(In which we vacation for 9 days and 8 nights, split between two locations; a tropical rain forest lodge, and an intimate Caribbean island retreat.)
My Honduras YouTube playlist
Link to trip photos
“Turf”- The Rain Forest
Our plane from Atlanta dropped through the clouds to reveal San Pedro Sula below, only dimly viewed through the pall of smoke choking the Sula valley where the city sprawls. As the plane rolled toward the airport gates and acrid smoke wafted through the aircraft, I was reminded we were once again visiting a third world country, where almost any unwanted item becomes litter or trash, much of it eventually finding its way either into the Caribbean Sea or a burn pile.
But, hey, we’re in Honduras, on vacation, and we are determined to have a fantastic time. Especially since this trip is the culmination of several months of painstaking research and meticulous planning, including a steady stream of digital communications to schedule and secure transportation and accommodations, careful study of maps and charts, plane schedules, weather forecasts and even whale shark migration reports.
The smoky view of nearby mountains vaguely seen from the main terminal windows served to distract somewhat from the frequent ear-splitting and incomprehensible loud-speaker announcements that assaulted us during our three hour layover as we waited for the flight to the coastal city of La Ceiba, some 120 miles distant, on the Caribbean coast of Honduras.
Our flight to La Ceiba was short and uneventful, and upon arrival we were captivated by the sight of the Cordillera Nombre de Dios mountains, razor-toothed and mist-capped, looming over us in the late afternoon light.
We were met at the small airport by the driver of the van from the Lodge at Pico Bonito http://www.picobonito.com/ our pied-a-terre for the next 3 nights and days. As the only passengers, we had the undivided attention of Manuel, the taciturn but friendly-enough driver who kindly informed us that the cultivated fields rolling by were pineapple.
We sanguinely gazed out the windows for the next 20 minutes while the van bumped over ubiquitous tope’s (“Toh-pays”, or speed bumps) on the main road out of town. Pineapple fields slipped by and we were continually passed by drivers determined to run us or the oncoming vehicle out of our respective lanes. Cars, trucks, motorcycles, and three-wheeled taxis called tuk-tuks darted in and out of the traffic, while pedestrians and bicycle riders made their way slowly and carefully along the narrow gravel verge, somehow managing to avoid being sideswiped.
Like I said, we were fairly sanguine, having seen it all before, many times, in many Caribbean locales. All the same, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief as we pulled off the busy road onto a peaceful, tree-lined, rutted and dusty track that meandered between coconut, pineapple and palm oil plantations as it wound its way relentlessly uphill, pulling us into the embrace of those mysterious purple massifs.
Manuel explained that the area plantations were owned by the Standard Fruit Company (later, Dole) which, along with the United Fruit Company, in the 1920s played a significant role in the governments of Honduras and other Central American countries, which became known as “banana republics” because of the highly favorable treatment the fruit companies were given by those governments.
“It’s complicated” barely touches the history of U.S. influence in central america politics and business, but that’s a topic for another day, and someone else’s blog.
In any event, we were fairly well-informed of the country’s colorful past, and more importantly, current woes and how the latter could conceivably give us some concern for our safety, which is really a continuance of our experience on the island of Roatan in 2007, as my blog posting details http://wp.me/pYCsM-n
In prepping for this trip, we had long since come to an accommodation of our understanding of the dangers inherent in traveling to a third-world country where the rule of law is iffy at best and where there is a certain comfort in glimpsing the heavily armed private security guards as they patroled the hiking trails around and roads leading into the properties where we stayed.
We realized that our three night stay in a tropical rain forest would expose us to an environment fraught with mosquito-and-water-borne disease, poisonous critters (Fer de lance snake!) and a zillion stinging and biting insects just waiting to pounce. Even so, we figured flying in planes that we knew would get smaller, older and more haggard as our travels unfolded gave us more pause than did thoughts of mosquito-borne diseases and parasites. There’s no DEET for a plane that can’t fly and won’t float!
Historic, Serene Pico Bonito Lodge
As the van passed through the guarded entry gate of the Lodge, the scrub of overgrown plantation grounds soon gave way to lovingly tended tropical plants, shrubs, and trees bursting forth with blossoms, blooms, giant buds and flowering spikes of various sizes, shapes and shades of red, orange, and magenta that glowed among a wall of greenery decorating a large garden area bisected by a lengthy lined gravel walkway.
Out-sized palm and banana leaves, ferns and bromeliads, orchids and epiphytes nodded in the late afternoon breeze flowing off the mountain, seeming to beckon us toward the massive covered entry and the raised portico of the Lodge.
This description may seem a bit, well, flowery but when you see our pictures you may begin to understand why we were so quickly and so surely captivated by the sights, sounds and smells of this amazing place.
Stepping from the air-conditioned quiet of the van, my senses were overwhelmed by the onslaught of sights, sounds and odors. The late afternoon light limning the massive mahogany posts, beams and polished floors of the soaring, open-aired entry to the Lodge signaled a place that had grown from and into its immediate surrounds.
Built on the site of former coffee and cacao plantations, the Lodge is nestled in the lush 270,000 acres of Pico Bonito National Park, home to hundreds of varieties of tropical birds, as well as monkeys, anteaters, tapir, kinkajous, reptiles and jaguars.
I certainly felt I was well off the grid now, in a spectacular setting, the humid breeze redolent of the fecund smell of rotting vegetation, sweet tropical blossoms, freshly watered soil, crushed gravel and cinnamon. And the sounds! A symphonic flow of bird calls pealing, tinkling, chirping and whistling blended together in a harmonious concerto, accented by the percussion of geckos and cicadas. All was overlaid by the sustained high-pitched burr of thousands of insects.
Robin and I hardly had time to share stunned smiles because here was the beaming receptionist offering us a small tray with warm, wet and scented hand-towels to refresh ourselves, even as another friendly staff person flourished a large serving tray arrayed with two sweating glasses of a cold tropical concoction, to which I agreed a tipple of rum added was in order. I even managed to notice the lovely hibiscus bloom next to my glass before I snatched it up eagerly. The glass, not the bloom.
Arriving on a Friday evening was apparently in our favor, as we were the only guests checking in, so before undergoing the rituals of registration, we were given ample time to slowly walk around the vast interior of the main Lodge entry, pulled inexorably to the vista that unfolded as we made our way to the garden side of the entry. Photos hardly do this sublime scene justice, and my first view left me rooted to the spot, just trying to take it all in.
To spare the reader more over-blown exposition, I refer you to our trip photos, which I believe capture the visual lushness of the scene we encountered. But do return to the story, it will be worth your patience!
Soon we were stepping along a raised boardwalk and then down to the gravel path that led to the cabins, situated some distance from the main lodge building, yet readily reached, as long as one stayed on the gravel paths. Heavy undergrowth grew right up to the pathways, the plants and trees springing up from leaf-litter that was, on average, as deep as one’s thighs. Largish rocks poked up from the gravel walkways and my not-quite-healed injured ankle was, even in my hiking boot, sorely tested as my foot slipped off one and then another of these treacherous devils.
In the Rain Forest, High Above a River Gorge
The following day, on our ass-kicking hike to Unbelievable Falls, I would find myself cursing these rocks and all their brethren who did their best to deny us the dignity of a somewhat balanced tumble. The gravel paths would prove to be tiring and slippery as we made our way around the 400 acres of the lodge property during our stay.
Our cabin appeared to float among heavy foliage and as we mounted the steps from the gravel walkway, I spotted one of the many large feeder trays piled with rotted fruit that were positioned around the property. The feeder was less than 40 feet from our cabin, just across the loop trail which our deck overlooked, and was perched on the sharp edge of the river gorge, which dropped precipitously almost straight down to the river some 200 feet below.
The sounds of the rushing river water harmonized with the buzz of insects and bird calls, which echoed off the massive trees that screened much of the afternoon light. In the gloom under the forest canopy, the cabin interior glowed from lights thoughtfully switched on, bathing yet more hardwoods used in constructing the interior of the cabin and its furnishings in a warm and welcoming glow.
Thanks to our luggage having magically made its way to the room, we were soon showered and refreshed from a long day of travel and ready to walk the grounds a bit before the typically rapid tropical sunset. But first, we faced a visit from a White-Faced Capuchin monkey, who was as surprised to see us as we were to see it!
Robin and I were relaxing on the cabin deck under the paddle fan when we heard rustling in the trees overhead. A falling branch prompted us to step out onto the deck, and there was the monkey, peering down at us from some 30 feet up in a tree. As soon as it spotted us, it chattered at us and started moving away. In the matter of a minute it was lost to us in the thick foliage. We watched for several minutes but could detect no sign of movement in the trees or any sound.
This was my first close encounter with a wild monkey in the rain forest. I’d seen Howlers in Belize but never got as close as we did to this one. We agreed it was a special moment.
After the monkey’s visit, we headed down the hill to the magnificent dining area close by the main Lodge.
Armed with flashlights and DEET, we took a turn around the lovely and well-kept pool area and took in a view of the deep and narrow river gorge afforded from a platform nearby. The sounds of the rushing river water below drifted up to us, along with a light spray which did nothing to dissuade the mosquitoes, so we escaped to the spacious deck of the dining area and enjoyed the sight of the last golden light of the day gilding the clouds that shrouded the tallest peaks of the mountain range to the east and south.
