East enders

Havana Bay Beach
Havana Bay Beach

February 9, 2014- Our last day in Roatan is just about perfect. Weather as good as it gets (28 degrees C, blue skies, sun) and a day of exploring with our Casa Canuck pals Stan and Joan. ‘Hosts’ is too impersonal a term for these folks. They have become good friends. We’ll  stay in touch and we know we can count on them for a prime table at Monkey Island next time we’re here for Taco Tuesday.

This morning, we say goodbye to our favourite dive master, Rino Jackson and his Toronto-raised wife Amanda at Scuba Roatan. We won’t hold it against Amanda that she successfully left the frozen north behind six years ago and is a full-fledged islander now.

Back at the Casa, Stan, Joan and fellow guest Kay (Joan’s Grade 5 teacher from a few decades back) hop into the truck and we’re off on an afternoon of exploring the east end. We follow a route along the water going through various towns and in Coxen Hole, Stan and Joan fill us in on where to get cheap haircuts, inexpensive shirts and curtains made for a bargain price.

We make a pit stop in French Harbour to see where Joan will be tutoring high school kids a couple of days a week. It’s right next door to Arch’s Iguana Farm and a few of the critters are lurking in the grass and trees but a little skittish about posing for photos.

Our next stop is Pristine Bay, a luxury golf club development where we pass muster with the security guard who raises the gate and lets us in. You need a four wheel drive or at least a mule team to negotiate the steep and winding main drive.

Perched at the highest point on a steep hill is a big, fancy home with iron gates and views of ocean on both sides of the island. Stan and Joan have heard that Sandra Bullock owns the house and Joan is sure she saw Sandra shopping at the grocery store.

As none of us golf, we admire the sweeping views and snap a few shots then keep on trucking.

We press eastward, admiring the stunning views of Roatan’s rolling green mountains and the turquoise ocean. We find the road to our intended destination, Havana Bay Beach, and soon have parked and for $5 a head, are given the privilege of walking on the sand, swimming in the ocean, and using their washrooms, showers and loungers.

The beach here is pretty spectacular – not quite West Bay calibre, but then again, it’s not crowded, packed with vendors, tourists and hotels. We have a pretty decent lunch at Lionfish Louie’s beachside bar, then strap on our fins and snorkels.

Starfish
Starfish

The reef is a fair distance away so we snorkel around a small island. At first, it seems it’s not going to be a great day for underwater viewing. The storm that ended yesterday churned things up and the visibility isn’t the greatest. Initially all we spot is seagrass. But as we progress around the island, the water is clearer and we start to notice things. Such as starfish – I see six in all. There are a couple of pretty sea anemones. Stan, Joan and Kay spot some lionfish.

We also see a porcupine fish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, more lionfish and several fish species I can’t name hanging out under a dock.

The sun is setting as we head home and the sky is a spectacular pink, gold and blue.

It’s a spectacular end to a great vacation. ‘Til we meet again, Roatan.

Good times, good friends
Good times, good friends
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Rainy day and Rusty Fish

Rusty Fish shop in West End
Rusty Fish shop in West End

It’s raining today (Friday). Not mere showers, but full-out downpours that soak you within seconds. But it’s not snowing and still warm enough to wander around in tee shirts and shorts.

One of the positives is that the shifting weather has sent much of the sargassum that washed in yesterday back out to sea.

We stop into the Roatan Marine Park office to chat with marine biologist Nick Bach to find out exactly what it is these folks do. As it turns out, this non-governmental agency does a lot to help preserve Roatan’s jewel of a coral reef.  They maintain 140 dive, fishing and yacht moorings and patrol to thwart poaching of turtles, lobster and conch. They’ve been busy in local classrooms, teaching school children how to take responsibility for the reef in the future. But instead of boring classroom lectures, they’re taking the kids out on glass bottom boat rides, on snorkel trips and on Discover Scuba dives. My elementary school science lessons weren’t nearly as fun.

Many restaurants in West End have signs designating them as participants in the Responsible Seafood Program initiated by the Marine Park. That means they are serving fish dishes such as tuna, kingfisher, wahoo, mahi-mahi, etc. that aren’t threatened, and not putting species such as grouper, parrotfish, shark or turtle that are endangered on their menus.

