Buccaneers above the waves, coral and kaleidoscopic sealife below – Utila and the other Bay Islands offer laid-back culture and fabulous snorkelling
Boatman Jake Whitefield is a Bay Islander through and through. His face has been leathered and tanned by 70 years of working outside in tropical sunshine and his eyes are the colour of the Caribbean Sea. It was a pleasure just to sit in his boat, listen to his soft Creole voice and watch him deftly tie off the fishing lines on his small longboat as we cut over the placid water off Honduras’ north coast.
The English-speaking Caribbean culture of the Bay Islands (Islas de la Bahía), a thin sweep of islands some 50km off Honduras, is an anomaly in the Latin-dominated country.
English buccaneers worked out of here in the 17th and 18th centuries, plundering Spanish merchant ships, and most of the residents are descendants of white Cayman Island settlers and freed slaves who stayed here after abolition in 1830. Even though Britain ceded the territory to newly independent Honduras in 1859, most of the islanders still consider themselves to be British.
For 150 years the Bay Islands were left alone in tranquil isolation, but changes have come with the arrival of tourists and mainland Hispanic-Honduran immigrants. Surprisingly, Jake welcomes the tourists, reserving his ire for what he calls ‘Spaniards’, the incomers the islanders feel are swamping their local culture.
“They no good, none of them. They all thieves, they all murderers,” he said. A little extreme, but typical of the Bay Islanders’ fierce sense of identity.
Tourists, and particularly divers, have been slowly discovering the Bay Islands, which form part of the second-largest coral reef in the world.
While package tourists head for upmarket Roatán with its all-in luxury resorts, and while Guanaja has gradually recovered from Hurricane Mitch’s attentions in 1998, Utila – the smallest of the three – is the choice of independent travellers. It is one of the cheapest places in the world to learn to scuba dive, and one of the most environmentally aware.
With its shallow-water coral gardens, Utila is also one of the finest places to practise diving’s underrated cousin – snorkelling. I hired Jake to help me tour Utila. He makes an easy living ferrying tourists to remote beaches and cays, tiny islands no more than sandbanks that stud the sea south-west of the main island. As we skirted Utila’s coast he filled me in on island society and pointed out the snorkelling hot spots.
Some divers view snorkelling with a certain dismissiveness: it’s not the real thing, is it? It’s beach fun, not a real sport – one step away from paddling with your trouser-legs rolled up.
But those that do dismiss it are missing the point. Snorkelling’s pleasure comes from the very fact that it is so easy to do. There’s no cumbersome equipment to check and double check, no complex safety procedures, no trying to express yourself with hand signals and pointing. Snorkelling is freedom.
Cutting through the unconcerned pelicans loafing just off shore, we pulled up onto Water Cay, a blissful 150m by 300m of sand and palm trees, surrounded by a hem of coral. Camping is allowed, but you have to bring everything you need with you, so I turned up with my snorkelling gear, enough food and water for two days and little else.
I waved goodbye to Jake, paid my $1 fee for using the island and another dollar to hire a hammock – the attendant was the only other person there – and wondered how I was going to spend the next 24 hours.
On two sides of Water Cay shallow-water beaches run out to two even tinier sand islands, while the other two sides are a mass of coral, sometimes less than 50cm below the water. There is no way you could scuba dive in areas like this, but as a snorkeller I revelled in slipping in and out of the crevasses that lay between the stands of tongue-and-groove coral, following the fish where they thought I couldn’t.
Taking my time, I revelled in the small-scale details: the vibrant colours of anenome fish and parrot fish; the dense shoals of fry that reacted as one to my movements; a flat fish scudding along the bottom, unsure whether to make a dash for it or hide under the sand.
I picked my way through the coral maze on the tail of an eagle ray until, suddenly, I came over a huge drop-off and the sea floor disappeared beneath me. I floated around on the surface like a clump of kelp and, as I watched the eagle ray meander along the cliff edge, three dark-blue, nurse shark-shaped silhouettes glided beneath me.
I swam back to the cay to read, snack and sleep in my hammock; I would go back in later and explore the cay’s other side. And that’s the joy of snorkelling for me – it’s not epic or extreme, but I’m my own boss.