Small, rabbit-like mammals called Agutis darted here and there among the flowers and shrubs, and we soon understood that these rabbit-sized rodents were considered a nuisance by the locals. We found them rather cute and amusing and I managed to get a couple of shots before we lost the light.
An amazing meal provided a restful segue to our traipse back up the hill (getting lost along the way) to our cabin. I was too tired to linger long in the hammock on our deck, even as I was loathe to fall asleep and miss one minute of the night sounds of the forest.
Bats swooped in the faint light from our room. The bird sounds throttled back but not all of the feathered types went to bed, apparently. The cicadas really cranked it up, so loud that at times we couldn’t hear each other over the noise unless we shouted- really, they are quite loud. Grunts and peeps and squeaks abounded (we learned that many of the sounds I thought were frogs were instead geckos). As for this nature-lover who is accustomed to recognizing all manner of North American critters by their vocals, I found myself befuddled, unable to recognize much beyond “Gee I think that’s a bat squeak!” Or a mouse? Or an Aguti or other rodent?
Eventually, it was Lights Out and into the arms of Morpheus, accompanied by the sound of the rushing river below and the night sounds of the rain forest enveloping the cabin.
I was awakened suddenly around 1am by a “thump-thump-THUMP!” sound from the feeder, quickly followed by a prolonged, high-pitched squeal that rapidly faded as, apparently, some poor creature was spirited away on wings.
A Brutal Hike Through the Rain Forest
Right after dawn we were up and at ’em, preparing our hiking gear for what we anticipated would be an arduous but awesome hike way up a mountain and down into a river gorge, where the 100 foot drop of Unbelievable Falls and its two pools beckoned. But first, we got to watch the early morning Bird Show from the gallery of the dining area while we sipped Honduran coffee and enjoyed a light breakfast.
I have no idea how many of the 300+ species of tropical birds we saw and heard, but the activity was fierce, the bird calls loud and entrancing as tropical fowl flitted, flapped, dove, darted and soared among the shrubs and towering trees arrayed before us. For close-up activity, the fly-bys of hummers coming to feeders positioned around the gallery were a delight.
At times the bird call concert would pause, and in the silence we could clearly hear the hummers’ rapid wing-beats and tiny peeps and cheeps as they flitted here and there, from feeder to feeder, aggressively defending territory from other hummers. I spotted at least 3 different hummer varieties, both male and female specimens, before I lost count.
Right on time, our guide showed up and we were off, up and up and up and relentlessly UP the steep, narrow, washed-out, dry, dusty and rolling-rock-underfoot trail that would, some 2.5 hours later, in the heat and humidity of the equatorial mid-morning (when the breeze from the nearby coast lays to!) take us to Exhaustion Falls, er, Unbelievable Falls.
Upon making our way down the incredibly steep, treacherous, one-misstep-you-are-gone-baby trail into that gorge, I was ready for the rescue helicopter.
But of course no helicopter could make its way to us. Not amid these steep mountain gorges thickly covered with towering 120-plus foot tall trees festooned with tangling vines– certainly not in this vastness, which we had all to ourselves. But of course we had it all to ourselves. The only way in and out was by foot. So after resting, eating protein bars and drinking a lot of the water we’d packed in, it was time to face that steep gorge incline.
Clambering over slippery and mossy rocks and pulling ourselves up using trees and vines (while ever-vigilant for where we placed our hands!), we made our way ever so carefully up and out of that gorge. I’ve hiked some of the highest mountains in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, braved the treachery of the Rockies at over 10,000 feet and tromped peaks in Georgia for years but this was just brutal. Admittedly, I was working with an injured ankle, which made it necessary for me to plan every step, every second, which probably didn’t help!
Enough whining. Now it was time to buckle down and retrace our steps, back up and down steep ridges, through several valleys, past Hummingbird Gulch (my name for an area where we were surrounded by dozens of hummers, darting about our heads and objecting to our incursion). Past Army Ant hill (again, my name), where one simply didn’t stand in one place but kept dodging the lines of these voracious insects while clambering over giant, fallen trees and crunching through a hillside of dead vegetation the locals had chopped, denuding the valley to enable illegal lumbering.
Across the valley we spotted two Toucans flying from tree to tree, calling to each other in high-pitched frog-like croaks.
Further along we again walked across a steep hillside planted with cacao trees, where our guide had earlier introduced us to the sweet meat found in each gourd. White, fleshy thumb-sized bits of gooey fruit surround each cacao bean which, when processed, delivers the basic stuff of chocolate. We sucked the moisture from the white fleshy parts and were surprised at the fairly pleasant and faintly sweet flavor.
Crossing the next-to-last ridge on our way to the final downhill run to the Lodge, we stopped to admire the view out to the Caribbean Sea less than 10 miles distant. A large valley below us provided an unimpeded view of massive buttressed Ceiba trees, 200 feet tall and higher, in clumps that from a distance looked like tall broccoli heads.
We could clearly see many Montezuma Oropendola birds returning to their nesting colony made up of hundreds of large nests that looked like long-necked gourds. The racket these clever and colorful birds made came to us across that valley. We stood in the breeze and enjoyed the spectacle for a few moments while catching our breath.
We also passed by a lone and massive tree on the very top of a ridge. The main fork of the tree featured two huge branches and against the fork rested a long, thick tree branch. Clearly, someone had chopped steps up that branch using a machete. I looked and saw no fruit on the tree, so I asked the guide what the ladder was for. He hesitated then explained that someone was using the tree as a place to catch wild parrots for the illegal trade.
I had wondered if something was amiss. Still, this sight, combined with the deforestation we witnessed as we crossed unprotected areas of the rain forest during this hike clearly illustrated much that we’ve heard and read for years about the threats to natural areas worldwide.
It seems that even in the midst of the enjoyment of nature, we are constantly reminded of the devastating effects of human impact. Poverty, disease, fear, crime, poverty, more poverty and so forth are constantly with us, no matter where we travel. No matter how I crop the images I take and dress up the stories of our experiences, the not-so-paradisaical reality is always there, ever-present. Which I guess is why we do what we do, and go where we go.
We’re admittedly, selfishly, doing our best to experience what we can, even as we see it disappearing and destroyed before us. And, to be fair, WE are a part of the problem, no matter how we may clothe ourselves in “eco-adventure” language, Cool-Max clothing, and good intentions. But, honestly, if the choice is stay at home and watch the Travel Channel, I’ll opt for the travel, every time.
At this point I left the soap-box behind and, eventually, managed to stumble back to our cabin, where a shower and bed awaited. I slept most of the afternoon and through the night, only awakened once by the vocalization of some sort of cat that was NOT a jaguar but was equally NOT a house cat. I suspect it was a Margay, fairly common in this area of Pico Bonito.
A Day at Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge
The next day we were up again at the crack of dawn. We grabbed a quick breakfast, and met our guide at 6:30am for our trek to Cuero y Salado wildlife refuge on the coast nearby. I’d never heard of this place and wondered why, because it is truly an amazing place worthy of the full Travel Channel (or Lonely Planet) treatment!
The 82 square mile preserve forms a triangle encompassed by the Cuero and Salado rivers and the sea coast. It was designated a protected area in 1986 because of its endangered manatee population, as well as the complex series of saltwater and freshwater wetlands it contains. The park protects about 35 species of animals, including manatees, jaguar, Jabirus (storks), Capuchin and Howler monkeys, as well as gators, crocs, iguanas, bats and a great diversity of fish species.
We actually spotted quite a few critters during our 2 hour ride in a jon-boat. Our trip up-river had barely begun when a troop of Howler monkeys growled at us as we approached the east side of the river. The boat slowly eased through the deep shadows near the bank and at first we had a hard time spotting these fairly large and slow-moving monkeys, but soon enough the Alpha male moved to the outer branches of the trees and looked down at us while barking his warning calls.
We spent a few minutes marveling at these marvelous primates. I was struck by the contrast between their loud and threatening vocalizations and the careful way they moved through the trees; altogether a different experience than the one that awaited us elsewhere on this morning’s expedition.
Before long, the Howlers moved back into the trees away from the river’s edge, and we continued our trip, nosing into backwater canals and small lagoons off the main river to see what we could see.
We soon came upon a large crocodile floating among water hyacinths near the bank, jaws agape. When it finally moved, its lengthy body sinuously slid across the hyacinths and we estimated its length as close to 12 feet. The guide commented “Yes, no swimming in this river!” No argument here.
Cruising slowly around a lagoon, we spotted many water birds common to sub-tropical Florida, such as kites and egrets, herons and cormorants, rails and limpkins. A large Belted Kingfisher kept us company for a few minutes, crossing from one river bank to the other, chattering its signature rattling call as it zipped back and forth.
It felt kind of strange to me to be in the watery environment of a tidal fresh water river, surrounded by trees and animal life so familiar yet quite different from the outdoors where I’ve spent a great deal of my life. Here the trees were far larger, and more jungle-like, than those in the Everglades or the few remaining sections of ancient wetlands along Florida’s coasts. For instance, in Florida, very few old-growth giant mangroves and cypress trees survived 80 or more years of intense logging. I was gratified to see so many healthy, old, untouched trees lining the river and lagoon banks.