I do my part for the reef ecosystem at dinnertime, ordering lionfish cakes. No one knows exactly how this invasive species from Japan came to settle in the Caribbean. The most popular theory is that half a dozen of them escaped from the Biscayne Bay Aquarium in Florida during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. A more likely explanation is that hotels with large aquariums with breeding pairs unwittingly released eggs and larvae into the sea during cleaning.

Lionfish are here now in large numbers and while Nick says they can’t be wiped out, their numbers can be controlled. While they have no natural predators, eels, snappers and sharks have been spotted eating them even though they aren’t part of the usual diet. And licensed lionfish hunters are catching them and local restaurants have put lionfish on the menu (they are delicious).

Eat but don't touch
Eat but don’t touch

We saw a juvenile lionfish on our first dive last week. As Rolland went to point at it, divemaster Chip snatched back his hand. While exotic and beautiful to look at, these reddish brown and white striped fish are venomous, delivering a nasty sting that won’t kill you but cause extreme pain that lasts for hours.

“You are going to hate your life,” says Chip.

In the afternoon, we take a five minute cab ride to Alba Plaza to check out some unique Roatan industries. One of them is the Roatan Chocolate Factory, where you can watch chocolate being made fresh from Honduran cacao that comes from cacao beans grown on the island and Honduran mainland. I am in chocolate heaven! There are free samples!

After careful deliberation, we buy four bars for $15 ($5 for one bar) including one 75 per cent organic, one coffee flavoured and two sea salt bars. The sugar rush continues with a stop into the neighbouring coffee shop for a snack of cinnamon coffee cake and a big chocolate cookie to go.

Roatan chocolate
Roatan chocolate

The last stop is one of my favourite places on Roatan – the Rusty Fish. Here you can get great, reasonably priced souvenirs from fridge magnets to colourful fish, turtles and crabs to hang on your walls, made from recycled metal and painted with enamel or acrylic paint. Other recycled pieces in the shop are made from plastic and glass including some beautiful little blue and white turtles. The cool thing is that most of the source materials come from the dump.

The Rusty Fish workshop adjoins the store where you can watch the artists at work. The venture provides training and much-needed jobs for the local community as well as creates memorable made-in-Roatan items for visitors to take home. If you don’t want to venture out to the Alba Plaza workshop, a Rusty Fish shop is also open in the heart of West End.

 

 

Seaweed and live rock

Sargassum in West End
Sargassum in West End

Our plans to snorkel in Half Moon Bay hit a bit of a snag this morning (Feb. 5). A big, floating brown snag.

The bay was clear and beautiful in early morning but by 11, was blanketed under massive quantities of sargassum that had washed in. Sargassum is a brown seaweed/algae that free-floats in huge clumps in the open ocean but has been washing ashore along Caribbean beaches for months, accumulating in piles up to three feet deep. Antigua was inundated with the stuff in late fall and now it’s apparently Roatan’s turn.

The day we arrived on the island, sargassum was washed up in incredible amounts on shore and we marvelled at how hard and how quickly crews had worked to remove it with shovels and wheelbarrows. And now it has returned.

The source of the sargassum is the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic Ocean,  a massive pool of slowly rotating water bounded by  ocean currents close to Bermuda. While it’s certainly not a plus for sun-and-sand-loving tourists when it washes up on beaches, sargassum serves vital ecological purposes. The floating mats serve as nurseries for hatchling turtles, supplying nourishment and protection, act as a spawning ground for eels, dolphinfish and more, and as a habitat for shrimp, crabs and fish.

But trying to snorkel in it is not an appealing thought. It did make for an interesting morning, though, as we chatted with locals who had come to marvel at the brown floating masses. Several told us they have never seen so much of the stuff before. We watched as a boat owner slogged through the sargassum, trying to drag his stranded boat ashore. A white egret walked nimbly across the top of it.

We watched these scenes from a beachside grill known simply as Keith’s, where $6 will get you an awesome plate of fish, chicken or pork, homemade potato salad, steamed vegetables and a large glass of homemade limonade. Keith and his wife cook away at a barbecue fashioned from a 45-gallon drum and we eat at picnic tables set under canopies on the sand.

The afternoon we checked out the tee shirt offerings in a few shops and stopped into one of my favourite West End boutiques, Waves of Art. As the name suggests, it is an art gallery but has a wide selection of unique souvenirs including jewellery, local handcrafts, pottery and handmade soaps.

