Destination Bay Islands
by John Kinsella
Islas de las Bahia (the Bay Islands) lie in the Caribbean Sea about 48 kilometres/30 miles off the northern coast of Honduras meets. Consisting of seven islands and 50 small cayes, they stretch for 115 kilometres/70 miles in a northeasterly arc. Part of the Meso American Barrier Reef, they feature vibrant coral, multi-colored tropical fish, sponges as big as refrigerators and pelagic such as manta rays, sea turtles and whale sharks. The Bay Islands are actually the mountaintops of an underwater mountain range called the Bonacca Ridge.
Most divers visit the main islands of Roatan and Utila. Each island offers different experiences both above and below the water but divers will enjoy warm tropical waters, warm and friendly people, and great visibility no matter which island they visit.
The Bay Islands’ history, most archaeologists now agree, starts with the pre-Columbian Pech, who are thought to have arrived around 600 AD, but becomes a story of colonization and conquest after “discovery” by Christopher Columbus in 1502. Stories of plundering pirates and buccaneers are rife. The population of the Bay Islands is approximately 71,500 with Garifuna (descendants of Carib, Arawak and West African peoples) communities continuing to thrive on Roatan.
Warm tropical weather is the norm, with little change in temperature from winter to summer. Average annual temperature is 85° F/29.4° C. Humidity is usually high, especially from May to September. Water temperature varies between 27-31° C/81-88° F. While the weather is consistently good year-round, during the rainy season (roughly October to January) visibility can dip below the usual 30-45 meters/100-150 feet.
The largest and most populated of the three main islands, Roatan is 53 kilometres/33 miles long, and five kilometres/three miles wide. Roatan offers something for everyone from luxury resorts to budget hotels, from dive shops to all-inclusive resorts and eco-parks. Divers should feel comfortable bringing their nondiving partners along, as there are plenty of topside activities in addition to just enjoying the beach. Roatan is the most commercialized of the islands, having experienced rapid development of new housing and luxury resort properties during recent years. Paved roads connect most of the communities starting at West Bay and ending at Punta Gorda.
Find a PADI Dive Center or Resort in Roatan
Utila is a mere 13 kilometres/8 miles long and five kilometres/three miles wide with a population of roughly 4000. Most of the population lives in East Harbour located on the eastern end of the island. Many dive shops are located along one street that fronts up to the ocean. Accommodations on the island range from luxury resorts to hostels that mainly carter to the backpacker crowd. More laid back than Roatan, many divers compare it to Roatan a decade or so ago as commercial development is just starting on the island.
A well know destination of back-packers worldwide looking to dive or become certified, it has also become a prime destination for people looking to become dive professionals. Many complete their training from start to finish while living on the island.
Known for some of the best dive locations in the Caribbean, it is renowned for whale shark encounters as well. Utila offers a slightly slower pace than Roatan, with a stronger party scene that can be attributed to the younger backpackers who frequent this island.
Find a PADI Dive Center or Resort in Utila
In contrast to Utila, which is mostly flat, Guanaja has Michael Rock Peak at 411 metres/1350 feet making Guanaja the tallest of the islands. Located furthest east, it is about 18 kilometers/11 miles long by six kilometres/four miles wide and has a population of approximately 8000 people. Named the Isla de Pinos (Island of Pines) by Christopher Columbus, it is dominated by the pine trees. With only one small road connecting the towns of Mangrove Bight and Savannah Blue, most travel is conducted via boat. Noted for its secluded private atmosphere, Guanaja offers many dive sites that feature world class diving, including pinnacles, volcanic caverns, wrecks and a variety of fish. If you’re looking for a place off the beaten path, Guanaja – the most remote and undeveloped of the three Bay Islands – is worth a try.
HOT DIVE SITES
Lying on the edge of the Cayman Trench, divers can hover over sheer cliffs whose dark blue waters seemingly never end. With Roatan's famous walls, divers can enjoy shallow dives on beautiful reefs starting in as little as 5 metres/15 feet with depths increasing to 60 metres/200 feet or more. Dives near the trench offer clear water and the opportunity to see pelagics such as whale sharks, dolphins, turtles and rays. Lush coral growths, including rare black coral, can be found in underwater canyons, crevices, walls and reefs.
Hundreds of fabulous dive sites exist only a short boat ride from the dock and outstanding shore diving can be found on parts on the island, including the south shore. Enriched air is readily available from the many PADI Dive Centers and Resorts located on the island. With hundreds of dive sites, it’s impossible to include them all here, but here are some of the most popular:
Mary’s Reef – One of the best know dives, Mary’s Reef starts with a vertical crevice at around 12 metres/40 feet and drops to a sand shelf between 43 and 61 meters/140 and 200 feet. Black coral, large seafans, and sponges grow heartily along the reef’s walls and crevices.
Prince Albert and El Aguila – Wreck divers will enjoy visiting the Prince Albert, a 40-metre/140-foot tanker and the El Aquila, a 64-metre/210-foot cargo vessel sunk as artificial reefs. The El Aquila was prepared for divers before sinking, so appropriately qualified divers can explore large compartments on the ship.
Doc’s Elbow – Looking for octopus, crabs and lobsters? Then try this popular spot for a night dive.
West End Wall – When diving into the blue abyss located at the West End Wall, be sure to take time to observe the variety of sponges and corals. As you go deeper keep a sharp look out for schools of pelagics including eagle rays.
