Our long lean boat knifes through the turquise water just off the island of Roatan, Honduras. The guide cuts the outboard motor and coasts in to a tie-up next to the reef. These rope tie-ups are there so snorklers won't be tempted to drop anchor and damage the coral.
The island of Roatan is part of one of the largest reefs in the world. Just before we get in, our guide warns us not to touch the coral.
"If you break off a piece," our guide explains, "it takes 75 years to regenerate." The corral is also quite abrasive as one of our group members, Wally Shaffer, found out. He had an encounter with the reef that left him with what looked like a case of road rash from crashing on a bicycle.
The islanders know what they have here is a special gift. They also realize that it's the life blood of the area. People come here from all over the world. A number of dive shops line the white sand road next to the ocean. It's fairly common to see boat loads of divers and tanks headed out to explore.
We donned our masks, snorkels, and swim fins and climbed down the ladder into the ocean. The water was cool for a second, then warm.It felt good to get into the water after spending over a week in the sticky humidity of northern Honduras. Actually there was just as much humidity here as there was in the mountains of Honduras, probably more, but at least there was an ocean to jump into here.
There's so much moisture in the air, you can almost taste it. It's a place where you hang something out to dry and it's still wet two days later.
Once in the water, my mask began to fog up. "How do you keep the mask from fogging up?" I asked our guide.
"Just spit in it," he said. "Just spit in it and rub it around on the glass."
"Okay," I said, trying not to think about the hundreds of people that had spit inside my rented mask.
Our 10-person group ranged from 18- to 70- years-old. Two from Idaho, the rest from Seaside. This was the first trip to Roatan for all of us. It was the perfect ending for our two-week visit to Honduras, organized by Daryl Blanksma of Seaside.
Our first stop was impressive because most of us had never seen a corral reef up close. The most incredible snorkling, though, was at the second stop, a place called West Bay. Our guide pulled the boat in to shore and simply turned us loose.
We walked past iguannas sunning themselves on a rocky ledge and out across the sandy bottom and then we lowered ourselves into the water.
Pretty soon we spotted openings in the maze of coral and started exploring.
As you go out further, the bottom drops away from you and the corridors get wider and deeper.
To really see things, you have to quiet yourself. Then the underwater world goes back to business as usual. You almost feel like you're eavesdropping. If you're lucky, sometimes the fish will come up to investigate you. One time a silvery white fish, about the size of a large sea perch, decided to swim several slow circles around me. As I held my camera about a foot from him, he seemed to pose for me.
You see colors down there that are so bright it's almost surreal. I saw blue fish that seemed to be lit from within. They were the color of a white shirt under a black light. There were some that were blood red. Some had alternating stripes of black and yellow. There were plants that swayed in the current like pieces of violet lace. We saw coral that looked like the lobes of a human brain.
It's when you're quiet and hardly moving that the subtlties start to show themselves. That's when you realize that what you thought was a series of small sticks stuck in the sand below you is actually a lobster with its long spindly legs. It's then that you realize what you thought was a murky spot in the water is actually a school of hundreds of fish about an inch long.
Eventually we broke for lunch. It's then that you look at your watch and realize how much time you actually spent out at the reef. You sit down and feel a profound tiredness. You also realize how long you've been out in the intense sunlight. The backs of our legs were well done. The places we missed with sunscreen were bright red.
Two days later, we looked down on Roatan from a vantage point higher than any mountain on earth. Long white spires of clouds hung from a sky the color of the ocean water off Roatan. Our plane continued to climb as we headed north to Miami, the first leg of our flight back to the Northwest.
Mark Mizell is an English teacher at Seaside High School. His column runs the first Thursday of each month in The Daily Astorian.