Le roi des récifs

Article initialement publié sur l’ARN Messager, journal des étudiants en biologie de l’Universié de Montréal. Basé sur l”article de 2013, “Spearing Lionfish”.

Le genre Pterois – ou plus communément le poisson lion – mérite bien son titre. Avec sa large crinière et son attitude impérieuse, il règne en souverain dans la plupart des récifs de coraux des Caraïbes et s’est affairé dernièrement à étendre son empire le long de la côte est américaine. Sa venue en a détrôné plus d’un au rang du plus beau pisciforme; poissons anges, coffres et clowns ont été relégués au rang de simples courtisans. Pour la plupart des plongeurs, il sera invariablement le clou du spectacle. Une photo vaut mille mots; vous n’avez pas vu beaucoup de spécimens plus élégants. Après une plongée, la beauté du poisson lion aura certainement tapé dans l’œil de la majorité des participants. Cependant, peu d’entre eux seront au courant de l’ampleur des ravages que ce magnifique poisson cause aux récifs de la région.

Un Pterois volitrans dans toute sa splendeurUn Pterois volitans dans toute sa splendeur (Laszlo Ilyes, Wikimedia Commons, 2010)

Un intrus

Les conquérants ont rarement été invités et le poisson lion n’y fait pas exception. Originaire des eaux des océans Pacifique Ouest et Indien, personne ne sait vraiment comment il s’est rendu jusqu’aux Amériques. Avec son habit d’apparat, sa majesté n’a certainement pas traversé le vaste Pacifique par lui-même. Peut-être était-ce à bord des ballasts d’un navire de fort tonnage? Plausible mais peu probable. Une théorie qui a prévalu longtemps voulait que des poissons lion captifs se soient échappés d’un aquarium de Floride brisé lors de l’ouragan Andrew de 1992. Pour autant que l’on sache, l’origine de leur venue est encore inconnue, car bien avant les ravages d’Andrew, le roi du récif avait déjà été aperçu le long de la côte floridienne. Étant des poissons assez prisés des aquaristes, la thèse qu’ils aient été relâchés intentionnellement ou par erreur par un propriétaire a récemment refait surface.

 

Un destructeur

Qu’importe, le mal est fait. Les poissons lions sont désormais légion et causent des ravages sans précédent dans tous les écosystèmes qu’ils fréquentent. Dotés d’un appétit sans précédent, ils dévorent les autres poissons des récifs sans demander leur reste. Ils ont beau traîner tout cet attirail derrière eux, ils sont néanmoins capables de formidables impulsions pour capturer leur proie. Le récif n’est pour eux qu’un simple buffet. Leur nageoires sont hérissées de dards vénéneux, alors gare à vous si vous vous y frottez. On a comparé leur piqûre à celle de se faire fermer une portière de voiture à pleine vitesse sur les doigts. Résultat : votre main enflera jusqu’à l’épaule et vous vous retrouverez agonisant de douleur dans le fond du bateau. Vos vacances? Invariablement gâchées pour quelques jours, car il n’existe aucun antidote. Pour un plus petit habitant du récif qui serait tenté de goûter au roi, c’est une mort certaine qui l’attendra au détour.

Le poisson lion n’a donc pas de prédateur naturel dans les Amériques. Les requins sont apparemment immunisés à leur poison, mais ayant malheureusement été virtuellement éliminés de la région, on ne peut pas vraiment compter sur eux pour endiguer la propagation de cette espèce invasive. On a recensé des Pterois dans le ventre de mérous, mais encore là, leur faible densité fait d’eux une piètre option. Le lion règne donc en roi partout où il s’installe. Là où il est activement chassé, on le retrouve généralement tapis dans les crevasses. Ailleurs il déambule en plein jour comme si  rien n’était, comme le témoigne cette vidéo, où un plongeur en harponne pas moins de 200 sur un seul site.

Un délice

La seule espèce capable de contrer la progression de l’envahisseur, c’est un Homo sapiens palmé armé d’un harpon. Encore une fois donc, il incombe à l’homme de réparer les torts qu’il a causé à la nature, sauf que là heureusement, le poisson lion est délicieux. Dans un burger ou en ceviche, la mort rétracte son venin à l’intérieur de ses épines et pour autant que l’on soit muni d’un bon couteau, il est relativement facile de le fileter.

Chasser le poisson lion est une autre paire de manches par contre. Complètement indifférent face à la menace d’un trident à deux pouces de sa tête, il ne fait pas une redoutable proie. Le problème, c’est qu’un faux mouvement pourrait se solder par une piqûre, car la direction de ses bonds est somme toute imprévisible. Plus c’est beau et coloré, plus c’est toxique. En langage technique, c’est de l’aposématisme, une manière qu’a l’animal d’avertir ses prédateurs qu’ils devraient passer leur chemin.

