Saturday, July 12, 2014

Down deep in Roatan

There’s only one sport that I’m any good at and that’s scuba diving. In early 1989 I discovered
Andi in full gear
snorkeling finding that it was bloody hard work and didn’t get me down to what I wanted to see. As luck would have it, later that year graduate student who was also scuba instructor enrolled in one of my classes. Scuba diving, he said, was a lot easier than snorkeling because you had your air with you and you weren’t fighting the surface waves. That sounded reasonable to me so I embarked on scuba lessons. While my graduate student was an excellent teacher, I was a horrible student. The only good things about learning were that he was exceptionally patient and he didn’t let me drown; I think the latter was because he needed the class I was teaching to finish his master’s degree. In any case, all of my angst, fear, and ineptitude vanished the minute I hit the ocean in Cozumel, Mexico. In 1990, it was a glorious place and I developed an abiding love of scuba diving. This love has fueled my travel bug, taking me around the world to play in the oceans; the latest Near-Normal diving adventure was at Bananarama in Roatan, Honduras.

Blue wrasse over lettuce coral
If you’ve ever dreamed you were able to fly without an airplane, you’ve experienced the feeling scuba diving gives me. Being able to glide through the water, almost completely unfettered by gravity is enormously freeing. In the clear, warm waters you can come face-to-face with lovely fish, sea turtles, extremely large snails and a few critters that you just don’t touch! Of course, the first time you dive, you wonder where all the color that you typically see in professional photography went. As you go deeper in the water you lose long wavelength light; so unless you use flash photography, almost everything appears some shade of blue. It also gets darker the deeper you go; this is just one of the reasons divers love clear water!

In Roatan there are lots of corals, so there are lots of critters. The easiest to see are the fish. While they generally won’t come up and eat out of your hand, they will let you get close enough
Left to Right, Top: Grey Angel, Damselfish, Hamlet,
Bottom: French Angels, Stoplight Parrot
to them to appreciate their colors and the manner in which they move. We learned early on, though, that the smallest fish could be the most ferocious. A damselfish, not more than two inches long, will attack anything that intrudes on its territory. These small aggressors will nip fingers, knees, lips, cameras, dive gear, or other dangling objects; and yes, it can hurt! Larger fish, such as French Angels are much less aggressive and will follow divers around looking for anything their passage stirs up. Good divers don’t try to feed or touch any of the ocean critters, and we make every effort to keep our gear from touching anything. Bumps and nicks from foreign objects can damage ocean life, allowing bacteria to enter, causing sometimes fatal diseases.

One of the things you constantly do as you’re swimming around is look closely in nooks and
Left to Right, Top: Conehead Shrimp, Wrasse, Yellow-headed Jawfish
Bottom: Christmas Tree Worms, Brittle Stars in sponges
crannies, inside sponges, and along the surfaces of the coral. There are many more small critters than large and they do a good job of hiding since their size makes them lunch for lots of the other inhabitants. If you’ve ever seen the movie Coneheads, you’ve got a good idea of what conehead shrimp look like. They have spider-like legs, claws that they snap incessantly, and a long pointy head; think of a Daddy-Longlegs with a dunce cap. Christmas Tree worms instantly disappear into their burrows if the water around them is disturbed. Brittle Stars love to hide in sponges, with only tiny wrasses to visit them. But my favorite of all is the Jawfish. These little guys stand on their tails in the sand and zip into a hole backwards with only an eye showing if they think there is danger around. On one dive I used up a substantial amount of the air in my tank lying on the ocean floor waiting for a jawfish to show itself for a picture. Just when you think they are never coming out and lower your camera, out they pop, grinning and disappearing before you can even bring the camera back into place. Obnoxious little critters! 

Top: Lobster Bottom: Conch, Sea Biscuit and Crab
Also on the ocean floor, and much easier to see are lobsters, crab, conch, sand dollars, and sea biscuits. Generally the lobsters and crabs are hiding under a rock or a piece of coral. If you’re lucky, you can entice a lobster to come out by staying out of its line of sight, but putting a finger just out of reach of one of its antennae. Being curious, it will inch out of its den trying to gently touch your finger. If you keep moving it farther away, the lobster comes farther and farther out. It’s great fun and hopefully one of your friends will get a good picture. Conchs may not look a great deal like the shells you see in the souvenir stores. The ones in Roatan had camouflaged themselves with all sorts of alga growth, making you think that their shell had been abandoned. If you’re patient, they will eventually stick out an eye or two
Sea Biscuit with its track
to make sure that the pesky diver has left. Generally I see oodles of sand dollars and few if any sea biscuits; not so in Roatan. The sea biscuits were with us on almost every dive. Like starfish, they have tube feet that allow them to move very slowly. One of the ones we saw was parading around in its typical circle hunting for something to eat in the sand. Once they die the spiny covering falls off, leaving the smooth test and allowing you to see their typical five petal design.

Diving is a relatively safe sport if you pay attention. The critters you visit are, for the most part, non-aggressive. The trick is not to touch any of them and not to cut off an escape route. So far, the only animal induced injuries any of our group has ever had have been fish nips and jelly fish stings. Having said that, there are critters you have to be aware of when you’re diving. Sea urchins sit quietly in the sand or among the corals and wave their spines in the hopes of moving prey to their mouths. Those spines are very sharp and can go right through a wetsuit, the palm of a hand or the sole of a foot. Eels are extremely shy and generally hide in small caves coming out at night to feed. However, sticking a hand in a hole or popping your head under a low-hanging coral can upset the eel and immediately thereafter the silly diver!
Left to Right, Top: Lionfish, Eel
Left to Right, Bottom: Turtle, Urchin
Turtles are also very shy. They perch on corals to rest, have a nap, or even spend the night. They look like they are asking to be touched; they are not. And grabbing onto a turtle’s shell for a ride is the height of rudeness! These guys have strong beaks and will bite if they feel threatened; they will also bowl over a diver who is in the way of the turtle’s escape to open water. Lionfish are a new species in Roatan and are having a devastating effect on the other reef fish, mainly because they have no natural predators in this area. When hurricane Andrew hit southern Florida in 1992 damaging hundreds of homes, the ancestors of these lionfish were washed from their aquaria into the Gulf of Mexico. It’s taken more than 20 years, but they are now found in waters around Roatan. Their venomous spines produce a painful sting, but it isn’t fatal to humans. The lionfish are now being used as a food source for some folks and as bait for fishing. Whether this will control the population or not is anyone’s guess.

Feather Duster Worm
There are two times of the day that I love to dive. Dawn dives begin just before the sun rises and you get to see the critters that hunt at night coming back from their labors and the day critters waking up. Night dives allow you to see the process in reverse. There are many bottom dwellers that only come out in full dark, and feather duster tube worms are one of my favorites. They look like flowers with their feathery petals waving in the gentle currents. It’s all wonderful and I’m looking forward to getting back into the gear and hitting the water, again. Is it easier than snorkeling? Amazingly, yes!

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