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Re-published from the original Frances Heyward Currin Master Thesis available at Louisiana State University Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Collection
Adapted by AboutUtila.com WebMaster to facilitated on-line navigation and reading.
Table of Contents ● Chapter 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 ● References ● Appendices
The physical geography of Utila and the Bay Islands is perhaps one of the most valuable features for the development of its tourism industry. The tropical environment, including the Caribbean Sea, provide important resources for the type of tourism that is popular today. In this chapter, I will discuss the physical geography of Utila and begin to show how these attributes are important to the continued development of the industry.
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The Bay Islands comprise one of the fifteen departamentos (equivalent to a state in the United States) in the Republic of Honduras. Situated in an arc 29 to 60 kilometers off the north coast, the Bay Islands consist of three major islands, five minor islands and sixty-five cays (Davidson 1974). The largest and most predominant of these islands, in terms of land and population, are Roatán, Guanaja, and Utila (Figure 2.1). Utila is the smallest of the major islands, approximately eleven kilometers long and five kilometers wide. East Harbor is the only agglomerated settlement, however, twelve populated cays are located off the southwestern end of the island. The total land area of the Bay Islands is approximated at 238 square kilometers (ibid). Roatán, the central island accounts for over one-half of the islands total.
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The islands are the above water appearance of the Bonacca Ridge, which forms the northern edge of the continental shelf in the Caribbean. The ridge is a non-continuous underwater extension of the Sierra de Omoa. This mainland mountain range, located near the southern escarpment of the Bartlett Trough, disappears into the Caribbean Sea near Puerto Cortés (Banks and Richards 1969).
Figure 2.1: The Bay Island’s of Honduras
On Utila this geological base is capped with coralline limestone. Thus, nearly two-thirds of the island is hardly more than a swampy basin, perfect for catching rainwater and in some places this limestone has eroded to sea level. Utila is also composed of volcanic materials that make up another important part of the island’s topography (McBirney and Bass 1969). Pumpkin Hill, located near the eastern end of the island is the remnant of an ancient volcano that creating the ragged terrain in this area (Strong 1935). This limestone and volcanic base has much to do with the western sloping perspective of Utila. And the creation of a cultural lingo associated with directions on the island. If one travels from the western end of Utila towards East Harbor, one is said to be going “up town”; to the west is “down.”
Moving eastward from Utila the elevations of the islands generally increase, with the eastern island of Guanaja having the tallest peak at approximately 415 meters (McBirney and Bass 1969). In addition to the increase in elevation as one moves eastward, so to does the terrain grow steeper, the vegetation and wildlife become more diverse, and the amount of fresh water resources increases.
The number of streams differs greatly on each of the three major islands. This also affects drainage patterns on the islands. Roatán has a number of run-off routes (Davidson 1974). These routes, however, do not retain water for any length of time after rain because of the steep slopes. Standing water on the island can only be found near the shoreline where the land generally becomes flat (ibid). This water is not good for human consumption because tidal variations and long-shore drift make it brackish (ibid). Guanaja has the steepest slopes and on the northeast portion of the island, two major streams carry fresh water year-round. Utila differs from the other two major islands because it is flatter and has not developed any significant gulling. Rain seeps downward into limestone caverns and into the centrally located mangrove swamps. One small stream, located in the southeast of the island, seems to play only a minor role in the drainage process. Natural deposition of sediment on Guanaja and Roatán can be found where the hills near the shoreline and the slopes become gentler. Utila’s dominating swampy area also accumulates upslope sediment.
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Honduras has three major climate types (Dixon 1980; West and Augelli 1989). The Bay Islands, like the adjacent mainland coast, have a humid tropical climate. In the tropics rainfall, not temperature, determines seasonality (West and Augelli 1989). Two-thirds of the islands’ rainfall normally occurs between October and January (Bryson and Leahy 1958). Changing wind direction associated with North American cold fronts is a major cause of this winter rainfall. As is expected in the tropics, temperature variation is relatively slight. Average mean monthly temperature ranges normally do not exceed four degrees Celsius (West and Augelli 1989). However, a climatic phenomenon that occurs along the east coast of Central America from the Yucatán to Colombia, called veranillo, brings a short early midsummer rainfall increase and a slight drop in the July temperatures (Bryson and Leahy 1958).
