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Fisherman's Paradise?

The destination for the family reunion was a luxury resort in Honduras. But there was a catch.

Travelers find adventure on the tiny, coral-rimmed island of Utila.
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By Richard Morin
Sunday, February 15, 2009; Page W14

"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."

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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.


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