Shortly into our first dive off the Honduran island of Utila, the American dive master, Tex, signaled us to come close. Earlier, on the boat, Tex had been the epitome of cool, cupping his weathered hands to deftly light cigarettes as the wind whipped his wild, sun-bleached hair. Now I could see the excitement in his eyes as he waved us in his direction. What could have gotten him so agitated? I wondered, as my dive buddy, Patty, and I finned to his side.
Tex held out his underwater slate. I peered at it anxiously, searching for the urgent message, but all I saw were scribbles. Was it shorthand for "your air hose is leaking" or "Great White circling"?
On Honduras's Utila, the four cabins at Nightland are bedecked in artworks.
Then I saw it: a tiny, motionless creature clinging like a piece of chewed gum to one edge of the slate. Tex was gaga over a sea goddess nudibranch, a black, slug-shaped mollusk striped in gold.
Later, two large green sea turtles floated by, ethereal as angels, but Tex barely gave them a nod. He was mesmerized by a Venus's girdle, a diaphanous bit of jelly sparking tiny rainbows amid its vibrating rows of cilia. He pointed out a half-inch baby filefish hanging horizontally among the branches of a coral fan, and dime-size shrimp hiding in the tentacles of a sea anemone.
"I'm really into the micro stuff," Tex explained when we returned to the boat. I grew a little worried when I realized he wasn't kidding. Was this guy really a native of the "Everything Is Bigger" state?
"Think we'll see a whale shark tomorrow?" I asked.
Tex scanned the horizon as though he were the Marlboro Man gazing off into the prairie. "It's a bit early for them yet but . . . maybe," he said.
Utila, one of the Bay Islands off Honduras's northern coast, has two claims to fame among divers: It's low-budget, costing about $160 to get an open-water diving certificate, and its waters are frequently host to the whale shark -- the world's largest known fish, growing up to 50 feet. Despite its membership in the shark family, the whale shark's diet of plankton and small fish gives it a reputation as a gentle giant among divers and snorkelers.
Patty and I were experienced divers on a budget. What could be better than a close encounter with a whale shark?
Utila, however, had other plans for us.
A low-key Caribbean outpost, settled by pirates, British planters and freed African slaves, Utila is not out to impress anyone. The island is only about three miles by eight miles, with two-thirds of that area a swamp. The commercial center, known as East Harbour, is a few blocks lined with dive shops, funky beach bars and open-air restaurants.
Unlike the larger, more developed Bay Island of Roatan, known for its upscale resorts, Utila caters mainly to European backpackers who bunk in family-run guesthouses and lodges. You can also find air-conditioned rooms on Utila, with satellite TV, but as soon as you step out the door, the voracious sand flies will remind you that you are roughing it. Up until 2003, when 24-hour electricity came to the island, the 2,000 residents drew power from a generator that shut off at midnight.