For some reason diving was never something that appealed to me, even though I have friends back home who do it and love it. I suppose I never really gave it all that much thought. It wasn’t until I tried skiing two years ago (another activity that I’d had zero interest in before) and loved it that I started to think that maybe there were other fun things I’d been missing out on that I should try, and that a year of travelling would be the perfect opportunity to give it a go.
The second biggest coral reef system in the world (after the Great Barrier Reef) runs down the Caribbean coasts of Mexico, Belize, and Honduras. Mexico & Belize are probably the most famous places to see it, but the reef is just as good in Honduras, and even better (from a relatively budget traveller point of view) is that it’s one of the cheapest places in the world to learn, especially as all the dive shops include two free fun dives after the course, and free accommodation, in the package.
The diving on Honduras is based around the Bay Islands, just off the north coast, and Utila is the backpackers’ mecca, famous for cheap diving and good partying – so that’s where I headed.
One of the great things about travelling like this is you really don’t need a guidebook – just talking to other travellers heading in the opposite direction will normally give you all the advice you need, and so on on arrival I ignored the hoards of people trying to persuade me to come to their dive shop, and headed straight for the people from Alton’s, which had been recommended to me as one of the best places to learn, as well as having a very social atmosphere and rooms right on the waterfront, which sounded like the perfect combination.
I had planned to do the PADI open water course, purely because that’s the most famous organisation worldwide, and figured that I’d probably need that to dive elsewhere. But on the drive from the ferry terminal down to Alton’s, an instructor called Lauren talked me into doing the NAUI open water course, which she’d be teaching, instead.
I’d never heard of NAUI before but it’s another organisation like PADI that offers dive training. Apparently the reason they are much less famous is that the organisation is a not for profit that plows all the money back in to training and environmental programmes, rather on marketing like PADI. But unlike my Spanish lessons I didn’t choose to go with NAUI for right-on reasons – no, I went with NAUI because the time in the classroom is less and the time in water more. With two weeks of intensive classroom time fresh in the memory from Xela, it was an easy sell for me.
It turned out to be a great decision. With PADI you spend the first day watching videos in a classroom. We started out straight away in the shallow water at the end of the dock, first with some simple swimming and floating exercises, and then moving on to using all the diving equipment apart from the regulator (which you breathe through) and oxygen tanks – which are the mask and snorkel, weights (to help you get down to the bottom more easily) and the BC (bouyancy compensator – a jacket which you can fill with air to adjust your bouyancy levels).
After explaining how they all worked, we then went out on the boat to get our first experience of the reef skin diving (i.e. snorkelling but with weights & the BC). The great thing about this way of learning is that you get familiar with everything else first without having to worry about the regulator and tanks, meaning the next day on our first dive, there would be less new stuff to take in. It was also nice to know that while we were already out getting to see the spectacular reef while the PADI students were still stuck back in the classroom.
The nest morning we spent time with Lauren, our instructor, going through all the science bits face to face (explaining how bouyancy works, and the effects of pressure on air and the body), which I much preferred to having to watch a video, and then in the afternoon we got our first experience of diving, again in the shallow water off the dock. This was our first opportunity to try out the skills I was most worried about – taking the regulator out underwater, and most scary, taking the mask off and putting it back on again, and then clearing the mask of water.
I was amazed to find that breathing underwater was far easier and felt far more natural than I’d worried, and I felt comfortable straight away. Taking the regulator out and putting it back in again was similarly easy. Even taking the mask off was much easier than I’d feared – I got a bit panicy at first and managed to inhale a bit of water through my nose, which had me frantically coughing through my regulator, but I soon managed to get a hold of myself and remember everything Lauren had taught me, so I relaxed, slowed my breathing down and soon I was fine (although it did take me several attempts to clear the mask). I must give a lot of credit to Lauren – she is an amazing instructor, explaining everything slowly and clearly, checking at every step of the way that we were OK, and making sure she congratulated us with an underwater fist bump after completing every step. I felt in very safe hands, which makes a huge difference at helping you relax in such an unnatural situation.
With all the skills mastered, the next step would be our first proper dive the following afternoon. I felt pretty confident about it, which is probably why I made the mistake of going out that night. Wednesday night is the biggest party night of the week in Utila, and with such a friendly crowd, before I knew it I’d made it up the Bar in the Bush, the one place that opens really late, playing drinking games with a group of mad French Canadians. Whoops. Staggering home at 3.30am it suddenly hit me that getting way more drunk than I had done on any night since I left England the night before my first dive was not the best idea in the world.
When I woke up the next morning I felt like death. Hangovers are even worse when you haven’t had one for a while, so I spent the morning guzzling gallons of water and coffee, and topping up my sugar levels via several cinnamon buns (which are a bit of an island speciality) and drinking Tropical (a Honduran speciality, a ridiculously sweet, bright yellow banana flavoured fizzy drink). It was touch and go, but by the time the boat left at lunchtime, I was just about feeling human. Thank god I was in the only group in the school that was diving in the afternoon that day, as I think I’d probably have drowned if I’d gone out in the morning.
In the end it all went fantastically – practising the mask removal skills underwater was much easier this time, and then after that we got to swim around marvelling at the reef. It’s absolutely beautiful, and so peaceful down there. Diving itself is actually a very unenergetic activity, once you have your bouyancy levels right you just float around, with minimal effort from the legs, just taking in all the colours and the sights underwater. The different types of coral are stunning, and it’s such an amazing experience to have big schools of fish swimming right round you. Aquariums will never be the same. As well as all the fish and coral, we saw rays, lobsters (looking much happier than they do in tanks in restaurants, funnily enough), crabs, starfish, seahorses and some pretty cool eels. Only major disappointment for me was that we’d just missed the whale shark season, as they are supposed to be pretty spectacular.
Four dives and an exam later and we’d passed the course, meaning we
were able to spend our fun dives spending more time seeing the reef, and taking underwater pictures (which turned out to be the toughest of the skills I’d tried – managing to stay totally still to get the best picture takes a bit of practice, especially as your natural tendency is to hold your breath to stop bubbles getting in the way, and holding your breath makes you more bouyant, so before you know it you’re half way to the surface). All in all it was better than I could have hoped, and I definitely plan to do my advanced course when I get to Asia (especially if I can find a NAUI shop there, as you get to dive down to 40m on the NAUI advanced course as opposed to 30m with PADI).