Utila Tec Diving Sites – Explore with UDC
Utila is part of the string of islands that lay on the upper level of the Bonacca Ridge, which forms the edge of the Honduran continental shelf and parallels a deep ocean trench, creating an exhilarating section of the Great Western Barrier Reef (second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia).
It was initially in 2001 that a technical diving community started to grow on the island, with the purpose of exploring the deep North side walls of the island and the outer banks that lay between the islands, previously only visited by local fishermen. There is a plethora of sites to satisfy the most inquisitive explorers, from the fringing reefs of Utila’s South side to the deep drop offs and steep walls on the North. Maybe you’d prefer the offshore feeding grounds of the ‘sea mounts’? The dive sites on the North side of Utila are in an area that is a protected marine sanctuary named ‘Turtle Harbor’, on the edges of a great wall that drops thousand and thousands of feet to the continental shelf and bears great similarities to the Cayman Wall. Along this wall coral ledges, cracks in the wall and caverns highlight how the islands were once much higher than sea level until raising ice age waters flooded the Bonacca ridge. Our technical diving team have explored the reefs and outer banks of Utila in order to provide training and certified technical divers with a variety of dive sites to explore.
As you pass the East end of Utila and head towards the North side, you’ll see the landmark of Pumpkin Hill to your left. Then you’re soon approaching the site of ‘Whale Rock’. This dive site is a peninsular that extends from the fringing reef of Pumpkin Hill, and when viewed from the seaward side resembles the head of a whale. There is even a swim through at 150ft/46mt where the eyes of the Whale ‘appear’. Directly above the eyes at 130ft/40mt, is the whale’s ‘blow hole’. The sea bed lies at 170ft/51mt and further dives are underway to explore the deeper regions of the site. An ideal profile at this site involves 20 minutes on the bottom navigating the rock, then heading in shore upon ascent to be surrounded by barracudas, jacks and curious grunts whilst surveying the colorful reef on deco time.
Pumpkin Hill Bank;
Approximately 3km off the North side of Utila, out from Pumpkin Hill, you could be forgiven for assuming there wouldn’t be anything of much interest for a diver. Well, like most assumptions, you’d be wrong! 100ft/30mt below sea level sits the surface of one of the most colorful and strenuous dive sites of Utila, the Pumpkin Hill inner bank. Previously, this site was only frequented by local fishermen due to the richness and variety of aquatic life that feeds on this mound. However, since we obtained the GPS co-ordinates we have discovered this site is not for the faint hearted. Strong currents exist here, and on the West side of the mount there is a down current that flows down the deeper sides of the bank. Definitely expect to make every decompression stop in the blue as a drift hang. The rewards of this dive are worth the challenge, though – you’ll spend most of the dive at 160ft/49mt, surrounded by groupers in excess of 20-30lbs and schools of horse-eye jacks!
On the North side of Utila, as you pass the Pumpkin Hill landmark, heading westwards there lies a deep bank that rises off the seabed and runs parallel to the shoreline, home to large schools of groupers, hogfish and dog snappers. This dive site originally got its name from local fishermen who would use the bank to set anchor and then drift their fishing boats over the deeper trenches on each side of the bank to look for their catches. The top of the bank is at 100ft/30mt, and on either side of the bank you can reach depths up to 180ft/55mt. Unless using a CCR, you’ll find that turn pressure is usually called before fully exploring this bank, warranting multiple visits. As strong currents heading outwards to open sea can exist in this area and decompression will normally be completed in the blue with surface boat support following. Extensive logistical planning and co-ordination need to go into planning and executing this dive, requiring more experienced technical diving beyond certification.
On the North side of Utila, in the protected marine sanctuary of Turtle Harbor, there are a spectacular formation of walls and canyons. From the reef shelf that starts at 15ft, a wide canyon leads from the maze-like sand channels in 20-45 feet (6-12 meters) to a spectacular wall dropping sharply to 200 feet (200 meters) to the west and east. To the west of the mooring at 80 feet (24 meters), look for a large cavern (Willy’s Hole) full of glassy sweepers. In the shallows below the mooring Bermuda chub, sergeant major, and brilliant juveniles flourish. There is a lot of underwater terrain including pinnacles, large coral heads, elk horn coral, star corals, sea fans, rope sponges, tube worms and lots of fish. Flounder, rays, Goliath groupers and conch are readily seen. At 150ft there is a swimthrough in the reef that extends to 180ft, at times so narrow that divers on accelerated decompression schedules using stage bottles are required to leave their stages outside the winding passageway.
