By Kathy G. Rupcic
I kick down further to come face to face with the reef. The French Angelfish like these crevices and I study as they float in suspension outside their miniature caves. I’m giddy with the thought that no matter where I drift, I’m in the company of wonderful friends; Blue Tang, Batfish, Yellow bars, Clownfish, Coral Grouper, Parrot Fish, Damsel Fish, Tobies and Surgeons.
I feel uncommonly welcome in these aquatic villages. Today’s location is exceptional. The sky blue water feels as soft as it looks and creamy white sand seems to emanate light from the ocean floor. The splendor makes it hard to accept that on the beach above, a man stands with a rifle.
We’d unanimously decided to visit this deserted beach. For an hour, the boat had bumped and bounded down the rugged coast of Honduras’ Roatan Island. Captain Derek, the local man hired to charter us, had only eased the motor when we crossed the large channel separating Roatan from tiny Morat Island. As rolling swells greeted and lulled us into the cove, we had thrilled at the thought that this was truly all ours for the day. My eyes had swept the dramatic shore, taking in stunning jade cliffs that contrasted sharply with chalky sand, postcard perfect palm trees, lush jungle, a small shack – and the fact that we weren’t really alone.
Instantly, my mind had dumped ecstasy for alarm, triggering mild paranoia. Was this a set up? I focused on the rifle and then the gangly young uniformed guard behind it. As the engine cut out and the boat floated to the beach, we’d all gone silent, making our own internal assessments. I threw a quick glance at Captain Derek, who appeared focused, but indifferent. When he abruptly shouted out, I’d become acutely aware that none of our group spoke Spanish. However, it became clear that the guard, resembling a young Tiger Woods with a smile to match, would be with us for the day and his name was Benni.
Down here, it’s easy to get mesmerized by coral undulating with the current and countless finned characters sidling by and my body chills as a signal I’ve been underwater too long. I surface and float my way in, noticing that I’m one of the last at the reef. Most have retreated to the palms on the shore, circling around the open cooler. I zone in on Benni watching our group, cradling his rifle, moving forward to accept the beer my husband offers him.
Before my body scrapes the sand bottom, I kick off my fins and wobble out of the water. Although the party seems to be listening intently to Captain Derek, I decide strolling up the beach to explore the sea cliffs will dry me off and warm me up. Tossing my gear safely away from the surf, I head off.
I don’t doubt this is a deserted island; the further I walk, the wilder it feels. According to Captain Derek, Morat Island is made mostly of jade. Blackish-green rock dominates the terrain in a variety of bizarre formations. I’m compelled to toss a look back, wondering if I’m crossing out of a designated safety zone, but no warning is called out.
It’s still not clear why we have a guard. But, I am learning that while Roatan is a slice of paradise, it’s an island that needs to show the presence of guns. Everyone working on the grounds at the villa is packing heat. Yesterday, it was jolting to pop into the grocery store and encounter seven guards strapped up with ammunition, manning the aisles, as the ATM was emptied for the day.
Abrupt, repetitious squawking breaks my train of thought. Scrambling up a smooth, low mound of stone, I edge closer to a crop of jade that reaches upwards like gigantic fat fingers.
For the next few minutes I creep towards the source, arms hugging rock wall, navigating around the clumps of sharp, tiny broken shells at my feet. Although I see no life, I can smell it. A gamey, raw scent mingles with the warmth of the rock prompting me to instinctively retract my hands, should I touch some unknown substance. Suddenly the squawks begin to quicken and increase their pitch dramatically. A warning, an alarm; I don’t stay to find out. Springing off the mound in one move, I land off balance on the sand with my heart racing.
I aim for the hard-packed waterline where I can pick up my step in retreat. Still I can’t resist a look back. Nothing is in pursuit, but the squawking stops.
Returning to the group I divulge that I got spooked trying to spy on island birds. “Could have been iguanas”, someone responds. “They have 6 foot monsters on this island!”
Apparently, it’s true. A cold beer can bridge many gaps and in the meantime, with Captain Derek translating, Benni has been fielding questions from our party. Poachers from neighbouring islands covet Morat for mainly two things: parrots and giant iguanas. The island owner employs a team of guards who are rotated in 3-6 month posts around Morat, discouraging any potential alliance with thieving parties. In summer, when massive lizards descend from trees and cliffs to lay eggs in the sand, the guards are an especially crucial deterrent to threatening nets and machetes hovering off shore.
I scrutinize the cliffs downshore and the beach that exudes such an exotic, mysterious aura; it can cause a person to look back over their shoulder not once, but twice. My gaze drifts to where the jungle meets the beach. The tingle of growing curiousity begins to swell at the thought of what life also thrives beyond the palm and mangrove wall.
Turning to Benni, I smile back at his boyish grin. I can’t speak Spanish but make a point of remembering to thank him the best I can. If he and his team are faithful to their posts, the world up here on Morat Island will remain as spellbinding as the reef beyond it.
An excerpt appears on The Chang School Creates