FOR MANY DIVERS, the approach of winter chimes in with choosing a destination for the next diving holiday. Year after year, the same questions arise. Where to dive without breaking the bank, while still logging a good number of dives on interesting and diverse sites?
For those travelling with a non-diver, the variety of topside attractions is also a consideration. The quality of beaches comes into play, as well as the places to visit and thing to see.
The Caribbean island of Roatan off Honduras has become a hit destination with US divers for all of the above reasons and more. Resorts located on the western side of the island have become very popular with divers.
The downside is that sites are sometimes crowded, with numerous dive-boats vying to visit top and nearby sites during peak travel periods in the Caribbean. The west side of the island is also exposed to dominant winds, and blown-out days are a more frequent occurrence.
For those who want to dive the waters of Roatan but prefer less-busy dive-sites, its north side provides quiet and protected bays. While on this Bay Island I chose to stay at the Turquoise Bay Dive & Beach Resort, an intimate place with its own private beach and on-site dive centre.
What I found were well-preserved dive-sites and easy diving conditions. Given the presence of the dive-centre mere metres away from the resort’s main building, no daily transfers are required, and short boat-rides get you to most of the sites.
A bonus is that the location is isolated in the middle of the north coast, so other dive operations rarely venture to its sites. Ours was the only boat on the reef on each of the dives we logged during the week in this section of the island.
Should conditions get rough or should you want to explore to the west or south, the centre’s staff will provide land transport to their second location in front of French Cay, from which all popular sites can be accessed.
Roatan boasts more than 150 named dive-sites. On the morning of my first dive, I head to the dive-centre and am directed to the boats. The staff has already transported and assembled my equipment, so a quick check and we’re ready to go.
The boats are large enough to accommodate 16 divers but the number is limited to eight for added comfort. On most of the days I went out, we numbered between four and six divers.
We descend on a site named Sponges because of the large number of barrel sponges along the wall. Many of these are huge, and on closer inspection prove to host many small creatures such as sharknose gobies foraging for food.
At Labyrinth the reef blows us away, because the coral is spectacular. A series of connecting crevices, some more than 10m deep, have been carved through the reef. Divers can follow the winding paths while observing a variety of reef fish.
The coral plateau is an ideal place for a safety stop that seems to fly by. I take in the scenery and watch French angel and other fish cruising atop the reef.
The second day of diving starts on the 70m-long Aguilera wreck, intentionally sunk in 1997. Originally intact, it broke apart during Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and now lies in three sections, many of which are penetrable with the proper equipment and training.
This site is always a favourite given the number of fish found on the wreck. Black grouper are abundant, and quick to swim up to divers.

TIME FOR A NIGHT-DIVE, and a five-minute boat-ride places us over Turquoise Channel. As soon as I reach the bottom I find the usual night-dive creatures – shrimps, lobsters and crabs out to feed.
Near the end of the dive, a fellow-diver points out a sculptured slipper lobster – a great find, as these are rarely encountered. After posing for a few shots, it retreats behind a boulder.
I am heading for the anchor-line when I spot a Caribbean reef octopus perched on a coral head. It stays there for several minutes, seemingly content to observe us without feeling the need to camouflage its appearance. Houdinis of the reef, octopuses often prefer to retreat into minuscule crevices. It's a good 80-minute dive.
Over the following days, I dive some of Roatan’s well-known dive-sites such as Rockstar which, located on the north coast, rivals many of the south’s popular sites.
The divemaster briefs us on the presence of the star attraction, a very friendly and audacious green eel he calls Crazy Joe. It’s easy to recognise as it has only one eye, and resembles a character from Pirates of the Caribbean.
During the dive, the moray repeatedly swims between the legs of one of the divers. Busy looking at the coral, he never realises that he has made a new acquaintance. Getting no attention, Crazy Joe decides to swim away.
We turn our attention to Eagle Ray, popular of course for the presence of the beautifully ornate Aetobatus narinari but offering much more besides. Everywhere I look there are fish or critters. A balloonfish glances at me while I’m photographing a seastar. Later, an intrigued group of Creole wrasse pay me a visit. In their terminal phase, they display amazingly vivid colours.
A careful inspection in the sand reveals legions of various hermit crabs. On the reef, flamingo tongues devour gorgonians while chromis zip by.

