Diving was an incredible experience. I’ve been snorkeling plenty of times in Utila, and its cool and you see some amazing corals and fish, but it doesn’t compare to the experience of diving. Being on the boat with cool surfer type people, soaking in the sun, watching the island go past and feeling the waves gently roll the boat is pure happiness. You’re living in the moment. And that’s before you enter the water!
The whole process of beginning my diving started with a bit of an argument with the station over who was going to do it. As it was my last week, and another volunteer, Jeremy is leaving later this week (he left on Thursday- I wrote this post on the plane on Tuesday), we would be allowed to do it, but his girlfriend and another girl who wanted to do it weren’t, which we felt was a bit unfair considering there were more than enough people at the station to do the jobs required. Eventually we dropped it and on my penultimate Sunday Jeremy and I went to begin our theory sessions, which were started with 5 hours of videos. Being quite hungover from a party the night before, we didn’t learn much, but we got a feel for it. The next day we met our instructors, Vanessa and Fa, and with 4 of us in the group, us and two Americans, we began our pool sessions. These consisted of removing the regulator which passed air into our mouths and replacing it with a snorkel or reserve regulator, and mask fills (filling the mask with water and then clearing it under the surface), which aren’t a pleasant experience. Armed with this knowledge we completed some more theory sessions the next morning and headed out for our first dives. Surprisingly not much panicking went on under the surface, where we sat at the bottom at about 10m to repeat some of the pool exercises. This is far more fun than in the pool, helped because of the fact that you’re surrounded by coral and the water isn’t 2 degrees centigrade. Equalisation was and always would be a bit of an issue for me. This is when the pressure gets to your ears and sinuses, causing pain akin to and worse than descending in a plane (interestingly enough since I’ve dived I’ve felt absolutely no discomfort or pain descending in a plane). It just means you have to descend very slowly and keep swallowing and breathing through your nose. There’s a lot of warnings in diving of sickness and injury, but these are worst case scenarios that really only extreme divers have to worry about. To put it simply, you probably won’t get the bends ascending too quickly from a 20m dive. If you hold your breath however, you can get lung overexpansion, which is why the PADI number one rule is to keep breathing. Second is to always dive with another person, your buddy, who can help you out if things go awry.
Our first couple of dives (one dive session consists of two dives at different sites) also allowed us to follow our instructors in exploring the reefs a bit, and we saw some cool stuff, but due to our inexperience in breathing underwater, and it takes a bit of getting used to, we didn’t last too long before we started displaying low air and had to surface.
Jeremy outside our dive boat.
The third day followed a similar pattern to the first, doing exercises to start each dive, then swimming around and enjoying ourselves for the rest. My least favourite exercise is when you’re told to take the mask off underwater and swim around with the instructor. It basically gives you the panicked sensation of drowning, as without your nose covered by your mask, it takes in the bubbles released by your regulator and so you can’t fully breath. Combined with lack of vision and it is really tough to sustain. We do get taught how to clear a mask underwater though, so you don’t have to surface each time it gets filled with water. One interesting question that came up was what to do if you throw up underwater, as a few people were feeling seasick/had dodgy baleada (local tortilla wrap filled with fried beans, meat, cheese and avocado) stomachs. The answer is that your should do everything you do with your mouth on land with the regulator underwater. Cough, burp, breath, and of course, vomit. It won’t be pleasant, but its better than throwing up then needing to take a deep breath in afterwards and finding only water to take in.
One of the best things about diving, apart from the awesome reefs, people and fish, is the feeling of weightlessness. It is the closest thing to being in a low gravity environment and the freedom it gives you is I’m sure what keeps people coming back for more. You know that scene in the Simpsons where Homer opens a packet of crisps in a spacecraft and spins round and round while gravitating towards a lone crisp? I did that, and it feels cool. Obviously you will also get people bumping into each other and issues with buoyancy, but these are eradicated after the first few dives, and that’s when you really start enjoying yourself. At the end of our final day of diving we were given the final exam, which we all passed and so were then certified divers. We were all duly signed up for our two free ‘fun dives’ (one-off dives recreational divers can sign up to at any dive place they go to) the next morning at a coveted north side site. These are the best because they have the most untouched reef networks, so the best wildlife and the opportunity of whale shark sittings, a tantalisingly rare experience even for some experienced divers in Utila. So bright and early the next morning Jeremy and I arrived at our dive centre, The Bay Island School of Diving, and set up our equipment on the boat. It was a long trip to the north side, but we got to watch the sun grow higher in the blue, cloudless sky and catch some of its rays before we had to kit. The two dives we did then were some of the most fun I’ve ever had, gliding gracefully through the reefs with 15 or so other divers watching lionfish (which were killed as they are harmful to the reef and other fish), manta rays, eagle rays, dory fish (Dory from Finding Nemo), giant crabs and other assorted aquatic life. However what happened in between the dives just about trumped them. As we were passing some pelicans hunting schools of fish near the water, some of the divers spotted a large shape gliding close to the surface parallel to the boat. It was a whale shark, and amid the excitement we were brought together and told it was 8 people in at a time. I was in the first group, so quickly shoved on my fins and snorkel and mask and was told to slide in to the water, look down and swim fast. As soon as I got in I saw the shark just a few yards from me. I was briefly stunned by the fact that I was actually in the water with this creature, something we’ve been conditioned to fear, I suppose understandably as it was about 25ft, yet it was so calm and graceful. All the fear that you have on land about things like Whale Sharks, which feel dangerous merely because of their sheer size, dissipates once you understand that as a diver you’re just part of an underwater ecosystem that isn’t there to hurt you, and that you are probably the most dangerous thing there. Indeed after about 5 seconds of attempting to follow it, it must have become afraid of all these squirming shapes so close to it and dived into the deep blueness. Check, my facebook for a video of the secon
d group in the water with it, although you have to look hard to see its grey shape pass under the boat.
