ROATAN - NOVEMBER 2-9, 2013
I'm already thinking this will be an interesting report to write (and hopefully to read) because the diving was our least favorite part of the adventure. But I digress . . .
We spent a week November 2-9, 2013, diving with Anthony's Key in Roatan, Honduras. "We" was a small group of six Reef Seekers including Laurie Kasper, Tamar Toister, Ric Selber, Mike & Sharol Carter, and me (Ken Kurtis).
Roatan is one of three islands (along with Utila and Guanaja) that lie off of the northern coast of Honduras and which are collectively known as the Bay Islands. They also lie at the southern edge of the world's second-largest barrier reef, which starts up in Cozumel and runs through the Bay Islands.
Getting to Roatan is relatively easy and there are plenty of flight options. Out of LAX, you can choose Delta, American, TACA, or United. None of the flights are non-stop but all - through a redeye - will get you into Roatan on a Saturday afternoon. You can even take the 6AM United flight out of LAX and make it down in the same day arriving around 4PM. We used Delta and United redeyes.
Now while normally getting to Roatan is fairly easy, it wasn't for us. That's because we flew out on Friday, November 1, which was the same day as the Terminal 3 shootings at LAX. The airport was closed down to all passengers from about 9:30AM on and, as we watched things unfold on TV, it was unclear when the airport would reopen and whether we'd make our flights. In fact, one of our divers had booked himself on an early United flight and booked a hotel in Houston so he could get a good night's sleep before the morning flight to Roatan. But it looked like he may not have been able to get to LAX in time for his 6PM flight so he switched to a midnight flight.
Fortunately for us, the airport started reopening around 5PM, and by 6PM it was reopened to all passenger traffic. In fact, when most of us got there around 9PM, you not only wouldn't have known a shooting had taken place, the United terminal at least, was fairly deserted. After I checked my bags and went to the TSA line, I was the only one going through.
The flights, once we got to the airport, were uneventful and the LAX to Houston flight was one of the smoothest landings I've ever experienced, a counterpoint to the Houston to Roatan landing which was one of the roughest. We joked with the pilot and asked if he had something against the runway or was trying to break the plane and he said, "I sneezed really hard when we were landing." But it was said with a twinkle in his eye so something tells me it was just a mistimed landing.
The folks from Anthony's were right outside baggage claim to pick us up for the 20-minute ride to the resort. We chose Anthony's based not only on its reputation but also on the recommendations of friends who have stayed there before.
We can't say enough good things about the Anthony's operations (but we'll give it our best shot). The resort itself is simply lovely. It's on the northern side of Roatan and almost at the far western end. The good thing about this location is that they can dive the northern sites or, if the weather dictates, dive some of the southern sites as well. And they're nestled in their own little bay so they're not only protected from the swell, but it gives the whole place sort of a private feel.
Anthony's is divided into two areas: The Hill and The Key. The Hill is on mainland Roatan and The Key is a small island perhaps 100 yards offshore. The restaurant, office, dive shop, gift shop, photo, and some rooms are located on The Hill side and most of the rooms, the pool, the shore dive shack, the spa, and an outdoor dining areas are located on The Key.
There are also two classes of rooms at Anthony's, either Standard or Superior. The difference is air-conditioning. The Superior rooms have it and the Standard rooms don't. We went with all Superior rooms. It's hot enough and humid enough there that I can't imagine a comfortable night's sleep without the A/C.
Upon arrival, you're ushered up to the office area and the manager (Mandy - she told me she was not the inspiration for the Barry Manilow song) gave us an briefing for the resort and overview for the week. Because this was our first trip to Anthony's, it was a bit of information-overload and it would have been nice for there to be a printed summary sheet as well. If you're a repeat visitor, this may not be as much of an issue.
After the briefing, we were ushered into the open-air dining area for lunch. Because we were a group, we had a table designated for Reef Seekers which was a nice touch. (There was also a much larger group from Ohio there as well and they had tables designated for them, too.) The other thing I really liked was that all the meals (which are included in the package) are waiter-served. No buffet lines. And you had the same waiter every day. We had Perry for breakfast & lunch and Selase for dinner. So they got to know your individual preferences quickly.
While all of this was going on, your bags were being ferried to your rooms. Recall that I said the Key was about 100 yards offshore from the Hill. So one issue is getting back and forth. But Anthony's has that solved with a water taxi (just a panga, really) that runs 24/7. The trip across takes about a minute. And if the boat's not there, they have the cleverest way to call for it. They've taken old scuba tanks, sawed off the bottom to make them into bells, hung one at each dock, and have attached a metal rod on a chain. If the panga's not waiting for you, you simply give a "clang-clang" and it'll be there in no time at all. So getting back and forth between the Key and the Hill is not an issue.