The boat skipper slowly nosed us toward a large tree overhanging the water and lo and behold, mere inches in front of us, were 7 short-nosed bats lined up on the underside of the trunk in the reflection of the water, hanging downward, their tiny legs clamped securely to the trunk.
We approached slowly and I was able to get a picture of these little mammals that were so close I could have touched them. If you look closely, you can see their little faces low down on their upside-down bodies. They were looking out, right at us. So cute!
As the boat backed away, they all took flight in a simultaneous burst, and in the blink of an eye, they were gone.
Next, we turned into a narrow canal, out of reach of the light breeze over the open water. The mid-morning sun was developing a real bite as we came upon a small landing, where our guide pointed out a short boardwalk that led to a narrow foot trail through the undergrowth. We agreed to follow the trail for a short distance to see what we might run into.
We quietly made our way along the boardwalk and stepped down onto the foot trail, right into a cloud of voracious mosquitoes. We started to converse about the wisdom of continuing without a thorough dousing of DEET when suddenly the trees around us erupted in a volley of sound and movement. “Quick! Monkeys! A lot of monkeys!” our guide whispered and motioned us onward. We scrambled to catch up, looking overhead as shapes darted here and there, rattling limbs, shaking bushes, and screeching in an alarming manner. Twigs and leaves rained down and it dawned on me, those monkeys were throwing them at us!
We danced down the trail a bit more, spotting monkeys. “Here!” “Over there!” “Look- right there!” I had the camera ready to go, but the rapid movement of the monkeys through the thick vegetation foiled any attempt to photograph them, so I stood still and watched as the troop quickly moved off.
At least we got a good look at them, and no doubt, they were Capuchin monkeys, which were smaller than the Howlers and much more colorful, sporting a white scruff and face accenting black furry coats. Our guide was simply delighted, telling us that he’d not seen Capuchin’s in the reserve in more than a year.
By now, the clouds of mosquitoes made lingering a non-option so we all hoofed it quickly back to the boat and shoved off.
A short run in the jon-boat brought us to the wide mouth of the river, which debouched directly into the Caribbean Sea. We saw no signs of development along the beach, only a large gathering of Turkey Vultures busily fighting over the piles of garbage and plastic that the tide had left on a long sandbar at the river’s edge.
Between the vultures, the sight of so much garbage on an otherwise beautiful and deserted beach, the smell and the flies, the scene lost a lot of what should have been a certain appeal, and we quickly demurred when our guide asked if we wanted to walk along the beach. I figured hoards of sand flies were crowding to the water’s edge, just waiting to get their little jaws on unsuspecting tourists. Besides, I didn’t want to get a closer look at the material that was creating that nauseous smell.
Soon we returned to the dock and after tipping our skipper, spent the next hour or so in the shade of a tree just outside the preserve’s school building. Our guide provided cold water and chilled fresh fruit slices from a cooler, and before long we were joined by several incredibly mangy and emaciated dogs, which brought with them a swarm of flies.
We ate hurriedly, trying not to spend too much time agonizing over the condition of the poor canines, but it was hard to ignore them when they flopped in the dust under our picnic table. One poor fellow with a glassy thousand-yard stare was so weak he could barely manage to stand, his legs shaking as with the ague, his tongue lolling. I was afraid he would collapse and expire right there in front of us. My heart ached. That was about the time Robin got up to go walk around.
Close Up: Developing World Woes
With a clatter, the little-engine-that-could train announced its arrival and we didn’t dally as we joined the small gathering of passengers who were headed back to the village of La Union with us. The train driver pushed the open-aired wagon toward the little engine and, with the help of a couple of by-standers, connected the two.
We took our seats on the rough wooden benches and with a jerk the train struggled back the way we’d come, belching diesel fumes while it thumped and squealed and rattled down the narrow-gauge railway.
For the next 45 minutes we bumped and thumped and screeched our way past pineapple plantations, scrub, and herds of sleek cows grazing in low pastures that were mostly under a thin layer of water. Clearly this was a wetland, subject to flooding during the rainy season, which made for lush pasturage but required the few simple homes and ranch buildings we spotted to be built on stilts well clear of the ground.
The closer we got to the community of La Union, the more people we saw walking along the well-worn foot path beside the raised rail bed. Without exception, these rural folk were barefoot and not prosperous, judging by the worn condition of their colorless attire. Some men wore woven, straw cowboy hats, but most were bare-headed, as were the women.
I watched the faces of people as we passed, and those who deigned to look up at us wore expressions ranging from dull curiosity to resignation and weariness. I caught not a few glares of resentment. Mostly, people went on about their business and ignored the passing of what is clearly the primary connection and transport into and from the surrounding countryside.
As we came into the settlement, I was again struck by the amount of garbage, litter and junk strewn along the tracks, down the steep hillsides, at the bottom of ravines and surrounding what can charitably be called hovels that were squatting right next to the rails, almost within touching distance.
These homes were make-shift, put-together affairs, using broken lumber, tree limbs, old tin, plastic sheeting, torn tarps and cardboard. The “roofs” were often weighed down by stones or old bricks. Women washed clothes in rusted tin tubs, the lines of uniformly grey shirts, trousers, dresses, children’s school uniforms and undergarments hanging on chicken wire or rusted barbed wire fencing, or laid out on items like old refrigerators laid on their sides, wagon wheels and other unidentifiable items strewn about.
We had noticed that the few small homesteads further out of town all sported barred windows and doorways, and were surrounded by high concrete walls topped with worked iron bars. The places in town more often featured lower concrete walls with broken glass bottles thickly embedded along the top. Every window and the meanest opening sported bars or a barrier of some sort.
It certainly looked to me like the residents feared each other, and this level of security wasn’t limited to this community — we saw such evidence of fear and concern for security throughout our entire trip. The only difference between how these folks lived and the places we stayed is that we had guards with automatic weapons roving discretely around the property, maintaining a 24-hour vigil, particularly at points of relatively easy egress to the property.
Our van driver was waiting for us when the little train huffed across the main street crossing in town and with a final prolonged and ear-splitting metallic screech, pulled into the engine’s tiny open shed.
The ride back to the Lodge was uneventful and we were glad to pass through Checkpoint Charlie and make our way back to the main Lodge, where lunch awaited us.
The Coati Troop and Home Tree
As this was our last full day before moving to an offshore island destination for the remainder of our vacation, we wanted to explore more of the Lodge property, eschewing the temptation of spending a hot and still afternoon lounging by the pool.
Fortified with a meal and packing our water, we headed to the nearby river gorge area called Las Pilas, which offered yet another brutal up and down trek, but lovely pics and a video snippet of the river made it worthwhile.
We made our way back to our cabin, trudging slowly and carefully along the loop trail that encompasses the Lodge grounds. Under that towering canopy of massive trees, the afternoon heat seemed to press in on our tired bodies, while the few bird calls and the unrelenting burr of cicadas echoed all around us. For just a moment I felt disembodied from a weird combination of fatigue and euphoria as I virtually swam through the humidity, clouds of gnats, and the wafting odors of rotted fruit and vegetation.
A late afternoon shower and chilling with a cold drink on the covered deck under a fast-spinning ceiling fan seemed in order.
Along came a Lodge employee, adding fresh fruit to the overflowing bird feeder just across the loop trail from our deck. We lazily watched him as he piled on the fruit, then suddenly he gestured at us excitedly, motioning down the ravine behind the feeder. “Huh? What did he say?” I asked Robin, whose grasp of Spanish is light years from my own.
“Something about ‘grande’, something big out there, I think,” she replied. I struggled to dismount the hammock as Robin asked the fellow what he’d seen. I could hear him excitedly chattering while I stumbled around the cabin looking for my hiking boots or a pair of socks or something to put on my feet before I could get to the feeder through the leaf-litter surrounding the cabin.
Shod, I came out onto the deck and saw Robin peering over the lip of the ravine. The employee was gone and Robin was waving at me. “Coatis!” she said excitedly. “A whole bunch of them! Moving down there!” She pointed down the ravine.
It seems that “grande” in this instance meant a Bunch, not something Big. Cool!
After stomping through the leaf-litter and coming up on the deck, Robin reported she’d seen six or more Coatimundis, or South American raccoons, moving along just below the ridge line, heading toward the setting sun. As we discussed whether to trail after them to get a photo, we spotted one climbing the trunk of a huge tree about 150 feet from us and just off the loop trail. We decided that we would likely make noise getting through the leaves to the trail and we might disturb the troop, so we decided to stay put. Besides, we could clearly see more Coatis working their way up the tree.
From our vantage point, the tree was back-lit by the now blood-orange red globe of the rapidly setting sun, the Coatis sharply silhouetted as first one, another then another crossed a low, lengthy horizontal limb to yet another tree.
The photographer in me wanted so badly to rush right down there and try to get a shot, but the nature-girl recognized the effort wouldn’t be worth it as I’d probably disturb the troop and miss out on the rest of the action.
For the next 10 minutes or so, we stood captivated by a sight that struck me as precisely something one would see on a nature video. Life imitated art in an amazing view of this family group of more than eight Coatis moving through what was apparently their Home Tree. I saw one young Coati pause on the horizontal limb, scratch itself, and be joined by another Coati, who passed the youngster then returned long enough to share a bit of mutual grooming.
And so the sun dropped over the mountaintops to the west, casting all in the deepening gloom of an equatorial evening as the night birds called, bats squeaked, and insects chirred against the background of the river waters rushing to the Caribbean Sea, far below.
