First, a confession. I love diving on Roatan’s reefs, some of the best in the Caribbean — and that’s not just my opinion. The Healthy Reefs Initiative has released a yearly report card on Caribbean reefs since 2004. They declare the “West End Marine Reserve is one of the few places on the report card that has actually improved.”
For those who are unfamiliar with Roatan, it’s the largest of the Bay Islands off the east coast of Honduras, which include Utila and Guanaja, as well as a number of smaller islands and cays. Roatan lies roughly parallel to mainland Honduras, 30 miles away. There are dozens of good dive operations on the island and close to a hundred named dive sites. With that said, and knowledge that’s by no means exhaustive, it’s hard to pick the best dive sites in Roatan, but we’ll give it a shot. Here are five of our favorites.
The Best Dive Sites in Roatan
CoCo View Wall
If drifting along the face of a wall that drops into the blue oblivion below sounds good to you, then the south shore of Roatan won’t fail to impress. One of my favorite south shore wall dives is CoCo View Wall, which is located within swimming distance of CoCo View Resort, but is open to all divers. It plunges down about 82 feet (25 m) from the surface and is heavily encrusted with soft and hard corals. The wall’s most memorable features are its undercuts — the structure doesn’t go straight to the bottom; it cuts back, creating massive overhangs. These are natural congregating points for critters that like to hang out in rocks like lobsters and crab. I once found a couple of seahorses near the top of the wall in about 20 feet of water. Just off the bottom of the wall in the sand, look for garden eels and sand divers. In fact, pay very close attention to the macro life as you’re cruising along — you never know what you’ll find hidden away in these quasi-caves.
Many consider this the best dive on the island, and it’s a great one to be sure — a series of deep coral canyons, teeming with macro life. But while it definitely makes my top five, it’s not No. 1, simply because of the crowds. Every diver has heard about Mary’s Place, which means it can feel like there’s a lineup of dive groups waiting to splash in. I burned off nearly 500 psi waiting with my dive group at a drop off in about 40 feet of water that’s right at the edge of the maze of canyons. Once we got into the maze, it was a beautiful experience, swimming between sheer cliffs, almost within touching distance on each side. Divers can make their way along one canyon and then can turn and swing into another and swim the length of that one as well. You may even make it into a third canyon if everyone in your group is good on air. The richness of the soft coral here is hard to find anywhere in the Caribbean — huge blue fans, green and gold sea rods and feathery looking sea plumes. Lots of nice barrel and tube sponges dot the site as well.
Dolphin’s Den, on the north side of the island, abounds with coral canyons similar to those at Mary’s Place, and they’re far less crowded. They’re lush with hard and soft coral and teeming with small reef life: tiny cleaner shrimp playing among the anemones, snapping shrimp, sounding and looking dangerous in a coral nook and, on one dive, my first glimpse of a slipper lobster. These are some of the best canyons I’ve ever experienced, between 50 and 70 feet deep and honeycombed with tunnels leading from one canyon to the next. Dolphin’s Den is thusly named because deep within one of the tunnels is the skull of a dolphin. Our divemaster suggested the poor creature may have swum in, become disoriented and drowned. (Yes, you can swim into the tunnels with your guide to see the skull). Aside from the tunnels, look for large nurse sharks hanging out in the caves and overhangs. Despite the quasi-overhead environment, this site is well within the reach of intermediate divers.
The marine park on the west side of the island encompasses 8 miles (13 km) of coastline from the high-water mark to about 180 feet of depth. Patrols here enforce strictly limited fishing activities, which means the sea life is abundant. The park maintains about 60 mooring sites for dive boats, so the coral hasn’t been torn up by anchors. Fish Den is a shallow dive; most of the best stuff is in the first 20 feet — you’ll get plenty of bottom time and be glad of it. If you want to know what reefs looked like 50 years ago in the Caribbean, this site will give you that history lesson: teeming schools of jacks and grunts; an abundance of different species of angelfish; and my personal favorite, parrotfish. Don’t forget to check the coral growths closely for tiny gobies and blennies. Here I was also treated to my closest-ever encounter with a green sea turtle. Fish Den is a prime feeding ground for these often-shy turtles, but I got within a few feet of one, vigorously munching on a sponge. She (or he) gave me a casual glance and kept eating — dinner was clearly the top priority. If you’re an underwater photographer, this site is a must. With great light penetration and shallow depths, photographers can take their time finding and composing shots.
At about 108 feet (33 m), the El Aguila wreck, also located on the west side, is on the deeper end for some recreational divers. You’ll only have a few minutes of bottom time, but there’s a way to make this dive a lot longer. The wreck sits beside a superb coral wall, so divers can pop down, do a leisurely swim of the length of the wreck (watch for the large green moray near the bow), max out their bottom time and then head for the wall, exploring in about 33 feet (10 m) of water. Here you can off-gas while visiting with groupers, which are what really make this site impressive. The wreck aside, El Aguila is one of the few sites on Roatan where you’ll find an abundance of large sea creatures: huge black and goliath groupers, large green moray eels that often swim freely around the divers, and impressively big barracuda. If you dive Roatan, the El Aguila is a must-do.
With these five sites in mind, I hasten to add that these really are the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I could just as easily have pulled another 15 great sites out of my logbook. Bottom line, if you’ve not yet had a chance to dive Roatan, do it — reefs in this kind of condition may not last forever and the march of development seems inevitable. Put Roatan on your bucket list today — you won’t be sorry.