Enjoying the sun between dives. Bit of a pose.
Horse riding along a beach with Jeremy and his girlfriend Jade.
View from the highest point of the island, Pumpkin Hill. The mountains are across in La Ceiba, the mainland.
My happiness as I finally got a crepe off this crazy crepe guy.
For that experience we were only charged 200 lemps, about $10 for the captain taking the time to let us see it, whereas some specific whale shark snorkelling trips can be up to $60.
The whole course was $245, about £170, including the two free dives, which is pretty incredible considering open water courses start at £400 in the UK and Utila is one of the world’s best places to dive.
My last weekend was spent at various nice restaurants, some of the best bars and at the water cay, a small uninhabited island which can be got to for about $15 per person and is effectively a classic castaway island, with decent coral, coconut trees and beaches where we sunned ourselves for most of Saturday.
On Monday, my last day, we went to get bamboo for construction of a new visitor area, and did some garden cleaning, before heading to a favourite Israeli restaurant which also serves amazing banana bread, and Rehab, a bar we hadn’t visited before but does another t-shirt challenge consisting of consuming 4 shots of vodka and a blue liquor in 10 seconds. That done, people started drifting off to other bars or back home (annoyingly), until it was just me, Rachel, Harriet, Frazer and Andy, a 51 year old geezer planning on doing as little work as possible and sunning himself and fishing everyday. He then gave us some life advice (his is falling apart) and we shifted uncomfortably in our seats until he went off and we headed back.
In the Water Cay. Lots of fun.
Its hard to describe my time at the iguana station. First here with only David, Jose and Suriel, I was the first of a new cohort of volunteers and so got to meet people more or less individually as they arrived. This meant I wasn’t thrust into a group of best buddies, meaning I’d have to be an outsider before I was a part of the group. Instead I could get to know people slowly and form our friendships over mutual experiences. Sometimes it has been a little boring, maybe somewhat repetitive, and I haven’t always been completely well, but when you’re thrust into situations like this with people similar to you, you’re generally bound to make incredible friends, and that’s what I think I’ve done with some of the people there. It’s only a shame that we’re all heading off in different directions. But I guess you can’t cry because it’s over, you have to smile because it happened, and I have some unforgettable memories from Utila.
I am at the moment writing this on the 25th Feb, 9:34pm GMT-6 on the plane to Lima from San Salvador. I’ve been on the road since 6am this, morning and won’t get to my next destination, the ancient Inca city of Cusco in Peru, until 7am tomorrow. There I’ll also probably experience some altitude sickness, so the 26th will be a crash day, but I’m looking forward to arriving at the orphanage I’m working at next. However much I miss Utila, I think maybe leaving after 4 weeks is a good thing, as I wasn’t accomplishing a huge amount, my Spanish wasn’t improving and I wasn’t completely out of my comfort zone, although it was obviously very different to the UK.
At the airport in San Pedro I met a Belgian guy who had been on the road for maybe a year now. You can tell. One bag, a guitar, dreadlocks and simple clothes, I was a little intimidated. But once we started talking, he found out about my desire to learn Spanish and helped me out by conversing with me in Spanish, English and a bit of French. Describing the language from a fluent outsider’s perspective has greatly helped me already, and I’m hoping that by the time I leave Peru I will be a much better speaker than I am now. I’ll need it judging by the fact that Argentinian Spanish (I’ll be there in April) changes words with ll in them, pronounced ‘y’ (e.g calle- street= cayay) to be pronounced ‘che’ – so ‘cache’ (hence Ernesto Guavera’s nickname) and speak their dialect impossibly fast. That will be interesting but hopefully I’ll have met people to travel with by then.
I’m also pretty sure that I want to change my last flight from May back to London to somewhere in Central America to meet my Utilian friends and then back to Miami. We’ll see how it pans out.
Also, check my facebook for cool videos and way more photos.
Anyway, its food time on the plane so hasta lluego.