Sur l’île d’Utila au Honduras,  le centre de plongée dans lequel je suivais une formation, envoyait sporadiquement ses  maîtres plongeurs à la chasse, à la fois pour contrôler l’expansion de l’espèce, mais aussi pour alimenter ses cuisines de chair fraîche pour le fameux « save the reef » burger. Dans les récifs encerclant l’île, les efforts de contrôle étaient assez efficaces, puisque apercevoir un Pterois était somme toute peu fréquent. Loin des sites de plongée par contre, on le retrouvait en grand nombre. C’est donc là que nous allions chasser, dans les collines marines qui bordaient la périphérie extérieure de l’île. Le stress, l’effort et la profondeur demandaient  des habilitées de plongée supérieures à la moyenne pour éviter les accidents de décompression, mais le défi principal résidait dans le fait que nous n’étions autorisés à nous servir que d’un harpon – erronément appelé sling hawaiienne – d’une longueur maximale de deux pieds, ce qui exigeait que nous approchions nos mains nues dangereusement proche de notre proie.

La sling hawaiienne est un petit trident auquel est attaché à son extrémité un élastique chirurgical. L’élastique est enfilé autour du pouce et il est bandé jusqu’à ce que la main puisse agripper la base du trident. Lorsque la poigne est relâchée, le trident est projeté vers l’avant par la force de l’élastique avec suffisamment de force pour transpercer un poisson de taille moyenne. Dans nombre de vidéos incluant celui ci-haut, les plongeurs sont munis d’une sling avec un long manche, ce qui établit plus de distance entre eux et leur proie et leur permet l’utilisation d’un plus long élastique pour une puissance accrue. En vertu des règlements en place pour limiter la pêche sur l’île d’Utila, nous étions limités à un harpon de deux pieds et des mains sans protection, le port de gants étant lui aussi interdit.

Le stockage du poisson lion harponné présente lui aussi un défi. Il n’est pas possible de se servir d’un simple sac de maille tissée, car ses dards pointus présentent encore un danger pour quelques temps après le décès. Il existe des contenants adaptés, mais pas de Fedex ni d’UPS sur l’île, alors nous devions faire avec les moyens du bord, soit des tuyaux de PVC bouchés aux deux extrémités. Pendant qu’un plongeur s’occupait du harponnage, son compagnon devait tenir le réceptacle en prenant garde de ne pas toucher ses embouts troués.

Une fois à bon port avec les prises de la journée, tous les spécimens étaient mesurés pour fin de statistiques et ensuite filetés pour le ceviche du soir. Les abats, eux, étaient répandus dans les alentours en espérant qu’il vienne à un prédateur plus adapté qu’un humain à la vie aquatique l’aspiration de détrôner le poisson lion comme roi du récif.

En conclusion

Que les premiers spécimens soient arrivés par bateau ou relâchés par un propriétaire d’aquarium qui voulait leur donner une seconde chance plutôt que de les tuer, ce n’est qu’une triste conséquence d’un manque de jugement de notre part. Il n’y a pas eu malice ou de grossière négligence de la part de personne. Je ne sais pas si globalement, les efforts pour endiguer la progression de l’espèce portent fruit. Localement par contre, sur plusieurs îles que j’ai fréquenté, la communauté des plongeurs et les habitants se sont mobilisés pour contrer l’envahisseur, car vivant de pêche de subsistance ou de l’éco-tourisme, leur source de revenus ou nourriture en dépend. Il s’organise des « lion fish derby », où tous se rassemblent un après-midi pour aller chasser sur les récifs. L’évolution des populations est suivie par des biologistes et les autorités locales et lors de plongées avec des clients, nous apportions souvent notre équipement de chasse au cas où nous rencontrerions un Pterois. Bien que faisant face à d’autres menaces, les récifs autour de ces îles s’étaient généralement affranchis de celle du poisson lion, grâce aux efforts concertés des différentes parties prenantes. Ailleurs par contre, l’ampleur des dégâts est difficile à juger. Cela peut sembler paradoxal, mais désormais, la santé de ces écosystèmes fragiles dépend en grande partie de celui qui les a mis en danger en premier lieu: l’homme.


