Útila pt. 2: Into the Deep

Útila is situated 18 miles off the northern coast of Honduras, but it is worlds away from reality. The smallest of the three Honduran bay islands, permanent residents on Útila number around 2,500. The rest of the populace is comprised of a revolving door of degenerates from all over the world. Is degenerates too harsh of a word? Maybe. Let’s investigate.

Degenerate

1. (adjective) Having lost the physical, mental, or moral qualities considered normal and desirable; showing evidence of decline.

“a degenerate form of a higher civilization”

…actually that pretty much nails it.

Indeed, this is a place of abnormality. A place that sits at a crossroads between a backpacker’s haven and an authentic, secluded island paradise. Where you are just as likely to find a stumbling group of Aussies piss drunk at 9 AM as you are a native islander cooking piping hot baleadas for 80 cents a pop out of a shopping cart on the side of the road. Where you can walk from one side of the tiny town to the other in less than an hour, dodging Tuk-Tuks and ATV’s, enjoying the lack of leviathan cruise ships or high rise hotels, then end up at a pristine beach and have a friendly, toothless local offer you some magic mushrooms.

It is a veritable island of misfit toys, where nothing is truly out of the norm unless it doesn’t align with the good vibes of the rock.

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One of many wandering souls on the island.

I found myself similarly devolved while on the island – existing day to day as a degenerate version of myself – especially following the completion of our scuba training.

Picking up where I left off in my last post, our third and final day of diving featured our last bit of skills tests followed by two more open water dives off the southern coast of the island. The first dive took place at Moon Hole, a massive canyon-esque piece of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System (the second largest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef).

Again, I find I am constantly mesmerized by the winding, endless coral formations and aquatic life. We spend 55 minutes submerged, our longest dive at that point, and see such unique fish as the Trumpet Fish, Whitespotted Phase Fish, and Spotted Trunk Fish,  which secretes a colorless toxin when touched that can kill predators as large as nurse sharks.

Our second dive that day was at Ted’s Point. On our way we joined a few other boats that were tracking a whale shark. We searched for about 45 minutes. Alas, the creature evaded us, and I missed out on a chance to swim with the world’s largest fish.

Rumor has it that Ted’s Point is named as such because it used to be a point of exchange for a notorious drug dealer named Ted. Now it serves as a popular dive spot, located a mere 10 minutes from Underwater Vision. The reef is split up by a number of sand channels, making it a virtual labyrinth of an underwater community. We come across another hulking Green Moray Eel lurking in a cave, and later swim over a sunken sailboat. I wonder to myself if the boat was once used to traffic drugs; now it traffics in zounds of tiny fish and is covered in colorful coral.

When the dive is over and we breach the surface, I am officially a PADI-certified Open Water Diver. Then it was time to celebrate.  That night our group heads down the street to RJ’s grill, a popular local spot that serves up a bevy of delicious seafood. I opt for the barracuda.

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Even the beers have scuba regulators in Utila.
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Barracuda, potatoes, rice, beans, salad, and garlic bread. Nom.

One of the most charming aspects of Útila is its distinctly small town feel. The island features just a single overworked internet server; WiFi is sparse throughout and oft unreliable. The island only got 24 hour electricity less than 10 years ago. Thus this is a place still very much adjusting to the world’s modern conveniences. What’s more, if a fisherman reels in a big Yellowfin Tuna or Dusky Flounder, you can be sure the word will spread in a matter of hours and the whole town will know if it’s being served that evening at RJ’s or Bush’s or Rehab or at one of the fish markets.

Small town vibes.

When the sun sets, an eclectic cast of local characters join in with the backpackers and eco-tourists and expats to party by moonlight. After wolfing down our seafood at RJ’s, our group of newly certified divers headed to a well-known local spot in the center of town called Skid Row.

A quintessential dive bar, ranked #1 of 27  Útilan restaurants on Tripadvisor, Skid Row features delicious burgers and cold beer but is perhaps best known for it’s infamous drinking challenge. Feeling proud after three days of hard work, tempted by the free t-shirt prize, and never one to turn down a competitive task, I decide to take on the “Gufiti Challenge”.

I am told that Gufiti is an ancestral alcoholic beverage meant to be both a spiritual and an earthly cure for sickness. In reality, it seems to be a mystery blend of liquors, flavored like tequila, that does not go down particularly easy. Still, I summon my inner college days and down the requisite four shots of the nasty poison while completing physical activities in between each one like running around the pool table and doing jumping jacks. Upon completion I am rewarded with my prize: the elusive Skid Row t-shirt that seemingly everyone around town wears.

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Rocking my Skid Row tee / being a degenerate.

The next day, nursing a headache and serious case of drymouth, I get some food in my belly and ready myself to explore the island. I join up with Matt, a Floridian who had been on the island for a month, and Monica, a Norwegian who I befriended in our scuba class.

The three of us rent a golf cart and spend the afternoon bombing through the mangroves, which make up 75% of the island, just outside of town. We wind through muddy, bumpy, unbeaten paths, exploring remote beaches and other untouched parts of the island.

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Matt leads us through the jungle, being the only one familiar with the maze of mangroves. We weave through the overgrown paths while dodging scurrying little crabs and colorful lizards.

It was a wonderful afternoon. Nice to get away from the sometimes exhausting micro-community of Underwater Vision.

