- The whale shark capital of the Caribbean, with year-round sightings
- Laid back Caribbean atmosphere, with welcoming locals and friendly expats
- Explore the world’s second largest barrier reef, just minutes from the shore
- One of the cheapest places in the world to learn to dive
Once a far-flung pirate hangout, the tiny island of Utila is fast becoming known for its tropical beauty, traditional-yet-funky vibe, and inexpensive underwater experiences that rival some of the Caribbean’s best. Energetic, undeveloped and welcoming, this magical island is a dream-come-true for travellers seeking that ever-elusive touch of authenticity - and that’s just on land. Beyond its classic Caribbean beaches, Utila offers easy access to the mighty Mesoamerican Barrier Reef with its exceptional diving, as well as year-round whale shark encounters - all at unbeatable value-for-money!
Scuba diving in Utila
Whale sharkYear round
Eagle rayYear round
Schooling reef fishYear round
Walls & pinnaclesYear round
Healthy coralsYear round
Thanks to its location at the foot of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, Utila is surrounded by continuous fringing reefs, and this small island boasts upwards of 60 dive sites. Much of the diving starts shallow, before dropping off below recreational depths, making Utila a great technical training destination. But in truth, one of Utila’s biggest draws is that it offers a little bit of everything, from impressive wrecks and cave systems, to megafauna such as whale sharks to macro. This unique combination means you’ll never know what marine life might appear, from above or below.
Diving Utila's north coast
Utila’s northern coast is more exposed to the open sea, and backs on to the Cayman Trough, creating some truly spectacular wall dives. The morning hours offer the best diving conditions in Utila, and is when most dive trips focus on the northern sites such as CJ’s Drop Off and Duppy Waters which mark either end of Turtle Harbour. At CJ’s Drop Off, the wall descends to depths of over 40-metres and is home to barracuda, jacks and turtles, while the reeftop provides plenty of cracks and crevices to search for smaller reef-dwellers. The sloping coral garden at Duppy Waters is a great place to spot eagle rays and stingrays, as well as the odd octopus foraging for crustaceans.
South Utila dive sites
Utila’s south side features a shallow fringing reef, as well as several deeper offshore seamounts. While the reefs are not quite as impressive as some of the northern sites, there are still plenty of attractions, including the purposefully scuttled Halliburton Wreck. This 30-metre vessel was sunk in Utila Harbour in 1998 to create an artificial reef, and has several possible penetration routes. Black Coral Wall and Pretty Bush are great options for macro-lovers, while Airport Caves offers some stunning caverns and swim-throughs. A number of seamounts, such as Black Hills, can also be found a little further off the southeastern coast, rising from the seafloor to within metres of the surface. Their remote location means these sites often feature more vibrant coral coverage and a great diversity of marine life.
The whale sharks of Utila
Utila is frequently touted as the “whale shark capital of the Caribbean”, and is one of the only places in the world to record whale shark sightings for 12 consecutive months of the year - although March to May often offer the best chances. Lying close to the edge of the continental shelf, the island’s northeastern coast is a hotspot for sightings. As the whale sharks are protected, only snorkeling is allowed with these incredible animals.
Wall and seamount
Year round, whale sharks best March to May
5 - 40m+
15 - 30m
24 - 29C
- The ferry between La Cieba and Utila is sometimes unflatteringly referred to as “the vomit comet” - be sure to take medication if you’re prone to seasickness.
- Sand flies can be voracious on Utila, no matter the season. Find a natural, reef-safe bug repellent before you travel, as they are hard to find on the island.
- Utila hosts its annual Carnival during the last full week of July, with many cultural and sporting events, a community bonfire, and various street parties.
At 13-kilometres long, Utila is the smallest - and flattest - of the three main Bay Islands, and is still largely undeveloped. In recent years, Utila has come to the attention of the modern world, and is fast becoming recognised as one of the best - and cheapest - dive destinations in the Caribbean. Thankfully though, this extraordinary island has yet to lose touch with its cultural roots, creating an unique atmosphere. Rustic, brightly-coloured houses and street-food stalls line the sometimes sleepy streets, while young, budget travellers - in search of beaches, bars, and like-minded dive buddies - arrive by the ferry-load, and often forget to leave.
