Where can you dive & snorkel the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world?
Where can you sail through a stunning island chain in the Caribbean?
What do the Coral Reef Foundation & the Smithsonian Institute have in common?
Where can you dive and find a hidden cavern lair of Lion Fish?
Where can you snorkel with Whale Sharks?
And find all this in one place? Find the answers below!
Bay Islands Honduras Destinations
The Bay Islands of Honduras are comprised of the three large islands, Roatan, Utila, and Guanaja, three small islands off the east end of Roatan, Barbareta, Morat and St. Helene, and some 65 other small islands and cays, including Cayos Cochinos, a National Marine Park Reserve. Each of these islands has its own unique charm and feel and you could spend many weeks or months soaking in their ambiance.
Roatan and the Bay Islands are blessed with consistent trade winds from the east from January through July that provide excellent sailing conditions. Imagine hoisting the sails and going for an exhilarating Roatan Excursion day sail viewing the island shores and exploring the many anchorages of Roatan, or an often more exhilarating 3 hour sail on a Cayos Cochinos Excursion or 6 hour Guanaja Excursion while on a your way there on a liveaboard charter. The islands are close enough together to be able to sail from one to the next easily in good weather conditions.
As far as diving is concerned, the diving in all of the Bay Islands is amongst the best in the Caribbean and it is different in each of the islands. It also varies depending on the area of each individual island. On Roatan the west & northwest area including the West End and Sandy Bay areas are the most popular, primarily due to the close proximity of resorts and services. The south shore around French Harbor and towards Oak Ridge is less busy and has more dramatic diving. The east end of the island from Port Royal east is the least visited and has the most pristine reefs, however it is very remote, most of it is only accessible by boat and there are few facilities. Guanaja and Cayos Cochinos offer even more variety with unique ecosystems and different topography both above and below the water. This is spectacular diving for travelers that really want to get away from it all.
The reefs here are part of the Mesoamerican barrier reef system which starts in Belize and is the 2nd largest reef in the world after the Australian Great Barrier Reef. The variety of topography will give you a chance to sample caves, tunnels, canyons, towering pinnacles and endless healthy reefs. Visibility is typically 80 feet or more & can be well over 100 feet in summer. The climate is wonderful, water temperatures range from 78F in the coldest months of January & February to 84F in July through September. Air temperatures see highs in the low 80s in winter and in the high 80s to 90F in summer, with August & September being the most humid times of year.
See the tabs below for more details on each of the areas that we can take you to enjoy!
Roatan itself is about 30 miles long and 2 miles wide with a high mountainous ridge running down the centre of the island along with a barrier reef surrounding the entire north shore, most of the east end and some of the south side. The shoreline is indented with deep water inlets (called bights) and you can see an assortment of mangrove bushes, jagged iron shores (the black jagged limestone rock at the shoreline is called iron shore locally and often has fossilized coral embedded in it from the Pleistocene period when water levels were higher), white sandy beaches, huts built on stilts over the water’s edge and naturally a few luxury resorts tossed in for colour.
Roatan is the largest of the island group and the center of the tourist industry, with an international airport located on the island. The island is divided into three main zones: French Harbour & the Southern shore; West End/West Bay; and Eastern End & North Shore.
West End/West Bay
West End is a cool, funky dive village with over 20 dive shops and multiple bars and restaurants. It is the heart of the action for Roatan nightlife and a favourite with the young backpacker crowd, with plenty of hostels and budget accommodations available. The West End village covers your shopping and souvenir needs and at night the village comes alive with the tunes of reggae and the visitors have changed out of their neoprene wet suits into casual attire to enjoy the laid-back ambience and talk about their awesome day.
West Bay is right next door and has the best beaches on Roatan as well as several large all-inclusive luxury resorts. Stroll the white beaches from West End to West Bay, or rent a scooter, motorcycle or car to see the island. This end of the island is also home to many of the most popular tourist attractions, including several zip line tour companies, Carambola Gardens, and Gumbalimba Park just to mention a few.
Right in front of West End and West Bay there is a turtle grass lagoon, outstanding snorkeling over shallow reefs and stunning coral wall diving. This area is the most popular for diving due to the calm waters during the prevailing easterly winds, beautiful and easily accessible reefs, excellent visibility, and generally light currents. There are over 20 dive sites within 15 minutes of the village and anchorage area, all with mooring balls, extending from Pablo’s Place near the western point to Half Moon Bay.
