If there’s any complaint to be leveled against Utila , it’s that all anyone ever talks about is diving. All things considered, that’s no surprise. Word has gotten out that Utila offers one of the least expensive Open Water scuba certifications in the world, and business has been booming ever since. Competition between shops is fierce, with a whopping 14 shops were in business in Utila at last count.
Note: Although they are extremely rare, especially considering the very high number of divers passing through the Bay Islands , accidents—including fatal accidents—have occurred. One advantage of making sure your dive shop is certified by PADI, SSI, or NAUI is that all accidents must be reported and investigated, while noncertified shops can simply fire the dive master/instructor and hire another.
Don’t make your decision based on price, or at least not exclusively. See Choosing a Dive Shop  for other factors you should consider before signing on with a dive shop.
Those who worry about decompression sickness will be glad to hear that Utila has its own hyperbaric chamber at the Bay Islands College of Diving (tel. 504/425-3378, VHF channel 71).
Most shops are PADI-certified, and a few have other certifications (SSI and NAUI) as well. Prices currently stand at US$270 for an Open Water or Advanced Open Water course, including accommodations. Those whose prices are slightly higher typically include more things—such as the required PADI notebook (US$7), the daily reef tax (US$4), and drinking water—or have better accommodations. Most classrooms have air-conditioning, which is key if you are on Utila  in April or May.
If you’re penny-pinching and plan to take advantage of the free accommodation offers, note that a few shops charge US$3 for the first night’s stay, some of the dorms are cleaner and more pleasant than others, and a few have hot water.
If you are looking for a little more comfort (and a bathroom in your room), consider springing for a private hotel room, either at your shop’s affiliated hotel (many shops can get their students a discount) or at a hotel elsewhere in town.
Fun dives currently run US$55 for two (plus the reef tax), and 10-dive packages run US$220–250. Most shops have Open Water courses starting every day, available in English, Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, and a surprising number of other languages as well—take time to check it out if you are looking for a particular language. (Japanese? Check. Swiss German? Check.)
All of the shops here are PADI-certified and have close to the same prices for all services.
Alton’s Dive Center (tel. 504/425-3704, www.diveinutila.com ) was named by its former owner but is now run by a friendly German-Canadian couple who are especially committed to sound environmental practices. PADI certifications are of course available (US$249, including manuals and accommodations but not reef tax), but most notably, Alton’s is the only shop on the island offering certifications with NAUI, an organization considered by many to have the highest standards for diving safety (see www.naui.org  for more information). Instructors typically have dive counts in the thousands, and readers have reported very positive experiences with the staff. There are kayaks and snorkel equipment available, but for an extra charge. The dorms are not the best in town, nor the cleanest, but acceptable.
Dive masters at Bay Islands College of Diving (tel. 504/425-3291, www.dive-utila.com ) are pros, and classes are kept small. At the time of our visit, the equipment was very new, and in 2005 the shop won an award for its environmental practices. Like Utila Dive Centre, the college can certify divers all the way up to instructor level. The confined-water dives are done in the shop’s indoor pool—a plus for those studying to be instructors, but perhaps less appealing for those in the Open Water certification courses. There is also a Jacuzzi, ideal for relaxing at the end of a long dive day, especially during the cooler rainy season. The only hyperbaric chamber and trauma center on Utila  is located at this dive shop (in case you are unlucky enough to get the bends), although it is open to use for any diver in case of emergency. The free accommodation is in the slightly depressing motel-style Hotel Utila , which has fairly steep rates (US$17 s, US$20 d) for those staying on additional nights—but BICD is building its own dorm. This is also the dive shop that forms part of the very nice, but much pricier, Utila Lodge Dive Resort . Boats are spacious and well-maintained.
Captain Morgan’s Dive Shop (office near the municipal dock in East Harbour, tel. 504/425-3349, www.divingutila.com ) is a bit farther afield than most, run out of the Hotel Kayla on Jewel Cay , a small, tranquil island (with a bit fewer sand fleas) a half-hour boat ride from East Harbour . All rooms at the hotel have a private bath with cold water, and there is a shared fridge, microwave, and toaster oven. The shop, which has two dive boats, is a great place for those who prefer a quieter scene, and trips into town are easily arranged. Its location makes it a lot easier to reach some of the north coast dive sites, considered by many to be the island’s best.
Cross Creek (tel. 504/425-3397, www.crosscreekutila.com ) has the same owner as the Utila Dive Center, but a different vibe, with an entire complex built over the lagoon stretching out behind the shop office. Equipment looks well-maintained, as do the boats, the largest of which is 39 feet and can accommodate 20 divers. They have prescription masks for contact lens wearers. Accommodations are on-site, the free dorm rooms in a long cabin with hammocks hanging in the breezeway. Rooms are acceptable, although not spotless, and a few have their own bathroom (although both the shared and private bath are cold-water only). There’s a separate dive master cabin with hot water and—a big step up—four “deluxe” rooms (US$30), in separate cabins built on decks over the mangroves and lagoon, with TVs, hot water, air-conditioning, and mini-fridges.
