By Richard Morin
Sunday, February 15, 2009
"Did you hear?" Kyle Heath asked as I walked toward her down the path through the coconut palms, which rocked in the stiff breeze. "The divers saw a whale shark. They're at the bar arguing about how big it was."
I followed Heath, one of the resident owners of the Utopia Village resort on the island of Utila off the coast of Honduras, to the open-air bar. Dive master Juan Carlos Molina, my sons Drew and Josh, and three other divers were toasting their luck with rounds of Honduran-brewed Salva Vida beer.
"Just a small one," Molina said. "Seventeen feet. Maybe 20."
"Not that big," said Jim Hart, an accomplished diver from New Orleans who had come to Utila with his two nieces. "Maybe 13 feet."
I had brought my family to vacation on this sun-bleached chip of limestone and black lava 18 miles off the coast of Honduras. We were drawn here by the promise of adventure, by the novelty -- who vacations in Honduras . . . in August? -- and by the story of three strong and beautiful women from Texas who had beaten mosquitoes and machismo to carve a luxury resort out of the Honduran brush.
Drew, 24 and Josh, 26, came to scuba dive. My wife, Roxanne, and oldest son, David, 30, came to snorkel and relax. I came to fish, and to take my three sons fishing with me at least once more, and also, perhaps, for the last time.
The whale shark was a bonus. Leonard Cooper, the 25-year-old captain of the 39-foot dive boat the Miss U, spotted the cloud of birds a mile offshore at the end of the final dive of the day. "Find the birds, you find the tuna," Cooper said. "Find the tuna, you find the whale shark." He gunned the 370-horsepower marine diesel to a scene of perfect slaughter.
Wheeling sea birds dive-bombed small fish leaping into the air to escape the tuna. It was the climax of an intricately choreographed feeding behavior common to tuna and other pelagic species that hunt for food in the open ocean. It began when the school of tuna dove deep into the sea. The fish swam in a large and increasingly tighter circle, herding small fish and zooplankton to the surface, where they were trapped in a concentrated ball. Then it was time to dine for the tuna, as well as for sea birds and the whale sharks that followed the tuna, waiting for them to deliver dinner.
"Jump! Jump! Jump! Jump!" Molina shouted.
"We jumped," Drew said. "The shark was coming right at us 20 feet away, dark -- almost black -- with white spots on its top and side. It had a huge head, wide and flat -- imagine a football stretched out so it's longer and skinnier. And draw a line horizontally to connect the ends of the ball; that was its mouth. It stopped and looked right at me as it swam by."
"It passed just under me," Josh said. "I reached out and touched its tail,"
Then it was gone. Back aboard the Miss U, Molina was elated. Utila is one of the best places on earth to see whale sharks, the largest fish in the world, but divers had not seen one in a month.
Molina was also angry. On Utila, touching a whale shark is the equivalent of hopping the fence and petting a panda at the National Zoo. The rarely seen fish grow to 15 tons and 40 feet in length. But they're also the biggest sissies in the sea, and a touch can send them fleeing in panic.
"If the locals found out you touched the shark, they would cut off your hand," Molina said.
"It touched me," Josh protested.
"Yeah, right -- it touched you," David laughed. He lurched his body to the side, forearms raised, like a basketball player maneuvering in front of a driving opponent. "Ohhh . . . it touched me! It touched me!" David squealed.
Roxanne and I laughed. The years fell away. I could see our sons downstairs in the living room on a rainy Saturday morning, wrestling in their pajamas on the floor in front of the television. Something breaks. Drew is the innocent bystander. David is the storyteller. Josh is the one who gets caught.
Time had passed quickly for us, as it does for all parents. The bonds of family now stretched across the continent. In the past year, David had moved to San Francisco for a job. Josh had just ended one long-term romance and seemed poised to begin another. Drew had his first real job after college and his first apartment. Soon they would have families of their own.
This was our last family vacation, I thought, as I sipped a cool Salva Vida. Or our first family reunion.
"There they are!"
Herman Howell, 61, the descendant of pirates and a native of Utila, stood next to me in knee-deep water. His weathered brown arm pointed to a patch of water 100 feet down the deserted beach. Only the stiffening breeze wrinkled the surface where he pointed. Seconds passed, then minutes. "They disappeared," he said.
