||THE DOC OF THE BAY
James "Doc" Radawski sat at a table in the open-air bar at the Coco
View, a diving lodge nestled at the jungle's edge on the remote Honduran
island of Roatan, and contemplated a bottle of Port Royal. On Roatan, Doc's
home for the previous 20 years, one of two beers can be ordered: brown or
green. Port Royal is the green beer.
"When you start believing your own press," he said, "you're
in trouble." He meant the title of living legend, awarded him by various
travel writers who cover the Caribbean for the scuba diving trade. "However,"
the marine archeologist admitted, "it is, of course, vastly preferable to
being a deceased legend."
It was not an original thought, but one guaranteed to
provoke a spate of chin-nodding among scuba divers. For, every time a diver
descends, he or she risks becoming, if not a deceased legend, a deceased
something-or-other. Doc was a mechanical engineer in California before he
pulled up his roots in 1970 and landed on Roatan. His rustic house, a few
miles from the isolated Coco View inn, sat perched on a coral bluff overlooking
the azure Caribbean, just off the road to Coxen Hole. For the past two decades,
he had explored and documented the shipwrecks in the western Caribbean as
the leader of a marine archaeological project jointly funded by the American
and Honduran governments.
Strewn along the spectacular Roatan reefs he discovered
ten sunken ships. In one, he found forty-two unbroken olive jars. I asked
him to tell me about the olive jars. Doc required little prompting to embark
on a salty tale. "Inside the harbor at Port Royal," he told me, "we found
the ribs of a shipwreck thirty-seven-and-a-half-feet wide and still perfectly
intact. If you can imagine approaching this thing in the still blue water..."
He made a sweeping gesture with his hands, forming the
contours of the hull in the air. "Sitting there in the sand, it looked like
the skeleton of some prehistoric monster. Inside, we found the Spanish jars
packed with olives. There wasn't so much as a crack on a single jar. We sent
a couple to the States for dating."
He interrupted himself to draw a gulp of green beer,
then wiped his snowy whiskers with the back of his hand. "On the following
Monday, the New York Times ran a story about the Port Royal site. It turned
out the olives had been packed in 1200 A.D."
I am no authority on Caribbean shipwrecks, but I know
that 1200 A.D. is nearly three centuries before Christopher Columbus rammed
into San Salvador thinking he had landed in Asia. That would make the sunken
galleon at Port Royal the oldest shipwreck ever excavated in the New World.
What first attracted Doc to the Bay Islands was the
breathtaking splendor of the underwater reef of which the Honduran isles
are merely peaks--second in length only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
The pale green shallows and blue depths of the shimmering lagoons are inhabited
by over fifty species of coral and almost every tropical fish, invertebrate,
and marine mammal known to inhabit the Caribbean. But, though they are best
regarded as playgrounds for adventuresome divers, the Honduran Bay Islands
are a true unspoiled tropical paradise--one of the last on the planet and
perhaps the only legitimate example of that rapidly perishing commodity in
the Caribbean. Only one of the islands, Roatan, has anything at all resembling
"modern" civilization. For instance, it is the only Bay Island with roads.
But none of the isles, including Roatan, have yet discovered telephones;
Honduran islanders communicate by walkie-talkie.
Either by air or by sea, approaching the Bay Islands
is akin to landing on a Tahitian isle frozen in time in the 16th century.
Lush, mountainous contours tower over a perimeter of powdery white sand beaches
densely walled by coconut palms. Here and there, a rocky cliff or outcrop
punctuates the verdant jungle lining the hilly terrain. The horizon is
interrupted by picturesque cays formed by the profuse coral growth where
it rises above the gentle waters. Shielded from the ravaging sea, the coastal
lagoons are still and glassy above the water and, beneath, crowded with exotic
species of fish and coral. Native villages are found only on the coast, tucked
inside protective coves once inhabited by pirate ships.
I arrived on Roatan on Sahsa, the official airline of
Honduras. Upon landing at the rickety airport, we were relieved of our passports
and baggage claim checks by a native girl wearing a traditional dress with
a red and black flower pattern, who ushered us quickly into a waiting VW
minibus. The driver relieved us of certain "service fees" to assure that
our luggage would be unloaded from the airplane.
The sun was beginning to descend as the van pulled out
onto the island's only road. We were treated to a midnight roller-coaster
ride as the driver raced up and down the hills along the freshly paved
thoroughfare in the pitch- black darkness. Around every bend, I imagined
a gang of machine-gun-toting terrorists leaping out of the darkness. In fact,
we did pass numerous gangs of wandering natives shaking their fists or pounding
on the sides of the van as we passed. I later learned they were merely
hitchiking--not, as I had imagined, thirsting for our Yankee-dog hides. Forty
minutes after commending our lives into the hands of the Honduran van driver,
we were deposited onto a wooden bridge on the far side of the island. In
the moonlight, we crept down a ladder onto a waiting barge, to be ferried
across a black lagoon to the Coco View lodge.
The stunningly beautiful Bay Islands are outgrowths of
the world's second largest barrier reef which winds from the north coast
of Venezuela along the Central American peninsula to the northernmost tip
of the Mexican Caribbean. Besides the three main islands of Roatan, Guanaja,
and Utila, the Honduran isles also include some 60 odd islets with exotic
names like Barbareta and Cochinos. Roatan is the largest and most developed
of the Bahias, although, aside from the boat docks, a lobster processing
plant, and a couple of scuba diving resorts, there is little modernization.
