As you all know now, Heather did not make it through the PADI Open Water scuba course so it has fallen to me to complete the arduous task of describing the amazing experience that was learning to scuba dive. Sometimes life is so rough…Oh, and apologies (especially to those physicists who might read this) for the mixed units; scuba depths are quoted in meters but I’m American so feet and inches come quicker.
We’ll start out with a quick overview of the course and what’s required for certification and I’ll describe the OW dives in a block and then each individual dive after that. At Captain Morgan’s the open water course is 4 days long and involves about 4 hours of instructional videos that cover the “theory” behind scuba, followed by two ~2.5 hour periods in “confined water” (just what it sounds like) where you learn various skills for scuba diving (taking off and clearing your mask, responding to you or a buddy running out of air, regulator free-flow etc), and then 4 open water dives with some repeating of skills but mostly just getting comfortable diving. The courses on Utila all come with at least 2 Free Fun Dives (FFDs),” and if they don’t you spent your money at the wrong place.
Before I talk much about the dives I should mention that if you ever hear anything about diving in Utila you will hear that the North Side of the island is much better, less safe and visited for diving, but better. And those people would be right. However, CM’s does not typically take students to the north side for “training dives” so we stuck to the south side for the first 4 dives. But they were still unbelievably spectacular. I’m not kidding when I say that even if you have been snorkeling in some the best waters in the world, that nothing compares to having almost complete freedom underwater in the middle of a stunningly beautiful a coral reef teeming with fish, turtles, eels, and sting rays.
I spent a lot of the first two open water dives (dive sites Big Rock and Silver Garden) focusing on breath control, or swimming, or any of the various things you are inundated with when it’s you first time scuba diving, but I still had the presence of mind to look around ad float in the ocean awestruck by reefs and ocean life. By the second day I had become comfortable enough with the experience and the equipment to really start looking around and spend more of my attention enjoying the dives. This turned out to be a good thing because instead of just diving over a regular old reef with only a few thousand brightly covered fish (I know, sounds so lame huh?) as we had done the previous day, we dove at Jack Neil Beach with a reef-covered wall that dropped about 25 m to the ocean floor. On that wall I saw my very first sea turtle on Utila. and of course one of the things that makes scuba so cool is that you don’t have to just watch until something goes out of sight or reach, so we got to watch this turtle for almost 5 minutes just swim around the wall looking for food. But that was only 5 minutes of the dive, we were down for another 39 minutes after that checking out more and more sea life.
Needless to say I was loving it. I love being able to stick your face practically inside a fluorescent blue sea sponge, or watch a green moray eel poke its head out of a hole in search of food, or really anything that can be found in good diving. I was loving it so much that when Laurent (my hilariously french instructor) proposed I take the Advanced Open Water (AOW) course I said yes, even though it was far outside of our budget. The AOW is a lot more fun that the open water as it is basically just 5 more dives with certain twists on them, plus 2 more free fun dives. You are certified to dive in wrecked ships, go on deep water and night dives, dive in a dry suit… All that good stuff that you would miss out on if you just had your open water certification that limits you to 18 m, daytime, no-wreck dives etc. On to the individual dive sites.
AOW Deep/Wreck Dive: Technically you’re supposed to do separate dives for the deep and the wreck components of the AOW certification but because there is only one wreck reachable by “recreational” divers (< 40 m) at Utila that is good for instruction so Laurent was forced to combine the two. This was the Halliburton wreck, which was an old cargo ship about 35 m in length and at a 30 m depth. It was super cool and it was just me, my dive buddy Alan (a Brit living in rio DUlce, Guatemala), and Laurent. Once down there we got to play with an egg yolk (acts like a balloon) and have fun with the sunken grill, numerous bicycles, and toilet mounted to the bow of the ship. Alan had an issue with his pressure gauge oscillating when he took a breath so he had to share air with Laurent for a while but since I was good to go he let me swim through the captain’s cabin and the bridge. Then we practiced using air from a drop tank (just a spare tank weighted and sunk at 5 m).
AOW Navigation Dive: On the navigation dive, which we did at Airport Caves, you learn how to use a compass (easy for an ex-boy scout despite being underwater), swim in various geometric shapes, and keep track of distances during a dive. After about 15 minutes of that we just got to fun dive around a cool cave that we sat down in and looked up through a hole at some fish, and through a “swim through” (a cave without a complete roof).
AOW Night Dive: We got back from the previous two dives (we were on the afternoon boat) and had to basically charge right back out for our night dive at Black Coral Wall. We ended up with some new AOW students here so our group got a bit larger, not mention that the usual slew of Dive Masters/Dive Masters in Training that are usually on the boats but who don’t dive in the same group were now with us due to the fact it was a night dive. But I still got to be dive buddies with Alan. There really wasn’t that much different other than having to use a flashlight and obviously not being able to see well, but it was still cool. We saw a pretty big lionfish (~1.5 ft long, I didn’t get a great look at it), a HUGE spiny lobster (2 ft long easy), and a pretty massive porcupine fish (2.5 ft long). At the end of the dive we all sat on the sand, turned off our lights and Laurent stirred up the water enough that the plankton fluoresced (which I didn’t know would happen). When we surfaced there was some pretty big swell (about 4-5 feet) and we were almost 300 ft from the boat…so it was a rough swim back. My opinion is that night diving is cool but the novelty doesn’t make up for not being able to see even close to as much.