Within diving and backpacker circles, the island of Utila is often described as “how such-and-such used to be” - before the crowds descended. And, despite being well-known for cheap dive certifications and its new found popularity amongst travelers, the island - and its score of scuba centres - still feels far from over-subscribed. An impressive feat considering Utila’s size and the quality of its diving, with direct access to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef and the chance of year-round encounters with the ocean’s biggest fish.
Getting to Utila
The easiest way to get to Utila is by first flying to San Pedro Sula on mainland Honduras, or to Roatan. These two international airports have direct service from several US cities including Miami, New York, Houston, and Atlanta. Depending on the season, connecting flights from San Pedro Sula to Utila can run anywhere between twice a day, to just a few times a week, so it’s best to check with the airline first. CM Airlines and SOSA both offer flights into Utila. The mainland town of La Cieba is the departure point for ferries travelling to Utila, and they also operate between Roatan and Utila several days each week.
Once on the island, distances are short enough to walk almost everywhere, but bicycles, scooters, and golf carts can also be easily rented. There are almost no cars on Utila, except for a few taxis and local tuk tuks, although these can sometimes prove to be a little unreliable.
Where to stay
The island’s only settlement, Utila Town, is located in a curving bay with two small beaches and dozens of hotels, restaurants, bars and dive shops. You’ll find no chain stores or restaurants here - just a small town with a friendly, tight knit community of locals and expats. Beyond, there are very few roads, leaving much of the island covered by impenetrable wilderness, swampland, and two small volcanic hills to the east. Several of Utila’s dive resorts can also be found along the island’s southeastern coast, providing plenty of quiet seclusion for guests.
Utila diving seasons
While the diving season is year-round, like most tropical destinations Utila does have distinct wet and dry seasons. The rainy season typically runs from late September to January, and occasionally into the beginning of February - but it certainly doesn’t rain the entire time and sunny spells are frequent. Water temperatures drop to around 24°C during this period while air temperatures sit at around 27°C. Dive boats continue to run during the rain - unless it’s accompanied by high winds, which isn’t often - and visibility is only significantly reduced if the wind or rain is particularly heavy.
The rest of the year is considered dry, with February through April touted as the best time to visit, thanks to consistently fair weather, good diving conditions, and near guaranteed whale shark encounters. May through September can get quite hot, often exceeding 30°C on land and in the high 20s underwater, and humidity gradually increases until the rains finally come in September. Direct hurricane hits are rare here, as Utila and the rest of the Bay Islands sit below the ‘hurricane belt’. And, while the Caribbean’s official hurricane season runs from June through November, Utila’s hurricane-watch season can be considered much shorter, from September to November.
One of Utila’s biggest draws is the chance of year-round whale shark sightings. But, despite the continuous presence of these graceful giants, certain months - such as March and April - do offer considerably better chances of an encounter.
The area around the island of Utila, from the high tide line out to the 60-metre depth contour, is called the Special Marine Zone. This protected area is further partitioned into sub-zones including Fishery Replenishment Zones, Marine Zones of Special Protection, and wildlife refuges.
The two Fishery Replenishment Zones around Utila are White Water and Old Bank, both located off the west coast. These areas are protected from fishing activities of any kind - including lionfish, conch, and lobster - regardless of the season. The two Marine Zones of Special Protection are Turtle Harbour in the north and Raggedy Cay in the southwest. Turtle Harbour is also home to the only terrestrial wildlife refuge on Utila. The wildlife refuge is an area where protection is essential for the existence of certain wildlife species.
Additionally, the entire Bay Islands Archipelago was designated a marine park in 2010. The Bay Islands National Marine Park is the largest marine protected area in Honduras, stretching some 25-kilometres off the coast of each island and covering approximately 650,000 hectares. Thanks to these ongoing conservation efforts, and more, Honduras is one of the only countries in the world where local reef health is improving year on year.
Utila is also home to the Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Centre (WSORC) - the only organisation to be granted a permit to study whale sharks in Honduras.