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The Best Dive Sites in Utila

Sunday, April 17th, 2016

Often we look for key ingredients when choosing our next scuba spot: vibrant reef systems, macro photography opportunities, wrecks, larger animals like dolphins or whale sharks, deep wall diving, advanced training opportunities and proximity to dive sites. Sometimes we also take the culture and lifestyle of the destination into account. It’s rare to find all these ingredients in one destination, unless you’re headed to the Bay Island of Utila, off Honduras’ north coast in the Caribbean Sea.

Utila is one of the least developed and commercialized Caribbean islands and is popular among divers of all backgrounds and ages, from backpackers to experienced divers seeking a whale-shark encounter, to divers seeking their professional PADI or technical training. Visibility on the island typically ranges from 40 feet to 100-plus feet (12 to 30 m) and water temps range from 78 F in the winter to 88 F in the summer (25 to 31 C). Currents are minimal, although they can be moderate to strong on the offshore seamounts.

To understand what makes the best dive sites in Utila so diverse, it helps to take a look at the geographical formation of the Bay Islands. They are the peak of an underwater mountain structure known as the Bonacca Ridge, which lies about 40 miles off the coast of mainland Central America. Utila’s south side features a shallow fringing reef, as well as deeper seamounts. The north side of Utila is more exposed to open ocean, and this is where the geology of the island meets the Cayman Trough or Trench, making for some spectacular wall dives. Below are our picks for the best dive sites in Utila, in each of the three environments.

The Best Dive Sites in Utila

South Side

The southern side of Utila features shallow, fringing reefs that cover a total distance of about 5 miles (8 km). This southern reef system, anything from a five to 30-minute boat ride from the main harbor, features about 15 prominent dive sites with over 20 buoys in place. Dives start from depths of 20 feet (6 m) and drop to an average of 40 to 60 feet (12 to 18 m), although some are as as deep as 100 to 130 feet (30 to 40 m).

Jack Neil Point and Jack Neil Beach are both great long, shallow dives along the tongue-and-groove formations of hard and soft corals. At the western end of the reef here, sightings of hawksbill and green turtles are common. There’s also a wide range of Caribbean reef fish, from grunts to groupers, damselfish, spotted drums, pufferfish, trunkfish, seahorses, and turtles, eagle rays and moray eels.

Other great south-side sites include Black Coral Wall and Pretty Bush, both macro photographers’ dreams. Airport Caves offers beautiful caverns and swim-throughs, with hundreds of glassy sweepers hiding inside.

Utila’s south side also features a number of seamounts, underwater hills and mountains rising off the ocean floor to between 40 and 100 feet (12 to 30 m) from the surface.  Being offshore, these sites tend to have more vibrant coral coverage, as well as higher fish density and diversity, though currents and a free descent can make them slightly more challenging dives. The seamount Black Hills is a must-dive if conditions allow.

Whale Shark

North Side

The north side of Utila is more exposed to open ocean, and this is where the geology of the island meets the Cayman Trench. Here there’s a protected marine reserve named Turtle Harbor and although the tops of the reef walls start at depths of 30 to 40 feet (9 to 12 m), they immediately drop away to depths of several thousand feet. The topography of the north side includes swim-throughs, pinnacles and caverns. Technical divers on deeper dives have seen stalactites in some of the caves, formed when this ridge sat above sea level. As well as similar aquatic life to what you’ll see on the south side, north side sites feature more encounters with sharks, barracuda, marlin, dolphins and whale sharks, though the latter are more likely to be seen on boat rides as opposed to on the dive sites.

Popular north-side sites include CJ’s Drop Off, with an extreme sheer wall; the Maze, which offers a labyrinth of spur-and-groove formations; Duppy Waters, a wall dive with giant sponges; and the Pinnacle, which offers unique rock formations and a deep swim-through. Not all north-side sites are extremely deep; Jack’s Bight has many caverns at depths of 40 to 60 feet (12 to 18m) and makes a great drift dive.

Something for everyone

With three very different types of reef systems and a diversity of dive types, Utila offers something for everyone, from the beginner to the expert. PADI certifications are affordable, and local hotels range from basic backpacker accommodation to comfortable resorts.

Still a very traditional Caribbean island, the local community is immersed in the workings of the local dive industry. There are no international hotel chains, and the island is dotted with affordable budget eateries, with cuisine from around the world. There are plenty of waterfront bars for a sundowner, and the parties continue into the night as well for those who are so inclined. With the great value offered on Utila, as well as the underwater diversity and the topside entertainment, it’s time to put Utila on your bucket list — just know that you may never leave.

