Let
Let me entertain you - Hector (or Richie), stars of the underwater dolphin dive.



THE FIRST TIME I DIVED HERE I THOUGHT: JESUS CHRIST! WHAT HAPPENED The fish that should be present just werent here!
Hardly the description you expect for a destination advertised as Divers Heaven, and from a coral-reef expert like Dr Steve Box. So how come my first reaction had been the opposite
Multitudes of fish... massive shoals!
My logbook had gone on to describe spectacular elkhorn corals and huge basket sponges. A wide variety of corals - all in pristine condition.
The location is the same, Roatan in the Bay Islands of Honduras, but that logbook entry is now 15 years old. On that occasion I stayed at Anthonys Key Resort, a private key with cabins on stilts over the water and a restaurant built into the side of a hill overlooking the
reef. I had thought it a divers paradise - would I still think so today
But first I planned to visit the neighbouring island of Utila. The logistics of getting there had defeated me on my last trip, and almost did so again; it took four flights and a missed ferry before we touched down at the landing strip with its wooden lean-to that is Utilas airport.
We were diving with the islands biggest operator, Utila Dive Centre. Andy Phillips is one of the course directors who oversee 6000-plus certifications every year here. Like many other expat divemasters and instructors we met, he had visited the island while back-packing, learnt to dive and found himself in an I dont want to settle, but Ive been here seven years now life-style.
The cost of living and dive courses are relatively cheap on this island, which feels like the Caribbean of yesteryear. Utila is a bit like Roatan was 15 years ago, with its family-owned hotels, bars (like the Jade Seahorse, a bar turned art-form built into the trees) and restaurants with real character. There are no cruise ships, just an eclectic mix of visitors who appear to mingle well with the islanders.
The journey to our first dive on the north side took us past miles of untouched coastline. On the wall at the Pinnacle, the coral was unspoilt and there was plenty of marine diversity, but
I soon sensed that the islands main source of tourism might be in trouble.

