COMPLETING MY ADVANCED OPEN WATER IN UTILA, HONDURAS
Utila in Honduras is a scuba-divers dream. This was one of the only places in the country I visited and probably found it the hardest place to leave while travelling Central America. Around 18 miles from La Ceiba, this fun, tropical island is one of the cheapest places to learn how to dive in the entire world. Groups of employees from the different dive shops on the island will be waiting while your boat docks where you can take your time, talk to them and choose a dive school that's right for you.
Learn to dive for cheap, explore the waters of the Caribbean, live in free accommodation, eat in delicious beach shacks and have some fun nights out and laughs with your new friends. This is one of the places that reminds me what travelling is all about. Just loving and enjoying the planet we live on and making each day on it count. My experience completing my Advanced Open Water was a special one and Utila is somewhere I'll never forget.
ARRIVING TO UTILA
First you will have to make your way to La Ceiba on the coast of Honduras either by bus or plane. Head to the boat terminal and purchase tickets for either the Utila Princess ferry or Utila Dream catamaran. They both depart for the island twice daily (Princess: 9:30 am & 4:00 pm) (Dream: 9.00 am & 4.40pm) with the Princess taking around an hour for just over 400 Lempiras and the Dream taking 45 minutes for 600 Lempiras each way. Make sure to keep your eyes on the water while travelling to Utila! We were lucky enough to see dolphins dancing around our boat.
If you're definitely planning on doing a diving course while there (you really should, it's excellent value) I wouldn't book any accommodation before your arrival as most of the dive shops offer free accommodation while you're doing your dive training with them. Just have a little walk around when you get there, go inside, have a chat and compare some prices. There are so many dive shops to choose from on the island -- it won't be difficult to establish the best deal, there is a lot of competition!
CHOOSING THE COMPANY: 'PARROTS DIVE CENTER'
It was easy for us to choose our dive school as it had been recommended by friends we had met in Guatemala. That and after meeting Joel at the ferry terminal who was so funny and kind to us, it was a done deal. As soon as we arrived to the dive school, we were greeted by friendly faces that were still completing their fun dives and people genuinely wanting to chat and get to know us. The courses on offer at Parrots were packed with exclusive's and were such good value for money. I decided to do my Advanced Open Water and Stu decided to do his Open Water. (I completed my Open Water in Koh Tao, Thailand. Stu had fell off his motorbike and broke his foot at the time so couldn't do it with me).
THE ADVANCED OPEN WATER COURSE INCLUDES:
3/4 Nights in Free Accommodation (that turned into 5) If you want to stay longer after your course, you can for as little as $5 per night
2 Free Fun Dives
Unlimited Free Snorkelling for the Length of your Stay
5 Training Adventure Dives (Deep Dive, Navigation Dive, Performance Buoyancy, Night Dive & Wreck Dive)
All Rental Equipment
All Materials & Certification
Free Use of Kitchen Facility (ours was included in our shared house)
All Taxes Included
All Reef Fees Included
Free Boat Transport to Dive Sites
All together each of our courses cost $289 each. We were so pleased at the amount that was included in this fee. I believe their Divemaster Course (duration 6 weeks) costs only $950. Pretty impressive when this will enable you to make scuba-diving your career. They were even kind enough to do my Refresher Course with me for a special discount. The Refresher is something that must be done before diving again if you haven't been diving in the last year.
As soon as we signed up we were shown to our new home for the duration of our stay. We were lucky enough to get a double room in a 3 bedroom shared house which stood on large stilts with a patio, large fully equipped kitchen, dining area, a comfy living space with a T.V and a large bathroom. It was perfect! We felt as if we were the luckiest people on the island as we had heard a lot of the free accommodation meant a bed in a dormitory. After a quick chill out, shower and change, we headed back to Parrots Dive Center to begin the theory work for our courses, get sized up for the equipment and for me to do my Refresher Course.
As soon as I stepped foot back into the warm sea water, I tried to remember why I had waited so long to dive again. My last scuba-diving experience had been Wreck Diving in the Philippines just over a year before. Now I was in the Caribbean and for next to nothing too, it was another dream come true. While I completed my refresher course - other divers jumped from the upper deck and swam into the refreshing water around me as their day had come to an end.
As night came and theory work started, I walked back to the house to meet Stu and shower. We sat on the porch and living room with our housemates and had wines, beers and a good laugh. I had expected to be really nervous for the day ahead, it is always a bit daunting getting back into the water after so long but with the day behind me, I could honestly say I was feeling confident and REALLY excited for the days ahead.
DAY 1: WRECK DIVE
Stuart had to start at 7am but I didn't need to be at the dive shop until the afternoon so enjoyed having a long lie and and unpacking some of our stuff. I picked up laundry, showered and walked into the main part for some local food - fresh grilled chicken with pineapple rum BBQ sauce and grilled potatoes - so good! I headed to the dive shop where I met the rest of the people on my course including our instructor Bogdan.
We chatted out on the deck under the hot sun as we set up our equipment. I made sure to concentrate - I had forgotten how to set my kit up previously while diving in the Similan Islands during a previous refresher. The instructor had commented it was the worst attempt he had ever seen from a qualified diver. Embarrassing!
