New Year’s Eve and dreaming of whale sharks on Utila

We had an easy downwind sail from Roatan to Utila. The flat island was not visible until the last few miles and we kept scanning the horizon expecting to at least see Pumpkin Hill, the only elevation there is. We approached the barrier reef and spotted dive boats bobbing in the waves, patiently waiting for their divers to climb back onboard. Utila is a small town with lots of dive shops. We were told it is the cheapest and therefore popular place in this part of the world to get scuba certified, recreationally and professionally. Hence, lots of young people, especially backpackers are drawn to the smallest of the Bay Islands.

Sailing from Roatan to Utila

We made sure our anchor was set properly and threw out extra chain in the gusty winds and bad holding ground (so we heard), before we took the dinghy to shore and walked around town to see where we have landed this time. Narrow streets wind between the colorful and busy houses in Utila town. When we arrived we had to walk in one line squeezed against the walls to avoid being honked at or hit by tuk tuks, scooters and motorcycles. It wasn’t unusual to see a whole family of three generations sitting on one bike. Many locals and tourists were roaming the streets, talking to each other, shopping, running errands or selling stuff. It was busy but welcoming and we immediately enjoyed the island‘s flair.

At the ferry dock and a new bunch of backpackers was shoved on the island, heaving their heavy packs onto their backs, eager to go diving, but first to find their accommodations for the night. Luckily that’s nothing we needed to be concerned about as our home was floating right in front of the town’s lit-up waterfront. Thanks to the large amount of young people many interesting bars and restaurants contribute to a lively nightlife. ‘What a perfect place to celebrate New Year‘s‘, we thought.

The next day we wanted to see more of the island and move our legs a bit. The trail to Pumpkin Hill, mostly along dirt roads, only gains 73m of elevation to the top of the inactive volcano. The midday sun burnt down on the dry dirt below our dusty feet and we appreciated the shade of beautiful old trees and lush vegetation along the way. At the top of the old volcano we had good views all around. Mostly we were amazed by the large leaf-cutter ant colonies at work and watched the tiny animals systematically dismember the helpless tree.

Since most people come here for diving, we didn’t want to miss out. On the last day of year 2021, we drove our dinghy to Moon Hole, a shallow reef dive around a large sandy patch. The limited depth gave us lots of time to look and observe small marine life, some species that we’ve never seen before. Overall, however, we found this part of the reef to have much less fish, sponges and coral compared to Roatan. Indeed Utila is not known for more fish but for one giant of the ocean specifically.

Supposedly it’s possible to watch whale sharks that come to this region twice a year, but it is very rare to spot one in the deep blue when diving. We always kept a lookout from the boat when we were sailing. Playful pods of dolphins chased alongside Porky in the waves but no whale shark was seen. And the dream to see these filter feeding fish, which grow to the same size as Porky, elegantly swim by remains a dream of ours.

For New Year’s Eve we spontaneously got a table at El Castillo, which is known as the best restaurant on the island. And they definitely did live up to the expectations. The European specialties on the menu took us by surprise until we met the sympathetic Austrian/Utilan couple who run the restaurant.

New Year’s at El Castillo restaurant

As we are used to adapt our sleep to the natural rhythm of the sun we all started to feel tired after sunset. With more than five hours left till midnight, all three of us knew we would not be able to stay awake. So we decided to take a nap on the boat, set an alarm and go back ashore to join the party and watch the fireworks. We did manage to wake up in time, but on the way to shore the dinghy engine failed. We were lucky that we could still row back without being drifted too far downwind. Things tend to break in the worst moments, that’s how it is on a boat. Happy that we made it safely back to the boat and didn’t drift helplessly on the dinghy while everyone else popped bottles of champagne to celebrate the new year, we changed plans and celebrated with the remaining cold beers onboard and a beautiful 360° free firework show from our cockpit.

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