In my memory, this is the most indelible visual of our rain forest visit, made more poignant by the knowledge that this was our last night in this place.
Taken together, the extraordinary sense of peaceful isolation in the rainforest, surrounded by what quickly became familiar sights and sounds of the wildlife and insects, the smells, and the majestic presence of so many massive trees will remain with me for many years to come.
“SURF” – Utila Island and Nearby Bay Islands
Our quick hop from the airport at La Ceiba out to the island of Utila took less than 30 minutes, but it seemed much longer as I worked to quell my case of the jitters. I’ve been in some small planes in my lifetime, including a Volkswagen Beetle-sized kit plane that my father built when I was a teen. But, I don’t think I’ve been in a plane quite as small AND old and tired and rusted and, well, iffy as the one we took out to Utila.
The sight of the island and its attendant group of little cays did little to relieve my tension, beyond signaling that perhaps soon we would re-join terra-firma: which we did, with a thump and a bump of shifting luggage from the head-high pile teetering behind our cramped bench seat.
We really weren’t surprised at being greeted by the sight of a wrecked 2-engine plane as we landed on the rutted, potholed, and barely-asphalt-covered “tarmac” on Utila. Clearly parts had been scavenged off the wreck but still, the thing looked like its undercarriage had been wrenched off.
Later we learned that the plane had run into a cow upon landing. Apparently, nobody was hurt, besides the cow, which we were told “disintegrated” upon contact.
OK, so Welcome to Utila! Grab your own luggage out of the plane, carry it over to the waiting van, take the short ride through the noisy, narrow, potholed, dusty, steaming and teeming streets of Utila Town to the commercial docks. Get on a 24 foot dory (motorized, at least) for the 30 minute slow cruise through the late afternoon heat and haze down the coast to Utopia Village, situated on a virtually deserted beach and within spitting distance from the living coral reef.
The accessibility of the reef is what brought us to Utila, and the starred Trip Advisor reviews are what brought us to Utopia, whose amiable, genuinely friendly staff made us feel warmly welcomed as we got the run-down on the facilities. The dive shop, spacious dining area and main lodge, handful of rooms and nearby beach side cabanas, all crafted in Honduran hardwoods, nestled in the deep shade of sea grapes, gumba-limba and coconut trees struck us as homey, serene and every bit the tropical getaway we anticipated.
The next 5 days found us snorkeling on the “house reef”, sometimes in the morning and again in the afternoon. We soon familiarized ourselves with the immediate reef area and its denizens as we’d slowly fin over the shallows and out to the wall, which dropped to depths of over 100 feet.
The water temp was warm, the visibility good to excellent, the corals apparently healthy, and the small reef tropical fish abundant. However, there was a decided lack of larger fish. The usual sea turtles, stingrays, cuttlefish, red snappers, groupers, and other species we are accustomed to spotting throughout the Caribbean were simply gone. This was in contrast to our experience in 2007 on the nearby island of Roatan, where we’d snorkeled daily with a diversity of fishes, amphibians, and crustaceans.
The lack of larger species on Utila was disturbing and a topic of speculation among the 8 or so other guests of this small resort, all of whom were well-traveled SCUBA divers. Based on information from the locals, we supposed that Utila was quite simply over-fished; repeating the pattern I’ve witnessed in island travel from the Bahamas to Belize, St. Kitts to the Yucatan. Everywhere we go, we speak to the older folks who make their living from the sea, and everywhere we hear the same examples of the complete collapse of abundance and variety of seafood these people experienced in their youth.
What does set Utila aside from most Caribbean islands is that it is uniquely situated in the path of migrating whale sharks, a fact that the dive operators and resorts on the island promote to SCUBA divers and marine enthusiasts. While we didn’t get to experience a close encounter with one of these awesome fish, a group of divers staying at Utopia had briefly jumped in the water with a whale shark earlier in the week, and although the encounter was brief, it was very much an exciting footnote for some of our fellow guests.
The days flowed all too quickly through our fingers, accented by an afternoon trip that the group took over to nearby Water Cay, a deserted little island that’s as picturesque as it is isolated.
While the rest of the group walked the beaches and hung out in hammocks in the welcome shade and breeze, Robin and I snorkeled around the island. This turned out to be a lot more work than we’d planned because at the halfway point, over the lovely coral reef on the windward side, we faced the unrelenting current of the outgoing tide, which meant a lot of swimming with few pauses as we made our way to the final obstacle in our path, blocking our access to a long sandbar on the island’s lee.
The obstacle was the reef itself, forming a steep and apparently impenetrable wall of sharp coral growing up from the sand bottom at about 40 feet to a height that was barely covered by the tidal outflow whipping around the point of the island. Yikes, we were in for it, so we just kept finning against that current while I probed for an opening, only to by stymied by water breaking over the reef top.
Eventually, after swimming half-way to a neighboring cay, we found a break in the wall and thankfully swam over some barely-covered razor-sharp coral to the sandbar.
A yummy beach BBQ (Barracuda, salad, pasta and rice), followed by relaxing in hammocks, helped us to recover from the snorkel workout.
One evening the group decided to take a boat ride over to Pigeon Cay, a neighboring tiny island that hosts some 500 souls who live in stilt houses built on the living reef and the scant remaining “land” that hasn’t been torn away from the islet over the centuries. Most of the island’s residents descend from the first residents, who came to Utila from the Cayman Islands in the 1830s. The fisher-folk of Pigeon Cay provide almost all of the fish consumed on Utila and to this day fish only with hand-lines.
After a brief tour of the island hosted by our most-knowledgeable Utopia staffer, the group settled on the breezy deck of a bayside restaurant owned by “Mr. Herman” and his wife Gladys. Next thing you know we were the attentive (and somewhat captive) audience of Mr. Herman as he regaled us with colorfully-told Tales of the Sea that I found riveting.
Simply put, this was a 2-hour plus display of storytelling prowess. This gent of 66 years or so could talk the ear off a cob of corn, and I found him articulate, entertaining, and believable—clearly a man who can weave tales of magic and wonder with mere words and animated gestures. What a performance!
At one point Robin drug my attention away from a story of how Mr. Herman had caught, boated (in a 24 foot hand-rowed dory), and hauled home a 1,250 pound Blue Marlin using only a hand line and his wits. I guess we were 30 minutes past having eaten a so-so fish dinner and the wind off the dark ocean, the dim lighting of the dock and deck area, and the nearby chatter of folks who’d had a snoot-full were wearing thin for Robin. She commented sotto-voice “If I were Gladys I woulda killed this guy 20 years ago!” after the umpteenth time Mr. Herman mentioned his long-suffering wife of 40 years who had put up with his frequent and lengthy disappearances to chase some gig on a merchant ship sailing off to China or Japan or Peru. The ol’ “Girl in Every Port” was the oft-repeated theme underpinning Mr. Herman’s intro to each Next Story, and I think Gladys came out the Saint. Apparently so did the group, who commanded her presence and awarded her with a standing ovation!
Well, I wasn’t put off and indeed consider the stories and Mr. Herman’s storytelling to be a highlight of the trip! Seriously, if I could afford it, I’d return to Pigeon Cay to capture this animated and gifted Teller of (Tall?) Tales on media, before he’s gone.
All too soon it was time to figure out how to cram all our dirty laundry and snorkel gear back into our carry-ons and backpacks and catch a slightly larger plane to the horrific noise inside San Pedro Sula airport terminal and the thankfully direct flight back to Atlanta—where we once again found our tans languishing under layers of clothing in uncharacteristically chilly late Spring temps.
Our Surf and Turf Honduras adventure is sadly behind us, but thanks to photographs, videos and windy blog entries, we can return to relive special moments of our vacation, however fleeting.
Pico Bonito lodge pool pan http://youtu.be/L2KXcg3wtRE
Unbelievable Falls pan: http://youtu.be/6MJeDyL4AKU
Honduras River Gorge pan: http://youtu.be/25kOMcuSgyM
Utopia Village Utila beach pan: http://youtu.be/68uO6ld8hJw
I’m certain I got the fishing gene from Mom. She was, like her father and her brother, a fishing fanatic. I recall being a wee thing, maybe in Kindergarten, being hauled off to the Indian River or the Banana River or the Jetties at Port Canaveral to sit in the hot shade and swat at mosquitoes while Mom would stand for hours on the shore or the breakwater or the jetty or the dock and cast and cast or maybe just watch a bobber. Fishing. Blech. Those fish stank, and when Mom would clean them it was icky and I didn’t think fish was very tasty- I much preferred macaroni and cheese or a hot dog. Or better yet, a brownie!
Considering we three kids grew up in and around the Indian River estuarine system on the east coast of Florida, and because we were allowed the full freedom to be outdoors from dawn to dusk (when we weren’t in school or doing chores or practicing for Band), I guess we were destined to become river rats. Although we resided in several homes in the area throughout the 1960s, we lived for the most part within a short bike ride of the western shore of the Indian River in north Cocoa, FL.