The Bay Islands are located in the belt of the trade-winds. Winds normally blow from the east, roughly parallel to the north coast of Honduras (West and Augelli 1989). Velocities range from thirty-two to forty kilometers per hour (Cry 1965). In August, as noted by islanders, calm periods of up to five days occur. During the winter months, North American cold fronts cause winds to shift and come from the north and west. This creates the extended rainfall characteristic of the region. Like elevation on Utila, wind direction is also important in local lingo. Winds normally blow from east to west and therefore, walking into east winds (up-wind) correlates with up slope and going “up town.”
Because Utilians are oriented to the sea ocean currents are an important part of local life. In this region, currents normally have an easterly flow along the southern portions and between the islands (Kornicker and Bryant 1969). Which makes westerly travel slower. However, during the winter months, there is a weakening of this easterly current because of the reversal of the current that flows north of the islands (Owen 1840; Kornicker and Bryant 1969).
During the last century nearly 20 hurricanes have affected the Bay Islands. How the Bay Islands are situated in the Bay of Honduras, their distances from the mountains on the mainland of Central America, and the general northwestwardly paths of these storms, are all factors that reduce storm strengths. Davidson suggested that although the Bay of Honduras has seen developments of large storm systems only every ten years do these storms mature into hurricanes (Davidson 1974). The most destructive hurricanes that affect the islands, such as Hurricane Francelia in 1969 and Hurricane Mitch in 1998, develop in the open ocean and then strike the islands uncharacteristically from the north.
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In the Bay of Honduras reef systems are of two types: barrier and fringing. A barrier reef is a coral wall separated from the land by a lagoon. A fringing reef however, begins adjacent to the shore, often with only small breaks that might allow small boat passage. Many people make the mistake and assume that the barrier reef system off the coast of Belize is connected to that of the Bay Islands. This is an incorrect notion passed along primarily in tourism literature. Not only does the Bartlett Trough separate the two distinct systems, the Bay Islands reef is a fringing reef.
On the northern sides of Roatán and Guanaja the reef encloses much of the islands (Jacobson 1992; Harborne et al 1999). Only small breaks allow for passage into tidal inlets associated with stream mouths (ibid). Guanaja’s reef begins about one mile offshore in places, farther than on the other two islands (Harborne et al 1999). Utila’s northern reef exposes itself as iron shore that extends from the central portion of the island almost continuously around the eastern tip (ibid). Utila’s north side reef is characterized by “steep escarpments and spur and groove formations” (ibid). In the middle of the north side is a small break in the coral that has become the entrance to a canal that extends across the island into Oyster Bay Lagoon (Figure 2.2)
Utila’s eastern side, much like the north side, is covered by fossilized coral and low cliffs referred to as iron shore (Harborne et al 1999). This side of the island has long and shallow fore reefs and large sandy areas (ibid). Additionally, the eastern end of the island faces a deep trench that separates Utila and Roatán and is one of the few places in the world where whale sharks can be seen (ibid).
The southern side of Utila, facing the Honduran mainland, is the more developed portion of the island. The southern reef is dominated by a sloping fore reef that is the widest of the reef zones (Harborne et al 1999). Also characteristic of the southern reef are some spur and groove formations (ibid). The back reef consists of exposed bedrock and sand and covers a smaller area and is much less diverse in coral types and topographic features (ibid). East Harbor, located on southeastern Utila, is protected by an uplift of the southern reef. Roatán’s south side reef is similar and runs almost the entire length of the island (Jacobson 1992). Guanaja also has an expansive southern reef where the two cays of Bannaca Town are located (Davidson 1974).
The western end of Utila is dominated by fringing reefs. The southwestern reef supports Utila’s twelve cays. Also found in this area are patch reefs and expansive sea grass habitants that surround the cays.
Inside the reefs Utila also has a number of bays, bights, and harbors that interrupt the shoreline. These include, Spotted Bay, Carey Bay, Turtle Harbor, Rock Harbor, Jack’s Bight, Swan Bay, Big Bight, East Harbor, and Little Bight, which provide anchorage for shallow vessels.
