Roatan is a huge destination for US divers, and it didn’t take long for Stuart Philpott to see the attraction of this small Caribbean island.
Roatan lies approximately 65km off the coast of Honduras and is the largest of the Bay Islands (Utila and Guanaja are the other two islands in the archipelago). A large portion of the coastline has been designated as a marine protected reserve, which makes it extremely attractive for visiting scuba divers. Sitting next door to the second largest barrier reef in the world should also boost my marine life sightings. With such a promising Caribbean pedigree, I had high expectations.
Based in the Sandy Bay area at the west end of the island, Anthony’s Key (www.anthonyskey.com) is probably the most-established dive resort. There’s a courtesy bus that ferries guests to and from the airport. Journey times take around 15 minutes door to door. The resort opened in the late-1960s with just ten rooms and was mainly used as a stopover for passing sailboats. This has now expanded to 56 bungalows or en-suite rooms and been kept fairly ‘rustic’ by guest request.
My hillside key standard bungalow was set back in the trees and connected by a series of raised wooden walkways and stairs. Most of the accommodation has been built on a picturesque little island located a few hundred metres from the main reception area, bar and restaurant. This is accessible via a free 24-hour shuttle boat service.
There is a huge swimming pool at the centre of the complex, including a bar, BBQ area and sunbeds. Sandy beach frontage is limited. The best beach is located at Baileys Key via the shuttle boat route.
Roatan is an extremely popular destination for American divers. During my stay there were at least three big groups visiting from Colorado, California and Georgia, as well as individuals and couples from other Caribbean islands and mainland Honduras, not forgetting the solitary Brit contingent. Everybody turned out to be really sociable, and we openly chatted about everything from gun laws to Donald Trump.
I wandered down to the jetty which reminded me of the set up at Stuart Cove’s on Nassau. There were separate wooden buildings for the PADI training centre, underwater photography and video studio, snack shop, locker room, kit and compressor room as well as the all-important dive centre complete with a row of chalk boards telling everybody which boat they had been assigned to, as well as a huge air-conditioned shop selling T-shirts, beach wear, local products, etc, with a new toilet block attached.
Anthony’s Key Resort turned out to be an extremely well-oiled diving machine. More than six dive boats went out every single day. Diving Manager Kevin said he was so busy organising logistics that he hadn’t been diving for nearly two years!
There are three daily dives on offer. Dive boats usually depart at 8.30am, returning to the dock for a half hour’s break followed by a second dive at 11.30am. After a leisurely lunch and a short siesta, the boats leave again at 2pm for a third dive and return around 4pm. Night dives are also regularly offered twice a week – Tuesday and Thursday.
For my initiation dive, I was taken to a site called Green Out House Wall. During the briefing, dive guide David showed me some pictures of a bright yellow frogfish the size of my little finger and another even smaller white froggie he had found at one of the pinnacles. It didn’t take him long to find the same yellow frogfish at the dive site.
When the other divers had finished, I spent a good five minutes taking pictures. Unfortunately, the white froggie was nowhere to be seen, so for the rest of the dive I kept myself busy with French angels, green morays, barracuda, grouper, parrots and Creole wrasse.
My day was turning out to be a complete macro fest. At the second dive site named Key Hole, David spotted three seahorses camouflaged in the soft corals. This was the first time he had ever found three on one dive. They were well camouflaged and not easy to photograph, but I eventually managed to get a passable shot.
For the next few days, I was chopping and changing from one dive boat to another trying to make the most out of my brief stay. The dive staff didn’t seem to mind and the other divers weren’t too phased by my antics. Dive guide Sherwin jokingly said the hard-up locals would call my camera and housing a new car! Water temps hovered around the 28-29 degree C mark, so I ditched my 3mm shortie wetsuit and opted for rash vest and shorts.
There were two purposely sunk wreck dives, El Aguila and the Odyssey, both lying at a depth of around 30m. I didn’t have time to do both wrecks, so opted for the 70 metre long cargo ship El Aguila, which was supposedly better for marine life. As soon as I jumped into the water, a grouper surrounded by a shoal of rainbow runners headed straight for me.
I fired off a few shots and then made my way down to the wreck site. El Aguila was broken in two with her stern lying on the starboard side and her bow standing upright. I started exploring the bridge and accommodation block and then worked my way forwards. I was told that the propeller had been removed, so didn’t bother going to the seabed. There were plenty of penetrable areas to explore, but in the short time frame I didn’t venture too far.
Julio Galindo acquired Anthony’s Key Resort in the early 1980s, though he was involved with some partners since 1968, and has developed it into a top dive resort. Even though his son Samir is now running the business, I could see that Julio was still very much an active participant.
Julio said that he had set up the resort to be totally self-sufficient, providing everything from bus transfers to an in-house laundry service. There was even a medical clinic and a hyperbaric chamber (the resort asks for a minimum US$12 donation from each diving guest to help maintain the only chamber facility on the island). Julio told me that 80 percent of the business was repeaters. He said: “Some guests come back so often they start telling me how to do my job!”
At Spooky Channel, David guided me to a deep canyon crammed with millions upon millions of glassfish. I went ahead and found a spot where I could take pictures of the divers passing through the shoal. There was a grouper waiting for us back at the wall. I’m sure there had been some sneaky lionfish feeding going on in the past, especially when a large green moray appeared next to the grouper.
I tried to get a shot of them both swimming together, but it just didn’t work out. When we got back to the boat mooring two more grouper were waiting for us and they definitely weren’t camera shy.
Anthony’s Key Resort is 100 percent geared up for divers and can easily handle large groups. There was a broad range of dives on offer from standard reefs and walls to wrecks, macro and shark encounters. I had booked up the seven-night dive package, which basically included everything except drinks. I thought the food was a very good standard.
There was the usual selection of eggs, cereals, etc, for breakfast, with a fixed menu for lunch and dinner, which included a different meat, fish and vegetarian option daily. I especially liked the soups and the Mexican dishes.
Water temps hovered around the 28-29 degree C mark, so I ditched my 3mm shortie wetsuit and opted for rash vest and shorts
During the briefing, dive guide David showed me some pictures of a bright yellow frogfish the size of my little finger and another even smaller white froggie he had found at one of the pinnacles
Photographs by Stuart Philpott