The Great Wall;
The name of this dive site says it all. You’ll find that the westernmost site of Turtle Harbor on Utila;s North side offers an abyssal-like wall which reaches depths up to 3000ft/900mt deep on this incredible fringing reef. At the mooring, the diver is faced with a free fall experience as your descent brings you as close to the continental shelf as you dare go. The top of this wall is at a depth of 15ft/5mt and there are contours and ravines from when sea level was much lower during the ice age. On the face of the wall, giant barrel sponges protrude as the wall snakes in and out. A glance into the blue reveals sedate loggerhead and hawksbill turtles, a shadow above reveals the majesty of a manta ray. Eerie terraces of sheet coral offer scarce protection for lobster shrimp and king crab. As you continue along the wall, a slow descent allows shafts of sunlight to glimmer over creole wrasse, spadefish and bar jacks. As you ascend over the wall lip, stunning pillar corals make way to canyons hiding tarpon and grouper, the perfect way to while away long deco hangs. The sheer variety of color, texture and movement allow an awe-inspiring end to the dive.
On the South side of Utila is a sea mound once a favored local fishing ground. It doesn’t take long upon descent before you realize why. This dive site rewards the nature-loving diver with a spectacle unmatched in the Bay Islands. Black Hills is a seamount rising up to within 35 feet of the surface. As you descend over the oval-shaped mount, thousands of blue and yellowtail juvenile wrasse wait impatiently to clean the sites’ larger characters. Gray, French and Queen Angelfish abound, darting boldly through a garden of sea fans, whips and gorgonians. As you continue your descent, the north and south sides of the mount tempt the deep and technical diver with sharp drop offs between 130 and 200 feet (40 to 60 meters). The east and west ends of Black Hills offer a more sedate slope, opening up to terraces of sheet coral interspersed with giant tube vase and barrel sponge. Upwellings bring colder plankton-rich waters, attracting huge schools of horse eye jacks, yellowtail snappers, spadefish and creole wrasse with a barracuda patrol searching for the unwary. Easily circum-navigated, Black Hills offers everything from hawksbill turtles to sea horses. The photographer’s trigger finger is sure to be sore after this unusual feast, and a second visit is a must.
This dramatic, bottomless wall hosts huge barrel sponges and grouper, schooling yellow tail snapper and Creole wrasse. A sand patch below the boat at 50 feet (15 meters) parallels the wall and opens up to the dropoff to the west. Or swim up over the ridge at 40 feet (12 meters) to look down into the big blue. As you descend down this wall, you’ll encounter a sloping drop off at 210ft which makes an awe inspiring dive. The best direction to head is westwards, in the direction of Turtle Harbor, where you’ll pass majestic spurs and grooves in the wall and massive banks of reef system. To the North, you’ll be enchanted by the deep blue and amazed to see a plateau resembling a coffee table sitting on the sloping drop off. A 20 minute dive westwards from the mooring buoy, you’ll approach a cavern at 230ft underneath a giant overhang in the wall. This site is suitable for deep air dives to a maximum of 165 ft, but the real beauty and enchantment of Duppy Waters lays in the advanced trimix range of 200-250ft.
On the furthest Southwest point of Utila are an archipelago of small cayes that are home to a local fishing community and are the juncture between Utila’s South side and the Continental shelf that runs from the Caymans down to the North side of Utila. Raggedy Caye, an uninhabited small desert isle, sits at the top of a fringing reef wall that runs alongside the edge of a vast drop off into the continental shelf and is often a feeding ground for the whalesharks and manta rays that visit this area. Whilst we can never give a guarantee of sighting these seasonal creatures, we can guarantee a spectacular descent along a sloping wall to a ledge at 150ft/50 meters, and then another spectacular drop off into the abyss, long nicknamed ‘The Cinema’ by Utila’s recreational community after the narcotic-induced stares it creates in divers. Visibility is often remarkable in the 60ft/18mt to 100ft/30mt range and as divers follow the wall over the abyss, the topography appears eerie and dramatic. A cold upwelling often attracts pelagic aquatic life sightings.
Not all of Utila’s best dive sites are on the North side of the island. In fact, one of the most beautiful reef systems on Utila’s Southside is home to the dive site of Rocky Point, which provides a deep descent and relaxing drift dive along this deep fringing reef. Just a 20 minute boat ride from the dive centre, the boat moors along the furthest dive buoy on the East side of Utila, 30ft/10mt on top of the reef shelf. A short surface swim takes you above the drop off, where you will follow a gradual descent to a ledge at 100ft/30mt depth. Another short swim southwards and you’ll follow the 2nd drop off down to the depth range of 160ft/50mt to 185ft/55mt. Then you can either head Eastwards or Westwards, depending on the profile you plan. There are overhangs, ledges, mounds and small caves in this section of reef often frequented by eagle rays. When the time comes to turn the dive, then decompression can be completed whilst drifting along the reef. The underwater terrain in the shallow portion of this reef wall consists of pinnacles, large coral heads, elk horn coral, star corals, sea fans, rope sponges, tube worms, crustaceans and lots of fish, and you can pass the time observing a variety of sergeant majors, flounder, rays, and groupers.
PADI Tec Deep course on air to 165 feet/50 meters