While hardly patient enough to spend the hours that Mom would spend stalking her fishy prey, my brothers and I were perfectly delighted to tramp up and down miles of shoreline and docks marked “Private! Stay Out!”, seeking to poke anything that moved in the brackish shallows, using our home-made fish gigs crafted from old broom handles, a couple of nails and some clothesline. To us, fishing with a rod and reel was a boring adult thing (and besides, we didn’t own any rods or reels). However, we did enjoy creeping along the stinky, slimy edges of the river exposed by the low tide, stalking the unwary Stingray or Blow Fish. Now THAT was pure adventure.
When we actually managed to successfully gig a Stingray or a fish that didn’t dart away quickly like say, a Blow Fish, we would stand around the poor creature as it flopped on the ground or the dock, gasping, while we would debate its fate. Now that we got it, what were we gonna do with it? You can’t eat a Blow Fish. And the good eating fish like Red fish and Trout and Red Snapper and Flounder weren’t here in the skinny shallows where we could see and gig them. So what to do? Leave them to die on the shore? That seemed a waste. Well then, throw it back in. So we did that a couple of times, but the critter died anyway.
I can’t claim any realization of Earth First or the onset of incipient enviro-consciousness. I do remember that, not long after we left that poor Blow Fish to desiccate in the sun, all three of us decided to turn our gigs into make-believe “spears”, which we used to terrorize tree trunks and palmetto bushes in the woods that lined the waterfront.
Years went by before I began my serious education in fishing. Mom’s second marriage (to a man who loved the water and saltwater fishing as much as she did) served as the flash point for my almost-ground-zero start in the fine art of in-shore , salt water fishing.
I think I was around 17 years old. I’d become a certified Open Water SCUBA diver that summer of my high school graduation, which only served to whet my appetite for anything having to do with the ocean. Oddly enough, as I learned more about the marine environment and the critters that lived in it, the more I appreciated, um, well, eating them!
Pretty much everything I ate was fresh caught, whether we hauled it in ourselves or purchased it from other fisher-folk. So, the more I ate and delighted in fresh seafood, the better I got at catching the fish. Made sense. However, I never was much for cleaning and filleting, so I was always stuck washing the dirty dishes. I saw it as a small price to pay for consuming such delicious fare!
I guess the point of this ramble is, once I was bit by the fishing bug, I was hooked. <heh>. The period I spent away from Florida and fishing was truly, a string of “dry” years. By the time I was able to move back to my home state and live near the coast again, I was in my 40s and able to indulge my passion. I couldn’t afford a boat with a motor, but I did manage to buy a sweet, super-lightweight fishing canoe, and for several years that canoe trekked the inland waterways, intra-coastal waters, and estuaries of the Florida Gulf Coast from the panhandle to the 10,000 islands. But mostly the eastern side of Tampa Bay, around Ruskin, near my house on Timberlee Rd.
I would have a lot more photos of fishing expeditions but I made up my mind years ago that trying to capture my fishing experiences in photos and a visceral enjoyment of the sport of fishing were incompatible. Mostly I have memories. And a few good stories – only one of which is about “the one that got away”!
Lisa and I were out in the canoe in a no-motor zone in the shallows of the eastern shore of Tampa Bay. It was a hot, late spring day. The bay water temp was chilly but warming up enough that the recent fishing report for the area indicated the trout bite was on, so there we were at mid-day during an incoming tide, paddling north along the mangroves in about 4 feet of clear water. I recall paddling quietly and idly watching how the bright sunlight lit up the eelgrass and the sandy bottom of the bay. I was startled when Lisa suddenly cried out “Ohmygod!” and pointed down at the water to starboard.
“What?” I shouted, snatching my paddle out of the water, expecting an imminent attack by a shark or something equally horrible.
“Money!” she stabbed her finger repeatedly at a spot somewhere further off the starboard side.
I looked, but just then the breeze riffled the water and blocked my view of the bottom. So we started paddling up and across the wind, trying to get back to the approximate spot where, Lisa swore, she’d seen bills, dollar bills and at least a fiver, lying absolutely flat on the sand bottom.
“There!” she yelled and, sure enough, I could see bills- greenbacks!- passing under the boat.
I quickly and gently dropped our little mushroom anchor overboard, letting the wind blow us back down a bit, just enough to put a bit of scope on the line but not enough to come off our spot. We waited for the cloud of sand the anchor kicked up to disperse and then, ever so gently, paddled the boat so that we pivoted on the anchor. Amazing! There, in about 4-5 feet of slightly greenish bay water, were a handful of greenbacks of different denominations scattered over the bottom. Some floated a couple of inches above the sand, entangled in the eelgrass, and some bills appeared as if they had been laid out on the hard sand bottom of the bay.
By now we were determined to grab those greenbacks, but how to manage that without stirring up the bottom and possibly losing them in the now-rising tidal current? We had to work fast.
Wouldn’t you know it, we didn’t have a fish net aboard, as we’d stopped carrying one because using them for catch-and-release often harmed fish. We discussed one of us going overboard in our fishing clothes (typically quick-dry shorts and a shirt anyway). Having volunteered to take the dip, Lisa slid overboard down current from the center of the area where the greenbacks were waiting. As she floated on the surface, careful to swim just enough to move slowly up-current but not disturb the sand, I paddled ahead of her, directing her to where I could see the bills.
Soon, she was dropping perfectly intact, if soaked, one and five dollar bills into the middle of the canoe. A handful! She hung onto the side of the canoe, keeping her feet still and floating above the bottom, while I paddled to keep us roughly in place. The technique worked, but before long she was cold and blue-lipped, so she clambered aboard and as she dried herself with the small hand-towels we kept in the tackle box, I scoured the bottom for more signs of greenbacks, but didn’t see any.
We rinsed the mud and sand off the bills and squeezed them out against the canoe bottom. Our haul was $42.00. Not bad for a morning’s fishing expedition, but I admit we were disappointed. We both had visions of a drug-runner’s stash of at least a thousand dollars being blown overboard and into our eager hands, but apparently someone had merely lost their wallet.
At any rate, our little adventure more than paid for the truck gas we’d used driving to the boat ramp, and also made for a lively phone discussion with Lisa’s parents, rabid salt-water fisher-folk, that evening.
“Went fishing today, out in the bay…”
“Yeah! Caught some greenbacks”.
A moment of silence on the other end. Then Lisa’s dad, in his Wise Old Fisherman Dad voice, offered the observation that one doesn’t CATCH greenbacks, ones uses greenbacks for BAIT.
“No Dad, I mean we got greenbacks. Money. Like forty-two dollars!”
Definitely a story that got passed around that fishing family for years.
Someone Else’s Fish
On another occasion, we were back-country canoe fishing among the mangroves on the east side of Tampa Bay and spotted a red and white bobber some 100 feet or so in front of the canoe. Ever mindful of the environment (and picking up free fishing tackle), we headed to the bobber to fetch it.
We approached the bobber and as Lisa stretched her hand out to lift it off the surface of the water, it suddenly darted away! We sat flabbergasted for a second, and then both laughed at the same time, when we figured out the dang thing must be attached to some poor fish.
The bobber came to a stop and floated quietly a few canoe lengths away. We decided to try a slow and cautious paddle through the shallow, clear water so as to avoid spooking the fish.
Once again, we approached the bobber, and once again as Lisa reached out, the thing darted away, coming to a stop 50 feet away. This time we scratched our heads, trying to figure out how we could be smarter than a fish and manage to sneak up on the thing so we could set it free! Obviously it was tired or it would take off and keep going. Ergo, we figured we could just try to run it down, and either it or we would tire first. We figured it was 2 to 1 so the fish should give up before we did.
Determined, we paddled around that little lagoon tucked between clumps of mangrove islets until we were sweating and cursing. Lisa finally snagged the line attached to the bobber with her paddle. As she drew the line toward her hand, the tension on the line was just enough to snap the line below the bobber. The fish swam away and she was left with the bobber and a foot or so of old fishing line in her hand.
“What was it? Did you see what kind of fish that was” I asked hopefully.
“Nope. It took off too quick.”
That was the one that got away, even if neither of us actually caught it in the first place!
This story may rightfully be deemed a SCUBA tale but I think it’s a much better fish story.
I was diving on a reef off of Harbor Island, in the Bahamas. It was a lovely morning, the bright sunshine spearing down through more than 30 feet of water to light up the colorful and fishy reef below. I had a cheap plastic underwater camera and was floating upright just off the sandy bottom, positioned to record the dive master hand feeding a few of the “tame” Nassau groupers. A small cluster of divers hovered nearby, eagerly watching the dive master as she pulled some goody from the front pocket of her BC (buoyancy compensator) and approached the reef.
Pretty soon, three or four large groupers swam out of their holes in the reef and slowly, almost hesitatingly, approached the dive master. I took a quick “establishing” shot, careful to capture the dive master, most of the fish and the group of tourists. I tried to crank the roll of film manually to the next frame, but the gloves I had on to protect from sharp coral (I stopped wearing gloves the same year, for all you SCUBA purists) made operating the film advance wheel quite impossible.
I used both hands to part the tough-to-rip-open Velcro pocket on the front of my BC, and removing my gloves, tucked them safely into the pocket. I remember pausing long enough to look toward the reef to check on the action and plan my next shot. While my eyes scanned the reef, my right hand fumbled to secure the Velcro pocket, while my left hand floated freely away from my body, buoyed by the light camera.
Suddenly my left hand felt like it was hit by a pile driver. In reaction to the shock, my whole body jerked convulsively. That is, all but my left hand, which strangely seemed to be locked in place, floating just above my left shoulder.
