Útila: Through the Ringer

There are three universally known and frequently heard spoken lies on the island of Útila:

  1. “I love you” (No you don’t)
  2. “I’m not drinking tonight” (Yes you will)
  3. “I’m leaving tomorrow (No you won’t)

The trio of facetious statements were made popular by the YouTube hit “If you come to Utila”. This satirical yet stunningly accurate viral video was filmed in and around the infamous Útilan dive center and hostel, Underwater Vision, where I called home for my time on the island. Over the course of a week I began my studies and love affair with the art of scuba and, contrary to the third Útilan lie, I did eventually leave. Now I look to recount my experience to you, dear reader. Follow me from the surface to the depths of a most magical and carefree place.

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After my time in the Honduran mountains came to an end, I spent a few days in San Pedro Sula before moving onward to La Ceiba, where people can ferry to the three bay islands (Roatan, Útila, and Guanaja) 

Before getting to the island I met Jasha, a German, at La Madrugada hostel in San Pedro, I met David, an Irishman, on my bus ride to La Ceiba, and I met Julian and Chantelle, A German and Canadian respectively, on the ferry through the Caribbean from La Ceiba to Útila. I spoke with each of them about their plans for their time on the island. Their thoughts echoed those of Blue and Holly, the couple I met in Semuc Champey, and those of Nick, an American whom I met in Xela.

Across the board there was a clear, choice destination for Útila. Underwater Vision.

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The sign over the road reads “Underwater Vision – Dive Center Since 1991”. A great year…the Soviet Union collapsed and I entered the world, among other things.

Upon arrival our multicultural group disembarked the vessel and made our way through the small city, lugging our heavy bags, dodging tuk-tuks, and resisting the tempting smells of street-side baleada vendors.  Dozens of dive shops are littered up and down the main strip, most offering a range of scuba courses with free accommodation. Before long we have reached our destination; I immediately understand what all the acclaim is about.

Located near all the action, Underwater Vision features a private beach, volleyball court, dozens of hammocks, lounge areas, bar/restaurant, dorms, private dock, and, of course, the dive shop itself. The staff is friendly, gregarious, and super diverse. Hostel goers are seen lying around, sunbathing, drinking beer, smoking, playing pool, reading, nursing a hangover in the hammocks, preparing for a dive, munching on the delicious restaurant food, or just generally wasting away.  It’s a little slice of heaven, situated on an island in the Caribbean.

No wonder it’s a fixture on the Gringo Trail.

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Chantelle relaxing on the dock.
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Dorms

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The lot of us are completely sold after taking a brief tour of the complex. We all put pen to paper, signing up to begin our Open Water Certification course the next day. I am then shown to my dorm room (included in the diving package) which I shared with David, Jasha, and Nitzan, a young man from Israel.

Our class featured an Irishman, a Canadian, a Norwegian, two Israelis, two Aussies, and yours truly, the lone American. Our instructors hailed from Israel, Colombia, and Austria. As such our time outside of learning the craft was filled with awesome cultural exchanges.

That said, we were certainly put through the ringer over the course of the following three days.

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Our instructors, Liz, Vicki, and the ever charming Bar, from Austria, Colombia, and Israel, respectively.

At 7 AM the next morning we began our classroom instruction on the theory of diving, what would be the most tedious part of our course. We were put through hours of educational video, note taking, quizzes and whatnot. Then, after passing a swim test, proving we can float long enough without aid, and learning how to assemble our scuba kit from start to finish,  we begin our underwater instruction.

This, the “confined” portion of our training, involved proving our scuba acumen through a variety of skills-based tests. During these sessions we sit knees to the seabed, watching our instructors as they demonstrate skills we had already discussed on land, before being made to do them ourselves. I fly through some of the skills and struggle with others. I generally found the most difficult part to be controlling my buoyancy through breathing. One deep breath causes me to float upward, a series of short breaths sends me plunging downward. At first I have to constantly think about this before it eventually becomes second nature.

I liken our training to that of Dr. Strange in the upcoming Marvel movie (of the same name). In it, Strange travels to a faraway land in the east and meets The Ancient One, a powerful sage who explains to him the true nature of the universe.

“What if I told you the reality you know is one of many?”

Indeed, being under the water for an extended period certainly feels like occupying another reality. There are a different set of rules. More possibilities. But also more room for error, for things to go horribly wrong. Mastering the art of underwater movement is something of a mystic art, much like the kind Strange practices.

