ROATAN - May 18-25, 2024

(Click here to see some pictures from this trip plus links to the SmugMug slideshow.)

This was an interesting trip on many levels, some good, some not as good. And I had two things happen on this trip that I’ve never had happen before. (1) Our flight leaving Roatan was delayed by 4+ hours which meant we missed the connections in Houston and had to overnight and rebook to fly in to LAX the next day (fortunately, we got United to give us hotel vouchers), and (2) A couple decided this wasn’t the trip for them and flew home early.


Let’s start with the less complicated stuff.


Roatan lies off of the northern coast of Honduras, one of the Bay Islands, which also includes Guanaja and Utila. Roatan is the largest of the three and, even though Honduras is considered one of the poorest countries in Latin America, Roatan has established itself as a premiere diving tourist destination, with 34 registered dive operations on the island. We chose to dive (again) with Anthony’s Key Resort (AKR) and it was a great choice.


AKR is a fairly large resort, perhaps the largest in Roatan, located on the west end of Roatan in an area known as Sandy Bay. It’s semi-all-inclusive, so the diving, dining, and lodging are all wrapped into what you pay for the trip. They also provide transportation to and from the airport. (I say “semi-all-inclusive” because you pay extra for sodas and alcohol as well as nitrox.) It’s a really great operation which is run very smoothly and professionally which, as a trip leader, I really appreciate.


The general dive package is Saturday-Saturday with three dives each day Sunday-Friday and night dives added in on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Meals are included with breakfast served from 7-10AM, lunch Noon-2PM, and dinner 6-9PM. All meals are now waiter-served and menu-based rather than buffet, with the breakfast and lunch options being the same every day, but dinner options changing daily. Everyone seemed pleased with the food and there was always plenty of it. (I’m very scared to step on my scale when I get home.)


If you’ve been to AKR before, the days of climbing up 60 stairs to the dining area are long gone. During COVID (and some of this was starting when we last there in 2018), they re-built the entire dock area so that now reception and the dining hall are on the dock level (juts beyond the water taxi slip), along with gear lockers, dive shop, snack shop, nitrox tank room, gift shop, scuba school, and even an on-site recompression chamber. (The hyperbaric joke is that if you’re going to get bent on a trip, this is the place to do it since you can be treated right away.)


The downside of the new dining hall is that it’s REALLY loud inside, especially when it’s full. (The week we spent there, the resort was fairly fully-booked which included a rather enthusiastic group of college-age kids.) Because the dining hall is nice and new, you’re not allowed to come in wet as you could when you climbed all of those stairs. So that means you need to change into something dry if you’re eating between dives.


They had a designated table for our group of eight (they did the same for other groups as well), so that meant you had a reserved table no matter when you showed up to eat. You also had the same waiter and assistant servers each day so that was nice as well. Service was anywhere from quick to slow and most of that seemed to depend on if one of the larger groups came in and placed their orders before you got yours in. We didn’t miss any meals or dives because of this, but sometimes things took longer than we would have liked. Not a big deal and seemingly out of control of our waiter (Stanley, who we liked a lot).


The other thing to understand is that while meals are included, there are “special” options on the dinner menu each evening that you will pay extra for. They’re not cheap, especially considering that they replace a pre-paid dinner. The first night we were there, I opted to try the prime rib which was very good. But was it $55 extra good? Maybe not. (And the final night they had a seafood Chef’s Special that was priced at $79.) I don’t mind an extra charge but if you assume the rack rate on a dinner was around $30, a surcharge of $15-25 would seem to me to be more in-line. Again, not a big deal but something to know if you go.


Our rooms were very nice. The two main types of rooms are Superior and Deluxe with the difference being that the Deluxe ones are somewhat bigger and have king-size beds along with a private covered over-water deck. Deluxe rooms had two queen beds and a shared deck. We’ve done Superior before but had Deluxe this time and were happy with both.


Most of the rooms are located across a channel on Anthony’s Key, which is in reality a small island. So each day you shuttle back and forth via water taxi, which runs 24/7. The trip across takes about a minute. Not at all an issue until you remember that you need to be dry for the dining hall, so you either budget in a little extra time to go back to your room or take dry clothes with you and keep them in your dive locker.


Speaking of diving (since that’s why we went there) . . .


Water temp was a very consistent 85 degrees with an occasional 84 and once or twice an 86 when shallow. Visibility generally was around 80 feet with a number of sites approaching 100 feet, and a few in the 40-60 range.


AKR has a fleet of 17 boats of varying sizes. And they’re all pretty fast. We had a boat to ourselves for the entire week and had specifically requested John Carter, who we dove with twice before, to be our guide/DM. So we had eight on our boat while other boats, either because they had bigger groups or individuals lumped together, had as many as 17 divers on-board. We liked our smaller group (as did John).


