Utila: The Honduran Bay Islands have two different weathers: an oppressive heat fired from an unclouded sun that renders the hapless visitor able to do little but lie lethargically in a sweat-soaked bed staring at a twirling ceiling-fan; or teeming rain that turns the few streets to rivers, infiltrates everything with a damp funk and sends everyone skulking for shelter. Our days have alternated between the two.
We’ve come here to scubadive – the islands are on the southern end of the Mesoamerican Reef, which stretches more than 1000 kilometres from the Yucatan in Mexico, making it the world’s second largest coral reef after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. And Utila is bypassed by migrating whale sharks, the world’s biggest fish, which we last encountered during an unforgettable tagging expedition with researchers in the Maldives. We’re hoping for some new sightings.
Utila is as laid-back as a Lilt commercial, with enough of the Caribbean props – coconut trees, couples sitting in porch swings sipping piña coladas, kids diving into turquoise waters, black guy slowly cycling past while singing – that it feels like a huge hoax. Or a Lilt commercial set. Luckily, there are enough overweight American tourists sweating in too-tight Hawaiian outfits, dive-crazy backpackers and the associated industry to convince me of Utila’s realness.
The islands were discovered by Columbus in 1502, upon which the Spanish enslaved the entire indigenous population, shipping them wholesale to work in silver mines on the mainland or on Cuban plantations. The Bay Islands didn’t remain uninhabited for long, however, because the English soon arrived with a contingent of African slaves from the Cayman Islands. Squabbling between the Spanish and British for these strategic Caribbean bases continued for centuries, with the British keeping a firmish grasp on them, as part of British Honduras, until the late-19th century, when the islands were given to the new state of Honduras.
They became a favourite base for pirates looking to intercept the Spanish booty vessels, with as many as 5,000 living here at one time, including Welsh buccaneer Henry Morgan, the most notorious pirate ever, who, among other dastardly deeds, laid siege to Porto Bello and razed Panama City (for which he was soundly punished by King Charles II with, er, a knighthood), before succumbing to liver failure after drinking too much rum (despite its role in his death, Captain Morgan rum is proudly named after him).
The current population, a mixture of sing-song Caribbean-English speakers (descendants of the Cayman Islands population), Spanish speaking descendants of 20th-century mainland Honduran migrants and a large contingent of US retirees and, strangely, Norwegians, live in wooden plantation-style homes on Utila’s one-street town. People walk, ride bicycles, mopeds or golf buggies up and down the street, pausing frequently to chat and lounge idly at street corners or in café bars.
Fishing was once the mainstay here, much of it offshore work on international fishing boats. Now, people work offshore in shipping still or in tourism. Utila doesn’t have great beaches, the tourism industry here is largely based on pleasure diving, and therein lies the islands’ biggest problem.
The reef is being assaulted by the multiple pressures of overfishing, which destroys the delicate balance of the ecosystem; pollution, which poisons aquatic organisms and creates toxic algal blooms; global warming, which leads coral to expel their zooplankton; ocean acidification, which makes it difficult for crustaceans and coral to form their hard shells; and, in the past decade, shore development that has seen the mangroves – a key breeding and nursery zone for fish – removed almost entirely.
Diving here is a pleasure: there’s been an explosion of fan coral, which are very pretty. Caribbean gorgonian sea fan corals actually do well under warmer weather. They are able to boost their cellular and enzymatic defences to fight lethal microorganisms as temperatures rise. And because of their fanning motion, they are perhaps less affected by sediment build-up from storms or boat damage, compared to other corals that get covered.
Happy as I am to see fan corals, it’s the big ugly temperature-sensitive corals that give real integrity to the reef. Without them, there’s no reef. The 2010 Reef Report card found 75% of this part of the Mesoamerican reef was in poor or critical condition. Fish numbers are massively down. The predictions for Caribbean coral are dire, but more people than at any other time are concerned and working to protect it.
When we dive, we see a pretty, feather-finned lionfish browsing on the baby fish. Our dive master stabs it viciously with a speargun, which shocks us all. Later, he explains: the lionfish are non-endemic pests that were released from an aquarium in Florida during a hurricane in 1992. They have no predators here and cause a 79% reduction in the juvenile fish population, according to one study. And they’ve taken rather well to their new habitat – in their native Pacific, they breed just once a year; here, they are breeding every month. The dive schools are trying to eradicate the invasive species one lionfish at a time.