My peripheral view was blocked by the opaque skirt of my mask, so I had to pivot my head to see what the hell was causing that pain in my left hand. It took me a second to process what I was seeing: a big-ass Nassau grouper, its head mere inches from my face, a (really large) fish mouth partially open and completely engulfing my entire left hand- camera and all.
I think I just floated there, frozen, while I tried to figure out what the hell had happened and what I was gonna do about this situation. My first instinct was to grab the fish or otherwise use my right hand, but some instinct told me to just be still and think. So I did, and apparently so did the fish. It just hung there, impaled.
While one part of my brain prepared to crank up the panic, another part was amazed that I could see straight through the fish’s wide-open gills to my hand, which was formed in a fist, clutching the camera body. I could see the bright yellow of the plastic camera case, the black lanyard around my wrist and some, oh yeah, little drops of blood seeping out of the critter’s gills and floating lazily toward the surface.
My blood? Fish blood? Is fish blood red underwater?
I tried not to think about sharks. Instead, I tried waving my arm gently; to see if the fish would just spit me out. But no, all I did was drag the fish through a short arc. The grouper gave a twitch, and appeared to try to open its mouth. I waited. Nothing. It just hung there.
By now I had remembered all those marine biology books I’d read, and how those fish with teeth (especially predators) typically have teeth that angle into their mouth, to keep prey from easily swimming back out. So I tried hard to not pull back against this big guy (or gal’s) grip.
I tried a quick flick, to see if she (not sure when I decided this was a She) would take the hint and just let go. Her eyes rolled and suddenly her mouth gaped wide open and her gills seemed to strain to their furthest point, and just like that, she spat my hand out.
I quickly brought my hand close to my face, to assess what damage I could see through my fogged mask. My knuckles, all five of them, were cut, rather deep, and more cuts decorated the back of my hand. Fingers were intact, probably because I had instinctively formed a fist when the hand was swallowed.
Droplets of blood were floating toward the surface, and even as I watched, the droplets were starting to run together into a stream. Back to the Velcro pocket I went, fishing for my left glove. As I was trying to get the angle to see into my pocket, the grouper swam into my field of vision, right next to my pocket! She obviously wanted food and thought I had some in there. Didn’t she learn her lesson a minute before?
While I fished for my left glove and struggled to pull it over my torn hand, I kicked at the dang pest, which only served to send me into a half flip but which didn’t dissuade her in the least. She nosed into the pocket. I flicked her nose with my right hand. Go away!
More worried about blood trails than the grouper, I thought to use the camera lanyard to twist the glove closed around my wrist so that I might continue the dive. I looked at the camera. The body was cracked, all photos ruined. Damn! Fleetingly I hoped the fish had taken a picture of the inside of her mouth, but I could see water in the viewfinder. That camera was toast.
By now I had drifted some distance away from the reef, lost my neutral buoyancy and floated toward the surface. I was torn between swimming back down to the reef and joining the group for the rest of the dive, but the grouper was hovering just below my feet, and as I dithered, too distracted to correct my buoyancy, I continued to float upward.
Oh hell. My knuckles were starting to throb and blood was seeping from the glove. I decided to just go back to the boat, doctor the knuckles and get ready for the second dive of the day- on a different reef, hopefully away from any activity that featured “tame” fish or anything else that could swallow a body part with one gulp.
Nobody on the dive had witnessed my incident with the confused grouper, but when I showed my (more severely lacerated than I first thought) left hand, eyebrows went up. Followed by tittering, then outright laughter. Oh yeah. Ha-ha.
The dive master interrupted the hilarity, suggesting that people might want to buy cheap cameras that were a different color than yellow and showed us why, by reaching into her BC pocket and producing the enticing goodie that the local fish had been trained to love- a bright YELLOW can of Cheez Whiz!
PS: For the uninitiated, “grouper fingers” are thin strips of filleted grouper, battered and fried. The lightest batter, the freshest oil and of course the freshest fish make for a lip-smacking treat- without the need for Cheez Whiz.
When I was around 12, I made up my mind I was going to learn to SCUBA dive. Watching the old Sea Hunt episodes on TV served as the initial inspiration and a steady dose of Jacques Cousteau TV specials in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s served to cement my fascination with the sport. Being raised virtually surrounded by water on the east coast of Florida, I spent a great deal of time outdoors, swimming in pools, the ocean, the rivers and even abandoned limestone quarries that had filled with seepage from the fresh water aquifer that underpins much of the state. By the time I came to live in Ocala, in the north central part of the state, I added fresh water springs to my list of underwater places I simply had to explore.
I was 17 and my younger brother John was 15 when we managed to convince Mom to put us through the basic open water diver’s certification course. We knew SCUBA would come naturally to us. After all, we kids swam and snorkeled like fish; water skied in lakes, paddled canoes and kayaks with aplomb, and operated small gas engine boats with skill and caution. We had little fear of diving from a high fork of a water oak or swinging on dangerously slippery ropes into fast-running currents of the many rivers in central Florida. We were respectful, but not fearful of the alligators, snakes, snapping turtles and people floating in inner tubes that often thickly populated the many bodies of water we explored.
We believed that adding SCUBA diving to our outdoor skills was a given, and were egged on by visits to nearby Silver Springs, where we swam in the crystal clear waters of the main spring. Back in the early 1970s, locals could get onto the grounds of the attraction on a cheap “day swim” ticket. This gave us access to the breezeways between the ice cream shop and the souvenir shops, where framed publicity photos festooned the walls.
We learned that many of the Sea Hunt episodes had been filmed at Silver Springs, as well as Tarzan movies and titles ranging from “The Yearling” to “Rebel Without A Cause”. Over the years the list has grown, from underwater sequences of James Bond films and National Geographic specials, sequences featured in Crocodile Hunter and Discovery Channel and too many commercials and documentaries to count. We just knew it would be SO cool to stay underwater and explore wrecks and caves and dodge sharks.
I gained my basic underwater certification in 1972, from the National Association of Scuba Diving Schools, now defunct. John couldn’t hack the math and never managed to pass the final written exam. No problem, we figured I could always rent gear for him on my card and we could still dive together, which we did on numerous occasions in the 1970s.
I did my open water checkout dive on Molasses Reef off Key Largo in the northern Florida Keys. Then, the reef was wonderfully alive, full of fish and massive brain coral, stag horn and elk horn corals. Captivated by the sensation of floating along, listening to the snaps and crackles of fish and shrimp, I had to constantly remind myself to check my bottom time, air and depth gauges to ensure I didn’t overstay my time or use too much air before returning to the boat.
The basic skills of SCUBA came as natural to me as breathing, and I quickly learned to fine-tune buoyancy by inhaling and exhaling while naturally orienting my body to the current and surge. I felt just like the fish, free in this watery world. I still remember floating just off the sandy bottom between reef heads, gazing upward at the shafts of light arrowing through the shallows, where soft corals waved back and forth in the surge. I had spent weeks studying books on marine species and silently named everything I could see, from southern sting rays and moray eels to Nassau groupers, yellow snappers, soft and hard corals. I learned to look in tiny crevices for snapping shrimp and kept my eye out for nudibranchs, as well as fish-cleaning stations – just like the ones I’d seen on one of those Jacques Cousteau specials!
Captivated, I continued my diving education in the cold springs and rivers in central Florida. Wearing a wet suit and diving in the 72 degree water of the springs wasn’t quite the thrill of diving on a fishy reef, but I learned to appreciate the unique aquatic environments that were close to home, and managed to get myself into a couple of close calls underwater that taught me valuable lessons about just how dangerous diving can be if you don’t keep your eyes peeled and pay close attention to where you are and what’s going on around you.
I found a diving buddy in my best friend’s husband. S was a good teacher, with almost a decade of diving under his belt. I felt safe in his company, even if I doubted my ability to successfully pull his 6 foot 4 inch frame out of a scrape. Thankfully I never had to save his bacon, but he had to come to my rescue on two occasions that still give me the willies today, remembering them.
S introduced me to diving in the rapid current of spring fed rivers. My first experience was on the Silver River, which flows from the headwaters at Silver Springs, running clear and cold until a few winding miles downriver, where it flows into the Ocklawaha River, which is a black water river, stained opaque by the tannin from the trees that line this natural waterway.
We entered the Silver River from a short canal dredged from a public boat ramp. Locals know it as the Boat Basin. We hauled our gear along a muddy, root-filled path beside the canal to where it met the Silver River proper. S warned me that I would sink into the soft bottom at the edge of the river bank, so I carried my flippers and stepped into the water with my mask and regulator firmly in place. Good thing, because I sank up to my butt in that muck, weighed down as I was by the tank and weight belt. I wasn’t strong enough to pull myself out as S had, so he yanked me loose, and I tumbled into the current of the river, rolling on my back to quickly don my flippers, peering through the cloud made by the current washing the mud off my legs. I rolled back over and quickly finned toward the bottom to avoid the prop of any boat that might buzz by.