When you check in to the dive shop arrival day (Saturday), you’re assigned a dive locker which is adjacent to the boats so all of your gear can live on the dock area. The DMs and boat captains handle all of the tanks. You load up your gear at the beginning of the dive day, your DM and boat captain hook up BC/reg to tanks (and then swap them between dives), and then get ready for your departure.


All of the dives at AKR are single-tank dives since the dives sites are generally no more than a 10-minute run away. We’d leave at 8:30, be in the water by perhaps 8:50, out by 9:50, and back at AKR around 10:00. This allows for bathroom breaks, grab some snacks, make gear adjustments if needed, or decide to skip the next dive. Or skip the first dive and catch up in time for the 10:30 dive. It’s a nice schedule that allows for plenty of flexibility in terms of how often you want to dive and when.


I want to take a few sentences to heap some well-deserved praise on DM John Carter. We’ve been diving with him before so knew what to expect. But John’s REALLY good at finding small things like minuscule shrimp, hard-to-spot crabs, well-camouflaged eels, nudibranches, and unusual things like seahorses and squid. John was a delight to dive with and is very knowledgeable about the critters as well as gives excellent and detailed pre-dive briefings.


That being said, the diving was a bit disappointing. This certainly wasn’t John’s fault. The entire Caribbean is suffering from some level of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease and Roatan is no exception. There were a lot of areas of the reefs where there were extensive white blotches on the corals, and a lot of reefs were brown and a mustard yellow color (as well as areas that were covered with a red algae), rather than the vibrant Caribbean colors we’ve experienced over the years. Some were worse, some were better, but almost all showed some signs of disease. None of this means we didn’t see cool things and enjoy ourselves. But the reefs, if not dying, certainly aren’t healthy. This is a problem that is not limited to just Roatan.


One thing to counter that was that the purple sea fan population generally seems to be thriving. There were certainly ones that showed wear and tear but there were many more of those fans than I recall seeing previously and more than I see in many places in the Caribbean. Hopefully that’s a positive sign that the reefs can make a comeback.


Roatan also has to what has to be the largest and healthiest group of barrel sponges that I’ve seen. Many of them are well over four feet tall and appear to be quite sturdy. Again, since sponges like these are filterers of the reef, maybe it’s a sign that the reef can eventually heal itself over time. But it was certainly nice to see these healthy sponges not only on every dive, but pretty much everywhere you looked.


And while I didn’t think we saw as many fish as we had on previous visits, it wasn’t like this was fishless. Probably among the most prolific of the fish were Parrotfish, specifically Stoplight, Princess, Rainbow, Queen, Striped, Bucktooth, and more. But my favorite, which seems rare in other locales, is the Midnight Parrot. First of all, they can be huge, which is always impressive. But they’re a deep blue color, noticeably scaly, with reddish eyes and some white markings around their faces, plus the traditional Parrotfish white buck teeth. Really a striking fish IMHO and it was also neat that we saw some smaller ones (which I assume were juvies).


I was also pleased to see not only a lot of Angelfish but specifically Queen Angels, who are simply gorgeous (and they know it) with their yellow and blue coloration and the “crown” on their heads. We saw a few Rock Beauties and a couple of Gray Angels, but not a single French Angel, which surprised me. Not sure why or if that’s indicative of anything,


We also noticed a number of Hamlets, specifically Indigo Hamlets, on many of the reefs, which still seem to be well-populated with damselfishes of all kinds, snappers, goatfish, eels, butterflyfish, wrasses, and small-to-medium groupers. In fact on one dive we did at Pillar Coral, at the end of the dive, almost like he was waiting for us, there was an enormous Black Grouper. He was just sitting on the bottom watching as we approached and didn’t flinch as we got closer. Once we took some shots and moved on, he followed us and hung with us the rest of the dive. In fact, he would nuzzle close to our divers and almost seemed to encourage a little scratch under his chin. It was quite special to see a fish accept divers so readily.


A really special experience was in store for us at Butcher’s Bank at the end of our dive as we suddenly realized there was a group – a squidron?? – of perhaps two dozen squid hanging in the water around 30 feet deep, flashing colors, making mating motions, coming over to look at us, and just generally mesmerizing us with their antics (and also providing amazing photo ops – which you can see on the SmugMug slide show) for a good five minutes until they decided to jet off to somewhere else.


We dove two wrecks over the course of the week, the El Aguila and the Odyssey. I like the El Aguila, although it’s somewhat deep bottoming out at a little over 100 feet. It’s got a decent amount of fish and sponges on it, plus it’s adjacent to a nice reef where you end the dive. The Odyssey is a big wreck (some 300+ feet long – that’s the length of a football field), also deep (around 115 feet), and was the site of an embarrassing personal experience when I lost the entire group. This was totally my fault but also can serve as a good lesson to those of you who are photographers.


