Utila, Honduras — "Get ready guys, snorkels in ... jump in now!" cried the captain of the small boat as it rode the azure ocean waters like a bobbing cork. I hesitated and despite my instincts screaming in protest, I slid into the water. I could scarcely breathe, even with my snorkel and mask on, as I spotted the seamless movements of a looming whale shark just metres directly below me. This is definitely one of life's unforgettable moments, I told myself, as I watched the massive fish glide slowly through the water, with its huge mouth gaping open to feed on plankton.
The whale shark, Rhincodon typus, is the world's largest fish — slow moving and filter-feeding, it is harmless to humans and can reach more than 14 metres in length and weigh 30 tonnes. The elusive fish is simply one of many species of marine life in this corner of the world. The coral reefs surrounding the island of Utila — at the southern end of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef system, second only in size to Australia's Great Barrier Reef –—are teeming with life including schools of dolphins, manta rays and countless colourful fish, creating an oasis for divers and snorkellers.
This is what lured us to the island located 29 kilometres off the Caribbean coast of Honduras — the whisper on the traveller's grapevine that spoke of exceptional diving in a tropical paradise. My boyfriend (now husband) Simon and I had been on the road exploring Central America for months and were enthralled with the idea of slowing down to soak up the sunshine and dive the ocean depths.
A small island smack in the middle of the collection of Bay Islands, Utila is about 12 kilometres long and five kilometres wide, with tiny cays dotted on its south side. The population (which averages around 2,500 people) lives almost entirely in one settlement on Eastern Harbour.
A slow-paced, welcoming place, Utila's laidback vibe is evident as soon as you step foot on the island. Brightly-coloured shops and food wagons crowd the narrow streets and the locals and visitors interact frequently, unlike in resort-littered islands, making for a unique, refreshing island experience.
There are literally dozens of dive shops vying for your attention when you arrive and it's no wonder — there are more than sixty diving sites located around the island among its extensive reefs.
Utila Water Sports was Simon's choice to undertake his dive masters ticket — a month-long endeavour involving intense study and twice-daily dives. I, having endured a collapsed lung years ago, am forbidden to dive, but I was content to jump on the dive boat each day as it chugged out of the bay and relished the amazing snorkelling opportunities while the others dived the depths.
Simon says he loved Utila because it felt like a time-out from a period of continuous travel through predominantly Spanish Central American culture.
"The culture and language on the island was a stark contrast to La Ceiba and the rest of Honduras, from Spanish to Garifuna," he noted.
As for the diving, he said it was incredibly varied and it was possible to dive the whole coast of the island. Highlights for him included leading a night dive, undergoing a deep dive off the edge of an underwater shelf, diving to a shipwreck and swimming with the whale shark.
The island's history is as diverse as its marine life.
Colonization by the Spanish began in the early 16th century and they plundered the island for their slave trade. In an attempt to out-colonize the Spanish, Britain occupied the island on and off between 1550 and 1700. During this time buccaneers found the island a haven and today Utila is rich in pirate lore, with divers searching for sunken treasure from Captain Morgan's lost booty from his raid on Panama in 1671. The British turned over the Bay Islands to the Honduran government in the mid 19th century and the islands were populated by its now Caymanian roots and culture.
Vancouver resident Karalyn Archibald is another traveller who came to Utila.
"Utila was known to be one of the cheapest places in the world to get certified," she said. "So I dove in, fell in love after my first dive and I wanted more. I continued on to get my advance certification and from there ended up staying a month in pure bliss. It wasn't just the diving for me, it became home for me during my month stay. I made close connections with locals and travellers and it was amazing to be in the presence of like-minded people who had a passion for diving."
Even now, years later, Archibald says she finds it hard to find words to describe the experience of being in Utila. What she does know, she says, is that she would go back in a heartbeat.
And that pretty much sums up the Utila experience — an unforgettable encounter with rich local culture and the natural wonders of the marine world.
For more on Utila's magic, click to www.aboututila.com.