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Buccaneers Of Diving Utila- Documentary Production Of The Halliburton Wreck 211

(DiverWire) Every now and then someone tosses a pebble into a smooth pond sending a ripple out that eventually spreads through the rivers and into the ocean of life.  Sometimes there are those that do the smallest of things within their tiny circle and make a difference that changes so many, too numerous to count and more than they could ever meet in a lifetime.  This is a story about just that.  This documentary is the story about an event that changed the face of an entire island and an industry known as Scuba Diving.

We have all heard about Jacques Cousteau- he had an impact on diving that took us to depths we have never known.  The pioneers of Utila, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, now known for the most scuba Instructor certifications annually in the world, was begun by visionaries that for all intense and purposes were true pirates- buccaneers of diving.  Forging though and making it happen so that so many could discover the great unknowns of the sea.

Skye Reno is one person touched by these diving buccaneers changing her life and viewpoint so much that she has now created a 27-minute documentary in tribute titled “The Last Voyage Of The Halliburton 211”.

The video introduces three men, Rocky Jones, Ron Janssen and Jim Engel,  that changed the focus of Utila helping mold it into the diving Mecca it has become today.  The production chronicles the sinking of The Halliburton, one of Utila’s premiere wreck dives and how it came to be and how it inspired and brought together this diving community.  Even now its impact reaches from the depths where thousands of divers have gotten their deep dive specialty including myself.  Recently holding its first Utila Dive Festival as a celebration to years of building dive shops and teaching new students, Utila has become a true diving destination with tourists visiting from all over the world.  Skye Reno, as her name suggests is a wide and expansive personality, her enthusiasm sparkled through the phone as I interviewed her.  She moved to Utila in 1994 and spent 10 years there teaching hundreds of divers.  She laughed as she described being part of the second ever Instructors course on the island.  “Back then there were only two cars on Utila, Hanks truck and that old blue one for deliveries.  Everyone walked..”  She also reflected on their beach house located West of Chepes Beach back when it was the only house on that end.  Now it is totally surrounded by vacation homes.  Again laughing, she said she used to go to sleep with an ice pack each night because there was no central power plant back then.  Today Utila has grid power, although expensive, so some things don’t change and some folks still go to bed with an ice pack!

The place has changed a bit, but the people, the true treasure of Utila, have hung on to their special nature and it is one of the few places in the Caribbean that has not lost its mystique.  The inspiration for the video came to Skye Reno when she learned about Jim Engels death.  She had thousands of hours of video footage over the years documenting Utila through all the fun events and especially about its people.  Skye stated, “ Jim Engel was my first scuba instructor, my own personal hero and one of my dearest friends.  Ron Janssen has always been a character of oomph and style that I have long enjoyed and adored, and Rocky Jones was just about as cool as cool gets!”   Her initial idea was that Jim needed a plaque memorializing what he was to the island and that led naturally to the idea of documenting the Halliburton sinking where the plaque would be mounted in remembrance.  During all his years on the rock, Jim was an unsung hero similar to Rocky Jones, a visionary that died before he was able to complete all he set out to do there and Ron Janssen, who came to Central America not speaking Spanish and went on to start a tiny dive shack on Utila that today is known as Cross Creek.  The plaque for Jim says, “Heroes are those that rise to the occasion and then slip quietly away”  -Extremely fitting!

Skye received help from so many wonderful people of Utila for the production.  In true Utilaian fashion, since much of what she did was from the states until the memorial plaque week, she was surprised at the outpour of volunteers.  Her husband Rick Reno was the narrator of the video; Ron Janssen surveyed the wreck to confirm where the plaque would be mounted. This was a milestone, as Ron had not been diving since the sinking of the wreck year’s prior.  There was quite a bit of legwork as the hull had brightened and Ron came up with the concept of bolting the plaque to the railing. Skye said she received so much help from so many people in so many ways.  Rebecca Engel, Jim’s daughter and a friend named Gracie Clark measured the railings so the brass bar bolting system could be manufactured to fit.  Kisty Engel organized the memorial dive and party.  So many poured their hearts into the project even those that had never met Jim Engel and were working at BICD long after its in ception.  Skye and her husband Rick started BICD with Jim and Kisty in 1995.   Skye stated, “ Jim showed us a tiny tool bodega and said this is your new classroom/office/everything.  We were both a bit shocked and skeptical, but within two days Jim had transformed that tiny little tool shed into a really cool school know as The Bay Islands College Of Diving!  The rest is history.”   Also helping in any way they could with time and talent were longtime residents and locals of the island listing a few: Jungle Jim,  Willie, Seth, Chris Howard, Brad Ryon, Edith and Troy Bodden, Camilla Green and Jonathon Mc Millin.

Finally, I asked Skye if she would recommend Utila as a diving destination today.  She no longer lives on the island and returned this September to the hustle and bustle of 4 wheelers, scooters honking, small tuc tuc taxi’s and many more cars than she has recalled in the early days.  Although topside is a special and unique place Honduras literally means deep water. That’s why you go there to see what lies beneath.  She responded,  “ I would definitely recommend Utila as a diving destination.  It truly has something for every level of diver and has it in abundance.  The shallow fringing reef around the Island is fabulous for snorkeling and creates a very cool flats situation as well.

The sloping walls on the south side have an abundant array of corals and gorgonians of every kind imaginable in the Caribbean.  It also has really beautiful swim throughs and channels.   The north side of the Island is the continental shelf that in places drops down to 4000 feet.    So, the walls are spectacular to say the least.   Utila also has like a gazillion seamounts that are home to large schools of fish and get frequented by larger pelagic as well.  To top it all off, the water is gentle, and easy for beginners to learn to dive and feel comfortable, but also loads of diversity and challenges for the advanced divers.  Whale sharks, sperm whales, orcas, pilot whales, sun fish and oh, and of course the wreck of The Halliburton 211!  Yes, Utila pretty much has it all!

Skye Reno started Salty Dog Productions in 1996.  The name came from combining her love of dogs and diving.  Currently Skye with Salty Dog is producing a documentary about ORBIS Flying Eye Hospital whose humanitarian mission is to save sight around the world. They are currently building a new MD10 next generation flying eye hospital and she has been documenting the process.  With so much history and video footage, Skye definitely thinks another Utila project will emerge at some point and time.  At the end of the interview Skye reflected,  “Suffice it to say, that although I know I will never live on Utila again, I still think of it as home!