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September 1, 2012

Vagblogging Field Report: scuba diving in the Bay Islands and Cayos Cochinos, Honduras

Cost: $50-60 a day

What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen recently?

Immediately after learning to scuba dive in Utila, I hopped on over to nearby Cayos Cochinos (Hog Islands). Some of the small islands and cayes that make up Cayos Cochinos resemble one of those ‘paradise island’ posters that bored office workers paste on their cubicle walls to remind them of the next holiday they’re working towards. You know the ones. Chalk white sand at their perimeters and a couple of lonely coconut trees with an obligatory hammock slung across them. The waters are clear turquoise and the shallows hint at the abundant marine life that abounds in the deeper waters. Bait fish flit around as spotted eagle rays glide past. At night queer bio luminescent creatures twinkle in the inky waters creating a bizarre light show.
Under water things are perhaps stranger. Shortly into our fifth dive along a big reef wall at a dive site called Pelican 2 my girlfriend and I were met by a small remora fish that ended up accompanying us for the entire dive. Remora’s attach themselves to sharks or large fish via a sucker on top of their heads so they may get a free ride and feed on the scraps of food produced by their larger hosts feeding habits. This particular remora was somewhat confused and continuously tried to attach itself to my girlfriends upper thigh. Given that she is highly unlikely to start devouring reef fish mid-dive the little creature was out of luck.

 

Diving off Utila

At one point in the dive we saw a majestic hawksbill turtle flapping elegantly along the reef wall. We followed it for a short while before it moved off into deeper water. At this point our remora companion saw the turtle and decided to check out the heavy shelled reptile. It quickly swam towards the departing turtle with an awkward wriggling motion, sussed the situation out and upon deciding the herbivore wasn’t worth its time turned back and returned to us.

Towards the end of the dive the remora rejected my girlfriend and decided to attempt attachment on me. It tickled but after a while I gave up fending him off and let him nibble at bits of debris attached to my wet suit. I felt a little warm inside at making a new friend and was a touch sad when our dive ended and we had to part ways.

Describe a typical day

Life for tourists and many of the locals in the Bay Islands and Cayos Cochinos revolves around diving. Waters are generally calmer in the mornings so we rise early and chow down some cornflakes (apparently one of the only cereals sold on the island) and a couple of slices of toast. Gear is organized in a methodical manner so that no essential item (mask and snorkel, for instance) is forgotten. The crew sets out and the boat captain, who’s invariably a jovial Garifuna gent grins, cracks jokes and talks loudly in a thick Caribbean accent. It feels good being out on the water this early in the day and I’m always eager to get in the water so that my eyes may be delighted by some creature or coral formation I’ve not encountered before.

We anchor, go through our safety checks and descend. Diving isn’t an entirely silent experience but the array of sounds heard above land are absent. Mostly I hear myself breathing through my regulator like Darth Vader. The sound deprivation serves to enhance the visual treat. I never know what I’m going to see underwater and this, of course is what makes diving so addictive. On any given day I may see an inquisitive morray eel following me, a giant tarpin zoom off after I round a corner in the reef, or hundreds or garden eels poking their stringy bodies out of the water only to duck back under the sand as I come near.

After a couple of dives we’re always ravenous so when we return to shore the gear is cleaned and hung up to dry for the next day before we hurry on to our favorite lunch spots. I usually go for an inexpensive restaurant serving baleadas. Found only in Honduras, baleadas are essentially flour tortillas wrapped around refried bean paste, eggs and cheese. They rarely blow you away but they fill you up for a few lempiras. It’s usually baking hot during lunch and a fruit drink with milk and crushed ice, known as a licuado is an essential part of the dining experience.

Afternoons and nights are lazy and tend to revolve around hammock time, studying dive material or sipping on ruminades (rum + home made lemonade).

Cayos Cochinos sunset

Describe an interesting conversation you’ve had with a local

I met Jim the night watchmen at Deep Blue Divers, the dive shop I did my certification through. Jim’s an elderly white islander with sad blue grey sailors eyes, a heavily wrinkled face like a crumpled up piece of paper and a strong Caribbean accent. I imagine he has stories of dangerous tentacled sea beasts and treacherous seas, however I wouldn’t know because despite him speaking English I barely understood him. The islander accent here is the only English accent I’ve encountered thus far that I’m completely baffled by. He often ended sentences with “Aaaaaright”.

I did gather he has a daughter who’s married to an American man. She’s had an awfully hard time getting into the USA due to their stringent immigration policies. Oddly, despite his daughters troubles, Jim said that he thinks the USA needs to be hard on immigration to protect their interests and prevent it from being overrun by foreigners………at least I think that’s what he said.

What do you like about where you are? Dislike?

I like the peaceful feeling diving gives me and the diversity of marine life present in and around the reefs. Every dive is different, even at the same dive site as conditions change and different marine animals come and go.

The food and drink on some of the Islands, particularly Utila is delicious. My diet for the most part consists super baleadas (thats right, super) with avocado, fresh fish and licuados.

The Garifuna islanders, descendants of African slaves, are a warm, attractive people that inhabit pockets of the islands and northern coast of Honduras. I met a few Garifuna on Chachuate One in Cayos Cochinos and enjoyed getting an insight into their way of life. They sleep outside in hammocks (unless there is a tropical storm), eat freshly caught fish and drink plenty of rum. There are a couple of rusty generators on the island but for the most part their way of life is devoid of electronics. It’s a simple life in an incredibly picturesque past of the world, but I couldn’t help but think I’d eventually get bored.

Garifuna paddling at Cayos Cochinos

It’s an accepted fact that foreigners pay more for stuff than locals when traveling in developing nations and I’m okay with that. That being said it does get tiresome when taxi drivers are trying to get you to pay them ten times the going rate. When you step off the ferry at Roatan you’re greeted by numerous drivers offering you a ‘great deal’. Ten US dollars for a ten minute cab ride to West End. When you suggest that you can get a collectivo taxi for $1.50 they act incredulous and suggest that maybe ten years ago that was the case (ten years ago all of the taxi drivers were on the mainland). Unfortunately I’ve continuously encountered locals trying to fleece me for what are astronomical sums over here.

Describe a challenge you faced.

Central America is not quite as inexpensive as I thought it would be prior to my travels. The Bay Islands, despite offering some of the cheapest diving in the world, are a step up in terms of expense from most of mainland Central America. I’ve come to realize that diving is an expensive hobby even in the cheapest of places. Many a baleada has been consumed as I’ve tried to save money.

In terms of scuba diving maintaining buoyancy has been the greatest challenge. I had visions of me gliding through the water like a bottlenose dolphin, but at least initially, I was flailing my arms around in a particularly ungraceful manner in order to stay at an appropriate depth. But like with any new pursuit maintaining my buoyancy became a lot easier with time and practice.

What new lesson did you learn?

The practicalities of scuba diving have enabled me to enter into a part of the world I never could’ve otherwise. The experience of being underwater has re-enforced a lesson I learnt long ago watching Attenborough documentaries. About 71 percent of the worlds surface is covered by water. Humans are perhaps the most adaptable species in the entire planet and certainly the most advanced, yet we ‘re only visitors to the underwater world and only to a small portion of this world and only for a short while.  When you consider that we’re only capable of inhabiting a tiny portion of our planet, which is a tiny speck floating in an incalculably huge cosmos it’s impossible to not feel humbled.

Where to next?

On to mainland Honduras and Nicaragua.

Spotted eagle ray

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Category: Adventure Travel, Central America, Vagabonding Field Reports

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