Figure 2.2: Location of Oyster Bay Lagoon
(adapted from 1:50,000 series Instituto Geografica Honduras)
East Harbor, however, is the only place on Utila where large watercrafts such as shrimpers, sail boats, and cargo and passenger ships can safely moor. These factors were probably taken into consideration when the original founders settled in East Harbor.
Perhaps because of the reefs the Bay Islands are known for their diverse tropical fish and other marine populations. These fish include porgies, old wife, black fin, wahoo, red snapper, dogteeth snapper, hogfish, and the whale shark (Harborne et al 1999). Conch, crawfish, and four species of turtles can also be found around the islands. These marine species have been historically important to the economy of the islands and recently many have become of interest to sport fishermen.
The islanders have long depended on the sea to sustain them. The reef provides a place for the abundant fish population to feed and survive. It also provides the islanders with protection from the dynamic ocean. More importantly, in recent years, the reefs have been the major draw for the developing tourism industry.
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Island vegetation has been altered drastically since first recorded by Christopher Columbus on his fourth voyage to the New World in 1502. Although Columbus and his crew did not provide detailed descriptions, they did mention the presence of pine trees on Guanaja and named the island “isla de pinos” (Columbus 1959; Columbus 1960). Although pines are still present, they have undoubtedly been depleted since this first account because of human needs, for ship building and house construction, and environmental destruction, especially from fires and hurricanes. Today, as noted by the Bay Island Conservation Association, the main vegetation types include pine savannas on the higher ridges of Roatán and Guanaja and tropical dry forests, mangroves, and beach plant communities on the three major islands (Jacobson 1992).
In 1975 Lord noted, on Utila, that most food plants and animals were imported beginning in the 1830s. These include mango, papaya, breadfruit, plantain, banana, citrus (grapefruit, lime and orange), canop, mamey, mamea, almond, guava, tomato, melon, cassava, cocoyam, and star apple (ibid). Most of these plants are still present on the islands and still very much part of local diet. Lord named the groups that contributed to the cultivation of these plants as the Cayman Islanders, some mainland Hondurans, and the American fruit companies (ibid).
Utila is nearly two-thirds swampland leaving only one-third of the island available for settlement and farming activities. Therefore, perhaps the most important and abundant plants on the island are mangroves. Utila has three species of mangrove; white mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa), red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle), and black mangrove (Avicennia germinaus) (Vega et al 1993). These plants have adapted to saline coastal environments in the tropics and subtropics (West 1998). They can live in a wide variety of water types, from fresh to salt, but tend to do best in brackish water (salinities from 10 to 20 parts per thousand) (ibid). Mangrove are associated with tidal zones where they form a cover that ranges from shrubs to taller trees (ibid). On Utila these plants can be found in both brackish (to the interior) and along ocean-fronts protected by the fringing reef. The mangrove is important for natural land building on the island. They also act as nurseries and spawning grounds for many species of open ocean marine life (ibid). Additionally, growths associated with interior swamp and marsh areas are an important feeding ground for various species of crabs and snails. Thus large accumulations of these species can be found here and attract other fauna such as turtles and iguanas which have been traditionally important to the Utilian diet and economy. In recent years, associated with the growing tourism economy, large portions of Utila’s mangrove have been destroyed. In a subsequent chapter, I will discuss the reasons behind this destruction and the crisis that the islanders might face if this destruction continues.
The Bay Islands also have an abundant wildlife population that has been suggested as an additional resource for the further diversification of the island’s tourism industry (Vega et al 1993). In a conservation plan prepared by Tropical Research and Development, Inc. the authors identified potential trials for hiking, bird-watching, and horseback riding that would allow alternatives to scuba diving which is the current draw for the islands (ibid).
One of the biggest limiting factors to human use of Utila is its size and topography. Although agriculture has become less important to Utilian life the lack of available arable land has forced the islanders to turn to the sea for survival. Recently, as tourism has become an important part of the economy on the islands, the surrounding ocean has been the strongest draw for international tourists.
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