Over the top under the sea

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As I started my ascent after a 40-minute scuba dive in the clear, warm Caribbean, I began to ponder the unfathomable: How come my new water-resistant watch sank so swiftly to the ocean floor but a nearby cruise ship carrying 2,000 overindulging passengers stayed afloat?

The watch may have vanished, but at least the ocean gave me something in return: a chance to be within arm's length of a shy sea turtle chomping on a sponge, and, closer yet, a baby moray eel that popped its head out of a tiny coral hole trying to look as menacing as the large green adult eels I saw housed in a sunken ship.

The Bay Islands, 40 miles off the coast of the Central American republic of Honduras, are set against the world's second-largest barrier reef, providing dive sites with deep vertical sea walls, crevices to explore and schools of gorgeous fish in riotous colors. The islands of Guanaja, Utila and Roatan are dotted with dive resorts, especially Roatan -- at 36 miles long and four miles wide, the largest of the group.

But that's not really why we chose this location. It was the children's dolphin camp, open in the summer to kids 5 to 14, that spurred us to turn a dive vacation for two into a family vacation for four at Anthony's Key Resort on Roatan.

My husband, Rolf, and I had read about the resort and decided we could dive guiltlessly knowing Talia, 12, would be equally entertained swimming with trained mammals. And Marisa, 18, too old for the camp and a non-diver, could enjoy daily snorkel boat tours, ride horses or laze on white-sand beaches.

From Los Angeles we flew in August to San Pedro Sula on mainland Honduras and connected with a 24-seat airplane for the 30-minute flight to Roatan. When we got to the resort and took a look at Talia's daily camp schedule, we were jealous. During the week-long program, the kids would get many more dolphin encounters than the adult divers. Between swimming with dolphins, riding on their dorsal fins, feeding them, kissing them and learning to train them, the campers would go on outings to an iguana farm, to a bird sanctuary to see scarlet macaws and multicolored toucans (the Froot Loops bird) and to shallow reefs for snorkeling. There also were marine life classes, horseback rides on the beach, picnics, even scuba lessons. For Talia, who wants to be a SeaWorld animal trainer, it was ideal.

Camp begins on a Sunday and ends on Friday, so most people with children stay from Saturday to Saturday. We rented one of the least expensive, unair-conditioned cabins set on the jungle hillside, believing brochures and an agent at Miami-based Bahia Tours, which books for Anthony's, that the island had a constant breeze.

The cabin was far more Spartan than brochure pictures showed. It had unfinished wood-plank floors and walls, wooden shutters with screens, one long fluorescent tube light on the wall, two bunk beds and two single beds shoved together, a patio with a hammock -- and a gecko we named Fred that pitter-pattered above our bed at night. It felt more like summer camp than a resort, though thankfully each cabin had its own modern bathroom.

The room was stifling, and despite a hard-working ceiling fan, the 90-plus-degree heat and 98 percent humidity were oppressive and the mosquitoes relentless. (March through May are cooler and drier.)

The first night I smeared half a bottle of insect repellent from head to toe and covered myself with a sheet up to my eyes, so of course the mosquitoes dined on my eyelids. The next morning my eyes were so swollen that I looked like Rocky Balboa after Round 9, and I missed the day's first dive because I couldn't open my eyes enough to see. I took comfort in knowing that I probably wouldn't contract any mosquito-borne diseases because I had taken chloroquine, an antimalarial.

We bolted to the reception desk and pleaded for a change to a room with air-conditioning or one on the breezier key, an islet accessed by a one-minute taxi boat ride. Cost was no object. (An upgrade to a beach-side cabin with air-conditioning and real lamps would have cost an extra $1,000 for the week.) No luck. The resort was fully booked.

The Texans in the neighboring cabin were amused as we fanned ourselves and slapped at bugs. We never really adjusted to the discomfort, but we managed to enjoy our week despite clothes and towels that would not dry out in the humid air and insect bites that refused to stop itching.

Resort days and activities were neatly scheduled. Two separate morning dives were finished by noon. Then we could meet our children for a two-hour lunch break, taking time to trade stories and relax. An afternoon dive finished when dolphin camp ended at 5 p.m., followed by dinner and sometimes live Caribbean music or native Garifuna (an ethnic island group descended from African slaves and Carib Indians) dancers who performed in the open-air bar.

Between dives or snorkeling, anyone staying at the resort could take fishing trips, ride horses on the beach, go kayaking or paddle a canoe. All activities were included in the price. Marisa was never bored while we were out diving.

For seven days we found no reason to venture beyond the resort. The island isn't very developed, with only a handful of unremarkable villages or farmhouses. Besides, Anthony's sits at one of Roatan's best locations because the reefs are close and the keys form a quiet bay. The views at other hotels weren't as pretty, nor were the services as extensive. Granted, it wasn't a true foreign travel adventure; everyone spoke English, and the food was familiar (delicious meat or fish entrees every night, salads, fresh vegetables and dessert). But it was relaxing.

Anthony's has six boats, each of which carries 12 to 15 riders who must be certified divers. So that you don't repeat one of the 35 different dive sites, you stay with your assigned boat. My hunch was that the people in the deluxe cabins got the better, newer boats, but Haydee Galindo, owner of the resort, said room category wasn't a factor.

Nonetheless, the "better" boats had dive masters who helped divers with their equipment. The better boats had drinking water with colorful plastic cups. Divers on the better boats came back with stories of seeing a rare, docile whale shark, Earth's largest fish; of watching a bat ray gracefully "fly" through the water; seeing nurse sharks; or spotting schools of barracuda. Passengers on our boat were blessed with none of that.

