PART TWO: ROATAN, HONDURAS
WEEK THREE – FOUR
Two weeks have already sped by. A cliché phrase, but true. Working six days a week, nine hours a day, especially in a physically demanding job (hauling tanks and moving around equipment, plus the actual exercise of diving) is pretty exhausting, and today, our second day off, we slept in and woke up to find we could hardly move.
So, starting from the beginning. We flew from Managua to the island of Roatán two weeks ago. When we arrived at the airport we got lucky:both of us got stamped into Honduras for ninety days, rather than simply continuing on the same visa from Nicaragua (C4 agreement between Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras usually only give you 90 days for all the countries), so we won’t have to do a visa-run midway through our training. We arrived in West End and walked into Coconut Tree Divers, the first dive shop on the strip. Birgit, one of the Little Corn instructors, did her Divemaster and Instructor training there, and had very good things to say about the place. She’d told us a bit about the owners, so I know who PJ was immediately by his long white dredlocks and English accent. It took us only a few minutes of chatting to decide we wanted to continue our training there, so we agreed to drop by in the afternoon for an orientation, then wandered off to find lunch.
Our orientation was led by one of the instructors there called Ted. He was meticulous about all details, seemed thorough and like he took his job seriously. We also met Rachel, who was just starting her DMT too. We were each given a Coconut Tree Divemaster Training booklet. A quick glance through, plus what Ted was telling us, and we could see that the programme was very organised: it included a lot of extra little things (sign-offs needed for compressor training, knots and a series of fish ID quizzes, for example). We went away suitably impressed, and (for me) a touch nervous. Seemed a bit daunting. On the other hand, we figured it would certainly make us more competent long-term.
We stayed in the Divemaster House that evening, a large wooden cabin owned by the course director of the shop, who’s away at the moment, and the next day managed to find our own apartment by chatting to someone at the dive shop. Moved in that evening; big spacious living room/kitchen area, and two bedrooms. Originally planned to sub-let, landlady said it was fine by her, but quickly realised that we both like being just the two of us, so decided that we wouldn’t bother. It’s still a reasonable price.
And so, we began our Divemaster Training at Coconut Tree Divers in earnest. It’s difficult now that we’re a couple of weeks in to try and break it down. We’re expected to be at the shop from 8-5 every day. First task for the DMTs is to check the equipment for the boat: first aid kit, emergency oxygen tanks, a bag with spare kit, and a large thermos of cold water, and then carry it out. Once done, we count off the tanks for the morning dives, carry them out, then check the whiteboard for the day. There is a separate DMT board with our activities for the week, so if we are not interning on a course, we are either put onto the boat for the AM or PM. The other half of the day we use for academic stuff, so I devoted my time to getting through the Encyclopaedia of Diving so that I could do Part Two of the exam, but also got a few other things completed, like demonstrating the four knots we are required to learn to one of the instructors, so that was signed off. Then whichever half of the day you are on, you prepare equipment, carry tanks out to the boat, greet customers, and dive.
The diving is spectacular. Probably my favourite diving I have done so far. There is a long shallow reef then a drop off, so a lot of wall diving too. The coral is in great condition, with very little coral bleaching and a great variety of hard and soft coral, as well as sponges and fish life. A lot of turtles, though far fewer sharks compared to the resident nurse sharks of Little Corn, I haven’t seen one yet. The visibility is far better, often glassy and aquarium-like, and the topography ranges a lot more: in my first week I dived a site called Hole in the Wall, where the instructor led us down a crack to 36m/117ft and back up through swim-throughs, chutes, channels, the rock and coral rising either side of you, magnificent. (On a side-note: due to all the American tourists, everything is done in imperial, so I have had to switch my dive computer to imperial and try to train myself to get used to thinking of depths in feet. In an attempt to learn basic feet and Fahrenheit conversions, I wrote out two little charts and stuck them up on the side of a bathroom cabinet which we can see when we go to the toilet. It’s working slowly.)
In the afternoons, the boat is usually back by 4pm, then it’s clean up, all gear away and ‘beer o’clock’ until five when the work day is done. We’re usually in bed by half nine, exhausted, and often just do nothing with our evenings.
