When I first started diving, part of what really drew me into falling madly in love with the underwater lifestyle was seeing the big creatures that call the coral reefs home like sharks, turtles, eels and rays. I happen to have been lucky enough to see three sharks, a couple of turtles, moray eels and a stingray on my first dive off the Mexican coast of Cancun, so I might have formed an impression from the beginning that seeing them is common, something that happens everytime you drop below the surface.
Now, with well over a hundred dives underneath my belt, I know that seeing sharks, turtles and rays isn’t something that happens everyday. It’s not something that happens every week, even for seasoned professionals who spend all day diving everyday of the week. When you do see one, like the huge spotted eagle ray that we saw on our second dive today right off Utila’s East Bay at the Lighthouse dive site (that we could swim to from where our boat is currently anchored), you know that you’re witnessing something special, something unique, something to be appreciated, cherished, and respected. Gliding by the reef in the deep blue water, this spotted eagle ray was easy to miss if not for the white spots covering its back-- but it was a magnificent creature -- awe inspiring, humbling and gorgeous, like something from another planet.
In fact, I wouldn’t have seen it at all had one of our dive buddies (Katie) not started banging on her tank and swimming after it with her GoPro held out in front of her like a beacon. I used to race along, always wanting to see the next thing, see what’s around the next bend in the coral wall, but I’ve slowed my pace down and now I usually crawl at the back of the group with a turtle like cadence to the slow frog kicks that propel me forward as my eyes sweep over and pore into the minutia of the ridiculously complex coral ecosystem that make up the Caribbean Barrier Reef.
I used to soar past coral with big turbulent flutter kicks, anxiously looking for the next moray eel or large lionfish, now I’m simply amazed by the transfixing, alien landscape that I’m lucky enough to see. I can spend minutes staring at a single outcropping of coral, poring over the intricate detail composing even the smallest piece.
It’s not all gorgeous though -- it’s almost impossible not to notice the bleaching occurring all over the place down here-- especially evident in the shallow depths where color isn’t so washed out. Much respect to the Utila Dive Center crew who do a regular Coral Watch on the status of the reef around here and who taught me everything I know. One or two colonies might be something else, but entire gardens where a rainbow of color once reigned supreme reduced to white-tipped bony structures crying out for help simply cannot be ignored by any but the most ignorant, profit-obsessed types of people.
It’s a slow-moving tragedy, a colossal, planet-wide train wreck happening at a snail’s pace -- unfolding just out of sight. Seeing how the reef has suffered in the six months since we were here in Utila is sobering in the extreme -- especially since this has been one of the coldest wet seasons in the recent history of the Bay Islands -- meaning that it was much worse in September and has been, one hopes recovering a bit as the water temperatures have been dropping in October, November, December and January.
It’s a lot colder here than I remember. I’ve actually been forced to wear a wetsuit for the first time in my life. It’s a shame to shed the I’ve Never Worn a Wetsuit bravado that used to punctuate my sentences seeing people putting two 3mm layers before dipping into eighty plus degree waters, but I have to admit that I was cold as we ended our second dive today.
Water temperature was something like 75 -- a far cry from the 86 degrees we were diving in here six months ago. I can’t say I love pulling a thick, tight neoprene suit over the majority of my body -- but I like it more than being freezing, uncomfortably cold. Plus, I’m not running through my air nearly as quickly as I used to do -- my body isn’t fighting for warmth. I’m thinking of investing in one of those fancy hooded wetsuits but that’s going to be down the line when I already have a BCD, a regulator, a tank and a few other accessories.
Speaking of which, hit me up in the comments below or shoot an email over to us if you have any gently-used dive gear that you’re looking to offload.