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October 10, 2004

Feeding the Sandflies


I spend Sunday completing my final dive for PADI Advanced Open Water certification and participating in BICD´s weekly ¨Sunday Funday.¨ The dive boat ¨Tiburon¨ departs at 7:30 AM, as it does from Monday through Saturday, but instead of returning its divers sometime after noon to refuel and reload for an afternoon set of dives, on Sundays the Tiburon heads for a sandy private beach with a wooden gazebo, volleyball net and barbeque grill. The time between the two morning dives is spent cruising the northern, Caribbean-facing, side of Utila for sightings of the whale shark, the world´s biggest fish ( Full grown whale sharks measuring over 45 feet in length can be seen at this time of year swimming at the water´s surface, feeding on tiny zooplankton and small fish. Diving with them is not practicable, since the sharks will generally speed away before you are ever able to enter the water with all of your gear properly assembled and tested, but snorkeling certainly is and it is possible to get up quite close --- though you have to be careful not be run down or lashed with a massive dorsal fin. Because several whale sharks have been spotted in the past few days, including a monster estimated at 50 feet in length, everybody on board is eager to find one. One instructor who has been with BICD for nearly 3 months has yet to have luck. But as things turn out, although we are looking for a big fish, we are also looking in an enormous ocean, and the whale sharks seem to be feeding in other parts of it for the day.

The boat is nearly full, with close to 30 divers, instructors and snorkelers of mixed origin. Not everybody wants to go diving, in part since there is so much coral reef and marine life to see in even the shallowest waters off of Utila. A pair of German college students, both working for several months at the Utila Iguana Station, both named Stephanie, have come along only to snorkel. So has Ingrid, from Holland, who is traveling the Yucatan to Panama and back. The divers on board include myself and my classmate, Robert, from Berlin; 20-something junior Airforce officers, Jen and Aaron, who are stationed on a U.S. base in southern Honduras; Karim and Taj, newly-weds from London on a 3 month Central American honeymoon; Jeff, a longterm world-traveler from California and recent ¨graduate¨of BICD´s DiveMaster course; Swiss-Germans Katerina (also a new BICD DiveMaster), Claudia and Antonia; a 45-50 year old U.S. Army major whose name I do not catch (he is in many ways eerily reminiscent of the bomber pilot from Kubrick´s ¨Doctor Strangelove,¨ with his Texas accent, buzz cut and jawline); my instructor, Francisco and assisting instructor, Robert, from Ireland; instructors Pete (who is also a marine biologist), Eric (whose extensive and rather extreme diving experience includes diving seemingly every one of the Cenotes caves in Mexico, the darker and deeper, the better), D´Arcy, the manager, and Jim, the BICD director. Finally, there is Albert, the regular Captain of the Tiburon, whose favorite line upon tying up to a buoy and dropping anchor is, without a doubt (in thickest Utilian accent), ¨O.K. ladies!! GET OFF MA DAMNED BOAT!! Iz time for me ta take a nap!!¨

After the boat is loaded up with people, coolers of beer, barbeque rations and all of the requisite equipment, we speed on out toward the north side. Since its already pushing 85 degrees at a little after 7:30 AM, people start lathering on thick layers of sunscreen. My lesson learned from several days before, I´m no exception. We reach the first dive site about a half an hour later and drop anchor. I´m sitting this first dive out. Having dived at least 2 and sometimes 3 dives a day for the last 4 or 5 days, I don´t feel like having 2 dives today, nor paying the $17.50 do to it (though this is laughably cheap and hard to beat anywhere in the world). Plus, Francisco is using this dive to take my classmate, Robert, on his ¨deep dive,¨which I already completed. Robert didn´t, due to sinus problems that day. Accompanied by German Stephanies, I spend the next 45 minutes snorkeling in crystal clear 15 and 20 foot waters, holding my breath every now and then and heading down to the bottom to scare some fish. There´s an amazing variety here, most of the fish preferring shallow waters. I see foot-and-a-half long green and blue beaked parrotfish, green and purple queen angelfish, large schools of 6-inch purple wrasses, a stray yellowfin snapper and lots of little yellow gobies, to name a few. Finally, I climb on board where Albert is, sure enough, napping in solitude, and help myself to a breakfast of spicy nacho doritos --- the only thing I was able to find to munch on before the ship left. But no complaints here.