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Five Great Tec Diving Destinations

Sunday, March 27th, 2016

Although tec diving is, by necessity, more complicated than straight recreational diving, a lot of spots throughout the world are ideal for both novice or everyday tec divers, and their recreational partners. Here’s a list of our top picks for five great tec diving destinations.

Chuuk Lagoon, Micronesia

Nakajima B6N "Jill"

A well known wreck-diving Mecca, Chuuk Lagoon is the site of the famous World War II Operation Hailstone, a 1944 assault during which the U.S. military decimated the Japanese Pacific fleet. Chuuk now hosts more than 6,000 divers annually. With over 40 sites comprised of cruisers, destroyers, tanks, planes and a submarine, each wreck has its own unique appeal, and many have become more akin to coral reefs with abundant life growing on them. While many of the wrecks lie at recreational depths, in the range of 60 to 130 feet (18 to 40 m), approximately 15 are in the range of 130 to 190 feet (40 to 60 m), including the famous San Francisco Maru. The rarely dived Katsuragisan Maru sits at 190 to 230 feet (58 to 70 m). Conditions here are usually ideal, with minimal currents, water temperatures between 82 and 85 F (28 to 29 C), and visibility from 50 to 100 feet (15 to 40 m).

Dahab, Egypt

scuba divers in Blue hole

Many documentaries have been made about Dahab’s infamous Blue Hole and its famous archway at around 165 to 185 feet (50 to 55 m), which leads out of the hole and onto the reef walls, plummeting to extreme depths. Many untrained recreational divers have lost their lives over the years attempting to swim through the arch, and the site has an eerie feel, with many memorials nearby. The site is excellent for technical-diver training, as well as for technical divers who wish to expand their limits — it’s shore-based; the currents are minimal; and visibility can be up to 130 feet (40 m). Dahab is also home to many other technical sites including the Canyon, a crack in the reef that drops to depths of more than 165 feet (50 m). Below the Canyon is Neptune’s Chair at 215 to 250 feet (70 to 80 m). Dahab is an affordable destination with easy diving conditions, and as most of the diving is shore-based, technical divers can run profiles and dive plans on their own daily schedules.

Malta, Mediterranean

Fungus Rock, Gozo, Malta

Located in the Mediterranean, and easily accessible from most of Europe on short-haul flights, are the islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino, which offer visibility ranging from 100 to 130 feet (30 to 40 m) and minimal current in temperate waters. The dive sites around the islands include purpose-sunk wrecks, as well as historic shipwrecks, submarines and aircraft. Additionally, the geology around the island includes caverns and caves. The HMS Stubborn and the Bristol Beaufort WWII bomber are two of the popular deeper wrecks, in the range of 145 to 185 feet (42 to 56 m). The beauty of Malta and Gozo is that the diving can be conducted from boat or shore. Self-drive dive trips are popular, and the island is rich in culture and history for topside exploration as well.

 

Great Lakes, Canada and USA

Diver and Shipwreck in Lake Michigan

Probably one of the best cold-water wreck-diving destinations in North America — if not the world — the Great Lakes include Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. As freshwater sites, the wrecks are in excellent condition and are not subject to the same deterioration as saltwater wrecks. Shipwrecks have occurred in the Great Lakes from the very earliest indigenous vessels to the famous tragedy of the bulk freighter SS Edmund Fitzgerald. Top tec-diving wrecks include the Gunilda, the Grace Channon, the Lakeland, a steel ship full of Nash automobiles from 1927, and the Cornelia B. Windiate, a wooden schooner with standing mast intact. These wrecks lie in the range of 180 to 260 feet (55 to 80 m), and water temperatures can range from 36 F (2 C) to a high of 50 F (10 C), so only the best drysuit, undergarments, heated underwear, good hood and dry gloves will do. Port cities such as Milwaukee, Wisconsin, offer fantastic dining, brew pubs, art museums and architecture; smaller, quaint villages like Rossport, Ontario offer cozy bed & breakfast inns. Divers who visit Isle Royale National Park can hike gorgeous, wooded trails and see mother moose with calves walking in streams.

Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras

Underwater ship wreck

For years, Utila has been famous as a destination to dive with whale sharks, drawing both backpackers and those seeking top-notch professional dive training to become PADI Divemasters or Instructors. But this tiny island is now becoming known as a top tec-diver training spot as well, with new, deeper sites recently discovered to appeal to technical divers. The north side of the island has deep walls, caverns and swim-throughs in the 150- to 260-foot (45 to 80 m) range. The east and south sides of the island offer numerous offshore seamounts and pinnacles, many inaccessible to recreational divers as the tops are at 130 feet (40 m) and drop to depths 262 feet (80 m) and deeper. Due to their offshore location, many of these seamounts feature abundant fish stocks, biodiversity and healthy coral coverage, reminiscent of the Caribbean 20 years ago. Full disclosure: The author is proud to be part of a tec- diving team from Utila Dive Center that has been discovering, exploring and mapping these new tec- diving sites.

 

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Preparing For Your Next Tropical Scuba Trip

Thursday, March 10th, 2016

 

Many divers are also enthusiastic topside travelers and, as we plan to travel abroad, we get the most from the experience by planning ahead — by knowing the local currency, learning a key phrase or two, employing a local travel guide, etc. This same approach greatly enhances our dive trips when we research local practices, etiquette and procedures. As the winter approaches, many divers in the northern hemisphere have already begun planning their next diving trip to a tropical destination.

For divers who may be used to local diving in lakes or quarries, or for those warm-water divers who have been out of the water for awhile, we’ve put together a few tips and pointers that will help you prepare for your next tropical scuba trip.

Refresh your skills on arrival

Being trained to dive in tropical water doesn’t mean you’re immediately ready to dive in cold water, and vice versa. While cold-water diving, with challenges such as low visibility and strong currents, does advance your skills as a diver, there is a different etiquette for a tropical scuba trip. Reefs are no-touch zones, which may differ from diving on wrecks in strong currents, and boat-diving procedures will vary. Many marine parks will automatically require every diver to be checked for buoyancy and weighting, regardless of the number of dives and experience, as salinity and temperature affect both these variables. If you haven’t dived for awhile in this environment, sign up for a refresher course once you arrive to get the most from your trip.

Consider specialty courses

Specialty classes are often hands-on and can be conducted in a day. Consider courses such as digital photography, which allow divers to get the most from tropical diving in places such as the Caribbean or Philippines. Diving somewhere like Chuuk Lagoon would be enhanced by a wreck, deep or enriched air specialty. The easy logistics when it comes to warm-water diving mean this may be a good time to get trained on a rebreather if you’re interested. Finally, coral-reef specialties such as Fish ID, underwater naturalist and Project AWARE really enhance the storyline of tropical-reef diving.

Pack specific equipment and ditch what you don’t need

Some of the items you may need in colder water, such as gloves or a knife, are often prohibited on tropical reefs and marine parks, so leave them at home. If you’re diving off boats, bring a reel and SMB, as these may be essential when drift diving. You may also need a reef hook in some parts of the Maldives, Palau, or Indonesia.

Photographers and videographers should check local electricity outlets and specifications — while many Caribbean countries adhere to U.S. standards, some islands may follow the British or European systems and Asia has its own standards as well. Islands may be prone to power surges, so an outlet bar with multiple sockets and surge protection can be a great way to protect valuable electronics.

Stay hydrated and check your dive or travel insurance

Even with cloud cover and on cooler days, we tend to sweat more and dehydrate more when diving several times a day. Don’t just rely on the hot sun to remind you to drink water — make sure you have an intake of several liters a day. For many of us who look forward to a sunset après-dive cocktail or beer it’s even more important to drink plenty of water for the next day’s diving. Even if you are doing everything right there is always a risk of DCS, so double check your dive-insurance policy is up to date, as hyperbaric-chamber treatment can often run into the tens of thousands of dollars, especially if medical evacuation is needed. Check out Divers Alert Network for coverage details.

 

Have a game plan

Many destinations feature more sites than you can possibly dive in a week’s trip. Furthermore, some may be beyond your current diving limitations or not suited to your specific interests, so try to research the sites and dive opportunities in advance. Be realistic and stay within your dive limits, and don’t try to achieve too much in a short trip or you’ll miss the quality of the local diving. Scuba Diver Life has published many articles on specific destinations, and most popular spots are getting mobile savvy, with apps available for the local area.

 

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Is it Time to Try Technical Diving?

Monday, February 8th, 2016

Which of the following do you think of when it comes to technical diving?

This?

A pic

Maybe this?

B pic

Possibly this?

C pic

Or all of the above?

