Problems in paradise

Can the largest barrier reef in the Americas be saved?

People have problems, even in paradise. That’s something my wife and I learned last week when we went to Roatán, the largest of the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras, to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.

Haven’t heard of Roatán? Neither had we until a few months ago, when friends of ours returned from there raving about it. But then we’re not scuba divers. Scuba divers know all about Roatán. It’s one of the best diving sites in the world.

That’s because the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the largest reef in the Caribbean (and the second-largest worldwide after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef), stretches for 25 miles along the north side of the island.

We stayed at Anthony’s Key Resort, a beautiful, well-run facility that has been in operation for more than 40 years (you can see pictures at It’s spread out over two small islands, or keys, Anthony’s Key and Bailey’s Key, just offshore from the main lodge and boat dock. We took a ferry boat to get back and forth from the lodge and dock on Roatán and our cabin on Anthony’s Key and a snorkeling site near Bailey’s Key.

The cabin was on the shoreline, with its deck perched over the water. We lay in hammocks, looking out at the sea, the sunsets and the celestial light show put on by Venus, Jupiter and the new moon as they danced in convergence over the Caribbean.

Although many “Islanders,” as they like to be called, are from mainland Honduras and speak Spanish, English is the main language. That’s because the majority of the population is descended from former slaves on the Cayman Islands, near Jamaica, who after Britain abolished slavery in 1838 migrated to Roatán. They are chiefly of European and British Afro-Caribbean descent. They all speak standard English, but among themselves they speak an English patois that to outsiders is recognizable as a dialect of English but is otherwise incomprehensible.

Tourism is the island’s main industry and source of employment, but its growth also threatens the very thing that draws visitors to Roatán: the reef. Reefs are extremely fragile, and erosion run-off, faulty or nonexistent wastewater treatment and pollution are threatening the marine environment.

We saw firsthand evidence of that on a day trip to the nearby town of West End, which is the tourist, nightlife and diving hub of the island. Sections of the oceanfront road had been torn up to make way for a new sewer system. According to Wikipedia, construction began last August, less then a month before the start of the rainy season. I could see that clay and sediment from the construction site was washing into the ocean and, inevitably, onto the reefs.

Fortunately, dive shops and other local businesses have organized to form the Roatán Marine Park, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the reefs. Whether their educational and advocacy efforts, and others like them, will be sufficient to offset the growth pressures and compensate for governmental incompetence and corruption is, of course, the abiding issue. Nothing less than the largest reef system in the Americas is at stake.

Robert Speer is editor of the CN&R.