Diving Guatemala’s Pacific Coast

January 13, 2014 Updated: April 28, 2016

Oscar Marroquin picked us up in Las Lisas. It is a small port on Guatemala’s Pacific coast. With traffic and ‘tumulos,’ or speed bumps, along the way it took us about a two hour drive from the hamlet of Buena Vista where we stayed at Pacific Fins Resort and Marina. It would have been about another two-hour drive had we come straight down from Guatemala City.

“The main highway has been paved and the Pope Bernardino 23rd Bridge is brand new,” Roberto Matheu said. Roberto and his wife Suzette own Pana Divers in the capital. It is a remarkable facility. Roberto is an accomplished dive instructor. He drove his comfortable four-door truck loaded with our dive gear. We made stops along the way to take pictures and buy refreshments at modern gas stations en route.

Guatemala is a Central American nation nestled between Mexico, Nicaragua and Belize to the north and El Salvador and Honduras to the south. Two oceans offer divers the opportunity to dive in Atlantic and Caribbean waters on the east or Pacific diving on the western side. Many lakes, like the deep volcanic Atitlan, also offer diving opportunities. Lago Izabal, a large body of shallow water that leads into Rio Dulce on its way to the Atlantic, is also good for diving.

We wanted to explore shipwrecks that Roberto told us about in the Pacific. We packed lunch and plenty of bottled water. While there is unlimited visibility on the Atlantic coast of Guatemala and into Belize where keys and islands afford great diving, the Pacific coast is not often dived except by local spearfishermen and then infrequently.

“They call it the ‘trava.’ It is a trap. Fishermen snag their nets on shipwrecks. They asked me to check it out to see what was snagging their nets underwater. We found the remains of what locals called the ‘Arbenz.'” Roberto related.

This was an exciting bit of history. In 1954, the scare of world Communism was prevalent in U.S. politics. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and two brothers, both merciless scoundrels, John Foster Dulles and Allan Dulles were placed in important positions. The first was Secretary of State the second brother was made Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. This was in the black days of America’s clandestine intervention in internal affairs of other nations. They were indeed black days. U.S. business interests forced their will on American politicians. American businessmen corrupted new media and members of Congress. They instigated military coups to depose democratically elected rulers in favor of military dictators they could corrupt to continue their monopolistic colonial practices.

United Fruit Company’s boss Sam ‘The Banana Man’ Zemurray wanted to maintain their lands in Guatemala paying little or no taxes on them. United Fruit also owned the Atlantic port, railroad, telephone company and most everything else that was profitable in the country. They had a monopoly. Through bribery and connivance with U.S. officials Zemurray decided that the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, had to be eliminated.

The CIA planned an invasion. Stockpiles of guns with Russian markings on them were planted. Nicaragua’s military dictator Sozoma was enlisted to help overthrow the Guatemalan government. The CIA was unbridled to fly military sorties over the country. They strafed and bombed the populace to throw the people into panic. The CIA created terror everywhere.

On June 27, 1954, CIA pilot Schoup flew a mission out of Nicaragua and bombed a British ship that was loading cotton and coffee at the Pacific port of Puerto San Jose. Schoup warned off the captain and crew dropping leaflets for them to leave the ship. He came back and dropped a bomb right down the smoke stack of the ‘Springfjord.’

The vessel burned for days. It eventually drifted and sank in 120 feet of water offshore of Las Lisas. In the end, despite many protests in British Parliament about the scandal, no reparations were ever paid. The incident and shipwreck faded into oblivion. New clandestine operations were fielded by the same CIA operatives at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. Unlike their success in putting a cruel and murderous military dictator in power in Guatemala, that invasion failed. The ‘Springfjord’ was forgotten in time. That is until now.

Guatemala’s Pacific coast diving is in murky water. Visibility can range for less than a foot to five feet on a good day. “We went one day and the ocean was clear, clear. We could see the whole shipwreck. It was amazing that day,” dive instructor Rodrigo Solorzano said. We had high hopes as we drove from Pacific Fins Resort, slowing at every speed bump, to the little fishing town where Captain Oscar Marroquin was to pick us up.

We took a detour to the old Spanish colonial port city of Puerto San Jose. “A ship cannot pull up to the dock at Puerto San Jose. It is too shallow. In the old days they would anchor and load offshore,” Eric Hartleben told us. Eric is a dive instructor and runs Pana Divers Atlantic facility on Amatique Bay. We parked at an ocean side restaurant and walked on the beach.

Guatemala’s Pacific beaches are volcanic black sand. It was hot underfoot. A derelict pier stood in ruins. Twisted girders and iron pilings led out into the ocean. People swam, vendors sold their wares and refreshments, kids made noise. Puerto San Jose beaches remain local attractions. When Guatemala built a modern container port at Puerto Quetzal, the old port was abandoned.

