AJ and I both did our open water classes in a nasty reservoir with zero visibility and a use of a rope necessary to guide us along the bottom.
Our first opportunity to go together was in Croatia. And although in every other aspect the country far exceeds every expectation, the diving was a bit of a disaster. To keep it brief, I ended up with a bloody nose and a blown eardrum and totally vanished from AJ (on his first dive) and he found me safe and sound on the deck of the boat after a slight panic. Needless to say we had to have a do over.
Utica was the perfect place to start enjoying diving for the first time. Its a small island. You take a ferry from mainland honduras or you can fly in on a tiny plane. The main street is big enough for a tuk tuk to pass by each other, your supermarket is a bigger than average tienda, and the beach fleas may follow you home to bed. Having said that, it is a little paradise for diving. The main street may be small but what it lacks for in size it makes up with in restaurants, diving centers (around 20 all nice, and reputable), and don’t forget the bars and party scene.
The diving center we chose for the week was Captain Morgans because they came highly recommended to us and they also did tours around the whole island. We weren’t disappointed! We did one refresher course that was just the two of us and an instructor doing one on one skills that got us comfortable in the ocean. Then we ended up to four more dives with the same instructor who was a very patient, adorable Aussie. She showed us lobsters, numerous fish, she spear fished a few lion fish (they are killing the reef), eels, and huge brain and tube corals. It was just so nice and easy. Perfect!
One of the best parts of Utila is that it is the bottom end of the Belize Barrier Reef system, only second to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The water is warm, the reef is still alive with beautiful fish and coral, it is fairly protected from predators (sharks), and it only costs around $15-$23 per tank. It is the perfect place to learn to love to dive. We both left the island with a whole new perspective of diving, excited to do more.
We ended up staying with friends of friends who ended up being fantastic! Jim and Karen, we still can’t thank you enough. They took us in before we were going to board the ferry for the weekend. Their perfect little “dive shack” on the beach is an amazing oasis! Karen is micro-biology teacher in a posh high school in Panama City and she came diving with us. We went through the company that shares their dock. They took us out near a small island facing Portobello for $50/per tank. It was nice, especially because we were with Karen while she is literally in her backyard, pointing out all of the different life that we wouldn’t have seen.
It wasn’t very technical, which is fine because we enjoyed having another easy dive under our belts. The water was still warm, but we experienced our first currents that weren’t too strong but would send cold drafts of ocean through our wet suits. It was nice to have a starter class in currents and realize it wasn’t too difficult to manage.
The most we saw on this dive was tiny jellyfish that were floating in clouds through the ocean. Some stung a bit but only a small tingle. The water was full of fish as well. Unfortunately, the reef has been chopped up a lot from the canal and oil so its a bit of lower visibility and less color.
Puerto Lopez, Islas Los Ahorcados, Ecuador
We are hooked now. And if we could only go to Galapagos! We are both confident now and are ready for more. More of a challenge, more animals, and maybe even a shark or two… But we have our little fur baby (Alex) and we can’t take him and we just can’t leave him anywhere. So second place is “The poor man’s Galapagos” or Isla de la Plata. Our actual dive area was Islas Los Ahorcados, just south of Puerto Lopez.
We pulled into Puerto Lopez with hopes of diving the next day. Unfortunately, Alex and I were indisposed for a day or two and we baked in our camper in blistering equator sun waiting for us to recover. We decided to head up to this place on the cliff when I could finally be 5 ft from a john. It was about 15 miles from Puerto Lopez, but a world away.
It’s called Hosteria Salango Islamar, and its a huge cliff owned by a really cool swiss guy. He let us park on the cliff with the wind and the incredible view of the islands facing the mainland. Almost close enough to touch! Patricia runs the kitchen and cooks you up the fresh catch of the day, whatever it might be. We were just walking up to ask her about diving (I was back to 100%) when these two dive masters came up to drop off some flyers. They were awesome, Marcello was from Spain and JD was from France who both spoke fluent English.
We went down off a little island that was full of life for $40/per tank. It was Marcello, the two of us and a really cool chick from Washington that was actually in Utila the same time we were (never met). It was our first taste of real current. Cold blasts that could knock you back a couple feet. And then out of the blue you would be in warm calm water. It could get intense but it was really cool. Not scary, there was reef, but it big enough to swim through and not worry about taking coral, or yourself out when you hit a current. The fish were intense too because you got both warm and cold fish. We also saw a really bright seahorse, it was beautiful! We had a blast! This was our first time with a very laid back scene where it felt good to be confident on our own with our own skills. But they also had a second group that was discovery diving, in case you didn’t feel confident or were still learning you could go with this group. Highly recommend these guys!
We crossed the boarder of Ecuador with enough time to make it to Mancora, Peru. A beautiful little surf town thats full of yummy restaurants, friendly locals, and a fantastic beach. There’s tons of bars and restaurants on the with chairs all along the beach serving fresh ceviche and pisco sours. The surf is beginner to intermediate and its fun to sit and watch.
Our dive company came highly recommend by lonely planet and trip advisor, plus they were the first PADI diver shop in Peru. They took us out to an abandoned oil rig that was mind blowing. It has more life than any active coral that we have seen so far. It’s insane. I can hardly describe how it was. They drove us to the next town down and took us on a 15 minute boat ride. The guys working for them had all of our gear-including wet suit, bvd attached to our first tank, gloves due to large amounts of anemones that we might bump, and anything else we might have needed on the boat ready to go according to the weights and sizes we had given them the day before. It was first class service!
Then our guide took me, AJ, and another super fun Argentinian with us. We pulled up to the old oil rig and the top half above water it already teaming with life. You could see the birds when we left the dock, but as we got up closer we heard the sea lions grunting to each other. They are huge, Cynthia our dive master, told us they can weigh up to 400 kg! Big fatties just soaking in the sun! We parked the boat near the rig and jumped off right when one of the sea lions jumped in. He just kind of checked us out and swam away, to our disappointment. But then as we submerged under the water we were blown away.
I can’t do it justice just talking about it. I’m glad that AJ felt confident enough with his diving to take his camera in his mother of all cases (its quite a commitment) for the first time on a dive. The oil rig was so full of life that if you could only stare at one square inch for an hour it would have been more than enough. So before I knew it, it was time to ascend. We had a snack and swim then headed back down with our second tank. Once again, I didn’t have to do anything but sit pretty!! We jumped in, and again three sea lions dove into the water at the same time. Our guide told us not to get our hopes up because they only get close on rare occasions.
This was one of those occasions. They swam right by us. I looked one right in its beautiful blue eyes. I was stock still and just sucking down the oxygen like no tomorrow, it was amazing. They did a few laps and swam off. We looked around a bit on the oil rig then as we made our way back up they came around again, almost showing off. For as big as they are, they are so graceful under the water, playing and dancing with one another and as powerful as any animal I have ever seen on land.
The currents were strong and the spaces small, it proved a challenge to swim through and not hit anything. They have ropes on the rig to grab onto when the current wants to sweep you away. There are a lot of judgement calls as to how much to kick and if the current is going to change on you. It was really fun to swim and challenge yourself, but also fun to sit and watch all of the life. I would highly recommend this dive center. They also had a beginner class going while we were diving. They didn’t go as deep but they still saw really cool stuff, I think that would have been really cool way to start here and see all this life with a little challenge.