BRITS MARTYN AND PAULINE FROM CAMBRIDGE were on their first Caribbean trip. Weve seen quite a variety of marine life - cowfish, barracuda, moray eels. Its just that theres not a lot of them.
We really liked the top of the reef, the corals, the small fish in their nurseries and the seafans. Its all very healthy, but we keep wondering: where have all the fish gone
On the south shore, most sites were gently sloping walls down to about 30m. At Pretty Bush, I saw an imposing pillar coral with one blue-striped grunt circling it. It just didnt seem right.
I hoped that the Haliburton, sunk as an underwater diving attraction, would host the shoals of fish I sought. It didnt on the day we visited, though the weather may have had an effect. Dark clouds and frantic bursts of rain made for an ethereal dive featuring spider crabs, nudibranchs and a bizarrely placed bicycle by the wheelhouse. I had to imagine what the wreck would look like with a shoal of snapper above the bow, barracuda patrolling the deck and grouper hogging the wheelhouse.
Between dives we searched for Utilas trademark whale sharks, but their behaviour is unpredictable. Chico, one of our divemasters, said he had seen them for 16 days in the same month last year. This month, he had seen none.
Dr Steve Box, manager of the Utila Centre for Marine Ecology (UCME), told me that although there were no official fishing licences, local fishermen continued to take fish from the reefs.
We discussed methods used elsewhere to preserve reefs, from fishing bans to seasonal or zonal management.
Such schemes can be hard to introduce on an island like this, Steve explained. To protect the spawning grounds for the grouper, I volunteered to pay the fishermen what they would have earned, but they werent interested. Fishing is their way of life. The solution might have to be as extreme as the Honduran Navy placing a gunboat over the spawning grounds. Im seriously considering an offer from one of the Navys commanders to do this.
Natural disasters such as hurricanes also affect reefs. Theyve always been there but now theyre aggravated not just by overfishing but by development, especially in the lagoon, where the mangroves are home to juvenile fish.
Steve is optimistic that Utilas reefs can improve if the UCME can pull together the right mix of influential people. And some dives helped me to share his optimism. At Black Hills, a hard-to-reach seamount a few miles out, we saw shoaling grunts, snapper and horse-eye jacks. At the Aquarium, a shallow cliff at the waters edge, we found plenty of marine life: glassy sweepers, spotted drums, queen angelfish and barracuda hovering under the overhangs.
Our last dive was an indicator of how poorly managed development is affecting the reef. The afternoon winds had picked up, so we headed for the south shore, where the water had turned a peculiar shade of green. The divemasters had never seen such a deep colour over such a large area.
Past the cloudy surface layer, I marvelled at the unusual fish behaviour. A barracuda sped straight for us, turning only after a last-minute double-take.
Blue tang had formed one giant shoal that flew over the reef, stopping only to graze on the coral heads.
I had never seen snapper swim in circles before. Even more bizarre, one broke ranks and launched itself to the surface. Was there something in the water Steve had an idea that this was connected with run-off from the lagoon.
We left Utila believing it to be a unique and special island. Andy Phillips described it as the Cinderella of the Caribbean. I hope it retains its charms.
Landing at Roatan, I could see that things had changed. My logbook records a small shack as an airport with soldiers milling around with nothing to do... smiling children banging on our minibus window asking for dollar, sparsely populated, lots of greenery, and a resort built into the forest with cabins around the mangroves on the key. Not far from the resort is Tabiyana Beach, palm-lined and deserted, paradise!
A large international airport had replaced the hut. There were no soldiers or children, only taxi-drivers hustling us, cruise-ship reps and people trying to sell us real estate. Condos and palatial houses in gated communities surrounded the tree-lined roads, and Tabiyana Beachs palms had been replaced by holiday apartments and hotels.
Thankfully Anthonys Key Resort had changed little, aside from some cabin upgrades. The dive operation had invested in bigger boats, and the doctors office included a hyperbaric chamber.
Peculiar, however, was that next to the dive store was a real-estate sales office bearing the logo Protect Our Reef.
This would turn out to be something of a contradiction.
Divemaster Greg promised us grouper and moray eels on the 75m cargo ship El Aquila, sunk as an artificial reef in 1997. As we entered the water, several grouper circled and followed us down and, as we approached the deck area, two moray eels wound out of the hold. Everyone seemed happy queuing for pictures of the eels posing with their loved ones. It was all extremely well choreographed.

ON THE WALL ON THE SECOND DIVE Greg found another moray, and one by one brought in the group to see it. Meanwhile I found a hawksbill turtle on a small ledge. It peered up at me, feigning nonchalance, until the group arrived.
The poor thing then got the paparazzi treatment until it decided to escape.
Greg was having none of this, and blocked its way until his divers got all the pictures they wanted. Eventually the turtle slipped off down the wall. On the boat the group were very excited by their encounters, but this wasnt how I remembered the resorts diving.
Another noticeable difference was that the coral was no longer pristine.
I reckoned that more than half of it was covered with algal growth. Gone was the proliferation of soft corals, sea-fans and elkhorn corals (which have suffered across the Caribbean because of disease).
Many of the remaining corals looked to be dying a slow death due to algal growth, and there seemed to be fewer fish.
Fifteen years ago shoaling snapper, grunts, Nassau and tiger grouper were common, but I saw none this time.
The diving appeared to have become a Disney world of promised experiences. At Spooky Channel, we were told to expect a moray called Angelina. She didnt appear, but a circus grouper stuck around to be stroked and tickled.
Back on the boat, Angelina the moray had become Angelina the grouper, and she was awesome.
Still, Spooky Channel was an excellent dive, a series of labyrinths and gullies that left me disorientated until a tunnel spat us out onto the wall. The suns rays through cuts in the reef provided weird lighting, but the reef was completely algal.
How had its predators been tamed We feed them fish once a week, a divemaster told me. We used to let the guests do this until one of them needed
18 stitches, courtesy of a moray. Its the same story with the grouper, so now its see a boat, see divers, expect food, hang around - and the guests love it.
This is what visiting divers want and tip for, so little surprise that the marine life is encouraged to put on a show. Are the divemasters doing any harm Jennifer Keck, Education Director at the Roatan Institute of Marine Sciences (part of Anthonys Key Resort) thinks so.
Theyre not supposed to feed the fish, as they risk leading the grouper into the hands of the poachers, she told me. But she added that the marine park had had some success in jailing poachers - and that others were now employed as boat captains. The reef is a big concern. We get great feedback from visitors about the resort, but they keep asking: Whats happened to the reef Development is whats happened - condos, hotels and soon a two-acre cruise-ship terminal.
Most of the island is on a slope, so to build you have to cut into it. All this leads to the islands red soil running off onto the reef. Thought-through development with proper drainage, paving and sewage would help, but cost is the problem.

