January 2012

     There’s nothing like a Caribbean vacation to brighten up the dead of winter!  I recently returned from a scuba diving trip with my sister Patty, her husband Rob, and their daughter Lindey.  We went to Roatán, a small island off the coast of Honduras.  Even though we have been having a relatively mild winter at home, escaping to the tropics for ten days at the end of January was sheer bliss.   
Setting out for the airport, it was 17 degrees when I got dressed at three in the morning, and I did feel a little silly pulling on that short-sleeved tropical shirt – but by the time we landed in Roatán we were pulling out the shorts and getting into the laid-back island state of mind.

     We stayed in a villa at a resort called Barefoot Cay.  The lodging was actually on a small island separated from the main island by a channel of water about 75 feet across – there was a little barge there to ferry us back and forth at a moment’s notice, twenty-four hours a day.   
We had a two bedroom villa right on the beach (Lindey and I were roomies).  It had a nice kitchen, and a living room with a foldable outer wall, which opened up to a veranda – we kept it wide open most of the time.  We would sit on the veranda, surrounded by palm trees, and look out at the ocean just yards away, or go out to the lounge chairs right by the water, on our own little private stretch of beach.

     Most mornings, we would go out to the beach around six o'clock and watch the sun come up over the ocean, with the breeze blowing strong in our faces.  If it was a crystal clear morning we could see the red disc of the sun as it first appeared from the water, starting as a tiny sliver, and emerging surprisingly quickly into a glowing orb.  If there were a few small clouds obscuring the horizon, the climbing sun would turn them to fire as it rose through them. Sometimes a pelican would fly across over the water, dark in silhouette against the dawn sky.  We could often see huge cruise ships quite far out, and medium sized fishing boats passing closer to the shore.  One morning a little canoe glided past our beach, powered by two small island boys with paddles, on their way out to fish.  Another day, a cruise ship crossed the horizon just as the disc of the sun rose out of the ocean, the two paths converging to form a ‘cruise ship eclipse.’


     Several afternoons we went snorkeling.  We would start at the beach just outside our villa, and make our way through the shallow waters along the reef, watching fish and collecting shells.  A gentle current would carry us along the beach, and we would come out at the palapa, a thatched-roof open-sided pavilion reached by a boardwalk over the water.

     In the evenings, we would walk out to the palapa, where we would sit with a drink and watch the sun set over the west end of the island.  The ever-present strong breeze felt delightful.  Crabs would scuttle quickly away at our approach, and if we were lucky we might see an eagle ray or barracuda in the water surrounding the palapa.  White herons would fly past on quiet wings, and cormorants would dart close over the surface of the water.  Watching the tide rolling in beneath the palapa gave us a sense of motion; as the water moved away from us toward the setting sun it felt like we were on the back of a moving boat.  This feeling was magnified as the week went on, as so much time spent in the surging ocean has some effect on the inner ear, causing us to constantly feel like firm surfaces we were standing on were rocking back and forth like a boat on the waves.        

     Once the sun set, we would watch the stars come out one by one.  We would stand by the ocean and look at the constellations – Orion was bright overhead, and the Milky Way strewn across the heavens.  We could see southern stars along the horizon that are hidden from view at home.  
We would sleep with the windows open, and the breeze blowing through the room.  The night was filled with the sounds of the wind and the ocean waves breaking out on the reef.      


     The scuba diving was wonderful.  Diving in the clear waters of the Caribbean is always an amazing experience, and the diverse life under the sea is a constant delight. There was a dazzling array of fishes of all colors.  From the gaudy multicolored parrotfish to the graceful angelfish, and from the brightly marked butterfly fish to the tiny basslets in bold primary colors, the variety was endless. 


Juvenile Drum Fish

     Lionfish, striped in brown and white more like a tiger than a lion, displayed their beauty with fins stretched out like wings with many streamers – sadly these non-endemic fish from Australia are considered an invasive species, and are upsetting the natural balance of life on the reefs in the Caribbean.  One of my favorite things to see under the water are the tiny juvenile drum fish, their long black and white striped fins and tiny bodies forming a C shape as they merrily swim in circles like a token of good cheer.

On one dive a large green moray eel about five feet long swam with me along the wall for ten minutes.  Schools of hundreds of purple wrasses would swim by, unconcerned by our presence.   We were lucky to see a large group of squids swimming along, unexpectedly beautiful i


     Diving gives you an incredible sense of freedom - floating weightlessly over the top of an undersea cliff, it feels as if you are flying.  The reefs and walls were beautiful, with underwater canyons, crevices and swim-throughs to explore.  Making your way along beside the wall, you are examining the reef beside you closely, searching for unusual and interesting marine life.  You are exploring the nooks and crannies, looking for the small stuff.  But glancing the other way, you see the open sea waiting, like the great blue yonder, endless and mysterious.