The dark tip of a single tail broke the surface 50 feet away. Then another, and another, until there were a dozen tailing bonefish in water so shallow that the tips of their forked tails poked skyward when they rooted for food in the turtle grass on the bottom.
"You cast now," whispered Howell, my guide for the week.
One quick false cast, then a second. The tiny fly dropped five feet ahead of the fish. I stripped in the line in quick jerks, inches at a time -- just enough to keep the fly moving erratically just above the turtle grass and barely a foot beneath the surface.
One fish broke from the back of the pack toward the faux food, leaving a wake on the surface as he approached the fly from the rear. I stripped. With a thrust of its powerful tail, the big bonefish overtook the fly and turned away. I set the hook, and the fish rocketed through the rest of the school, which splashed in unison and bolted for deep water.
"You got one!" Howell shouted.
Not quite. Right now, it had me. In seconds, 150 feet of line vanished from my reel as the hot fish angled 100 feet toward the beach. It abruptly turned and raced in front of me toward deep water. The fish stopped and sulked, then slowly, grudgingly gave ground. A few short runs and the silvery prize was mine: a broad-shouldered, six-pound fish, easily twice as big as any bonefish I'd ever caught on a fly. I held the fish up for Howell to see, slipped the barbless hook from its rubbery lip and slid it back into the water. (As a boy crazy in love with fishing, I kept nearly everything I caught. But my mother refused to cook my fish; the weed-choked field behind our house reeked of decaying fish that I hastily buried inches beneath the surface. I now release everything I catch.)
"There you go! That's one!" Howell said. "Now, look there." Off in the far distance, three bonefish tails danced in the shallow water.
"I can't wait to tell my boys," I said. "Most of my fishing stories involve not catching fish."
"Why don't you get them to come fishing with us?" Howell asked. The wind is picking up. Howell's question hung in the air.
I grew up fishing. My sons did not. I was raised in San Pedro, the port city of Los Angeles. We lived three blocks from a rocky beach that lay at the bottom of 200-foot cliffs. As a little boy, I played in the tide pools instead of a park. As a teenager, fishing was my refuge from difficult parents, mediocre grades and indifferent girls. I fished because fish did not judge you. Fish never told me to stop crying or they would really give me something to cry about. Fish did not care if I ditched school. And when I held a struggling calico bass or bonito in my hands -- catch or release? -- I came as close as an 11-year-old boy can come to being God.
As an adult, fishing was my escape from a stressful job and a growing family. I only took my sons with me a few times. Not often enough for them to fall in love with early morning wakeups, long rides to lonely places, tangled lines, lurching boats and intermittent fish.
Then, suddenly, my boys had grown into men. And I had grown tired of fishing alone. So I made them this offer at Christmas: Come with me to Honduras. You can dive. I will fish. And maybe we can go fishing together.
Utila is the westernmost of the three islands that make up the Islas de la Bahia at the southeastern end of the Great Mayan Reef, the second-longest barrier reef in the world. Utila is less than eight miles long and approximately 2 miles across at its widest point. Coral reefs encircle two-thirds of the island.
The island has only recently been discovered by tourists and developers. About 2,000 people live on Utila. Many native Utilans are descended from British pirates who settled here in the 1700s. The buccaneers climbed 243-foot Pumpkin Hill, the highest point on the otherwise flat island, to spot Spanish treasure ships leaving the port of La Ceiba on the mainland 20 miles away. The island's Anglo-Saxon legacy is reflected in the language: Most Utilans speak English as well as Spanish. It is also preserved in the surnames of prominent island families: Morgan, Lane, Parson and Cooper. And it is also evident in one mildly jarring aspect of island life: Many Utilans refer to Hondurans, particularly the poor Hondurans from the mainland who came to Utila to find work, as "the Spanish."
It was early in February 2004 that Angelika Lukacsy sailed with her boyfriend into Utila Town harbor aboard the 40-foot Fabled Past. Born in Stuttgart, Germany, the 42-year-old Lukacsy grew up the all-American girl in the Dallas suburb of Colleyville. She played varsity tennis at Grapevine High School, was a cheerleader and dated the quarterback. Then off to college and a job as an interior designer with a big Dallas-based architecture firm, with stops in the firm's London and New York City offices.
