September 07, 2012

Tela Dive Center: Diving in the Bay Islands, no wait… Tela???

CAPIRO BANKmakes for good photographs
I am so excited that I am following the previous entry by yet another interesting anecdote involving my favorite past time, DIVING. Only difference is that this time the submersion did not take place in the familiar, crystal clear waters of the Bay Islands, instead this underwater journey took me to seas just a bit more choppy and very much less frequented by the usual flock of PADI divers. I’m talking about Tela… reeeally, Tela!??? Believe it or not recreational diving exists in this part of Honduras too, and to my surprise the dives were pretty good, and far better than I expected. I will not go into describing each and every aspect of what lies beneath the Bay of Tela, because if you read Tela’s Amazing Underwater Discovery, you will understand what I’m talking about. The findings are all in there, the astonishing high coral cover per square meter compared to the rest of the Caribbean, the abundance of species of coral which are close to extinction and the sudden interest in the protection of Capiro Bank by plenty of local and international NGOs. Let’s just say that in general, the coral reefs that grow in the area are in excellent health and are worth a closer look.

After what I considered to be, two very memorable dives, I am happy to make this small contribution and help spread that word of mouth that will lure more and more folks into taking the plunge into this new and uncharted territory. Although the waters in Tela are less famous for diving than those of its island neighbors up north, they have plenty of potential, and with some clever marketing I am sure they could even break through into the regional dive scene and as a possible alternative to the usual Bay Island dive sites. For the meantime, Capiro occasionally receives its share of divers, most of which have lots of diving experience and have done so primarily for scientific purposes; then, there’s also the local types who recently heard the news about the outstanding coral formations and paid a visit; still, there are plenty of folks out there who want to learn how to dive, and other divers from around the globe anxious to try new locations; sadly, many of them don’t know Tela offers a place just for that. Fortunately, Capiro is not going anywhere, so no matter the reason, if you want to discover the fascinating world of diving, or dive in a new and exciting environment, or perhaps you are a mad scientist wanting to do some field research, then a trip to this coralline haven is highly recommended; and this is where the Tela Dive Center (TDC) comes in.
TDCinvites you to dive in
Located right in the middle of downtown Tela, the TDC is the first and only dive shop in town and they have been offering all sorts of SCUBA instruction and dive courses since opening in 2010. It is owned and run by Marcelo Dicunta, who together with his wife also run the Marsol Hotel in the adjacent building. As it turns out Marcelo and I went to the same high school only he graduated a couple years earlier. After some reminiscing about old school classmates and all, he proceeded to explain about the different characteristics involved when diving in Tela; I will explain later together with my own experience. I will start off by describing one of the most important aspects in diving – the gear, and I have to say that Marcelo has some very descent equipment. Most of it, if not all is Mares brand, no surprise there, given that the TDC is an official distributor of Mares products including a spacious product display. 
MARES GEARfor sale
Almost everything appeared to be relatively new; BCDs, regulators, and wetsuits with my favorite – optional long sleeves and pants – not all shops have full coverage wetsuits and not everyone dives in the Caribbean shirtless and in board shorts, some of us actually prefer to be warm during the entire dive, especially after 40 plus minutes when it usually starts to get chilly even in a wetsuit and even in 30 degree water. Anyhow, a package of two dives together with gear cost $71.00 US. Now, this was due to a summer special prior to Semana Santa, otherwise, the regular price for two dives would have been US $95. I guess I got lucky this time and saved myself a few bucks for a future dive. 

One important fact worth mentioning is that together with the individuals mentioned in the previous entry, the people from the TDC have played an enormous part in the process of identifying all of the marine areas in the Bay of Tela and they have been an active regional stakeholder, committed to the protection and handling of Capiro Bank.

Now back to the actual dive. First and above all, you should not compare Tela to the Bay Islands; they are two totally different things. However, since I now have experience diving in both, I will do a little cross comparison but solely for explanation purposes. Like I said earlier, Tela is still a good alternative but you need to appreciate other things or else you will be disappointed; and this is where I come in.

