Friday, April 9, 2010

Swimming With The Fishes

March 2nd to 25th

We finally leave Tela and ride along Honduras's Caribbean coast in the pouring rain. Bizarrely It's cold, wet and miserable and I am still not feeling 100% fit so the 95kms to La Ceiba is split into 2 rides as we find a stop midway.

It's a shame the weather is so atypically tropical as the scenery is stunning - the land a wide green shelf criss-crossed by rivers and sandwiched between the sea and the 2400 metre vertical walls of the Cordillera Nombre de Dios ('Name of God' mountains)....

We reach 'La Ceiba', allegedly Honduras's party town surrounding 'a lovely central plaza'. Neither claim is even remotely true and the most abiding memory of the place is the infernal noise of a thousand Toyota Corollas painted in the garish purple livery of municipal taxis blaring their horns at everything that moves. It's a deafening cacophony and every one is roaming the narrow streets desperately looking for a fare - competition is fierce. The merest accidental twitch of an eyebrow can result in screeching rubber and suicidal U-turns by optimistic drivers. La Ceiba is not a relaxing place.

An early start sees us heading 5 miles out of town to the docks for an 8 o'clock ferry. We're heading to 'Utila', an island set on the world's second largest coral reef that stretches the length of the Belizean and Honduran coastlines. Utila is more modest in size at just 13 by 8 kms, but it is dominated by dive schools boasting the cheapest SCUBA diving courses in the world!

In case there is any doubt, a nervous official vigorously shoos us away from the much more upmarket boat dock where a much classier looking ship heads for Utila's better looking sister island - 'Roatan'. I guess a couple of dirty bums on wheels would just lower the tone! We head towards an over size canal barge with a chugging diesel engine and load the bikes aboard glancing jealously at the finery of the 'Galaxy Wave' in the background.

No sooner do we set out when plastic bags are handed out. Initially confused, their purpose becomes clear as we leave the safety of the harbour and begin to lurch and dive violently over wave crests. I remember thinking 'Should have gone to Roatan' as the first bag gets used...

An hour later it's all over and we are met at the docks by a series of reps from the various dive schools. Sue takes a liking to 'Jessica' from 'Cross Creek Dive School' and we make a questionably decisive step by not even bothering to check out other places. It turns out to be a triumph of laziness over due diligence though, when everyone else from the ferry arrives at the same place after laboriously traipsing from school to school. It's always nice to benefit from other peoples hard work as their research confirms we picked a pretty good option. We just spent the time selecting the best accommodation before the crowds arrived and joining the afternoon boat for some free snorkeling.

We sign up for our PADI Open Water course – a 4 dive course that teaches you the basic skills - how all the equipment works, breathing from a buddies regulator in an emergency, clearing your mask underwater etc. There's some technical stuff about pressure, buoyancy and depth/time charts to make sure you don't suffer problems with high levels of nitrogen in the blood, but it's all pretty straight forward and 'Nouria' our Canadian instructor is brilliant. Cross Creek throw in a couple of free 'fun dives' at the end to sweeten the deal and you are qualified to hire kit at a resort and dive without an instructor once you pass....

At first it's a bizarre feeling trying to forget all those years of breathing though your nose - that just sucks up any sea water in your mask and is bad. Once you learn to breathe thorough your mouth, the next thing to avoid is the instinct to take a deep breath and hold it as your face submerges. Holding your breath is also bad!

It does take a while to get used to it all and to just trust the equipment as it all feels totally unnatural at first, but slowly... slowly you do learn to relaaaax and just breeeeethe naturally. The first dive is on a sand bank close to the surface to practice some skills and passes in a blur. It's only when you get back on the boat and try to unclench your jaw from around your 'regulator' that you realise what you have just done.

With each dive the experience gets easier... and more addictive. You start to see a different world....

And once you get more confident with setting your buoyancy, you start to avoid sinking like a stone or bobbing up to the surface like a popping cork. It begins to feel totally relaxing - like flying above a totally new planet. My dive buddies Rita, Me, Sue and Ebonee in 'hover mode'....

Now you get chance to explore a bit more as you gain control. Control is good as you don't want to get too close to this Lion fish which is seriously poisonous....

Actually they are an invader and hunt down smaller fish and will eat until they burst, so the instructors carry spears and nets and skewer them for the BBQ. Unfortunately this one got away. It's just a beautiful world under the water and we see huge schools of blue tangs, curious angelfish and giant tarpen. There are barracuda, eels hiding in nooks, massive crabs with pincers a foot long and a rare group of southern stargazers that bury themselves in the sand between corals and are hard to spot. There are thousands of brightly coloured 'parrot fish' that you can hear chomping noisily on lumps of coral and lobsters resting up during the day. This is an eagle ray – a picture of serenity, all lazy wing beats and easy movement....

Up close and personal with a porcupine fish....

One day out on the boat, we see a group of bottle nosed dolphins and quickly remove our tanks so we can swim amongst them without scaring them off. It's an amazing experience as they curiously swim over to play with us. Sue gets to see a leatherback turtle on her next dive for one of those lottery winning type days.

I say this is addictive and we sign up for an Advanced course. Now we go deep – to 30 metres to the Haliburton wreck. This was a cargo boat set for decommission when the dive schools bought it and sunk it on a sand bank. It's a spooky experience swimming through it's rusted, barnacle covered wheel house and Sue gets a 'Titanic' moment as we stand arms outstretched on the prow. We improve our buoyancy skills so we can swim through hoops and hover upside down – noses touching the bottom. We are expected to Navigate underwater and be able to find our boat at the end of a dive. A useful skill!

And now we get to dive at night – in pitch blackness!!
Using just torches, the underwater world again changes and looks very different. We see creatures of the night – spiders and lobsters on the hunt and colours are very different too. All that water has a filtering effect on sunlight. Reds are filtered out first, then yellows and then green – that's the reason underwater film always looks more blue than normal. If you were to cut yourself at depth, your blood would look green as there is no red light to make it red..... seriously it's very very weird. Under torch light, that red light reappears and the corals are much more vivid. Where they look brown and dirty by day – they are vibrant and alive by night.

Switching off our torches reveals bioluminescent plankton in the water. With all of us waving our arms about they are churned up and luminesce more brightly. You can see absolutely nothing in an absence of light so total it is rarely experienced and then like a galaxy of stars there are these flashes of blue all around us. It's a rare and totally beautiful experience.

We sign on for another 10 dives....

Life on the boat is very cool too. Our dive master Helen, Sue and I getting our gear sorted....

As is life on land – a typical evening of hammocking with new friends and a few cold ones....

We are starting to seriously consider a dive master course, and another couple of months here, until we hear of the final challenge awaiting those that wish to qualify. Two of our dive masters finish their courses and must now pass the dreaded 'Snorkel Test'. Evil instructors Kevin, Nico, Nouria(our instructor) and Pete administer the test using rum and fizzy fizzy cola. Bottles must be filled to the brim and then emptied in one go through the snorkel.... The second trial sees masks filled up with beer and a demonstration must be performed of the best technique of how to clear it underwater.

This is the 'before' photo – the 'after' is a complete mess....

In all we spend 3 weeks on Utila where we planned to stay just 5 days. Apparently we escaped early. Pete (above) came for a month and is still here after 6 with no plans to leave – Joe came for a week to see his sister Nouria and 3 months later is a qualified dive master....

But we had to leave – this is supposed to be a cycle tour. It's all depressingly familiar, but now we have visa problems again and have just 2 weeks to ride across Honduras and see the whole of Nicaragua and get to the Costa Rican border. Me thinks that's not enough, but we'll deal with that later...


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