GIVEN MY FASCINATION with sharks, Cara a Cara is on my dive-site bucket-list for the week. Spanish for “face to face”, this is a high-adrenaline dive. The descent is somewhat challenging, as current is usually present on this site, but that’s why the sharks are there.
Divers settle on the sandy bottom with their backs against a small coral wall so that they don’t need to be concerned about too-friendly underwater fellows coming up behind them.
The divemaster carries a smelly bucket of chum to attract the sharks, but they are not fed, unlike many places in the Caribbean.
Within minutes, Caribbean reef sharks surround us. I estimate that there must be more than 20 of them, because I manage to count 14 in a single frame.
They come in very close and give every indication of curiosity about the divers, so it’s easy to understand why those divers have wide smiles on their faces when they surface.
Later that afternoon I dive Mary’s Place, regarded as Roatan’s premier dive site. Famous for its healthy coral, particularly its black coral, it doesn't disappoint. The wall is covered and I spot many species of reef fish.
I can’t resist approaching a hawksbill turtle busy grazing on algae. It pays no attention to me, but eventually heads to the surface to breathe.
Earlier in the week, I had explored a site named Underground, and want to dive it a second time, given the beauty and complexity of the rock formations.
We follow a lengthy tunnel under the reef. Along the way, rays of light penetrate the darkness through exit-points and skylights, and the contrasts are spectacular. The presence of large schools of glassy sweepers adds to the show, their silvery sides seeming to dance under the beams of our dive-lights like underwater fireworks.

UNDERGROUND WOULD SEEM a fitting end to a great week's diving, but the ocean has a last surprise for me. During the safety stop, I spot a large school of blue tang frenetically covering every corner of the reef, stopping here and there to chew on coral-heads. Then I notice a shadow off in the distance, a few metres from the surface.
Curious, I swim towards it to investigate. It's an impressive school of Atlantic spadefish, gently swaying with each pulse of the ocean. I prolong the dive by 20 minutes, swimming alongside them. Far from timid, some of them rub against my fins several times, perhaps trying to rid themselves of parasites.
I left Roatan with the impression of much left to explore. I ran out of time to dive with the dolphins and there are many more sites and wrecks to explore.
Topside, Punta Gorda is worth a visit. The little village has a festival atmosphere every Sunday afternoon, when the locals play music and dance in the streets. In the laid-back Caribbean, you need no excuses to enjoy life!
Unable to dive on the last afternoon of my stay given my upcoming flight, the resort’s manager sets up a tour of the island. I make my way to West End to spend some time on the beach, visit the town and watch the sunset.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: The international airport is Juan Manuel Galvez and flights are via US hubs and El Salvador. A departure tax (US $37) is usually included in airline tickets but double-check. Most resorts are a 30-minute drive from the airport – check transfers included.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Subway Watersports is a PADI 5* Instructor Development Centre (www.subwaywatersports.com) at Turquoise Bay Resort, www.turquoisebayresort.com
WHEN TO GO: Average year-round temperature 28°C, with the trade winds providing a gentle breeze. Relative humidity averages 72%. Water temperature ranges between 25-27° October-March and 27-29°C April-September. High season is October-February.
MONEY: US dollars (up to $20 denomination bills) are used as much as the local currency but many businesses will give you change in lempiras. Euros are also commonly accepted.
HEALTH: Bring insect repellent.
PRICES: Return flights from £440. Car hire £35 a day. Turquoise Bay offers seven-night dive packages from $949pp (low-season, two sharing), including all meals, transfers, wi-fi with three dives a day and a night-dive.
VISITOR INFORMATION: www.tourismroatan.com