The diving here is gentle and colourful and has the best sites to see turtles; we often see several on one dive. The coral walls drop from around 30 feet deep at the top to about 80 feet at the bottom and then become a gradual sandy slope down to the final drop off starting at 130 feet or more. Since it is on the outside of Roatan, the reefs fall away to several thousand feet of depth and the open Caribbean, so you will sometimes see hammerhead sharks and manta rays cruising by, remember to tear yourself away from looking at the incredible coral walls and turn around and look out every so often, you never know what you might see!
Northwest of West End is another area that extends from Half Moon Bay up to Mud Hole Bay and has over 25 dive sites within 30 minutes or less from West End. The diving here is more about the topography, with coral caves, overhangs, swim throughs, and wrecks. It is the area with the El Aguila and Odyssey wrecks and Hole in the Wall and Spooky Channel. The walls are higher than West End/West Bay and the sandy sloping bottom is much deeper. There is also often more fish life on these reefs and the diving can actually feel quite spooky in the shadows of the overhangs and passageways.
French Harbour and the Southern Shore
French Harbour is located mid-way along the south coast of the island and has a large shrimp and lobster fishing fleet. It is the main fishing port and commercial center of Roatan, yet it has one of the most beautiful and protected harbours on the island, French Cay Harbour.
The harbour is a beautiful lagoon formed by a large bay that is surrounded by several islands and the barrier reef, making it very safe and comfortable. It is very popular with cruising boats and you often see 25 or more sailboats from countries all over the world sharing the anchorage. The intermingling of modern offshore passage-making yachts with local cayucos (canoes) paddled by native fishermen is fascinating to watch and you can often buy or trade for fresh fish or lobster from passing cayucos.
It is close to the mid-island tourist activities and has excellent services and restaurants nearby, although hotel accommodations are limited. After a two minute dinghy ride from Zeppelin you can step ashore and visit the island’s famous Iguana Farm or get a photo with a local monkey on your shoulders at Little French Key day resort. At sunset you can watch the lobsters march across the reef!
French Cay Harbour is in the center of the southern shore, which extends from Coxen Hole to Oak Ridge and is home to some of the most dramatic scuba diving on the island. Cordelia Bank with the Cara a Cara shark dive is off this shore, as are world famous Mary’s Place and the wreck of the Prince Albert, with a wrecked DC-3 airplane only 30 feet away. There are over 20 dive sites with moorings all accessible within 20 minutes or less from the anchorage at French Cay Harbour, in fact there are 10 within 5 minutes of the anchorage.
These sites have big walls that fall to deep depths, covered in both hard and soft coral, many overhangs, swim throughs and chimneys, and lobster, eagle rays, large green morays and big fish are common. The colors and coral formations are breathtaking and you can even find sea horses at many sites if you look carefully. There are often current and bouncy surface conditions due to the winds, but all is calm once you descend. This is challenging diving at many sites but well worth it. At the same time, there are amazing calm, shallow inner reefs for novice divers and snorkelers with stunning coral and fish life.
Eastern End and the Northern Shore
This is the remote part of Roatan and many locals call it the “real” Roatan. Very little development has taken place at this end of the island; there are just a few all-inclusive resorts such as Paya Bay where tourists go to really get away from it all.
The scenery is just stunning, the roads are mostly dirt and often little better than goat tracks where a four wheel drive is a must. If you are looking for seclusion and peace and quiet then this is where to go.
The main community is Oak Ridge, it is the end of the line for the main paved road and after that for many areas such as Port Royal or Calabash Bight the only access is by water. This area is sometimes called the Venice of Roatan due to the network of canals cut through the mangroves to provide access from one community to another by boat, while staying behind the protection of the barrier reef.
This region was the home of many English pirates in the 1600’s and 1700’s and Captain Henry Morgan made Port Royal one of his main bases of operations. The remains of his forts and cannon placements can still be seen today. Jonesville was founded in 1852 and has changed little to this day. It is like going back in time exploring this area and the history is fascinating. This is the undeveloped east end of Roatan, the real Roatan in many locals’ opinion, and has the most beautiful scenery and crystal clear waters on the island. The snorkeling here is amazing and the channels through the mangroves are lovely.