The instructors (and their partners) at the shop all seem good friends and frequently hang out with each other, so we have been to a barbecue, snorkel test and a pizza night already. The snorkel test (to celebrate another DMT finishing his training) made me a bit nervous for mine, and involved giving a ‘boat briefing’ while having his mouth stuffed with marshmallows, demonstrating how to clear a mask which was filled with beer rather than water, and then drinking rum as fast as possible as it was poured down the snorkel. I have also fast become a fan of Gay, PJ’s partner and also an owner of the shop. Watching her with customers, I noticed how many responded to her manner, and I’m sure many people walk in and choose to dive with the shop because of her. She’s also a great laugh, proper British humour, and really made us feel welcomed.
A great thing about the shop is the range of experience. Though there generally seems to be less nerdy interest in the marine life compared to staff at Little Corn with the exception of a couple of people, (don’t worry, we more than make up for it, have already bought a Reef Book), there is a lot of interest and appreciation for diving as an activity. Specialties are run by request from customers, which we are allowed to intern on and therefore also get that specialty as long as we pay for the registration, so for example during the second week us DMTs hung back one evening and Ted gave us a slideshow presentation about Shark Conservation, a speciality he runs. We also got to know Monty, who is in charge of the DMT programme, also has his own technical diving business run from Coconut Tree Divers. It didn’t take long for us to start to think about tec diving, which a lot of people here have tried, and though it’s expensive, even with a reduction, it seemed like an incredible opportunity. As I get further through the programme, meet more people and dive more, the more addicted I become. I started my DMT thinking I would never want to tec dive, but the longer, deeper dives it allows for would be great for scientific diving too, plus the pure interest and further knowledge about diving.
At the end of week two Sam and I did the two-day sidemount course with Monty. There was meant to be another student, hence why the course was running, but he never showed up, so we ended up getting a private course. It was absolutely fantastic. Monty was one of the people who actually wrote the course (but PADI ‘dumbed it down’, as he put it, so he kept it as a distinctive speciality, ie teaches it his way), and you could tell that he has a real aptitude for diving. Just one of those people who has found their way to the thing they are meant to do in life. There was minimal academic stuff, just a short presentation with a bit of background (sidemount comes from cave diving, ie restrictive diving) and notes on equipment (you use different, more streamlined BCDs). Then we were straight into confined water out in the bay and practising. Very odd feeling having a tank clipped on either side of you after so many dives backmount. There are two regulators to breathe from, one on each tank, so we practised turning off each tank, and a couple of other equipment skills, and then moved on to finning techniques. Because sidemount is great for restrictive diving, the focus was on movement in a restricted space, like a narrow chute, so it really forces you to hone down your efficiency and movement. Awesome to be a student learning new in water skills; the Divemaster Training is focussed on competency and a lot of improvement but it’s been two years since I’ve learnt completely new in-water stuff.
Then we took our new skills out for a test-run on an actual dive. Great fun weaving our way through swim throughs and chutes.
The next day we were back in the bay, but this time we learned to unclip one tank and swim with it held in front, so that we could fit through narrower spaces, and then came up against ‘the spider’s web’, whereby Monty had taken his reel and looped it around several pylons of the pier to make the space even narrower. We negotiated it first alone, then together ‘low-on-air’, and finally back-finning, which was ridiculously difficult and I was particularly bad, I looked like a baby learning to walk for the first time.
The second open water dive sidemount was FANTASTIC. We went to Blue Channel and tested ourselves out going through small caverns, and very narrow chutes (’swiss cheese’ as it’s called). Monty filmed us, and then headed back to the shop afterwards, whilst we kept on our gear and did a normal dive sidemount. Monty put together the video of the course, which we watched it at the end of the day, and I was more impressed at my skills than I felt at the time, back-finning through the spider’s web aside.
Sidemount made us decide that we definitely wanted to go for tec diving, so we decided to speed things up a bit with our DMT the following week.