We returned to Casa Canuck to find that Sam and Bill, who had stayed there last week, stopped in for a visit with our hosts. They had spent a few days in Utila and filled us in on their experiences there and we all made plans to head down to Monkey Island cafe and bar after sunset for the advertised barbecue and live music event.

 

Brion James plays Monkey Island
Brion James plays Monkey Island

As Monkey Island regulars, our hosts Stan and Joan have clout and we were able to secure a good table on a night when the joint would be jammed due to guitar player/singer Brion James’ appearance later in the evening. James has lived in Roatan since 1999 and is the man responsible for bringing live rock to the island; before he left Los Angeles for Roatan, he had become a musician of renown, playing lead guitar with the funk band the Dan Reed Network, opening for the likes of the Rolling Stones and composing movie soundtracks.

When we arrive at Monkey Island, manager Adam spots our video camera and waves us into the kitchen to bear witness to the evening’s eats: beer can chicken, beer can duck, Cornish hens and a roasted pig.

We chow down on a $10 plate of beer can chicken and duck and roast pork, beans, rice and potato salad, washed down with mojitos. We are treated to the folky-bluesy stylings of Jordan and Bailey during dinner as outside the rain comes down in torrents. No one in our group of six has brought an umbrella so we figure we’ll all be in for a good soaking on the walk home.

Around 8:30, headliner Brion James, his bass player Adi (who we got to know when he managed Land’s End Lodge, our accommodations last year) and drummer Dave take the stage. Brion is a charismatic figure on stage – wiry and fit with long grey dreadlocks and the type of voice and guitar skills that speak to his stature as a professional musician. He bounces around stage, smoothly transitioning from song to song with no breaks, from Eurythmics to Maroon 5 to Rihanna hits. The place is packed and grooving to the tunes.

The rain has stopped when we leave and can hear the music in the background for the entire journey back to Casa Canuck. We encounter an interesting looking spider on  the road close to home that is likely a huntsman spider. Though he is about four inches in diameter and fierce looking, he remains still and willingly models for a few photos.

Spider on the road
Spider on the road

 

Here froggy, froggy…

What can I say? The weather is perfect
What can I say? The weather is perfect

Seeing as we are out of cereal, we treat ourselves to breakfast this morning at The Landing,  a lovely intimate little cafe on top of The Beach House hotel with a gorgeous view of Half Moon Bay.

We decide to join the 11 a.m. dive with the Scuba Roatan crew and learn we are heading to a dive site called The Wife, apparently named by one of the guys from Creedence Clearwater Revival who is not John Fogerty.

Today we are guided by the master of all dive masters, Rino Jackson, owner of Scuba Roatan and a native Honduran who has logged more than 7,000 dives on the reef. He has a vast knowledge of all the creatures that live there and today tells us we are going in search of a frogfish that hangs out there.

Down we go and spend some time swimming along the ‘wall’ and enjoying the fish swimming by. Rino is a Zen-like dive master, able to cruise along with only the slightest of movements.  Our group of five is leisurely following along when Rino commands our attention with a tap of a carabiner on his tank and points to something tucked into a coral.  It’s a bright yellow lump that on closer inspection has eyes and a mouth. It’s him! The elusive frogfish!

The frogfish
The frogfish

Frogfishes are intriguing critters.  They sit camouflaged on sponges or hide between corals and wait for their prey. When one approaches, its dorsal spine does a transformer-type thing so it resembles a lure and bait such as a worm or shrimp. When a small fish goes after this dangling treat, the frogfish expands its oral cavity and creates suction pressure inside the mouth and sucks in the unsuspecting prey.

We continue with our leisurely exploration until Rino stops to show us some kind of tiny crab. As we are peering down at it, I suddenly start floating upwards and can’t stop, even though I am firmly pressing on the button that deflates my BCD. Soon I’m at the surface and watching my fellow divers 50 feet down looking for me. Hey guys, I’m up here!

Finally Rino spots me and meets me at the mooring line where he drops one of his weights in my pocket and I’m able to descend again. We swim for a few minutes then Rolland realizes his tank is almost empty and has to head for the boat. Between the two of us, we’ve given Rino quite the workout today.

We spend late afternoon strolling up and down West End. It’s always a fun place to hang out and we discover C Level, a bar and restaurant associated with a dive shop (as several of them are). We order up a couple of chocolate banana smoothies and enjoy chatting with Mike, a Torontonian who spends five months a year here.