     We would do two dives each morning, going out on the dive boat to different sites, usually within 10 to 15 minutes from Barefoot Cay.  I enjoyed the boat rides, skimming over the turquoise water, the sun shining bright, the wind in our faces, and frigate birds soaring high overhead. It was an interesting way to see the waterfront area, as we passed boatyards, piers, shops and homes.  Many of the buildings were on stilts out over the water; we noticed one rickety building in particular on spindly crooked supports that looked like the whole thing might topple into the water at any moment.      
If we weren’t going elsewhere on the island for some other activity in the afternoon, I would do a third dive after lunch, though Patty and Rob usually skipped that one.  The dive staff was excellent; they took care of our gear, guided us through the dive sites, kept us safe, and helped us to find creatures great and small underwater that we would never be able to find on our own.

Barefoot Diving

     The hardest part of the whole thing was getting back on the boat when the seas were rough.  For most of the week the weather was lovely, clear and warm, but there was a stiff breeze which caused the seas to be quite choppy.  This was fine as long as the boat was moving, but when it would stop at the dive site, swaying back and forth, I tried to get in the water quickly to avoid seasickness.  Once under the water all was fine, but if I stayed on the surface long I would quickly start feeling queasy.  But at the end of the dive, climbing up the aluminum ladder at the back of the tossing boat with our scuba gear on was challenging, and sometimes when the sea was particularly rough it was really hard to get up the ladder safely.  On one particularly turbulent exit from the water Patty and I both got clobbered by the ladder as it swung violently up and down.      

     On two occasions we took a diving excursion to West End, located of course on the west end of the island.  After traveling by boat for about an hour, we would do two dives, generally in calmer waters as the area was more protected.  Sea turtles are frequently seen there, and we were lucky enough to encounter several, one of them as large as a coffee table.


     After the two morning dives, we would have lunch and piña coladas at a beach bar in West End called Sundowners, before taking the boat back to Barefoot Cay.  On the last day a couple of us rode back from West End up on the front of the boat, which turned out to be quite exciting.  The weather turned stormy, and I was sitting sideways on the bow, clinging to a rope like mad as the boat bounced wildly over the waves and swells, drenching us in a spray of salt water.  I compared it to riding a bucking bronco, sidesaddle! 

     Getting to know the dive staff was also interesting.  Jacko, a vivacious marine biologist from Mexico, was in charge of the dive shop.  He was a divemaster to pay the bills, but his real career was as a shark scientist.  He introduced us to his pets; he had a retriever that would run through the surf biting the water, and an exotic orange cat who thought he owned the island.  He told us how the dog and cat would go to great lengths to protect each other from harm.   
Scott, a slim blonde 20 year old from Canada, had a graceful air like one of Tolkien’s elves. Although young, he was thoroughly professional, and really interesting to talk to.  At lunch he told us about some of his fascinating travels, including living with the Aborigines in Australia where he hunted with a spear and learned to play the didgeridoo.  He demonstrated the ‘circular breathing’ technique needed to play this ancient instrument - requiring inhaling through the nose while simultaneously exhaling out of the mouth - by blowing bubbles in a glass of water continuously through a straw for several minutes while continuing to breath at the same time.  

     We shopped at the local grocery store and cooked most of our meals in the villa, which was convenient and more economical than eating constantly at the lodge’s dining area.  Avocados were cheap in Roatán, and Lindey made amazing guacamole.  The only thing we had to be careful of was to never leave any food on the counter; we learned that the first morning when our pastries were completely covered in ants.  We did go out to dinner several times to a restaurant called Gio’s, which had been recommended by the locals and boasted excellent seafood.  When we were seated at our table out on the deck above the water, we realized that we were in the same rickety building we had seen from the boat, which looked like it might collapse into the sea at any moment!  It remained standing however, and we enjoyed excellent shrimp, crab legs and lobs

     There was a lovely green parrot at the lodge.  She had a huge walk-in cage, but the door to it was always open, and she could move along the roofline of the office.  Her name was something like Chickaron, but we called her Lolita, because my brother-in-law Rob said every parrot should be named Lolita, and also she would sing out what sounded like Lolita in an opera voice.  She had an extensive vocabulary, but we could only understand a fraction of it.  She would cackle with laughter, bark like a dog, give a wolf whistle, meow like a cat, cluck as if urging a horse, crow like a rooster, then look you in the eye and say, clear as a bell, What are you doing?  Pleased with her performance, she would then answer herself, I don’t know, and then mutter under her breath in some language that was not English.  Thank you, Pretty Bird, and Come here were also part of her repertoire. When she was feeling cheeky, she would turn her back to us, ruffle her tail feathers in the air, then look over her shoulder at us and make kissing noises.  I interpreted this as her way of saying Kiss my Ass!