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Pumpkin Hill

My last full day on the island I spend doing my two “fun dives”, which were included as part of my open water certification package. I head out on the boat at 7 AM, joined by some of my former classmates who were doing their advanced diving certification (I decided to save my advanced for another place in the world). My dive master for the day is Max. We head for Duppy Waters, my first dive on the north side of the island.

Done with my training, I was finally able to get some GoPro footage.

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Boat selfie, or course.
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A Hawksbill Sea Turtle cruising along the reef. Sadly these little guys are considered “critically endangered” due to pollution, habitat loss, and slaughter for sale of their shells. I was lucky to see one, but the fact that they’re a such a rarity due to human action is a travesty.
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Underwater selfie, of course.
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Much like Ted’s Point, Duppy Water’s featured a sunken sailboat overgrown with coral and teeming with little fishes.
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Near the end of the dive we see five or six barracudas lurking near the top of the reef. Despite there likely being no danger, I don’t get too close. They’re scary.

Our second dive takes place at Moon Hole, the same site we had one of our open water dives. The trip between sites was about an hour by boat, so we spend the time hanging out and sunbathing.

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On our way to Moon Hole I learned that all dive masters on Útila  carry short spears for one reason – to kill Lionfish whenever possible. Though beautiful, these creatures are considered one of the the worst man-made ecological disaster ever witnessed and it has yet to completely play itself out.

These little bastards are not native to the Caribbean, rather they were brought over several years ago from the Red Sea by some airhead who thought they would be a nice addition to the ecosystem. He could not have been more wrong.

Lionfish eat any and everything their stomachs can handle, past the point of satisfying their hunger, ravaging not just juvenile schools of fish but also invertebrates and mollusks – shrimp, crabs, juvenile octopus, squid, juvenile lobster, sea horses, etc. They are clearly not picky eaters and their stomachs can expand to up to 30 times its normal volume. Moreover, they breed with incredible potency and efficiency, and many fish aren’t even aware that they are predators, making them easy targets for Lionfish to gobble up, dozens at a time. Their disruption of the Caribbean ecosystem has been rapid and devastating.

“Science has demonstrated that a single Lionfish can reduce native marine creatures by 80% to 90% in its range within just 5 weeks”.

As we circle the island, Bar proudly presents his kill from that morning.

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Max toying with Bar’s trophy kill.

Perhaps the highlight of that second dive was watching Max successfully spear a baby Lionfish, which could have gone on to kill off a ton of marine life. Watching him drive the spear through the little asshole was an impressive sight; it was such a tiny target. I only wish I had captured it on camera. Oh well…

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Fishelfie at Moon Hole, of course.
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Chantelle cruising along the reef.

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I have a ton more footage that I truly can’t be bothered to go through now. Maybe I’ll put together a video montage at some point…

That night Underwater Vision held a “Welcome to the Jungle” party in honor of two girls completing their Dive Master Certification. The theme proved difficult to dress for given my limited resources as a backpacker, so I improvised and went as Dionysus, the god of nature (and wine).

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Monica and I
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Julian (standing) clearly had the best costume.

The two young women (sisters from Canada) are put through a series of trials in front of everyone. They are given trivia questions (which resulted in a shot if answered incorrectly), made to display scuba techniques in as sexy a way as possible, and the grand finale, chugging a beer through their scuba mask while everyone cheers them on.

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No caption will do this picture justice.

It was a wonderfully wacky and belligerent way to welcome two new Dive Masters into their ranks. This ritual is apparently a staple on Útila, I’m glad I got to witness it firsthand.

After the craziness subsides, we head to Tranquila, a bar we had frequented throughout the week. Like most other nights, we drink, dance, and ward off eager drug dealers like swatting flies. I also meet Dr. John, a fixture among the eccentric cast of characters I mentioned earlier. Dr. John McKay is a real doctor who hails from the US. He runs a local clinic and though his appearance might suggest otherwise, apparently he is very good at what he does. John is featured heavily in the viral video “If you come to Útila”:

♫ If you got something wrong go to Dr. John, he’s a doctor with no t-shirt on, he’s got short sight, he’s out all night but Dr. John will make you right! ♫

I high five him while he nurses tequila and a cigarette. A few days later he would re-gram my Instagram post, and for that I will love him forever.

Dr. John is a character emblematic of the Útilan lifestyle. The people you meet here are wasting away, and may have been on the island for too long, but their charm can’t be denied. A populace from across the world with perpetual sunburns, legs littered with sand fly bites, and hair that hasn’t been cut in many moons. Slow speaking in bastard English/Spanish, island-accented, lost souls who have found a purpose. Nibbling on hairy lychees, cruising down the tiny streets on an ATV, basking in an afternoon rum punch at Munchies Cafe, enjoying a joint and a nap in a hammock, generally fading in and out of sobriety, no matter what Útilans are doing they seem to be exactly where they need to be in that moment.

The next day I say a sad and difficult goodbye to my classmates and the Underwater Vision family, a group of degenerates I grew to love and adore over my week on the island. I hope to make it back to this most magical and hedonistic place in my young life. Though I’m wary that next time I might not be able to leave so easily…

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With some of the degenerates on my final morningFor breakfast we sought out a spot with “world famous cinnamon rolls”. Served in a tiny shack, finding them was a task but endlessly worth it. A must have if you ever make it to the island.

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