Socializing at C Level
Socializing at C Level

We stock up on Raisin Bran at Super Mini Golden Star – kind of a Mac’s Milk with liquor – then continue our walk, stopping to soak up the vibrant atmosphere and take pictures along the way.

Sunset on Half Moon Bay
Sunset on Half Moon Bay

Tomorrow we have no plans  – maybe some snorkeling at Half Moon Bay, maybe a trek to the east end of the island with our Casa Canuck hosts. We are fully into vacation mode and already disliking that we have just a few more days here.

 

 

 

In search of Sponge Bob

I hear it's snowing at home
I hear it’s snowing at home

I have never watched an episode of Sponge Bob Squarepants, the children’s cartoon TV show, but my significant other tells me ol’ Sponge lives in the town of Bikini Bottom.

That’s where we are headed today on this gorgeous sunny day – not to the fictitious cartoon town, but a dive site of that name just a brief boat ride from Scuba Roatan’s headquarters.  Our dive master Suzanne tells us that as part of a charity fundraiser, the top donor was allowed to name the dive site whatever he or she wished. The winner obviously is a big fan of Sponge Bob.

Every dive is getting easier and in short order, we are leisurely exploring the sandy ocean floor (not evidence of a single bikini bottom to be found) and winding through the reef’s coral canals.  There is quite a bit of sea life to take in, including a ruffled edge sea slug that is far more beautiful than his land-living cousins, blue chromis, feeding parrotfish and the highlight – a green turtle lounging on a coral shelf. He is totally unperturbed by the divers who circle him taking photos and videos and doesn’t budge. It’s a thrill to get up close with the sea creatures in their natural environment.

Suzette finds the remnants of an octopus's crab dinner
Suzanne finds the remnants of an octopus’s crab dinner
Green turtle looking a tad bluish
Green turtle looking a tad bluish

No sightings of Sponge Bob, Patrick Starfish or Squidward today. But Suzanne points out a large crab claw resting on the sandy floor and we suspect that Mr. Crabs may have ended up as an octopus’s dinner.

As tonight is $1 taco night at Monkey Island, we decide a light lunch is best so pull up stools at Sundowner’s, a popular bar with ex-pats.  Hockey fever is alive and well here as the owner is a Canadian and ardent Leafs fan (poor deluded guy). You may be in the tropics, but no need to miss a game thanks to Sundowner’s big screen TV.

Turns out a shared plate of nachos didn’t fully satisfy the appetite we worked up on our dive, so we head to the ice cream shop for a couple of cones, and pick up some bananas and mandarin oranges from the corner fruit stand for good measure.

Now we are revved up on chocolate espresso ice cream and there is still some daylight to burn, so back at Casa Canuck, we grab the kayaks. You can take the Canadians out of Canada, but you can’t take the Canada out of Canadians. If you weren’t born with a hockey stick in your hand, a paddle likely served as your baby rattle.

Paddling around Mangrove Bight
Paddling around Mangrove Bight

We take a tour around Mangrove Bight. What’s a bight you ask? It’s a wide bay formed by a bend in the shoreline and Mangrove Bight, as you might surmise, is ringed by mangroves as well as a mix of ex-pat homes, a small condo complex and homes owned by Hondurans.

At 6:15 p.m. we meet our hosts Stan and Joan on the deck and with new Casa Canuck guest Kay, we journey down to Monkey Island, indulge in a refreshing pina colada, tasty $1 tacos and a complimentary fruity shot of some sort. Now that’s how to live when you hear 20 centimetres of snow has fallen in your backyard back in Ontario.

 

West Bay day

Fish were everywhere at West Bay
Fish were everywhere at West Bay

It’s Groundhog Day and Wiarton Willie would have no trouble seeing his shadow on Roatan today on this hot, blue sky day.

I understand there’s a snowstorm going on at home in Ontario. So in unity with our Canadian comrades, we seek out the most reasonable facsimile we can find and that’s the white sand of West Bay Beach.

Water taxi is the only way to travel on such a beautiful day and our driver Omar zips us across for the quick ride to West Bay Beach, considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It’s busy but not overly crowded today – tomorrow when several mega cruise ships will be in port, it will be packed with cruisers determined to make the most of their day in the sun. We make a beeline for the far end of the beach by the Infinity Bay Resort where we’ve been told the snorkeling is superb.

