Steal away to the Bay Islands
For Northwest Dive News
By BOB STERNER
Approaching Honduras’s Bay Islands by air or by sea, it’s easy
to see why privateer Henry Morgan called these remote specks
Fable holds that Captain Morgan stashed mating swine on Cayos
Cochinos or “hog islands” to feed his crews on later trips.
Elevations of nearby Utila and Roatan wring moisture out of the
humid Caribbean air, providing drinking water that’s essential to
surviving at sea. Dense plant growth creates a do-it-yourself
supermarket of tropical produce. And countless bays are
everywhere to hide pirate ships.
Awesome as the topside may be, it doesn’t scratch the surface
of the beauty Morgan saw in this paradise. Only by slipping
beneath the waves, can one experience its vibrancy. Walls and
rocky tors teem with colorful sponges, soft and hard corals. Fish
and critters fill waters in between. Thoughts of pirate booty race
through seasoned wreck divers’ heads while eyes dart the reef
for encrusted bones of long-sunk wrecks. Newer wrecks,
getting more decorated with sea life every year, appeal to
aficionados of natural and artificial wrecks alike.
“Ron’s Wreck” off Utila may carry one of the more colorful
tales. It seems there was a dispute over fishing rights that led to a
trawler’s hull getting perforated with bullets. Locals were unsure
whether Ron owned the boat or the pistol, but they knew that the
35-foot boat sank in 1991. Today the hull is overgrown with
sponges and anemones as is the trough plowed into the reef as it
settled to its resting place at 55 feet, rising to 35 feet. Shallow,
bustling with life and almost no currents, this is a popular night
Not far from Ron’s Wreck is the Halliburton, a 100-foot
freighter sunk on May 4, 1998, as an artificial reef. Give the
sanitized wreck it’s due: The Halliburton had a long life as an
inter-island transport supply vessel before being retired to provide
a home for sea life and an attraction for visiting divers. That
beats a cutting torch, eh?
Today the Halliburton sits proudly upright with inviting swim-
throughs of its bridge and hold. Bicycles locked onto rails made
perfect sense to this urban biker a bit jetlagged and narced at 100
feet. Chains barely keep bikes safe in New York City and
Northeast divers do have a very unwarranted reputation for
taking souvenirs. (Uh. That Sturmey Archer hub is going to take
a second dive. OK? Good luck!)
Although it was sunk off as an artificial reef in 1997, the Aguilar,
Spanish for eagle, should qualify as a natural wreck, having gone
down three times. It wrecked first on a Utila reef on a run from
Puerto Cortes to Haiti and was abandoned. Local salvor Rocky
Jones wanted to sell it as an artificial reef, so he towed it to
deeper water and sank it while he shopped for a customer.
Anthony’s Key Resort bought the wreck, so he refloated it and
towed to Roatan to add variety for the resort’s divers.
At first, the upright 230-foot freighter looked like it was plying a
sea of sand. Then Hurricane Mitch came along in October 1998
and made the Aguilar look as if it was crushed by disaster. The
wreck is in three main sections, and a cracked plate at the 110-
foot bottom now is a favored point of penetration. Divers zigzag
from there through the interior amid colorful tropical fish, soft
corals and anemones. Old Skanky, a friendly green moray, greets
divers visiting the bow.
The Odyssey joined the Aguilar off Anthony’s Key on Nov. 15,
2002. Neptune’s wrecking crew has since made the 300-foot-
long artificial reef look as if it sank in a calamity, splaying out
deck plates and crumpling sections of the hold. Actually disaster
did qualify the freighter for reefing. The Hybur Limited vessel
was taken off its regular run between the Bay Islands and Florida
to be refurbished when a fire gutted the ship while it was at dock.
More soft corals and anemones color the Odyssey each year. It
rests at 110 feet and rises to within 60 feet of the surface,
providing newer less adventurous divers with lots to see on the
five-story tall stern. Machinery that loaded the ship still is in place
on its 50-foot-wide deck. Bring a couple flashlights to penetrate
the captain’s quarters, interior stairways and connecting cabins.
While using the radio tower as an ascent line, keep an eye out for
the Guardfather, the granddaddy of all groupers who patrols the
While on Roatan, even seasoned wreck divers should take a
break to see sharks at Face To Face reef. Unlike the feeding
frenzy dives the world over, this site gives a rare glimpse of
sharks just hanging out. For some reason, more than a dozen
reef sharks cruise at 75 feet in this U-shaped bowl of rocks and
coral. They range from 4 to 8 feet long and glide through the
waters, curiously eying divers in their den. It’s a shark-o-cline.
Go to 65 feet and look down on them 10 feet below.
Divers and non-diving travelers can share an outing to Cayos
Cochinos, a cluster of 11 privately owned specks of land 18
miles off Honduras that can’t be found on most maps. Some
deserted ones barely rise above the sea and are perfect for
snorkeling or just lazy sunbathing. Garifuna natives on a few
open their doors to visitors, who can stay for a few days of near
solitude in a genuine getaway destination. A few lempira buys a
tasty lunch of fresh-caught snapper and plantains. Pan-fried on a
wood-stoked stove? Priceless.
Captain Morgan stashed hogs on the largest Cochinos, which
kept him coming back to the Bay Islands. His pigs are long gone,
but anyone who visits these islands surely will find so much to
do and see, that they’ll want to come back again and again.
New York, Miami and Houston have regular flights to
Roatan, and Honduras’s mainland international hubs of
San Pedro Sula or the capital, Tegucigalpa. From
there, make connections with regional airlines.
Carefully read weight restrictions for checked luggage
or be prepared to pay a premium for a heavy dive bag.
Water temperatures are in the upper-70s F to low-80s
F year-round. A skin or a 3-millimeter neoprene shorty
will do for some, but a full 3-mm suit and light hood
feels good after a few days of repetitive diving.
Operators discourage wearing gloves, so pack light
ones in your BC pocket to make descents and ascents
on their stinging-hydroid-coated mooring lines.
Casual clothing and the tropical climate, with highs in
the 90s F almost year-round and lows in the mid-70s,
eases packing light. However a light jacket and slacks
are handy for evenings or visits to dense rainforests.
Mosquitoes and other insects can be rampant. Bug
repellent and a heavy-duty sunscreen are essential in a
land of malaria, dengue fever and intense sun.
November through April is the dry season, while the
rest of the year has more showers. They aren’t a
problem, unless they’re hurricanes.
Battery chargers, computers and appliances work well
with the 110-volt 60-cycle current. Don’t count on a
room with an alarm clock or wakeup call; pack a
travel alarm. Local time is six hours ahead of
Greenwich Mean Time with no daylight savings, so it’
s like Central or Rocky Mountain time zones,
depending on the time of year.
Drink bottled water. Lots of it.
Local currency is the lempira. You get 16L for every
US$1 and switching to them can make money go a
long way. Look for bargains on handmade textiles,
leather goods, wood carvings, rums, beers and Cuban
cigars. Leave that smoke there. Save US$33 in cash to
pay the departure tax.
If possible, include time on your dive trip to check out
Honduras’s topside wonders. Pico Bonito or Beautiful
Mountain near La Ceiba is an awesome national
wilderness area where chocolate literally grows on
trees. Copan is the axis of Mayan culture, where the
language was deciphered in modern times and,
coincidentally, near Chief Lempira’s last stand against