If you are looking for remote, untouched scuba diving away from the crowds this is where to go. There are very few resorts in this area and even fewer dive operators. Many Roatan locals consider Morat Wall and Pigeon Cays to be two of the finest dive sites on the island, and most of this area is only accessible by water. The diving here is spectacularly unspoiled and many professional underwater photographers come here for the pristine conditions. This area has one of the healthiest coral reef systems in the world today and there are still hundreds of dive sites yet to be discovered.
We are thrilled to offer our guests another option for a liveaboard sailing and diving holiday. Come fall in love with this island’s pristine underwater landscape of the coral reefs and abundant fish life, the above water natural beauty of green rolling hills and the nearby white sandy beach cays, along with the warm hospitality of the islanders.
Guanaja (gwah-na-ha) is about 3 miles at its widest by 11 miles long with one of its peaks rising to almost 1,400 feet, it is the most mountainous of the Bay Islands. Most of the island is a biological reserve which has helped maintain its biodiversity and healthy state. Guanaja was discovered by Columbus in 1502 and he came across a significant indigenous population of Paya Indians when he landed.
Guanaja is the furthest island from mainland Honduras and about 35 miles from our base at French Cay Harbour on Roatan. It has very little tourism which gives it a touch of exclusivity, a rare island jewel in the Caribbean that many of us search for. It has also been a destination for wealthier travellers (and movie stars) who like the remoteness and privacy. Having to use a boat for your transportation (shopping, restaurants, etc.) also gives the island a more exotic feel.
Mode of transportation is mostly by boat with one road which used to be the landing strip for the old airport. That road runs from Savannah Bight to Mangrove Bight and when Hurricane Mitch destroyed the area, the government gave the concrete runway to the people to rebuild their homes alongside and a new airport was built by the canal. Transport from one side to the other along the airport road is by motorcycle or tuk-tuks (motorcyles with the covered bench seat behind).
The coral reefs and 45 dive sites of Guanaja make this island a favourite for Zeppelin Dive & Sail. What an underwater showcase!
The reefs here and in Roatan are part of the Mesoamerican barrier reef system which starts in Belize and is the 2nd largest reef in the world after the Australian Great Barrier Reef. The variety of topography will give you a chance to sample caves, tunnels, canyons, towering pinnacles and endless healthy reefs.
The south side has walls that drop off forever just like Roatan, but the reef structure extends much farther out from shore, providing a great choice of dive sites with a huge variety of types.
One amazing site is Jim’s Silver Lode, it has a large cavern swim through (which we have now named the Lionfish Lair) in which we saw at least 20 lionfish hanging out and a 4 foot long nurse shark sleeping, not to mention thousands of silversides. That cavern proved to be a tad challenging, there were so many silversides it turned the dive into a night dive in the middle of the day & we were negotiating the lionfish while shining the light and taking photos in the dark… all while maintaining buoyancy and not getting too close to the lionfish venomous spines to be stung!
Guests often ask us if there are sharks on Roatan. We have been diving around Roatan and Cayos Cochinos for over two years now and haven’t seen any. We know others have but they certainly aren’t common. On Guanaja we have frequently seen nurse sharks, all around 5 – 6 feet in length. We had rarely seen a nurse shark swimming before, as they have always been relaxing in the sand because they are primarily nocturnal, but now we have seen a couple of them swim by and it was spectacular.
The south side of the island has a large natural harbour inside the barrier reef that extends almost the full length of the island, over eight miles long and about one mile wide at its widest. The barrier reef has a series of small cays interspersed along it with beautiful homes & small resorts on them, it looks like the island harbours in the South Pacific.
The northeast end of Guanaja is actually volcanic, making for incredible underwater topography with mazes of tunnels & caverns on sites such as Black Rock & Labyrinth, and it’s all in less than 60 feet of water in that area.
The beauty of diving Guanaja is that you have a choice of which side you would like to dive and if the winds are blowing from the east or south you can dive on the north side, if from the north or west then it’s over to the south side. There is super easy access as Guanaja has a canal that cuts through the island, which is the main highway for small boats going from the north side to the south side of the island. This makes the choices for dive sites stress-free and allows for so much simplicity if the weather is not cooperating. We can get from one side of the island to the farthest away dive site on the other side in 30 minutes or less without ever leaving the protected waters inside the reefs, and the ride is so beautiful we actually did it one day when we weren’t diving just to sightsee!
