Travel

Underwater with the dolphins

DivingScienceSportsBiology

Hector looks at me with disappointment. His eyes, 8 inches from my own, express pity for my inability to locate things at the bottom of the ocean. He buzzes the area next to where I am digging in the sand, gives me that there's-nothing-there-idiot look again, shows me his teeth (an encouraging smile?) and darts off to assault a school of fish.

I am kneeling on the ocean floor 60 feet below the surface of the Caribbean, where Hector has been trying to teach me to use sonar. Hector is a bottlenose dolphin. He is part of the Dolphin Research Center at Anthony's Key Resort on Roatán, an island 30 miles off Honduras. He and his buddy Ritchie have accompanied us on an open-water dive.

My family and I are on Roatán so my kids can learn to scuba dive in the simplest and most enjoyable way possible. I'm a big believer in learning things young. A language, an instrument, a skill — it's all less painful when you're under 18. When I heard about a reasonably priced summer camp at Anthony's Key Resort that certifies kids, I jumped on it. By the end of one week, kids over age 12 can scuba dive accompanied to 60 feet, and those under 12 can go to 40 feet with certified adults. One day they'll thank me.

Anthony's Key Resort, or AKR as it's known in dive circles, has been a dive resort since 1968, with scores of marine preserve dive sites nearby. The resort can be considered a camp for adult divers too, with a warm ocean, naps in the afternoon, three meals a day and some amazing fish life.

We arrived at the end of last summer when the heat was at its peak and the bugs were out in force. We were immediately charmed by the staffers and the smooth operation they ran. They made it clear there was no need to think beyond, "What dives shall I do today?" The rooms are basic but comfortable. We booked two superior wooden cabanas set over the water with an outdoor covered deck (advisable to book with air conditioning).

Daughter Indigo, 13, was going for her Professional Assn. of Diving Instructors Junior Open Water certification, and before we left for Honduras, she'd studied online and did a shallow tank test. All that remained were her check-out dives and final open-water dive. Daughter Sofia, 10, was too young to do the online learning (kids must be at least age 13 under federal law) so she would do the Junior Scuba Diver camp at AKR.

The other draw at AKR is the dolphin research center. Part of the camp includes interacting with dolphins. As someone who won't set foot in a zoo, I admit I was conflicted about this part of the experience. But the Roatan Institute for Marine Science at Anthony's Key ensures that all dolphins are obtained humanely. Marine biologists and scientists from all over the world come here to study dolphin intelligence and health, and NOVA filmed a dolphin television special at AKR recently.

In addition, many of the dolphins are let out into open water to swim (e.g. Hector and Ritchie), which gives them a chance to flee. Several have, but most return to the center. During our dive with Hector and Ritchie, they seemed delighted to play and hunt in open water, but they practically pushed us back in the boat when they'd had enough. Or perhaps they were merely hungry for the fish they're hand fed.

Teri Turner Bolton, a biologist and trainer who co-leads the center, said, "We've had local wild dolphins hang around the center for weeks wanting to be let in. We had to let one in finally. He just wouldn't go away. It's not as simple as the critics make out."

I admit to still being conflicted, but much less so now that I have witnessed the operation.

The culmination of the children's camp involved swimming with dolphins, which was an experience they are not likely to repeat often. Some of the animals seemed to relish playing with the children while others steered well clear. "They have unique personalities," Turner Bolton explained. "Mrs. Beasley over there is 40 years old, and she's the matriarch. No one messes with her. Paya is our alpha male. He's the master of ceremonies around here. Fiona is hyperactive, and Maury is a chatterbox. Cedeña is very smart. She can read."

Indeed, I witnessed Cedeña being shown flashcards, and with each symbol she performed a different action.

It wasn't all dolphins and diving for kids. Part of the camp was horseback riding and a picnic at Maya Key, with a reptile park and animal rescue center with jaguars, monkeys and other Honduran exotics.

My husband, Greg, and I went diving every day. There are three daytime dives and one night dive available, all included in the dive package price. AKR has 10 dive boats, each diving a different site, so there are never more than 12 people on a dive. It is possible to stay there for the week and never dive at the same spot twice.

At night, there were lectures, kids' movies, indigenous dancers and a magnificently athletic fire-dance performance. The fish slide show, given by a dive master known simply as "Bisch," identified the parade of extravagant fish to be seen during the dives. I felt most satisfied being able to later spot the rare pea puffer, the size of its namesake.

Honduras has extraordinary marine life, whale sharks, turtles and dolphins, as well as reef fish with such a range of patterns, shapes and otherworldly bits that you feel as though you're at a Grateful Dead show.

To break the routine, we drove one afternoon to Gumbalimba Park on the west of the 35-mile-long island for a jungle canopy tour. We were strapped into the longest and most exhilarating zip line I had ever done and sent flying between platforms in the treetops.

Other ventures off-property included West End, the hip, dusty little town at the end of the island and a 15-minute drive from AKR. Although all meals were included in our dive package, we sometimes went for dinner at one of several excellent restaurants. Tongs Thai Island Cuisine was our favorite. The liveliest bar scene was at Sundowners, but that required leaving the kids behind on movie night. The shopping in West End erred toward the hippie: parachute silk pants, kites, wind chimes, that sort of thing, but the Lenca pottery, with beautiful black and white geometric designs made by Honduran highland women, was worth the drive.

On our last Saturday we went scuba diving with our girls. They submerged with ease, and I had one of those heart-swelling proud moments. That was until I looked over and saw Sofia, my younger, buddy-breathing with the instructor as blood came out of her mouth. She had lost a tooth 40 feet under water and managed to remain calm and in control. Her training had been excellent.

Her only panicked moment came later when she doubted the tooth fairy would come to Honduras.

travel@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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