The coastal villages and commercial ports are connected along the 36-mile
isle by a tortuous road, which was only recently paved. Not a single tourist
boutique, casino, or high-rise hotel is to be found anywhere on the island.
In fact, there are no markets--only a general store in Coxen Hole near the
primitive airport. In Roatan, one purchases eggs from the Egg Man, fish from
the Fish Lady, and vegetables from the Vegetable Girl--assuming one is fortunate
enough to locate them while their commodities are in stock.
Even less touched by civilization is Roatan's sister
island, Guanaja, where there are no roads at all. Except for two tiny resorts
catering to adventurous devotees of the remote tropics, the only activity
here is the coming and going of the commercial lobster boats to the sole
port, Bonacca Town, where more than half of the island's 1,200 residents
live in over-water huts constructed on poles. All of the Bay Islands are
isolated, both physically and culturally, from the Honduran mainland. Their
people are among the friendliest and most curious in the world, living today
much as they did in the 1500s when Spanish and British sailors first settled
the islands. Like the natives themselves, the Bay Islands have a rich history
of mixed cultures.
Like the Polynesians of the South Pacific, the Bay Islanders
of the Caribbean represent a symphony of genetic influences, which are mirrored
in their diverse features and unusual language. All shades of humanity, from
dark skin to pale, from black hair to blond, from brown eyes to blue, are
intermingled in the population. English and Spanish are spoken with equal
prevalence, with a tinge of Portuguese, Dutch, and Calypso.
In 1985, Albert Jackson, the great great grandson of
Andrew Jackson, who emigrated to Honduras after the Civil War, donated a
derelict Panamanian freighter to be sunk in the channel off the coast of
the Coco View lodge as an artificial reef, to encourage new coral development
and attract marine life. Doc Radwaski oversaw the sinking of the ship, which
was dubbed the Prince Albert. The sunken vessel sits upright in 65 feet of
clear blue water, perhaps the most picturesque "shipwreck" in the Caribbean.
A short snorkel away from the bar at the Coco View, the Prince Albert is
also one of the most explored wrecks in any ocean. Despite having been submerged
less than five years, the ship is already home to a profusion of marine life,
including a large blue and silver Queen Angel sporting an emerald-size oval
marking on its forehead. Sleek yellow-tail snapper, resilient blue tangs,
enormous droopy-lipped grouper, and ferocious- looking but harmless moray
eels also populate the Prince Albert.
While on Roatan, I took a compass navigation test with
Doc, using the Prince Albert as a prop. Finding one's way around underwater
is sometimes befuddling. Often, there are no landmarks or distinguishing
features to serve as references. The sun comes from one direction--overhead--
and, most of the time, the ocean floor looks largely the same. Navigating
by compass is the only sure way to keep from getting lost. When diving off
a boat at sea, it is reasonably important to be able to find one's way back
to the boat. A pelting rain pounded the beach. For my test, I was to dive
to thirty feet and navigate to a buoy situated near the Prince Albert, then,
using only my compass, make my way back to the pier underwater. The incoming
storm had stirred up the sand, reducing visibility underwater to about two
inches-- perfect conditions for macho compass-navigation testing.
Only a fool, of course, would willingly dive in any waters
where nothing can be seen beyond the tip of one's nose. I was not exactly
undaunted, but I was anxious to get the hell out of the water, so I swam
furiously in full scuba gear toward the wreck, holding the compass two inches
from my mask. I barely made out the silhouette of the Prince Albert as I
kicked out over the deck. On I swam, seaching for the buoy line, shivering
in the plunging temperature of the storm-driven sea. After several minutes,
I was out of breath and surfaced, disappointed I had not found the buoy.
To my surprise, the island had shrunk into a tiny sliver on the horizon.
The surge had swept me rapidly from the coast into the open sea, where the
water was rising in twenty-foot swells. Unknown to Doc, me, and everyone
else on the island, the storm that had swept in overnight was the outer fringes
of Hurricane Gilbert, the most devastating natural catastrophe of the previous
My initial reaction on discovering I had been washed
out to sea and was bobbing around in a near-hurricane was to have a heart
attack and die. However, if I did that, I would probably fail the compass
test, and, having come this far, I was not about to blemish my perfect training
The first rule of diving in a life-threatening situation
is to avoid panic. I inflated my bouancy compensator, a vest-like apparatus
that holds air like a life jacket, and floated like a plastic fishing bob
in the swells, catching my breath. I did, in fact, become calm. Regaining
my strength, I dropped down until the current was hardly noticeable, and
then swam back underwater in the storm, staring at the compass the entire
way. I came within five feet of the pier, passing the test with flying colors.
It seems the reason I had missed the buoy was because it had been torn from
its mooring by the waves. It did not escape my attention that the compass
had saved my skin--or at least, the indignity of being plucked from the sea
by a helicopter.
As I lumbered out of the storm-driven sea, Doc looked
at me skeptically. He had been searching for me near the spot where the buoy
should have been. Unable to locate me, he had blown his emergency whistle.
A rescue crew was standing on the dock debating whether or not to plunge
into the cold sea.
"You all right?" Doc asked, as nonchalantly as possible.
"Oh, sure," I replied, as nonchalantly as possible. I
omitted the part about the near-death experience.
"Good thing," one of the reluctant rescuers added, shouting
to be heard over the howling wind. "The last thing I wanted was to get
| Books | Travelog
| Novel in Progress |
Copyright (c) Dennis L. Foster All rights reserved. No portion
of this article may be reproduced, transmitted, transcribed, or stored in
a retrieval system, or translated into any language in any form by any means,
electronic or mechanical, without the written permission of Dennis L.