You pass by the airport and are surrounded by mangrove bushes, thousands of which were planted by volunteers after Hurricane Mitch to assist in bringing back the habitat & prevent erosion, another great example of the community spirit here.
Guests can now easily fly from Roatan to Guanaja in 30 minutes over breathtaking reefs and turquoise waters where they can join Zeppelin Dive & Sail for a week of stunning beauty, solitude and absolutely unspoiled diving conditions. After our time on the island guests have the choice to either sail back to French Harbour aboard Zeppelin or fly back to Roatan’s International airport.
The Guanaja airport is clean & bright with regular flights coming in from La Ceiba & San Pedro Sula. In addition, Lanhsa recently started a new flight direct to & from Roatan on Saturdays. It leaves Guanaja at 9:00 am and takes 30 minutes to Roatan, then returns from Roatan to Guanaja at 3:30. This is timed perfectly to get people to Roatan in time for the flights out on Saturday and to bring visitors to Guanaja that flew into Roatan that day. The flight has been very successful and they are talking about increasing it to three days per week when the tourist season gets going. They will also provide a flight any day that there are four or more people wanting to book. The cost is very reasonable, about $95 one way.
Now you can see why we are so excited to offer our guests the destination of Guanaja… with its incredible fish life, canyons and caves, tunnels swim throughs, enormous coral formations, all extremely healthy and in all shapes, sizes and kinds. Add to that lush jungle landscape as well as mountainous formations which makes for spectacular sightseeing.
C’mon, let’s go diving Guanaja!
Bonacca Town (The Cay)
Bonacca is the capital and the largest settlement (even though it only encompasses about 100 acres), is built on two cays with waterways and bridges connecting everything. Nearly all the homes are two and three stories and built on stilts. The ‘streets’ are about 5 – 6 feet wide cement walkways over small waterways. There is just about everything you might need – farmacia, grocery stores, clothing and hardware stores, dentist, hospital, police station, jail, airline ticket office, port captain, municipal offices, fruit and veggie stands, bars, restaurants, elementary and high school, at least three churches, a small hotel, plus everyone’s home and gardens. It is amazing how much they can pack into this place!
The docks are busy with water taxis, fish/lobster boats and islander boats.
There is an active fishery with a fish packing plant that fills large freezer containers on a ship headed for Miami twice a month. In contrast to many second hand reports we had heard & read, Bonacca is extremely clean, many homes are painted bright yellow, orange, blue or green and in July they decorate the walkways as the annual Conch Festival (along with the crowning of the Conch Festival Queen) takes place at the end of July.
The Cayos Cochinos are a group of 13 small islands and cays 20 miles from Roatan and are only accessible by private boat and water taxi. The islands of Cayos Cochinos Park are so remote feeling, having lush vegetation and primeval hardwood forests this marine reserve is paradise once again. The orchid is Honduras’ national flower and the whole island blooms wildly with them in July & August. The entire archipelago within a 5 mile radius has been declared a biological preserve and is set aside as a National Marine Monument, home to the Coral Reef Foundation.
The Smithsonian Institute has entered into a 100 year agreement with Honduras to help study and preserve the archipelago and the entire park is protected and anchoring and fishing are strictly prohibited in the park waters.
The park is patrolled by land and water by Park Rangers with the assistance of Marines from the Navy base located within the park.
We use the park’s mooring balls at Cochino Grande, the largest of the islands, and from our mooring you can gaze up the hillside 500 feet to the light house while at the same time surrounding your senses with the sweet smell of natural wild flowers and the primeval hardwood forests which cover the island. You can stretch your legs with a climb up to the lighthouse, snorkel the nearby coral reefs, kayak along the shoreline, or join in scuba diving the untouched reef gardens and drop off walls that surround the marine park islands.
Due to the park being a protected area for 20 years and the lack of development the coral reefs are pristine and unspoiled with diving so good you don’t even have to leave the top of the reef to have an amazing dive. You will want to however, because the walls have stunning coral and amazing fish life. This area has an amazing amount of fish as it is the only area where all fishing is prohibited. The only residents other than the Rangers and Navy are in a couple of small Garifuna villages that live with virtually no impact on the ecology of the area.
Diving Cayos Cochinos truly is going back in time to how the Caribbean used to be. If you want your underwater reef photos to look like the ones you see in diving magazines… then this is the place for you!