AS WITH UTILA, THERE IS HOPE for Roatans reefs. At several sites we saw fine examples of corals free of algal growth, and spectacular deepwater gorgonia. Perched on outcrops there are still plenty of barrel sponges, though fewer of the size you could sit in (perhaps thats why they disappeared).
There were also grouper who hadnt succumbed to divemasters temptations. And even around our cabin, surrounded by mangrove, we saw a wide selection of juvenile fish using the roots as protection, including barracuda, blue-striped grunts and morays (not to be confused with our neighbours cry of: Oh my God, a sea snake! Get out of the water!).
While everyone went out on the boat for a night dive, I went on a snorkel in the mangroves. The juveniles were hidden deep inside the root structure but the outer roots were home to banded coral shrimps, hermit crabs and featherduster worms, all within feet of where we slept.
Dolphins have always been a big attraction for visitors at the resort. They can watch the show or swim with them in their pen, but now you can also dive with them off the reef. It might seem staged, but how else can you guarantee a dive with dolphins
After a short familiarisation in the pen, we headed out to the reef where, for 40 minutes, Hector and Ritchie enchanted us with their cheeky antics. They seemed to enjoy taunting us, sneaking up from behind or gently biting an arm. They wanted us to react and pull away. If you didnt, they came back for more.
This was Disney diving at its most extreme and, do you know, I didnt care - it was a magnificent experience.
Will the people of Utila have the resolve to control their passion for fishing, and control the wave of development that is bound to hit them
The future of Roatans reef will depend on the resolution and influence of the marine-park authorities, but will this be enough I hope so.

Looking
Looking over towards the key from the Restaurant Utila.
Anthony
Anthonys Key Resorts impressive line-up of dive boats.
Divers
Divers prepare their equipment at Utila Dive Centre.
The
The wreck of the El Aquila.
Reach
Reach out and touch - Angelina, the well-trained circus grouper.
Horse-eye
Horse-eye jacks at Black Hills.
Diver
Diver over a basket sponge.
A
A hawksbill turtle escapes the underwater paps.
Divernet

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Flights from London via Miami may require an overnight stopover.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: In Utila Brendan OBrien dived with Utila Dive Centre and stayed at the Mango Inn, a family-run hotel with the best pizzeria on the island. For dive packages including accommodation, see utiladivecentre.com. Anthonys Key Resort in Roatan also offers packages, the cabins on the west side of the key providing the best view, anthonyskey.com
WHEN TO GO: Year-round, but the rainy season runs from October to early January. Water temperature is 24-26°C
PRICES: Dive Worldwide can arrange complete packages from the UK (0845 130 6980, diveworldwide.com). For seven nights full board at Anthonys Key Resort, with flights (overnight in Miami on the way out), transfers and taxes, three dives a day, unlimited shore diving, two night dives and many other activities, prices start from £1640.00 per person (two sharing). For seven nights half-board at the Mango Inn, diving with Utila Dive Centre twice a day and with one night dive, and flying via Miami (stopover on the way out) and San Pedro Sula, prices start from £1285 per person.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.bayislandtourism.com