Références

Honduras – Utila (tec diving)

My time on Utila was split in two chapters. Chapter one, spent with my cousins, was obviously about diving, but also about (responsible) debauchery and good family fun. Chapter two however, was to be about the slightly more serious sport of tec diving. Tec diving is diving beyond recreational limits. Within those limits, should whatever happen, you can always come up to the surface with very little risks of developing decompression illness (DCI). In tec diving, if something goes wrong down there, coming up to the surface is often not an option and if it is, DCI is to be expected. In short, a screw up can very likely either kill you or send you directly to the hyperbaric chamber ($$$$).ready to tec dive

Well, I’m making this sound like risky business and it is, but while it will never be as harmless as recreational diving – and the tec diving manual really insists on that fact – it can be made pretty safe with good training, experience and equipment. I’m saying this in retrospect, everyone you meet (that is not a tec diver) and everything you read make the sport look like pure madness but in reality it’s nowhere as bad as it sounds and just like any other extreme sport, most casualties arise from human stupidity (not errors: careless risk-taking). It’s like skydiving in a way (albeit a lot more complex), where the gear and the procedures have been optimized to the maximum and very rarely become a failure point in chain of events leading to accidents. But just as in skydiving, error chains are short; few mistakes can get you killed whereas in recreational diving, you’d have to get a lot of things wrong before you become a casualty. Understandably, equipment and procedures in tec diving are much more complicated than in recreational diving. Since surfacing is not an option, everything is redundant (you even have a second mask). In order to make the dive feasible, you also carry multiple gas mixes (typically air, pure oxygen and enriched air) so that’s two other tanks strapped to your sides on top of the two you already have on your back. All in all a lot of equipment and a lot of room for mistakes as switching to the wrong gas at the wrong depth could lead to convulsing underwater and drowning. Planning and preparing the dive is also an integral part of tec diving. Where in normal diving you generally just don you kit and go under, in tec diving the planning part is generally just as long if not more than the actual dive itself. You have to plan you decompression stops on your way up (3 minutes at 24m … 6 minutes at 9m … 15 minutes at 5m, etc.) and you also have to plan for contingencies such as going too deep, staying too long, loosing decompression gases and so on. Last consideration but not the least, it’s very expensive. The course itself was 1400$US for 9 days of training and single tec dives generally hover around double what two recreational dive will cost you, making an already very expensive hobby even more costly.

So, why taking up tec diving if it’s more dangerous, more expensive more complicated and overall less enjoyable than recreational diving? There are a couple of reasons. First, the thrill of knowing that I’m 50 meters deep, that coming up to the surfaces would injure or kill me, but that I’m kept safe by equipment, training and experience and that whatever happens I’ll be ready and capable of handling it. Very intellectual I know…  Second, it has made me a much better diver overall giving me in depth (pun-intended) knowledge of what happens and what’s involved when you go beyond the no decompression limit. Third, it’s a challenge. Not that I have a lot of experience in diving in general, but I’ve done enough of it so that going underwater on a normal dive, while fun, isn’t such a thrill anymore. Fourth, it give you access to dive sites that are normally out of bound for recreational divers. Since you can go deeper and stay there for a longer time, there’s more you can explore.

On a training dive

On a training dive

Those are the reasons why I enrolled myself in a 9 days tec diving course with UDC on Utila. I should also add that I did not foresee any other time where I could do it in the coming years. I was traveling alone, had plenty of time, was on Utila (where the diving it cheap and good) and without my girlfriend, who incidentally is not into diving. Even if it will very likely be another couple of years before I get to go tec diving again, the conditions where too good for me to skip on the opportunity. I had a couple of days in between the beginning of the course and my cousins leaving, which I spent diving with the crew at BICD. When the course started however, the better part of my days were spent over at UDC. The program was divided into three parts TEC40, TEC45 and TEC50  which you guessed were the depth limits the course would certify you to but there were also other restrictions. I had to go through a 300 pages manual before showing up for actual instruction so there was a lot of theory review before we even went in the water and when we got wet, the first couple of dives where done shallow to practice special procedures and emergency drills. It was only the last dives of each part that were decompression dives.

At 45m

At 45m

Posing with my instructorTEC40 involved a dive at 40 meters but decompression could not be longer than 10 minutes and we were not allowed to carry gas blends of over 50% oxygen and also not allow to use them for accelerated decompression. TEC45 removed those limits and down we went to 45m with 50% and 100% oxygen (on top of the two air tanks on our backs) to make decompression faster. TEC50 took us (me and my instructor) to 50 meters with again 50% and 100% oxygen strapped to our sides. As mentioned earlier, the oxygen tanks are there to make decompression (coming up from the dive) faster but in our planning, we carry enough air on our primary tanks to complete the full dive plus the decompression on that gas only. To give you an idea, a 22 minutes dive at 50 meters requires about 40 minutes of decompression and ascent using pure oxygen and 50%. On air only, you’d be doubling that time and spending two hours underwater. I’m aware that not many people will share my excitment, but trust me, it was thrilling. I was alone with Scott, my instructor for the whole duration of the formation. He event showed how to do gas blending. It’s like I had to relearn diving all over again; every dive was a blast.

