Utila, in the Bay Islands of Honduras, borders the second largest reef system in the world (Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System). The edge of the continental shelf intersects with the north side of Utila creating dramatic 1000m+ drops offs. During certain times throughout the year one might even spot whale sharks in the nearby waters. And if those weren’t reasons enough to go there, worldwide it’s one of the cheaper places to get scuba diving training too!
Recently my boyfriend, Josh, and I headed there for our PADI Open Water Certification. We only spent two and a half days on Utila and the rest of the week on nearby Jewel Cay,
the launch site for Captain Morgan’s Dive Centre. Jewel Cay doesn’t have the motorized vehicles that plague the main road in Utila. Instead it has a wide main sidewalk and a walk bridge to connect it to Pigeon Cay. It was the perfect place to post-up for this training…and to indulge in all the scrumptious baked goods the local ladies made nearly daily.
Picking CMDC wasn’t very systematic. There are endless dive shops competing with one another on the island, making all their prices similar and their packages competitive. Most throw in accommodation for free, most throw in 2 free fun dives, some have brand new equipment, some have multiple boats, etc. The differences came with the shop’s vibe (seriously). Some were more party oriented, some more serious and reputable. Ultimately, Jewel Cay sold us between the quiet aspect and having a launch site closer to the north dive sites. Through CPDC, we lucked out with an amazing instructor from Ireland, Jen. She lived out on Jewel Cay, while most other instructors were back on Utila, so I felt as though we got additional time to go over material and get to know her. Plus she was a sweetheart and made the course an incredibly fun experience!
The course involved 3 days of required dives. On the first day there was a confined dive off the dock of the hotel. After that, it was two dives a day for the next two days. Each dive we’d practice the required skills such as removing the mask underwater and putting it back on, buoyancy control, emergency ascents, and so on. Every successfully completed skill was met with an underwater fist bump from our instructor, booya! After the third day we were qualified open water divers and were able to dive on the fourth day for the pure fun.
Getting to the point of being comfortable and enjoying the sea was the real highlight. The instructors were fantastic at finding cool fish to gawk at – scorpion fish, trumpet fish, drum fish, barracuda, on and on. During the fun dives, we actually hovered over a sleeping nurse shark and I spotted the largest fish I’ve ever seen underwater (or ever? Big Fish came to mind). On the way to the second dive that day, the boat captain spotted dolphins and all dozen or so of us slid off the side of the boat as silently as possible with our snorkel gear on. Situated at the back of the pack, I panicked that I was going to miss seeing them as I could only hear their clicks. I happened to look down at that point and saw six petite dolphins launching their way up through the water in front of me. Being at the back, I had the vision all to myself for a brief moment. It was stunning. I only wish I could articulate better the scene and the emotions. And that I’d brought an underwater camera!
Diving seems a bit addicting (like flying I suppose!) and the enthusiasm of everyone on the island was contagious. I reluctantly made the decision to wait on taking the Advanced Open Water course – there will be other awesome dive locations along this journey. Tempted to stay for months and months to complete all the qualification levels, I settled for one more day for a night dive! Which was really cool too. One of the divemaster trainees spotted an octopus and we spent probably half the dive just watching it eat and glide across the reef.
While I didn’t make it over to the more developed Bay Island (Roatan, ~$55 one way), I could definitely recommend the Utila area. The snorkeling was fantastic off Jewel Cay and there were also opportunities to kayak to other cays with beaches or take a fishing trip. This wasn’t necessarily a beach getaway type place though as Utila didn’t have easily accessible beaches – most were private and charged a fee from what I saw. The ferry from La Ceiba to Utila ended up being close to $50 roundtrip. I’d recommend the morning ferry options, as the afternoon ferry to Utila was nearly the death of me. I’ve never experienced such rough waters. Combine that with an overcrowded, hot ferry and you have people puking everywhere. I knew I was in for it when as soon the motor started up the employees started passing out sick sacks! Despite the arduous hour long journey, this was definitely a destination worth visiting in Honduras.