We’d been hearing about Roatan for years as a premier dive destination, so when the opportunity arose to spend a week there we grabbed it! We didn’t know much about the island and what other activities there might be to offer, but we did know we wanted to dive as much as possible. Average water temperature around Roatan is 78-84 F, which is about ideal for us! There are over 130 dive sites around the island’s coast. We also read that the Bay Islands are home to 95% of the Caribbean’s coral and fish species, making it truly diverse. Oh, and though we didn’t think there was much of a chance in the season we visited, the area is well known for whale sharks, one of our dream bucket list items.
Diving Roatan: Getting There
Roatan is one of the three Bay Islands that lie off the coast of Honduras. It’s a little over an hour’s ride by boat from the town of La Ceiba. There are domestic flights available from within Honduras as well. We were able to get a direct flight on Delta from Atlanta. That flight runs once a week. American offers direct flights from Dallas and Miami. Most of the resorts on the island are clustered around West End and West Bay, about 20 minutes west of the airport. We stayed about 30 minutes in the other direction from the airport, at Parrot Tree Plantation, on the south side of the island. The resort was lovely, but if you’re a diver, you may want to look for a hotel with a dive shop onsite. There are a number of large dive operations around but we were looking for something more personal and laid-back. We reached out to Subway Watersports, which seemed like it would be a great fit.
Subway Watersports is located at the Turquoise Bay Dive and Beach Resort, on the northeast shore of the island, the only shop operating from this part of the island. They are a PADI 5-Star Instructor Development shop, and offer courses and internships as well as general day dives and dive packages. The diving at Subway is “valet” or “concierge” style, which means that your equipment is set up for you on the boat, including switching out tanks between dives. There were three boats operating while we were there, two smaller and one a little larger. The vessels can be a little tight on space, but the maximum number of divers is 10, and our group ranged from 5-10 on the three days we dove.
We only needed a regulator and BCD, but all of the rental equipment we saw was in good condition and from high-end brands like Mares and Cressi. Subway generally leaves for its nearby sites at 8:45 and 10:45 am. Many dive sites are close enough that the boat returns to the shop for surface intervals. Some days there is a third dive to a more distant dive site in the afternoon. There is also at least one night dive each week. The shop can arrange day-trips to Cochino Bay and other spots, and can help coordinate fishing or snorkeling trips as well.
Subway operates from the north coast of Roatan, the only shop in that area of the island. The dive sites they visit regularly are on this side. In speaking with other divers who’d visited the island before, the general consensus was that the north side has the best sites. (Of course, visibility and nature have their own plans, so a great spot one day may not look at all the same the next day.) The north side is definitely less crowded, and this can especially be an issue when cruise ships are in port. Since the weather had been unstable, and the seas rough, Subway’s boats had been brought around to the south side of the island. Apparently this happens most often in December and March, when northerly winds tend to be strongest. We really appreciated the smooth transition. We would have thought this was the way things went every day. After getting outfitted with any equipment that needed to be rented at the shop, we sat for a detailed briefing by one of the shop managers, Max. He explained the plan for the day, and an idea of what might happen later in the week. Divers were then brought by van to French Cay where we boarded our boat.
Diving the South Coast
Our first day out, we did two dives. It seemed divers had been divided according to skill and experience level, as all of the divers on our boat seemed to be quite familiar with equipment, quick to suit up and get in the water, and roughly similar in air consumption. This made for a great dynamic, as there were none of the sometimes hard feelings about less experienced divers slowing things down for others. The captain of our boat, Pedro, was friendly and helpful, and more than willing to assist the divemaster with getting divers in and out of the water. We were happy to learn that our divemaster, Maynor, had started with the company as a boat captain himself, and had the opportunity at Subway to complete divemaster training and further his career in the industry. He had grown up on Roatan, and it’s always nice to see dive shops supporting the local community in that way.
Our first south side dives were at 40-foot Point and First Bight Wall. Both of these are walls, so you start deeper and make your way up. Highlights included soft and hard corals with some really cool Gorgonian coral. We also saw a massive King crab that made Donny hungry as did a bunch of lobsters. On our first dive we saw a medium-sized Green sea turtle who was very curious, and hung out with two divers, checking them out at length and posing for photos. The next day we dove Prince Albert Wreck, a 140-foot freighter, mostly intact that you can get inside pretty easily and swim through. Visibility there was dismal, so we didn’t see much, but we were impressed by the nearby wall that had some huge overhangs. We also got a great view of a green moray eel at the end of the dive. Those needle-sharp teeth are so scary! Over at Valley of the Kings, things looked much better. There were many coral blocks populated by countless reef fish, especially juveniles. It always amazes us how different the stages of development look. They barely seem like the same species. After the second dive, the Subway van took us back to the shop, where we had time for a long lunch and some relaxation on the beach as the boat captains brought the boats back around the island. That meant the third dive of the day was on the north side!
Diving the North Coast
Visibility on all of our dives on the north side was very good. The colors were brilliant, and we saw tons of sea life. All the typical players made an appearance: butterfly fish, angelfish, parrotfish, little fairy basslets, wrasse, snappers, surgeonfish. One of my personal favorites is the trunkfish, and we saw a number of those spotted friends, almost square in shape. The Emily’s Cay site featured several large schools as well as some large grouper.
The huge barrel sponges at “The Sponges” dive site were amazing, as big as us! There are also some great fan corals elk horn corals at shallow depth here that made for some really good photo ops. At the beginning of the dive we saw a large nurse shark from a distance. Fuego del Mar had another green sea turtle. Like our last dive side at the Labyrinth, Fuego del Mar had some really neat, narrow swim-throughs. The tall rock formations and deep canyons with overhangs made good hiding places for lots of sea life.
Among the lucky sightings we had on our dives were a bearded toadfish and a very well-camouflaged scorpionfish. Come to think of it, a fireworm and a couple of banded coral shrimp were very good at hiding themselves too, but not from the divemaster’s eagle eye.
Roatan Marine Park and the Lionfish Issue
The non-profit Roatan Marine Park encourages conservative dive practices, among other ways to preserve the island’s coral reef system. Their offices and Eco-Store are located in West End, and worth a visit if you go into town. The organization also leads a program to deal with the invasive, non-indigenous species, the lionfish, which have become a problem in Roatan and other parts of the Caribbean. It’s said that all lionfish in the Caribbean are likely descended from lionfish that were accidentally released into the Atlantic from Biscayne Bay (Florida) after hurricane Andrew in 1992. They reproduce more quickly in the warm Caribbean waters, and their poisonous spines make them difficult prey for many predators. They are a big threat to native reef fish. The proactive approach in dealing with this problem includes education, but also active culling of the lionfish population. Subway Watersports and other dive operations support the project by spearing lionfish as they are encountered, but also getting divers involved in lionfish safaris. Participants must first be trained and licensed via a workshop to ensure the proper use of spears for personal safety and that of the reef as well. On our dives we saw four or five lionfish, and while they’re pretty to look at, the risks involved with allowing their unrestricted population are undeniable.
Disclosure: This post is sponsored in part by Subway Watersports, who introduced us to the joys of diving in Roatan our first day on the island. We were impressed by their services, and decided to dive with them the rest of our week there. Check them out on Facebook!