Besides all these diving related activities, we had a couple of days off. The first day off we stayed up watching stuff, slept in, and spent the day sorting out stuff, writing, and Sam made a trip to the supermarket in the capital to stock up on supplies, and returned with stories of incredible items, and brought a few back himself (crinkle cut oven chips, salt and vinegar crisps ). In the evening we went out for dinner, to celebrate our two-year anniversary. Because Jo had been on the radio back home that morning talking about her plastic challenge, we sat at our table during our romantic meal, wearing earphones plugged into my phone listening avidly to her. Amazing food.
During our second week in Roatan, we took a taxi to West Bay with Alex, a fellow DMT, to watch the fireworks for 4th July, awesome display. Then our second day off rolled around and we did much the same as the first, only I went along on the supermarket trip and it really was a highlight (fresh noodles, pesto, bagels, blue cheese… but out of stock on the salt ‘n’ vinegar crisps, disaster!).
Well it’s been a very busy, but productive week. Monty was teaching a tec course last week, and then teaching us sidemount so he was busy, but this week he’s done a lot more Divemaster stuff, so we’ve got through a lot of our DM specific activities. On Wednesday we had a packed morning, where we went out into the bay and did several activities. We began with our rescue assessment (unconscious diver on the bottom, bring them up, assess, start rescue breaths whilst dekitting both them and yourself and towing them to shore, drag them out) and the only comment on mine was that I was giving rescue breaths roughly every 4 seconds rather than every 5, which would exhaust me faster. Next up was equipment exchange (swap all your equipment: scuba units, fins and masks whilst sharing only one regulator for breathing, ie a stress test due to being slightly low on oxygen). Did mine with Rachel and got full marks so that’s all good. Was indeed stressful, didn’t especially like the feeling of being in full scuba gear, which I equate to comfort and ease now, but only inhaling half as often as usual. Finally, we did our search and recovery (navigate using a compass, whilst searching for a small item, and then a large one which you must bring to the surface). The way they do it at Coconut Tree Divers is like a scavenger hunt: you are given a heading and a time, such as 300° for four minutes, then you find a series of weighted slates inscribed with the next heading and time. Finally you come to a ‘dropped’ tank, which you must tie up using the appropriate knots to create a cradle to clip a lift bag onto and take to the surface. All completed well, even got compliments on my navigation!
On Thursday morning we volunteered at the Marine Park (the Coconut TreeDivemaster program includes two shifts at the Park).At the office we met Giaco, the Marine Park guy who is a shark expert and was mainly responsible for getting governmental protection for sharks in Honduran waters (only the second country in the world to do so at the time, I believe), and then Christie who briefed us on our task and gave us Marine Park shirts. A park ranger and a guy from the Navy motored us round to West Bay beach (pulled up alongside a motor taxi on the way and confiscated a huge joint from a passenger) and dropped us off. It was a cruise ship day, so our task was to approach snorkellers heading into the sea and educate them not to touch anything and where the swimming channels were to take out to the reef. Because there were also a lot of touts on the beach, most people didn’t want to hear or didn’t care, so it was a pretty frustrating morning, added to by the fact that venders wandered up and down selling huge, beautiful conch shells and even dried out seahorses. A couple of guys brought along two white-faced capuchins each on a lead and the cruise shippers crowded round, delightedly having their photo taken as the monkeys climbed around their faces and arms. Although I knew that most people took part out of ignorance rather than malice, it still made me feel angry and frustrated. The whole thing felt like fighting a losing battle.
Back at the dive shop in the afternoon, Sam and I took a GoPro out into the bay and filmed our skills circuit (24 skills we have to be able to demonstrate to students if we were helping out on course). Watched the videos with Monty afterwards and got feedback, and the next afternoon he came out with us and watched/filmed us as we went through them for the final time. We both got fives (full marks) on most skills, with a handful of fours and one three. Not bad, and Monty also said we were ready quality-wise for the instructor course, so that’s positive.