Scott in the front of the bow of the Odyssey

Scott in the front of the bow of the Odyssey

On top of the dives mandated by the tec diving course itself, I ended up doing three other tec dives. The first two were done on a day trip (an hour and half west of Utila) to the wrecks of Roatán and the third one I’ll get to later. Roatán is the largest of the Bay Islands and the more visited one. It has resorts, fancy hotels and is geared toward more conventional tourism while Utila caters to the backpackers both in budget and vibe. The diving, while good in Utila, is generally regarded as being better on Roatán, with larger and more abundant wildlife. Wrecks follow the same pattern. Utila has the Haliburton, a 100 feet freighter stripped and sunk to 30 meters to provide a playground for divers but Roatán has the Aguila and the Odyssey, which are slightly deeper (35 meters) and much larger ships. Visiting those two wrecks is entirely feasible in recreational diving configurations and that’s what the vast majority of people do but contrary to the Haliburton on Utila, you get to enjoy them a lot more if you are tec diving. Where other divers could only spend about 5 minutes at the bottom, Scott, Jake and I got to tour around for a good 25 minutes. On the Aguila, we even went inside the superstructure, spent a bit of time visiting the engine room and them made our way up the next floor before exiting though a door. Being around wrecks underwater, already an eerie feeling, gets even better once you get inside them. The lighting, the atmosphere, the marine life, the fact that you brain thinks your horizontal but your not since the wreck is not sitting upright all make for an out of this world experience. The two dives only took us to 35 meters, but since we spent so much time, it took us about 40 minutes to come back up. Once we were done with the diving, the boat docked to the island, we all went for a meal at a restaurant and on the way back to Utila, got into drinking games on the boats.

Posing in front of the Aguila

Posing in front of the Aguila

At Dr. John's

At Dr. John’s

That night was Pancho’s going away party so I sobered up for two hours before going at it again with the BICD bunch. I went to bet a 4h30 am. Having woken up at 5 am to go to Roatán, I had almost made it round the clock. Tiring but worth it. While with my cousins, I had a more difficult time finding a connection with the people at BICD but once they were gone, the onus was entirely on me to get out there and be sociable so quickly I befriended most of them and got into the gang. The same scenario had occurred when I had visited Utila in 2013, where I had landed among people who had already been together for a couple of weeks. For the first few days, I felt sort of outcast but pretty soon (after a couple of drunken sessions) I was granted a place in the family. Relationship you have with other travelers tend to be short-lived and sort of disposable, but there on that island you spend enough time together to start building meaningful connections. One that I’ll commit to writing is with Jennifer, an English girl I ended up doing a lot of diving with to a point where she would call me her favorite dive buddy. Another one is with Jennah and Blake, an Australian-American couple with whom I had loads of fun.

The day before my departure was spent doing the very last dive of the TEC 50 course in the morning and planning tomorrow’s tec dive with Bob at BICD. There were only two certified tec divers divers at BICD, Nick and Bob and some brand new equipment for a course that they were supposed to set up. Nick, being the course director, was busy with teaching but Bob was more than willing to go on a tec dive. We spent the better part of the afternoon putting together our rigs, doing gas planning an filling bottles. When evening came, I went out for a couple drinks and got to bed quite early for a last night on the island, but I wanted to be in shape. In the morning, the weather was favorable so we made it to the North side. Bob and I were in the water quickly and thankfully got down without any problem. Thankfully I had to specify because there I was breaking an important rule of tec diving, which is not to do a tec dive in equipment you are not familiar with: you try it in shallow water first. The gear was brand new and top notch and the descent was fine, but as soon as we hit 50m, I got into a bit of trouble with my attitude as the wings were too large and air would shift to one side when leaning which made staying horizontal a pain. Restricting my movements did the trick, but it’s certainly something I should have figured out on a shallower dive.