To begin with, your point of entry in the islands is usually a dock located next to, or at short distance from the dive shop, so you basically carry your gear a few meters to a stationary boat for relatively easy entry. Not so in Tela, here the only option (the TDC) is located inland, still close to the beach so you can walk, but not close enough so you can walk while carrying your tank and equipment, therefore a car ride in Marcelo’s pickup truck is required. The actual entry point into the boat can also be a bit of a hassle considering Tela has no dock for easy loading and unloading, instead, crashing waves which are almost nonexistent in the Islands await, rocking the boat and lengthening the boarding process. Still nothing you can’t handle unless you have a bad back like me, and still I helped out loading the gear anyway. Also, for those who are prone to get seasick, there’s no need to worry there either, as Marcelo has the solution with a Dramamine pill prior to boarding ship. DO TAKE ONE, you will thank me later! In terms of transportation, the TDC boat has more than enough space to fit 8 divers comfortably and enough HP to take you to Capiro which is located about 5 kilometers away, arriving in some 20 odd minutes. After threading over the crests of some medium sized waves we made it to our first buoy and began prepping up for dive numero 1. To state the obvious, when diving, you want to see things; therefore good visibility is something sought after in any dive. One would also expect that with a stronger tide there would be a lot of loose sediment floating around; and unfortunately, that is exactly what occurs in Tela, affecting visibility which is reduced to about 50 to 60% from that of Roatan; still very decent (proof of which can be observed in these photos), but I must warn you, if you have been spoiled by perfect visibility, where the ocean looks pretty much like your backyard pool (i.e. Bay Islands), then Tela might not be for you. You always should take into account that the visibility is best during the months of March through August, making it the best time to dive Tela. 

BEAUTIFULthere are no other words to describe it!

the abundantLION FISH
During my dives in Capiro Bank I spotted much of the marine life I am used to seeing in the Islands but in very small quantities. I did not see one large group resembling a school, unfortunately, over fishing has almost fully depleted many varieties of the commercial fish out there. One fish though, has managed to avoid such calamity saving its own species through massive reproduction, but harming the fragile environment in the process – I am talking about the dreaded lionfish (learn more about where the lionfish comes from, its effects on the environment, and the actions taken by the Roatan Marine Park to control its population, all found in Divers Delight). Because this foreign species has no local predators it has reproduced uncontrollably, and it appears to have taken over places such as Capiro Bank, resulting in the destruction of the barrier reef system on their behalf. Not so great for the environment but awesome for my camera lens! The lionfish is one cool looking fish and I was very anxious to capture one on camera. It struck me that it only took about three minutes into my first dive until a large specimen (you don’t see them often in the Roatan Marine Park), got in my way. I could not believe my eyes as he was just floating there motionless, so I very slowly crept towards it and took as many pictures as I could from all kinds of angles; my excitement only lasted so long, as it got to a point where they pretty much started popping up all over the place and I ended up with a memory card filled with dozens of lionfish! 

NOW, the one thing which really stood out for me was Capiro’s main attraction, its coral reefs. I am no biologist here, but I was really amazed at the cluster of lettuce coral, purple fans, brain coral and all the other soft and hard coral formations which I have no idea what they are called, but which put together create a magnificent ensemble, one which James Cameron no doubt used as inspiration for his movie Avatar. With a 69% coral cover per square meter, Capiro Bank has the second highest coral cover in the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef system, an unparalleled characteristic in the Caribbean and one that places Tela on the regional map. The large quantities of lettuce coral in particular, stick out as one those key features which makes Capiro unique. They play a significant role in the environment as they serve as the foundation for the growth of a new and healthy coral and also provide protection for the smaller inhabitants of the reef; you do not have to be a biologist to appreciate this, and as I said earlier, even with less than favorable visibility conditions, the dense coral growth is very apparent. I remember following Marcelo and Vanessa (one of TDCs diving instructors leading the way), through the multiple channels searching for any living organisms hiding between the crevices, only to rise above to shallow water and stare across the horizon to find mounds filled with large populations of cabbage coral meshed together with other coral cascading down their slopes. That image made for one of my favorite pics!
Thanks to Maria Marta Nemes - Graphic Designer who splashed some color into these photos!
Another episode not associated with coral but which I think is worth mentioning, occurred to me near the end of dive numero dos. It turns out that when we were doing our safety stop, visibility did become a factor after all. For a few minutes, all I could see was Marcelo in front of me; I was not able to make out the seafloor or the surface either, making it the first time ever I got disorientated while diving. It was a strange sensation of floating in nothingness, something I am not used to and which forced me to keep a close eye on the depth gage; I guess this does confirm that I am one of those folks that have been spoiled by the island’s pool-like visibility.

The latter as well as the other comparisons summarized into this unusually long entry are just a part of some of the most significant accounts of my dives in Tela. Take it as my first impressions of my first and second dives ever in the underwater herbarium that is Capiro Bank. Perhaps, now that you know a little bit more of what to expect, I have convinced you to try it out and take the plunge. Overall I can say that my experience in Tela and with the TDC were a lot of fun and I would definitely dive Capiro again! It is funny now that I look back and revisit all the times I laid tanning on the beach in Tela, staring blankly at the sea, never realizing there was something so incredibly beautiful hidden below the setting sun, just waiting to be discovered.