Shortly before 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, Lukacsy caught a cab at the base of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, which was two blocks from her TriBeCa apartment, to go to work. Five minutes later, American Airlines Flight 11 flew into the North Tower.
She never returned to her apartment with the doorman and view of the Hudson River. Instead, she moved onto her boyfriend's unheated sailboat in a New Jersey marina.
"I do not know what post-traumatic shock is," Lukacsy told me. "I can tell you what it feels like. I would wake up every day on the sailboat and take the ferry across to Battery Park to go to work. My eyes burned; I had a headache for eight months that didn't go away." She tears up at the memory and clears her throat. "9/11 -- the magnitude of it, the sadness of it, the realization that at any moment your life could change forever and this all could end -- was overwhelming." They cashed in their 401(k)s and made plans to quit their jobs and escape to the Caribbean.
We are sitting on the windblown deck of her villa at Utopia. Lukacsy is wearing a long, billowy cotton skirt and wine-red tank top with a peace symbol on the front. A white-and-blue panga, a type of skiff that is ubiquitous in the Caribbean, passes just offshore heading west to Utila Town, its throbbing diesel barely audible over the wind blowing through the spindly coconut palms nearby.
"I said to myself, You know what, I will go somewhere and find a little place where no one will want to attack it . . . I was looking for my own version of Utopia. I found it on Utila."
She persuaded six longtime friends in Texas to invest in an eco-resort here. Kyle Heath, 46, tall and blond and abnormally cheerful, quit her job as an insurance fraud investigator for an Austin law firm to become Utopia's legal and finance director. She had never set foot on Utila when she joined the partnership. "I always wanted to live on an island and have a hot dog stand. My hot dog stand has considerably grown."
Debbie Mylius, 38, the quiet one, sold her share of a hot Austin restaurant to become Utopia's director of food and beverage. "I was ready for something different," Mylius said. "Now, I wake up to the ocean and drink my cappuccino on my patio watching the waves roll in."
Together, the three women moved to the island. They finalized plans and bought materials. The locals did not help, at least at first. The women hired a contractor, who promptly quit. "He told us flat out, 'My wife won't let me work with you because the three of you are too sexy,'" Lukacsy said.
Rumors circulated about the three single American women. "They said Debbie and I were lesbians ... 'They must be building a lesbian resort,' " Lukacsy said. "In this culture, women just don't do what we were doing."
But they did. It took them two years and 250,000 linear feet of treated Honduran pine, but Utopia Village officially opened in June of 2007. The 16-room resort is casually luxurious: all wood and glass, light and air. There is a spa and fully equipped dive shop on the premises. The spacious rooms are gorgeously appointed, the meals are gourmet quality, and the toilets are eco-friendly, which means guests don't flush waste toilet paper. Instead, the paper is deposited in a can by the toilet, which is emptied daily by the housekeepers. (You quickly get used to it.)
And everywhere, there are reminders of the life the Texans left behind. The flags of Honduras and Texas snap in the breeze on the flagpole on the rocky beach. Between meals, the sounds of Austin honky-tonk royalty fill the dining room: Jesse Dayton, Kelly Willis, Emmylou Harris, Patsy Cline, the Texas Tornadoes.
"Little bit of home," I said to Heath after she tells me who is on the tape.
The three women of Utopia call Herman Howell "Mr. Herman" out of respect and gratitude. "He helped us when the other local men were being jerks," Heath said.
Howell was born on Utila. As a younger man, he shipped out of New Orleans on tankers and freighters, always returning to the island. He is short and wiry, with chocolate-brown eyes that sparkle when he smiles, which is often, especially when he talks about his family. He was 25 and Daphne Lane was 14 when they were married in 1973.
"I was married on a Saturday. On Sunday, I got a radiogram to report to a ship in New Orleans. I left on Monday." Daphne cried when he left for the mainland. He did not return for 13 months. "I had [about 15 cents] in my pocket on the day we were married. The work was a wedding blessing, our good luck." They have five children. Today, he operates a small restaurant with Daphne, takes tourists fishing and ferries people around the island in his panga, which he named the Lady Lane after his wife and his 15-year-old daughter, Ada Lane Howell. Like many whose lives are tied to the sea, Howell is deeply superstitious, particularly about matters of life and death. An abandoned hotel in Utila Town failed "because it was built too close to the graveyard." He won't take me fishing off one small cay because the early settlers buried their children there.