AOW Deep (official) Dive: Halliburton was technically the wreck dive so the morning after the night dive we headed to the North Side for the first time! I was super excited. As we arrived at the dive site Laurent was informed by our captain that the buoy for The Maze had unexpectedly ripped off and so we had to change plans and do a different site: The Great Wall. And yes, the North Side is indeed better because what you get up there are sheer walls about 100-150 m high (sometimes you can see the sea floor) and then the blue. So cool! We started down, Alan and I in the back with instructions from Laurent to enjoy the dive while he instructed the newcomers on the things he had shown us at Halliburton, and I ended up going a bit deeper than we were supposed to because Laurent lost the 30 m sea floor he was planning on having for he exercises at The Maze. He hit about 33 m and I hit about 37 (oops). But I was just having too much fun. We ended up seeing a green moray eel and a small ~5 in lionfish. It was a great dive (my favorite of the 13 dives I did) despite some issues with…ungainly, shall we say, divers among the newcomers. I thought the issues they were having on the night dive was just because it was dark…guess not.
AOW “Peak Performance & Buoyancy”/Fish ID Dive: This is really just a fun where you try to focus on controlling our buoyancy with your breath and identifying some fish. We headed back to the South Side and to Black Coral Wall, which is a really cool dive site when you can see more of it. We saw LOTS of fish, the coolest of which was a flounder, 2 squids about 10 in long, and a gigantic white sting ray that was easily 4 ft across. After surfacing I was certified as an Advanced Open Water Diver!
FFD Airport Caves: The first of my 4 FFDs was back at airport caves with DM Kate (another Brit) and it was just the two of us. I told her which caves I had done with Laurent and Allan already so she decided to come up with a bit of a different path that would take us by an old wrecked sail boat and more caves. The boat was cool but there were no openings large enough to get into it without quite a bit of trouble. The other caves were cooler as when we entered to the first one we immediately saw a green moray at least 6 ft long swimming right across our field of view! He saw us and sat down on the sand around a rock but we maneuvered so we could check him out a bit more. Really cool as you almost never get to see a moray outside of a hole. The next cave we went into was a longer one (almost 15 m to swim all the way through it) and we saw a big porcupine fish and a cool school of cave fish.
FFD Ted’s Point: Ted’s point was a little more mundane and we didn’t really see any cool wildlife but the coral fields were amazing. They just gradually sloped off into the distance and were full of big barrel sponges and of course fish. I really enjoyed just diving with Kate as it was super laid back. Just before we surfaced, Heather (who had come on the boat for some snorkeling) spotted a baby turtle in the ocean. One of the other divers decided it wasn’t looking so good so we brought it back to CM’s, named it Oliver, and tried to give him a hand.
FFD Duppy Waters: The boat this morning was named “North Side Fever” and we did indeed make it there. Today I got buddied with Karl (you all remember Karl right?), which was cool because he was leading the dive so I got to be in the front the whole time and more away from the less graceful divers (more on that in a minute). Duppy Waters is another great example of the amazing continental shelf on the North Side but to get to the wall you have to swim along a sandy area, through a canyon that opens out to the blue! Very impressive, and this time there was no bottom on sight. This was a really fun dive and my second favorite, partially due to the comedic relief of some of the other divers in the group just being a bit klutzy. Nothing dangerous or anything but we had two pairs of divers who had to surface early due to some silliness or other on their part. But I just stuck on Karl’s side and those of us remaining had a laugh.
FFD Sting Ray Point: We headed back to the South Side and Sting Ray Point for the last of my dives on Utila, which we had actually dove at on day two of the OW course but it had not lived up to its name. I was hoping it would, especially since these “eagle rays” people kept talking about and seeing sounded so cool. However, before we got to the dive site we saw a cluster of dive boats and people in the water with no tanks. We were all hoping for whale sharks but we got a school of 12-15 dolphin about 4 ft long. We spent about half an hour chasing them around and trying to get a chance to actually swim with them but all we ended up getting was about 4-5 s of being in the water and seeing them. We saw a lot more of them when we were on the boat. still super cool though. Anyway, Sting ray Point did indeed live up to its name as about 20 minutes into the dive Karl and I turned around simultaneously in time to see one spotted eagle ray about 4 ft across swimming basically right towards us. We let it pass and then followed it for about 3 minutes. It was definitely the coolest animal I spotted while diving.
Well that about sums up my diving experience on Utils my friends. It was expensive, even though its the second cheapest place in the world to learn, but it was worth every penny and I fully intend to keep diving and seeing more amazing things. Oh, and also to try to persuade Heather that she should give it another try and get as much out of it as I did.