There are plenty of places on Utila that are equally good for snorkelling, a few within 20 minutes’ walk of the centre of Utila Town, the only settlement.
One day I walked east from the dock – Utila’s Piccadilly Circus – past pretty pastel and white clapboard houses to Airport Beach, where there is a reef and another wonderful drop-off just off shore; the next day I headed west to Blue Bayou where, for $1, I bathed in the chest-deep water and snorkelled among the coral gardens a little further out. Many snorkellers even have the pleasure of splashing around with the playful dolphins that frequent Utila’s coast.
However, if there’s one reason Utila should be a snorkellers’ Mecca it is the rare and massive whale shark, which frequents the nutrient-rich waters of Utila’s north coast year-round. Many of the island’s dive schools take groups out to swim with these 16m monsters, which have mouths up to two metres wide – large enough to engulf a man.
Deep Blue Dive School is more than happy to take snorkellers along with the divers as it’s actually more convenient to snorkel than to scuba with the sharks. My tight schedule meant I only had one chance to go out, but Steve Fox, the reassuringly chipper owner of Deep Blue, was convinced we’d be lucky as there had been some shark sightings in the previous couple of days.
I sat in the boat bristling with anticipation and scouring the water for seabirds picking off bait fish from the surface – the tell-tale sign of a whale shark’s presence – but that day the sea was depressingly peaceful. Back on shore, my disappointment was compounded by hearing the experiences of others who had had these beautiful leviathans glide so close they could almost touch them.
Superlative snorkelling comes at a cost, however. The Bay Islands are coming under strain from the growing number of visitors, and a place as small as Utila is easily damaged. Twelve years ago a group of locals set up the Bay Islands Conservation Association (BICA), to preserve the islands’ natural resources and keep the development sustainable.
Around the world, coral reefs are dying because of irresponsible dive schools and divers, but BICA is trying to stop this sort of degradation. On Utila, BICA has set up a reef protection project with the dive schools, who pay a reef fee to fund its work; schools are then awarded a green environmental certificate if they work to BICA’s regulations. Also, 74 mooring buoys have been placed around the island to prevent boats from dropping anchor on the reefs.
In addition, BICA has managed to bring about a ban on spear fishing, which kills many big fish species, and a ‘one mile rule’ which prohibits anybody from taking anything off the seabed within a mile of the shore. However, according to Calina Zepeda, BICA coordinator on Utila, some dive schools refuse to pay the reef fees, dump engine oil in the sea and anchor on the coral.
“What can we do?” she asked. “All they care about is their profits.” Visitors can do something: BICA will supply prospective divers with a list of the dive schools who have signed up to the programme.
BICA’s projects also involve the local community. When I went to see Calina in her office to the east of the main dock, she was excited about a new turtle conservation project – she has succeeded in having a nesting beach designated a restricted area. As ever, turtles have been some of the animals most sensitive to change, but BICA has already persuaded local restaurants to take turtle soup and turtle meat off the menu.
They have also launched an education project where every child on the island can adopt a baby loggerhead or hawksbill turtle at a local turtle nursery and care for it until it’s ready to return to the sea. Peer pressure works wonders – Calina said: “Lots of people who didn’t care about the environment came to us because their kid screamed for a turtle just like their friends!”
With the help of i-to-i, a not-for-profit company based in Leeds, BICA has been sending volunteers into schools to teach children about the importance of clean water, recycling and pollution on their tiny island. Gap-year students or career breakers come to Utila on a volunteer holiday for a few weeks or months and teach kids of all ages. Volunteers will soon be taking part in BICA’s turtle sanctuary project and beach cleaning with their pupils.
Calina was unequivocal about how much BICA and Utila need the volunteers. “I want to explain something important,” she insisted. “All the money the volunteers give for food and accommodation goes towards classroom materials. If we didn’t have them there would be no environmental education project. We had two years without a turtle project because of lack of funds, but the volunteers will pay for it to survive.”
Utila is no utopia. But it’s refreshing to find a small destination where tourists are welcomed and the fragile ecosystem is being maintained for locals and visitors alike.