I was not the only one breaking rules that day though. On reaching the edge of the wall during descent, I could see streams of bubbles coming up from divers who were already down there, which I thought was odd because I was certain we had gotten under first and there were no other boats in the vicinity. A few minutes later, while we were at 50m, I spotted a string of dead lionfish below us. Passed the corner, I signaled to Bob that there were to other divers in the distance at around 65m. On closer inspections, I noticed they were only wearing standard scuba equipment. They were on their way up and kicking frantically to get away from us and reach shallower depths as soon as possible. Later on on the boat, Bob confessed to me that it was two other instructors that had sneaked on a dive by themselves to go spear some lionfish, which in and of itself is glamorous thing to do but certainly not worth putting your life in danger over. At 65m, you only get a couple of minutes of no decompression time and that’s if you get catapulted there. Realistically, there is no way to reach that depth and come back up maintaining a safe ascent rate on no deco limits so they certainly had to do a bit of decompression on the way up, which is bad and strictly forbidden in recreational diving. Still, a good diver will certainly manage that on a single tank, but what’s worse is that at 65m on air, you are under sever nitrogen narcosis, air is toxic at this depth and can trigger convulsions with no warning but the one thing that puts you mostly at risk is equipment failure, which at 65m, will likely get you killed. That’s why in tec diving, we dive with full redundancy and large gas reserves. With none of those safeguards and backups, the slightest malfunction may very well end up being fatal for you and your buddy (who will most likely try to assist and get in trouble as well). A regulator free flow at this depth will empty your bottle in two minutes, that’s not nearly enough time to do decompression reach the surface. I knew they could loose their jobs over this so I kept quiet as they were only endangering themselves.

Back to Bob and I’s dive. At the planned time, we started ascent, did all our decompression stops by the book (or the tables should I say). Since the reef was deep on the site, we at to do the 5m stop (the longest) hovering in mid water, which made it quite a bit harder (and boring) since we could only use our gauges for reference. After an elapsed time of more than 70 minutes we emerged. Both happy and (mentally) tired, we fist bumped for a dive well done and climbed back on the boat where the rest of the normal divers had been waiting for us. They could go do another dive but since it’s advised to leave 2 hours between tec dives, we had to sit the next one out, which I took as an opportunity to take a nap. Back on shore, Bob kindly offered to take care of the equipment so I bid farewell to everyone, scrambled to my room to pack my things, went for some last baleadas and got on the ferry.

At 50m

At 50m

Leaving Utila was again sort of heartbreaking. However, I was eager to come back home, start school, see my girlfriend and get back to life as normal. On the ferry, I met up with Eoin, whom I had met at UDC some days earlier and we tagged along all the way to San Pedro Sula and the next morning shared a ride to the airport. My flight back to Montreal made me connect through Atlanta for a good 12 hours and then New-York. With an open traveler’s mind, I took it as an opportunity to do a bit more tourism and got out of the airport and caught a train downtown to check out the city. Atlanta did no seem like much though I had a bit of fun walking among the hordes of disguised people that invaded the downtown core after DragonCon. Later after my walk, I settled at a bar for a couple of drinks and sparked incomprehension when I told the bar tenders I was from Canada. “Why would you come to Atlanta?” they asked me and on arriving back the airport around 3am and reminiscing through my evening that’s exactly what I thought: there did not seem to be much to this city. To be fair, I won’t make a proper opinion until I get to spend a couple days there and properly experience it, but my first impressions were leaning rather towards the negative side.

Atlanta's downtown

Not wanting to end on that note though, I will recapitulate the objectives of this five week trip in Central-America, which were to see a bit of El Salvador, mainland Honduras, binge dive and do my tec diving course. By that metric, this vacation was a resounding success, with my favorite parts being El Salvador and obviously the technical diving. As for the rest, I think I’m getting too much used to backpacking around and have gotten too accustomed to the feeling and the highs it’s supposed to provide. Consequently, I think I’ll make the next adventure more adventure/goal oriented (read motorcycle) and/or travel more exotic routes. One thing that did struck me however was how mentally rested I was went I landed back in Montreal. During the last five weeks, I had completely disconnected from my life here and it even went to a point where I was eagerly counting the days until my flight back.

Such emptiness... being in airports at night is spooky!

Such emptiness… being in airports at night is spooky!

Honduras – Utila (the cousins)

A view of Utila

Meeting two cousins and going to Utila for a week, that’s recipe for good adult fun. I met Philippe in San Pedro Sula at the hostel around 21h00 and there we had a beer and did a bit of catching up. Both hungry, we took a cab to a restaurant that was open late (no walking at night in Honduras, remember?) and ordered the most typical food we could find in a menu that mainly consisted of burgers and wings. Even before my cousin arrived, I had a weird feeling in my stomach but did not think much of it. At the restaurant though, I could not finish my plate and sort of pressed him to go back to the hostel as I could feel my general sense of well-being starting to deteriorate.