I also began my dive leads. Got positive feedback on my first two, overseen by Chris, though I wouldn’t have found the boat on the second one due to a strong current, so was marked down on that. My third lead was with Ted and his feedback afterwards was positive. Overall, I found that pace was the most difficult factor; I was pretty good at pointing out things, especially after watching Molly and Gary from Little Corn, and checking air and keeping an eye on customers, but when you’re at the front the tendency to speed up, especially when searching for the boat, can be difficult to judge.
Aside from the diving aspects of the week, there were a few extra things going on. Folks at the shop rented a van one evening and sixteen or so of us drove across the island to a resort where there was an American style sports bar; think air-con, thirty screens and actually pretty tasty but mostly fried/meaty food. The event was for the UFC fights which are hardly my thing but entertaining to watch as a one off and an enjoyable evening out with the others.
That weekend mostly revolved around my birthday. I turned up at the shop on Saturday morning, to be told by Sam that I needed to get a set of gear together and put it in the back of a taxi. Slowly a few details came out: Alison had wanted to get something special for my birthday, and Gay had helped organise the event for Sam, including letting us borrow the shop camera for free, whilst Sam orchestrated the whole thing. Still didn’t know what the actual event was though. We were soon speeding along, crossing to Coxen Hole and the other side of the island. The suspicion in the back of my mind proved correct: we were heading for the famous SHARK DIVE. I was so excited that I was jiggling about in the car. We met Sergio, who was leading the dive, and three Americans who were going to be diving with us, and got our dive briefing, then we loaded up onto a small boat and headed out. Only fifteen minutes to the dive site, then we were in the water and descending down the mooring line. The current was so strong that you had to drag yourself down the line. When we came to the sea bed, at about 21m/70ft, we all knelt. Several Caribbean Reef Sharks were circling around us already, and after a few minutes Sergio indicated that we could swim among them. As Sam and I were more experienced than the other divers, he let us swim among them for a while, and Jesus Christ was it an incredible experience. There were so many individuals cruising around us, and we could get so close that I could see their eyes follow me as they passed by, see the pores around their eyes and head which they use for smell, all these tiny, beautiful details. Then Sergio gave us another signal, and we returned to kneel in the sand patch and he opened the small bucket of chum (because I was concerned about the effects of chum when the dive had been mentioned before, Sam took the effort to go see Giaco beforehand and talk it over to ask his opinion on the negative effects of feeding them, which he cleared). For about forty seconds, there was a frenzy as they all crowded around the bucket, and I managed to count eighteen of them, though it was by no means an easy task with the movement going on. After the chum was all gone they slowly drifted away, though as we ascended up the line again, there were still several hanging about. An unbelievable experience.
The next morning, I was served a fry-up by Sam for breakfast (including ‘vegetarian’ Heinz Baked Beans, as the can sold them, bought from the big supermarket), and ate whilst listening to a collection of voice messages he had got together from family and friends. Made me feel very special and incredibly loved. Many made me laugh, and it was so good to hear people’s voices. Sam’s present to me was a collection of photos he had selected from the months since he joined me, to make either into a collage or print out to put together.
We went along on the morning dives, and dived sidemount. A bit of an illness made me slightly distracted but I enjoyed myself, though by the end of the second dive when I had breathed most of the gas in both tanks, they were so much lighter that they were floating upwards and getting in the way of finning. Felt pretty shitty by the end of the day, flushed up and not very well, been working eight days in a row, and before that we did another eight day stint, so I really needed rest. We went to Sundowners bar, the after work haunt of the Coconut Tree staff, for a while after work to hang out with some of the others and Sam got drunk very quickly, then we walked home (higglydepiggledy for one of us!) and he showered to sober himself up a bit, then we headed out to the thai place for my birthday meal out. Delicious pad thai and red curry. Could hardly stay awake when we got back.
A good night of sleep and a day off did me wonders. Ended up not doing much on the day off, just a lot of practical jobs: cleaned the apartment, dropped off laundry, wrote, selected photos for the blog. Then we made a trip to Eldons supermarket. Amazing quite how exciting food can be. Dinner was blue cheese Portobello mushrooms with green beans and roast potatoes (the potatoes were a special request from me) and it was taaaasty. The day was rounded off with a viewing of Frozen.