>Now 33 years later, we have returned at the request of our daughter, Alexa, who wanted to celebrate her impending college graduation with a spring break dive holiday. We were ecstatic about the prospect — especially compared with the competing option of a bacchanal at a typical spring break party destination. Here was an opportunity for us to share some special time together while enjoying excellent diving and topside attractions of natural beauty. Our hope was to inspire her to continue a scuba lifestyle as an adult planning her own holidays. Roatán was the destination that most resonated with us, and we hoped it would be so for her.
>The DC-3s are long gone, and now flying to Roatán is much easier (see "How To Dive It"). At the international airport agents from dozens of dive resorts wait outside the security zone, each holding a sign and inviting guests to wait in his air-conditioned bus with a rum punch while he assists with luggage. The old days may have been great, sometimes tinted rose by the fog of time, but I remember enough to know travel to Roatán these days is a huge improvement.
>About 30 miles long and less than 5 miles across at its widest point, Roatán is fringed by the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the largest in the Western Hemisphere. While the island is not massive compared with other Caribbean islands,
>In a weeklong trip there is no reason to dive the same site twice unless you want to. The illustrated dive map on the wall at a resort in West End might reveal 35-40 moored sites, while a resort on the south side will display the same level of dive diversity (and for the most part, distinctly different sites). Despite the ever-increasing number of dive operators on Roatán, about the only time you'll encounter other divers on a site may be at one of the shipwrecks. Even then, the availability of mooring buoys will limit the number of divers on the site at any given time.
>Although Alexa was certified at age 10, she has dived only intermittently over the past dozen years. She and her buddies did more freediving than scuba diving in high school, and college studies limited her discretionary time. I therefore took comfort in the fact that we were all asked to do a checkout dive at the dock at the beginning of our weeklong dive package. Actually, I didn't mind for myself either: It didn't take long, didn't cost us any dive opportunities and helped us dial in our weight for the new wetsuits we brought along on this trip.
>For much of this dive we worked along the edge of the dropoff, enjoying the deep chasms that bisect the reef and the colorful sponges that decorate its seaward edge. Massive azure vase sponges jutted from the wall, and I was quite happy to find concentrations of intact elkhorn coral. Marine life ranged from the small and shy, such as butter and indigo hamlets, to the more brazen, such as the black grouper that fully enjoy their protected status within the marine park and aren't afraid to pose for a picture.
>El Aguila is a bit larger at 230 feet and a bit deeper, resting on a sand bottom at 110 feet.
It was sunk in 1997 to add variety to the West End dive sites, and just a year later Hurricane Mitch split the near-pristine island freighter into three distinct sections. The middle section of the wreck is collapsed by wave action, but both the bow and stern are quite intact. Green moray eels are fairly accustomed to divers here and are often found freely swimming about the wreck. The newest Roatán wreck is the Odyssey, sunk in 2002. At 300 feet long, it is by far the largest, also sitting on a sand plateau at 110 feet. Azure vase and red rope sponges decorate the superstructure, making for dramatic wide-angle photo possibilities.
>Three shipwrecks sunk as dive attractions are now mature and colorful, with large tube sponges decorating the superstructure.
>Cara a Cara means "face to face," and that's how divers and Caribbean reef sharks meet throughout the day at a shark encounter in 60-70 feet of water off Coxen Hole. A local dive center provides shark diving services for various dive resorts on Roatán, and since all the shark dives are done at the same place
(a particular flat sand plateau with high-profile coral heads punctuating the bottom), the boat rides range from 15 minutes to an hour or more depending on the location of the resort. In addition to the shark action (which typically involves 10-20 reef sharks), green morays, barracuda and black grouper often join the festivities. A small bucket of fish carcasses constitutes the chum that attracts the sharks, but it isn't really a heavily baited encounter. The bait is released at the end of the dive, and the action definitely amps up as the sharks and groupers try to score their bit of reward, but these are not chainmail-clad shark wranglers leading bite shots to your dome.
>At Cara a Cara divers can experience predictably high-voltage
>encounters with 10 to 20 Caribbean reef sharks.
>encounters with 10 to 20 Caribbean reef sharks.
>Spooky Channel is a favorite site at the west end of the island. Located just off Sandy Bay, it is notable for its overhangs and darkened crevices. Its most significant feature is a wide channel that bisects the reef, the top of which is at 20 feet, all the way down to the sand floor at 90 feet. Large-eyed toadfish are frequently sighted here along with other more typical reef dwellers such as midnight parrotfish, black grouper and barracuda.
>Frogfish, seahorses and toadfish are among the cryptic critters a sharp-eyed diver might find on Roatán reefs.
>Just off French Harbor you'll find one of Roatán's most oft-requested dives: Mary's Place. An elbow-shaped plateau jutting into the ocean between 30 and 50 feet and a pair of plunging, sea-whip- and rope-sponge-decorated crevices that drop to 95 feet make this one of the island's most dramatic wide-angle sites. Pelagic life can be seen exiting the chutes and along the vertical walls. I've spotted sizable schools of horse-eye jacks and southern sennets over the years; this is one site that seems to never disappoint.
>While I still clearly recall what most resonated with me from our first trip, some baselines have shifted in the three decades separating my first glimpse of Roatán from my daughter's. I asked her what stuck with her the most, and she said:
>Now that I think of it, those last words might have been the same ones I uttered to my wife back in 1982. Maybe the baselines haven't shifted that much after all. I, too, am ready to go back.
>Getting There: Roatán lies 35 miles north of mainland Honduras in the Western Caribbean. Direct flights to Roatán are available from several U.S. cities, including Miami (American Airlines, TACA), Atlanta (Delta), Houston (United, TACA, Continental) and Newark, N.J. (United). Connecting flights are available through either San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa or La Ceiba on the Honduras mainland. For airline and flight information, see http://www.honduras.com/flights-to-roatan.
>How To Dive It
>Skills Required: Aside from a few of the deeper walls and shipwrecks, Roatán diving is not considered particularly challenging. Boat rides to the dive sites are generally brief, and the seas tend to be gentle along the leeward shore of the island. Extreme currents are rare and predictable depending on sites. Divemasters are knowledgeable about conditions and do a good job of giving thorough, descriptive dive briefings.
>Roatán Marine Park: Established in 2005 along the northwest coast, the purpose of the park is to prevent overexploitation. Removal of marine debris, mooring buoy maintenance and lionfish culling are the key initiatives.
>The beauty of Roatán continues in Stephen Frink's bonus photo gallery.
>© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2015