An hour after getting in bed, I was woken up by nausea and stomach aches of the type you get when you’ve had too much to drink. That plus a fever, a bit of delirium and lots of shivering. That was it I thought, I’d be sick as a dog for the coming week while my cousins were here, what a stroke of luck. After turning and tossing for a good hour and a half, I finally resorted to forcibly evict the contents of my belly and within minutes I was feeling much better. The rest of the night was uneventful and I woke up feeling fairly well albeit still having a sensitive stomach. We then had breakfast and booked a bus to La Ceiba, the city from which the ferry to Utila leaves. If it wasn’t for the price, that bus ride would have been a huge rip off, I had made sure to ask them if they were to drop us at the ferry to which they replied yes but in reality, we (and other tourists) were dumped at a taxi office and it ended up costing 50 LPS beyond the 130LPS bus ride to get to the dock. 23 LPS = 1 $US so that was not too bad, but this felt very much like a money making scheme, one which I sort of remember falling prey to in 2013 when I first went to Utila.

So at the ferry dock we met Simon and embarked for our Utilian adventure. They had replaced the ferry I took in 2013 with a more modern one but the ride was just as rough. Once on the island, we headed for the dive shop, dropped our things and went to RJ’s for some well deserved fish barbecue. It wouldn’t be honest on my part not to state the reasons I’m actually returning to Utila. First, the ambiance and the people were great, that’s a given, but since I had taken my divemaster course there, I had a life-time of free diving with BICD, the diveshop I did it with. At 30 $US a dive normally (still cheapest around the world), it would mean huge savings. Plus, the diving is great and reef is well managed. There are better spots in the Caribbean, but I have yet to encounter one that offers such a great combination of diving and partying. Second, I’m taking the 40/45/50 meters technical diving courses starting on 22nd of August, but I’ll leave the details for a subsequent post. Regardless of that, my two cousins were totally onboard with the plan and super excited to come down here for the diving (though not the type pictured below).

Diving off BICD's dock

On Utila, the days just blend into a routine of diving, chilling and partying. I honestly would have a very difficult time ordering things into a cohesive story following a timeline so basically, during the 7-8 days that we spent together on the island we did:

  • Diving, lots of it: 10-12 for me, 9 for Simon and 9 for Philippe, who did hit open water class.
  • Drinking, obviously. We went to those bars that were my favorite from my last stay on the island and tried some new ones. Some had changed, some had stayed the same.
  • Chilling on the dock and jumping from it, several times a day and sometimes at night.
  • Having baleadas, getting tired of them and arguing over what we should have instead (some of us are more picky than others).
  • Sneaking on the dock after hours to watch the eagle rays and have beers.
  • Attempting to hike pumpkin hill, but giving up because of the mosquitoes.
  • Getting a tour of the hyperbaric chamber.
  • Spending Sunday Funday on the cays.
  • Climbing on the roof of an abandoned hotel to watch the sunset.
  • Returning to the aforementioned hotel during day time to tag some of its walls. Actually Simon’s idea, who has always wanted to try his hands at graffiti, but did not want to vandalize property in Canada. Does that imply that doing it here in Honduras is actually fine? Certainly not, but the place has been abandoned for a while and is in such a state that there is no other option for it than demolition. Might as well use it for a bit of art.

BICD's dockIt took me a couple days to fully recover from my digestive tract issues and soon after, me and Simon were passed down a cold which Philippe had had for some days and that was running around the shop. Taking turns feeling ill did limit us on some occasions, but opportunities to have fun were still plenty. After a week together, Simon and Philippe took off to resume their lives back home while I was left to carry on by myself. It wasn’t too bad as the new crowd at the dive shop was entertaining (at times…) and my tec course would start in a couple days.

Watching the sunset on the roof of an abandoned hotel

Watching the sunset on the roof of an abandoned hotel

I could not help but notice how the island had changed since I left 3 years ago. Nothing ever stays the same, of course, but you would not expect things to get noticeably different in such a short amount of time. However, the amount of mainlanders has increased drastically to a point were they now vastly outnumber the native population, who being British descendants mixed with black slaves, have culturally speaking not much to do with the rest of Honduras. Understandably, the newcomers want a take in Utila’ success, but what’s bothering is that nothing has been done on the part of the authorities to control the flow of people and all the annoyances they bring with them (ie: traffic, shantytowns, crime, etc.) That was not just an impression on my part, it was confirmed by Nick, whom I had met during my first stay on the island and who had worked here ever since.