Waves broke against the shore. Visibility was nil in turbulent, wave churned water. Viewing the old port’s dock first hand it was clear that ships like the ‘Springfjord’ would have anchored offshore and lighters used to load and discharge cargoes.

We drove on to Las Lisas. Oscar tied up his launch and went up to the town to buy gasoline for the motor. We waited in the shade of a parking lot. Fuel tank loaded aboard we handed down the rental gear from Pana Divers. There is no place to rent equipment or get tanks filled in the area so we had to bring everything we would need from Guatemala City.

Oscar motored out into a lagoon. We passed colorful launches carrying people to islands. Kids paddled their pirogues and men fished from wooden dugouts. We went through a passage into the Pacific Ocean. Oscar used his GPS to get us to the site of what he called the ‘Arbenz.’ The wreck was named for the president that had been deposed in the CIA coup in 1954.

Oscar passed over the site until he was sure of his GPS readings, then threw in a grappling hook. He dragged it until it hooked on the shipwreck below. We suited up and rolled backward overside. The ocean was warm. There was little clarity on the descent. When we hit bottom there was less than a foot visibility. Gone was the hope that dive instructor Rodrigo instilled of being able to see the whole shipwreck.

I groped in the mud to the tines of the anchor. It had caught on a thick line, likely from a fishing trawler. I swam a couple of feet along the line until I found twisted steel wreckage. This was the ‘Arbenz.’

Despite limited visibility Oscar had his speargun and began hunting. I started finning along the wreckage. Silt filled the hold. A large triple expansion steam engine remained upright in place. It was covered with rust and growth. Snook and large groupers swam over the shipwreck. Everywhere there was a tangle of nets, lines and fishing gear.

There was the peril of getting snagged in ghost netting that was everywhere. Hooks and lines, net floats and monofilament covered the wreckage. I photographed the inside of the hull in what was the cargo area. Despite limited visibility it was clear that there was no cargo of arms aboard the ‘Springfjord’ when it was bombed by the CIA despite U.S. allegations to the contrary.

There would be long decompression before being able to return to the surface. The water was at least fifteen degrees colder on the bottom than at the height of the superstructure and engine. It was welcome to swim back to the anchor line and ascend. Immediately the water was warmer. A half-hour later I was back aboard the launch. Oscar had speared snook and a large grouper. He would sell some and keep some for his family.

We took a long surface interval then motored to another shipwreck. This one Oscar called the ‘China.’ It was so named since it brought a load of illegal Korean immigrants to Guatemala. The captain was afraid of being intercepted by Guatemalan coast guard so unloaded his human cargo offshore then scuttled his ship. The steel cargo ship’s remains lie in 90 feet of water. It is likewise a tangled mass of electrical wires, tumbled in bulkheads and twisted metal covered with nets and fishing lines.

Both Pacific coast shipwrecks are fish havens. They support life in the ocean and are habitats to shellfish and attaching organisms. Bright sponges and soft corals offer color below in the beam of dive lights. The two shipwrecks offer insight into history of invasion and immigration.

We returned to Pacific Fins Resort for a swim in their pool and a delicious dinner outside under an open veranda. The resort is the only modern place to stay in the area, Niels Erichsen, the owner, speaks perfect English as does his staff. The resort is a veritable oasis. Niels planned to take us deep sea fishing the next day. Guatemala’s Pacific Ocean is considered the ‘Sailfish Capital’ of the world. Niels showed us maps on his tablet and photographs of fishing expeditions.

Next day early, after a copious breakfast on the covered veranda, we boarded one of Pacific Fins fishing boats and headed offshore. The trip took two hours to arrive 41 miles offshore where the ocean depth was 2,000 feet and clear blue. We fished along the way and caught Mahi Mahi and tuna. That would be lunch aboard.

When the crew set the billfishing poles it didn’t take long to hook a sailfish. Special hooks and rigs are used for this catch-and-release only program. Once hooked and brought near the boat Roberto and I jumped overside with our snorkeling gear. It was amazing to see the large sailfish swimming. When we were ready the crew gently released the big fish. We watched as it simply remained still and slowly sank into the deep water. At the limits of our visibility we could see it swimming away back into the deep.

Guatemala Pacific coast diving is an exciting adventure. It offers excellent opportunity to see the country few visitors enjoy. It offers shipwrecks and sailfish, underwater excitement and fun. For more information contact Pacific Fins at their website www.pacificfins.com.gt or call them toll-free at 888-700-3467 or their U.S. office at 561 880 0349. To find out more about diving in Guatemala contact Pana Divers at their website www.panadivers.com or call them in Guatemala City at 502 2416 3300. General information about Guatemala can be found at www.visitguatemala.com.

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