Instead we had Ike, an abbreviation (we decided) for "I Know Everything." This bombastic fellow diver from Alabama announced that, well, he knew everything about diving. He wasn't the boat's dive master, but he thought he'd like to be. Ike walked around the boat critiquing people's gear, the way they put it on and how efficiently they entered the water.

When one passenger's wetsuit flew off the boat on the way to a site, he yelled, "Now, that's why I always secure my gear before the boat leaves!" The point was correct, but the delivery was annoying and condescending.

Under the water, Ike seemed to zero in on recently certified divers like Rolf and me, gesturing that we were doing something wrong. I don't exactly have exemplary buoyancy control, which is the ability to not bob up and down, though I'm careful not to bump against the coral or stir up sand with my fins. Good form -- or what I call the "going-up-for-communion" position (with your hands folded at your solar plexus) -- also conserves your air supply for longer dives.

Under Ike's watchful eye, I assumed this reverential pose. But I'm still new to the thrill of weightlessness, so the minute his attention was diverted, I spread my limbs like a skydiver, then somersaulted. Twisting and rolling effortlessly through the warm, clear water surrounded by colorful marine life was pure bliss.

Every guidebook we read rhapsodized about Roatan's "spectacular diving." In the evenings before dinner we talked to several well-traveled divers to find out how Roatan compared with other Caribbean locations or with Hawaii, Mexico, Palau (Micronesia) and the Red Sea. Because this was our first real dive vacation and I wanted my money's worth, I wanted to hear that Roatan was the best diving experience they'd ever had.

"This is great, beautiful," said Ted Bailey of Denver, who, with his dive buddy, Jack Massant, also of Denver, has explored the world's great seas. But is it better? "No," he said. "Just different."

To us the diving was spectacular: 85-degree water, 80-to 125-foot visibility, precipitous drop-offs, sea walls covered with sea fans and shelves of table coral, "Star Wars'-like crevices to swim through, wrecks (a ship and an airplane, purposely sunk) and surreal colors that reminded me of the old Disneyland submarine ride minus the mermaids. (Of course, divers on the better boats probably saw those too.)

It isn't all play here. We toured the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences at the resort, where visiting scientists and staff members participate in dolphin research, fish surveys and coral reef monitoring.

At the airport on our way home, we met marine biologist Roy Houston and his wife, Linda, who were returning to Los Angeles after a month on Roatan. Roy is a professor at Loyola Marymount University and comes to Anthony's annually to study and measure marine life and look for effects of such events as El Niño and Hurricane Mitch, which struck in October 1998.

So my first intelligent question to this marine expert: "Are the dolphins happy?"

'All 18 dolphins are able to jump the enclosures if they want," he said, reassuring my daughters, who harbor "Free Willy" sentiments. "Some of those animals have been there for more than 20 years and have produced several generations."

The emphasis of the dolphin program, he said, is to study their behavior in the enclosures and in the wild. The dolphins' behavior during encounters with humans is not a performance but the way they behave in the wild, Houston said. The institute is also involved in echolocation studies (using sound waves to determine the position of an object, something at which dolphins are adept). Graduate students do research on mating, feeding and communication behavior.

"The recreational dive industry has done much to increase awareness of our marine habitats," Houston said. "My experience in working with recreational divers is that they exhibit the highest degree of enthusiasm, interest and concern for the environment."

On the last day Talia stood alone on the dock next to the dolphin pen to say goodbye to her mammal friends. Several curious dolphins swam over to her, and she used the hand signals she had learned at camp to coax them to wave and "talk." Voila, they obliged her -- at least until they realized she had no fish treats. Still, it was a successful end to a good week. Even Ike would have agreed.


GUIDEBOOK: A HOLIDAY IN HONDURAS

WHERE TO STAY

Anthony's Key Resort, Sandy Bay, Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras; telephone 011-504-445-1003. For reservations, contact Bahia Tours, 699 S. Federal Highway, Hollywood, FL 33020; tel. (800) 227-3483, fax (954) 922-7478, Internet www.anthonyskey.com. A seven-night package costs $825 per person for a cabin on the hill and $1,000 per person for a cabin on the water. Dolphin campers pay $600 per week.

Another nice place is the Bay Islands Beach Resort, Sandy Bay, Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras; tel. 011-504-445-1425, fax 011-504-445-1855. For reservations, contact Bay Islands Beach Resort, 443 Coral Cove Drive, Juno Beach, FL 33408; tel. (800)-4-ROATAN or (561) 624-5774, fax (561) 624-7751, www.bibr.com. A seven-night diving package is $795 per person, including lodging, all meals and three boat dives per day.

A dive resort popular with Europeans is Fantasy Island Beach Resort, Box 100, French Harbor, Roatan, Honduras; tel. 011-504-455-5222, fax 011-504-455-5268. U.S. information: Fantasy Island Beach Resort, P.O. Box 877, San Antonio, FL 33576; tel. (800) 676-2826, fax (352) 588-4158, www.fantasyislandresort.com. Seven-night summer dive packages are $805 per person, double occupancy.

HEALTH CONCERNS

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends antimalarial drugs before going to the Bay Islands. We also got the recommended vaccinations for hepatitis A and B and tetanus, but check with your physician to determine what you need. Though most of the larger resorts filter their water, it is safer to buy bottled water. We had no stomach distress from eating fresh salads at the resort.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Consulate General of Honduras, Tourist Section, 3450 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 230, Los Angeles, CA 90010; tel. (213) 383-9244, fax (213) 383-9306, Internet www.hondurasinfo.hn.

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