We all jumped on the boat and made our way to the Halliburton wreck which was also a combined deep dive. As a group, we reached 29m underwater, gently hitting the soft sand beneath us as we stood upright contemplating how deep we were beneath the Caribbean Sea. It was so cool, the wreck was huge and towered around us which dozens of jellyfish surrounding us all. As I swam through the wreck, my nerves started to disappear as I felt I was controlling my buoyancy quite well - which was another thing I had struggled with in the past.
Towards the end of the dive, one of the divemaster's ran out of air. She had to try and get our instructors attention and go onto his spare regulator which was really scary. I saw her reaching for him to try and get him to turn round. For an exercise, Bogdan asked me to go onto the drop tanks air supply - which is a spare tank attached to a BCD jacket floating for emergencies. When I did as instructed, the air supply was still turned off. I had to go back to my own regulator before returning to the drop tank which made me quite freaked out!
DAY 1: NAVIGATION + NIGHT DIVE
At the beginning of the navigation dive, Bogdan asked us to start off by sitting together in a circle underwater to meditate for a minute with our eyes closed which was really lovely and relaxing. It's something I would like to continue beginning every dive with and keep to the tradition. The navigation aspect of the dive was kind of tricky. We had to use a compass to turn exactly right and swim in a straight line from point to point. I felt like I kind of blagged my way through it but I loved the swimming at the end. I finally feel like I'm getting it. Diving is starting to flow and become second nature. We headed back to the dock but because we were late back, we didn't get much of a break before going back out for our night dive. I briefly saw Stuart and then headed out at sunset with Tommy, Bogdan, Rudy and our team.
I felt so present and focused during the night dive like I didn't have another thought or worry in the world. As we crept to the sea bed, once again Bogdan asked us to sit peacefully and meditate, while covering our torches so we were amidst complete darkness. It was beautiful, connecting and a little emotional as I sat on the sea bed deep in dark water with only the moon. I thought about death and the realisation of how small we really within the whole universe. I thought about how little we mean to the planet - sitting helpless at the bottom of the ocean in the dark - but how much the planet means to us.
Once we shone our torches finally, hundreds and hundreds of silver fish swarmed around us attracted to the light. They nibbled on us and followed us constantly. The coral showed different colours at night - lots of reds, purples and oranges - because we could only focus on one spot, which our light shined on, we noticed so much more than usual. A huge lobster swam passed us along with an octopus that changed colour. Dozens of squid floated around us and glowed in the dark. Once we came back up to land - the light of the boat would dip in and out of sight - combined with us covering our torches, the sight of the stars was incredible. It was such a beautiful experience.
DAY 2: DEEP DIVE + PERFORMANCE BUOYANCY
It had been a late one the night before as the whole dive shop ate together at the Chinese restaurant next door and chatted with beers when we got back from the night dive. Stu stayed out with the boys all night but I needed sleep for my final day. I was at the dive shop by 7am on the second day even after getting home late.
Our first dive of the day was the deep dive at 30m which I loved. We swam a lot after doing the essential number and colour exercises. We were free to enjoy the dive and managed to see lots of stunning coral and amazing tropical fish. Our instructor just loved going slow and just breathing and being in the moment which I really liked.
Our last dive corresponding with the Advanced Open Water was the performance buoyancy. It was enjoyable and something different to try but I found it difficult because of the strong surge. We got to swim through hoops and do different buoyancy exercises. I would never of been able to do it a couple days ago. My confidence has grown more and more.
Bogdan asked me to bring my knees to my chest and hold. My task was to stay completely upright and balanced, floating in the same position. I lost control due to a wave of strong current. Bogdan raced to pull me back but couldn't reach me in time. I hit against a large patch of fire coral, my bare arm seizing in pain. It burned like mad for a while but gently began to soothe. I had black and brown burn marks on my arm like I had been grabbed and scarred in a horror movie. I still have burn marks today but not as large.
The swimming at the end was the best yet. I just loved it. We saw some beautiful sea life - huge trigger fish, trumpet fish and a massive school of purple fish. I was so happy with my overall performance of the course and thanked Bogdan for helping my confidence so much.
I saw Stuart back at the dive shop who was so proud of me for completing my Advanced Open Water. I was so happy to be finished and so proud of myself I had got on so well. We finished off some paperwork then headed to the cute raggae café next door for some food. We shared nachos and enjoyed amazing banana and peanut butter shakes. We spoke about how much we loved this island and didn't want to leave. We loved the whole set up - from diving for next to nothing in some of the best water in the world, to our little house on stilts to the village and way of life. I could see how people would never leave. Dive, eat, chill, party, repeat. After a long hot shower and nap, I walked back to the dive shop to collect my certificate. We weren't ready to leave yet. There were more days of fun dives, date days to catch up on and exploring the island left to come.
I'll never forget my time on Utila completing my Advanced Open Water. Even writing about it now makes me want to return tomorrow. I hope it inspired you to visit somewhere you maybe didn't expect to.