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 fifty years.
     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 record.
     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 wet."

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