"Are your boys going fishing with us?" Howell asked as we headed home aboard the Lady Lane.
"Don't know." David, still in the throes of jet lag, refused to get up at 6 a.m. to go fishing. Josh and Drew were diving every day. "Maybe Friday. They can't dive 24 hours before they fly. What would we fish for?"
Howell smiled. "We'll talk tomorrow."
At lunch back at the lodge, Josh and Drew had news. They saw another whale shark, bigger than the first, though this encounter lasted less than a minute.
I had news for them, as well. "Mr. Herman wants to take us fishing on Friday.
"I'm there," said Josh. Drew nodded. David had some advice.
"You know, Dad, we don't really know a lot about what's a good fish to catch and what isn't. We don't need to catch anything special" -- the words "like you need to do" left unsaid -- "we'd be happy just to catch some fish."
Don't worry, I said. We'll catch fish.
David and Josh had taken off their T-shirts and tied them around their necks. They were pretending to be French sailors. "Ehhh, eeeeh, eeeeh! Zis is how we dress in ze south of France!" said Josh. Drew and Roxanne enjoyed the sun on the aft end of the Miss U.
We were going diving. At least, Drew and Josh were. David, Roxanne and I were going snorkeling. The plan was that the Miss U would anchor at the dive site. The divers would explore the deep reefs and drop-offs with dive master Molina. We would swim unaccompanied toward the shore and snorkel on the fringe reef.
"Do they still advise that you spit in your mask?" I asked Jim Hart, an oceanographer and former dive master for the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans. It was the one snorkeling tip I remember from my youth: Generous applications of spittle on the interior lens surface of the mask prevents it from fogging up. I had vigorously spit into my mask when Roxanne and I went snorkeling on the reef off Utopia beach earlier in the week. My mask did not fog up. It did, however, reek of breakfast.
"That's right," Hart said. "Spit, and then wash it out with a little water."
Ah . . . wash it out.
We tied up to a white buoy, one of four that mark sites off Ragged Cay, three windblown acres of limestone about a mile off the southwestern corner of the island. The 82-degree water was almost too warm. I started kicking toward Roxanne and David, who were already 100 feet ahead and close to several high spots in the reef that jutted nearly to the surface.
The reef appeared abruptly below, rising from 30 to 10 feet within a single kick of the flippers -- an outburst of dazzling colors, fantastic shapes and bizarre life. A school of blue tang darted away, their iridescent dark-blue bodies seeming to light up in the water. A pair of parrotfish gnawed on the healthy coral with their strong beak-like teeth. Another parrotfish, suspended halfway to the surface, relieved itself; a shower of sparkling grains of coral rock, the byproduct of an earlier meal, tumble like tiny diamonds to the bottom.
Fifteen feet down at the base of the reef wall, a lump of coral moved. In fact, it was a grouper -- a big one, instantly recognizable by its bulldog shape and cavernous mouth.
At lunch back at Utopia after the dive, there was mutiny in the air. Tomorrow was Thursday, the last day of diving. Molina announced the dive spots -- a wreck dive. But not Black Hills, the most famous dive spot on Utila. "Too windy," he said. "The captain says we cannot go."
Hart has dived around the world. He came to Utopia to dive the Black Hills, a seamount east of Utila that rises from the ocean floor to within 35 feet of the surface.
Hart was not accustomed to disappointment. Frank words were privately exchanged. Molina relented. There would be a final, unscheduled dive on Friday to Black Hills, he announced.
"You guys going diving Friday?" I asked Josh and Drew.
"Yes," said Josh, who had determined that they could dive Friday morning and not violate the 24-hour no-dive restriction because our plane left Saturday afternoon.
Back in the room, I did not try to hide my disappointment. "I'd hoped the boys would come fishing with me," I said to Roxanne as I settled in to take a nap. "But, please don't tell them."
"I won't," she promised.