Technically, we were, um, breaking the law diving this section of the Silver River. S said it was dangerous, the narrow river flowing swiftly and boats zipping overhead. The river wasn’t very deep, maybe 40 feet in spots, but the branches from fallen trees could snare the unwary, and many lures, with rusty, nasty hooks hung down from these obstructions, some strung tightly enough to garrote a diver, some swinging in the current waiting to snatch a body part or equipment. So, yeah I guess this was a crazy idea but we figured if we stayed in the middle of the river, went with the flow, listened for boats and hugged the bottom when they came overhead, we should be fine. The visibility was astounding. I could see across to the either riverbank underwater. Or what I believed to be the banks. It was hard to tell through the forest of tree limbs and branches.
Believe me, the last thing on my mind was fear of ‘gators or snakes. I had my hands full, following the mass of bubbles created by the movement of S’s flippers, keeping my body oriented downstream to a current that kept trying to flip me ass over teakettle, watching for obstructions, and maintaining height over the bottom to avoid the deep eel grass that lay almost flat from the pressure of the current.
The eel grass fascinated me. I knew that large catfish, which the locals called “sucker fish” hung out in the grass. I had seen some as large as 4 feet in length swimming in the head water of Silver Springs. I’m not sure why, but for some reason they creeped me out, far more than the thought of bumping into a ‘gator.
I must have been daydreaming about sucker fish, because the next thing I knew I felt something grabbing the base of my neck, which rapidly stopped my forward motion. The current immediately grabbed my lower body, levering my feet toward the surface from the force of the water. I couldn’t swim up, dive down or, worse, twist around to see what I was hung up on. As I fought off the panic and tried to feel between my shoulders I felt S push my butt toward the bottom and pat me on the shoulder. I was pretty freaked, but knowing he was there helped me to calm down. He jerked at stuff at the base of my neck, while masterfully keeping us together in the pull of the current. I could feel him tugging on the hose of my regulator and felt my hair being pulled out by the roots, which didn’t help the panic. I envisioned being tangled on a tree branch or limbs, and he must have pulled my hair, which was long and tied into a ponytail, out of a snarl.
As I recall, S pulled me gently up-current a few feet to clear what I could now see was the fork of two tree limbs festooned with densely packed branches. A clod of sand and mud kicked up from the bottom mostly obscured the scene, and we didn’t hang around to study the area. Holding my hand, S quickly tugged me along toward the center of the river. My brain was settling down from the panic, and I mulled over how stupid I was, thinking about those damned sucker fish, allowing myself to drift toward the river bank. I remember resolving to pay attention from now on. I had just had a personal lesson on just how hazardous this sport could be.
In the middle of the river S motioned for me to follow him to the surface. I lifted up my mask and removed my regulator to ask what the hell had happened, and he quickly told me to keep my mask on and regulator in my mouth and listen. He was holding onto me while we drifted down-current. No boats were in the area and we were well clear of the riverbanks.
S spoke fast, telling me I’d gotten hung up in a tree and he’d had to cut my hair where it had gotten entangled with branches that had caught the first stage of the regulator. Thank goodness he had a dive knife strapped to his leg. He apologized for chopping my hair, but went on to say we had to get down to the bottom before a boat came by and that he’d stay right beside me and let me know when we were close to the place where we were to get out.
Memory is a funny thing. I can recall a lot of that dive in great detail. I remember shaking from the cold and fear but feeling steadied by S’s calm, reassuring manner. I had no idea where I was, or where we were to get out to walk back to the car. I was completely dependent on S, which was a scary thing, if I think about it.
I remember just wanting the dive to end, and spent the next unrecalled period of time concentrating on staying right next to S, not floating higher, not sinking deeper. I kept sweeping my head left and right to try to see the river banks, but the river was getting wider, which meant the current was slowing down. There were fewer bends in the river now, but the water was also not a clear as earlier, and visibility was dropping rapidly. I guessed we were getting near the spot where the Silver River let into the Ocklawaha River, where S had said we would end the dive.
S motioned me to follow him to the surface. He broke the surface before me and, quickly ducking down again, he pushed my shoulder so I stopped rising. Then he turned his face mask directly to mine and I could see him grin around his regulator mouthpiece and wiggle his eyebrows, almost concealed beneath his wetsuit hood. He had some mischief in mind. I was in no mood for games but gave him the OK sign when he motioned for me to wait a second. I floated almost vertical about 4 feet from the surface and watched as he very slowly eased his head out of the water.
S motioned for me to surface and as I popped up next to him, he took the old-fashioned, single-stage regulator mouthpiece from his mouth and let it fall into the water, where it dangled around his neck, bubbles seeping up to the surface. He grinned and said “See down there?” He motioned with his head to the left bank of the river, which was about 80 feet away. Downriver, on a flat section of the bank, a woman was sitting on a bucket, cane-pole fishing. A small boy played in the shallows next to her. Neither of them had seen us yet. S said “Let’s have some fun. Stay next to me, float as low in the water as you can. Keep an eye on them and don’t be surprised when I push you back down fast. OK?”
I was puzzled but nodded. I let air out of my buoyancy compensator to lower myself so that my mouthpiece and chin were underwater and paddled to keep myself vertical, watching the boy and the woman. We quietly drifted downstream to almost directly across from them, but still neither had spotted us, probably because we were so low in the water, with a dark riverbank of trees behind us. Also, it had become cloudy and the wind was ruffling the surface of the river. S had on a black wetsuit hood and my dark hair probably didn’t stand out.
Suddenly, S took the mouthpiece out of his mouth and raised it above his head. The regulator let out a loud and sustained HISSSSS, which startled me as it echoed off the trees lining the river. I got a glimpse of the boy’s face as he lifted it, jumped straight up from a crouch and screamed at the top of his lungs “Mommy! Mommy!” while pointing frantically in our direction. The woman was twisted away from us on her bucket, fiddling with fish on a stringer. I saw her start and lift her head, and then the next thing I saw was a froth of bubbles as S shoved me, hard, below the surface. He was looking into my mask. His mouthpiece was back in place and he was laughing so hard that bubbles were pouring out all around his lips. I whooped into my regulator and almost lost my own mouthpiece. What a hoot!
Some minutes later I was still chuckling to myself, even as I was shivering from the cold, when S grabbed my hand, motioned “up” and led us to a broad section of the river bank under the old barge canal bridge that spans the Ocklawaha. I remember us clambering out of the river, laughing our asses off. My teeth were chattering, I was so cold, but I managed to get my flippers, tank and weight belt off. S was howling with glee. “Did you see that? Man, that kid is NEVER gonna be able to convince his momma that he saw a sea serpent or whatever the hell we looked like to him. You just KNOW she didn’t even see us. And that regulator hissing? That was brilliant! Too damn funny!” And so on.
I was freezing and drained from too many adrenaline rushes that day for it all to sink in. The story was much funnier in the retelling to his wife, which we did when we got to their house, toweled off, changed clothes and got some hot coffee in us.
As funny as that part was, the scary getting-stuck-on-a-tree thing gave me pause. Not to mention my mangled pony tail. I remember my mother being horrified when I walked into the house that evening. The first thing out of her mouth was “What happened to your HAIR?” I got into a bit of trouble for diving in the Silver River, which my step-father knew was a seething mass of obstructions. “Hell, I won’t even run my little boat that far down the river to avoid damaging the prop,” he admonished me. So I had to promise to never dive in the Silver River again or any other body of water where it was illegal to dive. I kept that promise. Well, more or less…
My SCUBA log book was starting to get pretty full, mostly with entries of dives in the fresh water springs and rivers around my home of Ocala, in north central Florida. Then, in the early 1970s, you could readily access spring heads for diving and snorkeling. Today, some of the places I dived are either on private property or are managed by the State of Florida and closed to diving. Then, the boat traffic was virtually non-existent except on holidays or summer weekends, compared to the rafts of boats crowding every navigable waterway and spring head in the state today. What used to be quiet, pristine and out-of-the-way spots have turned into a seething mass of humanity, with all the attendant dangers to manatees and pollution of the environment. And noise. But I won’t get on my soapbox about that at this juncture.
The moral to this little tale of lost-woman-in-an-underwater-cave-at-night is: oh gee, pick one. Don’t cave dive if you aren’t a certified cave diver? Or how about: familiarize yourself with the intended night dive location during the day before you embark on your FIRST ever night dive? Or: bring your very OWN waterproof flashlight?
Well, I was actually quite familiar, I thought, with the main spring at Crystal River. This has hosted likely thousands of neophyte SCUBA divers through the years as a popular spot for “open water” checkout dives, mostly for those who can’t afford the time or expense of a trip to a tropical marine environment to complete their basic certification. What, me worry?
My mom and step-father had a little condo with a boat slip on King’s Bay, an offshoot of Crystal River located just a couple of minutes by boat from the main spring. They had both a small boat (either a 16 foot Jon boat or a 16 Boston Whaler, depending on the year) as well as a larger boat that they took down river into the Gulf of Mexico. We kids would spend weekends with our folks, typically out on the big boat, fishing in the Gulf. Over several years we became quite familiar with Crystal River and its byways, creeks and spring heads. Plus, our step-father had been boating out of Crystal River for over many years, and knew this section of the coast intimately from Yankeetown to Homosassa.
I had dived the main spring at Crystal River several times, always during the day. Technically, it is considered a cavern, not a cave, in that there is no truly enclosed cave portion. But that doesn’t mean a diver can’t get disoriented (like, um, at night, with no flashlight?) and manage to (stupidly) swim up into a chimney-like formation, get jammed, be unable to reach down to the knife strapped to the inside of her leg and bang on her tank to call for help.