Deep Blue Divers (tel. 504/425-3511, http://deepbluediversutila.com/ ) is a five-star Gold Palm IDC Center, meaning that certification all the way through dive instructor is offered here. The office location is near-perfect for the party crowd: wedged between the island’s two most popular bars, Coco Loco and Tranquila . Class size is limited to just four (although an exception can be made if a group of five friends wants to have the class together). The beginning Open Water certification course is US$249. The shop offers accommodations at a variety of hotels, some with an additional charge (for better rooms).
Ecomarine Gunter’s Dive Shop (in Sandy Bay, tel. 504/425-3350, ecomar [at] gmail [dot] com) offers the beginner’s Open Water course for US$259 including two free fun dives as well as accommodation (but not including the reef tax). Kayaks and snorkel equipment are available for rent, and nondivers can ride out on dive boats for a snorkel trip for US$10 (plus equipment rental). Students are put up in the Backpacker Lodge across the street, which is clean and decent, although cold-water only. Dorm rooms here are US$4 for nondivers, while private rooms are US$10 for nondivers.
Parrots Dive Centre (tel. 504/425-3772, TatianaLuna22 [at] yahoo [dot] com) is a locally owned dive shop, with a few of those rarest of breeds—Utilian dive instructors. Their accommodations are all private rooms, although always with a shared bath. They have laundry service, as well as a shared kitchen (with two stoves, but never enough forks). Additional nights beyond a course are just US$2, and nondivers can stay for the same rock-bottom price (a room doesn’t get any cheaper than this!). There is a doctor on the premises 24/7, and the instructors are highly experienced, most of them having worked at the center for years, in contrast with the high turnover of staff at many other shops. Prices are a touch cheaper than at other centers: US$259 for Open Water certification, night dives for US$40, and 10-dive packages for US$220. Kayaks and snorkeling are free. Parrots is also appealingly located on the same pier as Tranquila Bar  and the Indian Wok .
Underwater Vision (tel. 504/425-3103, www.underwatervision.net ) is also locally owned, set on the East Harbour  beach front, around a large patch of sand (volleyball net included). The one-day Discover Scuba Diving class is US$80, and the beginner’s Open Water course is US$248. The boats are a bit older than at other shops. Free accommodations are at the adjacent Trudy’s Hotel , which offers hot showers to guests in the dorms; priceless at the end of a diving day during the rainy season. Private rooms are also available, US$25 for dive students, US$35 otherwise, with funky fish murals, ceiling fans, polished wood floors, and hot water. The breezeway shelters Adirondack chairs and hammocks perfect for relaxing at the end of a challenging day. There are also private rooms with rather grimy, cold-water showers, which can be had as part of the free accommodation in lieu of the dorm.
Utila Dive Centre (on the Point, tel. 504/425-3326, www.utiladivecentre.com ) was the first dive shop opened on Utila , in 1991, and is a highly respected shop. In addition to the standard offerings, the shop offers Trimix (a nitrogen-oxygen mix that allows divers to go deeper) and is one of two shops to certify instructors (Bay Islands College of Diving also offers instructor certification). Frequent north-side trips on two 12-meter cabin cruisers are offered; dorm accommodation is at the Mango Inn , including a simple fruit and toast breakfast. While the beginner’s Open Water certification (US$279) is a 3.5-day course at most shops, UDC likes to provide a more relaxed pace, taking 4.5 days, and four nights’ accommodation are included rather than three.
Utila Water Sports (on the Point, tel. 504/425-3264, www.utilawatersports.com ) is one of the few locally owned dive shops, and it has safety-conscious, friendly instructors and several large, very well-maintained dive boats (which they share with the Laguna Beach Resort , under the same ownership). The PADI course is US$249, with four free fun dives, while the SSI course is US$224 (cheaper because it doesn’t require the purchase of any books or manuals). The maximum student-teacher ratio is five to one. New accommodations are nearing completion, although hot water was still just an idea rather than a reality. An extra night in the dorm accommodation is US$6, while private rooms are US$12 (US$25 if you’re not taking a dive course). The shop also rents out sea kayaks and offers dive trips to the Cayos Cochinos .
Shops selling dive gear include Utila Water Sports, Cross Creek, Utila Dive Centre, and Bay Islands College of Diving. For more information on dive shops and diving in Utila, check out the website www.aboututila.com .