We then spent the next two hours being herded from one line to the next to check in, go through security, go through customs, and then board the plane. We repeated this pattern again in Atlanta. And then again when I landed in Toronto (K had better luck since he didn’t need to clear customs or pick up a checked bag).
We had such a wonderful time in Roatan. The diving was phenomenal: the reef was incredible healthy and full of life, the visibility was excellent, and the water was warm. With blue skies and sun every day, it’s hard to imagine why this is considered low season. We’re not complaining – the fewer the crowds, the better. We’re already making plans to potentially return next year.
L & K