I was stuck up in that chimney like a sausage. Couldn’t go up. Couldn’t go down. (Which was up anyway?) I could twist at little, but kept banging my head and tank on rock. Wondered at what point my still-youthful life was going to go flashing by my mind’s eye. Tried to figure out how I’d gotten in here in the first damn place. Tried not to breathe so damn fast- couldn’t afford to hyper-ventilate at this point.
I remembered some story about how people lost in a (dry) cave, without flashlights, had managed to get out by keeping one hand on a side wall and just kept walking. I was reaching out to try to figure out which part of my prison was a side when I felt a hand clamp on my calf. My dive buddy, S, to the rescue. Of course it was him. After all, we were the only two humans in the spring head that weekday night in the month of November. The only two people who had anchored the Jon boat at the grassy edge of the spring, about 9:00 pm: who had flipped overboard backwards from opposite sides of the boat and finned over the eel grass to the black edge of the gaping spring, demarked by the force of the water from below pushing against our facemasks and regulator mouthpieces.
I forgot the shock of the first rush of cold water pouring into my wetsuit as we floated about 20 feet below the surface of the spring. S had turned off the only underwater flashlight we had between us, letting our eyes become accustomed to the starlight which, in the gin-clear water, illuminated the limestone walls of the spring for 20 or more feet down. We floated for a few more minutes and I remember being awed by the sensation of being suspended between the water and the stars. When I rolled on my back, held my breath and gazed upward, there was absolutely no indication of where the surface of the water ended and the air began. It was a feeling somewhere between falling and rising, but I wasn’t disoriented or dizzy. Just amazed.
S turned on his flashlight and we floated down some 45 feet to the sand and began to slowly swim around the walls of the spring, ducking in and around broken columns of limestone, always ending back in the center of the spring, floating. We had all the bottom time in the world, as we wouldn’t even reach 60 feet of depth on this dive, so we turned somersaults in mid-water and played with the glow sticks that S had brought along.
We surfaced to decide if we were ready to leave or stay a bit longer, and noticed it had started to sprinkle rain. I asked if we could do one more circle of the spring and S agreed. His flashlight provided ample illumination for me to clearly see S’s shape just ahead of me, and because we hadn’t kicked up sand from the spring bottom, the water was still very clear. I must have been lulled into a false sense of security or else the cold was seeping into my brain, because I deliberately hung back from S as he swam from behind a limestone column. I recall turning left, going up and following what I thought was a slightly different route to go around the same column. Next thing I knew I was in the dark, alone, banging my head and tank and in a jam. Literally.
I was sure my heart was going to quit working, it was thumping so hard. It didn’t slow down a bit when S patted my calf with what I interpreted as a “relax, I’m here” gesture. I remember feeling the water move around me and then, of all things, there was his face mask glinting a few inches from mine. He shined his flashlight under his mask to light his face and gave me the OK sign, which I returned quickly, banging my elbow painfully on rock. He craned his neck forward and peered into my face, cocked his head sideways and I saw his other hand come up in a “so-so” gesture. Leave it to S to tease me at a moment like this. I just hung there in the water, giving him an emphatic OK sign. I wanted to scream at him to quit messing around to get me the hell out of here. Which he promptly did, by placing a hand on each of my shoulders and shoving me straight down – apparently with enough force that I missed the walls and came squirting backwards out into the open spring, easily clearing the side wall of limestone. I let my body complete the somersault motion, and I remember floating there, limp, trying to get my heart rate down.
S finned up to me and, shining the flashlight between us so that neither of us was blinded, he looked into my mask again, as if to say “Well, are you OK or what?” I gave the OK sign and shakily rubbed the top of his wetsuit hood as if to say “Good Boy”.
We ended the dive by breaking open a couple of glow sticks, watching the little green firefly-like lights spread out in a random pattern between us and the stars and the surface of the water, which I could clearly discern because of the pattern that the rain was making on the water’s surface.
After that experience, I decided that I would limit my night diving to open water. No caves, no caverns, no wrecks, no swim-throughs. Nothing overhead! But of course I couldn’t have known then that I might, just, be tempted to ratchet up my now well-developed and hard-won claustrophobia with a daring night dive. But that was a few years in the offing. First, I had to experience a few more heart-racing moments underwater, like a case of the bends and life-threatening panic at 75 feet in a roaring current.
In SCUBA class, we had to study all sorts of esoteric stuff designed to help us grasp that our human bodies are A) not designed with gills, and thus B) our bodies are subject to, well, all sorts of esoteric stuff when we SCUBA. Like Henry’s Law. I got that one on the test, no problem: If inert gas is forced to come out of solution too quickly, bubbles form inside the body and are unable to leave through the lungs causing the signs and symptoms of the “bends” which can be itching skin and rashes, joint pain, and sensory system failure.
Some people struck by the bends can be partially paralyzed. Some people have been completely paralyzed. Some have died. And some, like me, got really, really lucky.
I was 25, in great shape and an experienced (I thought!) diver, and decided to visit Palm Beach in Florida for some wreck diving. Near the end of a fairly stressful dive in barely manageable current to 80 feet on an old freighter, I found myself abandoned by my buddy-of-the-moment. Most of our little group had already headed for the surface, so I made my way alone to the anchor line and began to gently move hand over hand along the line, maintaining my 1 foot per second rate of ascent, like a good girl. Rising at this rate is designed to allow those nasty gasses to stay where they are and not form a bubble in an inconvenient place, like at a joint, or along the spine. Of course, it didn’t help that the current was trying to pry me off a line that would go from almost slack to a snapping tautness as the boat, far above, rode 5 foot waves.
I was kinda freaked in the turbid water. I couldn’t see the surface, I couldn’t see the bottom and so at one point I cupped the line in one hand and the next thing I know I was snatched up along the line like a leaf blowing in the wind.
When I saw the bottom of the dive boat crashing into the waves above me, I braked on the line and thought “Hmm, I wonder if I’ve come up too fast?” No time to dither, I needed to get aboard, someone was hanging onto the tag line off the stern of the boat waving at me to hurry up.
The group enjoyed a short surface interval (well within the safe limits, for all you divers out there), then popped overboard for a short dive on a shallow reef. An hour or so later, I was back in the NoTell Motel room, sitting down for a sandwich, when I was suddenly struck with nausea, dizziness, slurred speech and a narrowing of my peripheral vision. When I registered numbness in my fingers and toes, I suspected I might have a problem.
Luckily I had a (non-diving) friend with me, and I managed to mumble instructions to call the nearest recompression chamber, which I knew was just a few miles up the road. We were told to get there fast, to be met by a dive physician and a recompression team. What an ordeal! I was immediately given oxygen to breathe (in-between bouts of tossing my cookies into a convenient bucket) and given some sort of blood thinner shot while the physician carefully questioned me about my dive profile. How deep? How long? Did I come up too quickly? (uh, well, I think so, yessss…) Another dive? How deep? How long?
The oxygen helped clear my head but let me tell you that shot did some weird things to, um, all of my mucus membranes. They were- all of them mind you – stinging like a hoard of bees, which was another unwelcome distraction.
I was muzzy-headed as the team worked out a re-compression profile and popped me into the chamber, which I idly observed looked just like they do in the movies and on TV. Big. Tubular steel. Cold. Daunting.
A diver attendant was locked in with me and the pressure was on. Literally. I was told to lie down on a cot squeezed into that tiny space and the attendant gave me a heavy telephone handset which I barely managed to keep to my ear. All I wanted to do was sleep but the weirdly echoing voice in the headset kept hectoring me to stay awake and answer questions ranging from what my name was to who the president of the U.S. was at the moment. I remember looking through a small, thick glass porthole at a blurry face and thinking “What the hell is this, civics class?”
Meanwhile, my poor re-compression buddy was in a great deal of pain- he had a head cold and was having a real struggle to equalize his ears. After a few minutes the pressure was raised, he was locked out and I was left alone to go back to listening to the banging and hissing of the chamber being pressurized to different depths. I breathed oxygen, yakked on the phone and fought off sleep with silly answers to questions.
My apparent sense of humor was reassuring to the team, so after an hour or so when I complained of being hungry, they raised the pressure, brought in a tray of something yummy that I don’t recall, then it was back to the depths. Somehow I managed to eat, take tokes from an oxygen mask, yak on the phone, and keep my face near the porthole so they could see me if I passed out or worse.
Four hours later, when I was finishing up the paperwork for services rendered, I listened closely as the dive physician explained that although I was well within the safe limits for depth, time and so forth, my little ride up the anchor line had likely caused a bubble to emerge somewhere near the base of my neck. Wow. Close call. That could have meant paralysis from the neck down. But, I was lucky enough to be re-compressed quickly and to receive what I fully appreciated was the very best medical care. I was pronounced hale and hearty and sent on my way, to fall exhausted into a 12 hour sleep.
The best advice I got that evening was to limit myself to dives to 60 feet or less. After all, a diver can travel the world and see many things within the sport diver limit of 60 feet. I was reminded that the dive tables were developed for Navy SEALs, strapping big guys, and not for people of my smaller frame (I was 5’5”, 120 lbs at the time), and I would be safer to just avoid such depths- and perhaps to avoid diving in high currents. Sound advice, which I have striven to follow ever since.