Saturday, January 25, 2014

Carnival on the Caribbean - Mounting Casualties on the Barrier Reef

Who would think a cruise ship excursion could be a full contact sport? Our port of call today was Roatán, Honduras, largest of the Bay Islands at the southern end of the 1000-kilometer-long Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. The Liberty was late in clearing customs as it waited for a sister Carnival liner to dock in Mahogany Bay. Stacey and I waited patiently in line at the embarkation deck for clearance to exit. That's evidently a mistake on a cruise ship, because when the path to the gangplank opened, a crushing mass of opportunistic humanity surged in front from the sides of the line. I can't call them vultures, because those scavengers politely wait their turn at the kill. My family would never survive in the event of martial law.

After disembarking, visitors who booked shore excursions were herded into another of those generic tropical malls. I noticed the stores and even at least one restaurant were exactly the same as those in Belize City. The duty free shop has been the same in all three ports, with the unimaginative moniker "Dufry." I half expected to see the same staff. We navigated through this promenade of uniformity to the excursion staging area.

When all in our excursion were assembled, we took a quick and bumpy tender trip to Maya Key. The Hondurans don't agree with their neighbors in Belize on how to spell key and are linguistically allied with the Americans. We passed a few rusty shipwrecks between Carnival's port and the key, which gave me pause. Notwithstanding, on approach I spied well-ordered beach chairs and palm trees. Things looked promising.

Mahogany Bay is a Carnival Corporation cruise port, and we passed more than one rusted hulk while pulling in to berth. After Carnival's dismal year, I couldn't help but wonder if we were looking upon some unfortunate cousins. A little Internet research revealed this one carried either lumber or paint, caught fire in the 1970s and was abandoned.

We disembarked and chaotically gathered on the shore end of the pier for an orientation. A resort representative announced the excursion would be extended half an hour to make up for a portion of the 1.5 hours lost due to our late arrival at port. This happy news was met with irate disbelief by one guest, who quickly calculated she wouldn't have time to shop upon return to port and angrily complained that there weren't multiple tenders back at staggered times. A well-meaning man helpfully mentioned the shopping outlets have been exactly the same at every destination, and she'd have another shopping opportunity tomorrow in Grand Cayman. I'm glad I didn't give two cents about the woman's inconvenience and said nothing, for our altruistic Sacrifice was withered on the spot.

The private Maya Key Resort offers a broad spectrum of activities on Maya. I've been to enough real Mayan cultural sites that I didn't need to visit a replica of Copan's ruins. The Mayan Interpretation Center and Honduran art exhibit did sound interesting if we'd had more time. My previous swim with a whale shark in its natural environment trumps swimming with a nurse shark or sea lions in a pen, and an animal rescue and rehabilitation shelter--though nice--was not in the cards. I've been to enough zoos, and it was hot. We were here for the snorkeling and for sitting under shady palms.

So, evidently, were most of our fellow guests. The line for equipment was another free-for-all of pushing and shoving to be first. Of course, when the chief offenders got to the counter they were unprepared with their waiver paperwork and seemingly lost all ability to follow simple instructions. To be fair, the staff could have been better organized.

An engineer's brain is both a blessing and a curse. I looked at my watch and noted everyone had lost another 20 minutes unnecessarily. While Stacey and I were finally being equipped, I overheard Shopping Lady complain to a clerk about the need to pay for a locker and make a locker deposit. This time, no one was dumb enough to offer her advice.

We were ready to snorkel. The staging area was located at the end of a jetty, and a staff member gave a short orientation there. He indicated the path out to open water and good snorkeling was narrow but well-marked, and swimmers were warned to stay within the path and strictly use the demarcated access/egress points to reduce the risk of painful cuts and scrapes from sharp coral formations on either side.

The hut at the end of this pier doubled as a snorkel staging area and first aid station.

This was all too much for many of our snorkeling comrades. Accessing the reef was like making it through a demolition derby unscathed. People were darting about in the channel, following their cameras and fish rather than their eyes. Some were flailing and obviously couldn't swim well or at all. Others decided to adjust their equipment halfway through the channel. The international population couldn't decide on right- or left-hand traffic, and in many cases swimmers were two abreast where there wasn't the room. Compounded by a strong current, which I'm sure is the normal scenario, it all made what should have been straightforward an ordeal.

Finally, Stacey and I navigated the gauntlet of natural selection into open water, and it was all worth it. This will be one of my favorite snorkel experiences. We came out onto a glittering reef and a steep wall plunging into the brilliant azure of unseen depths. Where I was struck by the lack of fish off Bannister Caye yesterday, the reef at Roatan had more fish from more species than I've seen anywhere outside of the Great Barrier Reef. Large schools of  sergeant major and brilliant blue tang were the highlights of a diverse fauna. Stag horn corals, vibrant lavender fan corals, and giant brain corals were anchored by house-sized formations running over the top of the reef, with lone outposts jutting from the reef wall. It's the kind of natural experience where you realize you are only seeing one stitch within a great tapestry--you leave wanting more.

