“The sea,” Jacques Cousteau wrote, “once it casts its spell, holds one forever in its net of wonder.”
Perhaps nowhere in the world is that “net of wonder” more beautiful and breathtaking, more magical and majestic, than in the crystalline seas surrounding Roatan Island. Home to the world’s second largest barrier reef, a largely untouched oasis of brilliantly tinctured flora and fauna, Roatan has become a diving mecca, drawing aficionados from across the globe to experience its underwater world of unparalleled splendor.
Once immersed in their deep sea haven, snorkelers and divers alike find a panoramic environ unique not only for its size and clarity, but for the luxuriance of its corals and diversity of its species. Roatan’s Mesoamerican Reef – designated by the World Wildlife Federation “the crown jewel of the Caribbean” — hosts more than 65 varieties of stony coral and more than 600 species of mollusks, sponges, and fish.
And even with all of that, there’s still more. Because the rolling waters around The Island also envelop a stunning labyrinth of caves, chimneys, canyons, and captivating corridors. Taken together, they provide divers an aquatic playground as far as the eye can see and (at times) their tethers can reach.
The dive site known among enthusiasts as the “Dolphin Den” provides a typically alluring case in point. A shallow cave-like swim-through, Dolphin Den is a twisting maze of tunnels and caverns so extensive that according to one down-under denizen, “you can spend your whole dive inside it.” There are plenty of openings in the ceiling to make the dive safe. But, still, he advises, “you may want to stay close to your dive buddy.”
Inside the cavern, you’ll find thousands of glittering silversides, moray eels, and perhaps even a nurse shark or two. Outside, sea lettuce slugs and sea hares abound. And scattered about, you’ll also find bottlenose dolphin bones, likely the mortal remains of a pod that pursued a school of prey and ended up hopelessly trapped in a cloud of baitfish.
All told, there are some 38 world recognized top-quality dive sites within the West End Marine Reserve alone, all within an easy swim, or at most a ten to 15-minute boat ride. In addition, Roatan hosts hundreds of shallower snorkeling areas. And, of course, the coral reef provides the best of both worlds – deep sea diving for experienced practitioners and effortless swimming for novice divers and snorkelers who prefer to glide along its 40-foot top.
That said, a few recommendations seem in order, drawn from the “Roatan regulars” who make snorkeling and diving their daily fare and can’t for the life of them understand why anyone else would do otherwise.
• Spooky Channel – No, you needn’t worry about coming across any ghosts of the deep in this distinctive venue. The name derives from getting spooked, rather than seeing spooks. Your dive through Spooky Channel takes you down a deep corridor linking the West End lagoon with the outer reef. The corridor starts out shallow, but quickly reaches a depth of nearly 90 feet, and some 50 feet across at its widest point. It’s when you look up from the depths that you’ll understand the nomenclature: the walls of the channel above you slowly converge to only about six feet apart as they approach the water’s surface.
• Bear’s Den – If you are interested in exploring underwater caverns, this is the perfect spot for you. The directions are simple: At 50 feet, begin your sojourn with a picturesque tunnel swim-through leading to an opening into the blue and then proceed down along the facing wall. You’ll soon arrive at a large plate and sheet coral outcrop providing home to myriad schools of luminous fish and, perhaps, even a few squid. Ascend to the top of the wall just 25 feet, and you will enter the inviting confines of Bear Den.
• Peter’s Place – Picture the biggest groupers you’re ever likely to see. Picture a beautiful wall undulating with Creole wrasse. Picture dog snappers dwarfing most you have even encountered. And picture free swimming moray eels and eagle rays up close and personal on every side. No, don’t picture them as in “imagine” – picture them as in be sure to bring along your camera, because Peter’s Place is the perfect place for photographs and memories that last a lifetime.
• Fish Den – Consider this an excellent spot for your first dive. Here, the fish are plentiful, and though the outer wall dips down to about 70 feet, you’ll find plenty to see and do if you stay shallower. As PADI certified SCUBA instructor Laura Radford wrote on his Sidewalk Mystic website, “It is teeming with fairy basslets, Creole wrasses, blue tangs — including juveniles which are bright yellow — several species of angelfish and parrotfish, triggerfish, grouper, blennies, filefish, trunkfish, indigo hamlets, spotted drum, trumpetfish, Christmas treeworms, banded shrimp, arrow crabs; I’ll stop. You get the picture.”
• Half Moon Bay – Rated by the Roatan Relocation and Investment Guide as one of The Island’s “prettiest dives, with healthy supplies of coral and wall formations,” Half Moon Bay offers reef stands as shallow as 30 feet and as deep as 150 feet. Here, you’ll find black corals and gorgonians, Creole wrasse and blue chromis. Groupers line the wall barely averting your approach. Sand patches and coral heads provide homes for moray eels and sea turtles. Further up the reef, a tunnel opens out onto a wall at 70 feet where you’ll find a wide variety of vibrant sponges, including green vase, rope, orange elephant ear, and tube. And as the Guide reports, this is the best spot on the island to see an abundance of eagle rays.
• Blue Channel – A quick check at the dive boards on the popular website CruiseCritic.com will tell you all you need to know about Blue Channel. In the words of one poster, echoing the sentiments of many, “It was the best snorkeling I’ve ever experienced. Better than Aruba or the Bahamas or Cayman Islands.”
Easy to access, Blue Channel is located about 300 feet from Suena Del Mar’s beachfront. The channel actually starts at ten feet and then descends to 45 feet at the top of the wall. Colorful schools of tangs, grunts, and snapper are common to the area. A series of canyons at 20 feet provide home to a porcupine fish, glassy sweepers, and moray eels. And if you arrive in mid-June to early August, expect to encounter such large schools of silversides that you may need a seeing-eye dogfish to find your way out.
That’s just a handful of the scores of top-quality dive sites making Roatan one of the world’s most popular – yet, still under-populated – Caribbean resort islands. Yet, even with all of that, there is still one other phenomenal feature of the Roatan “underworld” that sets it apart as a “must sea.” In short, night dives.
As the Roatan Guide explains:
“After every full month, a special phenomenon occurs we call ‘The Strings of pearls.’ Well, it’s actually microscopic pelagic shrimp that leave trails of phosphorescence. Drop into a sand patch, switch off your lights, and wait. Be patient, and you will see a glowing star system starting to appear all around you, constantly moving, forming new strings, fading out and forming more.
“But that’s not all. Wait until you switch your light back on, and you will see thousands and thousands of tiny pink worms that are attracted to your light. So, stay still and watch them swarm” in the blue-tinged depths of the crystalline Caribbean.
It’s all part and parcel of the sea, as Cousteau wrote, “casting its spell and holding one forever in its net of wonder.” And nowhere is the spell cast more deeply, nor the net more widely spread, than on beautiful, breathtaking Roatan Island.