(In this metaphor, Bar, our lead instructor, is the Ancient One I suppose. On land, the not-so-ancient Israeli is a coy and oft showy 24 year old. Under the water, he is a tour-de-force of scuba prowess. He is patient, adept with his instruction, and moves through our exercises with grace and a deft hand. A master of this particular mystic art form.)

So as not to misuse our new powers, Bar teaches us to handle virtually any problematic situation that could occur while beneath the surface. What to do if we run out of air. If our partner runs out of air. If we get lost. If we lose our partner. If we lose our mask. If our gear falls off. If we get snagged on coral. If a hostile animal is in our midst. If we begin to slip into another dimension. Etc. Etc.

The three day training process is both mentally and physically taxing. Early mornings, long classroom sessions, constantly controlling our breathing and making difficult maneuvers while under the water, at the end of  each day I find myself thoroughly exhausted.

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Those Caribbean sunsets, though.

We are taken deeper and deeper into the depths as we proceed. Our training started at 3 meters, then moved to 7 meters, then 10 meters. I began to feel myself getting stronger and more confident with each session, able to put my breathing on autopilot and control my buoyancy with ease.

(Cue the Rocky theme music and  as I fast forward through the rest of our training. “It’s the eye of the tiger, it’s the thrill of the fight!” Picture as best you can a montage of us getting really good at scuba, completing skills and high-fiving or fist bumping our instructors at the end)

In the afternoon of that second day we take our final exam in the classroom and demonstrate our remaining underwater skills in the shallow waters near Underwater Vision. Immediately following, we take  the boat out for our first two open water dives.

The very first open water dive of my life took place at Little Bight off the southern coast of Útila. After some skills practice, Bar leads us on a journey through the reef, reaching depths of 12 meters and seeing an abundance of wildlife.

As we cruise along the reef, I can’t help but admire the variety of colors, shapes, and forms of coral. There is so much to look at. My eyes dart from one place to another, getting a closer look at interesting formations, following colorful fish as they steer through the veritable supercity of coral. Just me and my thoughts, floating through an endless, mysterious, beautiful ecosystem.

I’m snapped out of my trance when Bar slams his fist into his palm, getting our attention. He points around the corner and makes a symbol with his hands that he had just taught us on the boat.

Barracuda…

Sure enough we turn the corner and I’m staring down a long, snake-like, menacing creature with a fearsome mouthful of teeth some 20 feet away. It’s the first time I’ve seen a barracuda in the wild since I came across one while snorkeling in Xel Ha, Mexico, three years ago. As we pass by he stays hovering in the current under a cliff of coral, not moving an inch. Barracudas are fierce predators and powerful swimmers, but they are generally scared of humans. Despite there not being any danger, it was still a jarring close encounter.

Moving along we continue to see a diverse array of wildlife; Little Bight is teeming with schools of colorful fish of all sizes. We see a cow fish, squirrel fish, porcupine fish, three types of angel fish, a tiny golden tail moray eel, a huge and menacing green moray eel hanging out in a cave, and an elegant southern sting ray coasting along the seabed.

These are all commonplace for Bar, but he seems oddly excited when pointing out a particularly colorful and adorable fish. When we surface after nearly 40 minutes of submersion, he tells us we just saw a Rainbow Parrotfish, an extremely rare species whose population is dwindling due to over-fishing and habitat loss. It is officially defined as being “near threatened”, not quite endangered but on the verge of it. Bar has been diving for over 10 years and logged over 2000 dives. He says this was just the third time he’s seen a Rainbow Parrotfish.

As such, my first open water dive was much like Ash Ketchum’s first day on his journey to being a Pokemon master, when he encounters a legendary bird, Ho-Oh.

I couldn’t believe my luck. I only wish I could’ve gotten some GoPro footage of the beautiful and rare creature. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take them out during training.

Our second dive took place at Coral Wall which, you guessed it, is a massive wall of coral. It is a towering thing that seems to drop down endlessly into the abyss. While we don’t see the abundance of wildlife we did at Little Bight, the topography is stunning. Floating along with the reef to our left and and endless ocean to our right was an experience I will never forget. We spend 40 minutes coasting along, reaching depths of 18 meters (our deepest dive yet), before ascending to the surface.

It was those first two dives that really got me hooked. Check back soon for part two of my Útila experience, including the completion of our training, more scuba adventures, and much more on what happens on the island above the water.

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