El Salvador – San Salvador

I had been in Central America before, but having spent too much time in Utila, I had to sacrifice some destinations. Sadly, little El Salvador, too much out of the way and with little (obvious) appeal, was booted off the list first. Only for a time though, because I knew I would be back and when I did, I would make El Salvador a priority.

So a couple years later, here I was, in the airport with a plane ticket to San Salvador. In itself, it was not what motivated me to come back to Central America (a tec diving course in Utila is what did), but I had nonetheless made it my first destination. Normally, I would start the story on arrival at a new country but this time, its different. When checking in for my flight, the machine had asked me if I wanted to be on the “flexible passengers list” to which I had replied yes and named a price of 300$USD. That list is basically those passengers that are willing to give up their seats and for what price if the flight gets overbooked. So guess what, my flight was indeed overbooked, but when I showed up at the counter to offer my spot, the Delta employee told me they were offering a 1000$USD credit with the company if I wanted to give up my seat and take the next flight, to which I happily replied : “Of course”. The next flight was only four hours away and my original layover being a good 10 hours in Atlanta, waiting there or here in Montreal made no difference whatsoever to me. The 1000$USD however, will be put to good use, but I’ll let my girlfriend figure that one out.

So onto San Salvador, obviously the capital of El Salvador to which I arrived very late in the evening as it was pouring outside. On the taxi ride to hostel, I dusted off my Spanish discussing with the taxi driver and getting travel advice, which he happily provided. El Salvador, he told me, had everything one could hope for as a travel destination even though it is small. He was aware of the reputation his country had for being one the most dangerous places on the continent, but he assured me those days were over and things had gotten a lot safer lately. Anyway, this all had gotten me very excited and I went to bed feeling quite glad to be there and eager to get out and explore the city for the coming days.

San Salvador's central market

San Salvador’s central market

San Salvador's cathedralFirst morning, I was up somewhat late because of a pretty hefty sleep debt that I had to repay and the extremely powerful snoring of one of my roommates. So after a quick coffee, I set out and walked around for the better part of the day, only coming back when the sun was starting to set. During those couple of hours, I walked through a shopping mall (to see what the Salvadoreans are up to on a Saturday), the central market, checked out the main cathedral, encountered a very loud (with explosives the likes of which I had not seen since my time in the army) protest commemorating the murder of some university students by a repressive government in the 70s, attempted to visit the university but got turned back by guards and finally made my way back home walking through the back streets. The evening was spent having drinks and discussing politics (Brexit, Brexit and Brexit), travels and such with Felix, a German traveler passing through the country on his way from Guatemala to Nicaragua. El Salvador is definitely not on most’s people’s list.

Protest in San Salvador

Protest in San Salvador

Sorry for jumping subjects, but while taking a break I just had a 20 minute conversation with a Japanese man in … Spanish. Evidently, his English was not up to task so we defaulted to that language as for having spent a year here working in economic development, he was quite proficient in it, slightly more so than me. I would never have thought of that happening in my lifetime :)

So back to San Salvador. Just like any other Central American capital and even more so in some cases, it’s polluted, chaotic, loud and ugly. It has been invaded by those fast food chains that are so familiar to us to a point where they occupy prime land, are multiple stories high in pristine buildings all fenced off and guarded by armed security guards, making them the nicest infrastructure in an otherwise run down city. Speaking of security guards, they’re everywhere, standing in front of most commercial or official buildings with shotguns and pistols at the ready. As for the fast food joints, evidently, Salvadoreans, given how overweight they tend to be, enjoy their presence a lot. I entered a McDonald’s to see what was up on the menu and could not help but noticed how expensive it was, even more so than in Canada. It’s somewhat of a pity because Salvadorean cuisine appears to be much more rich and varied than it’s regional counterparts. The city is dotted with small kiosks and comedores offering a large variety of snacks and plates, only outnumbered by pupuserias, small stands serving pupusas, a national dish comprising of small tortillas filled with anything from black beans to cheese, tomato sauce and coleslaw. Plus, a single dollar will buy enough for a proper meal.

San Salvador stood out of the other national capitals of the region for its inhabitants were much more friendly and it was entirely devoid of gringos. As a matter of fact, I did not see any on my walk the first day save for two that were having a beer on a pricey terrace in the center. It did not feel dangerous and I could be out at night without fearing too much for my life. Not that I really wanted to party and come late (altough no occasion presented itself), but it’s nice to be able to go out at sundown for some pupusas.