It is no idle boast. As soon as we don our fins and are in water barely above our knees, fish are everywhere, including sergeant majors, angelfish and some other fairly large ones whose identity is beyond my piscine recognition skills.

Spotted on the reef near Infinity Bay resort
Spotted on the reef near Infinity Bay resort

The reef is a little tricky to negotiate where the coral is high and the water shallow but we manage to navigate our way through its channels into deeper water and can tell from the hue of the ‘deep blue’ in the near distance that we have come close to the wall, where the reef suddenly gives way to a huge drop to seemingly endless depths.

We stick close to the reef and spend an enjoyable couple of hours watching its colourful inhabitants swim and feed. (Awesome video to come once we get home).

Sometimes I wonder how low I will go (60 feet deep apparently based on yesterday’s dive) and to what heights for my significant other who tends to be the instigator of these adventures. Today it was 800 feet in the sky as we got strapped into harnesses and made like a tandem human kite behind a speed boat. Or as it’s more commonly know, parasailing.

Up, up and away
Up, up and away

It was like sitting in a big, gently rocking swing high above the water and I had not the slightest trepidation about being so lofty. Our perch afforded an incredible view of the ocean and Roatan’s green, hilly landscape and it ended far too soon.

With so many adventures packed into one day, we headed back to West End in Omar’s water taxi, stopping briefly to tow a stranded boater to shore enroute, then went to The Landing for a bite to eat.

There we ran into the crew from Ruthless Roatan – Tim, Michelle and Blue – who took us on our most memorable Roatan adventure last year: a boat trip to Cayos Cochinos where we snorkeled in the most pristine water we’d ever seen and spent a few fascinating hours with the Garifuna tribe, who live without electricity or running water.

Seeing the Ruthless gang twigged our memory of our fantastic time last year and now we have a dilemma: Should we book a Ruthless repeat? Cayos might not be in the cards but the sunset cruise sounds tempting. Stay tuned! So much to do, so little time.

 

 

Diving in

Under the dock fish
Under the dock fish

FEBRUARY 1, 2015- It’s February 1 and it’s the kind of perfect Roatan weather we remembered from last year – brilliant blue skies and pleasant 80 degree heat. Yesterday it poured all day but at least it was warm enough to wander around with umbrellas and we were wearing shorts and tee shirts, not parkas and snow boots.
We grab our snorkels and fins and head down to Scuba Roatan for a refresher on the diving skills we learned last year.
Our dive master is Chip Allen, a big teddy bear of a Kentuckian with a voice as rich and soothing as Jim Beam bourbon. We review the fundamentals under the dock in Half Moon Bay where we spot a juvenile lionfish (they are an invasive species and will sting if you touch them), a big lobster and grunts. We are declared ready for open water and hop in the boat bound for Melissa’s Reef.
What a difference a year makes – or maybe it’s just Chip’s ‘Darlin’ assurances – but the fear and anxiety that gripped me for the first few dives last year is gone. I feel totally comfortable until we descend and my ears object to the pressure. I keep swallowing and moving my jaw and the pressure eases.

A school of blue tang
A school of blue tang

The reef is alive with fish – the types you might see in aquariums, such as blue tangs, parrotfish and sergeant majors and various coral types, such as barrel coral and pillar coral. Things get more exciting as Chip leads through narrow channels through the coral which puts my buoyancy skills to the test and we go to the edge of the ‘wall’ –a spectacular drop to seemingly infinity where the water is a deep, electric blue. As a fairly novice diver, I’m not to dive deeper than 60 feet and when I check my handy new dive computer after the dive, I have stayed within those parameters and gone to 58 feet.
We stick close to the reef and one of my biggest apprehensions about diving comes to life – below me is a large moray eel, about four or five feet long with a face that looks like a prehistoric dinosaur’s or that critter from Alien. If I spotted one of these slithery green things on land, it would be the stuff of nightmares. But on the reef, it’s like I’m an observer in a large, peaceful aquarium and I admire its sinewy green beauty as it glides along. As we head back to the boat, Chip points down and I have my second moray eel sighting of the day – this one is tucked into the reef and only his bright green head is poking out.
I undo my weight belt, shrug out of my BCD and hand them to boat driver Ander. We scramble back in the boat and I’m shivering in the breeze and my mouth is dry and tastes like salty brine, but I’m happy. I did it!