There's also Wi-Fi at the resort and they normally charge $25/week for it (which seems fair) but they waived that fee the week we were there because they'd been having some issues with spotty coverage. But we certainly found that the Wi-Fi was readily available in all of our rooms.
Our rooms, all on the Key, were very nice. They were all over water, lots of natural wood used for floors and walls, and a decent amount of space. Two of the rooms had a King & Double bed, nice spacious bathroom, and a fairly large private covered back deck (over the water) with hammocks, a table, and chairs. The other two rooms - which we had booked as singles - were slightly smaller (two Double beds) and had a shared communal deck (also over the water) with hammocks, table, and chairs. But still very nice. So Saturday was settling-in day, which our mid-afternoon arrival gave us plenty of time to do, and then it was off to dinner.
And as long as we're back on food, I must say it was very good to excellent. Every meal (except breakfast - same menu each day) featured a choice of soup or salad (and you could get both if you wanted - the soups were really good), a choice of two or three entrees, and a dessert. And they were very accommodating about mixing things up for you if you wanted entree A but the sides that came with B.
In fact, overall one of the strongest features about Anthony's was that all the staff - dining, diving, housekeeping, etc. - were overly polite, friendly, and helpful, and almost seemed to take joy out of making sure you got whatever it was you needed. That positive attitude really helped make the stay much more pleasant when weather and diving conditions (as you will see) became less than hoped for.
Sunday was our first dive day and I've got to say that the dive operation at Anthony's is not only a well-oiled machine, but probably one of the best I've seen. Boats leave daily at 8:30, 10:30, and 2:15. Night dives are Tuesday and Thursday at 5:30 (sundown was around 5:15PM). Anthony's assigns you to specific boat for the entire week and you simply let them know through a chalk board, whether you're doing a specific dive or not. We shared our boat with two other couples and a single diver and that worked out fine.
The boats (11 in all) are seven Pro-42s (we were on one of these - Haydee) and four Pro-48s that are tricked out for diving. There are racks for the tanks, benches for you to sit on, gear bags go underneath, and there's a small island in the middle for cameras, dry bags, and other goodies you might need. They schlep the tanks on and off the boat so you just bring your gear onboard at the beginning of the day and take it off at the end of the day.
All the gear lives in a large gear locker room that right by the dock. At the beginning of the week, you are assigned to a specific locker and even given a lock for it. One weird thing was that they assign you a number for that locker that's different from your room. So I was room 20 but locker/diver 82. No big deal, but why not make the locker numbers correspond to the room numbers and do A/B for rooms with 2 people. One less number to remember and if you needed to go find someone, you'd know exactly where to look.
Each boat has a captain and a divemaster and we really liked both of our. Richard was the captain and did a great job of not only maneuvering the boat (some of the dives were live boat drift dives), and our DM John Carter was knowledgeable, pleasant, a good critter-finder (he could find small of the smallest crabs and shrimps I've ever seen), and just a pleasant all-around guy. Again, that attitude made the less-than-stellar weather and the less-than-stellar diving more palatable.
John would give us a site briefing before each dive and set a recommended max depth and total bottom time. You weren't busted for exceeding max depth (as long as you stayed out of deco), and even though he usually set the bottom time around 40 minutes, we were generally doing 50-60 minutes overall and that didn't seem to raise any issues. 5 of our 6 dove nitrox (some with the computer set on air, some with the computer set to 28% for the 32% mix - $120 for the week) which came in 80cf aluminum tanks, and one of divers dove a 100cf aluminum (no extra charge) which was air only.
And if anyone has a nitrogen problem, the recompression chamber for the island is located at the far end of the Anthony's dock. From Anthony's website: "The Cornerstone Recompression Chamber and Clinic offers dependable hyperbaric healthcare to recreational and commercial divers in the region. In addition to hyperbaric medicine, general medical care is also provided to the local community and resort guests. Due to the increasing demand for medical care in the community, what began as a small clinic in a 400 square foot wood building has expanded to its current location and is now complete with an emergency room, x-ray room, two consultation rooms, one observation room, a laboratory, a pharmacy and is staffed by three medical doctors, an EMT and laboratory technician." Thankfully, none of us needed to use their services.
One of the things I've preached over the years is that there are a lot of things that are within the control of a dive operation. The quality of the facilities, the attitude of the staff, the diver-friendliness of the setup are things that can be controlled. One thing that's out of their control, though, is the weather.