Soon enough, the divers come on board and we´re off to the next site. Francisco briefs me and Robert on what we´ll be doing on our dive --- essentially just having a load of fun. The hardest dives already behind us, our last dive will simply give us experience operating Dive Propulsion Vehicles (DPVs). These are the equivalent of underwater motorcycles, though they really just look like little rockets/bombs with handle ( Squeeze the trigger and they race you through the water; squeeze the second trigger for turbo speed; let go of the triggers and you stop. Aside from being fast, DPV´s have the benefit of letting you cover more distance in less time, thereby giving you the chance to spot more (though you might also miss more because you are going so fast). Also, because you are not kicking your legs, you conserve energy, breathe less and utilize less oxygen, thereby allowing you more time underwater.

The DPVs are easy to maneuver. After 5 minutes of practice in shallow water, we head down to 60 feet and fly along the side of a steep, craggy wall of coral, extending down to about 100 feet and into the distance for as far as we can see. We see numerous parrotfish, wrasses, yellowfin snapper, gobies, angelfish, butterfly fish and a few small grouper. Then, 30 minutes into the dive, we spot 3 large spotted eagly rays cruising just above the bottom in a triangular formation ( They use powerful strokes of their ¨wings¨to glide with suprising speed. Clearly disturbed by the sound of our motors, they do deft 180 U-turns and slip away in the opposite direction. We follow for a moment, then let them go. Even at full speed, our ability to keep up would be stretched to the limit. Nevertheless, we don´t follow because there is no sense in harassing them.

When we surface an hour later, the dive boat is a spot in the distance. Francisco guesses we are 3 miles away. This is not accidental --- the plan was to have the boat pick us up when we are done --- and Fransisco inflates an orange plastic baton, which he waves a few times at the boat. A minute later, the boat is on its way. All of the other divers boarded earlier, but we were able to stay down for longer, sure enough.

We dock at the school´s private beach which is, I think, owned by the director, Jim. Coolers of beer are opened and an improvised bar with rum and assorted mixed drinks is quickly set up. After everybody has a drink or two, a group of people head toward the net on the beach for a game of inebriated volleyball. Unfortunately, the game has an added twist because half of the beach is covered in shells and rocks, making movement on half of the court slow and painful. Fortunately, however, the beer helps to numb some of that pain. As we play, swarms of sandflies have a barbeque of their own --- us. So tiny that you can barely see them, they leave tiny red welts where they bite. The game is suspended so that people can apply OFF! and Deet. I was happy to have brought along a bottle of 100% Deet and used it to cover virtually all the exposed skin on my body. As far as the sandflies were concerned, however, it might as well have been barbeque sauce. What did they do? They landed on me, bit me and THEN died, stuck to my arms and feet. Kamakaze little bastards.

Since even 100% Deet doesn´t do much, the game is abandoned and we swim out into the water a bit to throw the ball around. A few people go back to the bar and bring out drinks for the rest of us, so much of the physical activity is now focused on treading water while holding and drinking cups of rum and pineapple juice. Standing in shallow water is out of the question because there are jagged rock and coral beds closer in.

At 6:00 we pack it in and head back to Utila Town as the sun sets. Upon returning to BICD, a number of people stick around to hop into the school´s jacuzzi and (next to it) swimming pool. More drinks are served. O.k. -- a lot more. We alternate between the jacuzzi and the pool (once the jacuzzi becomes too hot). After a few hours of this, we go our separate ways to change and eat, then a smaller group meets up at Treetanic Bar, a large, open treehouse shaped like a pirate ship, built some 15-20 above the ground around an enormous mango tree.

A friend of D´Arcy´s is performing with his band. They play a few Spanish songs that the Utilian part of the crowd seems to know (they sing along) and then launch into a good, mellow version of ¨The Man Who Sold the World.¨ After they are finished, I talk with the guitar player for a while and tell him ¨excellent job with the David Bowie song.¨ He stares at me blankly. Based on that look, I seriously doubt he knows who David Bowie is.

¨Ummm... the Nirvana song,¨ I say. He smiles, thanks me. I guess he also thinks Vanilla Ice wrote ¨Under Pressure¨but, drunk as I am, I keep my mouth shut.

Meanwhile, the Major buys a round for everybody in the bar. He´s licquored up and and can barely stand, but still manages to coherently enunciate the Spanish phrase for ¨please take off your clothes¨ for the benefit of every woman he can stagger over to. Ahh, the smiling face of the U.S. Armed Forces overseas. By the time I leave he has already been dragged home on the shoulders of two military compadres, his eyes vacant Xs.

In the end, I do get home, though I don´t really remember how. I do know that it wasn´t 10 PM for a change, more like 2 AM. What a terrible day it was.

Posted by Joshua on October 10, 2004 01:48 PM
Category: Honduras: Utila

Dearest Josh,
I have already billed close to 150 hours in the first two weeks of this month. I hate you.

Posted by: Linda on October 15, 2004 01:15 PM
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