MARY'S PLACE

Mary's Place is just a hole in the wall off the island of Roatan, which is 36 miles from Honduras. It is also known as one of the most famous dive sites in the world, if one believes the local hype in SCUBA magazines. We had the opportunity to dive Mary's Place while staying at CocoView, a lovely, functional and restful dive resort on the island. Roatan, which is scarcely a mile wide, rises up out of the Caribbean to nearly five hundred feet, and from its beaches to the high ridges is densely forested with palm and other tropical trees. The island is lush and beautiful, and the song Bali Ha'i, from James Michener's, Tales Of The South Pacific, could have been written about it. Volcanic in origin, it falls off to deep waters on its southern side, and is rimmed on that side by a barrier reef that affords spectacular snorkeling and diving. The drop-off, or wall, is sheer for a hundred or more feet, and in some places has fractured along its length. One such spot is named Mary's Place, where sheared cliffs provide an extensive 10 foot gap that narrows down to five feet in some places. Swimmers enter this gap between vertical cliffs in about 85 feet of water, swim seventy yards while gradually ascending to 65 feet, then take a right angled turn into an even narrower crevice that angles down to 90 feet before exiting through an arch at the face of the original wall. The topography is not that of a tunnel, since the narrow gap extends upwards to within 30 feet of the water's surface, and the swimmer can always see open blue above him.

During the pre-dive briefing, each of us was told to be careful not to inadvertently bump into the faces of the chasm. We all were careful to observe the caution so that the site can be preserved for generations of future divers. Because of its narrow confines, one diver at a time is permitted through the cut, with a spacing of about 20 yards between people. Bubbles rising from exhaled air expand and work their way up both sides of the gap, and their passage causes damage to the coral lining the walls, so the site is controlled to no more than 4,000 divers a year. A swimmer is not permitted to reverse his course, but must continue on in one direction until he or she finally leaves the slit. With visibility over 100 feet, scenery at the mouth of the wall is spectacular, and rare black coral and gorgeous azure sponges jut out along its sheer sides from a depth of 90 feet to the top. I found myself being so careful in maintaining reasonable speed through the crack that I failed to look around much. Unfortunately, damage had already occurred to the wall faces and at my depth there was little beauty to see. I should add that the towering sides, and knowledge that if the cliff opened up long ago it could also close, added to my speed. I remember thinking anyone with a touch of claustrophobia would have a grand time for the three minutes it takes to visit Mary's Place.

When we finished working our way along the outer wall at seventy to eighty feet for several hundred yards, we ascended its face and swam over the underwater coral meadow on top the cliff. Little sandy spaces are interspersed among the coral monuments, and rays and small squid can be found in them. Parrotfish work breaking up the coral to sand as they feed. You can actually hear them ripping coral shards from the reef with their beaklike mouth and strong teeth. Dozens of brightly colored tropical fish ranging from large angels to tiny harlequin bass populate these marine gardens, and the brilliant sunshine makes their colors boldly incandescent in the clear water.

It is impossible to view such a kaleidoscope of color without being inwardly cheered: I have long thought depressed people benefit from a tour of a flower garden or coral reef. Wordsworth said as much when he wrote the lovely and uplifting poem, Daffodils. To maintain humanity and a positive perspective on life, everyone has to periodically visit such spots during a lifetime. They buoy our spirits.

In retrospect, it seems to me I have been trying to find a way to live in Mary's place half my life, but that is another tale from another time, and may not be worth the telling.


Sam Orr sorr@metrolink.net
World Traveler
and Philanthrope
(Location Unknown)