Now perhaps I didn't do as good a job at vetting this when I scheduled this trip but the short version of this is that it rained just about every day we were there. Sometimes a drizzle, sometimes a steady rain, and sometimes a torrential downpour. (Well, it IS the tropics after all.) And a buddy of mine, who has been going to Anthony's for 15 years, was there the week before us and had good weather. But sometimes, you just get dealt a bad weather hand. Our arrival day (Saturday) and Sunday were fine - as was, ironically, our departure day - but then Monday-Friday it rained every day, sometimes overnight, sometimes while we were diving, sometimes both.
On Monday, we went around to the south side and dove this great spot called Mary's Place. It's a very impressive pinnacle with huge vertical cracks - volcanic I was told - in the structure. That was to be followed by a visit to Maya Key, privately owned by Anthony's, where we were to have an outdoor picnic lunch, could view some simulated Mayan ruins, view some native animals, and stuff like that. Except it poured torrentially during our time on the island and everyone huddled under the umbrellas on the picnic tables hoping their food wouldn't wash away, and then dashed for the shelter of a nearby building breezeway by the gift shop (which did a robust amount of business) to sit things out until it was time to leave.
Wednesday night was supposed to be Fiesta Night with an outdoor dinner on the Key that they had to move inside on the Hill due to the threat of rain. And it even thundered and lightning so bad on Thursday that they cancelled the night dive. As one of our divers said, "I think I'm over this rain."
Roatan is generally known, especially on the northern side, for really clear water where the visibility averages 100 feet. Not so during our stay. The rain mucked up the water a bit with runoff (not to mention increased swell) and the visibility generally was 30-50 feet with a fair amount of particle and visible sediment in the water. And that was only when you got below about 40 feet of depth. Above 40 feet, the viz was sometimes under 10 feet, the water took on a milky appearance, and it was surgy. Yuck.
We also had a thermocline. At least that's what everyone called it. But I don't think that's what it was.
Generally, a thermocline (which is usually associated more with fresh-water environments that ocean ones) is an abrupt change in temperature, it usually occurs in a space of a foot or so, and the lower water is colder - significantly so - than the upper water.
When I first got certified in Richmond, Virginia, we dove in Gum Springs Quarry which had TWO thermoclines. In the summer, the water temp for the first 20 feet was 79. Then, in the space of about a foot, it dropped from 79 to 59 degrees. You could literally stick your hand through it and have your shoulder be warm and your fingers cold. The second thermocline was at 60 feet and the water temp dropped from 59 to 48. Now THAT'S a thermocline.
Ocean thermoclines usually seem to be not that dramatic. They're a temperature change of a few degrees, not 10-20 degrees. But this one in Roatan was weird because it was WARMER below the "thermocline" not colder.
What I think we were experiencing was, because of all the rain, that there was a lot of fresh water mixing in with the salt water in the upper areas of the water. The rain was colder, so that dropped the water temp a bit. It also brought gunk with it or made the water slightly brackish and that counted for the lessened viz. But when you popped through at about 40 feet, the water got warmer, the viz improved, and it was a more pleasant dive.
But overall, we were less-than-impressed with the diving. Many of the reefs seemed a little beaten up but the biggest problem was a lack of fish. My pre-trip impression of Roatan was that it was going to be generally smaller fish, but I also assumed it would be more like Bonaire with schools of this and shoals of that. Not so.
This certainly didn't mean we didn't see stuff because I still managed to shoot about 1700 images over the course of 19 dives and I'm not pulling the trigger just to pass the time or drain my batteries. But it just meant we had to work a little harder to find things.
And one thing that was definitely missing from the equation was spending time exploring the shallows above 40 feet. One of the other divers on our boat told me this was his third trip to Roatan and it was definitely the worst water conditions he'd experienced. But he pointed out that a lot of times, the dives were spent half on the wall, which had healthy corals - hard & soft - and decent but not a plethora of fish, and then half the dive above 40 feet in the shallows, where you had tons of fish.
But our weather conditions forced many of the fish into hiding and the few times we did spend time in the shallows, we either couldn't see much, or those fish were in hiding, or the surge beat us up so badly and threw us around, that you couldn't stop and find things, or if you did find something, the surge moved you off it and it was hard to find it again, let alone show it to another diver. Grrrrr.