By mass, most of the animal life teeming about Roatán are not efficient swimmers. Here are some exceptions.

We meandered over the drop off for nearly an hour before heading back through the harrowing maze of guppies. Upon returning to the staging area, we began to understand the reasons for the tour waiver. Staff were treating a variety of puncture and scrape wounds with an on-hand first aid kit that looked well-used. Most of the casualties were those I would have guessed didn't have the physical capacity or swimming skill to be out there without ever seeing them in the water. On one hand I have to admire them for--maybe the first time in a long while--pushing themselves. However, a lap pool or just plain brisk walk would have been a better introduction to physical activity. I heard several people decry the strong current. No one volunteered that they were in above their head at a reef wall fronting open sea.

Leaving triage for a time, we went to the beach to lounge under imported palm trees. It was very pleasant, and I didn't mind the periodic low pass by the assortment of prop planes landing at Roatán International airport on the main island, a scant half kilometer to the east. At one point the trainers brought a baby crocodile and a howler monkey to the beach for pictures with the guests. The crocodile immediately sensed my character and wanted nothing to do with me. A closer relative, the monkey showed no such scruples. He'd pose with anyone for fruit.

Where are palm trees actually native? Probably not Roatán, or at least not at this convenient beach.

Lunch was a very pleasant buffet of barbecued chicken, fried sea bass, coconut rice and beans, salad and freshly fried banana chips. A sprinkle of lime over everything made it go down nicely.

I wandered the beachfront for a short while after lunch and took photos. I was particularly interested in a couple of howler monkeys on a small mangrove island a few yards from the beach and took several pictures from a distance. Years from now, I'll look at these out of context and wonder, "Why the hell did I take photos of that monkey? I could just as easily cut better ones from a magazine." If they've been printed, the poor descendants who inherit them will just throw them out along with all the other meaningless scenery shots in our photo albums.

Signs clearly requested that guests refrain from swimming to the natural monkey habitat, but of course several oblivious tourists either did not see the signs or ignored them and waded over to the island for a closer look right in front of one of the gamekeepers. He forcefully yelled over to them to come back. They slunk off and I sent a mental "attaboy" to the keeper.

The best picture I could get of a Howler Monkey.

Digestion completed, we risked one more hazardous circuit of the island's fantastic snorkel site, dodging bloodied fledgling swimmers within the narrow reef access. This time, on the way back in, I politely had to ask a sputtering couple to look where they were going and move out of the way of traffic. When we pulled ourselves up on the pier, I noted a staff member looking back at them, sighing as he pondered a rescue.

The tender back to Mahogany Bay looked like a hospital ship. Several people were nursing injuries from contact with corals within the reef access area. The woman sitting across from me had two messy open lacerations on her knee. Her adult son had a few scarlet scrapes on his ankles. No one was missing from these human chum, so the guidebook noting a scarcity of sharks must be correct. The sufferers had to wait for departure as stragglers continued to trickle in more than 10 minutes after the requested rendezvous time. One couple ambled up beers-in-hand as the crew were preparing to cast off, and a mate shouted at them to hustle. Several people on the boat actually booed, and some really meant it, chief amongst these was Shopping Lady. The late woman said "I still have two minutes according to my Rolex" as she boarded. The injured extended her no sympathy. Shopping Lady riveted her withering stare again, but scorn has no power over the oblivious.

The sheltered bay between Maya Key and the main island gave no indication of the swells beyond the reef.

Now the tender had to hightail it back to port. The front of the boat repeatedly leapt high in the choppy surf, followed by the inevitable slam back down. The parabolic motion resulted in a brief feeling of weightlessness just before each jarring spinal compression. Normally sure of my feet on boats, I kept my seat this time and thought glumly of upcoming visits to my chiropractor, who likely sends Christmas cards to the skipper. We were ending our excursion with a thrill ride. However, those little patches must really work. I kept expecting to see someone get seasick, but we never had that entertainment.

Speed made up time, and we departed the tender at the allotted minute. A mate extended me the tip bucket. I happily took a couple bills out of it and thanked him.

The Liberty pulled out of Mahogany Bay shortly after 3pm. We went out on deck to watch the departure, got a small snack and settled into deck chairs for some serious napping and reading. The spectacular reefs of Roatán, Honduras wreck ships and people, and we needed to recover. As I write, we are cruising the Bay of Honduras towards Grand Cayman, watching Roatán and the Bay Islands fade in the distance.

April 24, 2013