Any of the PADI Dive Shops on the main road along the ocean can arrange a spectacular dive adventure in Utila. If you’re looking to spot a whale shark, it can be done all year, but the best chance is off the north shore from March to May and again from August to October. Almost like watching a circus act, it is not unusual to see schools of different fish pass by during the same dive. All dive sites are accessible by a short boat ride, and offer a diversity of sheer walls and dropoffs on the north side, fringing reef systems on the south side, with many offshore seamounts and banks.
Black Hills – Located on the southeast end of the island, the Black Hills is a seamount located about 2.4 kilometres/1.5 miles offshore. Light to strong currents can be found at this location. Starting at about 10 metres/35 feet, it drops to 50 metres/165 feet on one side into the trench, so a careful eye on depth is essential. But it’s worth it, because divers not only see thousands of brightly covered tropical fish, but also barracuda, horse eye jack, and yellow tail snapper.
Haliburton – An advanced dive, this 30-metre/100-foot vessel rests in 30 metres/100 feet of water, so deep diving qualification and experience is recommended. Sunk in 1998, the ship is a haven to grouper, coral, rope sponges and angelfish.
The Aquarium – The name says it all. Divers will experience thousands of tropical fish, two caverns, octopus, and a colorful wall during a dive on this site.
Blackish Point – Why Blackish? Because it’s named for the blackish color of the wall formed by volcanic rock running parallel to the shore. Divers can see plenty of life by staying between 6 to 9 metres/20 to 30 feet, but also try the lower part of the reef that runs between 18 and 25 meters/60 and 85 feet.
The most remote of the Bay Islands, the reefs are pristine and feature a huge diversity of fish and coral life. Diving on Guanaja includes shallow reefs, wrecks, canyons, crevices, volcanic outcroppings and wall dives starting at 6 metres/20 feet and plummeting to 1829 metres/6000 feet.
Mestizo Reef – This dive features two life size head-and-shoulder statues in approximately 19 metres/65 feet of water. One is of Christopher Columbus and the other is of a local chief, Lempira. Other things to see are a partial shipwreck, Spanish cannons and a 16th century bell.
Vertigo – You can probably guess where this name came from. This wall dive starts at the top of the wall at 10 metres/35 feet and then descends to about 49 metres/160 feet. Beyond that, it drops off into the deep blue depths of the trench. Divers can spot black and white crinoids in this location.
Michael’s Rock Reef – Underwater photographers will want to get close up with the nudibranchs found at this site.
Jim’s Silverlode – Swim through the tunnel located at 21 metres/70 feet and come out into a sandy-bottomed amphitheater surrounded by coral. Yellowtail, morays and large grouper are often seen here.
The Jado Trader – An advanced dive, the maximum depth is 33 metres/110 feet. One of the most famous wreck dives in the Caribbean, divers may sight hammerhead sharks around the wreck.
Depth: 4 metres/12 feet to more than 40 metres/130 feet.
Visibility: 24-45 metres/80-150 feet. Visibility can occasionally drop into the 24-metre/80-foot range during the rainy season running from October to January.
Currents: Mostly mild, but can vary by location.
Water Temperature: 26-28° C/78-82° F
Dive Season: All year
Weather: You can dive the Bay Islands all year long, but the tropical, rainy season runs from October to January. The Bay Islands' southern Caribbean location means that hurricanes sometimes pass by to the north. Average annual temperature is 29.4° C/85° F. Humidity is usually high, especially from May to September.
Access: Most Bay Islands diving is from a boat but sites are generally close to shore so travel time is short.
Skill Level: Divers of all levels will find the Bay Islands exciting. Deep diving experience or advanced training is recommended at some sites due to depth and wreck training is recommended for divers interested in exploring the various wrecks.
Scuba Gear: Most dive centers and resorts provide gear rentals, but it’s always good to pack as much of your own gear as possible. With warm, clear water, you usually need only minimal to moderate exposure protection, and can choose the lightest weight, most streamlined scuba components.
Length of Stay: One or two weeks with extended stays for professional-level training common.
Featured Creatures: There are more than 300 identified fish species in Bay Island waters. Divers frequently see dolphin, grouper, rays, barracuda, angelfish, butterfly fish, grunts, parrotfish, yellow tail snapper, horse eye jack, octopus, lobsters, crabs, moray eels, hammerhead sharks and even whale sharks.
Language: The national language of Honduras is Spanish, but English is widely spoken.
Currency: The Lempira (HNL). The US Dollar is accepted at some resorts and businesses and credit cards are widely accepted. Tipping is the norm. The standard practice is 10 percent of the total bill but this is optional if the bill includes a 10 percent service charge. Small tips for the housecleaning staff are customary. Small bills and change for porter tips and sundry fees such as port fees, airport terminal fees, etc., will also be helpful. Be sure to tip your captain and dive crew on your dive trips.
Major Airports: Juan Manuel Galvez International Airport (RTB) on Roatan and Utila Airport (UII). The Bay Islands can be reached by airplane or by ferry from La Ceiba on the Honduran mainland. Commuter flights are also offered from Ramón Villeda Morales International Airport in San Pedro Sula (SAP), also on the mainland. Several cruise lines also service Roatan.
Ground Transportation: Taxis and rental cars are plentiful on Roatan. On Utila, you take a taxi from the airport to the city, but once there, most everything is within an easy walk.
Documents: All foreign visitors must have a valid passport to enter the country and are typically granted a 90-day tourist card.
Religion: Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Episcopal, Lutheran, Jehovah's Witness, Mennonite, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon). Make advance inquires at your destination.
Electricity: 110 volts 60 Hz, US-style three pin plugs are the norm.
Malaria preventative action is recommended prior to visiting the Bay Islands, so speak with your physician or visit the United States Centers for Disease Control for more information.
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