     We took an afternoon excursion to another resort one day to go snorkeling with the dolphins.  I was afraid it might be kind of cheesy, but it turned out to be really awesome!  After an introduction by one of the trainers, we got to touch and handle a dolphin named Anthony.  His skin felt smooth, unbelievably nice to the touch.  Anthony liked attention, hamming it up for the audience and basking in the applause.  He spoke in a loud dolphin voice whenever he felt we weren’t paying enough attention to him, and he ended his exhibition with an impressive series of high leaps out of the water. 
Then we got to spend a half an hour snorkeling with a dozen dolphins.  We picked sea grass from the bottom, and they would play tug of war and fetch with it.  They seemed to enjoy the human interaction, repeatedly swimming right to us, letting us rub them and play with them.  Even though they had impressive teeth, I felt no trepidation when they would open their mouths to take a small piece of grass from my fingers.  They were joyful and inquisitive, and being with them was a real pleasure.

Riding through West End   

     One afternoon Lindey and I took a taxi to a stable that offered horseback riding.  We had arranged for a private ride, so it was just Lindey and me with the guide, Chester.  We rode Paso Finos, which was interesting as I had never ridden one before.  Their quick shuffling gait was fairly smooth, but quite different than what I am used to.  We had been told the ride would go along the beach, and indeed it did, but rather than deserted stretches of sand, we rode through the busy streets of West End, amid traffic, barking dogs, running children, and an extensive sewer renovation project.  Still, it was a really interesting way to see some of the local houses and villages, and though we did not get to ride in secluded areas, we did see a little wildlife, including an agouti (our guide called it a rabbit, but it looked more like a large tail-less rat) and several beautiful wild parrots

    One day we skipped diving and rented a car to explore the island.  One of the coolest things we did was visit the Iguana Farm, which turned out to be unexpectedly delightful.  There were several hundred of these fascinating reptiles lying about, sunning themselves in the driveway, and we were told that over a thousand live on the property.  They came in a variety of sizes, with the largest ones around five feet long.  It was the first time I have really spent much time with iguanas, and I was struck by how interesting they are.  They varied quite a lot in color and facial features, and close up they looked prehistoric, like dinosaurs.  They were very photogenic, and I had a lot of fun getting close-up iguana portraits.

     They were quite tame, and some of them seemed to enjoy having their backs scratched.  We fed them leaves that looked like giant lettuce, and they went wild over it, scrambling over each other to get a bite.  One iguana climbed up a girl’s pants leg and tried to eat her green shirt.  There were also loose chickens running among the reptiles, and Rob had a run-in with a flock of aggressive geese.  There was a display of turtles, an enclosed section of ocean with a display of game fish, and several monkeys in cages.  I felt bad for the monkeys, as I don’t really enjoy seeing things in cages, but one of them was very friendly, and would hold hands through the cage bars.  He would also wrap the end of his prehensile tail around our hands; it was lined with smooth hairless skin that felt surprisingly nice to the touch.

     We went up toward the east end of the island and took a canoe tour through the mangrove canals just offshore.  We rode in a rather shabby motorized canoe that sat very low in the water, and we had not realized we would have a twenty minute ride in the hot sun on the open water before coming to the cool shade of the mangrove forests.  Having failed to put on enough sunscreen, Lindey and I both got a little scorched.  Afterward we stopped at a very fancy resort called Parrot Tree, where we had an excellent lunch in a beachside bar and went for a nice swim and snorkel at the private beach.

     One of the most exciting things we did on the trip was the Shark Dive.  The Barefoot Cay dive shop transported us to the somewhat seedy looking shark diving operation on the waterfront; it appeared a little dodgy at first, but turned out to be quite professional.  After a briefing, we were taken by boat out to a dive site in the open ocean, where we descended on the mooring line through a very strong current.  We sat on the top of a pinnacle of rock at a depth of about 70 feet, while the sharks swam up from the deep waters surrounding it.  The divemasters put a sealed bucket of dead fish on the bottom, and soon fifteen or so black-tipped reef sharks were circling around it.  They were right in front of us, close enough we could have reached out and touched them, though of course we had been warned not to do so – in fact we were instructed to keep our hands by our sides so that they did not resemble fish flapping about.  


     The sharks were very intent on the bucket, circling about with increasing determination, and I was struck by their beauty.  After a while the divemaster gave us the signal, and we went out and swam among the sharks. 
     Seeing them in movies and photographs I had never considered sharks particularly beautiful before, but seeing them live, in their element, they were magnificent.  I managed to get some great photos and videos of them with my new underwater camera.  Below is a collection of my shark photos and videos from that dive.

     When the bucket was opened, the sharks went into a sort of feeding frenzy, pushing and shoving their heads into the bucket to get to the fish.  A large grouper swam among them, cleverly maneuvering for his share of the fish - he managed to get more of a meal than most of the sharks did.  I did not find being close to the sharks particularly scary; indeed, the most terrifying part of the dive was getting back up to the surface, because the current was so strong that I was sure if I accidentally let go of the mooring rope while ascending to the boat I would be swept away and never seen again. 

     When I arrived home I had the best ever reception at the airport.  My friend Nancy who works for United Airlines arranged to meet me on the tarmac in a security vehicle when I got off the plane, pulled my suitcase off the luggage carrier, and whisked me off to her car in the employee parking lot without ever having to go into the terminal.  That’s the way to travel!


Back to Phyllis's Travels Page