The second day I had to wake up extra early to go diving with El Salvador Divers. Evidently, that drink with my German buddy extended itself to some whisky which I had brought from Canada so I went to bed late and was welcomed with, again, the earth-shaking snoring of my bunk mate. In total, I must have accumulated four hours of sleep and by pure luck I opened my eyes in time for my pick-up to go diving, as I had put my earphones on to use them as earplugs and had overslept my alarm. Since it was the rainy season here, there is no diving in the pacific as coastline waters are clouded with runoffs for the whole summer. Instead, we went to lake Ilopango, an ancient volcanic crater. At 80 square kilometers, it must have been quite an eruption and in fact, geologists do think so as well (it’s downfall has been found in the ice records). Nowadays though, it’s a somewhat quiet volcanic lake surrounded by villas. The top layers of the water were quite opaque because of recent raining but the visibility at the bottom was excellent. Both dives were made along a black volcanic rock cliff, which made for spectacular and unusual environment for me. Back at the hostel, I caught up on my sleep with a huge nap and woke up just in time to go to the Modern art museum. I hurried there but on showing up at the gate, I was told by the (armed) security guard that it was exceptionally closed for fumigation. Disappointed, I walked off and soon encountered huge traffic, which was inordinate I thought for a Sunday night. I traced it back to its source and came upon la feria Consuma, a festival it seems devoted to shopping. For a 1.50$, I bought my way inside a interesting piece of local life and did some people watching for some time before I headed home to study for my tec course.

El TuncoI had wanted to spend only two days in San Salvador but feeling there was a bit more to explore, I extended my stay by one night and took off early to get to El Tunco, a famous surfing beach some 40 kilometers away on the coast. Getting there took slightly longer than expected as I did not make the bus connection that I was supposed to and ended up at the wrong terminal, but eventually, I found the right bus and an hour later was dropped of at the beach. Not that I had some expectations about the place, but I was left somewhat dissapointed as all there was to it was hotels and restaurants and everything appeared to be geared towards surfing. The beach, or lack thereof, was a small stripe of rocks about a meter wide. I have to admit though, it must have been quite the spot as the waves where immense and fairly close to the coast. I had taken my bathing suit with me just in case I had wanted to rent a board, but this place was way out of my league.

La Libertad

La Libertad

Having had enough of El Tunco, I caught a bus back to La Libertad, a port town through which I had passed on my way to my first destination. My Lonely Planet guide (from 2010) described the town as sketchy but a lot must have changed in the recent past as I would describe it as quite the opposite. It was lively: the seafront was packed with restaurants and a huge wharf featuring a bustling fish market, some ceviche stands and fishermen working on their boats after a day out at sea. Passed the restaurants, there was a nice paved walk (by Salvadorean standards) which ended at another surfing beach, where I sat for a good hour having a beer and watching some pretty talented surfers negotiating breaks several meters high. I would have stayed longer, but buses in El Salvador don’t run late so I caught the 17h30 back to the capital, had some pupusas and spent the rest of the evening on my computer.

The day after, I checked out, went back to the art museum for a quick visit; took a bus; stopped at the right place to catch another bus that would take me to the terminal; waited for a while without seeing that bus; decided to walk to the terminal; while walking, finally saw the bus but omitted to ask where it was going (the same bus routes do not necessarily take you to the same place); ended up at the opposite end of the town. Normally, I would have hoped off before, but since I was carrying all my belongings, I did not want to be left in a random neighborhood and having to walk to find my way. Some ladies told me to wait until we would come across a proper bus stop so I could catch the right bus going in the opposite direction. After an hour lost circling around town, I finally arrived at the terminal where I could catch transportation to Santa Ana, my next destination. Time wasted in transportation is part of traveling and even though I’ve been at it for quite some time now, I don’t seem to get better at negotiating my way around public transport.

Pimped up bus!

Pimped up bus!

 

Beuchat / Uwatec Aladin PRO manuel/notice

English version here
Beauchat/Uwater Aladin PRO dive computerEn achetant du matériel usagé sur les petites annonces, j’ai mis la main sur un ordinateur de plongée Beuchat (plus tard acheté par Uwatec [aujourd’hui ScubaPro]) Alading PRO gris à trois boutons. Après un peu de recherches, j’ai appris que cet ordinateur a été commercialisé pour la première fois en 1988 et qu’encore aujoud’hui il était utilisé par certains et louangé comme une pièce d’équipement fiable, simple et sans fioritures. Évidemment, impossible de trouver un manuel, mais après quelques heures de recherches, Philibulle de plongeur.com, m’a graciseusement donné sa transcription personnelle en français.

Télécharger manuel pour ordinateur de plongée Aladin PRO (français)