Would it surprise you if we said that for most technical divers it isn’t about any of these images? You don’t need to dive deep ship wrecks or explore vast cave systems, or carry excessive equipment to get into technical diving — in fact, most technical divers prefer the concept of simplicity, and seek to gradually step out of their comfort zone. Recreational divers are curious about technical diving for many reasons, the following among them:

  • Your inner explorer is calling.
    All divers are explorers — it’s likely what drew you to the sport in the first place. You may have reached the point in your dive career where much of what you wish to see lies beyond recreational depth limits, whether it’s wrecks, caves or even certain types of aquatic life.
  • You just want to stay longer.
    It doesn’t have to be all about depth — many dive sites call for extra time or gas to see more. Most traditional dive tables allow a no-decompression limit at 100 feet (30 m) of just 20 minutes, and this falls to 12 minutes at 130 feet (40 m). While these times can be extended by 1½ to two times longer by diving enriched air — in the 90s this was considered technical diving — this still may not be enough time, or, with a single 80 cubic-foot (12 liter) tank, not enough gas supply.
  • You want to advance your knowledge and skill set.

The competition within scuba diving as a sport is generally within yourself, not between divers. Pushing yourself can include advancing your dive technique, improving trim and propulsion, learning new motor skills, increasing knowledge of decompression theory and advanced dive planning, and learning new equipment configurations. The adage “a good diver never stops learning” is a valid impetus to consider an entry-level technical course, as many of the skills and knowledge you learn will be applicable to the outer limits of recreational diving.

Believe it or not, you’ve already had some exposure to technical diving; many of today’s accepted recreational-dive practices originated from what was once thought of as technical diving. Equipment configurations, such as carrying an alternate air source, or diving enriched air, were originally deemed technical practices but are now accepted as mainstream recreational practices. There’s often a gray area between what we call recreational and technical diving that starts at the 100 to 130-foot (30 to 40 m) depth range and past no-decompression limits.

So what’s a good starting point?

A previous article on Scuba Diver Life, 10 Signs You’re a Good Candidate for Tec Diving, can help you decide if you’re ready to take the plunge. If you think technical diving is for you, your most fundamental assets are your foundation as a diver and comfort in the water. You should have a high degree of situational awareness, meaning that you know exactly what’s going on around you at all times and how your decisions will affect a situation. While most dive-training agencies have a minimum certification level or required number of dives for each technical-level course, this is just a minimum. If you can handle a higher level of stress than normal and not be affected by perceptual narrowing, or if you notice subtleties around you, such as micro-bubble leaks coming from a buddy’s hose/regulator, these are usually good indicators of a readiness to enroll in an entry-level tec class.

Florida; Dahab, Egypt; Utila, Honduras; and Subic Bay, Philippines all have established training programs with experienced technical instructors. Learning in a resort based-location allows you to train free from the distractions at home. Easy dive-site logistics mean you can focus more time on the developmental aspects of the course; good visibility and warm waters can allow you more practice time with less chance of being blown out by adverse weather conditions. Training closer to home may be preferable, however, if this is where you plan to conduct the majority of your technical diving in the future.

Choosing an instructor is probably the most important factor in your training. Technical instruction is similar to professional-level instruction in that mentorship, as well as curriculum training, plays an important part in your development. The most popular agencies — PADI, TDI, IANTD, SSI and RAID — all offer similar entry-level technical courses, but it’s important that you feel comfortable with your choice of instructor, that they have a diverse technical background, and that they’re more qualified than the level to which they’re training you.

The PADI Tec 40, TDI Intro to Tech, IANTD Advanced Nitrox, SSI Extended Range Nitrox Diving and RAID OC Deco40 are all entry-level technical diver courses that can be conducted in standardized recreational scuba equipment, with the possible requirements of a stage tank and multi-gas computer. These programs usually keep divers within the traditional recreational sport-diving depth limit of 130 feet (40 m), but allow the diver to go beyond a no-decompression limit and accrue 10 minutes of a decompression obligation. That the equipment used in these courses is very similar to what is used on a recreational dive, and within the same depth limit, make this beginner level a natural progression from rec to tec, and helps satisfy motivations No. 2 and No. 3 above.

So, if you’re a passionate recreational diver with a good comfort level in the water, probably with around logged 100 dives (this is the minimum prerequisite number for some agencies) and have good situational awareness, exemplary buoyancy and a desire to learn more, then taking an entry-level tec class is probably your next logical step. Even if you have no desire to explore deep shipwrecks or caves, or carry excessive amounts of gear, an entry-level tec class will make you a safer diver overall, and give you more secure training for diving the outer edges of even your recreational dive profiles.

Cover image by pratts

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