ROATAN: Wrecks In Pardise

For Northwest Dive News

By BOB STERNER

Pillars of coral and barrels of sponges are what draw many
divers to Roatan, but the Honduran island features two of the
Caribbean’s largest shipwrecks. Although both were sunk as
artificial reefs, Poseidon’s paintbrush is making them look more
natural every year.

The
Odyssey is the newest and largest. The 300-foot-long
freighter was sunk on a sandy plane at 110 feet just off of
Anthony’s Key on Nov. 15, 2002, to add variety for visiting
divers. Not far away is the 230-foot-long
El Aguila, Spanish for
“The Eagle,” which went down for its third time in 1997.
Because of their sizes and depths, both could require several
dives to fully appreciate.

The wrecks weren’t the first to be sunk for Roatan divers. A
140-foot tanker loaded with Nicaraguans war refugees partially
sank off French Harbor in the mid-1980s. It was dubbed the
Prince Albert in honor of Albert Jackson, a local businessman
who was instrumental in cutting red tape to allow the ship to be
relocated off CoCo View Resort. Complications in getting the
vessel towed to its site and resunk led to a halt on installing
artificial reefs that was finally overcome by Anthony’s Key
Resort operators Julio and Samir Galindo, who gained support of
other the local dive operators to sink
El Aguila and the Odyssey.

El Aguila
On a run from Puerto Cortes to Haiti, El Aguila ran aground at
Utila and was abandoned. Rocky Jones, a local salvor, attempted
to tow the ship into Utila harbor, but a storm sprang up and
pushed it onto a reef. The cargo of cement bags was of little
value, so Jones wanted to preserve the vessel for use as an
artificial reef. To keep
El Aguila from sustaining more storm
damage, Jones refloated it, moved it to deeper water, and then
resank the ship off Utila. His shopping for a resort that wanted to
add a shipwreck to their dive sites led him to the Anthony’s Key.
The Galindos had watched the wrecks of two small wooden
vessels disintegrate and wanted to again be able to offer wreck
dives. Jones refloated
El Aguila, cleaned it up and towed it to
Roatan to become the resort’s latest attraction.

The ship was stabilized with anchors over its prospective new
site on a calm day. As the workers cut holes in the hull just
above the waterline, wind kicked up and water started pouring in.
They abandoned their tanks and cutting torches and scrambled
out of the wreck in time to watch it tip to starboard and then
ease below the waves, settling upright and right on target.

El Aguila looked like a freighter proudly plying a sea of sand, but
not for long. Hurricane Mitch barreled into Roatan in October
1998, creating storm surges that smashed the wreck into three
main pieces. It created a crack in the hull plates that allow for
entry at the sand at 110 feet. From there, divers can zigzag
through fairly intact sections of the bow and stern. Garden eels
guard the plates of the cargo area lying on the sand. Colorful
tropical fish dart among the soft corals and anemones that have
sprouted on metal surfaces.
El Aguila’s best known resident,
though, is a skanky looking but friendly green moray that greets
visiting divers.

The Odyssey
Having been underwater for only 2 ½ years, the Odyssey’s
decorations are still a work in progress. What’s lacking in
colorful growth is more than made up in size. Fellow divers are
dwarfed by the 300-foot-long freighter as they explore open
cargo holds and penetrate the wheelhouse superstructure, which
rises to within 70 feet of the surface. Sections of the cargo area
crumpled and splayed out on the sand as the ship crashed to the
bottom, giving a sense of diving a wreck that went down in a
disaster.

A disaster in fact is what caused the
Odyssey to become a
candidate for an artificial reef. The freighter, built in 1975 in
Hamburg, Germany, was the pride of Hybur Limited, making
regular trips throughout the Honduran Bay Islands, the Caymans
and up to Florida, hauling a smorgasbord of goods. The ship was
being refurbished at French Harbor, Roatan, in 2002 when it
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Odyssey Bow. Photo: Bob Sterner
Aguila Guardian Grouper. Photo: Bob Sterner
Aguila Entry. Photo: Bob Sterner
Portholes ease entry to Aguila. Photo: Bob Sterner
Divers gather on Odyssey. Photo: Barbara Krooss
Aguila radio mast. Photo: Bob Sterner
Author eyes gear on Odyssey. Photo: Barbara Krooss
Author cruises the Odyssey. Photo: Barbara Krooss
Sponge Wall. Photo: Bob Sterner
Aguila Midship. Photo: Barbara Krooss
caught fire. Paint, paneling and other flammables
burned with such intensity that the interior was gutted
except, according to local legend, for a bible in one of
the cabins. Afterward, the Galindos, who are related to
Hyburs, were blessed with another wreck. They
campaigned for financial and political support of all
local operators to clean up the Odyssey, and then sank
it off the island’s north shore. Seas stayed calm, so no
cutting torches were abandoned in the effort.

Size and depth make it difficult to fully explore the
Odyssey on one dive. The 50-foot-wide deck is
studded with mechanical gear that used to help lade
the vessel, and open hatches beckon in the bow and
along the cargo holds. If only one dive can be
arranged, head straight for the stern, a five-story
superstructure that rises 85 feet above the sand and
lists slightly to port. Bring a flashlight to penetrate the
passageways and interior stairways that connect
cabins, including the captain’s quarters and its tiled
bathroom. Starting at the bottom and working upward
allows for the longest dive time before heading to the
radio tower for a first safety stop, where divers
sometimes come face-to-face with the granddaddy of
all groupers that patrols the Odyssey.