The plan on this wreck was to drop down on the stern area and superstructure, go inside and then up the five interior decks (you can see out the entire time and there’s always an exit nearby), and then make our way down the length of the vessel to the bow. I don’t recall us saying exactly where we were going to end the dive, but there’s a reef perhaps 50 feet in front of the bow.


I didn’t want to penetrate the superstructure so I made my up the outside and could see the divers inside. John emerged and led everyone forward along the edge of the wreck, where we found a small halibut in the sand. We continued towards the bow, which was sort of bent and pointing upright. I ducked under and inside the pointy end to see if there was anything worthwhile and came across an interesting red sponge as well as a lionfish and shot them both.


According to my photo data, I spent no more than three minutes under the bow. And when I came out . . . uh-oh . . . there was no one in sight. I thought perhaps they had moved on ahead to the reef in front of us so that’s the way I headed. Nobody. I looked back and could see maybe 100 feet. Didn’t see anyone along the length of the ship. Where could they have gone? I looked up. Nope. I looked around again. Nada. So I figured I had somehow screwed this up and decided to abort the dive – we were about 20 minutes in to a planned 30-minute dive at this point – and ascend to 20 feet, trying to see if I could spot any bubbles as I rose.


I also now had to choose where to surface. I started my ascent around the reef but wasn’t too keen on coming up in an area that could have boat traffic. But then I noticed that there was a boat tied up to the mooring line at the bow of the wreck. I could clearly see the bottom of the boat and knew it wasn’t ours – it had two engines whereas we had one – but I also know it’s safer to surface near a boat, even if it’s not yours, than it is to surface in open water. I figured once I got to the surface, I’d be able to see where our boat was and swim over. No biggee.


I was about 4 minutes into my planned 5-minute safety stop when I glanced again down the length of the wreck and thought I saw a hint of yellow. As I looked that way, it was John, coming to look for me. (He wears a bright yellow rash guard and bright yellow pants to make himself more visible.) I gave him an OK sign, he returned same and motioned towards the stern of the boat which is where the group had gone. Everyone was now hanging on the stern mooring line doing their safety stop. I joined them and we finished the dive.


Once back on boat, I was obviously teased about what happened by took ownership of the situation. And there are valuable lessons to learn here for anyone.


As most of you know, I dive all the time, am comfortable diving by myself, and have plenty of dives under my weightbelt. (6,000+ if anyone’s curious.) But even an experienced diver can make a mistake and do something that separates them from the group. Even more so when you’re a photographer, since we tend to want to stop and take some shots, and the group won’t always – nor should they – feel like they have to stop while we get the proverbial perfect shot.


So ESPECIALLY if you’re a photog, you have an obligation and responsibility to know where the group is heading and, once you’re done shooting, head in that direction and catch up. There’s certainly an adage in diving that, when diving as a group, you want to move at the pace of the slowest diver. In other words, if someone is generally a slow kicker (or you’re a fast kicker), you match the speed of the slowest member. You don’t force them to go faster. But that’s under “normal” circumstances.


Being a photog throws “normal” out the window at times because we know the photog is going to stop frequently and deliberately. That doesn’t mean the group leader won’t take that into account at times. But it also means if you’re going to spend 10 minutes photoing a fascinating nudibranch – or in this case, three minutes shooting a sponge and lionfish – it’s not the group’s duty to wait for you.


The other interesting perspective that this brings up – and this is a discussion I’ve had over the years with many divers and guides and where there is no easy or “right” answer – is that everyone on the boat, even John, said some variation of, “We knew you were OK because we know you’re a good diver.” Well, yes but no.


Even “good” divers can get into trouble. And it can be dangerous to assume that everything’s OK. For all anyone knew, I’d had a heart attack and was lying on the bottom. Or maybe I’d gotten stuck in the bow and was slowly running out of air trying to free myself. Or perhaps I’d had serious leg cramps that made it impossible to kick and I needed someone to come assist.


When a diver goes missing, there’s no real way to know what the reason was. You hope it’s benign as it was in my case. But, especially if you’re a dive guide as well as if you’re “just” a dive buddy, assuming the worst can mean the difference between saving someone’s life or just getting a good scare. There’s no perfect answer. Do you look for them on the bottom, inside the wreck (in this case), or on the surface? Because, especially if it’s a case of someone unconscious underwater, you don’t have a lot of time (perhaps 4-6 minutes if a diver’s not breathing) to find them and help create a successful outcome.


There’s no easy answer in any of this nor any “perfect” methodology. In this case, I just gave everyone a scare (for which I was truly sorry and repentant). But it’s a good lesson for all divers of any skill level or experience, and that’s why I wanted to share it here.