"Have you seen the teeth?" Andrew Jackson, 53, Utopia's overworked maintenance man, led me to the side of the main lodge. Jackson is skinny, with a tanned, deeply lined face and long, stringy brown hair; it's easy to imagine him as a direct descendant of a pirate. But he was born in South Florida, the son of a Coral Gables fire chief, and raised in the Florida Keys. We talked easily and often; he knew the fish that I loved: bonefish, permit, tarpon -- the holy triumvirate of shallow water game fish.
Jackson led me around the corner of the building. There, on a dusty tabletop, lay scattered a dozen sun-bleached teeth, next to a clay figurine of an animal and a leg broken off a bowl. Some Bay islanders call these artifacts "yaba ding ding," the pre-Colombian litter of the Paya Indians who lived alone on these islands until shortly after Christopher Columbus sailed past in 1502. The teeth could be Paya remains, "or maybe people killed by the pirates," Jackson said.
I was dog tired. The previous night, someone had burned down a power pole to protest a recent rate hike, cutting the electricity to the west end of the island just as we were going to bed. No power meant no air conditioning. Inside our pitch-black room I felt like a roast slow-cooking in a crock pot. Finally, Roxanne abandoned the room to doze in a lounge chair on the beach. I slept fitfully on top of the bedcovers and got up at 4:30 to go fishing.
I should have slept in. The wind blew even harder that day. We saw dozens of tailing bonefish; two huge permit strayed within casting distance. But trying to cast a tiny fly was like tossing confetti. I finally landed a small bonefish in water barely over my ankles.
"Are your boys coming with us tomorrow?" Howell asked as we walked back to the panga. "I got bait last night. We'll go porgy fishing."
I told him they were going diving. "Then we will go. You'll catch more fish with bait."
"Sounds good," I said. But I didn't mean it.
The morning dive went well. Molina took the divers to the wreck of the Haliburton, a 100-foot cargo ship deliberately sunk in 70 feet of water off the mouth of East Harbor in 1998. When they returned for lunch, they listed their visual booty on the white board off the dining room: sponges, dazzling corals, green moray eels, dog snapper and an obliging four-foot goliath grouper that went nose-to-nose with the divers.
"When are we going fishing tomorrow?" Josh asked.
"I thought you were going diving," I said.
"We're going fishing with you," Josh said. He and Molina had worked out a deal. Drew and Josh would go on a shore dive off Utopia this afternoon. On Friday, they would miss the Black Hills dive. They would go fishing with me.
"Okay, I am meeting Mr. Herman at the dock at 6 a.m."
Back in the room I prepared to shower. "Did you tell the boys I was disappointed that they weren't coming fishing with me?"
"No, I didn't," Roxanne said evenly. "I would tell you if I did. It was their idea."
"I am not baiting my hook," Drew declared, peering into the bottom half of a plastic bleach bottle that served as our bait bucket.
Howell had gathered hermit crabs for bait two nights ago. A sharp hammer blow had abruptly liberated each crab from its shell home and exposed its soft pale-white body, the size of a little finger. A few crabs were intact, their flaccid bodies still attached to their hard heads, thorax and claws. The putrid mixture had not aged well.
"This is the best bait," Howell said, as he fished out a piece of the crab from the reeking bucket. I tentatively plucked out a piece and threaded it onto the hook on my small spinning rod and handed it to Drew. Howell did the same for David and Josh.
The first spot yielded one small flounder, caught by Drew. Howell next positioned the boat closer to a cluster of coral heads. Instantly, the bite was on: The bottom here was paved with fat, one-pound porgies with a taste for aged-in-the-bucket hermit crab. Howell and I couldn't fish, we were so busy baiting hooks.
At the bow, Josh was in the zone. Armed with one of Howell's tuna-sized spinning rods, he caught one porgy after another, unhooked them and tossed them back. Porgies are tasty, but the meals at Utopia were tastier, and they were paid for. Besides, we had no ice to keep the fish fresh.
"Ow!" Josh cried. A porgy had clamped down on his finger. The fish eased its hold. Josh unhooked it and dumped it over the side.
"Uhhhhh." Drew was holding up an iridescent-blue reef fish he just landed. A pea-soup green rivulet ran down his forearm. "It pooped on me."
David howled with glee. "Josh got bitten. Drew got pooped on. This is the best fishing trip ever!"
Richard Morin, a former staff writer for The Washington Post, is a senior editor at the Pew Research Center in Washington. He can be reached at email@example.com.