But there were definitely dives we loved. One was the wreck of the Aguila, a 230-foot long freighter that lies in a little over 100-feet of water. But the attraction there are groups. Lots of groupers. BIG groupers. HUNGRY groupers. And, like the chicken and the egg, I don't know which came first. Did the groupers start hanging out because they got some fish at the beginning of the dive, or were they there to begin with and the divers figured if they threw out some fish, the groupers would hang around? Whatever the case, it makes for a great dive. But you've got to watch your fingers which, to a grouper, look amazingly like a sardine. But this dive was so much fun that we did it twice.
A counterpoint to that was another wreck, the Odyssey, which is not too far away. During his briefing, John said there were no fish on it. I thought he was overstating things for effect. But when we descended onto the wreck - which is about 300 feet long - he was right: There was not a single fish in sight. Eventually we saw some but it makes you wonder why one wreck is teeming and a second wreck, in the same general area, is void?
But again, we had bright spots. One was Four Sponges, which we dove as our final two dives. John told us that one of the attractions here was an amazing field of Yellow-Headed Jawfish. Normally these animals live somewhat communally and usually if you find one, there will be another one three feet away, and another three feet beyond that, and so on. I think I've seen small clusters of a dozen or so in one place.
But at Four Sponges, there are literally HUNDREDS of these cute little guys spread out over a flat clear area maybe 100 feet long and 30 feet wide. And they're all bobbing up and down, in and out of their burrows, and it just really fun to watch and amazing to see (and shoot - pix in the SmugMug slide show).
On top of that, we started finding all kinds of neat little critters at this place. John found a small pipefish and a Pipehorse at one point (no seahorses on the entire trip, though), but the find of the dive goes to Laurie Kasper who found a pea. What you need to understand is that "pea" is the nickname given to juvy Smooth Trunkfish because when they are young, they are literally the size of a pea. And they flit about a lot plus they tend to hide in cracks and crevices so they're hard to find. Laurie found one and John got so excited that he even left the Pipehorse. Plus we were able to find the pea on our second dive there, when I had the opportunity to switch from my close-up lens (1:2 ratio) to my macro lens (1:1). You can see him in the SmugMug slide show of the trip. (And since I'm the one who took the picture, I guess that makes me a Pea Shooter.)
We also found an unwelcome visitor and that would be Lionfish, lots of them. I think Roatan is the first Caribbean place I've dove recently where I saw multiple Lionfish on each dive. And there were some BIG ones there.
Interesting they have a pretty aggressive Lionfish culling program. Personally, I'm still not convinced that these programs work and perhaps Roatan is a good example of that. Plus, plenty of areas report that the Lionfish are found and likely breeding far below recreational dive depths so how do you get to those animals? The Lionfish have now been established in the Caribbean for close to 20 years so if they're really going to eat every fish as everyone claims, why haven't they done so? We may have seen fewer fish than we'd hoped, but we certainly didn't see NO fish.
I've also got a moral concern about how you say something is a Marine Park where everything is protected but go ahead and kill this species because they're invasive. I'm not arguing that invasive is good, but the point is that things are either protected or they're not. It's like being pregnant: You either is or you isn't. You're either a Marine Protected Area or you are not. You can't be both.
But I will say that I appreciate the policy at Anthony's (not sure what other resorts do) of not doing the culling/hunting in front of guests or on DM-guided dives. They have special staff-only dives for that. (As you may recall, we have a DM-spearing issues on our Isla Mujeres trip.)
And I will say that we found one Lionfish who's got to be about the smallest one I've ever seen, no more than one INCH long. Sad to think he'll grow up to be such a fearsome predator because he sure was a cutie. There's a picture of him in front of DM Jon Carter's mask in the SmugMug slide show.
Other things we saw includes hundred of Indigo Hamlets (which I think are just lovely), a lot of Midnight Parrotfish (maybe I just have a thing for blue fish), lots of Stoplight & Striped Parrots, plenty of turtles (Green & Hawksbill), lots of Squirrelfish, plenty of barrel sponges (and BIG ones too), nice tube sponges, really healthy purple sea fans, numerous juvy Spotted Drums (but I only saw one adult), a goodly number of eels of many varieties, hundreds of thousands of Fairy Basslets, plenty of Butterflyfish, and a lot of Angelfish (French, Gray, Queen, & Rock Beauty). So while we didn't get all the fish and the viz we wanted, it wasn't like we were diving in a desert.
Roatan will definitely be on our list of places to return to and
Anthony's will be the place we'll go. We'll just try to do a better job
of vetting the weather patterns ahead of time. Because, despite what
could be perceived as our disappointment or complaining, we had a really
nice trip. And if it can be this good under crappy conditions, think
what it will be like when the weather gods smile upon us?