I mentioned at the beginning that we had two divers leave the trip early. This was after the second day of diving. Our general dive profiles were maybe 80 feet or so on the first dive, 60 on the second and 50-ish on the third. I knew going in that these two people not only don’t like to go deep, but don’t like going much below 40 feet. But I also knew that with the reef structure – walls and sloping reefs – they could stay at 30-40 feet, we’d be able to see them, and everyone seemed fine with that.


But they told me that they felt that the dives were being geared more towards depths deeper than they liked. They also didn’t like our second dive day when we went around to the south side of Roatan to dive Mary’s Place. It’s a great dive and really a signature dive of Roatan. But it’s also a long boat ride (close to an hour from Anthony’s) through choppy seas on this particular day, and when we got there, it was not only somewhat surgy and low-viz, but they had equipment issues – including a dropped mask upon entry that we fortunately found – and they ended up bailing on the dive. I think this was the straw the broke the proverbial camel’s back. Additionally, they’d been to Roatan before and could definitely sense the degradation of the reefs that I’ve already discussed. Plus, there’s not a lot of non-diving things to do and they’re not a sit-around-the-pool-and-drink type of couple.


They sat out the following day to mull things over and decided it made more sense to go home. I fully supported their decision. I’m a big believer in “You never get hurt on a dive you don’t make” and a variation of that would be would be “If you’re doing something and it’s making you miserable, stop doing it.” They were able to change their flights home and left on Wednesday. Much better being at home in familiar surroundings than being miserable in a foreign country.


They didn’t know it at the time, but by leaving early, they avoided the big problem we had at the end of the trip when trying to come home.


As I mentioned earlier, the general plan in Roatan is a Saturday-Saturday trip. United, American, and Delta all have flights coming in and then turning around on that day. So basically, Saturday mornings in Roatan are getting departing guests to the airport and then picking up the new arrivals and starting the weeklong process all over again.


But something that’s been happening for a while now are sugar cane field fires on the Honduras mainland. Many of these are deliberately set. The smoke from those fires is rather immense and causes a hazy sky most days. (We didn’t have a single blue-sky day while we were there even though it was always sunny.) And sometimes the smoke gets so bad that they literally shut the airport down for a few hours or even for the entire day.


We were flying out on three different itineraries: United to Houston, United to Denver, and American to Dallas. All at slightly different times. My sub-group got to the airport first, arriving at 9:30AM for our 12:30PM flight. Easy-peasy check-in, and cleared security to then wait inside. If you’ve never been to the Roatan airport, the waiting area has all the charm of an old hospital waiting room. There’s nothing to do, including no TV. There’s a small snack bar, a liquor bar, a small gift rack, and a small pharmacy. But basically, you’re going to sit and wait for your flight.


We sensed trouble when we started getting flight delay text messages. First half an hour, then an hour, then two hours. The Delta flight got canceled all together which meant no newbies coming in and the departing guests had to go back to their resort for another day. (No clue as to whether they had to pay extra for that or not because this certainly wasn’t the fault of any of the resorts.)


We found out that our United flights had been diverted to Belize, a 45-minute flight away, where they sat on the ground waiting for the Roatan smoke situation to get better and where they could refuel. American did something similar. We eventually got word that the flights were now in-bound and a mighty cheer arose from the cramped waiting area where there were now probably 600+ people inside. There was nowhere to sit for late-comers, since we were dealing with five in-coming flights.


Our 12:30 flight finally left around 4:15PM. And the problem that created was that we missed our connecting flights home in Houston. (Our Denver and Dallas-bound folks had the same issue.) Fortunately for the Houston people, United gave out hotel and meal vouchers, which included a Lyft voucher to get you to the hotel and back, so we overnighted in Houston and chose early afternoon flights home. Yikes!!! (In fact, I’m writing this as we’re about an hour away from landing at LAX.)


So overall it was a good trip but with some definite hiccups. Some of them – flight problems and unhappy divers – are one-offs. But others, like the health of the reefs, is something to consider if you’re planning a trip here.


We can’t say enough good things about the Anthony’s operation overall. Great value for the money and things really click well. If we were rating the diving on a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being best as Gary Franklin used to say), I’d say 6-7 overall. That doesn’t mean we didn’t see some really cool things, as you'll see in the SmugMug slide show as well as with the octopus and the dolphin videos. But my impression was that, due to the overall coral disease problems, the quality of the dives has slipped a notch. This doesn’t mean you won’t have a good time, especially if you’re new to diving or haven’t been to Roatan before. But it’s not what it used to be and hopefully it can recover. But that’s going to take time.


Will we go again? Most likely. Will it be next year? Maybe. But we know that whenever we return, we’ll have an enjoyable time overall, and that Anthony’s will do everything they can to maximize that experience. 

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